The Many-Headed Hydra, or a Useful Figure for the Quotidian Revolution

Image of Hercules slaying the Hydra

Jon Beasley-Murray recently posted about the political term multitude, the concept itself is rather complex and can be traced through the political texts and philosophical thought of Machiavelli and Spinoza, and more recently the concept has been employed by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in their book Empire. After a little digging I realized Jon has an earlier post from 2006 called Multitudes wherein he enumerates some of the different ideas surrounding the term. As one respondent notes about Jon’s discussion, he outlines a particular mode of multitude, “‘an actually existing one’, the multitude which exists in (points of the growth of new) hydra heads”:

A multitude that forms and coalesces along the lines of flight within each and every social formation? A multitude then that is sociological, incarnated in piracy, in everyday life, in Temporary Autonomous Zones, in the quotidian refusals and resistances by which we make our lives bearable. This multitude is actual, rather than simply virtual. We already share in and participate its activity.

Now I won’t pretend to be able to give an adequate overview of all the theoretical implications of this term, for it is an idea I am currently struggling with. Nonetheless, I want to bring it up here because many of the points Jon makes around this idea in his more recent post are quite resonant with the political, social, and relational space in which we find ourselves at this particular moment:

The multitude is common. It is ordinary and everyday, and it is also both the product and the producer of shared resources….The multitude seeks connections based on what we already hold in common; its polyvalent powers of connection open up new bases for commonality….the common and the corrupt often overlap: both are products of informal and unsupervised networks….Again, the multitude is ambivalent and the state has no monopoly on corruption.

Now granted, I am taking Jon’s quotes above out of their original context by placing them in a kind of loosely joined series of impressions of how his thinking about multitudes provides an interesting framework for theorizing loosely joined, heterogeneous networks for production, connection, sharing, and a form of everyday resistance. And while George Siemens’ theory of Connectivism frames the impact of new modes of technology on learning using the figure of the network, the metaphor (for me at least) is tied too closely to a kind of neuroscience model of connections, that while invoking complexity and chaos, seems overdetermined by a series of comparisons that are predominantly technological and scientific. Which, in turn, under emphasizes the relations of power at work in any series of economic, political and social connections (all of which play a key factor in any larger learning theory). What happens when you externalize learning not as a space of power between people, but within “non-human appliances”? That is truly a question, and many of these ideas are what I’ll be interested in tracing during George and Stephen Downes’ course on the topic this Fall, itself a grand experiment in the theory of multitudes given there are already almost 800 people expressing interest.

Image of a many headed hydraSo what if, alternatively, we were to think of learning networks not so much along the metaphorical axis of techno-scientific language (for is learning a science?) or displaces learning theories, but within a more social, historical, economic, and political framework? What if we were to imagine the space of the multitude and its relationship to power in terms of motley crews full of pirates, sailors, commoners, laborers, and slaves? Push that a bit further, what if we were frame the unpredictable processes of learning that occur on the open web (regardless of institutions and their hierarchies) with the metaphor of a many-headed Hydra. The Hydra is a figure for imagining and examining the networked relations in which we currently learn, share, and organize through a series of social relations to power, property, and politics that are often outside of and in tension with the predominant logic of large, centralized educational systems. Many of these struggles are amplified by the constantly changing landscape of information and infrastructures, making the ability for people to connect, share, publish and learn outside of traditional currents of education a potential (if not necessary) threat to an established hierarchy premised on anything but diversity. (Just think of higher education institutions in regards to diversity, they may some of the least diverse institutions on the planet. Think about it, it’s a space where just about everyone with power has a Ph.D. and has been run through a relatively homogeneous intellectual process at a similar institution filled with similar people, is that at all consistent with a commonly touted value system of some kind of excellence through intellectual diversity?) How much would these institutions change if that weren’t the case? And would we see some interesting challenges to the ways in which we approach teaching, learning, and expertise? The resonances for this particular metaphor , at least for my use of it here, comes from Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker’s text on the history of the revolutionary Atlantic titled, you guessed it, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. Here is a series of cobbled quotes from the introduction that frames how the myth of Hercules versus the Hydra has been employed during the 17th and 18th centuries as a means to both imagine and control loosely connected networks of resistance:

Cerebus and Master The labors of Hercules symbolized economic development: the clearing of land, the draining of swamps, and the development of agriculture, as well as the domestication of livestock, the establishment of commerce, and the introduction of technology. Rulers placed the image of Hercules on money and seals, in pictures, sculptures, and palaces….these same rulers found in the many-headed hydra an antithetical symbol of resistance and disorder. A powerful threat to the building of state, empire, and capitalism. Hercules’ second labor was the destruction of the venomous hydra of Lerna. The creature born of Typhon (a tempest or hurricane) and Echidna (half woman, half snake), was one in a brood of monsters that included Cerberus, the three headed dog, Chimera, the lion-headed goat with a snake’s tail, Geryon, the triple-bodied Giant, and Sphinx, the woman with a lion’s body. When Hercules lopped off one of the hydra’s heads, two new one’s grew in its place.

From the beginning of English Colonial expansion in the early seventeenth century through the metropolitan industrialization of the early nineteenth, rulers referred to the Hercules-hydra myth to describe the difficulty of imposing order on increasingly global systems of labor. They variously designated dispossessed commoners, transported felons, indentured servants, religious radicals, pirates, urban laborers, soldiers, and African slaves as the numerous, ever-changing heads of the monster. But the heads, though originally brought in to productive combination by the Herculean rulers, soon developed among themselves new forms of cooperation against those rulers, from mutinies and strikes to riots and insurrections and revolutions.

It would be a mistake to see the myth of Hercules and the hydra as merely an ornament of state, a classical trope in speeches, a decoration of ceremonial dress, or a mark of classical learning….the hydra became a means of exploring multiplicity, movement, and connection, the long waves of planetary currents of humanity. The multiplicity was indicated, as it were, in silhouette in the multitudes who gathered at the market, in the fields, on the piers and the ships, on the plantations, upon the battlefields. The power of numbers was expanded by movement, as the hydra journeyed and voyaged or was banished or dispersed in diaspora, carried by the winds and the waves beyond boundaries of the nation-state. (The Many-Headed Hydra, pgs. 2, 3, 4, & 6)

Now I fully understand there may be some conflation here between the early formation of global capitalism and our particular moment—historical specificity is crucial and it is something I will be working towards in the coming weeks, especially while reading Capital, Volume 1—yet this idea of multiplicity, constant movement, and connection as a human space of thought may afford a real opportunity to re-imagine spaces, nation-states, and commonalities beyond the often reactionary logic of national identities. More than that, the currents of our networks afford a cultural exchange and individual empowerment that allows us to work and think amongst distributed connections of people that similarly have a tangential allegiance to their structured workplace, their labor. Now, I’m sure the anti-capitalist language of Redicker and Linebaugh may anger some when talking about something as ‘pure and apolitical as learning,’ nonetheless the social relations in which we operate are always already political and the sooner we start recognizing our institutions and the jobs we do as extensions of a particular kind of politics that are often wrapped in the tattered garments of the humanist tradition, even if hastily patched together by the neo-liberal cliches of “excellence,” “development,” “liberty,” “globalization,” and “productive competition.”

Finally, the many-headed hydra as a figure may seem relatively removed from our moment, given its employment by the “rulers” over the motley organizations of a multi-ethnic class of commoners in the 17th and 18th century. I would argue, however, that in many ways the metaphor has never been more with us, and as one might expect, it can be found in one of the most embattled and politically charged networks on the internet: Peer-to-Peer, and even more specifically bitTorrent. Take, for example, a post last year at this time on the TorrentFreak blog titled “BitTorrent Survival: The Way of the Hydra,” which discusses how too few bitTorrent tracker sites account for more than half of all the traffic and served torrents on the internet:

Although it’s great initially for the mainstream to have visible big ‘brands’ such as The Pirate Bay, Mininova and TorrentSpy [since deceased], it’s a precarious situation to have such a top heavy structure to the BitTorrent community. It’s great having a ‘multi-headed hydra’ but not so great when just one of those heads carries half of all the public torrents. This situation must be addressed. Resources need to be spread around in a manner which ensures that a few ‘big bombs’ are unable to dismantle major parts of the infrastructure.

And also this…

“So public message to people – start up your own torrent sites, make the internet the hydra it is and needs to be. If there’s hundreds of sites, they can’t all be shut down. And well, if they shut down the few that are today, there will be hundreds of sites, I’m sure, but let’s start them before so we can spread the word of them easier.”

Now while bitTorrent specifically, and P2P more generally, may seem a contentious example to use given it is fraught with questions of copyright, ownership, illegal sharing, and makeshift communities of resistance, but on the contrary I think that makes these networked and politicized communities a perfect example. The many-headed hydra metaphor is already being employed to define the complexity of this massive and decentralized nexus of connections. There is a new notion of multitudes that is networked, constantly changing, ever-adapting, and often premised on bottom-up organizations. They are everyday communities that are constantly changing and always re-imagining their relationship to power, property, and politics through “quotidian refusals and resistances.” The times we live in are about much more than being networked or connected as a way to “add value” to traditional ideas of learning, they are about understanding the potential for change and recognizing the power of possibility such a reality holds for us collectively, as a multitude in the shape of and everyday hydra, with, many, many heads.

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9 Responses to The Many-Headed Hydra, or a Useful Figure for the Quotidian Revolution

  1. DonaldJ says:

    What is he beast with three dog heads, and a lizard tail..?
    I met one inn a waking dream…

    In my research, I was doing my best to attract, or establish, one of each of the so called “cosmic creatures”, to determine the different properties between them all… a ghost, a demon, a thought form, an archetype, a hallucination, and illusion, a mind form, an angel, a god, a spirit, a beast, and various un-named beasts…

    In a waking dream, while in deep selftrance, I found my way to a cliff, part way up jagged mountain.. at a huge wooden double door… Suddenly a huge three headed dog beast blocked my path.. screaming and growling at me as if it were in serious pain and vicious anger.. and snapping at me with all it had… In the dream, I turned invisible momentarily, and reappeared behind the beast, unbeknown to it.. I hauled my foot back, and kicked the beast as hard as I could upon its rectum, so hard and swift that I had kicked it right off the ledge… It turned its 3-heads at me, to see me grinning, and waving a little byebye with my fingers, my hand at shoulder level… Then I turned and kicked the door into slivers, and entered…

    What was that beast’s name?.. What or who created that beast, for what purpose..? It was such a stupid creature…
    I wonder how far it fell..?
    What did it hit..? Would it survive the fall..?
    Where would it be now..?
    Could it have somehow returned to the ledge, guarding the door that isn’t..?

    Was it a dream..? or was it “cosmic reality”..?

  2. andy best says:

    Nice post and a lot to consider, in a hurry at the mo so I will just say this: excellent new pop-metaphor “edu-pirates” sailing the seas of web 2.0 stealing back education from the slave running Empire.

    Also, I’m a huge fan of that area of history and must recommend a recent book “If a Pirate I must be” by Richard Sanders, an excellent comparison of the hype of the time, popular stories, and the actual truth from the records.

  3. Reverend says:

    I think it actually might have been the classic Cerebus scene from Clash of the Titans (1981).

    Thanks for that lead on the Sanders book, I haven’t read it yet. I am currently reading Marcus Rediker’s Villains of All Nations, which is a short, insightful, and quite fun look at the Pirates from the 17th and 18th century. I recommend it highly.

  4. chris_v says:

    I actually wrote on this topic at length a couple of years ago. While I didn’t specifically use the hydra as an example, it was definitely on my mind, as it was already being used metaphorically by some back then (if I remember correctly, which may or may not be so).

    The piece is somewhat dated now, but I touched on filesharing, BitTorrent, Deleuze and Guattari, Marx, Hardt and Negri, etc., with a specific focus on the ways in which our digital artifacts form networks within and throughout our human social networks.

    Much of it, after re-skimming it just now, isn’t just dated in terms of technology, but more so in that my own ideas have evolved since then. Nevertheless, I think there are kernels in there worth developing. I just have to figure out which ones and how.

    I’m trying to read Capital now, and I’m wondering if it will shed light on this problem and give me some new ideas.

  5. Reverend says:


    That is fascinating stuff, and I love the way you describe Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of materialist networks, I am going to have to pick up A Thousand Plateaus, after reading capital –much like you 🙂

    You bring up some interesting issues in that paper that have been on my mind lately, namely the grafting of scientific principles like evolution onto these technologies. The meme in particular always sits uncomfortably with me (I wrote about it here) and I was wondering if taking these scientific theories and bending them to the analysis of what I see as a predominantly metaphorical space is useful.

    Now, I understand the figure of the virus in the meme is powerful and effective, but the idea that some kind of scientific selection and adaption happens with a space fused by the social and economic realities of file-sharing, or the internet more broadly, isn’t in many ways framing a deterministic notion of this technology. I always think of Jared Diamond’s Guns Steel and Germs as the ultimate example of the kind of scientific/historical explanation of the decimation of the North American native populations. It all seems so rational and sterile. Same with the meme as a social phenomenon with language, it guts it of its poetry and power, and meaning becomes far more arbitrary than it needs be.

    Now these are initial reactions, and I’d be interested in a more focused discussion about these ideas because I think they are important and you do an excellent job of framing th co-evolutionary formation of something like a bitTorrent network, I just want know how such a rationale explanation compares to the kind of multivalent figure of a Greek myth monster. Perhapss we can come up with a series of posts about it grom illop and the bava?

    Thanks for the link, and for getting me thinking about this again.

  6. chris_v says:

    You’ve given me a lot to think about as well. I actually agree with you that the “meme” concept is dubious. It’s an idea that led me into thinking about that paper, but I think it’s usefulness has mostly passed (and, coincidentally, I took a shot at Dawkins and memes at the end my latest post on illop).

    The only way that I can still see any value in the use of the “meme” concept, and I tried to get this across in my paper, is to literally equate it with a digital file (or a part of one). In other words, I think the concept is useful in the way that people use it to describe internet phenomena. (That article has now had its title changed to “internet meme” since I last looked at it…weird). But, to use it to describe all human thought is ridiculous and reductionist.

    I actually have a different opinion of Jared Diamond’s work, though. I actually think it’s a decent example of the neomaterialism I’m trying to describe (although probably not the best example). What I find useful in it is the idea of historical contingency (as opposed to a fatalistic determinism).

    This is all probably the result of my Deleuzian influences. Deleuze and Guattari say that, “universal history is the history of contingencies, and not the history of necessity.” What I take from that is them is that the history of technology, capitalism, society, etc., could have played out an infinite number of ways, and we just happen to have wound up with this one.

    As my understanding of D&G has matured, I would say that the “coevolution” and “meme” concepts in my previous work need a serious revision. I still think that there is a clash between control and unpredictability (DIY? bricolage? hacking?) that drives them both to new adaptations, but it isn’t nearly as simple as I’ve made it out to be. Trying to fit memetics into a Deleuzian framework was difficult, and I now realize that it’s probably because they don’t fit together well.

    One final thought about ideology, from my reading of your post on memes and ideology, comes again from my Deleuzian influence. To put it simply, D&G find the concept of ideology to be much less important than the organization of power, which was a question in my paper that I tried to focus on (not “What is the content of what is shared?” but “How are filesharing networks organized?”).

    Deleuze uses the example of Christianity when talking about ideology here that:

    The church is perfectly pleased to be treated as an ideology. This can be argued; it feeds ecumenism. But Christianity has never been an ideology; it’s a very specific organization of power that has assumed diverse forms since the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages, and which was able to invent the idea of international power. It’s far more important than ideology.

    So, hopefully that’s a more helpful way of thinking about ideology, memes, and organization. I think A Thousand Plateaus would be a great choice to read after Capital, although it’s just as difficult to understand, if not more so. 🙂

    Thanks for getting me thinking as well. I feel like I’ve just written an entire article here. But yes, I’d really like to collaborate on a conversation about all of this.

  7. Reverend says:

    Wow, Chris,

    You have in turn given me a ton here, I found th3e illpop blog, and I lov3ed your post on rejection of theory as a mode of laziness. And your discussion here of Deleuze examination of power and ideology, as it relatyes to science and memes. This is great stuff, and is inspiring a post coming up soon, that you can critique freely because you have actually read this stuff 🙂

    Actually, which reminds me, let me know your reading schedule for capital, I am going to try and post this weekend, and would love to read along with you, you have some amazing stuff to frame the ideas and relations to technology, which is a real specific goal of my reading and research into Capital and how we conceptualize these new technologies. Thanks for the article in the comments, it is so very kind, and I hope more collaboration to come.

  8. chris_v says:

    I’m glad to hear I inspired an upcoming post. This conversation inspired me to write some kind of manifesto for our illop site. It’s still in a very rough outline form, so who knows when it will be ready.

    As far as reading Capital goes, I’m going at a pretty glacial pace, so you probably don’t want to read along with me. I’ll be a dead weight around your neck. I just finished Chapter 1, which I had read a long time ago, but I finally forced myself to get through it again. The part on commodity fetishism is still the only section I like out of it.

    But, this may all motivate me to read it faster. I need to finish Chapter 2 and re-watch David Harvey’s lecture on it, then it’s on to 3, which is supposed to be the hardest part. I’m not looking forward to it, honestly, but I suppose it’s important. Have you been keeping up with the lectures?

    I’ve been trying to think about it in terms of technology as well, but I haven’t come to any solid conclusions yet. Let me know how far along you are and I’ll try to catch up. 🙂

  9. were studying this in scholl it sucks

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