Monthly Archives: October 2011

Occupy Theory

Nicholas Mirzoeff

“Mic check!”

General assembly, sparkly hands, consensus, concern, temperature check, block, process: this is the vocabulary and embodied performance of occupy theory. Each word has an equivalent embodied gesture, which is the means of indicating how you’re feeling about a proposal: fingers up for feeling good, horizontal for not sure, down for against.

The strongest sign is raised, crossed arms for a block: an ethical or safety concern over a proposal that might cause you to leave the movement. Proposals are “consens-ed” by facilitators so that a clear majority approve. It’s not always quick but it is always interesting. It’s occupy theory.

Don’t make the phrase into a noun: it’s not a theory of occupation. Occupy theory is what you do as you occupy. It is the process that has become in some sense the purpose of the direct democracy movement, known by its signature instance Occupy Wall Street, or #ows.

There have been a variety of star theory people come to Zuccotti Park, where Occupy Wall Street is based, and to Occupy Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village from Zizek to Spivak and Andrew Ross. Given the performative nature of occupy theory, it’s not surprising that—to judge from the Twitterstorm and Facebook frenzy—it has been Judith Butler who best captured the moment. She presented a set of demands for the impossible, echoing the Situationist slogan “Be realistic: demand the impossible.” Seen in printed form in which the line breaks represent a pause for the “human mic” that has become a signature of the movement, Butler’s talk is a prose poem.

So what is this occupy in occupy theory? While occupation of public and private spaces is a long tradition of industrial protest movements, there have been concerns from indigenous and Palestinian groups about the term “occupy.” In New Mexico, they have neatly re-rendered the term as “(Un)occupy.” So somewhere between occupy and un-occupy—or more exactly oscillating between them—is occupy theory. It’s the latest version of what I have called the “right to look” which is at once the invention of the other and the consent for the other to invent you.

The first claim of the right to look is the right to existence, the right to be seen to exist. The people posting on “We Are the Ninety-Nine Per Cent” a collaborative blog, have used the webcam format to have their stories told and made visible. These assembled self-portraits together present a set of claims. The individual self-photograph transforms a data point within the statistics of debt, unemployment and insurance disaster into a person. This person is not performed for the sake of pity or charity but as a constituent member of the emerging “people.”  As Rancière has put it, “a `people` of this kind is not an assemblage of groups and social identities. It is a polemical form of identification that is drawn along particular lines of fracture, where the distribution of leaders and led, learned and ignorant, possessors and dispossessed is decided.” That is to say—we are the ninety-nine per cent.

Nor is the performative expressed “Occupy Wall Street” quite as simple as it seems. The occupation is not on Wall Street but round the corner at Zuccotti Park. Named for the director of Canadian conglomerate Brookfield—the company hoping to bring tar sands oil to the U.S.—Zuccotti is occupied because it is a private-public park, a zoning variance that has the requirement of permanent public access to a generic piece of urban landscape in exchange for extra height to a building or other such one per cent goodies. Much as New York City Mayor Bloomberg is itching to expel the occupiers—and he may yet succeed in finding a way—he has no legal recourse at present. Washington Square Park, as city property, is always closed between midnight and six a.m. so the occupation there cannot be permanent. Occupying is being done in the variant space between the security-regulated public commons and the deregulated zones of the neoliberal private market.

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In Memoriam: Friedrich A. Kittler, 1943-2011

Photograph by Isabell Schrickel

Friedrich A. Kittler, Professor Emeritus of Aesthetics and Media Studies at the Humboldt University, died October 18th, 2011, following a protracted illness. He was 68 years old. In a career that spanned more than three decades and well over one hundred publications, Professor Kittler contributed to a profound reassessment of literary and media production. At the center of his work was the controversial claim that “media determine our situation.”[1]

The conventions of obituaries and elegies seem ill-suited to praising an author who consistently exhorted his readers to eschew the mirage of the author in favor of an empirical analysis of the apparatuses, procedures, institutions, and techniques that regulate discourse. Even so, a brief summary of the life and work attributed to the name “Friedrich A. Kittler is in order. Friedrich Adolf Kittler was born in Rochlitz, Saxony, in 1943. During his childhood, his mother would sometimes take him to visit the site where engineers had devised the V2 rocket, and he carried memories of World War II and subsequent occupation throughout the rest of his life. In his sweeping accounts of media and technological change in the twentieth century, both the war the rockets would return as protagonists. In 1958, his family fled to West Germany. From 1963 until 1972 he studied Romance languages, German, and philosophy at the University of Freiburg. He subsequently taught at his alma mater as a graduate assistant while completing his postgraduate studies.

Kittler gained international recognition for his 1985 book Aufschreibesysteme 1800/1900, originally prepared for his habilitation. The text proved so vexing and controversial that it had to be reviewed by a team of thirteen senior professors (instead of the usual committee of three) before finally being accepted—ruefully, by some accounts—as a worthwhile contribution to the study of German literature. In it, he proposed a radical reinterpretation of Romanticism and modernism as two distinct modes of discursive production whose style and logic derived from what could be translated as the “notational systems” or “discourse networks” peculiar to their epochs. He defined these networks as “technologies and institutions that allow a given culture to select, store, and process relevant data.”[2] According to Kittler, in the early nineteenth century the universal alphabet, the techniques of maternal instruction, and the rise of widespread literacy were among the most decisive features of a discourse network that produced the techniques of authority and interpretation characteristic of the great Romantic works. Kittler argued that the authors of these texts—most notably Goethe—were artifacts or illusions of this system of textual production and reception rather than the immaculate origins and originators of meaning. Taking eccentric inspiration from the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and the madman Daniel Paul Schreber, Kittler argued that in the twentieth-century literature was dislocated within technical media systems that destabilized authors and psyches alike. Despite the lukewarm reception of Kittler’s thesis by some of his supervising professors, the book became a sensation in literary studies and a foundational text for the then-emerging field of cultural studies.

His subsequent book Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (1986) elaborated and radicalized his earlier analysis to develop a new approach to media history based on specifying, in ever-greater detail, the networks of inscriptions, transmission, and receptions (what other critics might refer to as novels, movies, musical recordings, or psychoanalytic case studies) that developed in and around a host of modern media. Though often seen as a celebration of the end of the written word—Kittler claimed that media had shattered the monopoly of writing on modern culture—Gramophone, Film, Typewriter mapped out new methods by which literary criticism could extend its analysis to laboratories, factories, mathematics, circuit boards, or any other site for the recording, processing, or reception of inscriptions.

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Steve Jobs: What Is the Big Deal?

Steve Jobs and the Poetry of Gadgets

What is the big deal with Steve Jobs?  I have read my share of commentary on him, and tracked the phenomenal media attention that surrounded his death, but I still don’t feel that I get it.  Only the onset of war or some other catastrophe could have competed with the attention given to his death, the endless paeans to his extraordinary creativity and his boundless confidence in his vision of things.  The death of a president would have outstripped it.  But I can’t think of any other star in the firmament of mass culture whose death would have been covered so broadly (maybe Michael Jackson?).  Yes, I know he supervised the invention and marketing of the totemic gadgets of our time–call them our churingas–in the form of iPods, iPhone, iPads, and Macs.  Yes, I know he had a “storied career,” and was a complex person who could be a real asshole when he wanted.  Bullying, tyrannical, etc. are some of the labels that circulate around him.  But what precisely was the source of his celebrity?  Was it the money or the totemic aura?  Four billion and mounting, little of it so far, I gather, going to charity.  Is it the ruthless and relentless style, linking him with  earlier titans of industry like Andrew Carnegie or Henry Ford—the visionary capitalist?  Who is he, in fact, comparable to?  Is it his early, tragic death?  Or is it just the things themselves, the merger of commodity fetish and pleasure principle, in these sleek, powerful portals into new social and psychological formations, awakening new new kinds of needs that these objects promise to satisfy.

I write this on the eve of the October 14, 2011 release of the new iPhone 4Gs (on my MacBook Pro…).  Why do I care one bit about this?  It seems completely irrational.  Can anyone explain to me what is the big deal?   Has somebody written a great essay on this topic?   If it hasn’t been published, send it to Critical Inquiry.

–W. J. T. Mitchell


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Bill Ayers on Oral History in Cyprus


Cyprus, one of the smallest countries in the European Union, is also the last divided country in Europe, Nicosia its last divided city. Winning its independence from Great Britain in 1960, Cyprus has been roiled in ethnic conflict, violence, and division almost from the start; everyone of a certain age remembers the troubles of 1963-1967. The 1974Turkish invasion and subsequent occupation sealed the fate of Cyprus for decades.

The troubles of the last 50 years are not unrelated to Cyprus’ strategic location at the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea, a place that has long attracted and continues to draw the great world powers. Rome ruled, as did Istanbul and England. Richard the Lion Hearted took a piece of the island on his way to the Crusades, Paul the Apostle was given 39 strokes with a lash by the Romans for preaching the Gospel, Othello’s Castle is on the southern coast, and Lazarus died on the island. Cyprus has always been a storied jewel of the Mediterranean.

Today UN peace keepers patrol the buffer zone between north and south, and England maintains a massive presence, tens of thousands of military personnel, and two air bases (which were used by the US most recently to launch into Afghanistan and Iraq) constituting 10% of the land mass. Some Cypriots complain that the great powers see Cyprus as little more than a huge, unsinkable aircraft carrier.

While there has not been a shot fired since 1999, and while the border between the north and the south opened in 2003, for the generation now in its sixties, memories of the early days are both vivid and raw, and, indeed, for most Cypriots of every age, Cyprus still bleeds. That bleeding—its interpretative meaning and its pervasive imaginative power today—is the focus of this work.

Our project is simply this: to record in notes and photographs and sketches, on audio or video, the voices and words of the people of Cyprus themselves, from every community, to capture their memories, understand their specific meaning-perspectives, illuminate their lives. Our guiding light is every person a philosopher/every day another story. We will create as rich and varied an archive as we can, and we hope that participants will see themselves in this collection as three-dimensional, grass-roots makers of history, and that their descendants will better understand how their ancestors—like all human beings: free and fated; fated and free—shuffled through this mortal coil. We hope, too, that future historians will find material to aid in their own searches for deeper meanings and fuller understandings. We hope, finally, to add ground-level, individual perspectives toward uncovering and teaching the conflict, and in this way, through oral history, to assist the process of truth-telling and reconciliation. Continue reading

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Bernardine Dohrn on Occupying Wall Street

Occupying Wall Street

Bernardine Dohrn

Up from the musty subways, two blocks down Broadway, the controlled chaos of Occupy Wall Street leaps into view, part happening (musicians drumming, piles of clothing, an efficient and tasty food service, a library, the medical unit) part street fair (homemade postering, people browsing, the brilliant Beehive Collective art posters, bustling tables of conversation) and part BugHouse Square/Union Square (debates, engaging passers-by, speakers, daily democratic meetings).  Liberty Plaza, formerly Zuccotti Park, is long (going East/West) and narrow (up and downtown).

Occupy Wall Street is entering its 4th week.  It’s fresh, a break, visceral bolts of lightning.  Pointing fingers at the fat cats, it challenges the gouging 1%.  It unites the 99.  It (so far) has no program, no demands.  It occupies the park at the foot of the stone and glass citadels.  Located just two blocks East of the World Trade Center abyss, and blocks West from the Tombs (the massive gulag that cages the poor and people of color, Occupy Wall Street is multiplying, replicable.  The titans roost high above all of our cities.  This occupation is decentralizing itself.  Sparked by the young who have no jobs, but have crushing student loans that will keep them indebted to the banks and banking universities for decades (Cancel the Debt!), witnessing their parents’ homes foreclosed, they see the gross financial/corporate money grab for what it is and in contrast, they illuminate another way of being.

Two inventions are stunning to experience: the General Assembly, the daily horizontal, consensus-seeking, rebellious, anarchist meeting; and the peoples’ microphone.  Since the police prohibit amplification, the occupying forces invented a living mike, repeating every 6-8 words from the speaker.  When Naomi Klein spoke, she kept turning on the stage as in a theatre in the round, and as the crowd swelled, she had to wait until 3 echoes of her thought were repeated out from the center before continuing.  It was funny and hard to catch the rhythm but it also involved all of us in restating her words, making them our own, amplifying out.  We were all both speaking and listening, and the exuberance is contagious.

I approach two women holding Grannies for Peace signs, but all is not juicy here.  I’m a granny for peace, I begin, looking for somewhere to join in.  A torrent of complains flow forth: “This is just a Be-In!” (I remember my first Be-In at the lakefront in Chicago, 1966, I liked it.)  “No politics!  No demands.”  They aren’t wrong, but not right, missing the flame.  I move on.

OWS is the inheritor of the 1999 Seattle challenges to the World Trade Organization.  It openly acknowledges the inspiration of Tunisia, Egypt, Wisconsin and Greece.  Flanked by (some) important union support, multiracial (to some extent), revolted by endless US invasions abroad and national security wars against immigrants and the poor at home, and zealously passionate about climate change and protecting the earth, OWS is nurturing a beginning, a seed, a spark.

The police presence is massive, ominous and ugly, despite the extended and firm non-violent civil disobedience stance of the occupiers.  Wall Street itself is blocked off by police barricades, making visible what is implicit.  OWS says in response, “Occupy Public Space” and “Generate Solutions Accessible to Everyone,” living differently so everyone can live.   Join us.  Quickly.


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