From Bartleby to Occupy Wall Street. The Politics of Empty Spaces
Space is becoming the principal stake of goal-directed actions and struggles. It has of course always been the reservoir of resources, and the medium in which strategies are applied, but it has now become something more than the theatre, the disinterested stage or setting, of action. Space does not eliminate the other materials or resources that play a part in the socio-political arena, be they raw materials or the most finished of products, be they business or “culture.” Rather, it brings them all together and then in a sense substitutes itself for each factor separately by enveloping it.
—Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space
There is a shift from the model of the polis founded on a centre, that is, a public centre or agora, to a new metropolitan spatialisation that is certainly invested in a process of de-politicisation, which results in a strange zone where it is impossible to decide what is private and what is public.
—Giorgio Agamben, “Metropolis”
As I understand it . . . politics begins exactly when those who “cannot” do something show that in fact they can.
—Jacques Ranciere, “Politics and Aesthetics: An Interview”
August 1, 2011, started like every other morning on Wall Street, with its usual cast of financiers, custodians, coffee fetchers, trainers, hot dog vendors, and assistants going about their business. Seconds after 7:00 a.m., however, a few of the members of this army slowed down. They started to strip bare in a mass deshabille that was a site-specific work of performance art, an “Ocularpation” directed by artist Zefrey Throwell (Ryzik 2011). The artist reinserted the body in the midst of abstract and homogenized spaces. From the overwhelming body-in-space, the performance reinstated the space of the body, its rhythms, its opacity, and curvaceous pronouncement in the midst of verticalities. Throwell, in short, introduced what, according to Ranciere, had no business being there, and thus allowed for the political to erupt in the perfectly striated space of Wall Street. After five minutes, the performance was hastily interrupted, and the actors were expeditiously taken to a nearby precinct for questioning. In an interview with Melena Ryzik (2011), Mr. Throwell explained that he expected that the public could connect the nude Wall Street workers with the economy. It was, he explained, his attempt at lending transparency to the market, to strip it bare before everybody’s eyes so that it could come under scrutiny, finally. However ephemeral, the performance introduced a moment of political activity, an unexpected caesura in the business-as-usual of every day. For a few moments, the striated space of Wall Street was used for another purpose than its original destination, and made visible “whatever had no business being seen” (Ranciere 1998, 30). Although the ingenious deshabille was hard to figure out for passersby, the gradual stripping bare of vast sectors of the population, with disheartening statistics about the gap between rich and poor, was not. Even if the ever-growing financial industry was correlative with the ever-growing inequality of income and wealth (Krugman 2011), and mass access to higher education had collapsed, infrastructure had rotted, income for the middle class had plummeted, and health care costs had skyrocketed (Brown 2011), the Bastille had not been stormed. Its fagade had suffered hardly a chip (Bellafante 2011) even after the 2008 crash and the encampments of New Yorkers against Budget Cuts near City Hall. The protesters named the encampment “Bloombergville” after Mayor Michael Bloomberg and after the “Hoovervilles,” the popular name for the shantytowns for the homeless during the Great Depression. Like the encampments, the ephemeral ocularpation managed to cast a shadow upon the physical and conceptual premises of Wall Street, for space became political, and managed to interrupt the naturalized order of things. The shadow became more evident just a few weeks later, with the start of the Occupy Wall Street movement on September 17, 2011.
On July 13, 2011, Adbusters, the Vancouver-based anticapitalist magazine, posted a call on its blog:
Are you ready for a Tahrir moment? On September 17th, flood into
lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and
occupy Wall Street.2 (Castells 2012, 159)
Adbusters also posted one demand, aimed at restoring democracy by making the political system independent from financial power.3 Other networks and groups were also involved in orchestrating the popular uprising, such as AmpedStatus and Anonymous. Similarly, a group of local organizers had been holding meetings at 16 Beaver Street and later created the New York City General Assembly (Kroll 2011, 16), inspired by the power of civil disobedience in Egypt, Greece, Spain, and Argentina, among other countries. Some of these organizers had just come from Bloombergville; others were Spaniards that presented the lessons of the 15-M and introduced a core part of the Spanish movement: the general assembly (ibid., 17). The group later agreed with Adbusters to pick September 17 as D-day. The magazine cover accompanied the call to occupy Wall Street and bring a tent with the montage of a ballerina gracefully balancing on top of the iconic Wall Street charging bull, the symbol of aggressive capitalism. In the background, a blurry image of a crowd wearing gas masks, with arms linked together, emerged. The call to challenge categories and structures, as Zizek would claim, came from the questioning of the dominant cartographies, rather than from an escape from them. Not in vain, as Ranciere has argued, everything in politics gravitates around the distribution of spaces, around who can or cannot occupy them, under what conditions, and for how long. Like previous initiatives, Adbusters established the connection between a grassroots movement and the repossession of striated spaces. Like Bartleby, the protesters became the kind of nomads that do not need to move and decide to stay. Their ensuing occupation of public space became the crucial reinscription of power. In choosing to occupy Wall Street, the protesters became occupants of heavily ideologized spaces in order to vacate their underlying premises.4 Symbolically, their first encampment on September 17, 2011, was named Tahrir Square, as was Catalunya Square in Barcelona when it was occupied (Castells 2012, 21).
Tompkins Square was the place chosen by the New York General Assembly to hold meetings. The protesters marching around the perimeter of the plaza automatically linked the need for change in the social and economic apparatus with the repossession of public space, chanting, “Whose streets? Our streets!” Shooed away from Wall Street, the demonstrators wound up in Zuccotti Park, formerly known as Liberty Plaza Park (Kleinfield and Buckley 2011). Following the kind of protest that had already started in countries such as Egypt, Spain, and Israel, the idea “was to camp out for weeks or even months to replicate the kind, if not the scale, of protests that erupted” in other countries. There were teach-ins as hundreds of demonstrators gathered in parks and plazas in lower Manhattan (Moynihan 2011). The occupation propagated throughout the U.S. as a cellular rather than a hierarchical movement that depended on Internet and social media sites, like Twitter and Facebook, to grow and organize. In its “occupation” of these virtual sites and its exchange of information flows, Occupy resembled the workings of rhizomic, flexible capitalism and its metastasizing qualities. With links to various movements, such as the Zapatistas, Spain’s jDemocracia Real YA!, the Arab Spring, the U.S. civil rights and labor movements, as well as many other radical traditions and experiments, OWS fits Felix Guattari’s description of new political movements as “multi- centered” (2007, 110). As such, the movement did not need to convey a univocal message, for the different components were not required to agree on everything. Far from paralyzing action, contradiction proved that a singular position, a specific desire, is put in question, and “any attempt to root the movement in one of these traditions distorts the movement’s polymorphous character” (Arnall 2012). The movement did not seek consensus but, on the contrary, focused on dissensus and on enunciating difference. This original multivocality was reinforced by the very fact that the movement was site specific and inflected the imperative “occupy” with the particular place, like Occupy San Francisco or Occupy Berkeley. Occupy bifurcated in its double articulation of virtual sites and physical places, for it expanded by making use of the network society as it became local every time the movement was concretized in a particular occupation. Further, the word “occupy” implies a direct action that can be easily translated into different languages: occuper, occupare, ocupar. The movement reproduced through translation. At the same time, it built a new form of space, a mixture of the space of places and the space of flows (Castells 2012, 168).