I came across an exchange between Levi Bryant (at Larval Subjects) and David Banks (at Cyborgology) recently that riled up my interest in occupy and its ability to confront systemic Capitalism. With a focus on place and territory, people of all stripes were drawn together to build a movement utilizing non-capitalist means while simultaneously hurling impossible demands at the plutocrats controlling our political process. How effective this tactic is: how far such a movement can grow and to what ends has been debated since it first caught fire – to an almost absurd extent. But measuring these things requires acknowledging the conceptual tools with which one is working and the limitations of those tools. This tracing out the limits of the theoretical framework within which one is working allows for a pushing of those limits further beyond and hopefully into radically new strategies.
An Object-Oriented Ontology (like Bryant’s) would focus on and prioritize the material things, flows, and functions as opposed to identity based critique and the ’who’ of subjectivity. This new kind of materialism starts with the actual movement of objects and treats ideological constructs like capitalism, society, and so forth as “hyperobjects” without a fixed location. Hyperobjects are dispersed throughout the field and are a kind of ecological/environmental composition of material entities that organize those entities and invade their interaction with each other. A hyperobject, it could be said, operates in the interactional relations binding the web of a system together. Capitalism would be one such hyperobject guiding actual things into tightly bonded relationships, in distinction from just calling it an ideology perpetuating dehumanizing class-based divisions (which it indeed does). The OOO materialist’s concentration when dealing with Capitalism is in the effect it has on how and where things can assemble. The geographically ordered distributions of things takes priority over the ’who’ question of what is distinctly formative of a culture or community. This doesn’t negate who one is, their identity or affiliation, but it does ask that we look deeper into one’s ecological entanglement.
The problem is about location and identification: how can a hyperobject be combated and challenged when it is nowhere to be found? The global connectivity of capitalism means that it manifests as a broad-based ’system’ instead of an object or fixed territory like a factory building or the walls of a city. Crucial though for the OOO materialist is that the system should not be critiqued as a transcendent object that crumbles upon unraveling its contradictions in a text but inhabits the world of objects in their pattern formation and transferring real entities to and fro. Without the distance preserving safety zone of textual analysis, the system gets under our skin – the hyperobject does the ordering and structuring of the material processes in our body and environment regardless of which belief inducing symbols I favor or don’t favor.
The argument Bryant makes is that to alter the functioning of something like the capitalist hyper object requires intervening in its material flows of goods: grinding the machine to a halt by disrupting its normal processes. His critique of protesting outside Wall Street and the meme community building is realistic (politically and ontologically) in that he contends that it only becomes effective in a struggle against capitalism in reaching a revolutionary critical point:
“a systems theoretical perspective suggest that these forms of practice are about forming revolutionary collectives or solidarities. While these collectives do not do much themselves to change governments and corporations, they could reach a critical mass capable of doing so.”
Bryant is claiming that identity-community based solutions alone can be more-or-less easily swallowed up or neglected by a highly efficient, co-opting hyperobject like Capitalism unless those communities take on an aggressive, uncompromising quality separating them from the normally functioning system. This is a demand for a tangible and clearly distinguishable disruption of that system. The OOO materialist it seems only sees positive gains from a redistribution and a regrouping of both human and non-human things – not just changes in consciousness or the “national discourse”.
With a strategic focus on altering and challenging the material flows and standardized connection of things in the system, the object-oriented ontologist intentionally leaves open the subjective, class-oriented issues. It would seem that who subjectively takes the hit from all of this systemic disruption can be settled when the system-network is transformed, but David Banks has a rebuff. The vast inequality necessitated by a Capitalist economy, exacerbated by its latest crisis, leaves a great many vulnerable to its exploitation yet simultaneously more reliant upon its smooth functioning. When the arteries of a system are targeted, when highways are blocked, strikes are executed, and/or supply chains disrupted, those poor and underprivileged are hit the hardest. As more effective tactics are deployed in real, tangible ways the system is indeed weakened, but those most attached to the system under attack are those that are also alienated by it. Therefore, precise attacks aimed at the wealthy elite (or “the 1%” – just to give them a name) must go through the buffer of their expendable wage slaves unless they all rise up together. All classes are dependent on the current system’s continuance for their sustenance, but smaller guerrilla-style attacks seem to only agitate an already over-tapped people in the workers, unemployed, and marginalized. Does an object-oriented ontology miss this class disparity, the inequality of subjects built into the system in its insistence on objective practice and analysis?
Banks would say that it does: “[i]t is the poor that will suffer first and foremost. So when an Occupation decides to block a highway or stop a cell phone tower from working, they are disrupting the lives of the poor disproportionally more than the rich.” This is a check on radicals blocking the flows of the system for the sake of a real material consequence: the subjective analysis (so far bracketed) finds the oppressed even more damaged. Of course, no self-respecting anti-capitalist on the left or wherever would advocate letting things be as they are. The prevalent organizations of power and repeated exploitation of people’s labor and environmental resources are intolerable and we only have a short time before the damage is irreparable. The difference here is of which conceptual language and analysis will prove to create lasting and sustainable change. Banks takes the materialist flow-disruption another step by forcing one to acknowledge the harm done to the oppressed (if one is not already feeling those repercussions) and what to do about it. I can easily understand his protestation: “[i]f you block a highway, be prepared to offer (at least) a temporary alternative.”
The great thing about the occupy movement during its heyday was that it *did* offer an alternative in the inner-city camps experimenting with radically egalitarian social relationships. The anger-channeling mobilizations against banks, ports, summits, etc. did indeed attempt to disrupt business as usual and succeeded on some level. But these actions felt all the more righteous when there was a site, a *location* one could go back to and count on seeing some friends. The camps were like a beacon of hope that justified attacks against “the Capitalist system” because we had a non-capitalist commune to refer back to and provide assistance to anyone being eaten up by that system. The alternative Banks seeks in an inclusive “leftist politic that helps build coalitions and makes these struggles linked and meaningful for all concerned” seemed within reach and it charged up individuals into acting out against systemic violence – even in the face of immanent police brutality nobody else would hear about. The subjective ’who problem’ of the well-oiled capitalist machine and deemphasized by object-oriented ontology was less of a problem with a lifeline bringing those privileged and unprivileged together in a geographic location. Though the movement was largely fueled by middle-class youngsters only just recently feeling the pangs of precariousness, it still brought much needed vitality to the anti-capitalist struggle. They (we) were able to link up and, at least for the duration of the occupations, feel connected thanks to a common territory.
I sincerely wish more people had come out and physically occupied those camps when the evictions were all but certain. They were a crucial tactical component of the anti-capitalist struggle as seen through the eyes of the occupy movement, in spite of the problems a homeless encampment generates. More bodies in a tighter space (from the materialist eye) would have at least shown that this government action (coordinated nationwide) was against the will of its subjects (idealist eye).
So does the specific, local, territorial character of occupy camping and its empowering qualities derived therefrom negate OOO’s insights on hyperobjects? Can we gain from this insight when so much material support came about by starting from a very local, confined space? I think we can, but this means working through conceptually what object-oriented ontology and the occupy movement have in common, but has been slightly overlooked by Levi Bryant and Tim Morton (from whom the term ’hyperobject’ is borrowed). A local-territorial site with defendable borders (be it a park or building or one’s foreclosed house) mixed with solidarity actions connecting them together didn’t by themselves disrupt the systemic flows of Capital, but the did give a very real and solid glimmer of hope that things could and were being done otherwise than by Capitalist means. This provided the moral weight that energized collaboration on those confrontational projects: there was an alternative.
We’ve all gotten to that all too familiar yet irksome wall in heated political conversations where someone always remarks: “But you’re a part of the system you reject! Your actions depend upon this system’s workings too!”. For many I take it, the system is a whole instead of a process and the injunction spanning across our culture to “Work!” and maintain it is a duty. Without a collective imagination for how it could be otherwise that didn’t rely on a Communist, Anarchist, Syndicalist (or whatever imaginary society found in texts) theory the rebellious and creative of us were left high and dry. The Occupy Movement provided a ground (literally) with which one could bombard a corrupted system with impossible demands. The amount of concentrated political energy such a tactic infused into the populace hadn’t been seen in nearly 50 years, and it spawned the emergence of a new popular, mobilized community with its very own name. This all occurred because some dedicated people decided to camp out in front of the site where the major culprits of unregulated and exploitative Capitalist speculators; it couldn’t have happened without a specific location. These camps were (some, I think, remain) more than their locations though, they could be compared to singularities drawing large quantities of mass towards them. There allure was not to rest those concerned bodies in an arrangement forced by the singularity as a center, but charge them up with rational debate, radical speculation, and angry heckling. The open access of these assemblies and their tendency to attract radical dreamers led to some of the most breathtaking, jaw-dropping political theatre we as a country have seen in a long time and I have ever participated in. This was especially acute in Oakland, when there was a time that hundreds of people could be counted on to engage in a democratically dedicated public debate.
This all couldn’t have been done without an extremely bare-bones name (which ought to be granted to anyone “filling a space”… that is, everyone) and an easily located destination to provoke mass interest. So Banks has a point when he urges us to consider people bearing the brunt of the blockage of the system and “offer an alternative” for those most dominated by Capital (which Occupy did – there was free food, camping, ’interesting’ people (to say the least), and generally free everything). However, one can still understand Occupy thoroughly from an object-oriented ontologist’s perspective by viewing the bodies it put on the streets, the collective energy parading around the cities, its confrontational rejection of negotiating with cities (it was like a new city within the city), etc. The self-reproducing (autopoetic) system that occupy rejects is fought materially through a utopian-style separation and targeting the highways, shipping routes, city meetings, etc. (though less effectively now). We and I *did* this in the California Bay Area. But in order to get to that critical point where enough people are ready and willing to put themselves on the line, certain non-material factors needed to appear and galvanize those people into a collective force.
The ethical commitment, the righteous duty can be interpreted materialistically as a generator of energy and a solidifier of coalitions. This must be major concern if what is being built is to have an impact against a hyperobject that is “purely virtual or withdrawn” and “can’t be directly touched”, since a critique or action can so easily fall into co-option and sterility – a point Levi Bryant makes very well. But *getting to that point* that critical point of putting up a challenge and offering an alternative system – a new and competitive hyperobject as it were – requires utilizing abstractions that are believable; they compel subjects to become subjects of another kind.
For reference I would bring up Simon Critchley’s work in Infinitely Demanding and The Faith of the Faithless for an example of a concerned academic putting up convincing arguments and synthesizing a great deal of research in building that critical movement. I’ve written about it in this blog. He’s since spoken favorably about the Occupy Movement in interviews and articles here, here, and here but without giving speeches at Zuccotti Park like Zizek did, sidestepping the iconic vanguard possibility. That being said (err, written), we need all the academic intellectual input we can get if another system besides Capitalism is to rise.
Speaking of speech acts (in a written essay… Derrida!), the gesture of getting one’s message out to the general public and convincing them to come out in a mass assembly and risk police assault requires such a media campaign without immediate effects. Right-wingers understand this and shape the national discussion by saturating all available mediums with opinions I have no problem with calling retarded. My fellow Occupiers and I soon realized how supremely frustrating it is to get the mainstream media to report accurately and without an anti-occupy, pro-police bias.
But new technologies of vocal expression (the human microphone, the stack, and standardized stage-time) let voices be amplified to a greater audience and pushed occupy’s influence farther than was thought possible. The speech act has more material effects than a simple cathartic release in this context, it lets those arguments and those ideas passed over by the media behemoth be discussed by many individuals. It makes public debate at once attractive, effective, inclusive, and alternative compared to the mostly sensationalist garbage that gets passed off as news these days. This type of structured discourse allowed important but neglected ideas to be heard (the prison-industrial complex, financial fraud, the list goes on) and, most importantly, draw people into a common struggle against the forces of Capitalism. Though the sound waves disperse into thin air, a mouthpiece that shouts loud and with a communicable message is crucial to forming that struggle.
I know some will say I’m shaving with a dull blade and the energy from Occupy has fallen down. Was it all merely just a righteous wave that finally broke and fell back to the sea? (to invoke Hunter Thompson). Or did the mainstream media kill it by raising the question of its death ad nauseum when we stopped getting beaten up by cops? I think it has a lot to do with the locality of the camps and having an aberration in the system that we could feel proud of. It should be obvious to anyone and *is* obvious to those that experienced it that the crucial impediment to its thriving was and is the extreme military-police response coupled with reporting that favored the police regardless of what really happened. But anyways…
The materialist framework is a strong one in making positive headway against a Capitalism mangling the planet with an excessive production of commodities. The restrictions and demands it makes on people’s labour doesn’t simply “dehumanize” them but channels material flows (including bodies) in such a way as to close off the possibility of acting otherwise. Community building should not be an end in-itself when the existential threat of annihilation of life on the planet is looming predictably around the corner, and object-oriented ontologists are good at emphasizing this. However, without the illusory name or meme attachment connecting bodies to a place the materialist is left without the at least quasi-spiritual element that acts like the glue holding a force in shape. The occupy name itself is a kind of materialist-worthy logo: it really only means putting bodies in space with an emphasis on action.
Capitalism can no longer be confronted from without: its influence has spread all the way around the globe. A strategically effective resistance must be cultivated from within. I actually do think Tim Morton is onto something with The Ecological Thought but I’ll take to his work in later posts.