Event? Performance? Or Theatre?

In these observations from the ranks of the Occupy movement, I have often been driven to think about the performative and theatrical dimensions of Occupy. It seems to be catching on.

In a recent essay in the SSCR series “Possible Futures,” Yale philosopher Matthew Noah Smith takes a generally positive view of the movement but disagrees extensively with its tactics and strategies. He argues:

OWS is not a movement—at least not in any sense that we would use the term to refer to other movements. OWS was, first and foremost, an event more than an organization.

That would certainly come as a surprise to many in Occupy who refer to it precisely as the “movement.” Their sense is a widespread turning away from one set of goals and aspirations to another way of understanding being in the world. Rather than define what a movement might be, Smith goes on to claim:

Because OWS was no more than an event, it always had to be located in a determinate place. This is why the evictions from Zucotti and the various other OWS sites were seen as existential threats. A performance needs a theater, and if the theater closes, then the performance ends. Organizations, on the other hand, are abstract entities and so can coalesce anywhere they choose.

For all that Smith is a philosopher, we might be surprised at the lack of precision in his language here: is this a performance in the sense of Austin, Butler, Derrida, or J. Jack Halberstam? It seems that there is a certain tautology at work here: a performance is what happens in a theatre, which is a place where performances happen. At the most literal level, however, performances have mostly not taken place in theatres. Scripted plays may be performed there, but no one is proposing Occupy as following a script.

To be concrete where Smith prefers the abstract: yesterday, there was a call to demonstrate in support of Occupy Oakland and against police brutality. It appeared on NYCGA.net and was disseminated on Facebook and Twitter. Later I saw leaflets at Washington Square Park. I don’t know who did that. I still decided to go. For Smith, this is evidence that OWS is organized but not an organization.

The fineness of this distinction is nonetheless precisely where we disagree. Occupy is a direct democracy between people. The organized democracy that Smith wants to see proposes abstract entities that do the business of what there is to be done: so there is always a House majority and minority leader regardless of who those people actually are. That is the maintenance of authority. It is in the recognition of the other and in allowing that other to invent us that the possibility of autonomy is created. We already have an abstract autonomy, the right to consume. That’s not going so well. We need a real autonomy, and it can only be found in moments of performance.

For Smith, the self gets abstracted in the process of coming to democracy:

One no longer thinks of oneself as a patient or a lone figure in struggle against injustice. Rather, one begins to think of oneself plurally and democratically. That is, one understands oneself as part of a democratic ‘we.’

I’m all for solidarity, I just don’t think it has to be seen outside the event and without a relationship between singularities. Yesterday’s demonstration did not go anywhere in particular, an organized walk to a “specific place.” Rather it made the claim of the right to be seen. So a rabbi walked quietly in the middle of the march, while hundreds danced past Fifth Avenue restaurants singing “A-Anti-Anticapitalista!”

Did they fail because capitalism was not overthrown? Perhaps, unless you think that capitalism is in the process of overthrowing itself anyway. Or you could say that some at least have found a way to articulate their refusal to move on and see nothing. This articulation is the performance of a movement. It proposes a dissensus that allows for the emergence of a politics in which there is no person without part.

2 thoughts on “Event? Performance? Or Theatre?

  1. Hi Matthew,
    thanks for such a full reply–and I do and did get that you’re a supporter of the movement:) And It’s very cool you’re using the SSRC web project to reach out while the movement is happening and to lend your important voice to Occupy. You’re right to say I could have been more generous and I should have been.

    I’m glad you’re willing to see OWS as a movement. I think it’s an organized movement but perhaps one that is being organized in ways that do not register as organization in current parlance.

    Take your key question about economic inequality. A group has been drafting a “Visions and Goals” statement for OWS that addresses many of these themes. You can find it on the NYCGA.net website. The draft was consensed by the GA and has now been distributed to the working groups for feedback, friendly amendments and consensus. All that will be resolved into a final document that will be widely disseminated: sounds kind of organized, no? Yes, it takes longer than having a small group draft a manifesto: but the internal discussions are part of movement building and consensus development.

    Finally, I’m puzzled by your sense that OWS (here, literally Occupy Wall Street, not the national/international Occupy movement) does not acknowledge its predecessors. As I’ve documented earlier in this blog series, Egypt and Greece are being widely discussed. In Occupy! #3, you’ll see a long essay on Greenham Common. And many Occupy people were directly involved with the global justice movement and bring lessons from that experience. In Oakland and New York, there has been a good deal of work with organized labor and that relationship is developing. So there may be an outreach problem here–but the mainstream media are mostly interested in Occupy when people get arrested and not much else.

    There are many issues to be worked out and I’m the last person to pretend to have all (or any) of the answers! It’s great to dialogue with you. It would be great to see Yale join the student strike on March 1! To be continued:)

  2. Hi Nicholas –

    The SSRC website sent me this link today.

    I appreciate you taking the time to respond to my little essay. And you are correct that a bit more analytic care is warranted. Part of the absence of such care is due to the venue. But, your criticism stands even if you give me that slack.

    Let me say a bit about my critique. I see OWS as a wonderful movement. See – I used the term. And, I am happy to revise in light of your criticism so that my comments reads as follows: “OWS is not an organized movement.” My primary critique, then, is that this absence of organization prevents direct challenge to the relevant power. Unsurprisingly, a large portion of OWS activity is devoted to relations with police. For, police are the primary power structure the unorganized can challenge. Challenging the cops is important, but OWS is self-consciously about economic inequality (“We are the 99%” is a slogan about income and/or wealth). Free speech and police misconduct are only instrumentally related to economic inequality.

    Challenging economic inequality is extremely difficult. Most successful challenges – especially the big ones – came as a result of organized resistance of some sort. I suggested that OWS ought to learn from that.

    My positive claim, by the way, was a celebration of the political methodology of OWS and you do not mention that. I guess citing what you agree with makes for boring blog posts.

    If I have one criticism of OWS, it’s that I detect a strain of political narcissism that runs through the whole practice, most notably in the refusal to explicitly link OWS with past struggles like the Wisconsin struggle, the global justice movement that flourished 1999 – 2004, and the like. That sort of refusal to identify with movements with explicit ideologies is a form of anti-politics that i deplore – a kind of soft selling one’s commitments in the hopes that you can dupe people into supporting your movement.