I gave a talk at Occupy University last Wednesday. The initial plan was to give a talk looking at the writing emanating from what is now called the Occupy movement, in light of the explosion of provocative writing that the events of the last couple of months have produced. But when I sat down for a few hours to get some sort of handle on what people were writing about such an amorphous yet somehow multi-faceted series of events, I started to realise that any attempt at a digested account of what was going on would prove impossible.
So, bearing in mind that I was going to be speaking at Dame Street and not Davos, I started thinking instead about what had been going on with the Irish manifestations of the Occupy movement and the role played by writing.
I spent a lot of time down at the Dame Street site in the first week or so of the occupation, and then I spent five weeks at a remove, witnessing things unfold via an internet connection, mainly through other people’s writing, on social networks,blogs, and the occasional news website article.
It wasn’t simply a matter of observing things unfold, though: I was regularly interacting with people on all sorts of matters relating to the occupation, and often intervening in events, through writing on Facebook updates and chat windows and the like.
I wouldn’t call it a satisfying experience: I scanned through a fair few ‘Like’-fuelled conflagrations and unproductive conflicts that seemed generated from fatigue, anxiety and paranoia, and I read, aghast, accounts of events from people who were approaching things from a more detached perspective (detached, however, is not the same thing as disinterested) and reaching damning conclusions about the occupation’s character and prospects.
One thing that stuck in my craw, and indeed still does, is how even voices that might be otherwise sympathetic to what is being attempted, can ignore the practical, material difficulties involved in maintaining an occupation, and treat the utterances of the most vociferous individuals as though they were representative of the political motivations and consciousness of all those taking part.
This is a variant of what Mike Davis describes here as ‘the media’s constant tendency toward metonymy — the designation of the whole by a part, the group by an individual’. To compound this, the people most intensively involved in dealing with the practical considerations of the occupation seldom have the time or access to put their own views across. Another instance of this metonymy can be seen in Gene Kerrigan’s fine and sympathetic article in today’s Sunday Independent, where he reads the poster with the Kerouac quote and remarks about ‘sheeple’ as representative of the entirety of participants. The criticism is apt, but only for those to whom it really applies…
This kind of thing doesn’t matter too much when there are plenty of people making and distributing content that reflects the multiplicity of voices that you find at any occupation, and recognises a continuity between people’s reasons for occupying a public space and the wider social, political and economic conditions.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the case in Ireland. The compact and bijou Irish political blogipelago –in which I include not simply those who write posts, but those who make contributions via comment threads- tends to concern itself with electoral power struggles and the economic consequences of the austerity regime. I don’t expect people who are deeply interested in these things to drop everything and start writing the occupation, and indeed, for the most part, they haven’t.
There has been quite a bit of mainstream media coverage, but a lot of it has taken on a one-eyebrow-raised “oh look, they’re doing it here too” nature, indicating that for the moment, this is one protest that the establishment can feel comfortable about.
This is especially true when there isn’t a great deal going down for long periods on the #occupydamestreet Twitter hashtag, save mind-numbing ‘humour’ about occupiers’ hygiene habits from young men in ties who dream of Toastmasters and MBA courses. Left to their own devices, vacuums can speak for themselves quite eloquently too.
So I wanted to talk about what sort of effect writing has on a movement, and how these effects might develop via horizontal networks in the realm of mass self-communication. The title I proposed for my talk was ‘Writing in an age of networked occupation’. In alluding to The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction I was just being facetious rather than making any serious point, and I wasn’t planning on speaking about writing as art, but there were a couple of passages from that essay that I did find relevant for introducing the talk, in order to address the sort of technological neophilia that seems to pervade a lot of discussion of these things:
For centuries the situation in literature was such that a small number of writers faced many thousands of times that number of readers. Then, towards the end of the last century, there came a change. As the press grew in volume, making ever-increasing numbers of new political, religious, scientific, professional and local organs available to its readership, larger and larger sections of that readership (gradually at first) turned unto writers. It began with the daily newspapers opening their ‘correspondence columns’ to such people, and it has now reached a point where few Europeans involved in the labour process could fail, basically, to find some opportunity or other to publish an experience at work, a complaint, a piece of reporting or something similar. The distinction between writer and readership is thus in the process of losing its fundamental character.– From The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin
Though written in 1936, there is a contemporary relevance there. And if it looks as if there is nothing new under the sun, maybe we should also be asking whether what has been done will be done again. Benjamin writes, in his epilogue:
The growing proletarianization of modern man and the increasing formation of masses are two aspects of the same process. Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property.
The occupations are taking place to a backdrop of a massive and growing concentration of financial and economic power in the hands of a select minority, and indeed, the proletarianization of vast swathes of European society, which is an intended consequence of the austerity regime. The failure of social democracy in Greece has given way to a ‘technocratic’ government that includes axe-wielding fascists. Mario Monti, former adviser to Goldman Sachs, heads up ‘a technocratic cabinet containing no politicians’. In Spain, the elections gave an absolute majority to the Partido Popular, the ideological and material heirs of the Franco regime. An Irish Times report from Germany the other day stated that ‘federal investigators have come under fire: in the last decade they have launched 700 investigations into Islamic and left-wing extremists compared to just 13 into those with a suspected extreme-right or neo-Nazi background’, even though the National Socialist Underground (NSU) had been ‘linked to at least 10 murders of kebab shop owners in the last decade as well as a 2004 nail-bomb attack in Cologne’s Turkish neighbourhood’. There are plenty more examples, if one cares to look, such as Sarkozy’s expulsion of thousands of Roma from France, the rise of Jobbik in Hungary, and let’s not forget Fine Gael in Ireland: a party with fascist roots and, in the present, a mayor who decides to announce publicly that he will not be representing people from black African backgrounds in his town.My point here –apart from emphasising how serious the situation currently is- was to make it obvious that the use of social network technology will not, in and of itself, produce a decisive emancipatory social movement. The ‘post-democratic’ era currently dawning will see relentless promotion of self-expression, where opportunities will abound to comment on everything and anything, but always provided that any such self-expression does not interfere with property relations, or with processes of accumulation by dispossession. It’s equally possible, then, that the scene is being set for the type of networks that strengthen racist and fascist activities.
Politically, it’s important not to confuse the kind of self-expression Benjamin is talking about –which is permitted and encouraged because it perpetuates the order of things- with what Manuel Castells identifies as the use of mass self-communication in the formation of counter-power. The new spaces created by the digital age, then, should be seen as spaces to be contested, sites of political struggle.
And an important part of this struggle, which, I should stress, is only ever one element of broader struggles –since so many of the messages are communicated in text- is writing. But what sort of writing? I started with the example of a recent piece by Carol Rumens about Ireland’s new President of the Republic of Letters, Michael D. Higgins, in which she applied a phrase used by ‘the Northern Irish poets’ for rubbish poetry: ‘I first heard it from Longley himself, though I believe he said he got it from Frank Ormsby: mad-dog-shite’. The way she presents it, it’s as though the phrase (the usual expression is ‘mad dog’s shite’) were some sort of invention by aristocrats of poetic expression, instead of what it actually is: a phrase that’s part of a lexicon developed in common by generations of ordinary working people in the North, which belongs to no-one and everyone.
In a similar way, the type of writing I had in mind wasn’t sequences of words intended to enhance writerly reputations, but writing that was part of a common project to make a political language in common. I used the distinction offered by Roland Barthes between écrivain and écrivant as a way of understanding what type of writing I was on about.
Whereas Barthes saw the écrivain as the creator of a sort of consecrated merchandise, the writing of the écrivant had a transitive character: it was geared towards providing evidence, explaining and constructing, and took place at the margins of institutions. It was writing in the latter category that I thought was especially important with regard to the Occupy movement. But there was an additional distinction to be drawn: between writing that took place exterior to the movement, and writing that happened on the interior.
To be clear, I wasn’t talking about the difference between people writing in Navan and people writing in the yellow hut outside the Central Bank. Rather, I meant the difference between writing on the one hand that treated the Occupy movement as a sort of laboratory specimen, as if the writer were producing notes on an experiment that may or may not prove successful, and, on the other, writing that identified with the problems addressed by the movement: participative writing intended to resolve ambiguities, to shed light on difficulties, to elaborate on common ideas that had not yet been adequately expressed and shared.
It was this latter form of writing, I thought, –whether on blogs, Facebook walls and status updates, chat windows, or on posters or placards or leaflets for that matter- that actively sought to address, in however fragmentary and discontinuous a fashion, how the occupation of Dame Street related to the broader political and economic crisis, that would be most effective in developing networks of resistance to domination. It seemed to me a necessary component of the ‘real participatory democracy’ that Occupy Dame Street’s initial statement sought.
It’s impossible for anything more than an infinitesimally small percentage of the people that Occupy Dame Street are seeking to reach to participate in its assembly making decision process, or in whatever political discussions occur in the public space it is seeking to maintain.
Compelling video images may capture the imagination, but not everyone who might identify with the occupation had the time or the connection speed to be looking at video clips. People who commuted long distances to work and then had to maintain a household, for instance, might only get spare ten minutes or so for that sort of thing a day. The delivery and access to text-based messages presented a far greater range of possibilities.
One of the problems faced by Occupy Dame Street, I speculated, was in addressing a widespread expectation that the Occupy movement was some sort of McDonalds-style franchise that could be implemented in any modern urban setting. A lot of the criticism –sympathetic and otherwise- seemed to be based on this assumption, without due attention being paid to the specific circumstances that produced similar movements in other places. Here, for example, I think the exterior vs. interior modes of writing –and indeed, thinking- about the occupation are of some use.
A writing from the interior, that seeks to operate transitively, will seek to clarify what these circumstances are, and help to identify the obstacles to be overcome, whereas writing that operates from the exterior will merely note there are differences, and perhaps adduce that this is why one can foreclose on the possibilities of anything interesting happening (and get back to tried and tested methods of failure instead).
I referred to a piece a few months’ back by Illan Rua Wall that I felt still held true for Ireland. In it, he explored why there had not been a popular mobilisation in Ireland by contrast with other PIGS countries, and concluded, rightly, I think, that in Ireland there still remained a hope for representational politics.
This remains true even while many people who retain this hope are being assailed with media predictions and speculation, intended to produce fear, about the cuts planned for the imminent budget. Indeed, in the discussions after my talk, it was clear that plenty of the participants at Dame Street still retain a hope for representational politics, even though the government is operating as little more than willing subcontractors for financial institutions and wealthy elites.
So much thought still seems to gravitate towards the question of how politicians might be persuaded, coaxed, cajoled into seeing the light about the situation and taking the right action in what Wall describes as ‘the stable and preconstituted zones of parliaments and negotiating rooms’. I felt Occupy Dame Street wasn’t operating in terms of a decisive refusal of representation, even though there were many participants in the street occupation who do adopt this position.
We talked for a while about how this refusal of representation –denying politicians any claim to represent you- also entailed representing yourself. In terms of writing, I mentioned the ‘We are the 99 percent’ blog as an example of how people who identified with the political claims of the Occupy Wall Street movement used their own words and images –and indeed, their own handwriting- to recount their own predicament and to relate this to the wider political and economic situation, instead of letting politicians or mass media outlets tell stories on their behalf.
Telling personal individual and collective stories, but as political statements, and by doing so via means of mass self-communication, laying bare the illegitimate character of dominant official narratives, thus helping build networks of resistance. There hadn’t been a great deal of this sort of writing generated in Ireland. I mentioned the forthcoming CrisisJam alternative State of The Nation address, The State We’re In, as an example of the kind of effect that was required: a multiplicity of voices – ‘personal testimony, community responses and any other kind of radical and questioning response’ operating through different creative forms.
The occupiers of Dame Street -or any other Irish location for that matter- won’t have the capacity to generate this sort of effect purely through their own writing activities. Perhaps all that they can expect of themselves, for the moment, is to maintain a presence and a space that allows these effects to germinate, and attempt, as best they can, to open their own regular lines of communication with people who may never make it to a weekday assembly, but who need and want to know what’s going on all the same, and whose contribution, through their own participative writing and reading and diffusion, will be to help weave stronger and wider networks of resistance through cyberspace and urban space.