–The Art of the Dubious Struggle”: Reflections on Occupy Wall Street

Poster created by Rachel Schragis
Poster created by Rachel Schragis

There is no escaping the national and global significance of the Occupy movements in New York, Oakland, and elsewhere. This is especially true for those of us who encounter Occupy events daily as witnesses or participants. Politico recently reported that since the advent of Occupy Wall Street there has been a dramatic spike in the use of the phrase “income inequality” in the US media—an empirical echo of shifts in the national conversation. Any American who follows the news—left, right, or center—is being touched by and responding to Occupy in some way, whether or not they have personally experienced an Occupy event.

Phenomenological philosophy and psychology are devoted to explicating the intersubjective dimensions of human life. This is exemplified by Merleau-Ponty’s powerful discussions of the ways in which individual human life is always embedded in and discovers its meaning within an intersubjective field. As Stewart has written, for Merleau-Ponty “this intersubjective matrix…does not limit my freedom but on the contrary is the means of my becoming a person capable of free and responsible acts” (p. 193). Similarly, Coole has argued in Merleau-Ponty and Politics After Anti-Humanism that the practice of phenomenology was “profoundly and intrinsically political” for Merleau-Ponty—a means of reflecting critically on our environing social world (p. 123).

Turning to the phenomenological examination of perception, we observe that the lived-world is always a world “for us” rather than simply a world “for me” in my solitude. When I perceive a tree, it is never just “my tree”—the tree is a feature of the world precisely because it is present for an actual or a potential “we”. Similarly an event like Occupy is an event “for us”—even if we do not agree on its meaning. As I have argued previously, phenomenology has a communal concern because it is committed to explicating phenomena that give shape to our communal life.

We encounter the tree and Occupy as features of what Husserl termed our “homeworld.” As Steinbock points out, for Husserl we are linked to those who co-inhabit our homeworld: they “not either simply a collection of ‘I’s nor an indiscriminate We-world,” but in Husserl’s words are “homecomrades” [Ger. Heimgenosse]. Whether or not we agree on a matter like Occupy—and perhaps particularly when we disagree—we are inhabitants of a common world, co-members of a community. This is so even when the community is at odds with itself, or struggling to find its meaning and common ground.

The focus of this post is not a phenomenologist, but instead, contemporary French philosopher Alain Badiou. In October 2010 Badiou lectured in a New York art gallery, his presentation titled Does the Notion of Activist Art Still Have a Meaning? I argue that Badiou’s words on this occasion lay bare in an almost prophetic way some essential features of OWS, and point to Occupy’s contribution to the present moment in America’s national life. In what follows I will seek to outline some implications of Badiou’s discussion of militant art for Occupy.

In the 2010 lecture, Badiou describes what he terms “militant art,” contrasting it with conservative or “official” art. For Badiou this distinction is not the difference between good art and inferior art. On the contrary, Badiou views many of the greatest artistic geniuses of European history as examples of conservative art.

What’s critical in Badiou’s distinction is that official art celebrates and reaffirms truths that are already in some way “consensus” or “received” truths, facts already achieved, revelations already sanctified, battles already won. Psychologically we can say that “official art” embodies the reconfirmation of our already-achieved certainty, a reaffirmation of our already-established convictions. Obviously such convictions could be of any political or ideological stripe, left or right. In contrast, he says:

“Militant art is the subjective expression not of what exists, but of what becomes. It is an art of the choice, and not an art of victory. An official art is an art of affirmative certainty. Militant art is an art of the contradiction—an art of the contradiction between the affirmative nature of principle and the dubious result of struggles.”

I propose that we consider Badiou’s discussion of militant art as descriptive of creative, community-minded collective expression in general. If we view his words in this light, the implication is that militant or activist expression occurs in a field of uncertainty, of battles not yet won, leaders and heroes not yet recognized, principles in the midst of being verified-in-action, not yet formalized or codified. Badiou refers to militant art as an intrinsically “dubious struggle” fraught with deep uncertainties.

Why so? Consider that nothing characterizes the Occupy movements worldwide more than uncertainty. Participants don’t know what the next day will bring—during the days when I composed these words, we witnessed the Oakland police clearing Oscar Grant Plaza for the second time, the New York police forcefully evicting Occupy Wall Street from Zuccotti Park, and seemingly coordinated efforts in cities across the country from Boston to San Francisco aimed at “clearing” and “cleaning” occupied spaces. These words will undoubtedly be out of date by the time they are posted online, since the status of every single Occupy event is one of dynamic flux. An analogous but more nakedly violent climate of uncertainty exists for the participants in Arab Spring movements like Egypt’s, who are subject to daily repression and “counterrevolutionary” state violence.

Here in the US, Occupy movements are beset by uncertainty not only due to pressures from external authorities, but also from internal tensions. Rabbi Michael Lerner, a participant in Occupy Oakland, recently offered a sympathetic yet penetrating critique of the movement’s shortcomings, including the Oakland Assembly’s disturbing inability (as of the date of Lerner’s writing) to unequivocally affirm nonviolence.

I want to argue that what is alive about Occupy is not that it has achieved a decisive victory, but that it is an embodied, lived-process of collectively breaking through the dominant ideology of our times—something Slavoj Zizek highlighted in his speech at OWS. What I mean by this is that there is a sense of people freeing themselves by speaking and acting lived-truths about the society they inhabit, truths that even after months of international protests remain largely out of bounds for our mainstream media and politics. This speaking and acting embody an attempt—halting, difficult, and uncertain—to co-constitute some sense of sustaining and sustainable community. It is this intersubjective breaking-through of the presence of a “truth” that characterizes, for Badiou, an “event,” and uncertainty is intrinsic to it.

Badiou says that militant art is an expression “Of the presentation, not an art of the representation…militant art cannot be the image of something which exists, but must be the pure existence of what is becoming.” What is alive is a dynamic process in which a shared truth is intersubjectively disclosed in the midst of uncertainty. So he writes, “We have the process and not the result, so we cannot glorify the result…because the result is not here…it is presented ‘in its weakness.’”

Badiou proposes three provisional “rules” as descriptive of militant artistic expression: I will reflect on how these relate to Occupy.

First, Badiou argues that due to the inchoate, exploratory nature of militant art, it must ground itself in concrete, local experiences. He claims that in the absence of established, well-articulated ideals, ideas, and organizations, “it’s a necessity to create a common space,” and this common space “must be practical common space, real proximity.”

These words describe the literal physical proximity and creation of physical community that characterize the Occupy encampments and events. That “occupy” is an embodied, communal event means that it is more than a manifesto, a set of finite programmatic demands, or a nascent political party—the phenomenon cannot be limited to these formal expressions, although any number of such expressions may ultimately flow out of the event.

But prior to reaching agreement about policy or formal demands, the sense that we inhabit a shared world must be re-awakened as a lived-experience. In the absence of an embodied, lived-sense of a common, human ground—something that arguably can only emerge through shared struggling, being tested by trying events, and discovering a trustworthy, intersubjective foundation for action—a merely programmatic unity would be useless. Indeed it would invite “classification” and marginalization. Here I am seeking to express Badiou’s insight in descriptive-phenomenological, psychological language.

About closeness, Badiou explains: “my proposition is to substitute an ideological proximity [with] a concrete or real proximity…we must be really near the local experiences in the field of politics…and I think we can find new formal means in this proximity itself.”

The General Assemblies are inchoate examples of such “new formal means.” For this reason we have heard Occupy participants reporting that despite the difficulties of collective decision-making, it is the lived-experiences of closeness and interrelationship that constitute the event, not a pre-existing program or a particular location in space. As an OWS participant interviewed by Democracy Now stated: “One of the huge misconceptions is that all the movement is in this park. The movement is in our head—it is an idea. It’s what happens while we’re here, you know? The conversations we have that we take with us, everywhere.”

The physical reclaiming of the commons—as messy and complex and reversible as these acts have been—suggests that nothing short of face-to-face contact and intimate struggles to achieve shared understanding can begin to constitute the desired-for community. It seems to me that even the barest promise of such a possibility is deeply radical in our times.

Badiou proposes that the starting point of radical art today is a condition of weakness. But acknowledging this, he says, “the second point is to go beyond the weakness…to organize, progressively…to return to a strong idea concerning the global destiny of human beings.”

Consider that, according to Badiou, one of the most radical steps that can be taken is self-consciously reaching toward universal or global truths within the lived-context of a local struggle. Such truths place a strong claim upon the individual. For example, the “truths” animating Occupy cannot be held as merely relative, merely representing “my opinion” or “my culture,” precisely because at their depth they speak to the requirements of a just society as such, they are not held as merely personal or “cultural” preferences.

That a shared reaching toward universals might be at the heart of Occupy will shock someone who has internalized the assumptions of postmodernism. As Eagleton observed, postmodernism “denounces…universalism as an oppressive hangover of the Enlightenment.” The postmodernist perspective, he writes, produces “a paralyzing skepticism” with respect to claims for shared social truths, since “like any brand of epistemological anti-realism, [postmodernism] consistently denies the possibility of describing the way the world is” (p. 28).

This point is too complex to be fully addressed here, but I want to argue that what gives Occupy a global relevance, and links American Occupations not only to Europe but to the Arab Spring, is not that these are identical events—that would be a vast, unjustifiable oversimplification—but rather, that both Occupy and the events in Tahrir Square, for example, while grounded in local life, conflicts, and history, simultaneously give voice to an aspiration not merely in the name of “America” or “Egypt” but in the name of human beings as such. The ability to speak in that voice is the birthright of peoples neither of the East nor of the West, but of both.

So while Occupy events speak in concrete ways to the intimate, everyday concerns of participants—loss of homes, joblessness, rampant income inequality, the intentional destruction of social support systems—these concerns are undergirded by values with implicitly global meaning. This doesn’t mean that all the participants at home or abroad somehow agree—on the contrary, part of the uncertainty in any of these movements relates to the plurality of viewpoints and the genuine question as to whether adequate consensus can be achieved. But in fact, isn’t this a challenge to any democratic project?

In the light of the death of Mohamed Bouazizi—the Tunisian vegetable vendor whose self-immolation sparked a movement that has rocked the entire Near East—we ought not to diminish the latent meanings in local Occupy events and the responses to them. There are no guarantees in the struggles that follow, and the recent Egyptian election results have already led some to claim that westerners were doing little more than projecting their own liberal fantasies upon Tahrir. Undoubtedly all such movements are deeply uncertain, their outcomes and chances for success unpredictable.

Reflecting on such dubious struggles, Badiou asked: “Is it possible today to propose one small global idea of the transformation of our destiny? I don’t know if it is possible, but…we must know and participate in the attempts….”

— Marc Applebaum

Read more posts by Marc Applebaum

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