Monday, November 14, 2011
Occupy Wall Street as a Node of Resonance
The North American insurrection began when a handful of people occupied public space and began producing resonance. This is the material force that toppled three political regimes in North Africa and can only be produced by multitudes coming together on the streets. Liberty Square became a human assemblage that debates, eats, sings, drums, marches, sleeps, and dreams together and, in doing so, turns space into a machine of resonance generation. This resonance is embodied in the human mic that makes bodies speak in unison and vibrate together. The node of resonance in New York has radiated its force in all directions and precipitated the emergence of a continental political movement whose spatial form is the rhizome: a de-centered, horizontal, multi-sited assemblage of myriad other nodes interconnected with each other and recognizing no authority other than the collective power generated by the nodes.
The temporality of this spatial form, also generated in Tunisia and Egypt, seems historically unique and deserves closer scrutiny. In what follows I seek to examine the shifting spatial form and affective pulsations of the nodes that make up the local articulations of a leaderless anti-capitalist network.
Nodes of resonance expand by affecting people elsewhere and making them resonate. But this expansion only takes place if it involves receptive audiences. Countless nodes of resonance dissipate because they encounter a limit in audiences that are not affected, or are affected negatively. In North America, the inspiration created by the node of resonance on Tahrir Square and the despair generated by Obama’s unapologetic embrace of the capitalist looters finally created a more receptive political topography, a fertile ground for the expansion and multiplication of anti-systemic spatial nodes.
The power of the resonance first created on Liberty Square on September 17 has been its sustained temporality: the fact that it has been reverberating continuously for almost two months. Yet the temporality of resonance expansion is not linear or predictable and never will be. Political resonances do not simply “propagate” in a smooth space free of material and affective obstacles, as if they were waves created by a stone falling on a pond. Resonance expansion is uneven and a permanent arena of dispute involving multitudes on the street, messages and images circulating at high speed through media networks, and state violence. And this temporality is not Bergson's, unfolding on dead, unchanging space. The occupy movement is not acting on a fixed spatial matrix; it is transforming the material form and affective nature of space. The rhizome of nodes of resonance now interconnecting hundreds of sites all over North America has changed the political climate because it has changed the shape of space.
In a recent and important piece, Judith Butler wrote that while demonstrations depend on the prior physical existence of streets and squares to exist, “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.” Butler poses the right question, but does not get to answer it in full. Nodes of resonance, indeed, gather, animate, and organize parks and squares and reconfigure their materiality. But to say that a node has changed a “space” or a “place” gives us only a limited glimpse of this material transformation. These concepts prevent us from seeing that what changed is the form and affective pulsation of what I propose to call the terrain. This essay, inspired by the occupy movement, is my first attempt to outline the principles of a theory of the terrain, which I first began exploring in my review-essay on the documentary Restrepo.
The terrain is space as physical form. The exploration of its political salience in the global insurrections that are changing the world demands an approach to space as form first articulated by Henri Lefebvre. In The Urban Revolution, he wrote that the urban should be conceived as a particular form, “that can best be appreciated at night from an airplane.” When we see the urban form from above, we can identify a spatial density that organizes mobility around a core. Cities are distinct shapes of that form. It is not surprising that New York City is usually represented visually from the sky: a dense conglomerate of tall buildings (with a green rectangle in the middle) saturating an island on the edge of the Atlantic and surrounded by a much wider urban density sprawling in all directions. The form of the twin towers, likewise, was inseparable from their destruction ten years ago, because their distinct vertical form at the tip of Manhattan attracted the hijacked planes like a magnet. Paris is equally inseparable from its form (which is also best distinguished from above): the waving course of the Seine, the flat horizon extending over buildings of the same height, the verticality of the Eiffel power.
But the view from above is also the eye of the state, which is reified on the two-dimensional flatness of maps. And this panoptical field of vision evokes transcendence detached from actual bodies. Alfred Korzybski said it in 1931, “the map is not the terrain.” This is why the terrain, once it is appreciated as form from above, can only be examined in its contested ruggedness from the ground level, where the eyes and bodies of non-state actors move, act, plot, and face the violence of the state.
The people currently generating nodes of resonance all over North America know all too well they are fully immersed in the three-dimensional forms of the terrain: the park, the tents, the buildings around them. More importantly, the terrain of the nodes is a space in flux, first, because bodies in motion are profoundly physical (if clearly distinct) components of its materiality. The terrain is, in this regard, inseparable from human action and mobility. The node of resonance in New York is a striation of the spatial smoothness of Liberty Square that is “real, physical” (as Reverend Billy described the occupy movement): a maze of bodies, tents, sleeping bags, laptops, food, and signposts that make up a form of an elastic nature, made and remade by patterns of movement.
These patterns involve not only protesters but also the efforts by the police to disrupt and dismantle this form using physical force. The same way the creative labor of the protesters produced the node as a physical living form, the violence of the police is aimed at physically destroying the node as a particular collective form that striates public space in uncoded ways. This is why the the police violent attacks on nodes of resonance creates widespread bodily damage and material debris: the ruins of the node.
But the form of the node is also made up of the built environment, which is in each case distinct. A distinct dimension of the spatial form of Occupy Wall Street is that it is surrounded by tall buildings: the corporate verticality that defines much of the form of the Manhattan grid: the phallic form of abstract space. The history of this park reveals how this space was secreted by capital: a corporation built Liberty Square in exchange for being authorized by the city to build, next to it, a tower above city-approved limits.
A public space under corporate sovereignty was the form that this corporation was asked to create in exchange for a further pull toward the spatial smoothness of the sky, where the capitalist fantasies of absolute speed on smooth space seem more real. That is the verticality brilliantly parodied by Stephen Colbert, who gazed at Occupy Wall Street from above in a nearby building, safe in the heights of corporate space. The state has its own panopticum on Liberty Square, an odd, vertical robotic structure that looks at the node from above through dark windows, permanently observing the form of the node.
That protesters, unlike the state, look around them horizontally (rather than above) also signals that the field of vision of the insurrection, unlike the panopticum eye of the state, is grounded on the affective, shifting, mobile materiality of the terrain. This is a rhizomic eye that, armed with myriad recording devices and connected to the web, creates a non-state panopticum: the eye of a multitude scanning the streets for images of state violence that can be then disseminated globally and used against the state.
The current material form of Liberty Square can certainly be called “a place.” But treating it as a place and not as a node with a distinct form abstracts, first, the bodily and resonant presence that has remade it and, second, the myriad material relations and flows that interconnect Liberty Square with the rest of the city and the rest of the world. A node is not just any space but a point of entanglement, thickness, and articulation that opens relations with other nodes in the rhizome and with the multiplicity of the global elsewhere. And a node is a space whose form is not temporarily stable.
What the concepts of place and space cannot really account for is that the material form of the terrain has a temporality that changes the very form of space. In many parts of the world, the materiality of the terrain changes dramatically from one season to the next. In the South American Gran Chaco (where I have conducted most of my anthropological fieldwork), the rainy season that begins in December transforms a flat, semiarid region into a vast and impassable swamp. The terrain becomes so saturated with water that for a few months space is at points defined by viscosity rather than solidity. Russia in the winter epitomizes how the freezing of the ground and the massive presence of solid blocs of snow alter the form of the terrain in an equally material way. And these shifting forms severely restrain human mobility. The seasonal striation of the Russian flatlands was crucial in the defeat of a Nazi war machine stopped on its tracks by the huge physical obstacles planted on the terrain by “General Winter.”
Likewise, the arrival of colder temperatures throughout North America has transformed the form and pulsation of the nodes of resonance. In late October, a snowstorm fell over the east coast and covered many nodes, including Liberty Square, with snow and freezing temperatures. A sensory affect, cold, created a new priority: to protect the bodies from it by further transforming the form of the terrain. Contradicting many pundits’ predictions, the early arrival of winter conditions precipitated not the end of the nodes but their physical transformation into more solid winter quarters. In Occupy Toronto, protesters set up three Mongolian wood huts with a heater inside and rapidly insulated tents with rolls of foam thermal sheeting. At Occupy Wall Street, the confiscation by the police of their fuel generators changed the node in a different way: through the introduction of a dozen bicycle-mounted generators. These generators that transform bodily energy into electric energy graphically illustrates that the node is the bodies sustaining it through their own resonances. The resonance animating the node is the same used to recharge batteries, create heat, and provide the node with “people’s power.”
The temporality in the physical changes on the terrain, however, is primarily the product of political forces that reveal the affective nature of the terrain, i.e. its power to affect. Political resonance usually expands in bursts produced by affective shocks. In both North Africa and North America, insurgent resonances expanded dramatically when the public was exposed to images of state violence against peaceful protestors. These images affected thousands and made them act, creating a terrain more receptive to anti-status quo resonances and producing further changes in the form of the node. As in Egypt, attempts by the state to shut down the nodes of resonance on Liberty Square and elsewhere have backfired and made them bigger and stronger, even if some nodes are indeed temporarily disrupted. The rhizomic form of the occupy movement is most apparent in its leaderless and multi-centered spatial elasticity, which has been disrupted here and there but only momentarily and without disrupting the rhizomic whole. “A rhizome may be broken, shattered at a given spot, but it will start up again on one of its old lines, or on new lines”; and these lines “always tie back to one another” (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 9).
Because the spatial nodes of the occupy movement are outward-looking, adaptable, and elastic, they have propagated the physical presence of their anti-capitalist resonances elsewhere in the urban fabric through regular marches and demonstrations. This reveals that the material transformations on the terrain generated by the rhizome are politically expansive and work through lines of spatial saturation: the saturation of space with a high density of bodies and sounds. This spatial saturation is the "Occupy Everywhere." It was the spatial saturation of the streets, after all, created by huge multitudes all over Egypt on February 10 2011, which overwhelmed the Mubarak regime and its media modulations.
This saturation is disrupting, even if only locally and for brief moments, the material and ideological flow of the capitalist-state machine, creating striations on the smooth space of capital. A case in point is the explosive rise of the node of Occupy Oakland, which shut down a node in the flow of the global capitalist current (the port) and has now spilled over onto the UC Berkeley campus. At a smaller scale, this is also the saturation created by protesters who infiltrated manicured indoor spaces where Republican politicians (such as the Wisconsin governor or Michele Bachman) were propagating the usual capitalist propaganda. Those spaces were immersed in, and disrupted by, the collective resonance of the “mic check!”
The state has responded with spatial saturations of its own, which at the level of the street involve massive police forces and the use of teargas. Teargas is the smell of all insurrections. Its smell and cloud form reveals that the state has lost control of the streets to multitudes that need to be dispersed with chemicals. The use of teargas by the Oakland police in late October marked, for this reason, a threshold: the coming of age of the occupy movement as a coast-to-coast insurrection and the consolidation of Oakland as the main node of resonance on the west coast.
These multiple and ever shifting forms of spatial saturation create dissonance: ruptures in the everyday flow of the corporate ordering of the world. And hereby lies the political negativity guiding the affirmative presence of the occupy movement: the creation of widening cracks in the corporate spatial fabric. Yet this expansive resonance is immersed in a permanent field of struggle with the state machine, which is recurrently trying to shut down the nodes both physically and through the creation of its own affective shocks: news reports about drug abuse, sexual abuse, and violence at the nodes that seek to make the public fearful and less receptive to the resonances generated by them. The media tells the public what the state wants to hear: that these are nodes of dissonance devoid of positivity; sources of anti-systemic instability that are threatening, dangerous, dirty, polluting. The recent wave of attempts by the state to shut down nodes all over North America, including the raiding of Liberty Square which is happening as I finish this essay, make apparent what protesters already know: that the future of this incipient but growing insurrection depends on their capacity to keep these nodes resonating so that their expansive dissonances begin disrupting the global capitalist machine.