Finishing the Conversation

Did you miss Occupy 2012? Do you miss Occupy? Me too. It seems like time, finally, to look back, to collate, collaborate and continue.

Occupy 2012 cover small

Inspired by once again seeing John Akomfrah’s beautiful art installation for Stuart Hall, An Unfinished Conversation, I decided to reopen the unfinished conversation of 2012. So I’m in the process of making an e-book anthology of posts from Occupy 2012. It has five sections: visuality, race and empire, debt, days of action and the climate catastrophe. Each section has six to twelve posts and is about an article’s worth of material. Put together, it’s about the length of the average book. I hope it might be useful for some in revisiting what happened, perhaps for workgroups, discussion, teach-ins and so on.

I’m going to move on from there to a collaborative conversation with the title After Occupy: What We Learned. The idea here is to post a series of thoughts about key themes in my own militant research and ask people for feedback, comments, ideas and corrections. I’ll post one every week or so, not at the hectic pace of Occupy 2012. Then the posts will be revised in light of all the comments and reworked into a second e-book.

Both books will be open access, free, libre. If people have thoughts about what format works best, do let me know. There’ll be one more post from Occupy 2012  that will have links to the anthology and the new project. Looking forward to talking with you all again.

Happy New Year.

It’s Not Over

A year ago, I was getting ready to go and see Patti Smith in what turned out to be the last ever of her New Year’s Eve gigs at the Bowery Ballroom. In the back of my mind was the idea to do a project on Occupy. So here we are, 350+ posts, 325,000 unique visits and many, many meetings and emails later, at the last of these posts and the end of the project.

There’s time later to work out what it all means. For now, just a very big thank you to all of you who read any of these posts for the gift of your time and attention.

Here’s the end-of-year favorites lists:

Top Direct Actions!

1. October 13 Day of Global Noise–Plaza Mic Check

Plaza Hotel


2. S 17–OWS One Year Anniversary

Strike Debt in JP Morgan Chase 9-17-12

Strike Debt in JP Morgan Chase 9-17-12

3. May Day!

All Our Grievances Are Connected

All Our Grievances Are Connected

4. M17–Six Month Anniversary of OWS

OWS Banner in Liberty Square 3-17-12

OWS Banner in Liberty Square 3-17-12

5. March 1 Student Day of Action

New M1 FlyerTop Tweet of the Year

ElvisTop Moment of the Year


Rolling Jubilee!

Rolling Jubilee!

What it’s all about

Occupy Theory WSP

And it’s so not over

I saw Les Miz the other night and it made me think of everyone in Occupy. Enjoy 2013 as much as I did 2012.



The Year in Occupy Theory

I mentioned yesterday that I began writing about Occupy with a post called “Occupy Theory” back in October 2011. What are the uses for “theory” in the movement now? There are many pieces to be taken from past work, but the theory we are practicing now is inventing itself as it goes, mutual aid as a new kind of autonomy.

Looking back over the past year, Rancière, Hardt and Negri and Zizek have all appeared in my posts, together with discussions of essays and web publishing. However, within the movement, much of this has been received with a certain skepticism. It seems to have been written by academics acting as spectators, looking in for a while, and then heading back to their offices to write an essay or two. Now we’re beginning to see work from activists, like the new collection Is This What Democracy Looks Like from Social Text.

Why does this matter? Occupy did not recognize itself in its representations, as is so often the case. Some would say that is the virtue of the disinterested study. Certainly, there’s also the long legacy of a certain form of mimetic identity politics at work here as well. That is to say, it has remained the case that many people feel that only those directly interpellated by a specific form of identity can convincingly speak to that identity. This caution has hindered the movement from engaging with questions of racialization, for example.

There’s also a good reason for this hesitation. Most of the theory we already have emerged as a response to a certain set of crises. I have come to feel that the crisis of 2008-11 and after is a distinctly new form to which the older set of analyses do not correspond. More precisely still, the tactics that they propose as political responses are not quite adequate to the present crisis.

In this view, post-structuralism and Western Marxism, so hegemonic in university humanities departments as to have become a new scholasticism, were responses to the failures of 1968. In France, the political outcome was often to form groupuscules, little groups, concentrating on specific issues. Foucault for example worked in the GIP (Groupe des Informations sur les prisons/Group for Information about Prisons) that played a major role in changing penal practice and ending the death penalty. Of course, such groups continue to exist and do excellent work. Yet it does not feel like a new solution to propose developing the movement in this way.

Cultural studies and varieties of Gramscianism were explicitly about negotiating the rise of Thatcherism and what we have since called neo-liberalism. In Britain, Stuart Hall, Eric Hobsbawm and Beatrix Campbell proposed a broad alliance against Thatcherism. While that tactic might have been interesting, what actually happened was that the supposedly centrist Liberal Democrats consistently enabled the Thatcherites to exclude Labour until Labour became Thatcherite. In the US, the Obama election of 2012 was just such a broad anti-neoliberal alliance. Its outcome already appears weak and uncertain, even to liberals (US-style).

Autonomia and the other Italian radicalisms are closer, in that they clearly respond to austerity and precarity. The Italian political situation of the 1970s with its factory occupations and active armed resistance was, however, very different to the US today. The point of intersection comes with the refusal of work and the refusal to pay increased prices or debts. The US social movements of 2011 drew directly from the horizontalidad of Argentina and other Latin American resistance movements like the Zapatistas. The sheer violence of policing made it harder for us to persist with this approach in the form of assemblies.

What has now begun to emerge as the democratic form being theorized in practice by Occupy (or whatever we are now) is mutual aid. In a sense, though, mutual aid is not democracy in the classic sense, although it very much it is in the movement sense of course. That is, democracy is a form of rule by a circumscribed group of people known as the demos, the people. Entry to “the people” is hard, as anyone who has tried to immigrate can tell you. There are blatant racialized exclusions, especially in relation to so-called “felons.” And mutual aid is, crucially, not about rule. It offers an engagement without preconditions that is not charity but a form of self-fashioning via the collective.

It’s obvious that the problem here is scale. But that is a problem across the globalized world-system. What makes this moment of mutual aid different and why it takes on a new urgency is precisely the planetary limit to growth–in short, a changed understanding of scale. Because we can’t afford the 250+ floods a year that there will be in New York by 2080 (according to the state’s own report) if we don’t radically reconfigure the fossil fuel economy. And doing that will be mutual aid as democratic autonomy. Work to be done.

Of Occupied Pasts and Tidal Futures

Yesterday I read over the entire history of this blog, using Google Reader. It was an interesting experience to look back over 350 posts. From a personal point of view, the obvious change over the year was a shift from simply describing what I saw as an individual to being part of a community. And so it makes sense that this web-based reporting will become part of a wider online project in 2013 with Tidal: Occupy Theory, Occupy Strategy.

The first few visits I made to Zuccotti Park, I looked around, listened to the GA and went away. It was the carnival phase, all was going to be different. I learned about “the process” and watched the now-familiar rituals of stack, consensus and break outs. At that time, it was all mic-checking and the sound of it was very special. I joined the Education and Empowerment Working Group, which meant I showed up for meetings and joined a very active listserv. A working group about student debt got going.

After October 15, the Times Square demo where there was nearly an occupation of Washington Square Park, I worked with Occupy Washington Square Park. We concentrated on education and outreach. I happened to have Judith Butler’s email. We invited her on the off-chance and such was the mood in those days that she replied to my email within the hour. There was a great teach-in, the one where she spoke about “impossible demands.” She also did it at Zuccotti and had such a great time that her friend Angela Y. Davis asked if she could come as well. That was a wonderful day, a packed meeting at WSP where Davis beautifully answered questions for over an hour, followed by an emotional address from the steps at Zuccotti as dusk fell. There were three relays for the human mic that evening.

Somewhere around that time I was at Zuccotti and the phrase “occupy theory” popped into my head. I went home and the piece wrote itself, it’s still out there on the web on the Critical Inquiry blog for Occupy archaeologists. Around that time, I heard that there was an Occupy working group called Occupy Theory. I sent them an email. Months later, long after we had started working together, someone read it and reposted the piece on what was now the Tidal website.

Eviction did not seem to mark the end of the Occupation. There were rumors on the N17 demonstration of a new effort and the December 7 attempt to create a new occupation at Duarte. By late December though, things were quietening. People left town. The “holidays” disrupted everybody’s rhythm. And so the idea came to me to undertake this project.

There’s some things to say about the intellectual and political trajectories of the past year that I’ll cover in the last posts. For now I want to make a personal observation. Reading over the year, it’s clear to me that at first I felt very much the observer. I knew who people were but did not know them personally very well, if at all. By the time the New York Times described Strike Debt as college professors, corporate drop-outs, film makers, writers and graduate students (a more or less accurate description), I knew who was meant by each. But more than that, the combined experience of Strike Debt, the Rolling Jubilee and Occupy Sandy has produced a new community, one that no longer depends on the memory of the parks.

This time last year, there was a determination to carry on but a back-of-the-mind feeling that it might be over before the year was out. Now it’s clear that the crisis of austerity has become permanent but there is still no authority capable of making that seem right. The resistance continues. It continues to strive to learn what it is that it needs to learn. Its horizon is not the next week or month but years.

While I can’t keep up a daily writing project, it’s also been clear that the renewed movement needs the kind of flow of information and ideas that web-based communication provides. So I’m pleased to say that in 2013, Tidal will be beginning a new blog, which I’ll be writing for. It seems of a piece with the journey I’ve described that this writing should go from a personal to a collective framework. Tidal has some amazing projects in the pipeline. I’m organizing a militant research “collective visioning” called In Visible Crisis, February 8, 2013. There’ll be a book from this project–do we like Jubilant Theory as a title?

2012 changed my life. Let’s see what 2013 brings.

Over The Fences, Again. One Year After D17

This time last year was D17, a day when OWS tried to establish a new occupation at Duarte Square, land owned by Trinity Wall Street Church. The effort failed and Mark Adams spent 30 days in Rikers Island on exaggerated criminal charges resulting from the plan to cut back the fence that the church had put up. It seems so much more than a year.

Morgan Jenness has produced this rather wonderful artwork to commemorate the anniversary.

D17 by Morgan Jessens

D17 by Morgan Jenness

The vision here blends Delacroix’s 1832 classic painting Liberty Leading The People with the New York skyline and the Duarte fence. Ironically, the painting itself was also recently evicted out of Paris and sent to the Louvre’s outpost museum in Lens.

tous à lensLens is a depressed former industrial city in Northern France. One Parisian I asked why they had sent Liberty up there replied dryly: “Now everyone’s unemployed, they thought it was time for them to get some culture.”

Back in New York, the remembrance of a year ago brings back how absolutely vital it then seemed to continue the occupations as encampments. I don’t mean to disparage–the encampments were so amazing and nothing that has happened since would have happened without the experiences we had there and what was learned. A year on, and that self-fashioning into a community of mutual aid has blossomed in ways that we could not possibly have anticipated back then.

That’s why events like the Winter Jubilee are so important as a way for us all to check back in with our own “beloved community” from time to time. People are working with Occupy Sandy, in militant research, in the Rolling Jubilee and other projects and we don’t necessarily connect with each other. Of course, that was the beauty of the park, that the other working groups were just there. But if you’re building a movement, then or now, there comes a point where you can’t all fit into one square all the time.

As we put what we have learned into practice, it is borne in on us every day that the one per cent is still determined to foist the crisis onto us, to use every violence at their disposal to make sure that it remains that way, even to the point of trying to block relief aid for the victims of Hurricane Sandy, let alone banning the murderous weapons that kill people each and every day.

We’re still climbing fences. They’re just a little higher now.

The Revival of British Elitism

When I arrived in Britain, I wrote about feeling certain resonances with past and present struggles here and elsewhere. I have to say that, now I’ve been here longer, those echoes are harder to hear as I get accustomed to the din of the present.

It’s not that things are going so well. The neoliberal government has admitted that its own austerity policy, supposedly designed to reduce state debt, has in fact added £150 billion ($240 bn) to borrowing requirements. As ever, this is advanced as evidence for more cuts in benefits and state institutions.

It seems that the present version of Thatcherism has decided it needs only one of the original two driving forces. Thatcher was devoted to ending the post-1945 settlement, in which redistribution of wealth funded state health, education and retirement programs. The current government is, as Stuart Hall pointed out, far more radical in its ambitions in this area than even the Iron Lady.

The other side to Thatcherism Mark 1 was a resentment from the free-market radicals that they might get into the elite universities or top tier institutions but still not be One of Them. Thatcher cultivated an aggressive cultural politics against such exclusivity, not on the grounds of cultural quality but of free-market access. That has been binned altogether.

The current plump, white, smug and entitled faces of the government are almost parodically upper-class twit of the year, but their palpable sense of entitlement to run the place (into the ground) is just as noticeable.

George Osborne

London is awash with public schoolchildren (meaning private in that UK-way) wearing uniforms and already manifesting the first realization that they are going to get to be in charge.

Last night I went to a panel on the best books of the year organized by the Guardian, in fact actually in the Guardian building, which is just around the corner from the British Library. Both the audience and the panel were white, mostly middle-aged and formidable. Perfectly formed, media-ready paragraphs dropped from each person in turn. Every book was “exquisitely written” and “utterly compelling” but no book of last year apparently had anything at all to say about the political and economic crisis.

One young person did venture to ask a question as to whether e-books–widely disparaged on the panel–did not have the advantage of being cheaper. He has a point. UK books other than mass-market paperbacks are expensive, unless you get them on Amazon–but as the target was the Kindle, what’s the difference? Nonetheless,  he was mown down by the cultural institutions: E-books were “perfectly fine for pornography” (BBC), incompatible with “Literature” (Guardian) and just plain wrong (Independent).

I’m sure all these people are appalled by the government and are personally lovely. Not that I have the slightest interest in a Thatcherite culture of monetary value but to watch the cultural consensus swing into action like that was indicative of how the long-standing hierarchies of class objectified as “taste” have restored themselves.

The top ten per cent, especially in London and the South-East, are pulling away from the rest of the country. They own about 50% of the country’s wealth, a massive 850 times greater than the lowest ten per cent. The professional class, who are mostly losing ground in the US. are part of this overall rise but cannot keep up with the wealthiest. In the very top of top one per cent, according to MP Michael Meacher,

The increase in wealth of this richest 1,000 [households] has been £315bn over the last 15 years

Meanwhile about 10% of the country is using payday loans to get by with effective interest rates of 300%.

The Occupy movement in the UK has had its difficulties. Even the current issue of the excellent Occupied Times sees the movement as “splintered and isolated.” Certainly my British friends and family have been, to put it mildly, skeptical about my involvement. The word “crazy” was liberally used by one colleague last week. Nonetheless, it seems to this outsider that the UK needs a radical movement more than ever. More follows.

The Future of Occupy 2012

It’s somehow December already and this project will not cross another change of month. After more than 325 posts, the end is in sight. So what’s next? Some ideas are in development and for others I thought I might ask you, the occupiers of 2012, what you think.

Already under construction is a web-based archive of the project using the Scalar multi-media software that I’ve mentioned a few times here. This will allow for better searching of the project and will have built-in “paths” tracking twenty keywords that have come up repeatedly, that allowing readers to track specific themes. And it will also serve as an archive of the project, whether for those in the movement, those interested in performative projects of this kind, or digital activists.

Perhaps that’s enough? But I’ve also had the thought of doing a book based on the two dominant ideas that have emerged during the course of the project. One of these is clearly debt and the emergence of the Strike Debt movement. Debt took me by surprise. I didn’t expect to be writing about it much in January. But once I did write about it, I noticed how people responded and that interest was part of the reason for my participation in Strike Debt.

The other area is all those issues now summarized by “climate”–climate change, food justice, primary extraction from mining to fracking, and the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. Here the process was reversed. I expected to develop ideas about climate, but at first found that there was not as much interest. Since the hurricane, that has dramatically changed. As occupiers will know, I’ve been interacting these themes as “climate/debt” and I would do so in any book.

I imagine a short book with a selection of key posts and some of the longer essays that I’ve written elsewhere during the course of the year on climate/debt, together with a general introduction. If there was any money that came my way, I would of course donate it to the movement.

Why a book? Because of the obvious impact that The Debt Resistors’ Operations Manual had as a book. The online archive will be there for everyone, always free. A book can go other places and attract different sorts of attention, perhaps create different forms of debate.

But there have been past controversies around books in the movement. I’d be curious to know what people think. Is this a good idea? Do you want to tweak what might go into the book and how?

Finally, what of the future? There’s going to be a movement in 2013. That wasn’t necessarily clear in January. I can’t possibly sustain another durational writing project. Should I carry on with occasional pieces in this format? Post in a different way? Or just stop altogether?

I would love to hear your thoughts by whatever means you feel comfortable with: please know that I am genuinely asking because, whatever else this project is, it was always for you, the occupiers, and the only opinion that counts to me is yours. With love.


Katrina on the Hudson

Devastated suburbs, vulnerable city spaces, immense budget numbers, shortages of all kinds: welcome to Katrina on the Hudson. Today I drove to the Rockaways to drop off supplies and then around the South shore of Long Island. For someone who has done research on Hurricane Katrina, some things seemed very unpleasantly familiar, for all that the evacuations and mass transit system kept the death toll far lower.

We still don’t know the full extent of what happened. It’s looking as if the entire beach front from Jersey along Fire Island to Montauk has been devastated. Communities in the Rockaways are at the very earliest stages of recovery. Contamination by sewage and other toxic elements is palpable in places. Now the city council are talking about FEMA trailers becoming part of the cityscape until the New Year at least. People in New Orleans will be shaking their heads and saying “here we go again.”

The Rockaways are still a disaster zone. The coast is just devastated.

The sand has been piled up to create some passable roadways but others have simply disappeared.

A former roadway

While the houses closest to the water show most damage, there’s debris and ruined furniture awaiting garbage collection for miles.

You can see here that the accumulated sand in front of the house is about two feet thick. It’s a massive removal job to imagine disposing of all this sand and all the new wreckage.

Power stops long before the beach at about 157 Ave, just south of the Belt Parkway, two bridges away from the barrier island. I saw one power crew at work the whole time I was there. As planes going into Kennedy roar overhead, the only governmental presence was a few National Guard armored cars, some wandering police taking souvenir photos and a fire truck. No FEMA, no Red Cross.

Gathering clothes on the sand covered parking lot

There’s a very impressive mutual aid effort. Clothes donations fill the former beach parking lot. They’re going to be much needed. It was cold by day down by the water and temperatures are close to freezing tonight in New York. There were free food services too, cooking Mexican and Chinese.

As much as these efforts are amazing, they can’t meet the full demands of what’s needed here, as Nick Pinto pointed out in his blog:

Occupy Sandy is mobilizing an army of sincere and hardworking volunteers, and is working to assess the needs of residents. But they don’t have the earthmovers necessary to clear the streets of sand and rubble. They don’t have the ability to restore power to residents. The crisis in the Rockaways remains severe, and it’s looking less and less like a natural disaster and more and more like a failure of the state.

(Just to be clear, the photos above are not Occupy Sandy efforts). So what’s going to be crucial is shaping a new politics going forward that sustains the horizontal voice of the communities but also reconfigures the practices of the state. New York local politics have been a byword for corruption and incompetence for, well, centuries. Things have to change.

We need to acknowledge the full scope of what’s happening and how we have far more questions than answers. Driving around the South shore, it was clear at certain points that the massive sewage spills of the storm had not been dispelled. It can’t just be at the places where the stench is unmissable that this is a problem. What does it mean to say on the Long Island Power Authority website that some locations should

plan for the potential that power restoration could extend a week or more beyond November 7th [?]

That’s obfuscation pure and simple.

There are 57 schools closed indefinitely by the storm, nearly all in Brooklyn and Queens. How many of these have majority minority student bodies and what’s being done for them? Can we make the media move beyond their “coverage” resulting from placing a “reporter” in the rain, wearing an anorak, in some place that floods? How can we coalesce the new seriousness of social media into a functional citizen’s media?

There’s great urgency to help people in the immediate term, a short term need to restore functional social conditions and then comes the chance for change.

The next storm is already on the way.



The Continuing One Per Cent Hatred of Democracy

Today I got a packet in the post with copies of the new issue of Public Culture. I’d almost forgotten that I have a short essay in it called “Why I Occupy.” It’s actually not on the website yet. It was written back in January and I expected that it would feel badly outdated. There are some references to May Day that seem that way but the core of the piece is about democracy and elections, making it oddly timely.

After some personal contextualization, I argue:

In the space that has opened up between the disappointment engendered by “Obama” and the emergence of Occupy has come a widespread, realization that no election of a single candidate or party is likely to change the neo-liberal consensus, let alone transform capitalism. Hard on the heels of this commonplace (in certain left circles at least) came the opportunity and responsibility to try and do something about it.

What I mean here is that “Obama” does not stand for the person of the president himself, and his failings or successes, but the fundamental concept of a representative democracy functioning primarily via the occasional selection of a “great man” in the style of Carlyle (or the even more occasional selection of a great woman).

Of course, we can say that the Republicans chose to block Obama at all points. In most parliamentary democracies that wouldn’t be surprising: the opposition is supposed to oppose. What can’t happen here is a debate about neo-liberal capitalism. We are only allowed to hear about “government,” big or small. In this non-debate it becomes perfectly possible for a candidate like Romney to reverse his position repeatedly and still seem “serious,” not just because of the weakness of the US media (though that is real), but because the policy difference is not dramatic.

After all, neither candidate has taken a serious new policy position for the election. Obama will carry on muddling through, already signaling “concessions” to Republicans on the fiscal cliff. Romney will give tax cuts to the rich. Obama will appoint Supreme Court justices who probably won’t overturn Roe v. Wade. Romney will appoint those who probably will.

The drama comes in questions of culture and identity. By performing functionally in the first “debate,” Romney gained authority with those who wanted to act out a desire for heteronormative white masculinity. They call it “being a real man.” In those people longing for a reassertion of (white) American dominance, no policy position is as important as being allowed to express this sense of hierarchy.

After Colin Powell (himself let it be said something close to a war criminal in 2003) endorsed Obama, Republican John Sununu retorted that it was because both men are African American. Powell’s chief-of-staff pointed out the obvious:

My party is full of racists, and the real reason a considerable portion of my party wants President Obama out of the White House has nothing to do with the content of his character, nothing to do with his competence as commander-in-chief and president, and everything to do with the color of his skin, and that’s despicable.

Such comments won’t swing a single vote because it’s been an open secret for years. Nonetheless, we should not underestimate the “end of Reconstruction” effect that a Romney victory would have, even if it later seems like the last hurrah of the white majority, before the demographic rise of a diverse majority.

Win or lose, I suspect that the Romney campaign has succeeded in creating a new wave of white male rage. And here’s the difference–Romney will have to give them things, whether on reproductive rights, or science education, or affirmative action that will make things notably worse. He will do so gladly in exchange for the continued rule of neo-liberal oligarchy.

But what of democracy? In the Public Culture essay I wrote about the perceived crisis in democracy:

For a thinker like Jacques Rancière, there would be no contradiction here. Rather than call this “post-democracy,” Rancière has argued that the Platonic “hatred of democracy” has always continued to apply to Western society. That is to say, in the fashion of Bruno Latour, we have never been democratic.

There are two component parts to democracy: the demos, the people, and kratein, to rule. Who are the people? The Romney view is that they are corporations and those that serve them, which would appall Plato and latter-day Platonists like Carlyle alike. There’s no sense left of aristocracy, the rule of the best. It’s palpably oligarchy that dominates, the rule of the few, those who have power but no authority.

The demos as all the people has never ruled. It has never even been allowed to speak. That’s what the 99% meme was all about: not that we are all identical, except in this one regard, we have never been allowed to have a part. Occupy tried to democratize democracy. It perhaps underestimated the forces of racialized and gendered domination that continue to classify and separate the people. It’s still not over.


How To Change: Learning, for example

How do we learn from change? How do we learn to change? These repeated but slightly different questions seem at the heart of the emerging difference between the academic assessment of the Occupy movement and its own internal process. Today Critical Inquiry published three intriguing essays about Occupy, written about the 2011 moment. Yesterday, I learned a good deal from Occupy University about how to create a successful “learning encounter.” The two are noticeably different and yet intersect.

The Critical Inquiry pieces (paywall protected) are by W. J. T. Mitchell, Michael Taussig and Bernard Harcourt. All distinguished figures to be sure, an amazing team to have backing Occupy, yet all three are white men of a certain age (as is acknowledged). While each essay movingly describes, and often quotes, the experiences of students and occupiers, it’s a shame that at least one of these people wasn’t given space to report back for themselves.

It’s not at all that the writers are not aware of the dilemma of doing academic work about Occupy. For Mitchell, one problem was simply that

it threatens to drown the researcher under a tsunami of material.

Anthropologist Michael Taussig resolved that issue by writing a moving account of last O13, the first attempt to evict OWS that failed because so many turned up to support the occupation. Yet even the span of one night raises difficult questions:

So how do you write about it? In such circumstance of dissolving norms, effervescent atmosphere, invention and reinvention, what happens to the ethnographer’s magic—as Bronislaw Malinowski called it—and that old standby of “participant observation”?

Is that magic strong enough?

Am I clear here? I don’t think so, and I think this is the problem of writing surprise and writing strangeness, surely the dilemma and sine qua non of ethnography. As soon as you write surprise—or, rather, attempt to write it—it is as if the surprise has been made digestible, so it is no longer surprising, no longer strange.

Each writer has interesting and provocative ideas: Mitchell saw Occupy as a new iteration of the revolution as “empty space,” as proposed by Michelet. Harcourt sees it as a new phenomenon he calls “political disobedience” that “resists the very way in which we are governed.” Taussig understands the mic check as a way to “come to grips with trauma,” using “the cultic expression of magic,” reminding me of Rebecca Solnit’s description of the occupations as a response to disaster.

There is for all that a certain tension in finding a place for what Occupy has tried to do within the established forms of academic practice. There is a seemingly deliberately retro list of theoretical references –Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Heidegger, Nietzsche. In short, all the Very Serious Germans–plus Foucault. But no Marina Sitrin, David Graeber, Rebecca Solnit, Zapatista writings and so on. Thus the diligent sub-editors at the University of Chicago changed Harcourt’s “stack takers,” the organizing of people to speak at a meeting, into “stocktakers,” a commercial counting of inventory.

Theory, in the American university, now serves as authority. It brooks no gainsaying other than more theory in response. Occupy has tried to resist authority and to be a leaderless movement. Bernard Harcourt, the legal scholar, takes this problem seriously and gets it right when he says:

[T]hose who theorize the Occupy movement—anyone who is trying to understand the movement, as I am here—cannot speak with authorial voice on behalf of or for the movement, since they are, at the moment, outside the movement.

What, then is the “author” who is part of the claim to authority to do?

Occupy University have been working on this for the past year. When I had the pleasure of doing a learning encounter with them yesterday, I saw a number of ways in which they have brought movement practice into the practice of learning. In this format, while there is a speaker in the conventional way, time is not limited to the standard hour. After I spoke to some images, we sat in a circle and a facilitator took over the discussion.

The facilitator controlled the flow of conversation and I was allowed to step back, rather than engage in the standard Q and A. The practical result was that this part of the evening, usually a test of the speaker’s authority in academia–can they withstand the questions or not?–became the main event. It took most of the time and generated more of the ideas and all the discussion. By the end, there was a joint ownership of the topics under discussion. I know this sounds a bit idealized, but it really was my sense of what happened.

Women in Kashmir burning their electricity bills, 10-18-12

As a result, the conversation was more interactive and engaged than is often the case in academia. Several reasons for this engagement seemed clear. It was a very diverse group, especially in terms of national origin, which allowed for a range of perspectives on debt and the global social movements, rather than referring mainly to OWS. At the same time, people active in the movement here used the encounter to be self-reflexive and critical of their own practice. When there was an opportunity to speak, care was taken to see if someone who had not yet spoken might want to do so. What began a little hesitantly opened up into a space in which Bedouin, German, Palestinian and Indian experience was being cross-referenced.

There were those who touched on theory–Jameson and Rancière for cognitive mapping and the division of the sensible respectively–but I really felt something else was emerging here. This was not a naive or unschooled room of people, in an art foundation in Manhattan. But there was a sense that we were trying to reach a little further, not to score points, but to learn how to learn. I got too involved in following and listening to take proper notes. And that in itself reminded me of being in the park in the first days that the Critical Inquiry team were writing about, when for a long time, I just wanted to be there and be part of it.