synthetic zero

October 16th, 2011

I’m in London to talk with my friend Jenny Doussan about her remarkable PhD thesis on Agamben and Brentano, which relates to a lot of things I’ve been thinking about recently; it touches upon themes which have fascinated me for decades. It has been a bit surreal being here, as well: I was updating her about the #ows protests (she’s been ensconced in finishing her thesis and thus hasn’t been as plugged into recent events), and of course just as I was telling her there are protests at the London Stock Exchange, as if on cue, the newscaster started talking about it on the radio. I hope to stop by the protest sometime while I’m here, although my primary focus is going to be on conversations with Jenny.

Due to the magic of credit card rewards points, I’m staying in by far the nicest hotel I’ve ever stayed in in London, the Novotel London Greenwich, which I chose primarily because it’s reasonably close to Jenny’s place in Deptford. My room is actually almost normal-sized by American standards, even though it’s the most affordable room type in the place. It’s a bit funny, however, because, despite the fact that it’s quite spacious, it still sports many of the same features present in the super-cramped closets that you find at most budget London hotels; as though the fact that hotels often have to radically conserve space has set up a “standard” which hotel designers follow even if they have the space to do it differently. There are some tiny closets for hanging your clothing, but no dresser drawers at all. The bathroom has one of those microscopic London sinks (even smaller than this one) next to the toilet, even though, inexplicably, it also has a normal-sized sink. There’s a towel rack placed on the other side of the toilet from the bath/shower/sink, making it quite difficult to access and forcing you to step near the toilet when you’re trying to reach one of the towels (not exactly the most hygenic feeling), something that would make sense if the bathroom were too tiny to allow a more convenient arrangement, but in this case, completely unnecessary, given the spaciousness of the room.

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October 14th, 2011

Kim Davis wrote me an email asking I write a longer post about #occupywallstreet aka #ows, since I’ve been tweeting about it for a while. I’ve actually mostly been just retweeting other people’s tweets, since I was in the Bay Area until a few days ago; and I’m leaving for London today, so my first in-person visit to the protest/occupation was last night.

I arrived in the early evening with a friend who had been to the protest a number of times already; we wandered about the park, which was quite crowded and well-organized; there was a food area, many bags of garbage neatly stacked, people cleaning the park obsessively, many people standing in small groups talking or trying to squeeze past each other, a table where the anarchists were passing out guidebooks, and it was for the most part relatively calm. I stayed for the entire General Assembly meeting, to get a feel for the process. It was, at times, rather excruciating to have to wait for every sentence fragment to be repeated by the group, but overall I came away quite impressed with the thoughtfulness, organization, and deliberation of those gathered there.

It opened with a long explanation of the process, the hand signals we were supposed to use, and the fact that this night (prior to a feared cleanup and eviction which was not to come to pass) required some urgency. Bloomberg had told the protesters they had to vacate the park temporarily to allow the owners to clean it; the protesters, in a little-reported move, responded by obsessively cleaning the park themselves. Many of the announcements during the meeting related to the cleanup or to temporarily removing stuff the protesters had been using for safekeeping during the cleanup. In addition there were brief reports from the various working groups, ranging from legal to “direct action” to Internet… but what I found most interesting was the debate at the end of the GA regarding the drum circles, which, as my friend pointed out, gave one a feeling a bit like observing an ancient Greek debating assembly.

The discussion opened with a report from a representative of a working group responsible for liaising with the larger community (in this case, as represented by the Manhattan Community Board). He started by telling a brief story about how strongly Scott Stringer, the Manhattan Borough President, supported the movement, and how intensely he had defended #ows’s right to assembly and free speech to the press. This was a relatively clever rhetorical move on his part, I thought, because he clearly wanted the crowd to be positively disposed towards their proposal… which he phrased as a compromise, or a request, which was, basically, that really loud drumming (drum circles) be confined to two hours between the hours of 11am and 5pm. A number of people raised concerns, questions, and issues, at which point he pointed out that this wasn’t a “they” trying to oppress the protesters, but rather people who so strongly supported the movement that they were going to come out and sit in solidarity with the protesters at 5am to resist the eviction by the owners. I thought it was a brilliant move on his part to hold that information until later in the debate, to help turn the tide.

Finally, before the vote, there were two “blocks” — i.e., people who felt so strongly about the issue they were willing to block consensus. A couple of the drummers felt that the drumming helped draw people to the park and the hours should be longer than 2 hours — more like 4, or that the window should be extended to include evening hours. The community board liaison countered that the drummers could bring the issue up again at a later Assembly, and reminded them that individual, intimate drumming performances would always be allowed. The drummers persisted in their block, so they moved to “modified consensus” rules at this point — which means that the community could override the consensus with a 90% vote, which occurred.

I had several observations about this: first, I was impressed with the rhetorical skills of the participants. I was also impressed with the willingness of the assembly to work with elected officials (who repaid their trust later on, as Bloomberg later said a big reason the eviction was called off was due to a flood of calls from elected officials to the park owners). The “modified consensus” process seemed to be well-thought-out and ultimately effective. I was a little concerned about what seemed to me to be a bit of a cultural/ethnic divide, however, in the debate about the drum circles — which is one of my general concerns about activism in the US in general (see below) — the two drummers who attempted to block consensus and some of the other people voting “no” were African-American, and, as is common in many activist crowds, most of the people there were white. Overall, however, the portrayal of some in the media of the movement as being rather disorganized, unfocused, etc., was belied by the reality of the thoughtfulness of the rhetoric, the willingness to cooperate with the local community, and the careful organization of the working group reports and cleanup announcements throughout the meeting.

I have to admit my initial feelings about #ows had been ambivalent; I had been happy, of course, that someone was finally protesting the terrible inequities in our current economic system. However, I often feel that activism in the US tends to be rather insular; culturally and even somewhat ethnically insufficiently diverse,¬†disdainful of the need to talk with people of good will of differing views: lacking in sufficient outreach to the very communities progressives hope to help. There can be a bit of an echo chamber feeling, in my mind, where activists talk mostly to each other rather than to the community at large, and too many seem to come from a similar cultural niche; these are people devoted to inclusion who often seem not to include enough people among those we all hope to help (working class people, minorities, and so on). However, there’s no question that this time, for once, a progressive protest in the US has finally really gained the attention of the nation and the world, perhaps for the first time in decades. Adbusters was right, after all: public, physical protest, carefully positioned, can make a significant difference in the public dialogue.

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