Blog post

The politics of the encounter: Notes for the Occupy movement.

Leo Goretti18 October 2011

A politics of encounter explodes when moments collide, when affinity takes hold. How, then, can the intensity of the encounter be sustained, how can it be harmonized with an authentic politics of transformation, one that endures over the long haul?

Andy Merrifield raises some crucial questions in 'Crowd politics: Or, "Here Comes Everybody?"' for protesters of the Occupy Everywhere movement. Merrifield's piece, published in the latest issue of New Left Review, is a timely investigation of the on-line and off-line "politics of the encounter" in twenty-first century urban landscapes.

Merrifield starts with a reflection on the relationship between social networks and political participation. He moves from taking side in the (somewhat hackneyed) debate between Twitter enthusiasts and old-school supporters of more traditional (and less virtual) forms of activism: "Each thesis is insufficient in itself. Is it not possible to conceive of activism today as at once weak-tie and high-risk, both online and offline at the same time?"

He then moves on to discuss the way in which the "right to the city"—originally theorized in the 1960s by the French philosopher and urbanist Henri Lefebvre—can be articulated in the twenty-first-century scenario, where

neo-Haussmannization, integrating financial, corporate and state interests, sequesters land through forcible slum clearance and eminent domain, valorizing it while banishing former residents to the post-industrial hinterlands. ...

Yet even if we accept the ‘urban' as a specific terrain for political struggle, what would the ‘right to the city' actually look like? Would it resemble the Paris Commune, a great festival of merriment, people storming into the centre of town (when there was still a centre), occupying it, tearing down statues, abolishing rents for a while? If so, how would this deal with the problem Marx identified—those flows of capital and commodities? Even if people re-appropriated the downtown hqs of the big corporate and financial institutions, would this really destabilize ‘the system'? In 20th-century revolutionary traditions, wresting control over urban areas has often been the final icing on the cake: by then, the social movement had already been built, the bonds already forged; taking control of the city announced the culmination of victory, the storming of the Winter Palace, the social movement's final, joyous fling. Often, revolutionary currents have flowed from the countryside onto the urban streets. ... Mao, Che, Castro, Ortega and Subcomandante Marcos would doubtless concur: the city does not so much radicalize as neutralize popular elements.

The city, from this standpoint, is not so much a Lefebvrian dialectical oeuvre as a Sartrean practico-inert, the prison-house of past actions that inhibit active praxis. The practico-inert announces that dead labour dominates over living labour, that praxis has been absorbed into the form of the city itself. It would explain the relative conformity of the world's urban populations today: unemployed, sub-employed and multi-employed attendants, cut off from the past yet somehow excluded from the future; deadened by the daily grind of hustling a living. This is a generation of urban dwellers for whom ‘the right to the city' serves no purpose—either as a working concept or as a political programme. It remains at too high a level of abstraction to be existentially meaningful in everyday life. Put a little differently: the right to the city politicizes something that is too vast and at the same time too narrow to mobilize contemporary city-dwellers to act as a collectivity, a fused group. None of this is to deny the role of people fighting to maintain affordable rents or to ensure public spaces stay open. But to bundle these multiple struggles together under the loose rubric ‘right to the city' is to render what is tellingly concrete somehow vacuously abstract. It is too vast, because the scale of the city is out of reach for most people living at street level; yet it is too narrow as well, because when people do protest and take to the streets en masse, they frequently reach out beyond the scale of the city. What is required is something closer to home—something one can touch and smell and feel—and something larger than life, something world-historical: a praxis that can somehow conjoin both realms at once.

The praxis that Merrifield proposes is that of the "politics of the encounter:"

In a normative sense, the politics of the encounter can mediate between the lived and the historical; it can overcome the inertia of apparent mass and individual powerlessness. Active affects somehow replace passive affects; people start to recognize a ‘singular essence', especially humiliated and exploited people, who encounter one another not always directly, but through a mode of relating to the world, through unstated forms of solidarity. As people find one another, they start to piece together common notions: they universalize, make more coherent what seems, on the face of it, only specific, lived experience. What appears particular is in fact general; our plight is that of many people. A politics of the encounter utters no rights, voices no claims. It just acts, affirms, takes back. ...

The recent upheavals in Tunisia, Egypt, Greece and Spain could be read as a dramatic politics of the encounter. In each case, whether in Tunis, Cairo, Athens, Madrid—or Manhattan, with the latest Occupy Wall Street protests—encounters unfolded in the heart of the city, yet the stake was not about the city per se; rather, it was about democracy, in conditions of capitalist crisis. A lot of the activism and organizing was done de-territorially—post-urban, if you will—through Facebook and Twitter; people experienced the encounter in terms of an affinity. One of the slogans raised by young Spaniards mobilizing across their recession-ravaged land was: ‘no jobs, no houses, no pension, no fear.' Many in Spain were new protesters, with little to lose and everything to gain; disgusted with unions, who do nothing to represent their interests, and disillusioned with both psoe and the pp. Protests bloomed over Twitter and Facebook, triggered by WikiLeaks documents exposing government officials' behaviour; the government's attempt to shut down previously legal websites through antipiracy laws riled this new social media generation. ‘They were the spark,' one young protester claimed ...

The spark that triggers any explosive encounter is like that first Jackson Pollock drip: suddenly the paint falls onto the giant canvas; things explode at ground level, on the floor, in the street; dense skeins of black and white swirls disrupt the field of vision; brown and silver nebulae dazzle; paint is layered on swiftly, like meteorites flashing across a white void. There is neither beginning nor end here; entering is via some middle door; there is no meaning other than a pure intensity, a flow of pure becoming. Standing in front of a huge Pollock masterpiece like One: Number 31 (1950), or Autumn Rhythm (1950), shares something of the same dramatic (and unnerving) intensity of standing amid a huge crowd at a demonstration. The same spontaneous energies both incite and terrify; the splattering of colours and entangled lines are there before you. But now they are direct extensions of your own body. Now you are in the canvas. Those swift dripped lines somehow flow through you, become frenzied gestures of your own self in the crowd, the crowd in you. You are simply present here and now; passions are expressed rather than illustrated.

It is the process of the encounter that can be itself a transformative praxis, Merrifield argues:

The crowd that encounters itself at a mass demonstration expresses political ambitions before the political means necessary to realize them are created. The revolutionary in the crowd has to learn how to rehearse symbolically, how to translate inner force into an external, common and transformative praxis; one has to test oneself out in the collective and strategic drama of the historical performance itself. ...

Nobody can know in advance when an epic historical-geographical performance will be enacted, nor are there preconceived formulas for what makes a successful encounter. What is clear, however, is that any moment of encounter will likely be a kind of process without a subject, spreading like wildfire, a moment in which crowds become speedy ensembles of bodies, created via spontaneous online and offline ordering; participants will simultaneously act and react, in a human kaleidoscope in which joy and celebration, violence and wildness, tenderness and abandon somehow get defined. Participants will come together not only as a singularity sharing passions and affirming hopes, but also as a force that creates its own historical space. For the politics of the encounter will always be an encounter somewhere, a spatial meeting place. It will always be an illicit rendezvous of human bonding and solidarity, a virtual, emotional and material topography in which something disrupts and intervenes in the paralysis.

What takes hold is what Joyce in Finnegans Wake termed a ‘collideorscape'. The notion of the encounter is perhaps the central motif of Finnegans Wake, and the collideorscape marks for Joyce something of a ‘collide and escape', a kaleidoscope of sorts, a coincidence taking hold, shaking things up to give form to another reality; a portmanteau word for a new portmanteau politics. The spatial question will not go away: it will always be the battleground for political struggle, the centre stage of any encounter or collideorscape. But what kind of human—rather than urban—space will this be, and what kind of new social networks hold the key for a 21st-century politics of militant democracy? In what forms will the Joycean everybuddy—as Finnegans Wake puns, seemingly giving the nod to Facebook addicts everywhere—begin to express itself, as it challenges the crisis-ridden neoliberal order?

Visit New Left Review to read the article in full (subscribers only).

Filed under: occupy