Occupying Our Attention

October 21, 2011

Occupying Our Attention

Dear friends and critical minds,

I wanted to share some thoughts about how we may understand the Occupy Wall Street movement’s successes, by considering how it expresses itself.

I was one of those students who went door to door for Obama. I gave more money than I could afford to his campaign, and I used every tool available to me to communicate what I saw at the time as a pivotal shift in the national discourse. I remember feeling profound ownership in the movement that seemed to be unfolding, a feeling that transformed into frustration and helplessness the more the press attributed the strength of the movement to Obama’s magnificent charisma, rather than to a grassroots swell, fed up with eight years of brittle paralysis, that proudly and full-throatedly demanded that the political establishment produce something–anything–on the order of Obama. The banner of liberalism was handed to a leader with no interest in waving it. The cognitive dissonance that followed brutalized our egos, as if we had no part or ownership in the victory. It was, in some specific ways, more damaging than the Bush years, when we could at least tune it out because we knew it had nothing to do with us, and find solace in reruns of The West Wing.

Of course, Occupy Wall Street represents an unthinkable array of alliances, many of whom are the same people who invested so much of their political identity in Obama. The “leaderlessness” of the movement is, I think, a direct response to having an infant movement stolen from those people. As a result, its foundations are far more resilient to the capitalist system of appropriation. The movement’s theatrics have been carefully constructed in a way that resists any efforts to co-opt it through mainstream apparatuses, be they the press, elected officials, or similarly aligned nonprofits. A leaderless American Autumn cannot be attacked symbolically, because so far it refuses to dilute the reach of its message by investing in reductionist symbols.

Institutionally, I support European-style Socialism. But as far as movements go, I see them playing a different kind of social role. The key to OWS’s continued success is rooted in a mature understanding of public theatrics. The occupiers who call themselves the 99% have been criticized from the left and the right as taking part of an imaginary culture with no bearing on the institutional apparatuses that govern our lives, and no demands with which to change those structures. In reality, however, I see something real and immediate happening in Zuccotti Park. Societies do not exist one-at-a-time. We see several ideologies functioning simultaneously. This method of thinking is rooted in what theorists today call “immanence”–that individuals actively create society at any given moment through the ethics exemplified by their actions. In an immanent model, the value of an action is defined by its ideological character. I can, today, act in solidarity with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., even though he is long dead. (For example, see footage of a similar Wall Street protest in 1979: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=ODCvbn_hUDI#!) Our actions are linked and connected by their ethical fiber, and actively manifest another kind of society, running in parallel to and in contradistinction to the Capitalist society that traditionally dominates mainstream culture.

The protesters Occupying Wall Street are not protesters at all, but demonstrators. Their city within a city–complete with library, healthcare, homecooked food for all, and participatory structure–demonstrates precisely what a world driven by compassion looks like. They have found success on the public stage because their parallel society exists in direct contrast with the that of the %1, and they have dramatized this contrast through the media to great effect. The chosen site for the occupation is one of the movement’s most significant decisions, and a gift that keeps on giving. The public drama is heightened by their proximity to their ideological opposites, heightening the contrasts and calling upon those bearing witnesses to choose sides. This tactic, I should say, is completely dependent on maintaining a nonviolent status (or, alternatively, control over the mainstream news, which seems an impossibility). Nonviolent tactics make it very difficult for the mainstream press to undermine the message, particularly when they are beaten and abused on camera. In the public eye, the police become the protectors of Wall Street, and the entire system appears under the control of the 1%. Yet, by articulating their perspective clearly and without hypocrisy–all while exposing the hypocrisy of their ideological opponents–the occupiers appear more reasonable, understandable, and therefore admirable, than the plutocratic elite. The chief Architecture critic of the NY Times recently ran an insightful article about this: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/16/sunday-review/wall-street-protest-shows-power-of-place.html

These tactics have largely helped the occupiers overcome the treacheries of the 24-hour new cycle, which seeks to codify and dissect politics into sound bites. Their obsessive, short-term coverage drives events rapidly towards history, seemingly saying more than could ever be said. However, they cannot do this to the movement because it is an ongoing, outstretched reality, that completely undermines the cable network’s understanding of time. It cannot be historicized because it is currently happening, occupying its own 24-hour cycle.

Accordingly, today’s demand for demands–codifying the movement in terms of achievable goals–is necessarily a reductionist action for a movement whose elongated understanding of time is one of its strengths. What we (I think I can say “we”) seek is a change in consciousness. And that’s what I find most exciting. Not the political leverage, not the demands, but the real manifestation of a world I want to see. If we know anything, it’s that Capitalism is a nimble beast. Any energy channeled into the Occupiers’ parallel society delegitimizes the Capitalist society. When Capitalism is losing the fight, it makes concessions in order to win back their lost constituency. I guess that’s what institutional change looks like, especially when the movement exerts control of the national dialogue. Which it seems they do, at least for the moment.

Yours,
Nick

PS–This article was written partially in response to an Op-Ed published by Todd Gitlin in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/09/opinion/sunday/occupy-wall-street-and-the-tea-party.html