Wednesday, October 26, 2011

40 Days in the Wilderness: Premediation and the Virtual Occupation of Wall Street

Given the biblical implications of 40 days and nights, this is as good a time as any to add my voice to the swelling chorus of academic analyses of #occupywallstreet. Nearly two weeks into the occupation of Wall Street I had suggested in an initial analysis that no matter how the occupation turned out it was already successful insofar as it had premediated the occupation of Wall Street and other occupations across the world. In particular I argued that “Insofar as premediation generates potential or virtual futures as a way to mobilize individual and collective affect in the present,… #occupywallstreet opens up paths to potential futures in which the occupation of Wall Street (or the political occupation of other sites) is actualized.” 40 days into the occupation, I want to develop this claim further to argue that it is precisely its virtuality, its resistance to making specific demands or adopting a platform, that makes #occupywallstreet successful and that will keep it growing and thriving.

The virtuality of the movement is evident in its very name, which calls for the occupation of Wall Street even while not occupying Wall Street per se. The occupation of Zuccotti Park is near Wall Street, but Wall Street is not occupied either as street, building, or financial institution. Wall Street is, however, virtually occupied, as Times Square has been, as Chicago or Los Angeles or the London Stock Exchange have been. While some veterans of earlier protest movements have argued that occupation involves going inside buildings and taking possession—as Wisconsin protesters did in the State Capitol—it is the potentiality of these virtual occupations, I would argue, their premediation of greater and more numerous and powerful potential occupations in the future, that vitalizes the Occupy movement.

The virtuality of the Occupy movement is evident as well in the widespread feeling that the movement should not at this point make explicit demands, for doing so would prematurely and unnecessarily constrain or limit the movement’s gathering strength. Despite increasingly vocal appeals by the chattering class of the mainstream political media for the Occupy movement to develop a list of specific demands it has now become almost a truism that such demands would be premature. In a brief video interview Wallace Shawn gives voice to the widely shared belief that the movement is in the preliminary stage, that it is "before the moment of specifics." Judith Butler plays off of this belief in her recent speech at Washington Square Park about demanding the impossible, which is another way to refuse actualizing or realizing any particular demands, but rather of encouraging the proliferation of informed, half-formed, nascent or potential exams.

Premediation works by mobilizing affect in the present, by deploying multiple modes of mediation and remediation in shaping the affectivity of the public, in preparing people for some field of possible future actions, in producing a mood or structure of feeling that makes possible certain kinds of actions, thoughts, speech, affectivities, feelings, moods, mediations that might not have seemed possible before or that might have fallen flat or died on the vine or not produced echoes and reverberations. As an event of premediation, #occupywallstreet is also working to change the mood or collective affective tone in the media, in public discourse, in social networks, and in the political sphere so that talking about amnesty for college or mortgage debt or demanding increased taxes on the wealthiest individuals and corporations or thinking about restructuring property relations and economic becomes not only permissible, but indeed begins to appear as common sense or received wisdom. So #occupywallstreet may make it possible, say, for politicians to take positions they could not have taken before, by providing cover, or clearing the ground, by means of the shaping of collective moods or structures of feeling out of which more intense feelings about economic injustice are generated.

Before any specific goals or demands can be formulated, and perhaps even if they never are, what has to happen first is that #occupywallstreet must continue to do what it is already doing—fostering and intensifying what Jonathan Flatley would characterizes as “a revolutionary counter-mood.” The heart of this revolutionary counter-mood can be found in what the opening lines of the September 29 Declaration of the Occupation of New York City call a collective "feeling of mass injustice." “As we gather together in solidarity to express a feeling of mass injustice, we must not lose sight of what brought us together. We write so that all people who feel wronged by the corporate forces of the world can know that we are your allies.” The initial aims of #occupywallstreet seem clear—to produce and intensify a mood of occupation or civil disobedience, a shared feeling of injustice towards such developments as income inequality, the foreclosure crisis, workplace discrimination, student loan debt, and a host of other 21st century developments. It is too early to have the kind of specific list of grievances, demands, goals, but rather this is the time to try to spread and complexify the networks of revolutionary feelings, to try out the power of popular assembly, to let it grow and mutate and mobilize to see how powerful or extensive it might get.

40 days into the occupation, #occupywallstreet is perhaps still becoming a movement. Or to play off of Erin Manning’s recent book, Relationscapes: Movement, Art, Philosophy, I would suggest that #occupywallstreet might best be understood as a becoming movement, still in a stage of preacceleration or incipient movement. As a virtual movement #occupywallstreet remains in an ongoing process of inventing what a global social and political movement can be in the 21st century. In so doing it is producing its own rhythms, its own temporality, through stages of preacceleration and intensification and emergence and articulation, only then to return to another interval of preacceleration and re-intensification and re-individuaton. “When articulation becomes collective, a politics is made palpable whereby what is produced is the potential for divergent series of movements. This is a virtual politics, a politics of the not-yet… These are not politics we can choreograph but politics in the making…. These are politics of that many-bodied state of transition that is the collective” (27).

It is precisely this incipience, this preacceleration, that makes #occupywallstreet so frustrating to politicians and political commentators, who are trapped within neoliberalism’s calculus “of the rational modern subject,” according to which the Occupy movement does not compute—does not even compute exactly as a movement, since it has no clear aim or goal. This incipient emergence can be both powerful and frustrating for those participating in the occupation, as expressed in this recent piece from Harrison Schultz: “For the sake of keeping your head sane and your heart still engaged, be aware: we are not in control. You are not in control. We at the NYC occupation are not in control. The website hosts are not in control. No one is in control of this hurricane.” As Schultz suggests, not unlike recent geotechnical, political disasters like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the BP Oil Spill, or the Sendai quake, or the occupation’s more immediate precursors in the University of California student protests, the Arab Spring, or the labor protests in Madison, #occupywallstreet is emerging as a complex 21st-century media event, with its own temporality, its own affectivities, and its own scale.

In her recent post on “Lessons from #occupywallstreet,” Jodi Dean addresses the movement’s incipience and its untapped potential, the fact that “the movement exceeds any single occupation.” Dean writes: “We will start learning the different tonalities and variations of this movement. Some sites might become more intensive as others regroup. Some might abandon one site in order to occupy new possibilities. Regrouping is an opportunity: an opportunity to build outside of the prying eyes and presumptive expectations of a 24/7 media cycle concerned only with pumping content through feeds.” The “regrouping” that Dean speaks of functions similarly to what Manning describes as the “interval.” “Political philosophy has not made space for the interval within the vocabulary of the rational modern subject,” writes Manning, “yet the interval has nonetheless leaked into the complex iterations of pure plastic rhythm’s political becomings” (28).

Insofar as #occupywallstreet in fact creates such an interval in the daily rhythm of business as usual, it has the ability to open the political space for potential becomings whose scope and power remain untapped and unsounded. Dean sees the arrival of winter in the northern hemisphere as providing for an opportunity to regroup, an interval, from which the Occupy movement can emerge with even greater vitality than it currently possesses. In the past few days, police crackdowns in Chicago, Atlanta, and most violently Oakland have brought about state-sponsored intervals which will almost certainly have the result of intensifying the movement. And insofar as Atlanta and Oakland are relatively temperate in the winter, it would not be surprising to see those nodes on the Occupy network intensify in the coming months. As a virtual occupation of Wall Street and hundreds of other sites around the world, the Occupy movement should take advantage of whatever intervals it can make or find to help actualize a more just world. By premediating and proliferating potential futures for social and political opposition and a more just world, #occupywallstreet will be able to intensify "a feeling of mass injustice," thereby mobilizing collective affectivity towards an increasingly powerful revolutionary counter-mood of occupation.