Initiating a conversation is not always a matter of holding an idea inside of your mind and then releasing that idea into someone else’s mind for a shared time. Sometimes a conversation with its topic and type of participants is already there in the atmosphere, latent and easily brought to the forefront of our minds. It was in this second sense of conversations that I wrote an early little essay in my blog called On Conversations. The words and the ideas were already there and just waiting to be spoken. Someone or something had cracked the code of what people wanted to start talking about but couldn’t quite find the right avenue or opportunity to begin. And then all of the sudden it hits like an EMP, electrifying a crowd of people, and suddenly even timid individuals are transformed into loud-mouths.Continue reading “More on Conversations”
Electronic images pass through the mind, a plushy chair cushions a straight back. Simpler times are conjured up by an graphic bits of light set upon a screen. Sitting still, the imagination soars backward and we try place ourselves in a natural setting performing essential tasks. I fetch water in a wooden pale from my own well dug up by my great grandfather, I buy a sickle to ease the next harvest, I feed the livestock with grain stored up in the barn, I head to the pub to find my neighbors – all of whom I know, I get into a brawl with my rival and nobody is actually hurt. I am inside of a community and feel reassured by this sense of belonging as I lay me head to rest. Night becomes day, day night, and “harmony” is won again.Continue reading “Electrified Stories”
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.
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:
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”.
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.
In a brief sketch of the work as a whole, Simon Critchley states his idea about faith and, I am tempted to say, his belief about belief. This meta-claim of his is that only those who doubt their faith can have it. Only those placed in the uncomfortable position of lacking a guarantee of their affirmation can have faith. Only those who are in a position of weakness and *subjection* (by another) can be truly ethical subjects: “[F]aith is the enactment of the self in relation to an infinite demand that both exceeds my power and yet requires all my power” (p.18). A subject, a self, is only what it is in relation to a demand that it act or believe this way or that. Not a source in itself, something beyond the self pushes it, compelling it and driving it.
Reading Simon Critchley’s latest book The Faith of the Faithless is like receiving some of the most relevant currents from past intellectuals for our problems today. Government and consent, autonomy and violence, faith and ethics weave together into a story informing the trajectory we are racing along, all the while the impetus to act responsibly with thought and careful reflection race along with us. The central concern to the book as I read it is to articulate the basis for a faith that we can believe in today, even amidst the seemingly insurmountable apathy and nihilism preventing a commitment to a positive future. Nihilism is not a mode of thinking to be rejected in favor of a happy optimism or a comforting belief but thought through. The pervasiveness of disenchantment with the state of the world, the rush of stimulation at the sight of the latest thinly-veiled fantasy apocalypse story followed by an “oh well, I got to go back to work”, is a serious concern not to simply attack but grapple with. Such is the over-arching motivation behind this work: to provide a theoretico-religious faith when faith is in such short supply and understandably so.
I’ve got this question that I always seem to come back to yet never answer: is the occupy movement a mere tactic for attracting people into a common space for protest? or is it a radically original community with its own procedures for collective decision-making growing right inside a state it rejects? Due to the horizontal, leaderless principles upon which the it operates (in theory), answers to these questions depend on who is asked. The respect for personal autonomy of opinion and action is a shared *principle* that works to keep any one person, group, committee, or body from crystallizing the occupy movement into a unified party. Yet there are still principles that we have in common: no demands, no leaders, no hierarchy, just a transparent public space and a respect for the (non-inpinging) differences of others. These principles are not easily upheld in practice however, they require diligence and much tiresome arguing to prevent a power dynamic from becoming a power structure.
I’m constantly drawn to the community vs. tactic question which was more obvious when the camps were still raging. If the movement is just a tactic, it will lose relevance in absence of a name (would anyone care if I, you, we are ’occupiers’ otherwise?), if the movement is a new community, it risks conformity into binding principles of behavior isolating the autonomous element. How can this ’we’ maintain respect for each other’s autonomy when ’we’ must reach some form of consensus on what is officially endorsed by this-or-that occupy? Is such a consensus necessary at all, or can these assemblies be merely action announcements and places for radical tactics discussions without losing the name?
(tactics – movement – community)
(autonomous bodies in space vs consensus-based commune)
That this is a movement is without doubt. It marches, it camps, it is wildly creative in the slogans, chants, costumes, and it consistently draws masses of people to protest the injustices of today. It is invigorating and intense to march with both strangers and friends, asserting our collective power in the face of overwhelming oppression in plain sight (police) and lurking behind the scene (1% bankers & lobbyists wielding economic authority for political gain). The righteousness of the cause, the bonds that form in these open spaces all lend to the revolutionary spirit drawing crowds together and ensuring this idea will not be evicted. It is rather the internal quarrels and/or co-option from established groups or parties that pose the greatest endangerment to continued participation. Maintaining the motivational liveliness that encourages people to come on to the streets in the face of blatantly aggressive police and surveillance strategies is of the highest concern. This is mainly done through internet articles & videos and direct, gonzo-style journalism (because lord knows the mainstream media is doing everything it can to suppress it) which provide unprecedented access to the action on the streets. This sense of righteousness could be lost along with the number of bodies marching in the streets if the decisions consented on are by and for a mere group of General Assembly goers.
The main impediment to keeping people coming back and gaining new support is self-destruction by way internal conflicts that don’t get a chance to be aired out in open discussion. There’s been a number of people who ”quit occupying” before writing incendiary articles on why they became frustrated with meetings, tactics, principles and so on. This is alarming considering their dedication now being lost to the movement, but is this movement only shedding people with a vision for the whole community, who simply can’t abide by the autonomous actions of others, or is something else going on here? If these attacks are out of despair from a feeling of voices not being heard, if the consensus process itself is passing proposals that only cater to what a comparatively small group in attendance can agree on, then this process is silencing dissent. Collective dissent, disobedience in the face of corrupted political (mis)representation is what got us moving together; if we have people criticizing the process but also leaving, we are no longer channeling critique to change the world but spiraling into a black-hole.
The process, the means, the model we are building must remain critical of the governing forces we may reject while simultaneously embodying the change we wish to see. This name we have adopted – occupiers – holds us loosely together seeing as it is a tactic which really just means taking up space. As the name becomes more notorious throughout the world and the friendships we have made strengthen, we too also risk degenerating into an insular group if we ’fetishize’ the GA – as folks have been saying lately. The openness, transparency, and inclusiveness many of us pride ourselves on becomes difficult to keep propped up if dissenting opinions are rooted out by a model seeking maximal agreement. The agreements reached could pander to the lowest common denominator which then represents the official stance of ”the occupy x movement”; the name helps attract people, but that could be reversed to repulsion if the consensed proposals only get those who voted to show up (if they even do themselves).
I hear the problems raised about consensus and understand the frustrations of holding people accountable when mistakes are made, along with the dangers of mob rule. But these issues demand attention that cannot be given if people don’t show up. I’m arguing for a minimalist interpretation of what it means to occupy and putting faith in the relationships that are forged by convening in the streets. I’ve never really taken the decisions consensed on by the general assembly as absolutely binding, for the real impact comes from showing up. This takes nothing away from the committees and working groups that plan, coordinate, and report back to the GA whose work is vital to keeping us moving. This opening statement of Oakland’s General Assembly is important: ”the bulk of the work at Occupy Oakland does not occur at the GA”.
To sustain this energy, to continue gathering people for liberation of the commons that have been ripped away by capitalist forces backed by oppressive police enforcement, I believe we need to remember that the name ’occupy’ is little more than an attractor for getting bodies out to assert their rights. What happens when we get there can be hashed out and argued on-site and leading up to it, but is ultimately up to individual decisions. The arguments that ensue actually help fuel the fire and build relationships as long as they don’t come to blows; but a structured exclusion of certain people or behaviors would be more violent (says me). The warning message I’m trying to get across is of exclusion as well as co-option: affiliation with occupy, the name, should mean little because there will be less to seize by third parties with their own agenda.
So far, the line between community and tactic has been straddled pretty well. Falling off on either side would weaken our resistance, but an exclusive community distinguishing the ”real occupiers” from the fake seems the greater risk now.