Occupy My Memory: Maurice Halbwachs, Mute Media, and the Problem of Global Context
Maurice Halbwachs had a theory. His theory was about memory, and it went something like this:
A person has individual memories – memories of places, events, information, people. We all have these memories. But individual memory,coexists with another entitythat Halbwachs termed Collective Memory.
Collective Memory is created when something happens on a large enough scale that it holds relevance for many people at once. What keeps this memory alive, he thought, is how it is shared over the course of time between people. One’s memory of the event is pieced together not just from their personal experience of the event, but from other people’s experiences that she has heard about or seen.
If you’ve left your bed over the past three and a half weeks, you know that the Occupy Wall Street protests have culminated into something that will doubtlessly be referred to as an historic event. “Remember the Occupy Wall Street movement?” is a question likely to be posed more than a few times in the near future (to be fair it may be recited as, “Remember the first weeks of the Occupy movement?” or “Remember Occupy? Damn, that was close”, choose to your liking).
The media doesn’t know what to do. They are confused. These are not riots – that kind of rage is easy to understand: simple, raw energy channeled through vengeance, constructive or not. Here, however, we are faced with a far less destructive – and therefore more complicated – response, and it appears to be composed not only of traditionally disparate ideological camps but of different global contexts altogether. It is, to put it in the in the spirit of recent headlines, a philosopher’s wet dream and a news anchor’s worst nightmare.
Spurred by a generation that grew accustomed to the oft abrasive question, “Where were you on 9/11?” and that learned to tell and retell their tired stories in a gesture of basic etiquette, the notion of “history in the making” is not totally unfamiliar to many of the Wall Street occupiers.
For this generation, that massive and terrible event was the start of understanding what it meant to be actors in collective memory. We had seen history; been in it. As if needing some sort of guidance in how to correctly preserve such experiences (thanks, Halbwachs), older generations and their stories about the World Wars, Vietnam and the space race constantly came to mind. Until then, the unfolding of such important moments seemed ungraspable, romantic. Now, it seems, there’s talk of this moment being like those things; historical.
Except that those events – unconditionally set in undertones of terror and defense – were defined by competitive nationalism, unspeakable violence, and the perennial call of Us and Them. They were, in that sense, collective memories that bode very differently depending on what side of the globe you stood (ask any native Russian over 70 what memories accompany the name Neil Armstrong).
This, it seems, is different.
On October 15th the Occupy Wall Street movement officially goes global. What does this mean? At this point it seems to mean that the protests against “things as they are” will be implemented in cities around the world (this means cities in countries that are politically at odds with one another), in a gigantic show of inter-solidarity that will confuse media outlets further, and likely pose problems for more than a few politicians.
This is not to say that “things as they are” are the same in Washington as they are in Tel Aviv – claiming so would stifle the iridescent diversity that sets this moment apart.
One thing seems to be clear though; in whatever language you ask, people seem to agree – overwhelmingly, surprisingly so – that things, as they are, aren’t okay.
While the movement’s proponents have been as surprised as impartial bystanders by its uncanny escalation, it has been perhaps prematurely celebrated as a global revolution. Professions of “real change” and other lofty claims fill the air with a hazy positivism that hums constantly both at the crowded Zuccotti campsite and through the revealing nervousness of pervasive media coverage.
We’ve heard this kind of talk before, some say, describing the protestors as crusty hippie pariahs with no concept of market dynamics, in a frantic attempt to peg who, in fact, these people are. Meanwhile, the movement’s universality actually adds more complexity than there might have already been. Whose revolution? To what end? Is it just a bit of healthy zeitgeist? A Levi’s jeans ad, realized?
This ambiguity has been the center of media criticism over the past 3 plus weeks as protests have picked up with unprecedented speed to cover nearly every state and even more cities in the U.S.
Still, it takes a profound level of denial, and even more fear, to wholly question the import of an event that has spread so uniformly, so relentlessly and so quickly and which has, in less than a month, made its unclassifiable voice clearly heard in every country on the world map, perhaps even resonating as relevant, and not totally alien as other uprisings in distant countries may have done in the past.
Whether you are moved by the amorphousness of this strange thing, by its message or perhaps simply by its sheer weight…it doesn’t really matter – the point is you are moved. If you are not, then what you are is one of two things: uninformed or afraid. Admittedly, it takes a capacity to remove oneself from one’s context – to shed the thick shell of cynicism and anxiety – in order to recognize when something new has implanted itself into the narrative of human experience.
Regardless of whether something concrete comes of this — and by concrete I mean uniform, manageable, reportable — there is currently a plan for a worldwide march this Saturday in the name of something different. 1,370 cities on 6 continents have reached consensus to do this, without government, without elections, and without a leader.
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