Wednesday, February 1, 2012

On the Statement, "Occupy has Changed the 'National Conversation'"

It’s a refrain: Occupy has begun a national conversation about income inequality. Slight modifications are allowed: add or subtract something about finance capital, replace “conversation” with “dialogue” or “discussion,” smarter people will talk about “wealth” inequality. Soon you arrive at a judgment regarding the merits of Occupy, one that circulates through Twitter, through the media, and even through Occupy sites. (Just Google “Occupy national conversation.”) The other night, I was struck by how frequently this sentiment was voiced as I scanned the Twitter feeds to see what was going on with Occupy DC, a camp that faces eviction. The utterance is mostly reparative, enabling us to extract a last kernel of value from Occupy before all encampments are swept away. But I think that the utterance is more than reparative—that in fact it destroys what it would repair. Locating the primary value of Occupy in its discursive effects, the utterance actually produces an indifference to the materiality and practical reality of Occupy. The sites could go on or not, tevs, it will continue to exist in the airy ideality of a national conversation. We can all go home; we’ve done our jobs.

That this utterance is sayable indexes the fact that Occupy has not changed the “national conversation.” Not one bit. Not even a little. And this is because the public who utters this statement still thinks having a conversation, saying things, having an opinion, matters, and matters as a politics. Indeed, such utterances place in a position of priority and superiority the abstract liberal subject who opines, who reflects, who debates—but never decides, because there is no real apparatus linking reflexive judgment to determinative judgment, to a decision for and on the political. After all, the “conversation” being changed is that which is staged in the hypercapitalized world of televisual media; it needn’t even be our conversation that is changing, then, so much as that of (wealthier) others. But even if our own conversation is changing—at bars late at night, at Thanksgiving dinners with conservative uncles, wherever—this is meaningless so long as the effect of the change in conversation is simply a change in conversation. The point of crisis to which Occupy needs to bring the “national conversation” is to show that having an opinion—a private reflection that is expressed occasionally—is not a political act. That conversing cannot be the transcendent value of the political, or politics turns into a spectacle that we simply discuss from a distance—without touching or being touched by it. And Occupy is all about touching, about bodies in contact, about being-there on the scene, about, well, occupying materiality.

Badiou neatly attends to this dynamic in his critique of Arendt and Arendt’s reading of Kant. He writes that in Arendt’s idea of “the political” that the “perspective of the spectator is systematically privileged. Arendt justifies the fact that Kant had a ‘boundless admiration’ for the French Revolution as a phenomenon, or historical appearance, whilst nurturing ‘a boundless opposition’ to its revolutionary ventures and their actors. As a public spectacle the Revolution is admirable, while its militants are contemptible.” This neatly maps onto the discursive economy I’m describing. As an item of public debate, Occupy is admirable; it has, after all, brought our attention to “inequality.” But Occupiers are dirty smelly anarchists who should just disappear into the ideality of their discursive effects. Those deciding against “inequality” are replaced by those who reflectively determinate that inequality is bad, say so, and…sleep or go bowling or something. The revolution is awesome—it gives us more shit to talk about—but fuck the revolutionaries.

I’m not against conversing, at all. Indeed, isn’t Occupy frequently mocked for its discursive aneconomy, the way that everyone gets their say, the slowed articulation between speech and act, the hyperproceduralist commitment to clarifying questions, straw polls, friendly amendments, and so on? We reflect all day—and then determine ourselves, set ourselves to a goal, decide on a new kind of political truth or aim. One isn’t a spectator on the political here; that is, one who looks, reflects, and aimlessly judges. (One isn't, in short, a liberal.) One is in the grip of the political, in a full spectrum of sensations: looking and thinking, no doubt, but also smelling, touching, tasting, hearing… And it’s from this whole range of sensations, affects, and ideas that one comes to co-decide on the political—not opine on the lamentable fact of inequality, a spectacle piped into bedroom TVs.

Occupy will not have changed the "national conversation" until conversing is reconstituted as a mechanism of decision, not reflection—as a political act, not a retreat from the political.

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