Parametric Protest

December, 2011

The current Occupy protests embody a structure of dissemination and of identification that is also in evidence in computational media.

Occupy protesters make signs out of discarded bits of cardboard. It would have been possible to print signs – some did. The unions tend to. Everyone’s sign is then the same – perfect and boring simple reproduction. At Occupy, there is instead a plethora of difference with the form of the handmade cardboard sign providing a unity: a commonality which allows for difference, for cleverness, for spontaneity and improvisation. The refusal of mechanical reproduction suggests a return of the aura, in Benjaminian terms, and exemplifies an artisanal reproduction that stands at an oblique to the transmission of the ideas themselves through the replicative vectors of the internetworks.

That a phrase like “twitter revolution” or “facebook revolution” was legible – when it was first applied to the Iranian civic unrest of 2009 and then in reference to last year’s Arab Spring uprisings – is testament to the degree to which social media, and therefore also, computation and networking, play a significant role in contemporary politics globally. During the Arab Spring, it was argued that the tendency to emphasize social networking as a determinant factor in the political events was both misleading and reflective of a bias that credits the products of big capital’s info-technological machine with the toppling tyrannical regimes, rather than the people, whose significant on the ground organizing, risk-taking, and battles in the streets, did the real work of bringing change to both governance and thinking.

Now as Occupy Wall Street has sparked a continuation of the global agitation against political and economic corruption by minority elites, and for the first time in quite a while, appreciably captured the attention of people in the U.S., it is worth considering in a new context, the relation between communication technologies and political activity. What has happened in the occupy movement, has not just happened on the ground, it has happened as the result of an intersection between the real and the virtual.

From the perspective on the ground, it looks as if participation is a rejection of virtual communication. The occupation of public space is the crucial mechanism of agitation and visibility. It is also the setting for the nascent alliances across the usual social boundaries that have formed in the spaces of occupation. All this is what cannot, or at least does not, commonly happen online.

The virtualizations of electronic civil disobedience, pioneered by the likes of Critical Art Ensemble or Electronic Disturbance theatre could not, with virtual sit-ins, address the convergence of financial interest and venal conspiracy that resulted in the contractions of public space and their enclosure by capital in the last decades. It is the coincidence of common liability that makes occupation coherent and appropriate: the 1% is ultimately responsible for the suite of grievances that includes the privatization of space as well as the decimation of provisions for public welfare – and all this while profiting from crisis, plundering the economy with impunity, and profiting from unnecessary wars.

The face to face which occurs in occupied spaces compensates for the strange combination of sociality and separation that characterizes online communication. Embodied presence exposes people to risk and takes a commitment of time, energy and attention that gives the experience of being in the plaza a quality and impact completely different from internet-based activism – especially of the click here to sign variety. Being there, by contrast with clicking, has a weight and significance that is felt and immediate. Having gone, one imagines, clicking will not feel quite the same again. Clicking as activism becomes laughable because of its lack of effect for either the actor or the addressee.

Network effects structure online communications so that groups tend to form isolated and parallel structures reproducing the social segregations of meat space, based as they are on class, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. In the space of the occupation, there is a chance for greater permeability between groups. This is happening at the occupations, even as it is clear that separations remain. It has been much remarked on that participation and “leadership” are skewed towards the white, the male, and the young. Still, the close proximity of groups whose interests and experience are so radically different is important. If in some locations the homeless and the poor have gravitated to one area and the General Assembly and Working group participants to another, they still have to account for each other’s presence; they have to make sense of a mutual dependence and their difference simultaneously. This is not a solution to social segregation, but it is a situation where a solution might be explored and where political thinking can happen in a context that demands an accountability informed and enforced by proximity rather than avoided by ghettoization.

If a politics of alliance is possible in the U.S., its precursor surely must be proximity. The work that the occupation performs in reconstituting a public in real space is a crucial step in that direction. Given the motivation to form a common from the wreckage of the individuated and fractured life under global capitalism, and given the centrality of a consensus process that aims to find, through inclusivity and dialog, a common ground between diverse perspectives, there should be hope that alliances will form. And there is evidence for this in, for example, housing actions in Harlem (and other cities) where downtown participants came to and supported uptown victims of predacious landlords and banks.

Life on the ground can be fraught with antagonisms and difficulties. It is also a space where communication is scoped in a way that radically differs from what we’ve become accustomed to. There is an intensification of personal and local communication, but to some extent anyway (depending on what tech one carries) there is a diminishment of communication with the global, the real-time, the multi-casted shallow intensities of social networking, and the broadcasted professionally mediated and narrated cycle of news and attention.

The 99% feels the need for publicity too. So there is always a core of participants feeding the stream with documentation of the events of the moment. There is always an eager audience for every form of it. That audience is likely largely passive participants in the occupations that strongly identify with the movement even if they never participate in the flesh. Some viewers and readers of online communication will be participants who are at home or working between visits to the occupation. The alternation between in person and virtual attention is part of the structure of the occupation and what makes it available to a public who are always already virtual in a different sense of the term: they are potential participants.

Not coincidentally, virtuality, as a science of potentials within systems, is at the heart of computation itself. The machine works by allowing systems of structure and procedure to be modeled. It does this by leaving a space for change inside the model of the system. That space is the parameter, the hole in the system where anything can be substituted for what was there before. As our culture is computerized, the idea and character of the parametric system becomes part of our culture: the hack, mass customization, mix culture, open source software, memes – they all can be thought of as functioning in this way. They structure a facility for replicability that incorporates difference. This is currently an extremely a powerful thought pattern for both culture and science.

AdBusters’ original call to action which resulted in the occupation of Wall Street already recognizes the worldwide phenomena of protests in the square as a “formula” that can be reused in the American context:

The beauty of this new formula, and what makes this novel tactic exciting, is its pragmatic simplicity: we talk to each other in various physical gatherings and virtual people's assemblies … we zero in on what our one demand will be, a demand that awakens the imagination and, if achieved, would propel us toward the radical democracy of the future … and then we go out and seize a square of singular symbolic significance and put our asses on the line to make it happen.

If what we are experiencing is some kind of revolution, it is also a parametric revolution. It is a reproducible act that can be carried out in different places, by different people. It is a system that can be recognized, customized, and reproduced – with differences that are responsive to local conditions.

Occupy Wall Street, became Occupy Boston, Occupy LA, Occupy San Francisco, Occupy Chicago, until there were nearly two thousand cities listed on and they were not all in the U.S. The substitution of “together” is a change which revises the structure of the system by introducing an adverbial modification rather than a noun. To write “Occupy Everything,” which was the logical extrapolation from the multitude of instantiations, was a modification towards abstraction. Occupy makes a system where place is the parameter.

The word occupy has been criticized for not accounting for the colonial legacy, which makes this ground already occupied; and so the “occupation” being redundant and eliding of indigenous histories, is substituted by the word “decolonize” instead. The structure still holds under its revamped title so that you can hear “decolonize X” being instantiated multiply, with both city names and things, up to and including decolonize everything.

There is a short list of necessary infrastructure that makes an occupy an occupy: A public space, tents, a General Assembly run by consensus, Working Groups, a website (Twitter feed, FaceBook page, live video stream, etc.). Not all the systems and practices inaugurated or taken up at OWS are universal though, and each occupation is a unique configuration of modular refashioning and local ingenuity responsive to regional conditions including cultural and legal particularities. Though occupy is something like a movement, it is more like an idea; it is a formal meme or a pattern that is reproduced in a place and filled with the people and activities of that place.

Occupy enacts a parametrics of identification: I am–you are the 99%. Ultimately the self is in the space of the parameter. So, “Occupy your own heart,” she said, “not with fear but with love.” To “join” or to take part is not just to identify with a movement, it is to insert the self into the activated space which occupation holds open for us. We occupy the occupation. Each occupation is a container for the multitude that inhabits it. Occupation is also a mobile and aleatory idea of containment that can be moved and cloned and deployed as needed. It is an idea which transforms the inhabiting of space into a political act. It is an idea which recuperates the publicness of space itself and opens it to the common as a platform for assembly and speech. 

Occupy is not an organization, though it is organized; conceptualizing Occupy as an organization creates difficulties for city governments as they attempt to negotiate with people that embrace an idea and enact it, but do not recognize leadership or structures of representation. There are parallels here with other contemporary phenomena of affinity that function effectively through the actions of essentially autonomous actors, without necessarily having significant coordination. Arguably, Al Queada had been that way, though the U.S. government constructed them as a functioning hierarchical organization in order to make them a proper enemy and target of military action. (That there can be a war on terror, drugs, or poverty are perhaps a counterexamples worth contemplating.) Anonymous, the hacker meme-collective, is yet another example. There is something in common here with anarchist modes of organization around collective action, but there is also an aspect of this that is more diffuse, and seems to attach itself to the new avenues of communication and structures of identity that are enabled by the internet.

On the “We Are the 99 Percent” Tumblr blog, people post a picture of themselves with a text explaining their situation and their relation to this moment and this movement. The format creates an inhabitable system allowing for immediate comprehension and participation. The form remains the same and is instantiated with variation endlessly. That enactment which incorporates difference binds the participants to the movement – to a virtual collectivity – as much as marching down the street, or linking arms when the police try and take away tents. This mechanism of participation and identification defined belonging to the 99% through a personal narrative of economic difficulty contained in a common form. Created by an anonymous activist after the general assembly of New York started meeting, but a month before the occupation of Zucotti Park, it was the source of the powerful and defining slogan of Occupy Wall Street, and its popularity laid the groundwork for the widespread popularity of the occupation itself.

It is crucial to understand that the slogan “We are the 99%” is not a statement about representation, though this interpretation is common in the mainstream media and especially among those critical of Occupy Wall Street. The slogan should not suggest that participants make a claim to define the 99% with their narrative. Rather, it is a kind of announcement, something like “Meet the Beetles”. It proclaims both the existence of the 99% as a concept, and an acknowledgement of the self’s interpolation by the phrase. There is a collectivity named by the 99% and I am a part of it; when I hear the slogan, I recognize myself as being hailed by it. My story is one of the stories that exemplify the way that most of us struggle while a small elite thrives.

The 99% is concept that embraces a very specific re-conceptualization of class in America. It is in stark contrast to the tripartite division of lower/middle/upper class that in the U.S. context seems to suggest a kind of natural balance, an evenness or fairness of economic distribution; it is also tied to a whole matrix of ideological economic Americana including upward mobility, the American dream, and the meritocratic inevitability of the market. Instead, the 99% concept frames American inequality in the bleak terms of the actual data, where the 1% is seen to own about half of everything and collect 40% of the available income. In the vacuum of U.S. political rhetoric, everyone is middle class, and the middle class is the only class that counts as a political actor. Class reconfigured as the split between the ultra wealthy cleptocratic plutocracy and everyone else is a significant shift in thinking about politics and economics, as well as political identifications.

Being entered on the blog form, it also signals a shift away from main stream media as the source of figures for identification. Rather than being sutured to pop stars, in the networked world we are inclined (also) to focus on others we identify as being like ourselves. This is too is an aspect of horizontality (in addition to the much vaunted horizontalism of direct democracy). It is part of the culture of social media, and it is part of a trend away from mainstream media. Though social media is a threat to professional journalism, and recruits unpaid workers to scab for vectoralist business interests, it also is a work around for the biases against leftist politics in mainstream media that conspire to diminish and propagandize against important resistant political forms like Occupy.

The dual nature of the technological contribution to the current situation is in evidence at others levels as well. The globalization of capital and the financialization of developed economies rely on the automation of banking and trading systems and the transnational networking infrastructures, which communicate financial data in a way that dissolves borders and saps the effectiveness of economic regulation by nation states. War is likewise virtualized and sanitized through the power of computational systems. Massive surveillance and censorship systems grow in parallel to the giant new spaces for social networking. The people, the users of these “social” systems are subject to the parasitic attention of both the corporate sponsors and the forces of repression; in one case as audience and unpaid labor, and in the other as suspect. Global capital is a computation and network enabled beast and neo-liberalism arose simultaneously with the software economy. So it is crucial, as we search for modes of resistance, to find ways to detourn the systems that enable our subjection.

As a new horizon of possibility seems to be emerging within the domain of political economy, a new thinking is already evident at the level of social and cultural practice. It is not that we should cede credit for social action to social media, but that networked computation provides new models for political action, identification and social cohesion–and for culture more generally. Our life in the world has come to share characteristics with our life on line. The accommodation of difference within a structured but changeable system is a powerful part of contemporary social moments. Experimentation with these forms promises possibilities for creating a new commons and a new commonality for the super majority of us now rising up against American and global plutocracy.