Were you at Standing Rock?

In mid-October I saw my friends checking into Standing Rock Indian Reservation on Facebook. After some confusion, I realised that they were trying to disrupt the targeting of Dakota Access Pipeline protestors by the authorities.

This online form of activism can reveal a lot about the way in which infrastructures can be affective. The Dakota Access Pipeline is an extremely controversial infrastructure because it is intended to be constructed under the Missouri River; the source of drinking water for the Sioux Native American Tribe.

The pipeline is in many ways is an invisible form of infrastructure. Although it is a material object, when buried it will not be visible to those who interact with it. The act of protest is another method of drawing out the visible structures of the pipeline to show that its looming threat of polluting the Missouri river is constant in the minds of those who oppose it. The pipeline is affective because although it is a physical object, it can change human relations as well as the physical environment.

 People checked in on Facebook because they had visceral responses to images of protestors clashing with the authorities. These photographs gave them embodied experiences of the discrimination facing the protestors. For some people, this provided an icon to start a ‘revolution’ that had been in the making for a while. The pipeline as an infrastructure was felt to represent more than a mere vessel to transport oil; it was a catalyst to start a movement against unequal power relations, racial discrimination, disagreements over land ownership and environmental activism.

Studying affect and the embodied experience of an infrastructure gives insights into intangible areas of life that would not be expressed in a cultural analysis…

Navaro-Yashin shows why the experience of life in Northern Cyprus is affective by gathering signs in the spatial surroundings to show how people struggle with their own subjective experiences in this radically transformed state. Turkish-Cypriots are shown to feel a sense of temporality in their lives due to confusion over claims to property and national identity. This sense of ‘limbo’ is also conveyed by the Standing Rock Protestors who are uncertain if they have authority over their own land. In both situations, the infrastructure and its complex association with the State causes a sense of helplessness in those who interact with it.

Bruce Robbins states that even consumer awareness of the discrimination involved in Sweatshop clothes production will not be converted into changes in consumer action, and in reality will lead to the production of clothes in the US being romanticised. This demonstrates how visceral reactions to infrastructures can lead to quick decisions that do not necessarily equal effective outcomes for those involved. This can be seen in the emergence of political movements where decisions based on expert advice are replaced by emotional populism.

All online interactions have affective, populist qualities. From the use of memes to express embodied experiences, to the range of reactions to certain events, such as the Pipeline protests.

-Robbins, Bruce. 2002. “The Sweatshop Sublime”. PMLA. 117 (1): 84-97.
-Navaro-Yashin, Yael. 2003. “‘Life is dead here’: Sensing the political in ‘no man’s land'”. Anthropological Theory. 3 (1): 107-125.
-The Photograph I used is credited to

Jacqueline Keeler

(Native Youth Marching From Cannonball to the Oceti Sakowin Camp).

Youth marching & chanting “Water is Life” from Cannonball to the Oceti Sakowin camp. October 15, 2016


One thought on “Were you at Standing Rock?

  1. I really like the declaration on emotional Populism you made about reaction media! It actually put a word on a sensation that I have been feeling for quite a while. This past two years we have seen the world full of feelings on social media, during a lot of protest, or after the different attacks around the world, and it is really true that it feels like an instant moment for an immense feeling.
    I have read an article two days ago in a magazine that talk about the activism on media, and how some people reinforce or became activist for a cause through those platforms. It was mentioning as you did the fact that it gives a bigger voice to the protest. I liked how you brought that idea further by pointing out the fact that the protest was showing the affectiveness of the pipeline and I would go even further by saying that the invisibility of social media – that are not material and cannot really be touch – also gives it a voice, which might be paradoxical.
    I would come back finally on how this emotional populism makes me so sad in the way that this movement of marking yourself on the pipeline runaway as fast as it came.


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