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Eric Simpson

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The Polarities of an Occupying Ethos

Posted: 12/16/11 12:38 PM ET

The word "occupy" is a bit like the word "cleave," which, as Alan Watts was fond of pointing out, has two meanings, one of which is the precise opposite of the other. Two separate people according to the biblical terminology are to cleave to each other as one flesh, which does not mean that they are to be cleaved in half, which is an action the butcher takes with his cleaver.

Like the word "cleave," there are two meanings involved in the word "occupy," one of which is the exact opposite of the other. We can occupy as those who dominate but have no genuine relationship to that which they try to possess and control, a dynamic through which all things become objects of consumption, expendable once used, and therefore ultimately lose all value; or we can occupy that to which we already belong, collectively, as easily and naturally as our blood and bones inhabit the boundaries of our flesh.

An occupation in the first instance is a military endeavor that usually devolves into continuous conflict and oppression; it belongs to the lexicon of war terminology. On the other hand, an occupation is also why you wake up most days and get dressed, drink your coffee and for which you leave your home with the goal of making money and supporting yourself and your dependents. The former is violent and radical; the latter is natural and progressive and useful.

To occupy, one might suggest, is the work of occupants, the former occupants of homes that are being foreclosed, many of whom have lost their occupations and cannot find another, due in part to the unregulated practices of radicalized financial institutions hedging their bets against their own losses.

To occupy a street or a park or a school or a city is an occupation that broaches vocation, although keeping oneself occupied without being brutalized, arrested and stigmatized, without being preoccupied with merely surviving in the attempt to occupy that space in which you truly belong, is the great difficulty. Many who occupy are lost occupants, or at least they represent the occupants of loss, the many who have senselessly lost both homes and occupations, who want to reoccupy that which has been stolen, the resources that belong to all that have been transmuted into commodities for the benefit of the few.

The polarities inherent in the word are as stark as the differences between attempting to dominate the earth, or being reconciled to it; seeking to possess an object for its abstract value, or valuing what you have for however long you have it. The Japanese poet, Issa, speaks of his relationship to material things, and of how the value of that which he truly possesses cannot be evaluated or apprehended through the type of possession that motivates burglary: "The thief left it behind: / the moon at the window."

An occupation of dominance would want to grasp the moon, possibly mine it as per a science fiction nightmare generated in the mind of Heinlein, be the first to get there to plant a flag, lay claim to it, own it. But in a moment of loss, considering what the thief did not take because he could not take it, the poet truly possesses the moon, or rather, is possessed by it. That is the difference between an occupation of militant dominance, and an occupation of a natural inhabitant, the difference between living life in endless empty pursuits as a consumerist, and being content to simply consume what we already have. The few through domination coerce and manipulate and lie and destroy, and to some degree we are all, in the affluent western hemisphere, complicit.

We are all complicit to some degree with the manipulations of the few, the oligarchs, due to our corporate addiction to consumerist culture (or, alternately, our consumerist addiction to corporate culture), and this will be the downfall of any positive occupation, despite protests and arrests and deeply felt struggles to embrace community and responsibility, despite efforts to promote a peaceful revolution that moves naturally from the inside outward.

The implicit danger is subtle. It is to change the meaning of the positive aspect of what it means to occupy or reoccupy that public sphere to which we belong into the dominant and negative, military sense of occupation, perhaps in small ways, or by not admitting it when we do. I am reminded of bell hooks and her brilliant essay, "Feminism", in which she describes the ways in which those who are dominated also in turn dominate others. She argues effectively that the woman who is dominated by patriarchy at her place of employment often goes home and dominates her children in turn. "It is first the potential oppressor within we must resist," she writes, "the potential victim within that we must rescue -- otherwise we cannot hope for an end to domination, for liberation."

The reductionist agent that will change a positive sense of occupation, of living where we belong and laying claim to it, to the negative, that of seeking to dominate what is not ours to possess and which will never fulfill its promise to satisfy, is consumerism.

There is nothing ignoble or immoral about consumption. We must consume to live, and live to exist. We consume, whether food or drink or pleasures that are simple or complex. We consume energy, thoughts, ideas. We eat death, as the late Fr. Alexander Schmemann tells it -- food that is composed of dead things that we must store in a freezer unit in order to preserve it. And we have opportunity to eat life as well, to consume God, spiritual energy, the Body and Blood of Christ, in the paradox of mystery.

Whether we consume death or consume life, we are built as creatures around the principle of consumption. Therefore, when all things, including the natural resources to which we belong and have every right to occupy and use for the benefit of us all, when everything is branded and manipulated and coerced into becoming an object of consumption for the sake of gratifying that which cannot be satisfied, this is without nobility or morality or value and leads to destruction. It is the consumption of death unto death. Consumption that never satisfies or fills the one who is consuming, the continuous digestion of that which lacks the psychic nutrients to provide us with genuine sustenance, is at its heart nihilistic and self-annihilating.

Consumerism is the ultimate preoccupation, the sort of which Nero is said to have practiced, in which we dazzle and gratify ourselves both in our entertainments and our greed for the monetary means to sustain them. It is a trap that causes us to be complicit, if not aware, with those who profit from our own noetic despoilation. Such is the pulse and heart of consumerism by which the 1 percent keep us captive, and in which money truly is proven to be the root of all kinds of evil.

The word occupy also connotes presence, however, which is the precursor to love. We cannot love that which we cannot know, and we cannot know that which is not in any way present. And we cannot be present unless we occupy, in the positive sense, that to which we belong. We all belong to the earth, rather than the earth belonging to us, and we belong to each other as an essential humanity in which difference is finally a technical distinction.

An occupation of diversity and of transformation, of seeking the continual renewal not just of individual human minds but of social structures, of financial institutions, of the way we do business or educate, of politics and spirituality and art, is an occupation and a vocation for which we are born, which is to be in communion with all things and each other through love.

 

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