One of the most well-rehearsed axioms of the Occupy Wall Street event is that "the media does not know how to talk about it," and, as a result, is talking about it to as minimal an extent as is possible. Fortunately for the occupation's supporters, their presence is getting harder and harder to ignore. And so the media's problem is slowly but steadily becoming the nation's problem.
When I joined in the Solidarity March today along with fellow students from Columbia, NYU, CUNY, and SUNY, not to mention an impressive number of labor organizations, I was approached by two different broadcast journalists for interviews. The first identified himself as "Kuwaiti television," and the second identified herself as "from CUNY." Each newscaster thrust a microphone in my face and asked the same question, "Why are you here?" I could not escape the feeling that they were speaking for the entire country, maybe the world, and that somehow, if the answer to the question could be "discovered," all the cameras would pack up and go home, relieved not to have to be in downtown Manhattan anymore.
We must begin by acknowledging that the first fundamental fact of Occupy Wall Street is that it has no message. It is not a localized policy march, like a march for same-sex marriage equality or for a university living wage or for a political candidate. Occupy Wall Street is unlike any of these protest-type gatherings for the simple reason that it cannot be talked about in familiar terms.
The "meaning" of the occupation will emerge over time, both by the intellectuals and journalists who are already trying to explain the event's "goals," and by history itself, which will measure the occupation by the way it concludes. I think it is worth considering, though, that the present incommensurability of the occupation, the fact that it cannot be explained away by being made to stand in for a "message" or a "platform," is its greatest asset, and the marker of its significance.
I answered the question, "Why are you here?," not by citing the degree of inequity between wealthy and non-wealthy Americans (the problem of the so-called "99%"), nor the oligarchy manifesto known as Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, nor the bank and corporate bailouts, nor the refusal by any major Western state to take environmental climate change seriously, nor the decades of imperialist inefficacies of the IMF. What I tried to say--and what I am attempting to say better here--is that I came because by being physically present at Occupy Wall Street, I could increase, however marginally, the likelihood that more people would look in my direction.
If Occupy Wall Street is to be permitted any meaning at all, it is as deixis. Deixis takes place when a rhetorician points to something (figuratively or actually) without giving it a name ("here" and "that one there" are deictic terms). A deictic gesture changes the direction of attention, so that what it points away from is as significant as what it points toward.
Occupy Wall Street, in other words, is not occupying anything. It is pointing toward and pointing away. It is pointing toward corporate power, through corporate power's most transparent metonym, the short seven blocks north of Exchange Place that connect Broadway and the East River. And Occupy Wall Street is pointing away from Washington D.C., from the Senate, from the House of Representatives, from Barack Obama, from Rick Perry and Chris Christie, from filibusters, from debt ceilings, from "supercongresses," from election polls, from Americans for Prosperity, from Karl Rove, from George Soros, from campaign ads, from everything that "the media"--particularly the socially engaged media like CNN, Fox, and MSNBC--understands to be "politics." Occupy Wall Street turns away from these items and says: That is sideshow.
What is real? The flow of capital, the source of money and the direction in which it travels, who is paying for what, and how they are getting their money in the first place. Equally real are the consequences of these conditions on the lived experiences of the world's citizens. No matter what the individual protestors' "interests" and "demands" might be--and I insist that it is not to the occupation's discredit that many protestors could not honestly and coherently answer "Why are you here?"--the occupation's message could not be simpler: LOOK!
It is because Occupy Wall Street is, at least right now, nothing more than an act of deixis, and because that content-less gesture has grown in size and strength without any major institution willing it to, that it is significant. Regardless of what legacy Occupy Wall Street leaves behind, its existence matters in the world-historical sense. It is the genuine expression of a real deficiency at the constitutional level of our socio-political system that not only cannot be solved by structures currently in place, it cannot even be understood in those structure's terms.
The day we--as individuals and as participants in a media apparatus--learn how to talk about Occupy Wall Street is the day Occupy Wall Street's first and only "demand" will be met. That is the day when we learn how to talk about the world economy as something other than a given state of affairs, to be "managed" by policy decisions and morally sound corporate leaders.
It is time to ask the question, "What are the obligations of a state to its people?" It is time we stop pretending that those obligations are not being met because of a surplus of legislators and corporate executives who are "greedy" or "ideological" or "political" or "evil." It is time we ask the only real question worth asking of Occupy Wall Street--why is this happening?
What are the political and socio-economic conditions of our country failing to achieve such that an increasingly large number of people feel they must go to the streets without solutions, without leadership, without message and point to a set of buildings that are themselves not the problem, filled with people who are working for a living and are also, as individuals, not the problem? And will that be fixed?
Jason Fitzgerald is PhD candidate in Theatre and English at Columbia University, and a part-time dramaturg and critic.
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