My friend and fellow-occupier, Ross, just started a new #Occupy blog, occupynycto313. Ross is the guy who coined the term “global system of bullshit,” after which I named the inaugural post of this blog. Largely in the form of personal narrative, Ross’ new blog is devoted to telling the story of the #Occupy movement from the perspective of an occupier (at both Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Detroit). Such a task is very important. It is necessary that we situate the need for global change within our own personal narratives. This is why that the “We Are the 99%” photo blogs are so important. Ross is able to discern both the political significance of the personal and the personal significance of the political. He writes,
My political awakening has been one of an entire lifetime. One of my very earliest memories is of my mother reading a poll in a newspaper in the living room I grew up in, explaining to me who the President was (Reagan, at the time), and why it was such an important job. Fast forward a few years and my father is in the same living room with me in front of the TV trying to explain to five-year-old me why we were bombing the fuck out of Iraq and Kuwait. I believe that may have been the first time I attempted to comprehend the great injustices in the world, a topic I still grapple with each day. The next two decades -most notably the past decade, as we’ve watched our civil liberties wither in front of our faces and as America enacts great feats of oppression across the world- filled me with a sense of frustration and helplessness as I learned more about how our government works, how it’s supposed to work, and how that fits into a global system of bullshit.
The kind of thinking that enables one to weave one’s personal narrative into a global one is precisely the kind of thinking that is necessary for us to expose our own place (our own lived complicities, privileges, and disadvantages) within this global system of bullshit. Such thinking runs directly counter to the journalistic tendency to look at issues and events atomistically, as isolated phenomena and not as historically situated happenings. To borrow the words of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, this atomistic frame creates a situation in which the occupations on Wall Street (and now elsewhere) become “reduced to the level of the absurd” through the media’s practice of “only showing those elements that can be shown on television at a given moment, cut off from their antecedents and consequences.” The media’s tendency to overlook the functional dynamics of horizontalism and focus instead on “dirty hippies” or individual “freaks” at OWS reflects the media’s failure to think in a globally holistic manner.
Ross understands his place within cultural-technological practices that have produced a generation of people who are unable to connect the dots and think globally. But he also understands how the technologies that contribute to our self-absorbed atomization can in fact mobilize us to enact change (social media played a huge role in mobilizing people, both in Egypt earlier this year and in America with the #Occupy movement).
Most alarming of all was how few people in my generation seemed to understand what was really happening, at least in the larger scope of things. After all, we’re the internet generation. We’re the generation engrossed and self-absorbed in Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, our iPods/iPhones, video games, and reality TV shows. I felt we were a generation lost, too complacent, distracted, and ill-equipped to truly create any sort of political change. All our lives, we as “young people” had been told that “we’re the future”, but if that were true, then why the balls weren’t young people attempting to shape the future?
For Bourdieu, “the journalistic field produces and imposes on the public a very particular vision of the political field.” Because journalists think in terms of isolated events and produce content based on such tendencies of thought, the public — in consuming media — begins to develop the same destructive habits of thought themselves. If all one knows of political discourse is punditry, one’s ability to think about politics constructively becomes crippled, a product of blindly emulating the bad examples one sees on TV. As Bourdieu writes,
All of this leads [journalists] to a cynical view of politics, which is reflected in their political arguments, and in their interview questions. For them, politics becomes an arena full of hyperambitious people with no convictions but a clear sense of the competitive situation and their opposing interests.
Politics, in the eyes of media, is not about transformative change, but about negotiating self-interest within a dog-eat-dog political arena (a competitive arena whose very nature is bound up with the dog-eat-dog nature of our global economic system). Because OWS seeks transformative change, its very existence counteracts such a hypercomepitive political arena. Combined with journalistic tendencies toward an ahistorically atomizated presentation of events, the journalistic tendency to feed the current political machine creates a situation in which people only see the youth at OWS (youth who reject the values of hyperambition and dog-eat-dog competition) as lacking a legitimate political voice. We need to understand those people who say that nothing will come of OWS as people who think that political change can only be obtained within the ugly, elitist political system that the corporate media (by their very nature) function to maintain. Instead of giving legitimacy to the voices of the pundit class, OWS operates within a discursive framework independent of narrow journalistic frames. It is not the 99% who are confused, but the pundits who work to maintain the privilege of the 1%.
One thing that is radical about OWS is that people go to Liberty Square to occupy their time (in ways that are not compensated monetarily) with building a community whose very mode of operation is antithetical to the prevailing modes of doing things. After being involved in the #Occupy movement for over a month, I’ve come to learn how my own immersion in the movement played a crucial role in my understanding of it. Indeed, there is a large degree to which one has to be immersed in the culture of the place to have a sense of what it’s really about. This is why narratives such as the ones told by Ross are important. Those who say to us, “Get a job,” overlook the fact that occupations are, at their core, places where people come to build and work.
#Occupy movements have created sophisticated computer networks with which to communicate both internally and externally and we have used social networks to their full potential to help our message reach as many as possible. Media teams are full of film and multimedia production students or graduates, Medic tents at each Occupation are populated by med students and volunteer EMTs, you’ll find certified teachers and education students giving teach-ins, lectures and running open-forums. You can even get a haircut or take a yoga class. #occupywallstreet has over 70 working groups that have been autonomously created by an individual or group possessing a certain set of skills that they want to lend to the Occupation, and the other Occupations are following in the same footprints. Though misleading, perhaps “HAVE a job here!” would be a better response from those unemployed to the “Get a job”ers yelling at us from the sidewalk. Or maybe we should simply ignore them. After all, we have working group meetings to attend to.
The really subversive thing about OWS is the space. Corporate media have an interest in overlooking the functional dynamics of horizontalism because horizontalism is predicated on the belief that people (by non-coercive voluntary association) can put themselves to work for the common good.
During the beginning of the occupation at Wall Street, Chris Hedges appeared on the OWS LiveStream and spoke about the necessity of physically obstructing the machine through collective acts of civil disobedience. One of the most potent modes of civil disobedience is people gathered together in physical space to work on common tasks dedicated to collective well-being. Occupations are places where people are gathered together in a physical space, devoted to common tasks, receiving new faces as friends and valued community members.
The myriad ways in which we are situated in everyday space (at our computers, watching our televisions, working on our individual tasks, driving in cars, working on our careers, sitting behind counters operating cash registers) are quite antithetical to community and solidarity. OWS is a physical space that seeks to disrupt our very notions of space, which is why it is important to think of ‘occupation’ spatially, and not simply about protest. OWS is about confronting our normal ways of dwelling in space and understanding how our relation to space contributes to social atomization. It is important that we think of the word ‘occupation,’ not simply in militaristic terms (as when we talk about “the US occupation of Iraq”) or in terms of direct action or civil disobedience narrowly construed, but in terms of the spaces we occupy and how we occupy ourselves in those spaces. It is apt, therefore, that the very first sentence in Ross’ blog is about his place in space. Ross’s prose points to the ways in which occupation puts oneself in certain relations to space that one had formerly not experienced (after all, how many of us have, until occupation, had to worry about where we were going to piss?).
Currently I’m sitting on the 3rd floor of a space generously donated to Occupy Detroit by LAX, a super hip tri-level nightclub in Detroit. The DJs are setting up at a DJ booth surrounded by blindingly bright LEDs that combined with the deep subwoofers here could easily put you into a trance if you stare at them for too long. The owner, Omar, is dressed in a sharp black suit with a yellow tie and is making his rounds upstairs, making sure everything is meticulously prepared for a party that supposedly started 20 minutes ago. Omar is a businessman and a Detroiter who has provided the backbone for operations here at Occupy Detroit, giving us space for our working group meetings, a place to warm up as the cold Detroit winter prepares to set in, and most importantly, a place for us to piss! The party is a fundraiser to help open the doors of his business back up to the public and a chance to relax and have some fun for all who are living across the street in Grand Circus Park.
Keep up the good work, Ross.