In October 2014 the ARN organised a day long symposium in Brighton. Called Emergent Authorities, it brought together speakers and discussants from the UK and Brazil, the event being the first stage in a series of shared projects between the two countries.
The symposium circled around the questions that have animated, and troubled us, from the start of beginning this group. Not only an interest in how authority is enacted in institutional spaces, in public space, in the political sphere, in cultural forms. But also a concern for the political void filled by charismatic voices, a curiosity directed at the cultural forms, in all their contingency, that gather authority. Circling around the event was the voice of Nigel Farage, possibly at the peak of his powers then, and the “yes, well” of Boris Johnson; figures whose authority is derived, as Jonathon Coe so nicely argued, from their capacity to channel the ridicule they produce.
Leila Dawney and Claire Blencowe began the day by speaking of how authority is negotiated, of the conflicted space occupied by the state in this respect, and of the unquestioned authority of the market. Joanildo Burity and Aecio Amaral spoke, in addition to Brazilian Pentecostalism and the emergence of algorithmic power respectively, of projects in Brazil that are bringing together actors from a range of contexts to forge action at the margins of the market. Myself and Naomi Millner spoke of advice work and permaculture communities respectively, each displaying different perspectives on the relationship between authority and knowledge. Across the papers emerged strands of optimism; how can authoritiative communal forms be created and maintained that allow for openness and contestation. Monika Krause, Goldie Osuri and Helen Nicholson gave feedback; how is authority dramatised? How do we avoid the danger of privileging the symbolic and discursive over power exercised through torture, weaponry and threat.
In the months since the event I have, once again, become closely aware of where these questions apply, and how our failure to answer them leaves us clasping, in so many cases, to the arrogance of the weak. The absence of an international authority to anchor regulation that might affect climate change. The call to experience a form of ecstatic subjectivity through an atavistic interpretation of religious life – and it is perhaps the call to young westerners, as much as the spectacle of violence, that places this on our newsstands. The crumbling moral authority of debt, yet we cannot imagine a financial system, and as such a social system, without it. Authority is, by all accounts, at the centre of our political, financial and societal questions, yet nonetheless considered marginal, inasmuch as we experience the world as without authority.