Occupy Wall Street and the War on Metonymy
After a short period of time at Occupy Wall Street it becomes clear that Wall Street is not actually being occupied. A large group of people have moved into a park a few blocks away from it, where it seems their colorful tent city is, in fact, the thing being occupied–hemmed in by metal barricades and clusters of police officers walking around its perimeter almost expecting something violent to happen.
Walking through the improvised shelters in Zuccotti Park it’s impressive how unaligned the interests seem to be. In contrast to the dull choirs of low taxes and no government in the Tea Party coalition, Occupy Wall Street is so far a bric-a-brac of ideas. There are those protesting corporate graft and CEO over-compensation, but right beside are boosters for wind-generated energy, environmentalists decrying the oil industry pollution. Others talk about the long-term unsustainability of for-profit healthcare, and others still bemoan the poisonous chemicals used in many mass-produced food products and candies. And then there’s the Christian Scientists promoting spiritual healing, someone offering free yoga instruction, and a woman in a marching band outfit striking up conversations with a vagina hand puppet. The movement has been derided by some for lacking an identifiable political purpose, but this seems to be the point.
The movement has a tidal quality willing to accommodate any and all voices who happen to momentarily pass through its briny gates. The nightly meeting that occurs, without the aid of electricity or projection, is almost like a piece of performance art embodying the no-kings spirit of anarchy. The group gathers in a ring and one person starts speaking in short statements that are then relayed from person to person. Anyone with something to say can have a turn speaking, and preference is given to those causes that have the least support to ensure that the whims of consensus do not overwhelm any individual. The collected body of people consent to relay one another’s messages–regardless of whether they accept them as true, they implicitly acknowledge the thoughts should at least be heard.
We’ve come to think of corporatism as a synonym for corruption, a phenomenon whereby the interests of impersonal corporations suborn governments and subvert the influence of the general population. Ironically, its original sense was very nearly the opposite, a view of society as composed of distinct organs of specific interest whose collected assembly was a kind of body, the healthy functioning of which required cooperation between its various parts. It is the waning of this principle of coequal cooperation that the neo-anti-corporatists of Occupy Wall Street seem to most oppose, as if the body has now been overwhelmed by the singular needs of its spleen, to the detriment of all other organs. These invigorated citizens are ironically the last line of defense for traditional corporatism and not really its antagonists.
These absurd discrepancies have come to define American politics in the last several decades. We very often have things exactly wrong. The Democratic Party is labeled liberal, even though it represents the explicitly conservative interests of supporting a reasonable quality of life for people in all professions–to flatten the discrepant material benefits between career paths so that the nobility of a school teach is conserved, given a similar material value as a banker. Republicans, likewise, cling to the proud emblem of conservatism when they are liberalizers in most senses, fighting for free markets, diminished government interference in business, and the preservation of individual rights. There are obvious exceptions in both cases–largely derived from religious prejudices against homosexuality, drug use, and the license for capital punishment–but we have generally divorced political speech from literal meaning. Republicans and Democrats are no more conservative or liberal than the men playing for the Atlanta Braves are Native Americans or Georgians. Language here becomes a kind of competitive tennis racket and not a medium for closeness and understanding between two people or parties.
Occupy Wall Street is beautiful because it is fundamentally apolitical. It is less a cry for systemic reform and more a rejection of systematicity and the bloat of scale that comes from it. This is a doomed but a noble cause. The wonders of modernity very often seduce us into thinking we’ve advanced further than we have. I remember in high school experiencing anxiety over the idea of living without a television. It’s now been shown iPhone use has a neurological footprint that is in some ways similar to human love. The pleasures of material evolution require scale and depersonalization that can only be done with a multinational corporation. Without them all creativity would be local, as film was in the late 19th century, projected by the person who created it in a setting they had personally arranged and on equipment they had had a hand in building.
Occupy Wall Street’s most sensical complaint is, paradoxically, for a more balanced corporate society, where people can benefit from the wonders of technical scale and commerce without being disenfranchised by it. The people with the most enduring point are, in fact, corporatists who have, through recession and managerial impropriety, been thrown out of the corpus. They are people who have lost their right to operate in the system and want to buy back in. And they will win, absorbed by the system, amending it to suit their own particularities, until the generations that follow them will discover the old way doesn’t address them with any specificity. In the same way the graying belly hairs of Clintonian liberalism has bequeathed upon us the phantasmagoria of the present day banking system–where complaints are parsed by machines directed to people in far-off countries reading from laminated binder pages–the future will be a new phantasmagoria of unintended disasters by the hopeful activism of today.
What will be lost–because every generation is bound to lose it as a rite of passage–is the idea that we can live with out intermediate systems to separate us. We can live without being brand ambassadors, party advocates and role models, we can reject the commercialization of our abstract obsession with beauty turned into form. We can accept music as an act of a community, not an elevated product of an individual. We can live without the one-way dramas of film, and instead find in sharing one another’s lives a performative diorama. And we can do without magical new computer tablets that allow us to converge all of these distanced forms of commodotization through one uniform portal.
This undomesticated and romantic vision seems to glitter in the eyes of a lot of people in Zuccotti Park, the ones laughing around the drum circle, the ones who bring a vagina hand puppet to a political demonstration, the ones who arrive at an improvised tent city and realize that for the first time in their lives they feel at home. They are the metonymic heart of our civilization and they have lost at every step throughout the course of human history. Yet, for a brief period, they have stood up to represent the corpus, one ugly little muscle designed to flex and not to think. They will lose again soon enough, celebrating in their tent cities of drums and drugs and entropy while the rest of us climb into the techno-womb of order, reason, and iPads, administrators of ordered systems 30 floors above the ground.
*Images via author
** “You’re creating a vision of the sort of society you want to have in miniature” via The Washington Post
“You Love Your iPhone. Literally” via The New York Times
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