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Chris Westcott for Jacobin Magazine: "Escalating the Spectacle"

Francisco Salas18 October 2011

Former intern and friend of Verso Chris Westcott writes on Occupy Baltimore for Jacobin Magazine's blog.

To a passing observer, the recently launched Occupy Baltimore action looks like what any grad student parrot of Zizek might call an occupation without the occupation. It has the feel of an occupation specially ripened for the consumer, with all its pleasures but none of its messy consequences. No factories, offices, schools, or rowhouses commandeered. No barricades erected, nor bulleted lists of demands plastered on doors. No attempts made to paralyze the everyday operations of power. Its greatest challenge to authority has been its tent-free encampment in a 24-hour public park-something only discovered to be unlawful after the selection of the space. The greatest sacrifices most have made are of warmth and time.

Drawing on the discourses of Situationism and Media Studies, Westcott responds to the common claim that the protests "lack content": 

If the Occupy movement is an occupation of leisure, it is much more an occupation of spectacle. Its most brilliant slogan ("We are the 99%") captures the sublime feeling of statistical supermajority, which today takes its most familiar form as the count of semi-anonymous Internet "hits." #Occupy has gone viral, and its encampments exist to generate the content that keeps the hits coming. It is a telling irony that the media reaction to the movement has thus far been that the movement lacks content. The content proper to it has in fact been precisely the spectacular content of reproduced assent that the popularity mill of social media, TV news, and political commentary all share.

Given the host of critiques of spectacular "protest" made in recent years, how does a movement engage in a struggle where the field of battle consists of city streets and bandwidth?

The advanced subtlety of homeland security and widespread techniques of accommodation, diversion, and false choice (the creation of phony crises, the relabeling of remote-controlled war, and so on) are specially designed to prevent meaningful escalation, peaceful or otherwise. As the extralegal war-making and lucky-pierre economic maneuvers of this administration have adequately proven, one cannot count on power's lack of cunning or suppose that transparency can by itself expel injustice. Standing on the liberal high ground of legality in the defensible space of McKeldin Park is not likely to generate the necessary momentum. New means of nonviolent escalation-ones that carry beyond the easily-neutralized project of voting with your Tweet-must be found.

The form the occupation movement is currently taking is, according to Westcott, transitional, amorphous, and proliferating to new locales and rapidly changing circumstances:

The return of occupation to factories, offices, schools, and rowhouses need not mean the abandonment of the occupation that started in the parks. Information, decision-making, and action must still be coordinated if the Occupy movement is to keep from dissolving into rogue or defenseless fragments. Its infinite unfulfilled demands can only find lasting expression in a coordinating whole. If some idea of a general assembly-and in the Occupy movement as a whole, many of these-cannot be dispensed with, it will be crucial to discover new, more efficient and more secure means of coordination and inclusion. The consensus decision-making strategies so far employed with relative success represent an important first step, but only a step. One senses that the problem being faced here may be the most urgent one. Its difficulty many be seen as sufficient reason to selectively steal from every available source, from the tactics of Wall Street itself to the secure openness and elective strikes of non-groups like Anonymous.

What is needed more than anything is ongoing internal research and discussion. To this end the movement will need to continue to cultivate journalism and opinions, hopefully in a format occupiers will read to engage with. Outrage alone can unite, but it can also undo. Whether the Occupy movement makes good on any speculations offered here-or even whether these speculations have any truth-is much less important than concerted self-reflection and debate.

That is, the task for the moment is not necessarily to give the occupations a determinate shape, direction, or set of demands, but—in a decidedly militant intellectual turn—to research, so that we may be better prepared for whatever may come.

Visit Jacobin Magazine to read the piece in full.

Filed under: occupy