Sunday, November 20, 2011

Utopia; or, the Brooklyn Bridge

Occupy Wall Street’s Day of Action on November 17 concluded with a dramatic occupation of the Brooklyn Bridge. The bridge has an obvious significance within the movement’s internal history: Occupy was galvanized when hundreds of protesters were arrested on the bridge on October 1. But what is it about the Bridge that made it such a cathected site for Occupy in the first place? It is possible that the bridge--any bridge--offers a potent set of symbolics for the movement. We might think of Occupy, for instance, as attempting to bridge that gap between the elites and the plebes. We might think of it as bridging a history of social, political, and economic injustice with a future democracy, a polis to come. We might think of the bridge as symbolizing the peculiar way that Occupy materializes sociality--it convokes a virtual space, a zone of being-with that cannot be localized or demarcated, a place that can always move elsewhere, a site of pure liminality and thus potentiality. Taking a more historical perspective, I suggest that Occupy’s march across the Brooklyn Bridge bridges a gap between utopian socialists of the mid-nineteenth century and social movements today. Indeed, the Brooklyn Bridge is one sedimentation of utopian socialist knowledges and practices that circulated through the Atlantic world in the republic’s first half-century. We might see Occupy’s return to the Bridge as a kind of unconscious homage to their socialist forebears--because, as we know, and as we must always assert, socialism did have a vibrant role in U.S. politics until some silly jackass decided that socialism and class-conscious politics are an impossibility in our always-already utopian land of plenty.

John August Roebling was the chief designer of the Brooklyn Bridge. Born in Germany, Roebling studied architecture and engineering in Berlin; he also attended lectures offered by Hegel. It was in Berlin, and possibly in Hegel’s lecture hall, that he met John Adolphus Etzler. Like Roebling, Etzler was interested in Hegel and engineering. He also had a particular hobbyhorse--emigration from the authoritarian states of Prussia. Indeed, Etzler had been jailed for promoting emigration in 1829. Upon his release in 1830, Etzler and Roebling jointly published A General View of the United States of North America, Together with a Community Plan for Settlement, founded an emigration society, and in 1831 sailed for Philadelphia.

What would this “community plan” have looked like? I have not been able to track down a copy of the text, unfortunately, but “community plans” circulated with a ferocious speed in the Atlantic world and in the Americas during the period. We also have Etzler’s plans for settlements he would attempt to found in the 1840s in the U.S. and Venezuela. A techno-Fourierist, Etzler proposed that communitarians would live in something like a phalanstery. Every member--men and women alike--would have their own room. There would be no marriage; sexual freedom was ensured to all. Materially, the phalanstery would rely on a curious machine called the Satellite--a kind of prototype for modern day tractors that would be self-propulsive, energy efficient, and would drastically increase yields of farm land. Etzler, in short, imagined a technological transcendence of Malthusian subsistence limits; moreover, the hyper-supply of foodstuffs would also spell the death of Ricardian political economy, premised as it was on distributionist class politics. The promise of subsistence would reverse capitalism’s economy of social attention, an economy Etzler neatly glosses: “The poorer man is, the more he is neglected.” It also promised another benefit to the typical working man of Jacksonian America: aside from easy managerial labor--the superintendence of the Satellite--work itself would be abolished. As in Fourier’s Four Movements, Etzler’s New World is one where sociality is freed from privative limits, a world where “[l]ove and affection may there be fostered and enjoyed without any of the obstructions that oppose, diminish, and destroy them in the present common state of men.” Indeed, Etzler shifted the telos of sociality from the satisfaction of need to the mutual intensification of pleasure, “to please and to be pleased…to enjoy life as well as possible by mutual sociality” (Etzler, The Paradise within Reach of All Men, 1833).

Perhaps Etzler’s utopia seemed a little too utopian to Roebling. Dependent as it was on the success of the Satellite, it is possible that the engineering student recognized early on that the machine could never work. The pair had a falling out in 1831, when Roebling suggested that their party of migrants settle land the good old fashioned way and begin a small agrarian community. While it would be organized on something like a “community plan,” it wasn’t radical enough for Etzler. The party split: Roebling founded Saxonburg in Butler County, Pennsylvania, on land snatched from an Indian tribe. Etzler would go on to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Haiti, the British West Indies, Venezuela, and, eventually, my dissertation, leaving in his wake a heap of failed utopias (including my dissertation). Despite their split, Roebling remembered Etzler fondly; as J.A. Robeling’s son would write, Roebling considered Etzler “the greatest genius ever.”

In the split between Etzler and Roebling, we might see a split between two theories of social change: one works within the social, political, and economic limits of the given world, the other attempts its utopian breach. The split between these epistemes is not absolute, nor is there a contradiction in posited ends. Indeed, Roebling did not dispute the socialist, communitarian aims of Etzler’s project--he questioned the project’s pacing. Roebling’s utopian energies were directed into the pragmatic field of technology. He innovated wire rope production in Saxonburg, and it is this rope that would be instrumental in his design of the Brooklyn Bridge. Wire rope: not so grand as a robot that could produce wheat at will, but a small, quotidian object that would materially alter city-scapes throughout the world, promoting easy mobility across disjointed spaces.

We can see Occupy’s occupation of the Brooklyn Bridge as bridging the gap between these two epistemes of social change. Practical technological innovations like Roebling’s have altered our world, enabling the massive productivity that Etzler could only dream about. Indeed, our world is a perversion of the New World that Etzler imagined, and the fact that poverty reigns in a world in which Malthusian limits have been overcome should remind us that enhanced productivity without a redistributionist politics simply entrenches the class divisions Ricardo lamented. We need to keep Etzler’s vision--one in which no poor person is “neglected”--alive. And so we might see Occupy’s occupation of the Bridge as enacting a historical rendezvous between Etzler and Roebling, a re-joining after their split. The socialist Etzler strolls across the bridge, approaches the pragmatic Roebling, and says: “You’re own schemes have succeeded: you and others like you have re-made the world and enhanced the productivity of humanity. You’ve done what I failed to do. But you’ve done it in a distorted form. Everyone can eat, but many starve; no one need work, but people clamor for jobs. 170 years ago, it was perhaps correct for you to ignore me, to conceive of me as a charlatan. But today the Paradise that I imagined is social possibility. It’s time for you--the pragmatists and the technicians--to step aside; it’s time to embed the material world within a social morality. It’s time to ‘enjoy life as well as possible by [a] mutual sociality’ unfettered by material limits.” The occupation of the Bridge amounts to this: a remoralization of a factually existent material world that generations past could only imagine as a slightly insane utopian possibility.

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