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.