Tag Archives: Nicholas Mirzoeff

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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