Frances Shaw is a PhD student at the University of New South Wales in Politics and International Relations. Her current research focuses on the political significance of feminist discourse in Australian blog networks.
Volume 24, May 2011
Discursive activism can be defined as political speech, or speech that intervenes in hegemonic discourses, and that works at the level of language to change political cultures. In this paper, I explore the Australian feminist blogosphere in these terms, and propose a theoretical perspective from which to understand this community as a social movement. I draw on new discourse theory and new social movement theory in different ways to argue this point.
By new discourse theory, I refer primarily to the work on discourse and political subjectivity by Laclau and Mouffe (1985), Laclau (1996), Ranciere (1999), as well as explicative texts by Norval (2007) and Torfing (1999). These authors’ perspectives provide an understanding of the ways that political agency is enacted in discourse, and in the ways that activists try to intervene in discourse through the creation of counter-discourses. This recognition is also important for the tradition of feminist political theory, in which linguistic intervention and consciousness-raising have formed a significant part of activism.
In this paper I propose that discursive activism is sometimes a response to discursive crisis. By crisis I do not refer to a specific crisis, such as a ‘crisis of feminism’ but rather – drawing on Ranciere – the points of disagreement between mainstream and counterhegemonic discourses. These moments of discursive crisis can also be understood in terms of aural metaphors such as ‘dissonance’ (Braidotti 1991), or using Laclau’s (1996) concept of ‘dislocation’, or Ranciere’s concept of ‘rupture’ (1999). Such concepts provide a powerful way to understand not only the importance of discourse, but also the role of affect in political action. Political actors are compelled to respond to political crisis, rupture, or dislocation, by their affective investment in the discourse.
In the Australian feminist blogosphere we can locate an active feminist movement that exists in Australia today. I hope to show that Australian feminist bloggers, while not always acting with purely political intent, act politically through the discursive interventions that they make in response to discursive crisis.
I will explore theoretical frameworks for thinking about contemporary political practice that make use of the understandings of discursive activism present in new discourse theory (Laclau and Mouffe 1985; Laclau 1994; 1996; Ranciere 1999). The theories described in this paper provide the basis for conceptualising the discursive politics of the Australian feminist blogging community. In the paper, I review new discourse theory as an approach for understanding political discourse and activism in a specific online space, but I also aim to make the approach applicable to a wide variety of counterhegemonic discursive communities.
My qualitative study on the Australian feminist blogosphere has combined face-to-face semi-structured interviews with feminist bloggers with the analysis of case studies of specific discursive interventions in the mainstream. I interviewed 21 bloggers, and analysed just over 40 different blogs longitudinally during my study. The criteria for selecting interview subjects was that the individuals identified as feminist, wrote a blog, and were active in the particular network explored in the study. However, they were not necessarily the most popular or prominent bloggers. I chose interview participants on the basis of their position in the social network of the Australian feminist blogging community, trying to achieve a representative spread from the very active and central, to more casual and peripheral participation styles.
The age range of participating bloggers and interviewees was diverse, between 19 and 50 years. They lived in seven different major and regional cities across Australia. A minority of interview subjects identified as non-white, and the majority of interview subjects had a high level of education. Several identified as having a disability. All identified as women. I located the blogs that I monitored longitudinally through a review of Australian feminist bloggers’ blogrolls (list of links to other bloggers) and other linking practices, in particular drawing on the resource of the Down Under Feminist Carnival, to ensure that my study participants were both representative of and active in the community. Since the blogosphere changes quickly, new blogs started and other blogs shut down or were abandoned during the course of the study. The bloggers that I interviewed were selected from within this sample of just over 40 blogs, several of which were group blogs.
When I asked the women that I interviewed what they felt was the political significance of the feminist blogosphere, and how it related to the trajectory and tradition of the women's movement in general, their responses were often guarded or ambivalent, but in most cases hopeful and affectively charged. In perhaps expressing doubt about the capacity for the feminist blogosphere to affect mainstream politics, many women also expressed their sense of how it has and will continue to change their own political sense of themselves and their own engagement with politics.
But it’s strange because online you’re not marching on the street, you don’t know how heard you are. We could all just be standing in a echo room talking to each other and the world goes on around us. But I do think, I mean from my own personal perspective, I do feel part of a movement and part of affecting change in a way but it might just be so tiny that it’s... Will it change the world? I don’t know, but I think that little amount of changing yourself or the people around you is enough, in a way, because it’s all you can do. (A Shiny New Coin, in interview, 2010)
PharaohKatt (in interview, 2010) told me that as she sees it, “Blogs are the primary movement right now! Hey, it’s how I came to feminism so they must be doing something right!”. For many of the people I spoke to, it is not so much blogging that is activism but the community that has built up within and between the blogs that forms a political movement of people who share a cause and will act on particular issues as they emerge. Helen from Blogger on the Cast Iron Balcony sees the community of bloggers that she moves in as socially and politically significant, and that in future people will understand it for what it was; a social movement.
I feel that twenty or thirty years later if I’m still alive I’ll look back on it and go, well that wasn’t just technology, it was a whole social movement and I’m glad I was part of it. […] That’s the feeling I get with blogging, that there’s an exciting moment in history where people are doing something a little bit different. It does get panned and ridiculed by a lot of people but I think a lot of people miss the point of what’s actually happening. ("Blogger on the Cast Iron Balcony", in interview, 2010)
Although some of the time bloggers encourage and engage in direct activism, at other times it is not about that. The Australian feminist online community is a space in which women are developing feminism-to-come (Norval 2007) through the filter of their own lives. One of the ways that they do this is by intervening in mainstream discourses both in the media and in the context of academic feminism. These discursive practices are the subject of this paper.
Social movement theorists have begun to recognise the role of emotion in political action through new social movement theory and other strands of social movement theory that explore culture and identity. However, the meaning-making elements of protest are lost in purposive understandings of protest, in which protest is seen as being in pursuit of clear rights and forms of inclusion (Jasper 1997, 12), or as based solely in a movement towards distributive justice (Young 1990, 70). This approach leads to an emphasis on protest efficiency or effectiveness over concerns with experience and the affective role of political involvement. Action is seen as “shaped by intentionality or goals”, in a progressive movement towards freedom (McDonald 2006, 17).
This grammar delegitimises certain kinds of social action and privileges others, such as political organisations and parties. But contemporary social movements (though perhaps not only contemporary social movements) are often more “embodied and sensual than deliberative and representational” (McDonald 2006, 4). As Jasper (1997, 5) pointed out, protest extends beyond the organised activities traditionally understood as protests, to practices such as ignoring social rules, whistleblowing, and public complaints and criticisms, including those that take place in conversations around the water cooler. This is very much in line with an approach which moves away from cognitive and psychologised understandings of identity and political subjectivity, and approaches that separate the political from the cultural.
As Nash (2000, 116) argues, the inclusion of culture and emotion in social movement theory while maintaining previous assumptions (such as rationalism) leads to inconsistencies in the theory of social movements and conflicting definitions of what politics is. Polletta and Jasper (2001, 284) argue that ideas of culture and collective identity have been used in social movement theory in a way that tries to fill the gaps of “structuralist, rational-actor, and state-centred models”, to explain what those models miss, thereby using culture and identity as a “residual category”.
I agree with this assessment, that the discussion of culture and emotion within social movement studies treats them as a residual category, to cover aspects of protest that are not explained by structural, process-based understandings of social movements. Through this paper, I provide a way to understand discourse and affect not as a residual category but as centrally explanatory. I wish to look at the ways that social movement communities such as the Australian feminist blogging community provide an emotional outlet for participants that is political in nature, and the way that this relates to political subjectivity and processes of identification.
I argue that social movement theorists’ understanding of emotion and culture is incomplete. The characterisation of discursive politics as only a precondition for activism rather than a form of activism, and as a residual category in social movement theory, originates from underlying epistemological assumptions about political subjectivity and identity. In the following section I discuss how new discourse theory can help make the link between affect, discourse and political action explicit, and why this is necessary for feminist and other counter-hegemonic movements.
In order to develop an understanding of discursive activism that allows for the inclusion of political subjectivity, I draw on the work of Laclau and Mouffe (1985), Laclau (1996), and Mouffe (2000; 2005) around dislocation. I also make use of Ranciere (1999) and Ziarek’s (2001) work on ‘dissensus’. The concepts of dissensus and dislocation have considerable force for understanding discursive politics. Firstly, I will define my understanding of ‘the political’, then discuss conceptualisations of subjectivity and agency in contemporary social theory as a result of the poststructuralist turn. I will argue that new discourse theory aids feminist theories of social movements in the recognition of political agency within a poststructuralist perspective.
My understanding of ‘the political’ is aligned with that of Chantal Mouffe (2005) which also relates to what Ranciere (1999) refers to as ‘politics’. Both of these concepts are defined in opposition to the institutional politics which is generally understood as the political (Mouffe 2005; Ranciere 1999). Politics or the political takes place at the level of constitutive discourse – an oppositional struggle of competing hegemonies. This is an agonistic understanding rather than a deliberative understanding of democracy (Mouffe 2005). In this way, competing discourses are central to the power struggles that politics is composed of.
Laclau and Mouffe and other new discourse theorists see political (and economic) structures as discursively constructed. Laclau and Mouffe’s (1985, 36) concept of democratic politics is one in which the object of struggle is not necessarily individual or group material gains, but “forms of articulating forces that will allow these gains to be consolidated”. Feminist political theory and new discourse theory provide an understanding of subjectivity that allows for agency while denying essentialism. As Hekman (1995, 86) argues, “action and agency are themselves discursive products, not the exclusive attributes of the modernist subject”. Feminism refuses “to assume away personal experience (or subject position)” (Griffiths 1995, 56). So as modernists see the subject as “agentic and autonomous”, separate from discourse, Foucauldian postmodernists see the subject as grounded in discourse, and feminists see political subjectivity as “simultaneously discursive and political” (Hekman 1995, 97).
For this paper, questions “surrounding the way social agents 'live out' their identities and act”, or subjectivity as a product of discourse (but not as simply a mouthpiece for discourse), are central (Howarth & Stavrakakis 2000, 12). In fact, the concepts of subjectivity and identity form the basis of the political as understood by theorists such as Laclau and Mouffe (1985). Norval (2007, 77) explains that according to Ranciere, nothing is political in itself, but becomes so when it clashes with the police order. Democracy is an “interruptive moment in which new subjects come into existence” (Norval 2007, 79). Identity, in this case, is not fixed, but constantly changes in the process of articulation (Laclau and Mouffe 1985, 70). This is a non-essentialist view of identity and subjectivity, which is compatible with Melucci’s (1996, 67) understanding of identity as “constructed through interactions and negotiations” (Laclau and Mouffe 1985, 98). However, Laclau and Mouffe’s way of understanding identity varies from Melucci’s understanding of identity because the construction of identity is understood as a political process and as constrained by the political. Although identity is constructed, it is never fully determined - there is no social identity that is protected from “a discursive exterior that deforms it” (Laclau and Mouffe 1985, 111).
Laclau and Mouffe’s (1985) concepts of identity, subjectivity, hegemony and the political are compatible with the insights of new social movements (of the importance of identity and emotions) but also recognise that the construction of identity and affect do not simply lay the groundwork for political action, but are political practices. Laclau and Mouffe (1985, 96) emphasise that a “discursive structure” is not a cognitive entity, but rather an “articulatory practice which constitutes and organises social relations”. Laclau and Mouffe (1985, 108) understand discourse as material rather than mental in character.
Images, metaphors, and language itself are “sites of cultural and political contestation” (Balsamo 1999, 154). An understanding of politics that extends to discursive interpretation and constitution is compatible with both feminism and new discourse theory. Feminists have the capacity to affect discursive change and this can be an intentional political act. As a feminist blogger explains:
When I read [entries] by feminist bloggers, what I read is women reflecting on their own experience, reflecting on other women’s experience, and from there, working towards an understanding of patterns of power, patterns of domination, patterns of oppression. Patterns that reflect the reality of women’s lives. But somehow, because this is not grand politics, because it is centred in women’s lived experience, it is not regarded as real, and valid, and worthy of discussion. (“In A Strange Land” 2010)
Marchart (2007, 146) identifies new discourse theory as primarily a “political ontology”, as a theory of how meaning is produced. The field of objectivity is understood in terms of “the discursive”, and so any theory of being becomes a theory of meaning (Marchart 2007, 149). Despite the inclusion of subjectification and identification in the work of Laclau (1996) and Laclau and Mouffe (1985), Norval (2007, 11) argues that the “role of practices, passions and the visceral dimensions of identification” have been under-theorised in all of these theorists’ work. Norval (2007, 71) argues that the really groundbreaking part of the work that Laclau and Mouffe have done in political theory is that they have provided the tools to conceptualise the role of affective devices such as sarcasm, satire, hyperbole and other affective devices and language use in the political process. They have done this by accounting for the role of disarticulation at times of discursive dislocation. This has particular significance for blogging cultures that regularly use sarcasm, irony, and hyperbole to challenge hegemonic discourses. It is appropriate to understand feminist blogging as counterhegemonic discourse, and that this be properly understood as political action.
The related concepts of dissonance, dislocation, crisis, dissensus, and rupture have been discussed above. These concepts provide a model for how counterhegemonic discourses are able to develop in a socially constructed space.
Within social movement theory, similar concepts have been used. What Jasper (1997, 129) calls a “moral shock” is an event or piece of information that upsets a protestor to the point that they “become open to the possibility of protest”. While this concept is clearly very useful to understand the role that emotions play in social movements, it fails to help conceptualise political subjectivity, and the relation between the “moral shock”, constructed subjectivity, and political agency. This is where the notions of ‘rupture’ or ‘dislocation’ become useful. The advantage of these concepts as they are outlined by Ranciere, Laclau, and others, is that they make explicit the link between discursive formations and sedimented discourses, political subjectivity and agency, and the role of affect in social movement activity.
The concept of ‘dislocation’ signals a political moment in which contradictions between mainstream discourse and what it says of itself become apparent, leaving it open to discursive activists to ‘disarticulate’ that discourse. Dislocations disrupt identities and discourses, and in doing so they “create a lack at the level of meaning that stimulates new discursive constructions, which attempt to suture the dislocated structure” (Howarth & Stavrakakis 2000, 13). Dislocations also allow for the articulation of new meanings in counterhegemonic ways, so as to further work at the tear in the discourse to expose its dislocated nature. Participants in discursive politics expose contradictions and feel it necessary to show the absurdity of mainstream discourses. When I say that participants “feel it necessary” I am referring to the affective injunction to speak and the act of creating a space in which to do so because of that need. Many of the bloggers that I interviewed in my research used the word “outlet” to describe their reasons for starting to write a blog. Others said that their thoughts and feelings had “nowhere to go” until they were able to carve out a space in which to do so. Many bloggers began blogging because of a desire to express things where it was hard to find space to express in their everyday lives. This included a frustration with the way debate about gender was framed in day-to-day conversations. The writer of the blog Fuck Politeness had been having a discussion with a male friend about gender and power in academia, and found that the argument had reached an impasse.
I was hugely angry and disappointed with this guy. And I remember that being something that really got me fired up about writing and about having a space where my voice could actually be listened to because I was so used to that being the end result of any disagreement with a guy where [Frustrated Laugh] they could just do that, they could just say ‘Oh, you’re being oversensitive’, ‘Oh, you’re being stupid’ or you know, ‘Oh, you’re just a manhater’ and I think it really hit me how little space there was for me to actually push back and have the last word. ("Fuck Politeness", in interview, 2009)
McDonald (1999, 66) argues that in social movements, anger is a part of the struggle, but social movements are able to transform that anger into social relationship, a process he calls “conflictualisation”, and link that anger “to an expression of creativity, to a positive identity”. The movement from anger to a social movement comes through social expression, through the building of relationships in order to link affect to other horizons of possibility (McDonald 1999, 115).
This creation of horizons of possibility is a collective process of discursive sense-making, the positive corollary to the negative concepts of dislocation and rupture. Many blog posts will respond to news stories that are written in ways that reveal sexist tropes, for example. These analyses do not simply take place in a single blog post responding to a single news story. These posts sit in the larger context of counterhegemonic feminist blogosphere discourses that intervene in mainstream discourses and enable women to identify these discursive dislocations as they appear. Feminist bloggers view this as a necessary political act, to disrupt mainstream discourses that are repeatedly used. They often use the word “commitment” to describe this work, but also describe it in terms of the depression and frustration that causes them to speak out against these discourses.
I blog in my spare time, such as I have, which is almost nil. But it is a bit of a commitment that I have now, and I think it’s necessary, [...] I think it’s just really depressing that so much of life is just unexamined. What I mean is the amount of truisms that get taken as fact, which you see in letters to the editor and comment threads almost every day which is just wrong. ("Blogger on the Cast Iron Balcony", in interview, 2010 [emphasis mine])
Sense-making is the process by which people are able to patch up the tear in discursive structures, but it is also the process by which people find the tears in discursive structures. Discursive activists find patterns and repeating discourses in their commentary on social events. They find breaks in social logics, contradictions and other strategies for creating ruptures in hegemonic discourse that will enable them to make counterhegemonic claims. For feminist bloggers, their posts are frequently motivated by noticing something in the mainstream media that contradicts the discourses developed within the feminist blogosphere. They provide an analysis of mainstream discourse as another example of what has already been identified by others. This is the practice that I refer to when I discuss the discursive interventions that feminist bloggers make in mainstream discourse.
Practices of blogging can provide ways for people to hear and respond to hegemonic dislocations and ruptures, enabling new ways of thinking and living politics. Feminist critique can be understood as “counterhegemonic discourse” which is informed by those contradictions of patriarchal capitalism that make themselves known through “textual in-coherences in the narratives of the dominant culture” (Hennessy 1993, 92). These incoherences (or ruptures or dislocations) “indicate the failure of […] hegemonic discourses to successfully seal over or manage the contradictions displaced in the texts of culture” (Hennessy 1993, 92). In this way critique can arise out of crisis.
The mainstream discourses that prompt feminists to seek to intervene are those that make visible the gap between the sensible and its representation. Mainstream discourses are jarring against the sense of the world that is imagined in the feminism discursively constructed within the feminist blogosphere. This gap or dislocation prompts women to push back against these discourses. This is closely related to the idea of outlet or the affective impulse to write:
When I see things that I think, I find are just so blatantly reinforcing the status quo which I don’t think is an acceptable status quo, that’s when I tend to be prompted to write. ("Godard’s Letterboxes", in interview, 2010)
For the blogger “CrazyBrave” this is a process that responds to the gap that is left in mainstream discourses:
Rather than seeing feminism as something kind of delivered, like through mass media or through famous feminists and all that kind of stuff, to see the work process that it is, and to see how we struggle with ideas and formulate ideas, change our minds, argue with different people about different things and agree with them about other things. I think that really is an advance for all of us because it means that we’re trying to shift out of these dichotomous media constructions of what things are like. And I think as the mainstream media in general gets worse and worse, some of the slack is really being picked up by people writing online for their own pleasure and that of their circle. ("CrazyBrave", in interview, 2010)
The concept of issue network describes political practices that “intervene in the representative politics characteristic of national democracies” (Marres 2006, 5). This concept goes beyond the concept of the social network or of networks of information to include discursive political processes, and also goes beyond the idea that information and identity are simply tools for social movement actors. An issue network can be understood as one in which people who are loosely affiliated congregate around a dislocation or crisis, a point of rupture in discourse. An issue network is a political moment, in which people engage in articulatory practices to disarticulate and rearticulate meaning at a point which has come unstuck.
The word dissonance is often used in the feminist blogging community, in the use of the term ‘cognitive dissonance’, to signal the moments when as a feminist, the writer encounters something – the other – that threatens their subjectivity. It is in some sense no longer possible to exist with the other there – the other that speaks words that break the back of sense. Dissonance is also signalled in the common recommendation by bloggers made to other feminists; ‘don’t read the comments’. In the mainstream media online, many newspaper articles and opinion pieces, as well as blog posts, enable comments from the public to be posted. For feminists, reading such comment threads can be an extremely negative experience, because of dissonance between feminist counterhegemonic discourse and mainstream discourse. Such a desire, to withdraw and to ‘not read the comments’, can initially be understood as self-protection. And to some degree it is. As Fiumara (1990, 82) argued in her book on the political philosophy of listening, The Other Side of Language, the “person who has not been sufficiently listened to” is capable only of becoming the victim of “our resounding culture”. What she means by this is that for those who are excluded, mainstream media can be destructive of self. However, in many cases what the injunction, ‘Don’t read the comments’ actually appears to mean is ‘read the comments and weep’. The recommendation might be seen as one of withdrawal, but in fact the person remains politically engaged, but creates a relation of antagonism to the discourses of the mainstream. This relation is an affective relation - one of despair and frustration, and of solidarity and affinity - but it is also a political relation. The blogger defines herself in opposition to the discourses of the mainstream. As one blogger explained it:
I’m a bit of a sucker for trawling through the tabloids and their comment threads and the reason for that is that it seems to me that if these are the plain people of Australia then there’s an awful lot of worrying attitudes out there. ("Blogger on the Cast Iron Balcony", in interview, 2010)
The readers of the comments may not simply be a ‘victim’ of the dissonance between their political perspective and that of the mainstream, because they have a capacity to resist it by hearing it and opposing it. Another tool for this process is the ‘bingo card’, in which feminists are able to deal with their exclusion from conversations by recognising talking points that create this effect. By creating a bingo card with all of the stereotypical arguments from the opposing discourse, they can simply cross off each one as it appears in a debate. This use of satire to defang discourse that is otherwise upsetting is politically cathartic and helps create a counterhegemonic discourse in which these arguments are not acceptable. Another example of the acknowledgement of the affective dimension in feminist discursive activism is the concept of the ‘trigger warning’, in which bloggers give readers a warning about content or subject matter that may recall a trauma or be emotionally upsetting. This is most common in posts about sexual assault, but extends to many other topics.
From the examples of the ‘trigger warning’ and the ‘bingo card’ we can see some of the strategies that feminist bloggers have developed to deal with discursive dissonance, both affectively and politically. Politics and affect are bound up together. Ahmed (2004) writes on the political affects of hate, fear, pain, disgust, love and shame, as well as “discomfort, grief, pleasure, anger, wonder, and hope” (Ahmed 2004, 16). She takes emotions seriously as an integral part of the process of political sensemaking. She emphasises the embodiment of discourse with her use of the word dissonance, referring to the play of discourse “that may collapse into cacophony and even shock some sensitive ears” (1991, 14).
The word dissonance is an aural metaphor for an affective dislocation. There is a conflict between a person’s understanding of the world and the discourses and events of mainstream society. This leads to the necessity to act discursively by exposing the contradictions of whatever event or moment caused the dissonance, the attempt to tear what is already a gap or rupture in discourse. Without a community of feminists to back up this discursive act, another possibility is frustration, or perhaps despair. As one blogger explained, the development of counterhegemonic discourses within the feminist blogging community helps to guard against this sense of political hopelessness, a throwing up of hands:
One of the things I like about [the feminist blogosphere] is that I can see all these different perspectives and opinions that are still reasonably well aligned with my own, so that it’s not just depressing, and I get a sort of filtered view of the outside world by people reacting to it (“Ariane”, in interview, 2009).
Laclau and Mouffe (1985, 110) use the examples of “synonymy, metonymy, metaphor” to show that these are the primary terrain around which the social is constituted. Braidotti (1991, 146) has argued that dissonance emphasises the “falsely reassuring nature of any dream of unity or global synthesis”. Feminist activists respond to their invisibilisation in mainstream discourses as a result of the affective dissonance they experience. Dissonance has emerged “as a mode of contemporary reflection” (Braidotti 1991, 146). These concepts have a relation both to processes of political dislocation, rupture, crisis, and contradiction.
The notion of dislocation articulated by Laclau (1996, 67) enables the agency of individuals to be retained, by preventing the possibility of structural determinism. Dislocation refers to events that disrupt the discursive structure; events that resist symbolisation and domestication (Torfing 1999, 149).
What bloggers do in the Australian feminist blogosphere is identify dislocations in the structure of society, seizing these opportunities to redescribe or rearticulate the symbolic order. This understanding of discursive activism allows for the role of passionate expression, hyperbole, satire, transgression and other affective and affecting devices as part of the process (Cammaerts 2007; Sowards & Renegar 2006, 63). I propose that the Australian feminist blogging community be understood as a counterhegemonic project that politically rearticulates meaning at points of dislocation, at the same time constituting the identity and agency of the participants.
This paper has brought together theories of new discourse theory, feminist understandings of subjectivity, and theories of political affect, in order to provide a model for an exploration of discursive activism in Australian feminist blogging communities. The concepts of dislocation, crisis, and rupture have a role as part of processes of discursive political action. Through strategic interventions such as the ‘bingo card’, feminist bloggers make visible discourses that are not acceptable from a feminist perspective, and assist in the definition of a continuously negotiated feminism-to-come.
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