What is the value of protest? With the rise of the Tea Party, the nationwide spread of the Occupy movement, protests overseas in Britain and the Middle East, the spectacular responses to anti-union legislation in Wisconsin and Ohio, and much more, this has been a year where the topic of protest has trickled up from those in the streets (Wall Street, Main Street, etc) to those at cocktail parties or at dinner tables. Time magazine named “The Protestor” as its person of the year. Much of the talk I’ve been privy to among well-meaning liberals like myself discussing Occupy Wall Street and the related efforts across the country simultaneously lauds the political grievances voiced and critiques the actual protests themselves. This seems to mirror the ways in which news media covers the protests – a segment on the faltering economy or the governmental moves to winnow away workers’ rights and financial gains followed by a piece that highlights the Occupy movement as one that seems to lack a focused aim.
Criticisms of the movement attack those involved implying that they are dirty litter bugs that are professional protestors and if they would only return to work then . . . well, if only they would go back to those low paying jobs that they were led to through disenfranchisement. The rhetoric of the protestor as a dirty leech seems to follow the discussion during Barack Obama’s presidential campaign – one that turned community organizing into something sinister instead of something that reflects our country’s ongoing historical commitment to protests and change through grassroots work. Protesting of course is not real work because it has no capitalist output – and the campaign is of course unfocused because no one has nailed demands on a church door. Occupy as an effort to question the received wisdom about how we run our country and intermesh the dollar with the law appears irresponsible and messy because in many ways it resists the organizing models we expect from corporate government. There is an overlapping sentiment that suggests that the protests have run their course – as if the movement was allowed momentarily as a sop to radicals and poor Americans (the so-called 99%) but obviously at some point you go back to work or stop because we all know that . . . well, nothing will change if you stop. I am not arguing that the Occupy movement is going to enact change if it just continues for two more months, that there is a way to quantify the effects of this type of grassroots effort.
In her critique of happiness, Sara Ahmed considers how society agrees that certain objects must cause happiness and those of us that reject that imputed affect are seen as affect aliens. Bad feelings that result from facing head on systemic oppression are blamed socially on those that question the system – not the machinations that undergird structural inequalities. The inability of the Occupy protestors to mime the particularly American brand of happiness – one that links the accomplishment of work and the attainment of goods with narratives of independence and American dream success stories – and their audacity in calling out the businesses and politicians that have led to the increasing stratification of classes means that the protestors become blamed for their own unhappiness. Further these affect aliens are understood as messy and dirty, as opting out of a system that supposedly would ultimately benefit them.
While much of queer theory has decried ideas of hope and futurity as nothing more than conservative (meaning not radical and not limited to merely those on the right of the political spectrum) fantasies, others like José Esteban Muñoz, argue that for many hope is a necessary tool in imagining different possibilities outside of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Writing specifically about queerness, Muñoz notes that, “Utopian and willfully idealistic practices of thought are in order if we are to resist the perils of heteronormative pragmatism and Anglo-normative pessimism.” He goes on to stress that the answer lies not in imagining spaces without restrictive identity categories: “The way to deal with the asymmetries and violent frenzies that mark the present is not to forget the future. The here and now is simply not enough. Queerness should and could be about a desire for another way of being in both the world and time, a desire that resists mandates to accept that which is not enough.” Occupy speaks to a desire for “another way of being in the world” in the way that Muñoz discusses, and I echo his position that utopian thinking is the only way to imagine past the structures we have learned as the only possible answer.
While it is tempting to read Occupy as an entirely utopian movement, it would be entirely remiss to avoid the ways in which people of color have often been marginalized within the efforts of those claiming to speak for the 99%. Muñoz notes that an idealized future is not possible if we hew too closely to postmodern ideas about identity – while identities may be constructed fairy tales, they are lived as material existences and no truly effective moment can forget that. Numerous essayists and bloggers have documented the ways in which protests became white spaces and also the discomfort felt by many in joining such a visible movement at a time of increased police brutality with linguistic and physical violence towards people of color (examples include this open letter to Occupy San Diego and this Jezebel article, with a counterpoint seen here which also does a good job of considering the revolutionary impulses of Occupy and the lack of demands).
Further, the rhetoric of occupation is a fraught one. On the one hand the Occupy movement and the occupation of the Capitol Building in Madison, Wisconsin are exciting because they call into the question notions of who gets to control public spaces (the ostensibly publicly owned capitol, the streets, public parks) but the rhetoric of Occupy also calls on a devastating global history of occupation and colonialism. What is seen as revolutionary on Wall Street is not, clearly, the same as the settler colonialism that decimated indigenous populations globally or the ongoing strife between Palestine and Israel over contested lands in the West Bank and Gaza but that does not mean that the rhetoric is innocent. A different kind of occupation has been part of the ongoing division of classes in the United States – the kind of division that Occupy decries. The through line is the desire to occupy land and call it one’s own – this is not to ignore the socialist impulses inherent in the Occupy efforts but rather to remember that nothing is innocent and histories are palimpsestic.
In his essay about the redistricting of Times Square in the late 1990’s as it was remade into a tourist fantasy land, Samuel R. Delany writes, “the class war raging constantly and often silently in the comparatively stabilized societies of the developed world, though it is at times as hard to detect as Freud’s unconscious or the structure of discourse, perpetually works for the erosion of the social practices through which interclass communication takes place and of the institutions holding those practices stable, so that new institutions must always be conceived and set in place to take over the jobs of those that are battered again and again till they are destroyed.” The constant occupation of the lands of marginalized peoples, their subsequent displacement and their movement to Other spaces is the means by which interclass contact is denied – this physical division and the economic structures that facilitate class division are mutually constitutive. Occupy attempts to subvert this impulse by forcing interclass communication at an elevated register.
In his essay Delany distinguishes between networking and contact as two modes of “social net practice.” Networking describes the types of interactions that occur within relatively closed systems among people with shared social positions – when I chat with my fellow graduate students in our graduate student lounge I may encounter new ideas and share insights but the individuals I will encounter are restricted by shared educational and economic positioning. Contact describes the free form, cross-class meetings that I might find when I ride home from work on the city bus or browse the shelves at my local library. Delany’s account describes the ways in which governmental policy undermines contact and thus leads to the sort of divide that Occupy highlights. Delany argues that “Interclass contact conducted in a mode of good will is the locus of democracy as visible social drama, a drama that must be supported and sustained by political, educational, medical, job, and cultural equality of opportunity if democracy is to mean to most people any more than an annual or quatra-annual visit to a voting booth; if democracy is to animate both infrastructure and superstructure.” True democracy, in Delany’s argument, requires us to actually encounter those that are different from us and be enriched in the process – this is not to argue that all such interactions are positive, utopian, or idealized, but neither are they intrinsically negative or criminal and dangerous (as clearly imagined by the classmates I had in high school whose parents would not let them ride the city bus home because of safety concerns). The 99% that has mobilized in Occupy movements is often a disparate group that spans multiple class categories, educational achievements and work experiences. As mentioned above, issues of race and other historically marginalized identity markers are not absent from the movement.
I started out these rambling with a question about the value of protest and while I have answered that in a sideways fashion, I have also indulged my own academic and theoretical impulses which brings me around to another question: What happens when we theorize the political? Obviously the theoretical and the political are in the same, but what happens when I sit here at my computer and analyze a movement that I have never physically been a part of (aside from helping a friend purchase cookies for the Occupy Columbus folks)? What happens when I theorize a movement that has taken up physical space, experienced physical pain at the hands of the police and raised ire across the political spectrum. Instead of questioning the value of protest, I wonder about the value of theorizing and aestheticizing protest? Violence? What happens when the slap becomes the device of the theoretician? What happens when I teach a movement as a subject? If we accept that culture and aesthetic production are not distinct but rather part of each other, and understand theory as passionate fictions, to borrow from Teresa de Lauretis’ borrowing from Leo Bersani, than we cannot forget that our political efforts at the keyboard or with the pen are part of the overall fabric of this movement.
Earlier this month the popular show Law and Order: Special Victims Unit was frustrated in their efforts to film a “ripped from the headlines” episode based on Occupy when actual Occupy protestors occupied the show’s fictional set and helped themselves to food in the Mockuppy kitchen. The subsequent rescinding of a permit to the SVU crew for filming and the ire of the writers, along with the bizarrely meta nature of all of the proceedings, draws attention to the slippery divide between aesthetic fiction and lived fact. SVU has often been questioned for its sensational treatment of rape and sexual violence as a means to garner ratings, while simultaneously garnering accolades for drawing awareness to sexual violence and especially the experience of female survivors. Fiction often teaches us how to view the world and reinforces what we already decided we knew before we experienced something. When we aestheticize something do we cheapen its intent? Extend the reach of knowledge about an issue? Shift public opinion? Reify existing stereotypes? Make violence and inequality into plot points that function solely to serve story? That last question presupposes that inequality and violence weren’t already parts of an ongoing narrative learned, taught, disseminated, regurgitated and profited from.
And to return again to value, what is value without capitalism? Can we think outside a capitalist framework if we go searching for value? Ahmed reveals that happiness is often something that is expected of us when we attain certain happy objects – this approach to society suggests that happiness attends other positive emotions. Rihanna’s recent popular song “We Found Love” describes lovers who find love in a “hopeless place,” and often we achieve change not through happiness but through the experience of emotions deemed negative or inappropriate. In the current Diablo Cody/Jason Reitman film Young Adult, Charlize Theron’s character learns not that she is unhappy, but that she is not feeling emotions at all but instead searching to find what once felt good with an old boyfriend. She learns that it is not that we cannot feel happiness that is a problem; it’s not being able to feel at all. Sometimes utopian gestures or new potentialities require us to feel strongly emotions that feel hopeless and unhappy or smell that musk of days without a shower sitting in a park in New York City.