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Nicholas Mirzoeff

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Occupying Language: To Walk Asking Questions

Posted: 09/09/2012 10:43 pm

This is the theme of a fascinating new book, Occupying Language, by Marina Sitrin and Dario Azzellini in the Occupied Media Pamphlet Series. The authors situate the present Occupy movement in the context of the insurgent movements in Latin America over the past quarter of a century. From this perspective, to occupy is to walk asking questions. And it's ok to get lost.

The authors develop their project in the colonial context suggested by the original meaning of occupation:

Language is not neutral, and words transport and express concepts and ways of thinking. They can consolidate and perpetuate hierarchies, domination and control just as they can underline equality and strengthen consciousness. Latin American struggles for dignity, freedom and liberation are rooted in more than five hundred years of resistance. Language derived from their struggles comes with historical antecedents.

The book goes on to describe concepts like Territory, Assembly and Rupture that translate easily, as well as more elusive and perhaps productive forms, such as política afectiva (≈affective politics), poder popular (≈popular power) and autogestión (≈collective democratic self management).

Each term is "openly defined" in a short sentence and then given living form in a piece of reportage of the authors own experience with the concept. The rest of the entry analyzes the use and meaning of the term.

Such fascination with language was a commonplace in the early days of Occupy. The word "occupy" was odds-on favorite to be chosen as the American Dialect Society's Word of the Year. And so it proved, with the citation arguing:

It's a very old word, but over the course of just a few months it took on another life and moved in new and unexpected directions, thanks to a national and global movement. The movement itself was powered by the word.

In this project I also undertook a decolonial genealogy of the word. So it's renewing to see how much energy can still be generated by an attention to the politics of language, now that everyone is "over" Occupy and wishes we would just go away.

Sitrin and Azzellini's book reinforces some of my own thoughts about our present direction. We know, for example, that many mainstream reporters will declare S17 a failure because there will not have been a new Occupation, even though we no longer intend to do so. Sitrin and Azzellini point out that the global movements have all gone through:

a process of reterritorialization... after a few months... Thus, around the world there has been a shift into neighborhoods and workplaces, to focus on local needs yet at the same time come together to co-ordinate.

Whether because of anxieties about the presidential election, or because people still harbored hopes for a more thorough-going transformation, we've not paid enough attention to this process and not given it a high enough value. For Sitrin and Azzellini, the project is one of:

Caminar Preguntando (To walk asking questions)... [M]ultiple histories that help create multiple open-ended paths.

This walk leads us into what Benjamin called "a secret rendezvous between past generations and our own." For Anglo readers, we might understand this as a decentering and decolonial vantage point on the history of the present as understood by those who have been colonized for five centuries.

There are many moments that resonate in this slim volume. One that caught my eye was the discussion of política afectiva. The term came out of the post-2000 autonomous movements in Argentina, meaning "a movement based in love." This was no easy sell in a place like Buenos Aires, as Toty Flores from the Unemployed Workers Movement recalls:

Imagine being in a neighborhood like La Matanza, which is full of really tough men, men who have lived, and still live, a violent macho life, and we're talking about new loving relationships. No, it isn't easy, not even to talk about, let alone practice. This is part of our changing culture, and as we change, we notice how much we really need to.

I was reminded of a visit I had the chance to make to FOMMA, a performance space and center in San Cristobal, Chiapas, where Maya women have used performance to educate their community about domestic violence. Such spaces are amazingly empowering and inspiring, however local their project.

Sitrin and Azzellini remind us that too often such transformative projects are written off as being "identity" or "gender" issues, unlike the "real" economic or class issues. They riposte:

Responsibility for the other and solidarity are basic conditions of a future society not grounded in capitalist principles.

OWS once knew that very well. There are days where I worry that the focus on confrontational direct action, arrests and civil disobedience seemingly for its own sake rather than as an articulation of a wider idea, has allowed us to forget it somewhat.

When we talk of Democracia Real Ya! that is what we mean. Anti-capitalism, this book reminds us, is a politics of walking and of love.

Sometimes, as Rebecca Solnit has taught us, when you walk you get lost. And she suggests that's a good thing, a way to let go of our hyper-disciplined OCD selves and wandering to wonder. That might be where we are now.


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Originally posted on NicholasMirzoeff.com.

 
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