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.

Jubilant Theory

Today was a work day at the University of Strasbourg. Over the past several months of giving talks, I have become accustomed to a certain routine. The organizer goes into a certain amount of detail as to why they are not sure how many people will attend. Their anxiety is two-fold. My academic work is not located in a specific discipline and it connects to the movement. Then we go in and find that far more people than expected have turned up and they then proceed to ask a great deal of questions. The organizers are then relieved and delighted.

That was the pattern here today, where I gave a talk showing how the research I have done on visuality requires an engagement with political practice. I then talk about a variety of militant visual culture research projects, ending with Strike Debt. It was a tad challenging because I had to do this in French, which is hard but not too bad. And then there were questions. If you read the above paragraph you will see the drawback. I got 75 minutes of questions, in French obviously.

What was interesting was that, for all that people downplay “French theory,” I was asked detailed questions about my relationship to Marxism, Autonomia, Situationism, Rancière and postcolonial theory. The mood in the room was far from as serious as this might sound because we had covered the Jubilee. Although the debt jubilee was new to this audience, the concept of jubilation might not have been so much.

Yesterday I bought a book called Postanarchism explained to my grandmother by Michel Onfray–at the station bookstall of all places, try getting something similar in Penn Station. Onfray has a rather dazzling list of the different aspects of anarchism that compose his concept of postanarchism, including

the right to jubilation…thinking of theory as the product of action.

Although I don’t really think I am a postanarchist, or that Strike Debt would be considered as such, who cares? But I prefer simply Jubilant Theory. What happens with Jubilant Theory is this engagement that people feel with the project that makes them even though they don’t know who I am and helps them enjoy what they hear.

One person said to me that they had never heard what they called un grand universitaire americain–a big-deal American professor–talk about engagement and political practice. Perhaps that’s just a measure of who gets invited. Or perhaps it’s an indication of one way to make the often-disparaged humanities more popular with the current precarious generation of students: to speak to their situation and offer something positive to do about it.

“The Will to Justice”

In her essay in the new Tidal, Gayatri Spivak encourages us to develop what she calls the “will to justice.” This ethical and incremental approach is at odds with what I might call the palpable “will for hierarchy” within certain sectors of the movement. The desire for “wins” sometimes risks overshadowing the very radicality of Occupy’s challenge. For  to be theoretically anti-hierarchy is always and already an organizational imperative–“be the change that you want to see.”

Gayatri Spivak

Spivak’s call reworks Nietzsche’s famous phrase “the will to power” that was so significant for thinkers like Michel Foucault. In Beyond Good and Evil, for instance, Nietzsche defines

our entire instinctive life as the development and ramification of one basic form of the will–namely, of the will to power.

Such power, Foucault argued, is not owned or controlled but simply used. It was a challenge to then-dominant ideas about the “conquest of state power” because power would continue to be instrumental, regardless of who was directing it. Spivak also turns away from such “vanguardist” approaches, as she calls them, in favor of

the general nurturing of the will to justice among the people.

There are three distinct threads interwoven in this phrase. Spivak’s mind is so supple that you can visibly see her thinking on multiple levels simultaneously as she speaks. Here she mixes Rousseau, Derrida, feminism and Marxism.

From Rousseau, we get the concept of the “general will,” the base on which social order can be constructed. Nick Couldry and Natalie Fenton have shown that

The Occupy movement is an attempt to form the general will in new ways. As such, it is a potentially fundamental contribution to resolving the contemporary crisis of democracy….as a part of saying yes to the possibility of thinking differently about the political consequences of global markets

That is to say, the “counter-democracy” of saying no–to Republicans, to war, to neo-liberalism–has been joined by a means of saying “yes” to new forms of community and democracy. “Nothing can be harder than this,” caution Couldry and Fenton.

Yet Spivak gives the process an optimistic tinge. She links Rousseau to Derrida’s concept of “justice” as that which cannot be deconstructed. Which is not to say it is a simple thing. As the global movement knows, Derrida’s justice

doesn’t wait. It is that which must not wait.

But at the same time,

justice is an experience of the impossible.

Otherwise known as the impossible demand. The will to justice is the deconstruction of the force of law. It is the right to look.

Because the right to look is a consenting exchange between two (or more) it is by definition non-hierarchical. It is also, as Spivak stresses, the responsibility to nurture and care for the other: what we call mutual aid. Emphasizing the feminism of the will to justice, Spivak recasts its imaginative horizon from war or struggle to care and nurture.

With all these concepts in action, Spivak is able to re-energize the much-abused formula of “the people.” It’s important to note that she does so in a planetary framework that emphasizes how neo-liberalism relies on global hierarchy to function:

For financial globalization to work, the world must remain unevenly divided between the global South and the global North, so that there can be constantly fluctuating differences in the value of hard currency and soft currency, so that financialization can operate.

It’s crucial, then, not to replicate this hierarchical “world-making” in our own organization. In addition to this theoretical caution, we also need to be careful that a strategy that produces gains in the global North does not do so at the expense of the South.

It’s easy to be solipsistic here and say, for example, “a win for the Democrats is a win for the South,” even though it’s simply marginally less bad. Take the case of the Marikana platinum miners. While we want to support their claim for a living wage, it must also in the long run be better that they not have to work as miners, both because the labor is so hard and destructive; and because that would mean fewer cars were being built, as platinum is mostly used for catalytic converters. But were that to happen overnight, the result would just be more poverty.

For as Suzayn Ibrahimian puts it on the facing page of Tidal:

We have fundamentally understimated our ability to recreate our own oppression.

She sees the widely-circulating concern with “wins” as a short-term viewpoint that reinforces the “hierarchy of stability.” And so people more or less openly call for vanguardist approaches in OWS, or what are euphemistically called “decision-making bodies.” Of course this could be done and then we would be one more lefty pressure group, hoping that for some reason the Democratic Party might finally change its mind.

It seems that “Occupy” is about to splinter into a coalition of broadly autonomous campaigns like Strike Debt, Occupy Our Homes and Foreclose The Banks that come together for symbolic days of action like S17. If this means of organizing preserves the will to justice that was so visible a year ago, rather than creating new hierarchies, then let’s make it happen.

To return to Spivak, it is only the

building up of a will to social justice

that matters, not the name under which it is done.





Phase Two, in rehearsal

A final day of rehearsals for our debt performance piece “Yours In Debt!” I know people who always practice their talks ahead of time and I’ve done this when I have time. It’s always worth it. Workshopping a set of discussions like this with people skilled in performance has been very interesting. They have been gentle with me and very careful to be subtle about pushing me in a different direction. Over the course of the brief time that we’ve been able to work on the talks, they have notably changed nonetheless.

The simplest way to describe this shift is one away from a fact-laden analysis towards the emotional and spatial experience of being “in” debt and what it would mean to get “out” of debt. In short, in classic Occupy fashion, it’s starting to feel like an exploration of what it would mean to give people permission to view these issues with something other than shame and subjection.

One indication of how far there is to go came from the only question posed by a Bed-Stuy dwelling, bike-riding alternative theatre person, who watched the tech run: “What about people who do pay their debts?” So we talked about how it was likely that many if not most people would not be happy with the bank or other creditor and might well think that they deserved more favorable terms of repayment. It still seemed clear that the idea of strike debt, let alone a debt strike, was something that made her quite uncomfortable.

Nor did anyone at the theatre who was not part of OWS recognize the red square that I had thought was now widely recognized. I suppose I have naive assumptions that alternative arts people are necessarily aware of political issues, like my friends in OWS and at places like the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics. But then most politics people don’t get what’s going on with performance.

Right now, Occupy Theory has two slogans for Phase Two.

From base to disperse.

From Occupy to strike.

The point is that these are goals, not statements of what has been achieved. It’s a change of approach. Projects like this make me feel both that we have a long way to go and that making progress with it, at least at first, won’t be as hard as you might think.





As predicted, Greece is having its Antigone revolution in refusing to abide by the Law in favor of kinship. For the majority who voted for Syriza and other anti-memorandum parties, mutual aid outweighs obligations to creditors. In the first days of this project, you may recall, I was very taken with a reworking of the Antigone legend in the context of the global social movements by Italian performance group Motus. The proper treatment of the dead body was later visualized by the Egyptian video collective Mosireen. And so when the chant “A-Anti-Anticapitalista” became the subject of a later post, I rewrote it in my head in my geeky way to go “A-Anti-Antigone.” Amazon knows that I am interested in Antigone now and when Ann Carson’s new book Antigonick was published this week, they told me. And this was uncanny because I am known as Nick to my friends.

Actually, what the book, a reworked translation of Antigone, is called is open to question. The cover says:

  ANTIGO              NICK

But the inside front page and Library of Congress listing have Antigonick. You won’t notice that at first because you will be admiring the beauty of the book.

The text was hand-inked on the page, in black and red ink [so red in quotes does not now indicate a hyperlink] then photographed–it’s a bit smudgy sometimes but very striking.

Bianca Scott has produced overlay color drawings that intersperse the text on translucent paper. The only book I can remember seeing like this recently was by the artist Cai Guo Qiang and indeed this one was printed in China (no further details are given). Without being unkind, there’s a story about labor, costs and outsourcing there that might interest Antigonick.

Then you notice that this is not at all a literal translation. It begins wonderfully (Carson’s caps):


Carson reminds us that a legend is always a question of how you tell it. And that this is a play, a text to be performed. In the list of characters we find:

Nick  a mute part [always onstage, he measures things.]

We’ll come back to him in a minute. The references to Beckett and Hegel tell us that we can’t hear Antigone as if we were ancient Greeks. This is a modern drama now. Isn’t it just.

                 WELL IF YOU CALL THAT LAW

By the unspoken convention (Nick’s measures), words in red have so far indicated the names of characters. It’s not too much to say that the LAW is a character in Antigone. Or it could also be “just” an emphasis. Or it could be an emphasis on the just, over the law.

Such undecidability is of course contrary to Hegel, who held that

in a drama [spiritual powers] enter in their simple and fundamental character and they oppose one another.

It might be thought that the drama of Oedipus was a (literally) classic example. But it depends. In a review in the New York Review of Books (paywall), Peter Green points out that it was held that Oedipus’s father Laius was attracted to:

Pelops’ son Chrysippus, and carried him off in the first (but by no means the last) homosexual abduction known to Greek myth. Pelops cursed Laius; and the latter’s death at the hands of his son, who then unwittingly married his mother Jocasta, was the working out of this curse.

In this version, the Oedipus complex is more complicated and less decidable than it’s usually allowed to be. Again, as Judith Butler has emphasized, when Antigone talks of her brother, she could be describing Oedipus because they share the same mother. The Oedipus complex was always already queer.

And that LAW thing isn’t just the law of the father. Today Alex Tsiras of Syriza said of Greece “we are going directly to hell,” meaning a living death underground. Which is what happened to Antigone. As Carson reminds us, the myth has power today because it still affects us. She uses words like ANARCHY where the standard translation uses “unruly.” She talks of the “state of exception.” How to measure that?

In the nick. In the nick of time. By Nick.

Eurydike, Creon’s wife, mother of Haimon who Antigone was to marry, has famously few lines in Sophocles. One speech, five lines.

Carson has her speak much longer, with a riff on Virginia Woolf. Then she asks a question about Antigone [the spacing isn’t right in the quote, the lines are alternately indented but WordPress won’t allow that measure, sorry]:

EXCEPTION                                               IS SHE

What indeed? The OED gives us an astonishingly long entry. It refers to a notch, a cut, a groove, whether in a machine, a tool, wood or an animal. It can refer to the vagina, as in various Jacobean dramas cited by OED. Then it is also the precise moment, later the nick of time. It is essential, what is aimed at. You can also go to the nick, a jail or prison, and be beset by Old Nick, the devil.

At the end of the play, NICK still on stage MEASURING. Measuring the collapse of autoimmunity, the collapse of debt’s capital, the capitals of debt.

Like in Beckett, who crops up here, Imagination Dead Imagine:

No trace anywhere of life, you say, pah, no difficulty there, imagination not dead yet, yes, dead, good, imagination dead imagine. Islands, waters, azure, verdure, one glimpse and vanished, endlessly, omit. Till all white in the whiteness the rotunda. No way in, go in, measure. Diameter three feet, three feet from ground to summit of the vault.


Measuring, counting the debt in the living tomb that is the Troika’s Greece, there we find A-Anti-Antigonick. An odd creature.

On Hardt and Negri’s “Declaration”

So Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have published a Declaration regarding the global social movements of 2011 and their implications. If you’ve followed their trilogy from Empire to Commonwealth, there are not too many surprises here but, as ever, some great formulations. Perhaps most usefully they can serve as the lightning rod for the debate over parties and leadership (they’re against) and in starting a new discussion over “commoning.”

Declaration is above all a voicing of support for the social movements and their encampments as offering a clear articulation of the current situation and the beginnings of a way to get past the crisis. It will not be without its detractors within and without the movements but the support is surely welcome.

In the manner of Derrida in Limited Inc., one might start with the inside matter (which is in fact the last page of the Kindle): “Copyright…All rights reserved.” For a project about commoning, wouldn’t a copyleft or Creative Commons license be more appropriate? OK, it’s only 99 cents on Amazon but you have to have a Kindle-friendly device: why not just put out a free PDF? So this post will give a fairly extensive summary of the pamphlet as a form of copylefting.

This isn’t just a cheap shot, I hope. In an early formulation that they return to often, Hardt and Negri (HN) quote Ralph Ellison’s invisible man:

“Who knows,” Ellison’s narrator concludes, “but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” Today, too, those in struggle communicate on the lower frequencies, but, unlike in Ellison’s time, no one speaks for them. The lower frequencies are open airwaves for all. And some messages can be heard only by those in struggle.

This eloquently speaks to the sense that the social movements articulate in murmurs that cannot be heard by self-declared elites and in media that are not known to them.

To explore these frequencies HN use four main figures:

the indebted, the mediatized, the securitized, and the represented.

Debt: here HN nicely note that

[t]he social safety net has passed from a system of welfare to one of debtfare.

They suggest that the indebted suffer from an “unhappy consciousness” but, contrary to Hegel, this is a

nondialectical form, because debt is not a negative that can enrich you if you rebel.

They see debt as an end to the “illusions that surround the dialectic,” a phrase that will no doubt get them into trouble in certain quarters, because the indebted “cannot be redeemed, only destroyed.” Perhaps they have ventured here where even David Graeber feared to tread, but it would not have hurt them to acknowledge Graeber’s work in more than an endnote bibliographic reference.

The Mediatized

Given the opening formula, this section is disappointing, sometimes very much so. Time and again, people appear as mere dupes of the media, “hypnotized,” “stifled,” “absorbed,” “fragmented and dispersed.” The theory of the military-industrial-entertainment complex seems more useful as a means of exploring these effects than this lament, to use their own term, for lost reality.

By contrast, “living information” is said to be gained by physical proximity based on a study of an Olivetti factory in the 1960s by Romano Alquati. Thus, at the encampments

the participants experienced the power of creating new political affects through being together.

While that seems clearly true, there’s a hint of Romantic nostalgia in the evocation of the letter over the email and the distaste for social media. Entirely absent here, despite the inclusion of the “image” in their biopolitical production, is any mention of the role of photography and moving image distribution. From the al-Jazeera feeds of Tunisia and Tahrir to the Livestreaming of Occupy, web-disseminated video has indeed created a new way of being together without which it’s hard to understand the formation of global affinities that we’ve witnessed over the past 18 months.

The Securitized

This is a strange usage because it means the production of fear as politics, the “state of emergency” and mass surveillance, rather than referring to the financial securities that caused the crash. Again, HN cite Foucault to support the notion that the prison begins as soon as you leave the house, with no reference questions of digital privacy and surveillance that have recently created waves of activism.

After all, if 2011 began this phase of the global social movements, it did so in part because hackers from Anonymous allowed Tunisian activists to liaise undetected and to evade Ben Ali’s digital surveillance. At the time of writing, Twitter has intervened in support of an OWS activist, Malcolm Harris, whose tweets have been subpoenaed, arguing that they remain his property.

While I completely agree with the substantial focus on the US incarceration crisis that follows, it’s again odd not to see this described in terms of Angela Y. Davis’s notion of the prison-industrial complex, although she is cited later on in relation to prison abolition.

The Represented

The apparent elisions in the preceding figures become clear when we reach this section, which is at the heart of HN’s analysis:

The represented gathers together the figures of the indebted, the mediatized, and the securitized, and at the same time, epitomizes the end result of their subordination and corruption.

The power of wealth, the media and the security apparatus have made representative democracy into the present-day ancien régime, corrupt and incapable of being reformed, leaving the represented with “no access to effective political action.”

The second chapter, “Rebellion against the Crisis,” both seeks to create a theoretical apparatus for, and to give approval to, the rebellions against neoliberalism. The chapter theorizes that

Real communication among singularities in networks … requires an encampment.

By which is meant that the indebted become singular (as opposed to individual) by refusing debt, and learning to communicate outside the mediatized environment, a process that causes them to set aside fear. The encampment becomes the form of the real communication that results. At this point

subjectivities capable of democratic action will begin to emerge.

For HN this is a constituent process, as well as the destituent refusal of the encampments. Words like “must” and “required” get used in relation to this constituent issue, which sounds like another form of saying that there must be demands. At the same time, “constituent action” calls into being “autonomous temporality,” in which the slowness of the assemblies mingles with the acceleration of social change to create an “alternative.”

The alternative takes the form of “counterpowers” and here it’s great to see a strong stress on anthropogenic climate change and planetary degradation set into historical context. Following Peter Linebaugh, HN stress that the Magna Carta, root of Anglophone doctrines of “liberty,” was accompanied by a Charter of the Forest that allowed for sustainable living. In the present, a key question becomes the “transforming of the public into the common,” which they discuss briefly in a variety of contexts including water, banks and communications. They acknowledge the paradox that in such contexts

we set out aiming for the common but find ourselves back under the control of the state.

Following the experience of social movements in Latin America, they suggest we should attempt rather to remain external and

force the mechanisms of government to become processes of governance.

This is a form of organization HN call “federalist,” meaning not a pyramid but a horizontal and plural set of organizing mechanisms, of which the 2011 encampments were an example. In this way, a democratic affect can be generated by the very process of direct democracy.

In sum, HN call for a new “commoning” in which the commoner works on the common. I like the recuperation of commoner, which, in the UK at least, is often used in somewhat derogatory fashion. I like the making of the common into a verb, something that is performed and learned through doing. They close with a salutary warning: it will not be through

ideology or centralized political leadership

that this commoning will be accomplished. To the contrary, they argue, what they call the “traditional Left” (meaning vanguard and social democratic parties alike, I presume) is a significant obstacle:

What a tragic lack of political imagination to think that leaders and centralized structures are the only way to organize effective political projects!

For that, the brickbats will fall on their heads and those of us interested in developing and expanding horizontal direct democracies should thank them. Perhaps a similarly direct approach throughout would have given Declaration a more rousing feel than it currently has, at least on first read. There’s plenty of material for substantive discussion and useful categorization of the past year here. By the very argument of the project, the next steps won’t be found in a pamphlet but in the sometimes arduous, sometimes exhilarating process of commoning.







At the invitation of an interesting and impressive faculty/student discussion group calling themselves “Aesthetic Relations” at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I had the slightly unnerving and very meta experience of discussing this project with real, live human beings. Although I do have interactions with readers online, this was the first time that I have talked about it with people other than friends and family. It seemed appropriate to do this in Madison, where the US wing of the global resistance first got going.

I stressed that this is not an “academic” project, or even a digital humanities project, like those I do with Media Commons or the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture. Such projects are on my academic CV and there is much discussion internally about credentialing and peer review. Occupy 2012 does not have these concerns. It’s a documentation of a process.

This process might be described as the way in which I have tried to measure what commitment might mean in relation to this very different movement. That is to say, if the engagé intellectual of the 1960s had to work out a relation to the “party,” at least in Europe, none of those terms quite applies here. While I’m engaged in the educational side of the movement, like the forthcoming Free University of New York City and the journal Tidal, there’s no operative activist/intellectual distinction in the movement. I do think that’s true, despite the obvious prominence of figures like David Graeber and Judith Butler in their different ways. Perhaps, as I’ve been suggesting over the past couple of days, we might now be in a position to move beyond the 60s paradigms that have dominated discussion and thought ever since.

In this sense, I was glad that the Madison group noticed how I’ve been calling this a durational writing project, a form that’s derived from durational performance art, rather than a blog pure and simple. Of course it uses blogging software and is a blog in format. But the commitment of writing every day makes it much different than the experience of blogging, which I did on and off all of last year. The blogger chooses when to write at will and can polish a post until s/he is completely satisfied with it. Writing every day drives the project in a different rhythm: sometimes I feel in control of it, sometimes it seems in control of me, and sometimes it’s plain out of control.

This stressing of terms of discipline and control comes from a theme that emerged in the discussion last night. One way to measure the present crisis in what I have called visuality, or the way that authority tries to authorize itself, is precisely as the end of a “human” that is dominated by measurement, disciplinary apparatus, techniques for the modification of population and coloniality. In this transition, whether to a new form of authority or a democratized democracy, change has very different forms. So the neoliberal hostility to state-sponsored education, welfare and health can be seen as a move away from governmentality, that concern with the conduct of conduct as registered at the level of population. The claim for autonomy within the global Occupy movement is perhaps another response to the same perceived crisis of governmentality. That leads some to think of autonomy as neoliberal, a means of trying to reassert the viability of existing forms of left critique, rather than trying to engage with what might be distinct and emergent in our own time.

This leads to a second theme of yesterday’s discussion: the question of time. I’ve written a good deal about the way in which I’m trying to stay “in the moment,” to draw out the sense that the culture is no longer stable in a set of authorized forms, and thereby to increase the possibility that such forms might change. I’ve talked also about the importance of duration and what I’ve called, after Derrida, the future present.

The group yesterday wanted to add the perspective of the reader, which entails thinking about the archive and past time. People talked about how posts might be read out of sequence, or re-read after the moment, and how the current software platform does not allow for easy searching. Generously, this difficulty was attributed to my wanting to make it not so simple to dive in and take out whatever you might need. That’s more of an accident. In fact, I’ve been constrained by the very commitment of the project to thinking of it on a day to day basis: what shall I do today? what about tomorrow? This has the intended effect for my own activism of giving me an extra motivation to go to actions, meetings and events that the force of the workday might otherwise tempt me to miss.

So I have not in fact thought about the project as an archive. I realized that there are now about 115 posts, that’s probably something like 85,000 words and a lot of visual material. So the discussion went very meta: what would be the best thing to do with all this, assuming it lasts for a while longer, or that it achieves its goal of every day in 2012? Given the short lifespan of web platforms, another more durable archive form might be needed. Some people suggested a PDF, which I think would have to be a set of PDFs so as not to be too huge:) Others were interested in a possible book, although here I have concerns–even if I donate whatever royalties there might be, is it OK to generate revenue for a publisher with OWS materials? As with all the other questions of this project, I keep this open, while welcoming your thoughts.

And here, gentle reader, a message from the Madison group to you: there was a hope that people might share their comments and ideas using the commenting function on the blog, rather than posting them to Facebook or elsewhere. In other words, Facebook is privatizing the Internet and is about to do so with a spectacular creation of profit on all of our labor. The Madison group of readers would like to hear what you’re thinking: so a comment could be thought of as addressing the readership, rather than the writer. There are quite a few of you now–such commenting could form a community of sorts that would give a new impetus to the project. I for one would welcome such a turn.

Responses to “I Fought the Law”

Yesterday I wrote about a sense that Occupy was under triple attack from academia, the police and the Law. There were a good deal of mostly hostile responses on Facebook. While I don’t agree with most of them, as you’ll see, I thought it was fair to post them in the interests of transparency. They are long but all the more reason not to limit the audience.

There was a great deal of discussion about Jodi Dean’s New School keynote, its use of theory and her questioning of the organization of Occupy. The length of these comments suggest that a nerve was touched–or, to be fair, that I was wildly wrong.

Rhetorics aside, at the heart of it is a central issue: does the horizontal leader-less strategy of Occupy continue to be beneficial (we all agree it was so at first, I think) or not? I continue to think that the process is the energy of the movement. If leaders are appointed, Occupy becomes just another political party or a pressure group like And it would just disappear into the fringe. Others seem to be repelled by the process. Late in the thread you’ll see a comment that Occupy’s current procedure is “kafkaesque,” which Dean agrees is “very well put.” So we disagree.

We also disagree on whether appointing leaders, whether in a party format or some other frame, would be a way to prevent some of the issues that have arisen. It’s not as if hierarchy has not been tried, I would say. Or you can call this the “tyranny of structurelessness.”

How you read these posts will most likely depend on your own view of Occupy: it is nonetheless clear that we can agree that we disagree. And that marks a shift, one that I for one do not welcome.

Comments were made on this excerpt from my post:

“[T[he academic left continues to ratchet up its critique of Occupy. Jodi Dean posted a talk on her website yesterday, which is at once supportive of the movement for creating a new political subject, and wants to see it regulated by the Holy Trinity of Badiou, Lacan and Zizek.”

Jodi Dean [JD}: ‎”The Holy Trinity”–not the kind of label that signals comradely engagement.”

Daniel Spaulding [DS]: Eh, but in the spirit of comradely engagement: I, too, am confused where Jodi’s piece leaves us. Given that there isn’t a credible vanguard party or anything resembling such, where does the structure come from? It strikes me as a little idealistic to say that what we need is more organization when the dominant subjective or affective structure on the left is currently stuck between anarchist laissez-faire and an emergent collectivity of class struggle. Of course horizontalism is the mirror-image of neoliberalism, I grant that – but we start from where we are, immanently, and look for the dialectic, no? So, do we all become Leninists or is there some other horizon?

JD: Well, people can recognize that the strength of the movement is in division and collectivity. This leads to questions about actions that make division more visible and strengthen collectivity. At the end of the piece, I suggest acknowledging leaders and making them accountable and subject to recall. I also mention diagonal and vertical structures, which suggests possibilities for delegating and combining that don’t involve “everybody”. Broached from a different vantage, if the movement learns from the disfunction that led to the collapse of Spokes and the GAs, and led to a great deal of frustration and ultimate dissolution of some groups, what should it learn? Maybe what it should learn that leaders will emerge, but they need to be accountable and recallable. Another example: since there was not a list of movement participants, there wasn’t a quorum for GA. So this made it sometimes feel like it couldn’t make decisions and sometimes made people who weren’t there feel like the decisions weren’t legitimate. Ultimately, though, my concerns are less with process than with the rhetorical and ideological self-understanding of the movement.

DS: Fair enough. I think those are good suggestions.

Nick Mirzoeff [NM]: If there are leaders subject to recall, how would these people be nominated? Who would determine those eligible to be nominated? Who would participate in the determining process? Who would vote? My worry was that by invoking a very widely sanctioned set of theorists these extremely difficult and practical questions were not being addressed. I think it would be almost impossible to organize Occupy like this and for it still to be Occupy, as I said later in the post.The issues with the GA and the Spokes were complicated: there were some disruptors, perhaps some infiltrators, a good deal of financial problems, burnout, cold, and so on. I don’t think the problem was a lack of direction. I don’t at all see an attitude of “wait and see if anything happens”–I see people working very hard to try and keep events moving. I think that any failures in that regard are more to do with the battering from the police than of organization or theory. If it is held to be taken for granted that horizontalidad is the mirror of neo-liberalism, then that in turn is not tremendously supportive/comradely of those who are trying to create a different movement.

DS: What I should have made clear is that horizontality being the mirror of neoliberalism isn’t, for me, a (or “the”) problem, because it’s only predictable that an anti-capitalist movement would, dialectically, approximate the form of the most current capitalism. Not to do so would be formalistic, i.e., sticking to an idea of correct organization at the expense of the real movement of history. So that’s my issue with Jodi and Badiou alike, although obviously the complaint is different with the latter. [Quoting NM] “I think it would be almost impossible to organize Occupy like this and for it still to be Occupy.” I read this as partly what Jodi wants: to make Occupy more like a party, specifically. Maybe I’m wrong about this. . .

NM: I understood the idea to be that Occupy becomes something like a political party as well. Without being uncomradely, I don’t support that and I just think that if that is the proposal it should be made directly and transparently. If the little joke at the expense of the master thinkers annoyed people, I’m sorry

JD: he specific procedural questions with which you begin can be answered in multiple ways. As you know, there isn’t one answer. Spokes was one attempt; it didn’t work out well. But there are other possibilities if people want to undertake them. One possibility: active working groups select a working head of the group to take responsibility for specific things. They also select delegates to other groups and to a broader assembly. Meetings could begin by asking whether people want those previously selected to continue to serve or not. A preliminary process might begin with the active people who put together the Spring Awakening and delegates to working groups to suggest a general structure and see what people think about it. Like I said, though, my primary interest isn’t procedural. On wait and see if anything happens: I’ve heard that in discussions of the general strike as well as the direction of the movement this spring. That some people are working very hard on some projects doesn’t mean that others aren’t saying, wait and see. On the police front: yes, this is demoralizing. But it’s not the whole of the movement. The frustrations in Facilitation and Housing, for example, can’t be attributed to the battering of the police. They can be attributed in part to problems with an ideology of leaderlessness that makes it difficult to work around toxic people.

I don’t understand what you mean when you say ‘invoking a widely sanctioned set of theorists’ these difficult and practical questions were not being addressed. If you are saying that I don’t provide a procedural blueprint–yes, that’s true. I didn’t claim to. I would be surprised to hear you say, though, that theory is irrelevant and we can’t learn from theoretical insights.

[To DS] my point is that structures need more than one dimension to be strong. Horizontality by itself becomes a fetish object/line and not an organization. If by more like a party you mean more organization and accountability, yes, definitely. Of course, there are different models of parties…

[To NM]: there isn’t anything undirect or untransparent in what I’m saying; I don’t use the word party in this talk because I don’t know what a new party form would like or whether that is the right term here.

Kailesjh Benengeli: leaderlessness can breed its own kafkaesqueness where if you don’t understand the tacit ideological rules for socializing you aren’t “in the know” or know the “right people” you’re functionally excluded.

JD: that’s very well put, clearer than I put it in the talk.

NM: Many things to say! I would like to put these comments into a post so that those who don’t see this FB can benefit. If the primary concern is not procedural, then it was not clear to me. I felt the criticism of the horizontal process was rather central: and I felt that as another attack, rather than as support, or constructive criticism. Again, my post was not about your paper so much as my feeling that academia has decided that it’s time to move on and give up on Occupy. Specifically: To what end are we to adopt a representative system? The energizing experience of Occupy has so much been about the chance to participate as an equal. More organization: presumably this means more effective organization as there is no shortage of meetings etc. It depends whether we feel that the goal is to intervene as directly as we can in the current system or to build an alternative, accepting the necessary time involved. The problems of disruptors, those with unmet needs and other issues that did much to complicate Housing and Facilitation are not, to my mind, primarily problems of leadership or it’s lack. The police did have something to do with that, as they sent disruptive people to Liberty from other locations. As I have written in other posts, the enormous issues these problems revealed surely show how much damage has been done by the neo-liberals.

On theory: of course, I think it can help. I am not clear how those affiliated with a very different process would be likely to be good resources to work through the issues that we have, as opposed to being citations to reinforce an existing desire for more leadership etc: which is exactly what I’m seeing here. For example, the explanation of the horizontal discussion process is standard Occupy procedure and, while I am not one of those who knows “the right people,” I have always felt able to participate if I wanted to do so. That is, the rules are explicit–in democratic centralism, that’s really not so much the case.

On another FB:

JD: Kinship? That seems like a weird leap to me. I don’t say not to strike on May 1 at all–I note the fact that there has been criticism of that plan (I don’t go into the criticisms but a significant one comes from women and the nature of childcare). It’s funny that you haven’t come across any activists frustrated over non-accountability in the movement, over the emphases on horizontality and leaderlessness; I have heard people invoke Jo Freeman’s “Tyranny of Structurelessness” with fair frequency. I’ve heard women criticize the domination of men in the movement, different people criticize the insidery-ness in the movement.

NM: I’ve talked a good deal about the place of women and child care in the movement in the Occupy 2012 project. It’s my understanding that Mutual Aid at Bryant Park and Union Square do intend to offer child services as does the Free University. Parents for Occupy Wall Street also have plans. However, there’s an absolute forest of state law when you offer formal child care. Getting city permission to offer child care would be, shall we say, unlikely.


Research Practice: New Delhi

In trying to reimagine research practice, I’ve been inspired by Mosireen in Egypt and Observatorio Metropolitano in Madrid. The foremother of them all is perhaps Sarai, the remarkable New Delhi collective. Formed as an off-shoot of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Sarai has created a coalition of researchers and practitioners for the past decade.

Raqs Media Collective "Strike" (2011)

As befits, their legendary status in “new media” circles, Sarai maintain a comprehensive website that is at the center of their practice. Here they define their mission as:

a commitment towards developing a model of research-practice that is public and creative, in which multiple voices express and render themselves in a variety of forms. Through these practices that range from art practice to publication, academic research to the organization of discursive events, setting up of media labs and creative practices in locality labs in disadvantaged neighbourhoods of the city, reflecting upon the culture of freedom, in speech and in software, we have sought to participate in and cultivate a public domain that seeks to find a new language of engagement with the inequities, as also the possibilities, of the contemporary world.

So some distinctive notes created by Sarai are their involvement with visual arts practice as a form of research, “new media” work and software development and a commitment to openness.

Let’s quickly note a couple of these projects before thinking about the challenge they pose to activist research in the overdeveloped world. I am particularly struck by Cybermohalla–a word formed by adding the Hindi and Urdu word mohalla, meaning neighborhood, implying alleys, street corners, and a sense of place both in the city and online. Since 2001, this project has collaborated with young people in some of the newer “colonies” or districts of New Delhi. The hope was that:

if the space can draw a relation between writing, researching, experimenting, and tap into different forms of knowledge, modes of cultural expression and infrastructures of circulation of these within the neighbourhood, then it will be able to build new grounds of knowledge.

The knowledge generated in such projects is shared through print, visual and online sources. One example is the range of Sarai Readers on a range of topical subjects, available copyleft and free of charge on the website. The Readers differ from the Anglo-American model in that they give space to shorter writings than are typical in the academic context, often more experimentally written and less burdened with academic apparatus. There are substantive interviews with key figures, visual interventions and so on.

Some common threads link the different projects from India, Egypt, and Spain despite the very different contexts in which they take place. Each seems to serve as a key source of information regarding what’s happening in the giant cities created by financial globalization. While Madrid’s three million people would disappear into New Delhi, which has a population density of 37,000 per square kilometer, each city has been transformed over the past twenty-five years of neo-liberalism.

Perhaps it is the very belatedness of the impoverishing, distancing, hierarchizing effects of this moment of global capital’s transformation in its former capitals like New York that has been so traumatizing and galvanizing for us. We should start to look with humility at those who preceded us in this struggle.

Next, each group privileges making its work available free, producing it rapidly and in as many formats as possible. These tactics strike at the heart of the walled, gated communities that call themselves universities in the Anglophone world, always happy to think of themselves as elitists in the intellectual sense. Can we continue to assume that we can still be egalitarian in other ways while maintaining such hierarchies?

Consider these scenarios: a person wants to join your department/program/seminar having attended free, open classes previously. If it’s a class at the Public School with top academics like my colleague Alex Galloway, you’re going to be impressed. What if it’s a person you’ve never heard about before?

Will you consider publishing your own work free and open source? People worry about the imprimatur of double-blind peer review. If you want it, you can get it at Open Humanities Press. But this is not so simple. I’ve benefited from such reviews, especially for my recent book. I’ve also run foul of the system, where a person fundamentally unsympathetic to the project has been allocated to read it. It even happens to Gayatri Spivak, according to her talk at Left Forum:)

Set aside the bias question, and assume it always works for the best. Do we want this kind of closed door process? Would it not be preferable to have discussion in open ways? If material is published digitally, it can be corrected and changed easily as long as people are making comments or suggestions. If we find ourselves reluctant to participate in such interaction, perhaps we are less invested in change than we think? Or is the overload already demanded by the neoliberal university such that we simply can’t?

I’m for quick, direct, open publication but I don’t want to pretend it’s a panacea. It may be best suited to moments of rapid change and not so central when things are more locked down. I think nonetheless that we have to assume that the crisis in research, whether activist, militant, corporate or academic, is not limited to debt and funding but goes to the core of the project.