Further Thoughts on Occupy: Open Letter to W. J. T. Mitchell


I’ve just been catching up on my journal reading and very much appreciated the recent bundle of articles on the Occupy movement in Critical Inquiry. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/668047 But I also have one critique. Initially I hesitated to write, but I realized I was reading something that was very familiar to me, not only in your writing but in many others, that bears commenting on. Your preface offers an overview of the Occupy movement from an almost invisibly American perspective. Of course you are American, and so you may argue that this perspective makes sense. But I think there is a problem when it leads to misrepresentation. I especially think there is a problem in our current world of geopolitical inquiry, globalization, and transnationalism.

            As I’m sure you know, the Occupy movement took its name from the Vancouver-based magazine Adbusters. Occupy movements were present in every major city in Canada. In my city, Ottawa, which also happens to be the nation’s capital, the movement produced controversy as well as assent, a space for debate and gathering as well as a space of occasional violence. But when you reference the Occupy movement geographically you interestingly “confine” it primarily to the US. Consider your references. Occupy moves “from highly particular events in New York’s Zucotti Park” (this is true enough), to its relation to “American politics,” to “uprisings that spread like a virus across the Middle East to Europe, the United States, and beyond.” This virus apparently bypasses Canada, the US’s closest neighbour. Later you note that “protests spread from Zucotti Park to scores of cities all over the US.” Later still you refer to “nonviolent protestors across the US.” Of course it is fine to discuss the Occupy movement in its American context, but it is just the assumption that this context is the context for the movement that troubles me.

            I want to be clear: I am by no means calling for national inclusion; my point is not that Canada was left out of your narrative. I am not suggesting that you add “and Canada” to your lists. Rather I am making a plea for rethinking and reframing the way that nation is discussed, in general, and the way that the US is referenced, in particular. Too often, it seems to me, American intellectuals read large political and social movements only through the lens of American geopolitical identity. The imagination of a broader context does not even enter the discussion (or, if it does, it is captured by the vague and uncritical “and beyond.”)  

            You are in a prominent position to make an intervention here. When a leading intellectual participates in and reinforces this sort of partial, geographically bounded, description of a major social movement, it limits the way that we think about the issues. I am making a subtle request but I do believe it is hugely consequential for the ways in which we understand our roles in the academy and our vision for the future of intellectual inquiry. For, as you suggest, a shift in language can trigger shifts in our conversations that expand the limits of what is both thinkable and possible. 


Barbara Leckie
Associate Professor & Graduate Chair
Department of English &
Institute for the Comparative Study of Literature, Art, and Culture

Carleton University

1 Comment

Filed under Arab Spring, Critical Inquiry, Occupy

One response to “Further Thoughts on Occupy: Open Letter to W. J. T. Mitchell

  1. Of course I should have mentioned Canada, and I thank you for reminding me, since I have enjoyed so many occasions of Canadian hospitality over the years, in Vancouver, Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg, and Peterborough. And I am sure I made other omissions in my hasty global survey–Europe, especially, aside from the ugly “English Summer” of riot and looting–was completely missing. And I take your point that it is not merely a matter of being “listed,” but of acknowledging and re-thinking the frames of reference we bring to intellectual reflections on global events. But I don’t think my “American” perspective was invisible; in fact, I took pains to be explicit about my point of view and those of my colleagues as situated in local disciplinary and urban sites. And I would also want to re-emphasize my sense of the unfolding of Occupy, as a movement that certainly did not oriiginate with Adbusters, or with North America, but which emerged most dramatically in several locations in the Middle East. If one looks for an originary catalyst, it is the self-immolation of a fruit vendor in Tangier that has become canonical. But even that event I would want to qualify as what Edward Said called a “beginning,” highly provisional and indeterminate in its significance, recalled as an “origin” only in retrospect. And I would want to stress the much longer and systematic meaning of the word and phenomenon known as “Occupation” in the preceding period–the occupation of territories and the subjugation of populations, the emergence of massive camps, favelas, and detention centers world-wide. Occupy, in my view, crystallized a moment of global resistance to and reflection on Occupations around the globe. I believe, at the end of the day, our thoughts and feelings about all this are pulling in the same direction and struggling with the same complex issues.

    Warm regards from Pondicherry, India, where the front page news is about Tamil protestors striking in support of the UN resolution calling their treatment in Sri Lanka genocide.

    W. J. T. Mitchell

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