Observations on “Occupy”
“…the greatness of Thought is in the simplicity of the decision that turns itself toward naked manifestation.” –Jean-Luc Nancy
My desire here is not to take a political stance on the OWS movement, but only to offer my view of what’s at stake. I will discuss the possibility that, as a genuine manifestation of the “people” in our post-ideological era, OWS does not “represent” or mean anything at all. As an event, it cuts through the given coordinates of our situation; but because it cuts through our coordinates, it does not lead to the production of a new ideology or a new community. It manifests a truth of being freed of the imperative of “demands,” usefulness, and effectiveness, shifting the priority of truth to the real presence of distinct bodies who share a common space. And so it does not call for their “concentration,” signification, or identification of any sort; and it is precisely to this resistance to signification, grounded in the distinction of bodies in a shared space, that we ought to remain faithful after OWS. My hope is to elaborate what this change in community might mean for us, and to suggest in passing the possibility of a world no longer paranoid by identity and knowledge, but freed to the sharing of being, freed to an experience of the world as gift. For the reason behind OWS, and for speaking here, I contend, is to share being, to share speech, and to share the gift of the world; to cross every boundary, every bounded identity, and not to send a message; to turn our thought toward the naked manifestation(s) of the world.
It will be fruitful to begin with what differentiates the Tea Party and OWS. The Tea Party happily grants itself a unified message. It sees ideology as good and necessary. It wants to be useful. Although obscurely articulated in itself, it seems to have one goal in mind: to create a Christian Dominion where everyone is “free,” but only to the extent that they obey a vision of Christianity, united in a common cause, being, and belief system. In that they attempt to be a “party,” their recourse is to identity and sameness– which amounts to consenting to politicians screaming at you. In contrast to this drive to unity and conformity, OWS is immanently non-conformist. It has no funding and resists cooptation by official organizations, whereas the Tea Party is almost entirely funded or staged by groups like The Heritage Foundation, American Crossroads, etc. And whereas the Tea Party wants to “do good,” undertaking all its actions in good conscience and with a clear sense of mission, OWS appears ambivalent at best, and would almost seem to prefer to do “more harm than good.” And it certainly does not care about being “useful”…
Tea Partiers are glad to attribute specific demands to their platform, to speak their values, to unite in a common cause and “world-view.” They are happy to be “spoken for.” But with OWS, no one can speak for anyone else: everyone can and must speak. No one can stand up and represent anyone else or speak for all of them, precisely because they– we— do not represent any one thing, or “represent” anything at all. And despite all the convergences between the grievances of the protesters, Occupiers are not, at root, driven by the desire to unite around a common cause. On the contrary, what they manifest is that we are all here in-common without having to be united under any common cause. And OWS’ common cause is just that: to reveal to us what we are, indeed, that we are, here together in this world. They mean to exist, to show presence, and to show that what opens in this unexpected and unforeseeable manner is us. The more meaningless and fortuitous their sit-in, the better, since what’s at stake is just that: a place to sit, a place to be, anywhere, wherever.
The unity of Occupy’s demands is therefore not a unity that can be spoken: it’s a unity that must be sought in the sharing of voices, in the spacing of bodies, in an exposure of one to the other and of each to all that resists all simple “unification.” As such, the movement only “exists” as this seeking-its-voice, seeking-its-place, adding that each member is also in search of their own. There is no ‘universal discourse’ which might contain the multiplicity of these searches: the many speakers and phrases (demands, needs, desires, hopes, dreams…) cannot be resolved as into a single message. And so while the participants of OWS do share common concerns– fairer tax system, educational support, prioritization of environmental and social welfare issues over corporate privilege, and so on– they cannot be reduced to them. Their “demand” is more simple: to be recognized as beings. In that sense, there is really nothing to “know” about OWS; or rather, all there is to know about it is that it is, that it manifests itself, that it articulates itself. All there is to know about us is that we exist. It is this “we exist” that OWS asks us to rethink.
Any revolution worthy of the name refuses an overly strict “revolutionary message,” since it is only when this place is left as empty as possible that a collective can actually “form.” What is perhaps the unique feature of every revolution is how it thinks through this question of collective “formation,” how to leave itself as open as possible to embracing a wide diversity of others. But I would contend that OWS does us more. It asks us to rethink the whole idea of “forming” the collective. It asks us to think outside the regime of organizations, intentions, demands, and collective projects, and also outside the very idea that the community has to be constituted or produced in any way.
With OWS, the community manifests itself as already being there. It does not want or need to form a coherent whole, and in fact resists every attempt to be formed or framed as such. It only sparks and spurs countless rhizomatic offshoots from the core emancipatory desire, transmissions and translations of social relation and of being-with as such. It spreads out to relationships between participants and non-participants alike (since who, after all, could opt out of participating here?), relations that the “Occupy” label cannot and does not aim to contain. These offshoots, while often invisible to the public eye, are more meaningful and intimate than any “collective action” could ever be, since these impressions are invested in surviving beyond the life of the label. This also illustrates how the “commons” has withdrawn from any direct inscription in the public space; intensities rarely pass through the expected and prescribed channels.
OWS manifests according to the dynamics of contact and contagion, intensity, attraction, desire, and distinction– and not of utility, organization, effectiveness, and rule. It brings to life what Giorgio Agamben might call a deconstitutive power: a power (possibility, potency, potential) that undoes the works of the world, which deactivates the laws, regimes, and structures currently at work. Such a deconstitutive power does not turn around to become constitutive or re-constitutive at any point. OWS does not construct, does not have a “use,” does not “effect” anything but its own appearance to itself. It manifests possibility, the power of existence-in-common. If it is declared to be “ineffective,” it is precisely because it makes manifest that this existence cannot be put to work or made “useful” without destroying it and its chance. Likewise, it precedes conscious structure, precedes all purpose, being its own structure and purpose. And it exists in spite of every interpretative, juridical, or conceptual framework that would capture it in its machinery. In other words, existence-in-common, as exposed existence, is naked manifestation itself.
To return to the question of formation: recall that, for Walter Benjamin, imagination is not an “inventive power,” but rather a power of deformation which, “knows only constantly changing transitions.” This power is not destructive, but, “plays a game of dissolution with its forms.” This game does not stem from compulsion, but from a movement internal and natural to a world, “caught up in the process of unending dissolution.” It does not dissolve forms itself, but arises where forms themselves dissolve and dissolve themselves. Imagination, we could say, thinks the “eternal ephemerality” of the world: it is a manifestation of the dissolution inherent in things. Such is why it is “unconstructive,” and from the standpoint of the subject, “purely negative.” But in that it stems from a dissolution internal to forms themselves, we could also say that it dwells close to the heart of the potential to form as such.
Imagination thinks a power to form beyond any possible or actual form, beyond any actual “work” of formation. It opens forms to their own deformation, to their own eventual passage, but in this way revives a power of formation that precedes the antithesis formed-unformed. OWS suggests such a theory of potential formation– that is, of formation as opening, as the opening of the form as such– or even, as the pure desire to form (to speak, show, share, touch, and cross). It is in this sense that OWS does not “lead” to anything, but “is” an opening that makes space for new possibilities in the community without cognizing beforehand, or at all, what this “new” will be. For this “new” is nothing but the manifestation of existence as such: manifesting as exposed and manifested as passing. What is “new,” each time, is the fortuitous happening of this world and all the relations beings are thrown into in it. This can’t be guided, can’t be predicted, and happens only according to the logic that it is. OWS makes manifest this “deformed” reality of the commons as a space, not of permanence and construction, but of appearance and passage, and in this sense manifests the imagination of time.
Every revolutionary struggle involves a showing of presence, in contrast to the “show of force” against which it struggles. This show is always unpredictable because presence itself is unpredictable. This show is as distinct as what it shows: distinct bodies in distinct places. But a show of presence is even more uncertain when it takes place in an era in which more and more of us are disabused of grand salvific notions, and when bodies are less and less likely to “die” for causes. “Occupy” attests to this: that what is at stake in the manifestation is not ideas, demands, or causes, but bodies alone. Such is why OWS could do nothing more than distinguish itself from society as it found it; it could do nothing but offer the distinctness of some bodies gathered in some space.
What grabs our attention about OWS is its refusal to let this presence of bodies signify anything at all, its refusal to have recourse to anything other than itself and its own acts of distinction– for example, booing Charlie Wrangle and John Lewis when they tried to attend and, in general, rejecting appropriation by all the likely leaders. This is the profoundly democratic bent of the movement. To refuse recourse to any political party or leader, any economic system or ideology, is to emphasize that existence and its community cannot and will not be subsumed under any of these figures. The community resists every attempt to identify it in an Order or to configure it according to a telos. And when Lewis interprets the movement as seeking “consensus through debate,” he misses this point of presence and distinction that is at issue: it is not about “concentration,” but spacing. In that democracy is not first of all a political form, but a fact of existence, a principle of spacing, as a political form it must do justice to the existence it represents: to combat the exploitation of bodies, to give them room to be, instead of delivering them over to the Parties and Corporations, which always utilize and exploit them in signifying schemes and for productive purposes.
Because bodies, we must insist, do not carry messages, do not signify. All they “do” is distinguish themselves, touch and separate, gather and disperse. Bodies manifest, manifest themselves; and, in the end, they don’t work. While this has always been the case, and while bodies never cease reviving this truth from the scuzziest corner to the most lavish parades on the Washington Mall, history ignores this “workless” priority of being-there over having meaning, duties, properties, and reasons. Even to say “History” reduces the manifestation of bodies to a kind of “common being” (spirit, intention, progress, goal, identity). History, we could say, is the attempt to reduce the manifestation of bodies to the wiles of Reason, to consecrate bodies to the production of humanity or of some Ideal. But to concentrate bodies in any way, we ought to know, is to destroy them.
We share a common lack of foundation absolutely, right down the the enigmatic black box of the body. To be founded only on ourselves is to share in a common fraying of presence, a common withdrawal of each from the other, and of ourselves from ourselves; but so also a common wonder before existence in all its passages. We have no recourse in such a world to anything but us and to how we open up, or close ourselves off, from each other. A world rooted in this precarious presence of bodies and their haphazard movements must recognize itself as a world whose sense lies solely in relation; and that as bodies we share this space of the world and “do” nothing but distinguish ourselves there, from others and from ourselves. And because the presence of bodies implies their withdrawal, the “end” of OWS is implicit with its existential meaning– and its imaginativeness. It manifests the dissolution, dispersal, and distinction immanent to the world we live. That a manifestation passes does not mean that it has “failed,” but that it has manifested. It means just this: bodies move…
Our understanding of the world is changing: from the belief that the world could be founded on something extra-worldly, to the realization that the world is founded only on a finite existence which is without foundation. But such an existence is never simply a “given.” It exceeds itself in its own movement, in a coming that is irreducible to given coordinates of the situation. A finite thinking offers us this different possibility and conception of the world and of existence: that they be gift.
This experience of the world as “gift,” rather than as something sick that needs curing, confuses those who would demand meaning from it– as if being-there didn’t mean anything at all in itself, as if existence could be given a foundation superior to itself. But every such demand amounts to a refusal of existence, a refusal of bodies, a refusal of the world.
The gift of the world is given by no one (no God, no State, and by no right), but manifests. And it doesn’t manifest to predefined persons, as if world and existence could be added on to something else, but forms each recipient in the reception itself. This reception is our life: we are the naked manifestation of the world. Such is why by opening ourselves to receive the world as gift we are transformed. Those who receive it– and in truth, this includes everyone of us, absolutely– never stay the same, never stay in one place, but tarry with the gift of existence as it comes from and goes nowhere, “insignificant” in itself. Stated otherwise, the movement of bodies is meaning itself— however they distinguish themselves and wherever they distinguish themselves. The fact that we exchange some signs in passing is meaning enough.
OWS suggests a love for existence and community in the sign it sends, for it has no need to figure out, not even for itself, what its sign means: its meaning is that it is. Rather than bearing a message, it loves its sign as a sign of nothing but itself. It was never a matter of agreeing upon this or that thing, but of showing forth the truth of the intersubjective connection constitutive of human being and human speech. Which shows us that the gift of existence is there to be shared, and that to deny this is to destroy existence, both mine and the other’s. Such is the mutation at stake here: meaning is no longer in what signifies, but in the very exchange of signs, in all our relays, in the coming and going of bodies, in the opening of forms to the play of their emergence and passage, in the opening of the world to what exists in excess of every given. In words too: the gift of speech we receive without knowing what we say.
Thought always has to decide between the “given immediate” and the “non-given infinite”– between the sameness of a situation collapsed in on itself, or the difference in situ opening it beyond itself. Accordingly, with OWS, we thought. We did not seek answers in what was already given about the world, but in the exposure of each other to each other. We thought how the “answer” to our current predicament will only be found in this present opening of this world, insofar as this opening-up lets something radically new occur. But similarly, we found out that this radical new is nothing more than the event of existence-in-common itself, however it passes. This meeting of “strangers” was enough for OWS to think: What we have to learn how to do, as a society, is to make space for the beings who already are. What we have to do is respect the gift of the world as such, which we share– to open ourselves to the very surprise of existence-in-common.
Because it’s not in our power to give the gift of the world, no more than anyone is the proper origin of themselves. Because “giving” in the sense of an intentional project, or a strategy to execute, has nothing to do with it. Rather, the gift is the naked manifestation of existence-in-common, grounded on nothing but that: what we share, experience, and speak, abandoned to our misery and our love. But there’s nothing about it to save. All we have to do is welcome this existence as it comes and to salute one another in its coming. In all truth, what else have we ever been doing? what else is there to do?
To choose the non-given infinite is to choose naked manifestation, and to choose to make sense of it together. To receive the world as gift– rather than something to be mobilized, exploited, interpreted, saved, or produced– is what the generous surprise of being calls forth from us, calling us out into the very opening that this world is.
What makes us wonder, and continue to wonder, not only about OWS, but about the world as such, is not how things go in it, but the very fact that it is there, in excess of whatever it “is.” Nothing “goes in it,” but it is there– where everything comes and goes, each one of us, without “fusion.” Only when fused in a “common being” can a group of bodies be reduced to a list of demands, a party-line, an agreed upon spirituality, or a utilitarian purpose. Doing so always robs beings of their existence. Whereas to exist is to refuse any foundation other than what’s opening right here, surpassing every identity, overflowing every plan, outstripping every intention. It implies the cut, interruption, and touch of another (within me, outside me), of a non-given infinite, of something new, of naked manifestation. The trembling of the world as such: creation. Because it is not “how we are” or “who we are” that ultimately matters, but what makes a difference, what opens us to us. What matters is how we relate to the fact that we are, here and now, together-dispersed.
At bottom, this is what “occupy” has to teach us. It is based on an experience of the world as non-homogeneous, where every “same” is already opened by the heterogenous and “new,” where community is not to be “positioned” but manifestly is its own ex-position, based on nothing but its very difference from itself– on the fact that there is no homogeneity whatsoever to be found in existence. Such is why it is a movement of and for the world. If it disappears, it’s because we disappear. Its goal– to kickstart a democratic process in which no single human being is inherently more valuable than any other human being– implies a thought of equality that doesn’t seek “agreement,” but strives toward the sharing of voices, recognizing that we’re all on the same playing field, not politically or economically, but existentially and symbolically– at the very least insofar as we all remain somewhat strange and impenetrable to ourselves. I would even say that this enthusiasm for equality and for existence-in-common stems from an intuition that we are all dying beings, that we are all in a process of deformation and passage, and that death– opening life to its outside right here– is precisely what prevents us from ever being reduced to a “common being,” to any given end, or to any representation whatsoever. Death is precisely what calls us to respect the distinctness of bodies and their spacings; and it shows that we are all “in this” together, in constant transition– from one “there it is” to another, infinitely.
Ours is a world (there it is…) constantly exceeding every signification we might put to it, which is the very movement of its opening and excess. It undoes and unravels every reason we’re sold as to why it exists, political or economic. Death too unravels reasons and ends, and just to think of it draws us closer to the unknown of the world, exposing us to what we can’t see coming. But therein lies the truth of things each day. Therein lies our imaginative power. OWS brings to light such a world, where beings can speak without being forced to mean, where a body can feel without its feelings “leading” to anything, in a word, where beings can be. Because isn’t this the world, the free space, we all desire? A world where words and feelings aren’t bogged down by impositions and commands? A world free of any “common cause,” and so freed to our open-ended causes in each other, in the unexpected event of existence? Because despite all the demands of today– and I have not tried to deny them, not in the least–, every revolution, within ourselves or out in the world, is linked to this desire: to open a space where a world outside of all expectations might take form, a space in life that life itself could not predict, and to do so making clear: we are here, here where we stand, manifest; and we are not going anywhere until each of us, we, have spoken.