Clothes Make the Movement

Photo credit: Helga Tawil-Souri

Clothing, among other things, was a subject of close scrutiny last week over at In Media Res, a Media Commons forum that brings together media scholars to curate videos or images and to present commentary on the theme, “Assessing the Occupy Wall Street Movement.”

Elspeth Van Veeren examines how clothing maps the subject positions of bodies congregated at public protest sites:

Dress renders [the protestors, bankers and police] both highly visible (sometimes international) and enables the embodiment of these subject positions, so that any business suit becomes a visual metaphor for Wall Street or any mask becomes an anarchist. Dress enables a mapping to take place between bodies and subjects, reducing individuals to ‘bad cops’, ‘dirty hippies’, or ‘fat cats’. Dress functions both symbolically, and as a shifting signifier. It enables, like photographs, a shorthand form of politics; a framing device that may both enable and restrain certain forms of political engagement. It produces logics or common sense of the different competing narratives of the protest, including who instigates violence and the legitimacy of their competing positions whilst eliding other aspects (such as diversity within groups).

Photo credit: Helga Tawil-Souri

Specifically, Helga Tawil-Souri notes the presence of the kuffiyeh at OWS protests and ponders the connection between the movements in New York and Palestine. Once an international icon of the Palestinian struggle and now largely a hipster fashion accessory in the United States, Tawil-Souri considers how the kuffiyeh registers the movements’ asymmetries of power and the complex politics of visibility:

If the kuffiyeh increasingly seems a symbol of the de-politicization of Palestinian culture, then the posters attempt more explicit connections. But these underscore pitfalls in the semantics of OWS. The conflict is turned upside-down: occupation is what the Israeli military does, wearing kuffiyehs and demonstrating in the streets is what Palestinians do. Second, the term’s colonial-military roots denotes control of territory by a hostile army (think Nazi occupation of Poland, Soviet Occupation of Afghanistan, US occupation of Iraq). In OWS terminology, it is the reverse. Yet, OWS draws on another aspect of Palestinian politics: mobilization onto streets, attempting to gain public attention, using space in defiance of authority (whether governmental, military, or economic) also defined the First Intifada.

The Palestinian connection of these symbols and words however highlights a more problematic political-cultural quagmire. As Rachel Ray discovered when an advertisement in which she wore a “terrorist scarf” was never aired: anything to do with Palestinians and Arabs is often hounded on as “anti-Israeli” and subsequently (often faultily) deligitimized [sic] as anti-Semitic. Second, coopting from the less-powerful seldom changes the realities on the ground for those very people. Palestinians have known this for decades: there is a contradiction that comes with visibility. The more traction symbols get, the less they mean.

Read their articles in full and participate in the conversation at In Media Res. Other topics discussed include: Kevin Howley’s analysis of the treatment of “dissident political views” in network news programs compared with those of public television and independent media outlets; Edward D. Miller’s analysis on the “mic check as a performative utterance”; and Sheila A. Brennan and Sharon M. Leon’s introduction of the Roy Rosenzweig Center’s #OccupyArchive project.

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