A quick introductory preface, I am excited to join the HASTAC Scholars community for 2011-2012 and to learn about all of your interesting projects. I currently research official/institutional and popular culture discourses in diasporic memory and write on my recent fieldwork in Japan (summer 2011), in addition to a number of other projects. Many of these pieces also appear at my personal blog: http://veegee.tumblr.com.
Social movements revolve on the physicality of the first day, a threshold materializing political intent and counted in the presence of bodies. It might be a defense—of our bodies as realer than digital, an articulated crisis that often adjoins to other sets of politics also navigating our anxiety. In a recent piece in The New Yorker, journalist Malcolm Gladwell confronted the fear of our social intimacies ultimately alienating into digital fragments. Gladwell made the case that in-person relations are key to authenticating social movements. The revolution to which we always refer finds itself in people showing up, making friends, and taking big risks. In a different way, sociologist Zeynib Tufekci underscores a similar spirit. In her analysis of the Egyptian revolution at a recent sociology conference, Tufekci celebrated social media as foremost a tool: assembling the masses for the important first day of protest, that effervescent and fragile time predicting a movement's life-course.
But in what ways do digital and social media, particularly in their status as nascent and unchartered technologies, intervene not merely as tools for organizers but form a political epistemology, an ordering of the interests staggered at the crossroads of action? Perhaps technophobes should resume worrying. The undemanding amorphism of Occupy Wall Street and its satellites reveals some of these conflicts. The movement legitimizes itself by narrating an ontology of ethics. The right to reclaim Wall Street, a monument representing what has ostensibly been taken away, sources itself not only in a consensus of human rights. What also gets assumed as right is the ability to author a politics of authenticity, specifically to name that very 99%.
How to make sense of an equation, "DEBT=SLAVERY," a sentiment boasted on multiple signs at Occupy Austin's inauguration on October 6th. One of the most serious critiques of Occupy is its rehearsal of colonial violence. Many activists involved with anti-racist social justice are concerned with the movement's claim to speak for a solidified 99% population while also appropriating and erasing the United States' own genealogy as a colonizing and genocidal sovereignty, persisting today in its violence against people and communities of color. A number have spoken out—journalists Rinku Sen and Kai Wright of Colorlines and feminist writer and editor Jessica Yee. The counter to this critique suggests that Occupy is an inclusive space, one committed to unifying plural perspectives and experiences into the core politics of the movement. I do not mean to suggest that Occupyis incapable of such a task or that it intends otherwise—certainly, deciding on the movement’s potential at this stage would be premature. What requires our suspicion, however, is Occupy’sability to virtually bypass a tradition of anti-capitalist people of color organizing,one that in recent years has been largely neglected by mainstream media, in order to author the movement as starting from a white, male standpoint.
The politics of authorship, therefore, are important for understanding Occupy. While social movements have historically encountered conflicts over power and privilege within their organizational structures, the current and growing merger of activism with digital technology plays out such tensions in some different ways. In thinking of the advertising-driven naming of Occupyand other recent social movements, including the controversial Slut Walk,I have been reminded of innovators and early adopters. To be an early adopter is to access styles and behaviors innovated out of sight of the mainstream, and then to appropriate this intel to set the stage for a shifted, emergent culture. American studies theorist Mark Greif applies this concept to explain the phenomenon of the hipster.In our first!, meme-making digital culture, the impulse is not simply to adopt early but to document originallyinto public record. The digital model shapes originality as a phenomenon that can be both claimed and proven immediately. What validates the social movement, particularly on its first day, is its aptitude for producing documentation. (See: various photos, blogs, and Tweets for this purpose.) My inquiry into this process does not simply respond to statistics showing that minorities, particularly youth, enjoy lesser access to digital technology—this notion of the digital divide is, in fact, complicated by developments in mobile media and attracts more critical research. What compels me, rather, is legal activist Lawrence Lessig’sobservation that institutions of power are able to take advantage of the newnessof online spaces to reiterate digital laws and cultural practices in their own “images." To copyright is to state ownership over an idea or product, thus, the power to direct its present and future use. Social movements might also be copyrighted.
The hegemonic image of the digital public is white, male, heterosexual, and able-bodied, despite this “group” constituting a minority of the globe’s population.Because Western colonialism has historically articulated white men as the default identity, the digital public is thus further abstracted as being without a body, thereby empty of the politics of racialized, gendered, and sexualized conflict. Moreover, in being disembodied and in the physical body's maintained primacy as a locus of meaning, such power ruptures are dismissed as unserious. For organizers such as the Occupy-ers, digital culture is available as a tool for action because it does not contain the full density of social life. It is an illusion of theinternet as primordially free—neutral, unmapped, and under-exploited. The analogy becomes available: that online early adopters constitute a breed of settlers, administering racial and gendered hierarchies within digital terrains while consecrating their own belonging. By analyzing social media as itself politically organizing, the so-called realand material outcomes of digital hierarchies also begin to reveal themselves.
To "occupy ethically," a settler narrates his own appearance as “first” on a territory ostensibly empty. Precisely, this is the ethics that has been historically deployed to colonize indigenous communities. The colonial imagining of empty land reinvented indigenous peoples and communities as simultaneously living and emptied, stripped of the value of their cultures, the legitimacy of their institutions, and their rights to name themselves as owners of landed property. The ideology of American authenticity, echoed in Occupy, has named itself through genocide, innovated by the U.S. nation-state.The problem with authenticity is not simply a post-structural anxiety that there is no real or truthworth chasing. Instead, it is that authenticity does not do without power—that what gets constituted as real is a realness premised on hegemonic belonging. This does not come out of abstraction, but rather is deeply political, enduringly violent, and dislocating.
I do not reject the motivations and expressions of Occupy—solidarity envisioned around the humanity of socioeconomic grief, suffering, and anger has worth. However, solidarity and unity might not be the same. In the case of a movement claiming 99% of a people, it may be more ethical to organize through a politics of difference. One challenging the illusion that our dispersions can be mediated into some coherent identity and that our masses, as reproduced from the digital screen, are colorless, shapeless, and identical. It is important to point out that resistance to this absorption continues, as evident in the presence of Decolonize Occupy Austin at last week's rally.What this might leave us, instead of unity, is a sharp vision into how power works creatively and pervasively to fracture. How Wall Street architects itself not only by scraping the sky but in our mutual complicity, our rush to claim authorship over one another—politically, bodily, digitally.