Aesthetics and OccupationDemocracy Revolution
What is happening at Occupy Wall Street? This has been a tauntingly difficult question for those not involved in the occupation to answer. Of course, there is an answer in every sign, and every carefully crafted rhyme.1 The sum of the signs point to an overwhelming wrong, impossible to reduce, a cacophony of misdeeds. Critics, aided and abetted by a media only too willing to set up oppositions where none exist,2 see in the ocean of signs a weakness. The guardians of the status quo would like to believe that, when it comes to demands, our unwillingness masks an inability. They are wrong; while they may ask what the protest is about, they are unable or unwilling to ask what is important about the occupation. The occupiers of Liberty Square, as they have refused to yield to external pressure to release a list of demands; as they have remained steadfast in their refusal to work within traditional channels to seek redress for their grievances; and as the very institution of freedom which the occupation signifies imbues Occupy Wall Street with an ineliminible element of indeterminacy, know precisely what is important about the occupation. Yet they guard their treasure, teasingly content to let the media struggle to figure out what it is all about.
In fairness, this has much to do with the tableau of the occupation. A visitor to Liberty Square is at first prevented from passing into the center of what was, in another time, a small concrete pavilion called Zuccotti Park by a human curtain surrounding the perimeter—individuals displaying their signs for the assembled cameras of the press, the ever present phalanx of New York City police officers, the gawking tourists posing for souvenir photos. Most don’t make it past the bodies mingling on the sidewalk, but once inside the park, the occupation reveals itself. Arranged among the tents and tarps in the northeast corner is the People’s Library. Along the northern perimeter, the Media, Facilitation, and Outreach working groups have set up shop. The drum circle occupies the wide pavilion on the western edge of the park, where they frequently out-duel the construction din from the adjacent World Trade Center site. Open forums are held on the steps lining the southeast corner, beneath the “Joi de Vivre.”3 In the center of the park is Comfort, where occupiers queue for donated food, clothing, and bedding materials. Every day of the occupation brings further adornments: a Medic tent, Protest Chaplains, and well-equipped Sanitation crews all contribute to the evolving community at Liberty Square.
This is the scene of the occupation. I suggest we think of it as a stage, as a true community playhouse, for the occupation is, in its spatial subversion, the enacting of a political spectacular4—the ongoing and elaborate production of democracy. We have become so inured to farce passed off as democracy that we had forgotten the genuine article resembles nothing so much as a carnival. The occupation of Liberty Square marks our remembrance. It is joyous. We sing, and we dance, not because we are not serious, but because the happiness accompanying this unexpected and spontaneous occurrence must be expressed! The park is festooned with multicolored flags, balloons, and kites. There are clowns of all types.5 There is face-painting, and finger-painting, and body-painting.6 There are costumed performers and impromptu Klezmer dance-parties; stilt walkers and enormous, grotesque puppets accompany our marches. Despite the overwhelming police presence, Liberty Square is a liberated zone. Because of the police presence, which de facto creates a separation between spectators and participants, Liberty Square is a theater, and the scene of the reenacting of the American passion play.
It is not surprising to find that many of the earliest occupiers were artists. It should not be surprising that those most adept at envisioning another world, then taking the steps to transform that vision into a reality, should be on the forefront of a movement dedicated to doing just that. It appears to be those less alienated individuals, those who are able to maintain a more intimate relation with the product of their labor who are most versed in the new language spoken at the occupation. This is the language of the General Assembly, the call and repeat of the people’s mic, but it is also “a ‘new language’ of civil disobedience, combining elements of street theater, festival and what can only be called non-violent warfare.”7 It is the sound of the great mass of disaffected and excluded singing, shouting, debating, acting, and calling into being the society they wish to create. It is the voice of those who previously had none calling forth and demanding to be heard.
That the occupation has developed an artistic, theatrical form is a function of Liberty Square being the site of a confrontation between two competing logics. On one hand, the occupation opens up the space in which political judgment, what Jacques Ranciere has termed “police logic,” confronts aesthetic judgment. Police logic is the spatial ordering of the visible and the sayable, the apportioning of the recognized parts of society, the creation of what we call ”political” space. According to Ranciere, however, “for a thing to be political, it must give rise to a meeting of police logic and egalitarian logic that is never set up in advance.”8 Egalitarian logic, then, the opposing logic, is the radical disordering and disruption of the existent partitioning of parts and the self-affirmation of a body that has been denied a voice in the original casting of lots. Egalitarian logic reveals a world in which all are equally visible. None of the participants in the occupation spectacular, “in its spontaneous performance, is a genial ‘star’ whose brilliance would eclipse the visibility of a ‘supporting cast.’”9
Aesthetic judgment and egalitarian logic perform the same function in the confrontation with police logic: both grant access to “political time,”, which reveals the schism, in Arendt’s formulation, “between past and future.” The opening of political space, the physical space of the agonistic meeting of two competing logics, is dependent on people seeing it as the site of a dispute.The occupation as the scene of a political spectacular, as the stage appearing in and for the dispute depends, according to Arendt, on the spectator and aesthetic judgment, which “creates the space without which no such objects could appear at all. The public realm is constituted by the critics and the spectators, not by the actors or the makers.”10 Democracy is the name of this disruption in the hegemony of police logic through the mechanisms of subjectification. Democracy is the assertive appearance of subjects who have had no part, and so who become visible for the first time in disputed space of political appearance, in the spectacular space of the occupation.
Some may dispute the necessity of actual physical spaces of appearance. I believe the phenomena of occupations have revealed the truth of the demos, namely, that “the democratic appearance of the people is strictly opposed by its simulated reality.”11That is, the spectators crowding the perimeter of Liberty Square, the police officers included, are essential to the claim of the occupiers to represent the 99%, and are no less a part of the occupation than the artists, students, and intellectuals that make up its core. Occupation is the staging of democracy, and everybody on stage has a part.
The gap revealed in the disclosure of political time, which was characterized by Arendt as the failure of thought to critically attend to the forms of the revolution the moment the event had passed, has been reinterpreted by Ranciere as the gap “between the capability of the speaking being and any ‘ethical’ harmony of doing, being, and saying.”12 The failure of thinking to maintain its revolutionary vitality, which was a ultimately a failure of the imagination, has resulted in the inability of our existing political institutions to account for any claim to inclusion in the ”people” by free parties; parties, that is, who as “floating subjects” subvert the claim by the state to include the whole of society. The arithmetic of the state, which accounts for the totality of appropriate modes of political appearance, cannot account for its own miscount. The occupation is differential calculus; it’s the attempt to attend to an impossible complexity. The occupation is the stage for billions of free actors, for the spectacular practice of democracy, in which nothing is given in advance, and which is always more than the sum of its parts. The improbable and fantastical forms one encounters at Liberty Square signal the splintering of a reality in which all was accounted for, the merging of thought and action and the emergence of practical imagination, which completely displaces the status quo; that is, the social ordering that previously constituted the acceptable forms of appearance.
The occupation is the superimposition of an egalitarian economic and political model directly upon the space claimed by an exploitative and exclusionary logic; this occurs in the contentious coming together of the occupiers, the spectators, and the police. These groups are combined in the space of occupation to create a festival of subjectification, “the production through a series of actions of a body and a capacity for enunciation not previously identifiable within a given field of experience, whose identification is thus part of the reconfiguration of the field of experience.13 The possibility for such a reconfiguration or reordering of “the visible and the sayable” is a consequence of the gap disclosed in aesthetic judgment. What we witness at the contested space of the occupation is the defiant articulation of a wrong and a claim to equality, which can occur only in such a man-made political space, and only on the condition of a radical loss of authority by the forces of order. Likewise, the claims of wrong declared by the Occupy movement are so potent because they are not the expression of any one individual, but rather a polyphonic chorus of claim. Their authority does not issue from the personality or will of an acknowledged leader, but from the force of innumerable equal individuals each performing the role of the ideal citizen, each engaging in the project of egalitarianism inscribed in the founding documents of this country.
The analysis of the occupation as a theatrical spectacular resonates in a society where life itself is subsumed into the infinite accumulation of spectacles. Indeed, in our time, which is the time of the indistinguishability of the economic and the political, “the spectacle presents itself as something enormously positive, indisputable and inaccessible. It says nothing more than ‘that which appears is good, that which is good appears."14 This was the argument of the Marxist theorist Guy Debord, who recognized the “monopoly of appearance” claimed by the social-economic rule of high Capital. Occupation resists becoming a merely “spectacular rebellion” by appropriating from the ”monopoly of appearance” the space of resistance, and putting to play forms of political and economic organization that resist reproducing the existing hierarchical and bureaucratic institutions. This means instituting practices of leaderless horizontality, “which are less about seizing the institutions of state power than about exposing, de-legitimizing and dismantling mechanisms of rule while winning ever-larger spaces of autonomy from it."15 These are practices of freedom, practices which have no terminal point or end other than the practice itself, which are never founded on the threat of violence, and which insistently (and somewhat obnoxiously) resist each and every claim to predictive knowledge.
These are the features of a new political organization, an anarchist organization able to seize on the crisis of the exiting state institutions signified by the event, the occupation, and put to play organizational forms designed to subvert the structural violence inherent in bureaucratic hierarchies. The theatrical spectacular of Occupy Wall Street, where all are welcome—indeed, encouraged—to participate, is about empowering the atomic elements of society through the gradual process of building alternative forms of economic and political cooperation and action. It is about creating new forms of organization that in turn create the opportunity for mass participation in decision making. Traditional bureaucratic hierarchies, which derive their coercive power from the ultimate threat of violence, “invariably produce extreme lopsided structures of imaginative identification."16 This is to say that, in organizations structured on relations of domination—hierarchies, subordinates are required to understand the motives and inclinations of their superiors, and not the other way around. Such a situation often results in victims developing strong empathetic bonds with their beneficiaries, while there is no incentive for beneficiaries to develop similar empathetic connections. This is what is meant by structural violence: institutional inequality, ultimately backed by the threat of force. Horizontal organization and the practice of direct democracy dissolve the structures of violence and institutional inequality; occupation is the aesthetic disclosure of what a new world may look like.
It is impossible to determine how long the occupation of Liberty Square will last, or how or where the Occupy movement will end up. We can be sure, however, that as long as Liberty Square and occupations around the world remain sites of contestation, disputed spaces riven by multiple claims, they will continue to be spaces of appearance, stages for actors, action, and the spectacular production of democracy. And that's what is going on down at Occupy Wall Street.
- 1. My favorite sign and slogan, however, is not as subtle as some, but accurately conveys the general feeling among the occupiers: “Shit is Fucked Up and Bullshit."
- 2. Speaking of the appearance of the spectacle as an aggregation of oppositions, Guy Debord says: “What hides under the spectacular oppositions is a unity of misery. Behind the masks of total choice, different forms of the same alienation confront each other, all of them built on real contradictions which are repressed…the spectacle is nothing more than an image of happy unification surrounded by desolation and fear at the tranquil center of misery.” From Society of the Spectacle (1967): No. 63.
- 3. “The Red Structure” is how it has become known around the park. A hideous piece of corporate art by Mark di Suvero (1998), which, over the course of the occupation, has acquired a strange totemic quality. This structure has now been cordoned off by police barricades.
- 4. SPECTACLE: 1. a. A specially prepared or arranged display of a more or less public nature (esp. one on a large scale), forming an impressive or interesting show or entertainment for those viewing it. 2. A person or thing exhibited to, or set before, the public gaze as an object either: (a) of curiosity or contempt, or (b) of marvel or admiration.
- 5. Slavoj Zizek paid an early visit.
- 6. I once stood shoulder to shoulder with a young girl naked from the top down but painted in an elaborate, vaguely Meso-American pattern, while listening to Jesse Jackson feel his way through the people’s mic.
- 7. David Graeber. “The New Anarchists,” New Left Review (2001).
- 8. Jacques Ranciere. Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy (Univ. of Minnesota, 1998): 32. It’s pretty clear that police logic has come to be identified with politics, which has important consequences considering that actual politics is required to address a world where a radical reordering of parts is desperately needed.
- 9. Susannah Young-Ah Gottlieb. “Everyone is Welcome,” Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal (2007): No. 28. 1: 61-83.
- 10. Hannah Arendt, Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy (University of Chicago, 1989; 63.
- 11. Ranciere, 100.
- 12. Ibid, 101.
- 13. Ibid, 35.
- 14. Debord, 1967: #12.
- 15. Graeber, 2001.
- 16. Graeber. “Beyond Power/Knowledge: An Exploration of the Relation of Power, Ignorance and Stupidity,” Lecture delivered at the London School of Economics (May 25, 2006). Available online: http://www2.lse.ac.uk/publicEvents/pdf/20060525-Graeber.pdf.