Occupy Time

Jason Adams
Williams College

“Time and I, against any two” – Baltasar Gracián

[Author’s Note: this piece was composed while Occupy Oakland, Portland, Denver, and other cities were under attack, prior to the eviction of the epicenter, NYC’s Zuccotti Park. The events of the past weekend, it would seem, render the already developing shift from space to time necessary, as well as inevitable.]

Until recently, a casual observer might have thought that Occupy had developed a time management problem, that it was increasingly managed by a static image of space. While it initially began with the declaration that September 17th would be the starting date and that it would continue for an unspecified period, the focus soon shifted to a general strategy of occupying public space. While this produced many victories, a certain ossification also emerged. What should have been one tactic amongst others began to harden into an increasingly homogenous strategy. For many of those involved, maintaining this spatial focus became the sine qua non of the movement, even in the face, for instance, of the changing of the seasons and ongoing police evictions. In nearly every history-altering moment of the past however, from the Paris Commune to the antiglobalization movement, it was the element of time that proved most decisive. There is a reason, for instance, that the clock towers were the first target chosen by the French communards. Occupy is no exception: as the Jesuit thinker Baltasar Gracián held, beyond all other considerations, it is time rather than space that best positions one to win. Indeed, even those events of the past that are currently narrated as failures can always be renarrated as successes, in that they have left behind possible successes that remain to be actualized. The recently viral image of police surrounding the 2012 Olympic Countdown Clock in London is evidence enough that the primacy of time is well understood in some quarters.

Rather than maintaining this spatial strategy at all costs, what is most interesting about Occupy now is that it is increasingly complicating static images of space: it is, in short, occupying time. This has meant a shift to a more fluid, tactical approach, one not only appropriate to the specifics of constantly changing situations deployed from above, but one that more importantly, allows it to bring forth new ones, from below. Indeed, the initial introduction of an open duration for the Occupy events already oriented the subsequent events primarily towards the temporal and the tactical rather than the spatial and strategic. This was truly its greatest strength and is the major reason the spatial strategy did as well as it did. While Ken Knabb and others have linked Occupy to the Situationists’ promotion of factory and university occupations during the French Events of May 1968, what was most central for the latter was once again not space but time. What they called for and what Occupy is increasing calling for was the “creation of situations.” Already this approach has made it impossible for the actions to be declared a failure once and for all, since it was the temporal focus that enabled the creation of hundreds of new “situations” nationwide and worldwide.

For instance, when one occupation was evicted by police, more often than not, several more have simply appeared elsewhere. Or, if laws governing public parks were cited as an excuse, existing occupations simply moved to private rather than public space, such as abandoned buildings or foreclosed homes. As one online commenter put it, while Rome wasn’t built in a day, it wasn’t dismantled in a day either. The tactical innovation the open timeframe enabled also allowed the coordinates of each situation to be produced by the enactors themselves, on their own, distinct terms. Thus, while the originally spatially-oriented events in lower Manhattan gave birth to Occupy Wall Street, it was the temporal structure that enabled the emergence of Occupy the Hood in Queens several weeks later. Had it simply been billed as a conventional one-day protest confined to a single space, the few hundred who initially showed up in the streets near the New York Stock Exchange would not have even registered in the media, let alone countless peoples’ affective attachments, as is now the case.

Perhaps then, if transforming the collective situation remains the primary concern, some consideration of the space/time as well as strategy/tactics relationships is in order. For instance, consider the temporal quality of the moment in which Occupy has emerged. Today, the experience of time has become greatly accelerated, much more so than just one decade ago. Whether or not one has access to the social media sites or smartphones that are increasingly turning the old, spatially-defined continents into new, temporally-defined telecontinents, trillions of dollars in financial transactions still speed around the globe daily. Beyond the rhetoric of the “digital divide”, this continually creates new realities that everyone is faced with. The most recent example is the economic crisis. It was not only attributable to unsustainable, individually-purchased mortgages, but more importantly, to what brought them to market in the first place: the massively increased pace at which global financial transactions occur. This is one reason, perhaps, that the spatial strategy is evolving into a temporal tactics. As Karl Marx argued in the Grundrisse, economics is ultimately a matter of time. The less time required to accumulate money in the first place, he held, the more time available to mobilize other forces to produce more of it. Thus ever-increasing speed is a primary basis for the contemporary mode of production. Today it is not time is money but money is time.

While speed is often mobilized from above though, this is not the only form it takes. Accelerated capitalism forces its subjects to spend more and more of their time working, but even this is subverted constantly. For instance, on-the-job chatting, texting and websurfing are all increasingly narrated as in need of monitoring and management. Indeed, it is often through the very means introduced to control time more thoroughly, that such activities are rendered possible. In Marx’s terms, the means of production are brought into conflict with the relations of production. While today’s accelerated capitalism attempts to intensify accumulation through continuously revamped social communication technologies, with each new innovation it also enables its reversal by movements like Occupy. This is why accelerated capitalism is faced with a “counter-temporality”, the creation of, rather than response to, situations. Paul Virilio has creatively engaged this question with respect to the tactic of the work stoppage. Rather than just occupying space, as he felt was more effective during the feudal era, he argued that in the modern period it was the strike that is most powerful. For him, this was because “it spread to a whole duration. It was less an interruption of space (as with the barricade) than of duration. The strike was a barricade in time.” This is particularly the case with the general strike: such temporal tactics do have a history in the United States, but in the years prior to the Oakland General Strike, the Seattle WTO protests were the closest one of its major cities came to pulling one off in many decades. It is worth considering the relationship of these two latest attempts, because in both cases the tension between space and time were as central as that between strategy and tactics.

While it is well known that the Seattle WTO protestors occupied the downtown space, the first significant event of November 30, 1999 occurred earlier in the day. At that time, thousands of workers and students disrupted the predictable rhythms of transportation, restaurant, stevedoring, and educational industries by walking out, calling in sick, or taking the day off. Time was also key to the eventual success of the later events. The spatial strategy of the Direct Action Network (DAN) had been that all protests downtown would consist of a nonviolent occupation of every street, sidewalk, and greenspace surrounding the Convention Center. Likewise, that of the AFL-CIO was that they would march in a big circle from Memorial Stadium towards the Convention Center and back to the starting point. Crucially though, the union leadership had assured the Seattle Police and the Secret Service that they would specifically not venture into the city’s core, where it was well-known that direct actions would be underway. Finally, the Seattle Police and the Secret Service based their own approach on what they had learned from DAN/AFL-CIO. As a result of this knowledge, their reasoning went, they would simply flush everyone from the downtown actions back into the labor march as they were making the loop back towards the Stadium. In other words, they would link all three strategies such that the already-existing hierarchy of time would not be interrupted and the WTO conference would occur as scheduled.

But that of course, did not happen. The main reason the Seattle WTO protests successfully forced the cancellation of the conference was that this static image of space was overcome both temporally and tactically. At the very moment the AFL-CIO members would have been rounding the corner back to the stadium, thousands of rank-and-file members of the International Warehouse and Longshore Union, Sheetmetal Workers, Steelworkers, and other unions broke off and marched through a line of parade marshals to join the actions downtown. At that same moment, the black bloc, homeless youth, and, as might surprise some Occupiers, many who had proclaimed nonviolence began countering the police assault on the protesters, which had intensified long before any windows were broken. Between these two breaks from the interlinked spatial strategy, a new countertemporality was introduced at the very moment the Seattle Police and Secret Service had intended to mobilize it to their advantage. This is why the two protest groups—around 25,000 mobilized by DAN and about 25,000 mobilized by the AFL-CIO—are not remembered today simply as the 50,000 who were flushed out of the downtown space, like so much refuse. Rather, they are remembered as the 50,000 who shut down the meetings of one of the most powerful arms of global capitalism: “Seattle,” today, requires no further qualifier. While space was occupied temporarily, time was occupied permanently.

What in this, though, helps Occupy? Despite the emergent willingness to change tactics with the seasons and evictions, Occupy has been ridiculed by the media for not recognizing the largely middle-class pedigree of many of its participants. Even if they are currently in a precarious position, the argument goes, chances are that eventually a good portion of them will end up at least financially stable. Which is a lot more than can be said for the permanent underclass or many people of color or many others who are not showing up in as great of numbers. Depending on how the economic crisis unfolds, they may be right: many occupiers may become what the New York Times predicted they would a few years back, “the formerly middle class.”  Either way, Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History are relevant. As he famously argued, “the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘emergency situation’ in which we live is not the exception, but the rule.” Rather than seeing time as existing in the same, neutral manner for everyone, Benjamin held that multiple temporalities coexist in a stratified manner. Given that the German Jewish philosopher wrote the Theses at the time of another economic crisis, one that eventually buttressed Hitler’s rise to power, it is not surprising that he had insight into such questions. But his argument was not only that minorities under the modern state are subjected to an artificial, selectively-enforced state of emergency. It was also that in some sense, everyone is, or that in the right conditions could be, as happened under Nazism. That of course, is why for Benjamin, the emergency situation is not the exception but the rule.

The challenge from his perspective, then, was to begin to perceive in a manner that would allow one to be affected by this fact, whatever one’s own position might be. This, he thought, might well be the most important key to, in his phrase, “bring about a real state of emergency.” One that would be “real” in that it would interrupt the succession of false emergencies enacted by those who experience time from above, economically or otherwise. His concept of multiple, coexisting times might also tell us something about the internal divisions that appear today within Occupy, such as for instance that which followed the Oakland General Strike. As anyone who paid attention to the aftermath knows, tactics taken up by one section that another section disagreed with resulted in the claim that “they do not represent Occupy.” However, because differences in temporal experience are often imperceptible across social divides, such calls to unity and consensus are themselves questionable. It is no surprise of course that the dominant perception of space, marked by discourses of property and nationality, continues to hold sway even amongst those who would transform it. But, as Benjamin put it, when the old temporality is interrupted in a fundamental way, this perception will also be interrupted, by a “historical time-lapse camera.” In other words, a new image of time that will reorient our perception of space. This is especially important since for individuals, time is marked by a succession of affective attachments that overgrid one another in ever-deepening layers, over the course of a lifetime. Those who mobilized or were swept up by the movements of the late 1960s, for instance, necessarily experience subsequent events differently from their equivalent in the late Nineties. As the emergence of Occupy the Hood demonstrates, the same could be said of many other temporally framed experiences.

Occupy is not a single, homogenous collectivity. Rather, like the Sixties and antiglobalization movements that preceded it, it is a divergent assemblage of individual and collective singularities. They will then either increasingly resonate and compose a more formidable countertemporality, or progressively decompose, as occurred with the Sixties generation following Reagan, and the Seattle generation following Bush. Which way it goes is of concern not only for those who claim that there has always been a single, unified tactical line within Occupy. It is also one for those who seek to invoke or apply tactics that have not heretofore been widely employed. Every situation is different and occupying time rather than space does not mean anything goes. Rather it means that because it is the only possible basis for increased resonance, multiplicity should be valued more than unity, just as dissensus should be valued more than consensus. The guide to judging which tactics are appropriate in a given or possible situation is not that of a rigid strategy imposed according to the dominant order of perception, but rather something more like Benjamin’s historical time-lapse camera. In other words, one should first attempt to perceive the temporal divides that organize experience differently. While Occupy may be “occupying together,” this “together” is not simple and it is not “one.” As the late nineteenth century photographer Juliet Margaret Cameron put it with respect to her pioneering use of motion in a genre defined by static images, “what is focus, and who has the right to say what is legitimate focus?” Rather than capturing time in space, her images complicated space with time.

There are many signs already that a tactical approach is returning in a manner that could expand this emergent counter-temporality. As winter closes in and public space becomes more difficult to hold, a more complex focus is evident in the move to organize further strikes in cities and institutions, to occupy buildings left vacant by bank foreclosures and capital flight, to acquire buses and other vehicles for enhanced mobility and shelter, to move from permanent to flash occupations, and to concentrate outdoor occupations on the warmer regions as winter intensifies. Similarly, the spread within Occupy of networked live video feeds suggests something like that which Cameron’s time-images did. While the quality of the image is often “shaky” and “grainy,” they rely on the long take, which in the absence of editing, requires viewers to decide for themselves what to focus on. During the Oakland General Strike, the Occupy feed was juxtaposed to corporate television feeds, producing a new kind of live montage.  Ultimately, such innovations begin with the loosening, not the tightening, of the relation between perception, affection and action. If Occupy is to truly become movement, it must dispense with the static image of the movement. Movement is not the prefigurative realization of a future ideal. It is that which sets conditions of possibility for continuing movement, situational bases for new situations of time. “Communism is not for us a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence” (The German Ideology).

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “Occupy Time

  1. Pingback: Critical Inquiry on the Occupy Movement | Possible Futures

  2. Pingback: Some other good Occupy links | Progressive Geographies

  3. ds

    Great job with this! I think you articulated a lot of things that need to be understood by this and other movements!

  4. Muhandis Almani

    “Ich leb ja den Traum der Kommune noch immer
    Dazu hat mich doch meine Mutter geboren…”

  5. Pingback: Berkeley Journal of Sociology: Understanding Occupy | Occupy | Decolonize | Liberate

  6. ‘dissensus should be valued more than consensus.’ Superb

    As James Maxton used to say before the day of a strike -

    “don’t forget to turn off you alarm clock”.

  7. Pingback: OCCUPOLOGY, SWARMOLOGY, WHATEVEROLOGY: the city of (dis)order versus the people’s archive | Art Journal

  8. I find a great deal of value in this meditation on the temporal dimensions of what has most often been characterized as a “spatial” movement. Arguably one of the crucial aspects of occupying spaces has been to allow people to break out of a certain dominant experience and constraint of time: to allow for extended conversations to develop, to help people unplug from myriad instantaneous distractions and instead focus on a number of funamental issues for an extended and open-ended period of time. Etc.

    I do however feel that the closing of the article betrays a problematic faith in spontaneity, diversity, and “dissensus” as if these things were good in and of themselves. But without the correct guidance, process, strategy and leadership (yes, I said leadership, though I don’t mean just specific ‘leaders’) dissenus can lead to (and arguably has led to) dispersion and even a dissolution of the collectivity that Occupy (pre)figured.

  9. Pingback: asphalt as political territory II: temporality & the image « obsolete matter

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