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Home arrow Language & Literature arrow Occupying Space in American Literature and Culture: Static Heroes, Social Movements and Empowerment

FEAR OF THE VACUUM

Power . . . fears and despises a vacuum.

—Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire

The threat today is not passivity but pseudo-activity, the urge to “be active,” to “participate,” to mask the Nothingness of what goes on.

People intervene all the time, “do something”; academics participate in meaningless “debates,” and so forth, and the truly difficult thing is to step back, to withdraw from all this. Those in power often prefer a “critical” participation, a dialogue, to silence—just to engage us in a “dialogue,” to make sure our ominous passivity is broken.

—Slavoj Zizek, The Parallax View

At the opening of this volume, Bartleby was interpreted as a character devoid of content, as an empty signifier that could be appropriated in a number of ways. His repetitive speech act, “I would prefer not to,” appears as a gesture of refusal without content; as a withdrawal that implies an emptying out, as a question that acquires its full potential when it remains as such, as a question without an answer, as mere silence. The efforts at integrating and pinning down Bartleby’s gesture resemble the attempts at providing a unifying message for OWS and at engaging the movement in political initiatives. Appearing on The Late Show with David Letter- man, Bill Clinton expressed the widespread view that the Occupy Wall Street protesters needed to start advocating specific political goals and focus on solutions that could boost the country’s economy. “On balance,” he said, “this can be a positive thing, but they’re going to have to transfer their energies at some point to making some specific suggestions or bringing in people who know more to try to put the country back to work” (Weinger 2011). For Clinton, the demonstrators had to move beyond the blank page, beyond the protest itself, and advocate political measures that could coalesce around specific goals and suggestions to improve the financial situation. “But to make the change, eventually what it is you’re advocating has to be clear enough and focused enough that either there’s a new political movement which embraces it or people in one of the two parties embrace it,” he said. One of those measures, Clinton went on to specify, was to support Obama’s jobs plan. It was not the only invitation to break OWS’s political silence. Similarly, unions joined ranks with OWS and participated in the marches, but the match between both was not easy, for unions invariably have a long and specific list of demands, while Occupy Wall Street did not articulate formal ones. Union leaders often like the limelight, while Occupy Wall Street is largely leaderless (Greenhouse and Buckley 2011). Like Bartleby, OWS refused to follow the rigid political itineraries assigned for political action. Furthermore, OWS failed to answer Adbusters’s inaugural question “What will be our one demand?” other than the initial request of a commission to enact the independence between political power and Wall Street, and it seemed to follow Bartle- by’s silence and his “tactic of no.” Like Melville’s character, OWS refused to specify the nature of its negative. When the slogan “You cannot evict an idea whose time has come” was included in a flyer released shortly after the November eviction, the question arose once more as to what this one idea was. It became the constant interpellation that found no response, for the univocality of the desired message compromised the multifaceted nature of the movement and its lack of direct political compromise. OWS, like the various movements comprised in what we now term “the Arab Spring,” refused to be answerable to any discursive act that polices and contains what Spanos qualifies as “unnamable” and spectral (2012, 95, 100), just like Bartleby refused to be answerable to the Wall Street lawyer. Dissensus was not tamed into consensus. Like the Arab Spring, OWS is radically singular in that it points to an absence in the midst of saturated presences. It represents a movement whose “differential dynamics” (ibid., 100) awakens the need to be brought within the admissible spatial parameters of the disciplinary discursive regime, which is to say, policing its “errancy” (ibid.). For a variety of commentators, critics, and politicians, OWS needed to be accommodated, contained, domesticated, and properly administered into political action. The problem is that any pragmatic approach to achieving demands requires the mediation of the political system, which radically contradicts the distrust of political representatives (Castells 2012, 187).

These attempts at co-opting OWS and bringing it to closure reveal the fact that power fears and despises the “migratory,” “anti-systemic,” and “unregimented” energy the movement represented. OWS signified a political act in Ranciere’s terminology. As such, the movement is not a piece of a puzzle that worked well within existing relations, “but something that changes the very framework that determines how things work . . . Authentic politics . . . is the art of the impossible—it changes the very parameters of what is considered ‘possible’ in the existing constellation” (Zizek 1999, 199). Rather than a negation, OWS engaged in the practice of undoing. Like Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to,” OWS did not express a denial but rather a desire to un-participate in any given political creed. In emptying out the physical and ideological premises of Zuccotti Park, the demonstrators evidenced the fact that the protest became truly significant, not by responding to and therefore filling the void with a new content, no matter how revolutionary or alternative it might have sounded. This un-participation does not mean OWS did not engage in direct action. Occupy groups “occupied” foreclosed homes on the December 6th Day of Action (Castells 2012, 191). Similarly, the coordinated relief effort of “Occupy Sandy,” a coalition that managed to outperform the standing infrastructure of relief organizations such as FEMA (Norton 2012), stands as another spin-off of the Occupy movement. After the space of places was emptied out, OWS resides in the space of flows, a situation that allows the movement to land and return to specific places for specific direct actions and insurgent practices. Thus, OWS keeps what Castells terms “a space of autonomy,” a third space that the sociologist describes as “the new spatial form of networked social movements” (2012, 222).

These occupations do not translate into direct political intervention because the occupation is the message. As Michael Kimmelman pointed out, “The encampment itself has become the point” (2011). The allegations that the message of the protesters and occupiers was fuzzy missed the point, for the lack of political intervention shifted the movement away “from the politics of ‘resistance’ or ‘protestation,’ which parasitizes upon what it negates at the same time that it leaves the symbolic order intact, to a politics which opens up a new space outside the hegemonic position and its negation”; one that Zizek terms a “gesture of subtraction” (2006, 381-82) and that implies the restructuring of the entire social space. In that sense, OWS, like Bartleby, does not occupy the already assigned—and desired— place of resistance. It rather escapes the binarism of power and resistance by opening up a third position beyond both. This third position is finally based on making power confront itself by suppressing formal resistance. This refusing to say no makes power confront its own void, its own hollowness. This spirit of refusal or nothingness can be seen as the “the luminous spiral of the possible” (Agamben 1999, 257). The heavily dominated and striated space of Wall Street, with its physical and ideological verticality, became imbued with Bartleby’s blankness, with a feared and despised vacuum. Like Bartleby, the movement unwrites the pages of the law, empties out its premises, and allows for a new writing. It drives political language to a moment of total silence that breaks down the grammar of power. OWS prefers not to.

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