June 12, 2023

Perspectives on Organization: A New Approach

Gabriel Tupinambá

Students meeting in a high school playground in Beirut, Lebanon, March 29, 1974. © As-Safir Archive.

A Meeting in Beirut

I would like to dedicate this text to my new comrades in Beirut: not only because there are few things that inspire more enthusiasm than recognizing the same political light shining through the cracks of otherwise highly different social contexts, but also due to a specific situation that arose in one of our meetings while I was in Lebanon recently and that stuck with me afterwards.

At a certain point during a very fruitful discussion about “political organization and the crises of the Left(s),”1 we turned to two issues that are inevitably raised if conversations like this go on for long enough: first of all, the question of why different sectors and strategies within the Left do not seem to converge and positively feed off one another; and secondly, the perennial issue of what should be done so that leftist organizations become more appealing to people outside a certain social “bubble.” I must say that once these topics were raised, many of the participants seemed to automatically turn off—it was already pretty late, but also: Who isn’t tired of running through these old frustrating debates?

But what made this particular situation noteworthy was that while I was looking at a person in front of me commenting on some of these questions, I could see behind them the large meeting room we were in and everyone else who was present there: young militants of the Communist Party from both Beirut and Tripoli, investigative journalists, engaged intellectuals, organizers building communitarian projects, members of progressive parties, NGO workers and activists, queer militants, and a bunch of other people. Not only was some actual convergence taking place right then and there—even if around a long, depressing list of shared failures—but the more I got to know the people who were present, the less it seemed to me that one could claim we all had a common origin or belonged to the same social strata. As was mentioned at some point in that very meeting, it had been years since that particular group of people all got together to discuss their political conjuncture! So there was something striking taking place, somewhere between the foreground and the background of that discussion, between the explicit framing that was available for us to speak and work through our political defeats and weaknesses—comparing the predicaments in Brazil, Lebanon, and elsewhere—and the concrete effort that everyone actually put into the opportunity to address these failures amongst comrades. It is this mismatch that I would like to address here, as it points directly to one of the central motivations for the work carried out by the research collective I am part of, Subset of Theoretical Practice (STP).2

Thinking Political Organization

The bulk of the work we do at STP is aimed at developing a new grammar for thinking about political organization, one that would facilitate the production of perspective shifts at the organizational level similar to those we already know how to effect at the level of the conjunctural and structural analyses of capitalism. Both within the Marxist tradition and outside of it, the Left has produced highly sophisticated tools to counter how certain social phenomena appear to us at first glance, helping us connect the dots between otherwise arbitrary events and question those immediate prejudices and habits that get in the way of recognizing the inner workings of oppression and exploitation, thereby making it easier to spot politically relevant pressure points in a given social situation. But when it comes to political action and the work of organizing, the idea that a similar shift of perspective could reveal unthought determinations—and openings—that challenge how we see ourselves politically remains a mostly unexplored terrain, and is generally subsumed by a theory of moral motivations and ideological suspicion.

In his brilliant book Neither Vertical nor Horizontal, Rodrigo Nunes identifies some of the common presuppositions behind our usual understanding of political organization that might help to explain this conceptual and practical impasse. As he notes, in leftist politics organization is most often identified either with specific forms of collectivity—e.g., trade unions or the party form—or with a normative call to action with no clear content, where organizing means whatever we need to do to be more effective together. He also suggests that the common root behind these conceptions “can perhaps be traced to the more elementary reduction of ‘organization’ to ‘intentional organization.’”3 According to this understanding, to organize politically is to move from a state of disorganization into a more ordered state, whose form or final goal is already known beforehand, serving as a guide to the collective process. Inversely, if something were to deform a collective’s dynamic, or if its political aim were to be diverted or split into clashing interests, insofar as these are not intentional processes we would have to conclude that they fall outside of the purview of political organization—or worse: we would have to conclude that someone else’s politics is intruding into our own. The situation in the meeting in Beirut can be understood in similar terms: although we had plenty to say about what we ought to do politically, what we were already doing by being there together seemed strangely invisible and inconsequential.4

To put it simply: the way we unintentionally organize can sometimes be more politically interesting than the way we represent to ourselves our own situation and goals. In the case of the Beirut meeting, even though we were discussing the crisis of the Left as a sort of ongoing process of disintegration and disenchantment, the very success of our meeting suggested that there was something about the common experience of this deep crisis that could still cut across a fragmented political scene and bring people together, even if only to work through what had happened. But there are plenty of situations where the disjunction between our political intentions and the effective constraints on how we organize point to still unthought challenges or aspects of our predicament, or to chronic shortcomings we cannot afford to overlook.

Let us return for a moment to those two recurring political themes—the issues of our chronic lack of strategic convergence and of popular political adherence. If we restrict ourselves to the usual view where we first define our political aims or forms of action, then set out to rally people around it, we cannot but despair at the fact that there are so many different political orientations watering down and dispersing the already meager power of the Left. Nor can we avoid going down the rabbit hole of speculation over why most people don’t organize themselves politically at all. However, if we approach these questions under a different premise, namely, that organization is not the name of a specific form or action, but a point of view on any social phenomena, things begin to open up.5

For example, we might point out that the fragmentation of the Left seems to follow from a sort of tectonic shift in the socioeconomic terrain of contemporary capitalism, which no longer relies on the promotion and maintenance of a minimally homogeneous social space in order for value to circulate and valorize itself. This hypothesis shifts the focus away from the potential ill intent of political actors—or their poor readings of Marx and Lenin—as a justification for our political divergence in tactics, references, and methods, opening up the possibility that the crisis of the Left might model a real-world property.6 The lack of immediate transitivity between local and global interests within the working class may be reflected in the political groups that rally around such interests and regional concerns.7 A second issue—concerning the popular capillarity of the Left—would also have to be totally reformulated once we conceive of leftist organizations as being ridden with the same organizational constraints as every other institution and social group affected by these large-scale social transformations.8

From this alternative perspective, we no longer need to speculate about what type of ideological obstacle silently impedes others from being more politically active. These impediments might very well turn out to be none other than those that already prevent us from being more effective militants ourselves: scarcity of time, exhaustion, the anxieties of meeting strangers, the additional pressures and commitments of militant life, its financial and emotional costs, the feeling of unease with the lack of self-awareness among our peers of our organizations’ own shortcomings, etc.

Hopefully these coarse examples help to illustrate some of the limitations of our current way of thinking about political organization and the motivation behind STP’s attempt to develop a more integrated conceptual grammar that would provide not only a more “structural” picture of our own militant engagement, but do so with tools that facilitate the movement between political economy and political action, or between the constraints imposed by social reproduction and those imposed by political transformation. Note that this does not entail, in any way, a reduction of militant life to the dynamics of capitalist sociality. On the contrary: as the example of the meeting in Beirut suggests, sometimes we lack the means to recognize we are doing more than we think we are, and the means to explore what this might entail in terms of other possible collective actions. What we need is a point of view that highlights how political collectivity is not held together by our intentions, immediate goals, or awareness, but by the organizational constraints, dynamics, and social relations we—intentionally or not—put into place.

Organizational Trinitarianism: Composition, Interaction, Intelligibility

We need, then, a new definition of what “organization” means. This perspective treats the following three questions as aspects of one and the same thing: How is something composed?—that is, what is it made of and how is it put together? What does it get to interact with?—that is, what are the other things that it is capable of altering? What is it sensitive to?—that is, what perturbations count for it, and which do not? In STP, we use the term “organizational trinitarianism” to name the principle that these three questions be treated as ultimately equivalent ones. We can rephrase it in a slightly catchier way by saying that, from the organizational point of view, composition, interaction, and intelligibility are three sides of the same social dynamic.

For example, take the way that a small collective is composed. The matter of not only who is part of it, but also how tasks are shared, decisions are made, etc., deeply affects what the collective gets to interact with: a small group of graduate students meeting at someone’s house to discuss politics is not capable, as a group, of affecting much, and there is very little that could interact with them as a group as well. Of course, if there is a power outage in town, this will change the conditions of their meeting, but it doesn’t make the existence of the discussion group impossible or even very different. This is also why, as a group, they do not “see” the energy crisis, even if as individuals they have mental representations of it and perhaps as employees in their day jobs they interact with blackouts as meaningful interruptions. Compare this with a situation where this same group hosts a weekly radio program: we are talking here about the same group of people, possibly using the same space to record their interviews and transmit their political positions to other people—but now the blackout becomes “a difference that makes a difference,” since it interrupts their contact with their audience. How the group is composed (since it now has connections with a broader space via the internet and computers) affects what it gets to interact with (not only its audience, but the instability of the power grid), which in turn allows the group to pose meaningful questions about a really existing problem: How do we reach our audience if we can’t count on having electricity? Should we work our way around this issue or is there enough traction with our listeners to politicize them when power outages interrupt our broadcast?

The different constraints we obey when we organize—which might come from friendship, affinity, and family ties, from the imposition of the law and the threat of violence, from the compulsory nature of economic needs and actions, or even from political principles and commitments—also set up a certain range of forces that we might interact with, or which might resist our actions. A collective dedicated to sabotaging government infrastructure puts itself on a collision course with the police regardless of what it tells itself about what kind of group it is and why it does what it does. It will also, by the very nature of the resistance that the law and its agents will present, receive nontrivial information about what the police really are like, how they act, what the government cares about, and what it doesn’t. If this collective is formed by more or less well-off people who do not need to work, or who will not be directly affected by the destruction of public property, even though their collective composition places them in a negative relation to the law it leaves them perfectly at home economically, so that no resistance from the world of labor interposes itself. Hence it is possible that no new information about the economic reality in their region might emerge from their interventions.

All of this takes place regardless of what theories these different hypothetical groups espouse, or even of what particular representation of the social world they individually hold in their heads. Of course, it is unlikely anyone could engage in political work without having to attune their own ideas and models of the world to the things that organizations require us to deal with. But the crucial point is that the dimension we are tracking here when we focus on this “trinitarian” circuit is not the connection between theory and practice, or between our individual representation of reality and our actions. We have rather discerned a robust organizational level that might very well be changed on purpose, but that nevertheless cannot be reduced to our intentions or explained away by the menacing effects of capitalist ideology.

Genres of Organizational Analysis: Ethnographic, Psychoanalytic, Political

Evidently, there are a lot of very interesting precursors to this type of organizational analysis. In fact, since I started this text with a short anecdote, it might be appropriate to conclude it by turning briefly to the question of how to write and analyze organizational problems. Following an idea first introduced by the philosopher Rafael Saldanha, we can classify three canonical “literary genres” that try to unearth underlying organizational structures from within social life: the ethnographical form, the psychoanalytic case study, and the political analysis of conjuncture.9 What is surprising is that these three genres or approaches seem to superimpose very nicely onto slices of our triadic schema. In fact, each seems to combine two of the three terms while potentially fetishizing the remaining one, positing it as a source of an unfathomable “otherness” that needs to be somehow contained.

Ethnographies are defined by a direct concern with how composition and intelligibility are connected, while trying to deactivate the influence of interaction, reducing it to a matter of comparisons. The whole purpose of dwelling amongst a people and learning from them is to be able to show how certain forms of social organization lead to certain differences being more relevant than others, with new and equally legitimate pictures of the world emerging in tandem with the singular ways people establish kinship and affinity relations. A lot of work goes into trying to neutralize the potential distortions that the anthropologist’s presence might have on the social world that is being described.

The form of the case study, on the other hand, is much more attuned to the connection between composition and interaction: for psychoanalysts, the point of contact between the relations they compose with their patients and the sort of unconscious structures they interact with is the realm of “transference.” A case study is an attempt to capture something that does not exist independently of the analyst’s interaction with the patient, but emerges through their interplay. On the other hand, the case study is a genre of writing where intelligibility is put into question or kept partially at bay, as if preserving a certain obscurity at the epistemological level were a necessary part of the analytic prudence that requires us to not trust our own subjective values—nor the patient’s!—when listening to them speak on the couch.

Finally, the pragmatic nature of political conjuncture analysis centers the connection between intelligibility and interaction. The clarification of relevant social structures leads to the clarification of relevant sites for political intervention, while a certain tension is displaced to the issue of social and political composition. This displacement has a structural reason: the moment we constitute the conjuncture as our object, it is hard not to remove ourselves from it, or to split ourselves as both subjects and objects of the inquiry when we address our own social conditions or dissatisfactions. This is perhaps why a discernible trait of conjuncture analysis as a genre is the frailty with which one mobilizes the plural “we” to signal a political subject—in comparison, for example, with the way the same pronoun addresses itself to a more concrete collective referent in both political speeches and internal organizational documents. The compositional split is potentially so conflictive that often the very language in which the analysis is written already lets everyone know that the text is not addressed to the subject it claims to be part of. If some dangerous otherness appears at the level of interaction in ethnographies, and at the level of intelligibility for psychoanalysis, here it emerges in the thorny issue of political composition.

It might be the case that the proper study of what goes on in an organizational ecosystem will have to circulate between these three forms, sometimes prioritizing the anthropological suspension of any strategic concern in order to highlight how different political movements and groups structure themselves and how this affects their way of seeing the situation. Other times it will be a matter of compromising overall political narratives that we trust and identify with in order to focus on what happens when we interact with a particular social environment or with another political group, creating surprising effects and potentially new insights. Finally, some situations might just need a classic “concrete analysis of concrete situations,” bracketing contradictions that stem from provisionally stepping back for the sake of producing political analysis.

To the Organizations Themselves

Taking on the organizational point of view means, in practice, learning how to adopt the point of view of organizations themselves. We can imagine this as a sort of fractal zooming-in. First, at a theoretical level, we effect a perspective shift through our three related questions of interaction, composition, and intelligibility. This centers the organizational perspective, allowing us to hone in on specific organizational structures and then ask how the social environment appears to that organizational composite itself. This effort to adopt the point of view of an organization, rather than that of those it organizes, was already at stake in the examples we discussed above. For example, when we compare the complex representation of social reality that inhabits the heads of graduate students forming a study group to the much simpler and restricted social parameters that the group as such is responsive to, we are already trying to imagine something like the point of view of the study group itself, treating it as a sensor of certain social differences rather than others. More generally, we could call this method “objective phenomenology.”10 Such a phenomenology requires moving away from how some social phenomenon appears to us in order to analyze how it appears to something else inside that same social world—like a higher-order collective structure or political organization.

We can also use this method to consider the act of writing itself from the organizational point of view. Instead of conceiving of writing as a privileged place where a social practice is represented to an abstract reader, we can think of it as a concrete moment of that social practice itself, which includes both writer and readers in a concrete composite. A political text is after all only as effective as the political process that creates an underlying shared ground, a common domain of reference that allows words and images to signify more than what we could ever individually see or think on our own.

Take the meeting in Beirut: when I introduced the little moment that caught my attention there, I referred to where I was seated in the room, the fact that I could see all the comrades in the background while, in the foreground, we were talking about our solitude and our situation of crisis. I can retell this story in this essay and trust that it will touch on something real for others precisely because militants and intellectuals from Beirut are now entangled with the people and the work of STP, turning the comparison between our conjunctures, and their surprising points of contact, into future meetings and common tasks.

The concrete relevance of this writing lives and dies with the duration of this ongoing investigation—and with the possibility that others might recognize themselves as part of this same common process. That is where we meet again that wandering excess, that otherness that usually signals the need for a conservative stepping-back from the situation, but which, from the organizational point of view, is actually the motor of a political movement’s capacity to further articulate itself.


See .


See .


Rodrigo Nunes, Neither Vertical nor Horizontal: A Theory of Political Organization (Verso, 2021), 6.


From Neither Vertical nor Horizontal: “A theory of organisation (has) to be a theory of what organisation is before it could be a theory of what it ought to be. Rather than begin with questions such as ‘what kind of organisation must one build?’ or ‘what is the correct form of organisation?’, it should first attempt to define what political organisation is in its most general terms, what it is for, what it can and cannot be. Instead of prescribing a determinate result, in short, it should set out to specify as precisely as possible the variables involved in the problem, mapping the choices, trade-offs and thresholds that determine the points at which different possible solutions diverge from one another” (p. 5).


The idea of an “organizational point of view” was introduced by the Soviet philosopher Alexander Bogdanov in his great work Tektology. Nunes discusses this idea in chapter 1 of his book.


This is the thesis of Edemilson Paraná and Gabriel Tupinambá, Arquitetura de Arestas: as esquerdas em tempos de periferização do mundo (Autonomia Literária, 2022). The book has not yet been translated into English.


See William Clare Roberts’s recent text “Class in Theory, Class in Practice” for a great discussion of how to think class politics within a context of divergent class interests .


I recommend here a great text by two members of STP, titled “The Hustle of the Struggle” .


Rafael Saldanha introduced these ideas in two STP meetings. For video recordings of the meetings see and .


I follow here the use of the term in Alain Badiou’s work, especially Logics of Worlds, though it has interesting resonances with Thomas Nagel’s usage.

Psychology & Psychoanalysis

Gabriel Tupinambá is a psychoanalyst based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He is a member of the research collective Subset of Theoretical Practice and the author of the book The Desire of Psychoanalysis (Northwestern University Press, 2021).


e-flux announcements are emailed press releases for art exhibitions from all over the world.

Agenda delivers news from galleries, art spaces, and publications, while Criticism publishes reviews of exhibitions and books.

Architecture announcements cover current architecture and design projects, symposia, exhibitions, and publications from all over the world.

Film announcements are newsletters about screenings, film festivals, and exhibitions of moving image.

Education announces academic employment opportunities, calls for applications, symposia, publications, exhibitions, and educational programs.

Sign up to receive information about events organized by e-flux at e-flux Screening Room, Bar Laika, or elsewhere.

I have read e-flux’s privacy policy and agree that e-flux may send me announcements to the email address entered above and that my data will be processed for this purpose in accordance with e-flux’s privacy policy*

Thank you for your interest in e-flux. Check your inbox to confirm your subscription.