Hydra’s Occupy Wall Street Reading List
— By The Hydra | October 25, 2011
This suggestion comes from one of the Occupy Wall Street Librarians. “What are you guys telling everyone to read?” I asked. He immediately picked up this book, which he said was one of his favorites. “Verso is a great publisher generally,” another guy who was stacking books added. “We like everything they publish.” (We do too.) The Verso Book of Dissent is an anthology of voices of resistance from every part and era of human history. The texts are ordered chronologically; the first is a text called “The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant” written ca. 1800; the last few entries include statements from Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, and the journalist Muntazer Al-Zaidi, who threw his shoe at George Bush in protest of the Iraq War. The curatorial scope of this book is impressive–along with essays and speeches, there are songs, pamphlets, even jokes. “What is socialism? Answer: The painful transition from capitalism to capitalism.”
If you’re looking for one of the orienting works around contemporary politics of resistance, I’d say you should pick up Antonio Negri’s and Michael Hardt’s Empire. They introduce the au courant term of the multitude and try to resuscitate or reimagine a translated form of Marxist ideas on revolution. Another suggestion: “Society of Control“ by Gilles Deleuze.
I got my copy of Anti-Oedipus today and felt compelled to quote a part of Foucault’s preface to the book. Powerfully relevant to the OWS situation. Here is Foucault praising Anti-Oedipus (I italicized particularly relevant instructions for a “non-fascist” revolutionary form-of-life):
“This art of living counter to all forms of fascism, whether already present or impending, carries with it a certain number of essential principles which I would summarize as follows if I were to make this great book into a manual or guide to everyday life:
*Free political action from all unitary and totalizing paranoia.
*Develop action, thought, and desires by proliferation, juxtaposition, and disjunction, and not by subdivision and pyramidal hierarchization.
*Withdraw allegiance from the old categories of the Negative (law, limit, castration, lack, lacuna), which Western thought has so long held sacred as a form of power and an access to reality. Prefer what is positive and multiple, difference over uniformity, flows over unities, mobile arrangements over systems. Believe that what is productive is not sedentary but nomadic.
*Do not think that one has to be sad in order to be militant, even though the thing one is fighting is abominable. It is the connection of desire to reality (and not its retreat into the forms of representation) that possesses revolutionary force.
*Do not use thought to ground a political practice in Truth; nor political action to discredit, as mere speculation, a line of thought. Use political practice as an intensifier of thought, and analysis as a multiplier of the forms and domains for the intervention of political action.
*Do not demand of politics that it restore the “rights” of the individual, as philosophy has defined them. The individual is the product of power. What is needed is to “de-individualize” by means of multiplication and displacement, diverse combinations. The group must not be the organic bond uniting hierarchized individuals, but a constant generator of de-individualization.
*Do not become enamored with power.”
Bill Buford’s fascinating look at soccer hooliganism in England in the ’80′s and ’90′s sets out to understand a simple question: what changes a group into a crowd. Groups form constantly, but it takes some special energy to make that group into a crowd, capable of acting as a unit and thinking together without thinking individually. More troubling, though, is the corollary: can we separate a certain kind of boisterous crowd energy from its inclination to violence?
Oswald Spengler’s diagnosis of cultural decline is a strange book, but at its heart is the issue of group identity, of the importance of being part of a culture and of the desire we feel to immerse ourselves wholly in something outside the individuality we experience, often painfully.
What takes an issue or group beyond the confines of existing institutions and into the realm of true politics. Schmitt’s troubling thesis, that all political identities boil down to value-neutral distinctions between friends and enemies, between those who threaten and must be countered and those who do not, is difficult to reject and yet more difficult to accept.
Any reading of Schmitt is naturally entailed by the reading of Giorgio Agamben. Schmitt made possible the definition of the sovereign as “he who decides on the state of exception”; Agamben explores this enigmatic “state of exception” and finds troubling conclusions. Formerly an emergency suspension of civil rights and liberties during a national time of crisis, the state of exception has now become “a permanent paradigm of government”. Presumably “democratic” governments now routinely suspend the law (excepting themselves from the same statutes that constitute their nominal existence) in order to maintain an impermeable atmosphere of violence that paradoxically creates and supports the laws of inclusion/exclusion. Agamben writes, “To show law in its nonrelation to life and life to its nonrelation to law means to open a space between them for human action, which once claimed for itself the name of ‘politics’…The only truly political action, however, is that which severs the nexus between violence and law.” Might this severance possibly be advanced by OWS?
Written in 2000, before 9/11 and the financial crisis, at the tail end of a long period of prosperity, it is fascinating to look back at DFW’s diagnosis of a certain sadness and pain lurking behind U.S. young peoples’ retraction from the political process. In our much more troubled times, it provides an enlightening glimpse into the long-standing failings of our political institutions. How do we engage smart, idealistic young people in a meaningful way? This book asks what that might look like, and whether it is still possible.
“What do we perceive today as possible? Just follow the media. On the one hand, in technology and sexuality, everything seems to be possible. You can travel to the moon, you can become immortal by biogenetics, you can have sex with animals or whatever, but look at the field of society and economy. There, almost everything is considered impossible. You want to raise taxes by little bit for the rich. They tell you it’s impossible. We lose competitivity. You want more money for health care, they tell you, “Impossible, this means totalitarian state.” There’s something wrong in the world, where you are promised to be immortal but cannot spend a little bit more for healthcare. Maybe we need to set our priorities straight here. We don’t want higher standard of living. We want a better standard of living.”
After Nature by W.G. Sebald
Ice preserves a body while erasing it from the earth’s surface. An image painted on an altar freezes the suffering of Christ while it robs his flesh from the vault of heaven. The exiled creature of regret remembers that place of solace while he dismantles it before the eyes of his victims. His readers. The creature vanishes. He does not return home. He bequeaths a postcard of torment. A ship’s log from a voyage replete with nighttime raid on unfortified ports. Catalogues of ransacked relics. A book of tarnished vanity.
Mike Davis, prophet of the City of Quartz and other groundbreaking books, suggests that we put on our “dark magic glasses” and discover the “subliminal deceptions of capitalism” that should not merely make us angry but unify us, despite our differences in age, class, and race, in the effort to “cultivate the generosity of the ‘we’.” Davis offers 5 imperatives for the movement. The time for chewing bubble gum is over.
I worked on Wall Street a few summers ago. I remember thinking “this is very clean” and “look at all the cops” and feeling acutely aware that there were multiple surveillance cameras pointed at me as I walked from my train across those cobblestones. It tickled me that the street was lined with stores that sold things like hundred-dollar fountain pens and J. Peterman-style safari hats (“Gifts for your WS boss”?). Three years, a subprime mortgage crisis, and several bail-outs now color my recollection, but at the time I observed the policing of the area around the notorious bull and saw it primarily as post-9/11 security theatre. Even then, it absolutely like a physical space reserved for and created for the financial elite – maintained and guarded devotedly by the state.
And so I suggest some readings on space. Specifically, Henri Lefebvre’s La Production de l’espace (1974) (The Production of Space) and this essay by Judith Butler. Their thoughts on the social production of space as the relationship between bodies strike me as particularly relevant to reflecting on a family of encampments that insist on their productivity without clear direction or demands, and to considering (or reconsidering) OWS’s vocabulary of “occupation.”
In the last months there have been, time and again, mass demonstrations on the street, in the square, and though these are very often motivated by different political purposes, something similar happens: bodies congregate, they move and speak together, and they lay claim to a certain space as public space. Now, it would be easier to say that these demonstrations or, indeed, these movements, are characterized by bodies that come together to make a claim in public space, but that formulation presumes that public space is given, that it is already public, and recognized as such. We miss something of the point of public demonstrations, if we fail to see that the very public character of the space is being disputed and even fought over when these crowds gather. So though these movements have depended on the prior existence of pavement, street, and square, and have often enough gathered in squares, like Tahrir, whose political history is potent, it is equally true that the collective actions collect the space itself, gather the pavement, and animate and organize the architecture. As much as we must insist on there being material conditions for public assembly and public speech, we have also to ask how it is that assembly and speech reconfigure the materiality of public space, and produce, or reproduce, the public character of that material environment. And when crowds move outside the square, to the side street or the back alley, to the neighborhoods where streets are not yet paved, then something more happens.
Sesshu Foster reports from Occupy Los Angeles and lets the slogans, signs, and whole spectacle stream through him like “ether, a thought peeled from my mind like a strip of yellow cellophane on the sky.” To know Foster’s thought is to have breathed the ether of his novel, Atomik Aztex, in itself a transhistoric call to arms (not of war but of language) against the rampant consumerism that threatens to erase our sense of responsibility and history.
I leaned back against the Stone of Tizok, to which I had been firmly attached, easing my sore feet, anyway, while I prepared a major speech which would denounce the current failed leadership and their deluded policies of the state, the tlatoanis on the Central Kommittee whose opportunist polices were leading to Environmental Degradation on a Planetwide Skale, Spiritual Pollution of Key Populations, Aesthetik Destruktion of Our Way of Life, I prepped my Mind to start deklaiming the evils of the Elite especially that chump the Minister of Labor Xalatokli (Sandy Alluvial Soil) & his klique of Neoliberal Ekonomists. I swear I was about to marshal all Necessary Fakts, Figures or Rhetorikal Flourishes in order to speechify in such a way before the Great Crowd in the Central Plaza below that everyone’s hearts would be ripped out, they would gape in astonishment, their thinking would be Revolutionized in that very instant, they’d titter with half-assed satori & enlightenment, they’d be struck breathless, they’d go, “This vato is one kool dude!” But when I opened my mouth to talk, all I could manage was a squawk like a crow, my throat was so dry I started to cough, I held up my hand & said, “Wait a minute,” but the head priest with his face painted black and gray said, “Shut up & fight,” and then the fight was on.