miniBiography and the 99%
— By Adri Wong | November 14, 2011
I have been thinking about this image: An individual holding a piece of paper on which she has written a short summation of her current circumstances (debts, bills, blessings, fears). Then, the words: “I am the 99%.” It is a story-telling device that developed with the various iterations of the Occupy “movement;” it is in the encampments and on the Internet. A firsthand observer described the signs at Zuccotti Park to me:
“There are people there with these amazing signs about their own lives: ‘My college fund got depleted, I was at city college, my ID is taped on here, and now I dont know what to do.’ Or ‘here is the summons and complaint that i received from Citibank and these are my kids and this was my house, and now these were my kids.’ It’s kind of upsetting but really nice…”
Something about the meme makes me recall David Lynch’s Interview Project, an online series of short video documentaries centering on the lives of “normal” people across America. In Interview Project’s 121 mini-biographies, the filmmakers (including Lynch’s son Austin) ask complete strangers piercing, existential questions. It is a source of ever-renewed wonder that each stranger has an answer, and that the answers are so often so rich and brimming with hard-luck stories and lived experience. Lynch describes the project’s production: “There was no plan, really. The team found people as they were driving along the roads, going into bars, different locations…. There they were. The people told their stories.”
Respectful, tender, sometimes funny — the Interview Project is similar in tenor to radio endeavors of this genre like This American Life and NPR’s Storycorp. They also share apparent purposes: to capture a cultural snapshot of America, to record individual oral histories and disseminate them online for the purposes of popular cultural consumption.
A common ethos of combating social atomization drives these projects, but I can only speculate as to the source of the alienation they contend with (narrowcasting? automobiles? capitalism?!?!?). I think about a fax that Don DeLillo sent to PEN American Center, and reorder his statements for my own purposes:
DeLillo: The world is becoming increasingly customized, altered to individual specifications. This shrinking context will necessarily change the language that people speak, write, and read. The question is whether the enormous force of technology, and its insistence on speeding up time and compacting space, will reduce the human need for narrative—narrative in the traditional sense.
I hypothesize: At the same time that the ways we can communicate with each other with increased frequency and across vast distances have proliferated and democratized, a certain sense of intimacy has disintegrated from our exchanges. I interpret these signs and projects — as well as the Occupations — as creative attempts at recreating that intimacy, experiments in stitching us back together.
Perhaps this communicative imperative will require us to return to older platforms like radio, which somehow retains the ability to broadcast as if from a confessional. The producers of Storycorp ban cameras from their recording booths – in part to prevent participants from becoming self-conscious, but also as an expression of the philosophy that the human voice is a vessel for the soul, and that to listen to the voice, in its simplest, purest form, is a way to honor the core humanity of an individual.
It is both impressive and quintessentially Lynchian that the Interview Project manages to do with physical appearance what Storycorp does with the human voice. Lynch’s work has never shied away from the oddities of physical features, whether beautiful, grotesque, or some combination of both. Interview Project similarly captures the singularity of physical appearance, reinforcing the sense of intimacy it conveys through the visual appreciation of details like the weave of a ratty couch, the emerging laugh line in a face, or the sweat dripping from a brow.
What does the physical occupation of a park contribute to the Occupy movement’s critique? I wonder this as I pass by the rows of tents in downtown Los Angeles set up blocks away from the cardboard dwellings that belong to the homeless denizens of skid row. I reread these words:
But in the case of public assemblies, we see quite clearly not only that there is a struggle over what will be public space, but a struggle as well over those basic ways in which we are, as bodies, supported in the world – a struggle against disenfranchisement, effacement, and abandonment.
For politics to take place, the body must appear. I appear to others, and they appear to me, which means that some space between us allows each to appear. We are not simply visual phenomena for each other – our voices must be registered, and so we must be heard.
This is not a matter of finding the human dignity within each person, but rather of understanding the human as a relational and social being, one whose action depends upon equality and articulates the principle of equality. No human can be human alone.
I pause for a moment on the word “abandonment,” reconsider Dan Savage’s “It gets better project,” and am newly struck by how significant a moment it is when an individual — and then tens of thousands of individuals — collectively engage in mini-biography, in personal storytelling via Youtube, for the express purpose of saving lives.
Listening to Storycorp, I consider the human microphone: (a) the emphasis it places on voice, on the word spoken back aloud; (b) Joseph Stiglitz’s awkwardness; (c) how a friend once told me about a couples’ counseling technique (reflection technique?) that requires one partner to repeat what she heard the other say before she may respond. If the human microphone is therapy, what is the pathology?
Storycorp creator Dave Isay has said he hopes the interview recordings he produces can be used to “teach civics and history and compassion.” I think of how Interview Project demands of the viewer a skill becoming swiftly obsolete: The ability to look your neighbor in the face. I consider the idea that the physical Occupation simulates a neighborhood, and decide that that is what makes me sad about it.
Is it ironic, or to the point, that these stories on paper, the visual representation of a banded-together 99% majority, are so personal and individual? Either way, something quite powerful that pulses at the heart of the Occupy movement would be cast aside if this intimate particularity were to be overwhelmed by any overarching dogma or action plan. For what these various audio-video projects indicate is a growing national need for people to share—and to hear—small stories of simple adversity and individual dignity, recollections of secret fears and small joys — standing independent of grand narrative, ideology, or aggregate justification.