There’s a new Volkswagen ad in which a child dressed as Darth Vader tries to use “The Force” to control objects in the world.
Dad comes home from work and, standing with mom at the kitchen window, sees his child
trying to mind-control the family car in the driveway. The car starts as if by magic,
then you see that dad has secretly started it with a remote-control device, validating the child’s belief in his own super powers.
This is a classic postmodern ad in that the viewer is shown exactly how the trick is played but made to believe it anyway.
Presumably, even for dad (whose role is otherwise limited to going back and forth to work), starting one’s car remotely
still bestows the feeling of having superpowers. But just ask power to do what? and you see
that what’s being sold as magical omnipotence is just the ability to start a car with a button instead of a key.
At worst, this pitch is allied with what is recognizable as the fascist tendencies of capitalism
insofar as fascism is defined by the way it offers people an inflated, mythic sense of themselves– and a phantasmatic sense of belonging–
while systematically stripping them of any real agency and political power. Go to work. Buy a new car. You’re a superhero!
Of course I’m not suggesting a fine company like Volkswagen could now have or could ever have had anything to do with fascism!
But there is another side of this. What makes the ad work is its psychological validity.
Unless parents serve their children’s sense of magical omnipotence, their kids will be pathologically depressed at best, or simply dead.
The infant cries and food appears. He squirms in frustration because he wants a toy but lacks the strength and coordination to reach it,
and mom or dad see this and magically make it happen. The fantasy of sovereign agency and omnipotent power
precedes, is necessary to, and continues to underlie the acquisition of actual agency and power– the alternative is learned helplessness.
Given these two opposed perspectives, how can we think through this?
Even if you consider the ad a trivial matter, the contradiction is stark and the stakes seem pretty high.
To take the question to another register: do Occupy Wall Street and related actions empower people?
Do they contribute to mobilizing and opening up political discourse? Or can they be described as simple venting, or worse,
part of some systemic damage control mechanism that offers aesthetic or symbolic shows at the expense of real political mobilization?
As if the revolution were a car and O.W.S. the remote control device that will turn it on?
As you’d expect, many right-wingers but also some so-called leftists are bending over backwards to to assure us
that this is just an infantile display, that we are clutching at straws, that no sustained movement can come from it.
In the face of contradiction, or even just because it’s early days, how can they be so sure?
What makes these little Darth Vaders pretend to knowledge that one couldn’t possibly have at this stage?
As philosopher Jacques Derrida put it, “coherence in contradiction expresses the force of a desire.”
Whatever else its content, the desire seeks “a reassuring certitude” by which “anxiety can be mastered.”
The anxiety comes from “being implicated,” from being “at stake in the game”– as it seems to me we are all at stake here.
Taking off from Derrida, we can speculate that what the dismissers desire, what they have to lose,
is the structuring fantasy of a single center, a single origin or ground or goal, a single line of causality,
a single kind of political agency, a single public sphere, a single rationality and discourse, a single left and right–
all of what Occupy Wall Street defies.
A famous prayer asks for courage, serenity, and “the wisdom always to know the difference” between what can be changed and what can’t.
Better pray instead for the folly not to know the difference!
And as my old pal William Blake put it, “if the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.”
What if politics– what if the world– did not work exactly as we know?
What if things were more intricately, globally and locally networked in a complex ecology,
so that we could not necessarily predict how events in one realm might reverberate in another?
What if the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil could Set Off a Tornado in Texas?
What if a mathematician’s algorithms could trigger a stock-market collapse?
What if tiny, hyperlocalized genetic mutations could, through a process of natural selection, lead to collective evolution?
Wouldn’t that be incredibly weird?
What if Occupy Wall Street could be described as a metaphor (the usual phrase is merely a metaphor)
for the movement in which we are hoping it will participate, meaning that the occupations of particular places,
such as Zucotti Park near Wall Street, resonate with how one tries to establish a livable foothold in any inhospitable space–
whether it be the economy, the academy, the family, identity, theory? And what if these resonances are real and contagious?
What if The Coming Insurrection will take “the shape of a music, whose focal points,
though dispersed in time and space,
succeed in imposing the rhythm of their own vibrations”?
What if what we consider solid realities– like bridges of steel and concrete– could one fine day begin to undulate and break apart?
And when we ask why, what if it turned out that the answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind? And what if, in the present conjuncture,
we could gain more leverage not by asserting knowledge but by persistently asking questions (as that song famously does)?
What if even God appeared to his faithful out of a whirlwind and addressed them with an epic series of questions,
designed to expose their presumption to knowledge they could not possibly have?
Occupy Wall Street has never suffered from a lack of rational plans and proposals, as some allege.
Here’s some for you: progressive taxes, financial regulation, health care, jobs, socialism. Take your pick. I have more.
If the left suffers from anything now it seems more like the lack of emotional coherence,
part of what Raymond Williams called a “structure of feeling.” This is part of what OWS is helping to discover, to invent.
Assorted already-existing emotional coherences are available, of course.
The sober left intellectuals, with their reassuring certitude that Occupy Wall Street is a flash in the pan,
have their manly stoicism and depressive clarity. The Tea Party has its righteous indignation,
or as historian Joan Scott translated the Tea Party stance into psychoanalytic terms, the outcry “they’ve stolen our jouissance!”
As for the rest of us: well, at least nobody has stolen our jouissance! If you visit Occupy Wall Street,
you will hear hundreds of lively political conversations– in fact, this is one of the hallmarks of the occupation–
and among them will be careful analysis, magic thinking, policy proposals, paranoid ramblings, theorizing, new-age spiritualism, and so on,
but over them all, under them all, behind them all, running through them all is not exactly righteous indignation,
which comes from more privilege– more wounded sense of right and dignity– than most of those present possess.
There is the everpresent tenor of surrealism, which comes from the sense that dominant discourse is so thoroughly locked down–
so foreclosed— and political speech so narrowly defined that one cannot restrict oneself to the use of these tools
without undermining from the outset what one hopes to accomplish. Ultimately, as Audre Lorde said,
“the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” But this is not only a matter of tools, of instrumental strategies.
Surrealism arises when what counts as reality itself is so impoverished,
when what passes for intelligible politics, viable social identities, reasonable careers and aspirations
are so hobbling, corrosive and suffocating as to make the reality of neoliberal late capitalism uninhabitable.
When you can’t inhabit it, occupy it!
Over all the conversations, under them all, behind them all, running through them all
there is at least– a vitality.
As Brooklyn artist Dread Scott said about OWS: “there’s oxygen in the room again.”
Of course, I have to point out, you can’t recognize constructive politics by vitality alone.
I recently watched a Wagner opera and was struck by the histrionics, tragic gender politics, erotic intensities
of hierarchy and duty and family: very lively indeed! I was mesmerized– but I also understood for the first time
something about the aliveness and emotional intensity captured by Nazism.
Much of the work of politics is affective labor, the work of translating vitality into a stance.
Lately I’ve been listening to old Woody Guthrie songs (more my style, admittedly) and marvelling at how seamlessly
the songs combine the stances of worker, empathic ally of immigrants and outlaws, socialist, proud patriot, anti-fascist–
a combination mostly unthinkable today. But I bring this up not at all to say those were the days.
For one thing, they never were the days– and for another, they’re still the days:
Rich man took my home and drove me from my door
And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.
In any case, fascism remains and will remain one of the ongoing tendencies of capitalism, and not only as a distant spectre.
Even if you were inclined to discount clearer and nearer dangers that demagogues can be elected, scapegoats systematically targeted,
people mobilized in favor of symbolic but deadly wars, or perpetual warfare sold as Manichaean good-versus-evil struggle–
what about the demagogues, scapegoating, symbolic and perpetual wars we already have?
What about the mazes we run to get the cheese and avoid the shocks, the levers we push to get the pellets
of whatever it is, the simulacra of identity and belonging being sold to us, and behind all that, underneath it all,
the dark energy pushing all of us apart?
What if, at the most fundamental level, we are engaged not so much in an attempt to enact specific reforms
nor to foment a one-off revolution, but in an ongoing struggle against fascism, to make the world livable,
and what if, in this, we are most aligned with the everyday work of various other queers, workers, culture-crossers, women,
immigrants, and other displaced people? What if, in our own lifetimes, we will only know small and local victories,
that resonate only faintly, sparks that crackle and wink out, glowing embers that never burst into flame?
Would that warmth be enough to sustain us?
In the interests of full disclosure, let me acknowledge where I’m coming from: I’m a writer. It’s an interesting moment for me.
The presidency of George W. Bush, as you may be aware, was also a nightmare for anyone who cares about language.
Language itself seemed to be in the process of being continually, systematically evacuated of meaning and life.
After that, to hear Obama speak with intelligence and presence– even with precise grammar– could bring tears to my eyes.
That’s not enough, but it is something. So it’s interesting to me to discover that the discursive spaces at Occupy Wall Street
are mostly not my spaces. Even though I make my living speaking (as a teacher, anyway), I’m not inclined to speak there,
and the intellectuals I have heard speak there seem somewhat out of their element too.
In fact, the durational performance– the occupation– at the heart of OWS seems actively somehow to disturb and displace speech,
to make it plural (like the human microphone), to make no one iteration definitive. But although I’m not inclined to speak,
it feels good to me! This is partly because the massive, single acoustic space of traditional protest rallies always felt to me
like Hitler or Mussolini should be haranguing the crowd from a balcony. You really want a unified public sphere?
I experience this displacement of speech, of all that it is now possible to say, as something more like thinking,
more like writing, a process of reaching for what wants to be said but is not yet possible to say.
You there, with your head bent down! Why are you mumbling inarticulately to yourself?
If the fantasy of magic superpowers underlies all agency, then yes, at some level I must believe the world turns around my words
and around all words that move me. On the other hand, I know Auden was right:
“poetry makes nothing happen.”
If language can be understood as a parasite or a symbiotic entity that co-evolved with our brains, then yes,
I am one of those traitors to my species that serve the entity known as language. That’s the extreme version, anyway.
But what if writers and intellectuals are also neither servants nor traitors nor leaders but just one kind of lifeform among many,
each of which, even in the name of simple diversity, has a claim to life,
or even more simply, what if a text makes no claim at all but the bare fact of its aliveness in the moment of its being written and read?
This is why I want to say to those occupying Wall Street, and occupying and animating these words and thoughts, thank you.
As a Word Person, it’s taken me 50 years to admit– as various therapists and lots of less verbal people have been telling me–
that the words themselves are always trumped by the ways they are wielded, the feelings that animate them.
“In those days,” as Virginia Woolf wrote wistfully about the days before the First World War,
“every conversation seemed to have been accompanied by a sort of humming noise,
not articulate, but musical, exciting, which changed the value of the words themselves.”
So what is it, over all the conversations at Occupy Wall Street, under them all, behind them all, running through them all?
Perversely, one of the most notoriously difficult writers of all time, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan,
gives me slogans for the placards with which I want to march out of here:
THE FUNCTION OF LANGUAGE IS NOT TO INFORM BUT TO INVOKE.
WHAT CONSTITUTES ME AS A SUBJECT IS MY QUESTION.
(Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Thad Ziolkowski for insight into the VW ad, Jennifer Miller for citing Dread Scott, and apologies to Jayna for the Woody Guthrie references!)