Social Renaissance

10/05/2011 06:38 pm ET | Updated Dec 05, 2011
  • Paul Stoller Professor of Anthropology, West Chester University; Author, Yaya's Story: The Quest for Well-Being in the World

In the 1920s the surrealist thespian, Antonin Artaud, staged in Paris what he called "The Theater of Cruelty." The productions of this "theater" featured disturbingly cruel images designed to shock audiences into a new awareness, waking them from the sleep of convention. Artaud believed that social convention lulls us into a perpetual state of numbed satisfaction. In such a state we feel good about the quality of our lives and don't give the slightest thought about how those in power control society. Cruelty for Artaud is waking up to the unfiltered and unpleasant realities of our social and political lives.

Although Artaud's "Theater of Cruelty" never gained much traction in Paris, his idea of finding a powerful way to shock people into awareness, a social renaissance, is a timely one. Consider the Occupy Wall Street movement, in which a group of people, all protesting American social inequality and political dysfunction, have established a community in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan.

Media commentators, who often have short attention spans and superficial knowledge of social phenomena, have generally dismissed this community of dissent as a group of marginal kids and older misfits who (1) drone on and on about how the rich -- the 1 percent of the U.S. population that controls more than 40 percent of the wealth and (2) complain how the other 99 percent of our society -- the shrinking middle class, the lower middle class and the expanding legions of the poor -- have been left to fend for themselves in increasingly Third World conditions with limited entry-level or temporary jobs, and limited or no social services. Clearly uninterested in such fundamentally insightful social and economic analysis, many pundits say that the Occupy Wall Street people don't understand how the economy works. They say that the protestors have no concrete proposals. In so doing the media has been both paternalistic and dismissive.

There are powerful reasons for these patronizing and dismissive attitudes.

If we scratch the surface of things it is clear that the corporate interests that control the vast percentage of American resources own the media, whose representatives have been quick to write-off the Wall Street protestors and their Zuccotti Park community. But there are deeper reasons for this dismissive set of attitudes. The Occupy Wall Street dissenters are discussing issues that make us uncomfortable, issues that challenge the master narratives of American mythology. Do we want to know about the fundamental social inequality that sets the structure of contemporary American society? Do we want to hear about a political system that has utterly failed? Do we want to learn about unequal access to health care that results in premature and unnecessary death? Do we want to be reminded how unequal access to education undermines the American Dream? Do we want people to tell us about how poorly America ranks in income distribution, science and technology, and quality of health care? Do we want to listen to someone who says that our quality of life has declined?

I discuss these issues in my introductory cultural anthropology classes. I take no joy in presenting the results of a wide variety of studies that demonstrate clearly and powerfully our downward social, economic and social trajectory. When I present these data a few students take note, but most of them, their eyes glazing over, appear to be uninterested. In response to one of my lectures on social inequality in complex societies, including, of course, our own, one student said, "How does this stuff affect me?"

No matter how powerfully you articulate these disturbing themes in classrooms, in the press or on the Internet, the unfiltered messages will have the same impact: who cares, leave me alone, stop boring me with all those details. But when these unsettling myth-defying narratives become dramatically embodied in Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Boston or Occupy Philadelphia, something has changed. The message gets dramatized; it becomes clear and compelling as it spreads rapidly and powerfully along the electronic networks of social media. Facing an economic, social and political future of limited possibility, the presence of the Occupy Wall Street community is compelling us to wake up to our bleak reality and take action to secure the future.

Although it may be too early to make predictions, my anthropological guess is that an American Autumn, sparked by groups of committed and courageous occupying citizens, will provoke a social renaissance that will have unimaginable social and political consequences.