Interpreting Occupy

The appearance of OWS has been a thrilling event and incipient movement. It has already shifted the terms of debate in national and electoral politics, even as it has stimulated intense intellectual excitement among academics. How do we (and might we) understand what it is, characterize what it portends, and engage it? My goal here is to wonder out loud about the relationship between this movement or event, and the inherited (or even recently minted) categories we use to interpret it, and so also about how we relate thought and action. I would not so much justify one interpretation as better than others, as endorse using their differences to rethink our categories, though I also want to add one more interpretation to the mix. I would not so much defend a correct relationship to this inter-subjective object, and so to ourselves as political subjects, as ask, what are we doing?

My starting point is the striking commonality in the very struggle of journalists, and of academics, to represent OWS. My impression is that journalists have typically framed OWS by reading it into inherited narratives of “sixties” social movements, while also insisting that there must be leaders to whom to attribute its appearance. Many journalists have also claimed that OWS is illegible, or literally without sense, unless it addresses “demands” to established authorities. They require OWS to be an integral agent with avowed intentionality, so that it can be a protagonist in a story, which means finding leaders acting as authors in charge. While proposing the story of a social movement as a protagonist, however, they also recognize that OWS lacks the feature of unified intention or agency. They resolve this contradiction, and rescue their story, by depicting OWS as a faulty (or a not-yet crystallized) social movement.  Others have relieved the contradiction by finding leadership. In a recent New Yorker piece, “Pre-Occupied,” the author attributes OWS to Adbusters organizers, as if they were not only initiators but leaders in charge of its future. OWS becomes linear and predictable as contingency, incipience, and collective action are moved into the background. Likewise, John Heilmann’s recent piece in New York Magazine claims to locate the real “organizers,” a cadre whose disagreements—over avowing leadership, articulating demands, and connecting to electoral politics—were the focus of his report, which recurrently returned to contrasts with 1960’s radicalism, and so to the authority of Todd Gitlin. Surely, those are central and open arguments among participants, too, but by identifying leadership, Heilmann also creates a legible object and coherent narrative. Because representation is a crucial issue among participants in OWS, and because accusations about representation are part of the resonance of OWS, it is no mere irony that strained or failed representation also characterize journalism about it.

Academics readily analyze such representational strategies and so have thematized (and resisted!) the media’s insistence on locating demands and leaders. But issues of representation persist, and other issues, call them issues of self-representation, appear. It is striking how some of our colleagues visited the New York site, not to inhabit its practices and listen to participants, but to give speeches. Granted, those speeches celebrated the very appearance of OWS and asserted its validity and viability despite media narratives depicting it as a failed protagonist unless it met certain narrative and political expectations. But I wonder, did participants need to hear this message? Might it have been directed more productively to the media directly? Maybe it is intellectual self-hatred on my own part to even wonder, but do we seek a kind of prestige or charisma by proximity to this event, as if to validate the importance or relevance of our ideas, as if to signal that we are not mere academics or theorists, but public (“organic” not marginal) intellectuals? Why give a speech at all, rather than participate, one person among others, in deliberations at hand? But this either-or is misconceived. Some of us display spectatorial distance from actual political activism while avowing a radical politics, and others of us move to performances of identity or immediacy with OWS, but why not open and occupy a real relationship involving both engagement and tension?

Inside this issue of mediation remains the question of how we interpret OWS: do we really have a new or illuminating perspective to offer to activists and citizens? Academics seem all too much like the journalists to whom we condescend, at least to the degree that our commentary in blogs, posts, and journals also struggles to fit OWS into—and uses it as evidence to validate—our own preferred frameworks of analysis. For some academic commentators, OWS is an anti-capitalist insurgency that signals the rebirth of class struggle after years of neoliberal ascendency. For others, OWS is a populism that has the potential to escape—or repeat—the limitations and flaws of its antecedents. For some, OWS is a social movement whose horizon is holding elites and states accountable. For others, OWS is the reappearance of a fugitive democracy that episodically projects res publica as a possibility to incarnate by action in concert. For some, OWS thus signals the generativity of “natality” in politics. For others, OWS is the “multitude” not so much protesting the failure of representation as rejecting representation as a form of politics, and displaying instead the potentiality of “the virtual” taking contingent shape as an incipient line of flight. I do not mean to suggest that these positions are each so discrete, or one-by-one identified with specific figures and theorists, but the range of our interpretations do repeat and defend the theories already jostling in academic conversation prior to OWS. Must any effort to understand OWS make it evidence to confirm what we already (want to) believe?

Justifiably esteemed academics in many cases simply, even simplistically, “capture” the event as evidence of a theory they have long asserted; in some cases, our colleagues speak about OWS in terms that contradict what they previously had been arguing—say, about the total grip of neoliberal rationality and the evisceration of alternative languages—but the contradiction is not itself acknowledged let alone analyzed. I have not read an author confessing perplexity because this event disturbed what he or she had assumed about the character of neoliberal hegemony, or about the possibility, presuppositions, and shape of oppositional politics.

Don’t get me wrong, I find real theoretical and political value in these various frameworks; their deployment does illuminate important aspects and potentialities of OWS. I tend to feel agnostic and pluralist, resist “choosing” one optic, and worry instead that the event is disappearing under various (albeit contradictory) interpretations. I remind myself that a fluid, cacaphonous, and polyvalent assemblage—shall we say movement, constituent moment, event?— will necessarily, thankfully, elude our grasp, and yet also that there is great value in striving to represent if not capture its meaning. But in the contradiction between the story and categories we assert, and an OWS that inevitably challenges what we say politics means and does, our prose signals an epistemological anxiety we affirm only as theory but disavow in our practice. For we really are not sure what kind of object we face, what kind of story to tell about it, and what would count as evidence to resolve ambiguity. OWS should be an opportunity to explore, not only confirm, our theoretical axioms or settled views of politics or late modernity, of the state, capitalism, and citizenship, of political action, cultural creativity, and social change.

Of course I also want to bring my own theoretical pre-occupations into the discussion. My sense is that, despite those in the media who decry a lack of demands, OWS has put the issue of inequality into public discourse in a powerful way that already resonates in electoral politics, and that this is a major (and intended!) accomplishment whose full impact depends on what activists, unions, parties, and politicians do next. To put this differently, OWS has made equality a political issue again and at the same time has made the meaning of “public” a political issue -not only in the critique of a state serving the few and private interests rather than the many and public goods, but in the form of its own practice of “occupation” as democratic reclaiming, re-possession, and embodied inhabitation. In the Tocquevillean terms I often find useful, a demand for equality—through a metaphor of “99 percent” that is open to multiple significations—is thus connected to arts of association and capacities to initiate.

But I also would argue that another rhetorical turn is needed. For making equality into a political issue means articulating (not simply bespeaking) the profound sense of loss, anxiety, and crisis in American culture. That sense of loss is not uniform: fearing loss of social security and medicare is not the same as lamenting the loss of racial status because of immigration, which is not the same as protesting the loss of viable and valued livelihoods, which is not the same as white (or middle class) students feeling the loss of a promise of economic success they cannot actualize, which is not the same as living the denial of dignity constituting our ongoing racial state of exception. These different and often cross-cutting senses of loss—of status, belonging, rights, livelihood, dignity, and futurity—are not (yet) in conversation, nor is there a compelling narrative framework for relating them. But articulation of loss seems crucial to any political change, or rather, salutary political change depends on how such conditions of loss, suffering, and difficulty are made into conditions of action rather than mere reaction.

At the moment we hear the Republican right using economic distress to advocate further deregulation and budget cutting, as if to resurrect Ronald Reagan, or a nineteenth-century family capitalism, and we also hear contrasting calls by the liberal left for a “new New Deal,” as if to resurrect Franklin (or in Obama’s recent speech, Teddy) Roosevelt. There is also the culture war jeremiad that national difficulty is due to moral failure linked to gay rights, abortion, secularism, etc. These stories signal the fatigue of a culture that resurrects the dead because it lacks other visions of futurity, but if a credible alternative is to speak to loss, it cannot abandon a history of the resonant references that define what loss and promise mean. The rhetorical and political challenge, then, is to engage the experiences and associations that these tired stories bespeak, while directing people to more fruitful ways to think about and act on their feelings, perceptions, and aspirations. My own formation recalls Machiavelli: the role of narrative—not of 99 percent as a metaphor—is making desolation and crisis into conditions of possibility. The new or emergent thus has conditions, partly in recognition of loss, partly in acts of making a-new the meaning of inherited words, and partly in acts of re-occupying that re-define  inherited spaces, institutions, and customs. If newness emerges as feeling and fact through creatively agonal re-making, narratives that polarize tradition and innovation—the inherited and the incipient—will obscure actual conditions of political possibility.

Accordingly, I see OWS as an opportunity for intellectuals and citizens to explore three issues in particular. The first concerns neoliberal hegemony as we enter a moment of crisis and contest, in which residual and subordinate—and perhaps emergent—languages can reassert claims to public attention and value. It is important to ask: what investments sustain the grip of neoliberalism among people on whom it imposes loss and dispossession? At the same time, what alternative do we conjure instead? The second issue thus concerns the horizon of “growth” that has framed modern politics in industrial and developing nations. It may be imperial injustice to demand that the many relinquish a horizon only a few have reached, but there is no injustice in asking if that horizon is viable in a de-industrialized and increasingly unequal American society. What is the alternative to futurity imagined as economic growth? An alternative horizon must re-imagine the meaning of livelihood, work, and individual aspiration in relation to material necessities of life. It might still involve a kind of capitalism, but it must re-imagine markets as well as the role of different scales of organization in a democratic society. It must also revalue “the good life” in terms other than economic success, whether through meaningful work, participation in public life, spiritual congregation, or environmental attunement. In turn, a third issue concerns the meaning of sovereignty and nationhood, for what should be the role (if any!) of the nation-state in a globalized world now dominated by the unregulated power of capital? It is striking in this regard how most commentaries on OWS act out rigid pre-conceptions about the state, sovereignty, and national forms of belonging, as some demonize and ignore the state and nation, some depict inevitable waning and compensatory reactions to it, and some make a salvaged welfare state the horizon of national possibility. Such positions mirror the arguments already constituting OWS as an inter-subjective reality, and these arguments surely arise from the strategic dilemmas and visionary choices that participators confront in their practice, and thus dramatize for all of us. In regard then to the broad issue of our categories and stories, my sense is that a reversible figure-ground relationship, by which activists and intellectuals move OWS back and forth between foreground and background, may widen a space to occupy with self-reflection and creative action.

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