Prefiguration in the Present

[‘Freedom of Assembly, Protest at Zuccotti Park.’ Photo: Jason Lester]

Paula Serafini begins her recent study of climate art-activists movements in the UK with the following statement:

In the study of activism and social movements, prefiguration is seen as the creation of a future through present social relations (Serafini 2015, p. 195).

She goes onto explain that prefiguration can be found in decision-making processes, organisational structures and social interactions, but what exactly does prefiguration mean? At the risk of oversimplification, political theorist and writer Richard Gunn provides for me a useful place to start: ‘Prefigurative struggle reaches ahead, and involves acting as though the goal concerned had been reached,’ (cited in Smith et al, 2014). Or to use a familiar slogan, prefiguration is when one ‘becomes the change that one wants to see.’ Gunn makes this claim during a roundtable discussion concerned with prefiguration and its relation to strategy, which he describes using the example of a chess game in which opponents look for means to gain an advantage and achieve a singular goal (cited in Smith et al, 2014) or in other words, the actions one undertakes to ‘change the system.’ In this formulation, prefiguration is often thought of as a cultural concern to do with transforming social relations while strategy addresses structural change relating to organisations.

Perhaps these modes of activity could be thought of as phases in cycles of struggle? For example, when a ‘movement group’ or ‘change community’ come together over common concerns such as global warming they would enter into a prefigurative phase to detail their specific issues and to eventually articulate a common horizon, such as shutting down the coal industry. During this process various strategies may emerge, such as identifying communities immediately under threat by the expansion of a coal mine with whom the group could collaborate and thereby enter into another prefigurative phase. This burgeoning movement could then potentially take action, such as mounting a divestment campaign—courting publicity, drawing supporters and detractors—and undertake direct action by blockading the offending mine. Again, this example risks being too simple but provides a diagram to begin with.

Marianne Maeckelbergh in a text cited by Serafini, challenges this understanding through her experiences with the alterglobalization movement arguing that prefiguration is in itself a strategy. She elaborates:

By literally trying out new political structures in large-scale, inter-cultural decision-making processes in matters ranging from global politics to daily life, movement actors are learning how to govern the world in a manner that fundamentally redesigns the way power operates (Maeckelbergh 2011, p. 1).

Prefiguration then can be understood as an approach to organising and action that addresses the social dynamics present in a group by enabling ‘movement actors’ to articulate and act upon specific and multiple future scenarios that are also to some degree open-ended. As Maeckelbergh explains:

there is no singular goal, adversary, or identity that is shared by all movement actors except at the most abstract level of desiring ‘(an)other world(s)’ (Maeckelbergh 2011, pp. 1–2).

Rather than view prefiguration and strategy as competing interests and methods of organising, Maecklebergh and other social movement scholars such as Adrian Wilding insist that they need to be understood as being inter-related. As Wilding emphasises during the same roundtable discussion mentioned above:

prefiguration is itself a strategy and that the best strategy may be to prefigure: to prefigure an emancipated world and to multiply these prefigurations, spread them as far and as wide as possible … If relations of domination and domineering ways of thinking take hold at the outset of revolutionary uprisings, then it hard to see how they can be magically eliminated at some future date (cited in Smith et al, 2014).

Media theorist Christian Fuchs explains a split between Anarchist and Communist thought, in which the former believe the state must be abolished immediately after revolution and that revolutionary politics would continue to develop as a social movement— lending itself to prefigurative methodologies—whereas the latter believe that state power has to be conquered and only subsequently abolished (cited in Smith et al, 2014). So we might then understand Maecklebergh’s claim that prefiguration in the alterglobalization movement is a ‘direct theory’ in which struggle and outcomes ‘become one in the present’ (2011 p. 4) is derived from Anarchist practices. She continues:

the alternative ‘world’ is not predetermined; it is developed through practice and it is different everywhere. This goal of pursuing ‘(an)other world(s)’ in an open and explicitly not predetermined way requires practice over time, and that is what makes prefiguration the most strategic approach (Maeckelbergh 2011, p. 3).

Ultimately, Maeckelbergh claims, what alterglobalisation movements endeavour to achieve is not the elimination of power, but rather to transform the way power operates. This can only occur with the fundamental rejection of representative democracy and the development of new decentralised and more inclusive decision-making structures to replace the existing ones (Maeckelbergh 2011, p. 7).

Serafini traces prefigurative methodologies in the performative interventions of art-activists groups BP or not BP? and Shell Out Sounds, as a way to theorise and perhaps develop methods to evaluate such para-institutional practices in the context of live art and other participatory modes. She acknowledges that the make-up of these groups, consisting of artists and non-artists, produce practices that sometimes come across as being conceptually or aesthetically naïve, but also recognises that it is precisely this ‘folksy’ quality that makes them accessible and open to collaborators—which is significant because a movement requires active participants. Prefiguration in these examples is a strategy by which all group members have an equal say and sense of ownership of the performance being devised. Prefiguration is a collective exercise that calls on the diverse experiences and expectations of the individuals involved. It is a means of developing a new common politics by taking action.

Thinking through these issues, it seems that I am less concerned with the formal aesthetic or performative aspects of such practices, but rather their organisational and hence political dynamics. To do so is to approach art as a social relation, (and perhaps also a social institution) between people, objects, theories, spaces and institutions through which concepts, beliefs and actions are negotiated and developed. As such, I am interested in the transformational qualities of art, not as an individuated subjective experience, but in its potential to remake social relations anew via prefiguration in the present.

Maeckelbergh, Marianne, 2011. ‘Doing is Believing: Prefiguration as Strategic Practice in the Alterglobalization Movement,’ Social Movement Studies, vol. 10, no. 1, pp.1–20.

Serafini, Paula, 2015. ‘Prefiguring Performance,’ Third Text, iss. 29, no. 3, pp. 195-206.

Smith, R.C.; Ott, Michael R.; Wilding, Adrian; Fuchs, Christian and Gunn, Richard, 2014. ‘Occupy and prefiguration—a roundtable discussion,’ Heathwood Institute and Press, 10 November.


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