“Mic check!”

General assembly, sparkly hands, consensus, concern, temperature check, block, process: this is the vocabulary and embodied performance of occupy theory. Each word has an equivalent embodied gesture, which is the means of indicating how you’re feeling about a proposal: fingers up for feeling good, horizontal for not sure, down for against.

The strongest sign is raised, crossed arms for a block: an ethical or safety concern over a proposal that might cause you to leave the movement. Proposals are “consens-ed” by facilitators so that a clear majority approve. It’s not always quick but it is always interesting. It’s occupy theory.

Don’t make the phrase into a noun: it’s not a theory of occupation. Occupy theory is what you do as you occupy. It is the process that has become in some sense the purpose of the direct democracy movement, known by its signature instance Occupy Wall Street, or #ows.

There have been a variety of star theory people come to Zuccotti Park, where Occupy Wall Street is based, and to Occupy Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village from Zizek to Spivak and Andrew Ross. Given the performative nature of occupy theory, it’s not surprising that—to judge from the Twitterstorm and Facebook frenzy—it has been Judith Butler who best captured the moment.

She presented a set of demands for the impossible, echoing the Situationist slogan “Be realistic: demand the impossible.” Seen in printed form, in which the line breaks represent a pause for the “human mic” that has become a signature of the movement, Butler’s talk is a prose poem.

So what is this occupy in occupy theory? While occupation of public and private spaces is a long tradition of industrial protest movements, there have been concerns from indigenous and Palestinian groups about the term “occupy.” In New Mexico, they have neatly re-rendered the term as “(Un)occupy.” So somewhere between occupy and un-occupy—or more exactly oscillating between them—is occupy theory. It’s the latest version of what I have called the “right to look,” which is at once the invention of the other and the consent for the other to invent you.

The first claim of the right to look is the right to existence, the right to be seen to exist. The people posting on “We Are the Ninety-Nine Per Cent,” a collaborative blog, have used the webcam format to have their stories told and made visible. These assembled self-portraits together present a set of claims. The individual self-photograph transforms a data point within the statistics of debt, unemployment and insurance disaster into a person. This person is not performed for the sake of pity or charity but as a constituent member of the emerging “people.” As Rancière has put it, “a ‘people’ of this kind is not an assemblage of groups and social identities. It is a polemical form of identification that is drawn along particular lines of fracture, where the distribution of leaders and led, learned and ignorant, possessors and dispossessed is decided.” That is to say—we are the ninety-nine per cent.

Nor is the performative expressed by “Occupy Wall Street” quite as simple as it seems. The occupation is not on Wall Street but round the corner at Zuccotti Park. Named for the director of Canadian conglomerate Brookfield—the company hoping to bring tar sands oil to the U. S.—Zuccotti is occupied because it is a private-public park, a zoning variance that has the requirement of permanent public access to a generic piece of urban landscape in exchange for extra height to a building or other such one per cent goodies. Much as New York City Mayor Bloomberg is itching to expel the occupiers—and he may yet succeed in finding a way—he has no legal recourse at present. Washington Square Park, as city property, is always closed between midnight and six a.m. so the occupation there cannot be permanent. Occupying is being done in the variant space between the security-regulated public commons and the deregulated zones of the neo-liberal private market.

This suggests by extension that one reason that Facebook and Twitter have proved so oddly instrumental in the global “movement of the squares” from Tunis to Manhattan is their private-public status.[1] Both are private companies, but committed to being online without interruption worldwide, whereas a public company like Google has been willing to self-censor in China. Google then found its own private-public zone of variance in Hong Kong. These spaces are clearly not the “state of exception” of which so much has been heard of late. Perhaps it could be that these are spaces in which people struggle to preserve that everyday life in which citizens ordinarily may be active. To be clear, I am not arguing that market forces preserve liberties: to the contrary, it’s the fact that these spaces force regulation on the market that gives them a variant form.

The concerns of the occupations with food, cleanliness and above all their own process suggest that, as in Tahrir Square, a new form of public-private institution is emerging within the occupation itself. Here those occupying reclaim the public space as private in the sense of domestic. Disputes must be resolved “peacefully” in the language of Tahrir, or by “consensus” in that of OWS. As was reported from Tahrir, OWS is a place where you don’t feel afraid. It’s oddly easy to talk to complete strangers, which I never do in New York, or even to speak at the General Assembly. The repetition of your words gives you time to think, keeps it to the point and is strangely reassuring. For some it feels like church—I wouldn’t be able to comment! The confirmation of the domestic nature of occupying comes in the justifications now being advanced to end it: the occupiers are messy and their music is too loud. Not for the first time, authority presents itself as a parent. In the self-aware fashion of the modern teenager, OWS refuses to fight on these terms.

There is, of course, another way to read “occupy theory,” which would suggest that we should occupy whatever theory might be. Insofar as “theory” has become a default set of readings used in scholastic fashion in the curriculum, as many whisper that it has, perhaps some occupation is in order. Ironically, much of the canon was produced in response to the failure of the last such planetary pushback in 1968. Perhaps theory should have been pre-occupied for a long time with what this occupation has turned out to be. I don’t find myself overly worried about that any of that now. As we occupy theory, we’ll find out what it is that we need to learn.

[1] An idea that occurred to me in response to excellent papers by Lisa Nakamura, Mobina Hashmi and John Cheney-Lippold at the #2011ASA in Baltimore.

  8 Responses to “Occupy Theory”

  1. [...] (vía Nick Mirzoeff’s excellent blog) [...]

  2. I love your emphasis on keeping “occupy theory” in its active form as an ongoing performative and not a noun. It reminds me of Stuart Hall saying, “I am not interested in theory, I am interested in going on theorizing.” A quick question: You describe occupying Zuccotti park and various social-networking sites as taking place in the “variant space between the security-regulated public commons and the deregulated zones of the neoliberal private market.” In conversation with colleagues, I was wondering about the status of the commons in relation to OWS. If imagined as an interstitial mo(ve)ment, don’t Zucotti/OWS become almost scavenger-like in a cyberpunk mode? That is, are they an oppositional alternative that does still rely on the heavy industry of established institutions to manufacture the resources that they can repurpose? If so, and sticking with the cyberpunk analogy here, the future seems hopeful but in a bleak gray-hued way. The commons here would be a permanently contingent space and the social public permanently under the threat of eviction, no? I completely agree it’s too soon to be looking that far ahead, especially with the gloom & doom lenses I’m putting on, but I can’t help but wonder about this issue.

    • Such an interesting question:) I love the scavenger idea–I think of Melville: “Down among the groundlings, among the beggars and rakers of garbage, profound passion is enacted.” And Benjamin/Baudelaire. The sense that out of pessimism, something is being made in the unattended zones, the overlooked places. Will the temporary autonomous zone become something else? It really depends how we occupy theory and space. I’d say it is at least an open question, which is more than could have ever been expected a month ago:)

      • Thanks! I’ll refocus by remembering that optimism of the will is often harder and more necessary than pessimism of the intellect :-) Seeing the space being opened up is pretty awesome!

  3. [...] For Bloomberg, the New York Times and the other mediatic apparatus of the one percent, Occupy is and remains unreadable so it must be eliminated as pollution. [...]

  4. [...] am inspired by Mirzoeff’s excellent consideration of the 99% movement; he concludes that while it may be difficult to specify precisely what an ‘occupied’ [...]

  5. [...] am inspired by Mirzoeff’s excellent consideration of the 99% movement; he concludes confidently that while it may be difficult to specify precisely what an [...]

  6. [...] reader in cultural and critical theory at York St John University, takes my blog post “Occupy Theory” as a key point of reference and critique for his op-ed in the Times Higher Education [...]

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