Volume 9, Number 2 (July 2012)
Author: Scott Koslow
As a child, at 10 years old, Jean Genet was playing alone in the kitchen. He absentmindedly reached into a drawer: “You’re a thief” he heard, as someone walked in behind him (Sartre, 1963a:17). Under this reprobation, Genet cowered and was forced to make a choice: Either explain himself and argue his innocence, or accept his naming, and become a thief. All of us have had similar experiences a children – caught in some act of thievery or lying, or even just suspected thievery or lying, and all of us know the outcome. Certain of the ignorance and moral barbarity of children, the adult will yield no quarter to explanation. And certain of the divine intelligence of adults, the young child will accept their punishment. The young Genet was accused by his foster parents, who must know better than he, and who would punish the child to bring his to reason. So, Jean Genet ceded to his naming as a thief, and became a thief. This one event dictated the rest of his life.
Jean Paul Sartre chronicles this moment in Saint Genet, and caught up in the logic of existentialism, Sartre is certain that Genet continually lives and relives this defining moment, struggling with it, suffering from the weight of this damning interpolation. He sees Genet transformed into “a foul insect” in that moment (Sartre, 1963b). From that moment he was a mere, object, a “thief.” Genet must have “loathe[d]” himself and the continual thievery that resulted, and been struggling with an internal disharmony (Ibid.:27). But Genet was far more wise that Sartre. He found the escape, and in fact the escape from all the burdens Sartre enumerated. Where Sartre describes the symptom of anguish as we discover we are responsible not just for ourselves but for the whole world, Genet’s genius revelation moved in the opposite direction: He was not responsible for his interpolation as a thief, it was something that his foster parents had impose upon him. He was not responsible for the world, therefore neither was he responsible for himself. His parents, his culture, the world was speaking through him in making him a thief (a chance event, his parents entering at the wrong moment), acting through him in stealing, not the other way around.
Before the event, as a foundling taken in by foster parents, Genet had to say thank you for everything – everything he received was a gift and his conscience demanded he repay the gift and be thankful. Afterwards, he could take without guilt. Ironically, Sartre’s description of Genet is entirely accurate. He has acceded to the status of a thing, he is wholly Other than the society he finds himself in, and the name “thief” is always something that came from outside himself, from the law or from his community.
Sartre is even more correct when he says that thievery becomes Genet’s destiny. His foster parents told him he would die on the gallows, and that became his unavoidable destiny from the moment he heard that accusation “Thief!” Genet spent the next 3 to 4 years without stealing, trying to repent, and suffers from his crimes. But after this atonement he returned to crime, and after a brief imprisonment and after he was expelled from the Foreign Legion for homosexuality, he wandered Europe as a thief, vagrant, and prostitute. When his community tried to make him responsible, he responded as a child does – he was an idiot, an object, merely living up to the image and identity that community had given him.
Finally he became free, precisely because he became a thing, an object. Sartre diagnoses Genet as a monster, cruelly imprisoned in and forced into monstrosity by the demands of his community, with all power on the side of the community which shaped him (Ibid.:23). This elides the art and the power of Genet’s life and work, art and power which derived precisely from his being nothing and accepting he was nothing.
On the political scene in the United States, we find the same damning logic at play. Most students and young professionals find themselves in the position of Genet. They find themselves saddled with a national debt of $15 trillion, and a massive personal debt on top of that. Social security, created to be a safety net, is failing. The unemployment rate is higher than in recent decades, and it becomes more and more difficult to find work. But, conservative commentators (those trying to maintain the status quo, whether on the right or the left), insist that the next generation deserves it. They are lazy, entitled and disrespectful, and do not deserve jobs or social welfare anyways. Unfortunately, the majority of these young US citizens have taken the opposite choice of Genet, speaking up in coffeehouses, bars, public parks, classrooms, and editorials to maintain their innocence and demand political change.
September 17, 2011, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests began in Zuccotti Park of New York City. Within a month the protest proliferated around the nation, and students, young veterans, and the disaffected jobless youth went to the streets to insist on their hardworking nature, their worthiness, and their political acuity. They would do much better to follow Genet, embrace their hailing by a system which tells them they are worthless and thieves, stealing from hard-working Americans. This gives them the absurd power which Genet wielded. In some instances, the Occupiers have followed this tactic, and this is where they have succeeded. They accept their objectification and celebrates it, as Genet did when he took up a life of crime. But more often, they follow Sartre and asserts its subjectivity against the political morass they found themselves in. As long as they follow the later tack, they remain an utter failure.
OWS finds themselves caught in the same trap which Genet stumbled into. They’ve been promised they can succeed, that if they go to college they will get a better paying job, that “the sky’s the limit.” When they find this to be untrue, they shout back about big business and corporatism. But every time the Occupiers complain about low wages, the media talking heads accuse them of feeling entitled to a job they haven’t earned. When they want student loan debt forgiven, they just want a name-brand education at Harvard or Yale, despite knowing they can’t afford it. When they ask for universal healthcare, they are socialists. The Occupiers try to fire back. They insist that big businesses in the US are the real problem. Corporations have too much power, they are controlling the political process, they cause deprivation at home and abroad, they are utterly immoral; but it comes as a surprise to no one that Exxon and BP are exploitative, or that major US banking firms use usurious lending practices.
Of course, all these claims (on both sides) are accurate. Many of the Occupiers feel there should be a right to a living wage, that students should be able to attend a good school regardless of class, that some socialist principles are acceptable. But the instant they move on these fronts they have lost. They plead their innocence, insisting the true source of current troubles lies outside themselves, in the community. The real cause is this endlessly accelerating machine of accumulation, which gives out loans, only to package the debt, sell them, and buy back the derivatives at a profit, constantly drawing further and further from all foundation or support. But this is a system that has long been done with truth. Jean Baudrillard wrote that: “When you’re in a trap, you’re in a trap. There’s no point fighting on a terrain where the models for neutralizing opposition are strongest, where you’re up against the spiraling trap of a system that is master both of the positive and of the negative” (Baudrillard, 2008). Truth is precisely the snare which grabs them, and dangles them aloft before the community. This is what precisely what happened to Genet. He was cast off as immoral, and tried to atone, to fight his immorality. And this is what is happening the OWS.
The reality is plain, it lies unconcealed since the recent banking crisis. The kaleidoscope of the media reflects it back to us, inflecting it with notes of Super PACs, media bias, anti-Christian hatred, and so on. Yet these lenses are mere distractions from what is clear on every channel: corporations dominate the political system of the US, and have shaped the laws to serve them over individual workers. We all know this, there is no need to argue. But that is the only thing demanded of OWS or of the US people as a whole. They should speak, debate, argue endlessly from classroom to boardroom to legislature to Zuccotti Park. They should take to the streets, take to Twitter, take to Facebook, demand 24 hour media coverage so that there is instant feedback and interactivity, so they are constantly caught up in who is really to blame, so that being political is as easy as signing online and clicking on “Like.” When being political is as easy as going to a website and clicking a link, what excuse do we have not to speak? When changing the world is as easy as camping out in New York City, what excuse do you have not to mobilize? So speak out! Sign petitions! Speak loud and proud, and don’t forget to write your own personalized placard which the media may capture on video and pick up on. “I support raising the capital gains tax and forgiving student loan debate, but not grants to green-energy companies; healthy school lunches but not road improvements. And most importantly, I am political. I am moral.” This is approaching the culmination of what Baudrillard describes as the removal of all barriers, leaving us with total interactivity and turning “liberation into a duty, a moral obligation[.]” (Baudrillard, 2005:50). They must fight their immorality, to prove that they are correct.
This only of the effect of reviving our faith in a political system which no longer even has values for us to believe in. “All that capital asks of us is to receive it as rational or to combat it in the name of rationality, to receive it as moral or to combat it in the name of morality” (Baudrillard, 1994:15). Vote Democrat or Republican, drink Pepsi or Coke, laud or abhor the president, it makes no difference. Either way, we remain caught in a helicoid spiral of blame and renegotiation which ultimately has no center or end. Either way we remain concerned with getting to the bottom of things, finding the reality of the matter. And then we are committed to that reality and creating a corrective to it. Either way, we legitimize and remain indebted to a democratic process of deliberation which has aired and considered our demands, but merely found them wanting, perhaps not popular enough or unrealistic. Either way we resuscitate the public morality. This gives anyone an avenue and an impetus to speak and if one speaks persuasively enough to the masses, we believe we will change government policy. So we remain committed to deliberation and protesting.
Even if OWS – or such speaking in general – were to have an effect, it would be only a minor renegotiation of existing policy, so that perhaps an investment firm will be fined or closed, while the users are ensnared more and more in a system where someone else will immediately take the firm’s place. When OWS formulates lists of demands, politicians accommodate minor planks that are popular – like ending corporate personhood – and use that to prove that they listen to the activists, that they are good democrats. Simultaneously, they disregard the majority of the platform, anything that would have a radical political effect. This only allows politicians to claim OWS as supporters, while doing nothing to change the nature of the political system. As long as OWS state traditional political demands, they can be appeased and accommodated, losing any critical power they have, and becoming yet more beholden to a system they are trying to oppose.Such a logic is explored by Spanos (1992, 2000, and 2008) to great effect. He explains that the political elite will alternately accommodate – that is, recognize, bring in, and assimilate – or banish – reject as politically impossible – all challenges. Obama takes the voice of citizens, and welds it to their cause to claim it as support. Simultaneously, he says he would push for their radical demands, but they’re just not realistic right now. Petitioners are assimilated as Obama supporters, while all radicality is banished].
What’s more, as long as they are pursuing political ends and seeking politicians to represent them, they are guaranteed to concern themselves with the pragmatics of partisan politics. In fact, the force of this system only becomes stronger, while they do nothing but engage in minor repair to a broken (according to OWS) system. Baudrillard expressed this claim well:
What or who can stop globalization? Surely not anti-globalization forces, whose real aim is only to slow deregulation. The anti-globalization forces have considerable political influence but their symbolic impact is nonexistent. The violence of the protestors is simply one more event that system will absorb while continuing to control the game (2006).
Functioning in this way, OWS loses all it’s symbolic power, becomes nothing more than a strategic move in a game they want to reject.
This makes even more sense when applied to a micro-political level. OWS demagogues claim they’ve finally found a realpoliticalevent and go on and on about occupying the real, about the hyper-reality of modern consumer life, about their horrible ennui (OWS, 2011a). This is the source of their failure. Here to give one telling example, Stephen Colbert interviewed two individuals elected to represent the movement on his show (Colbert Nation.com, 2011). In it, the representatives do everything in their power to avoid any sort of discursive violence. They insist that they do not speak for anyone else, that they cannot be synecdochalized for the movement as a whole. One expounds on the radical potential of voting by waving your hands in the air versus crossing your arms. He demonstrates his Jazz-Hands to show how this is an absolute rupture from past politics where citizens and elected representatives would make such banal statements as “Yea” or “Nay.” The other calls herself a “female-bodied individual,” afraid to commit the discursive violence of implying that a person with a vagina, ovaries, and breasts is a woman. Anything that might misrepresent someone, or impute an identity upon someone, is disavowed, because every possible pain hurts them; it is an object of guilt. So they do away with violent identity politics, away with traditional schema of representation and voting, away with all leaders. They would rather just be done with them.
These Occupiers – most of them college students, wandering scholars of Butler, Foucault, Sartre, and so on – take up this political position enthusiastically. They proudly proclaim “There are no police. There is no state, no law, and no jail to turn to within the occupy community. There is only individual responsibility and accountability[.]” (OWS, 2011a). They know that they are the first generation in history to experience true freedom, and so they feel the abandonment, anguish, and despair which Sartre predicted. Writing proleptically about the Occupiers, Sartre described: Abandonment, that God is dead, all leaders fail us, and we have no platform or ideology to guide us; anguish, the knowledge that we are absolutely and solely responsible for our lives, and not just our own life but the enter world; and despair, a final acceptance of the realm of imperfect (less than true) options available to them (Sartre, 1975). They accept this knowledge, as Sartre prescribes, optimistically. They are responsible for every instance of gendered or sexed violence, so they willingly refuse to even call themselves “female.” They know every leader will fail, so they refuse any guidepost or governance. They will vote – yes, that’s a necessity – but they emphasize that their voting is different from the voting of the past, complete with “mic checks” and drum circles.
Sartre describes how that one “fatal instant” decided the course of Genet’s life. Similarly, as children, the protesters were all caught with the silverware in their hands. And now they live their life trying to disprove their fate, to demonstrate to themselves that they are not thieves, layabouts, or utopians. They are certain they are not lazy, they’re not apolitical, they’re not entitled, they’ve repented, they’ve lived the life of the underclass and they will speak to and about it; they must prove this to their detractors and their own conscience. Every FOX News report hurts them, every criticism of the movement is an attack which must be countered. Every claim of “entitlement,” “socialism,” “privilege” is as damning as the shout “Thief!” They have accepted their existential freedom in the world, but all it does is enslave them more and more until every slur hurts, every wrong is unbearable.
This terrible force is clear when the occupiers explain the edicts of the OWS General Assembly (the closest thing in OWS to a governing body) in OccupyTheory (OWS, 2011a). The General Assembly, they explain, offers no binding resolutions, no one is required to agree or abide by its judgments. Instead, every member of the movement is free and responsible for their own actions. Yet in the same breath, they declare what members of the movement “must” do, including camp outside through the winter, give any benefit they win to the Occupy community, and educate anyone and everyone about the movement.
The General Assembly meets endlessly, constantly issuing rulings on how to act, events to hold, what to say, and so on. Yet these are only suggestions. The individual bears the full weight of responsibility for their actions; they are left naked before the police, the law, and morality, while the General Assembly is free of any guilt. This “freedom” is merely a way for OWS community organizers to displace blame to the individual, while making their control even more pernicious. Protesters are given the liberty to disagree with the General Assembly, to disobey their judgments, yet those who don’t are not serving the movement. This became starkly clear when a group of drummers exercised this freedom to disobey and threatened the well-being of the movement.
An anonymous OWS activist reported that the protests in New York City would be shut down because of drummers playing their instruments too much, such that the local community board was lodging noise complaints with the police. This activist bemoaned that they drum late at night, that they will not organize, that they refuse to meet with the General Assembly, that they don’t care about the larger movement. After complaining that they are going to kill the Occupation, the activist notes that those who can’t : “1) keep our space and surrounding areas clean and sanitary, 2) keep the park safe, 3) deal with internal conflict and enforce the Good Neighbor Policy that was passed by the General Assembly”, threaten to undermine the Occupation, and are ruining what everyone has fought for. Their lack of cooperation makes them traitors to the cause, thoughtless and irresponsible (OWS, 2011b).
Under this anarchist system of direct and total freedom, someone who disobeys the General Assembly is not just breaking a rule, they are threatening the entire movement, negating the work and suffering of hundreds or thousands of like-minded people. Where Baudrillard says that hegemony is a worse form of control than domination, this is what he means. Domination would be a relief. To be pepper-sprayed or jailed would be a badge of honor the victim would display with pride (after the immediate pain). Even to be somehow punished by the Occupy organizers (if they had set up a structure to do so) would only be proof of OWS’s hypocrisy – that the arrestee is a more genuine protester than the arrestor. They would suffer whatever punishment was given to them, repay their debt, and be free of the matter. But the General assembly will not dominate, will not punish. Instead, they only suggest and help, and protesters must remain beholden to them or their very lack of support is proof enough of their evil. Under the neoliberal state, every citizen is responsible for their own well-being. Under the banner of this leaderless revolution, every protester is responsible for the well-being of the entire movement.
In Occupy Theory, Michael Premo expresses this well: “I reject the notion that this is a leaderless movement, because I know that the opposite is true. […] [I]n this movement we are all leaders[…]” (Premo, 2011). Everyone says endlessly that there is no leader. This does not remove the panoptic force of the law from anyone (the law of the local government, or of the General Assembly). Instead, it forces everyone to takes responsibility for the movement, and makes literal the anguish Sartre describes at knowing he is responsible for the entire world. It only magnifies and multiplies those panoptic forces, coming now from one’s peers instead of the state. That is, precisely because of its headlessness and undefinability, it also literalizes Foucault’s bio-power, radiating endlessly throughout the socius, rather than exercised by a ruler upon her/his subjects.
Sartre says that one can rely on nothing else – not God, not chance, not history, not the revolutionary cause, not other people – and so one is radically responsible for his/her own action. Genet acted, was blamed, and that blame stuck. This is the essence of Baudrillard’s tyranny of the self. The child Genet was interpellated as a thief, and reaching into the wrong drawer made his instantly responsible for the rest of his life. He had to accept it as his burden. The activists, submitting petitions, calling for government salvation, justifying themselves, they all enact that tyranny upon themselves. They allow their naming as lazy, entitled brats, to enter into their Being and decide their life. They must fight against it, that is the yoke they must bear, they are responsible for it. Whether they fight for liberation or oppression, protest the White House or Wall Street, provide social services or end social services, it all amounts to the same thing: an enslavement to that naming, which must at every moment decides their lives.
But Sartre fails to see how Genet escaped this naming precisely by taking it up. Whether Genet accepted or fought his new name (“thief”) he could not escape his fate. He is a thief, either because the world takes him as a thief, or because (if we accept Sartre’s logic) he is radically responsible for that naming, and must bear the damning weight of it. The only difference is that arduous imperative. “Thief” is either a burden to carry, a horror to atone for, or it is freedom from the law and morality, a chance to do anything because he is already a malefactor and unrepentant barbarian. Genet realized that “thief” is a concept that came not from himself, but from the community. He was not accountable for it, it was merely an imposition by the community.
This is what Baudrillard meant when he said “At all events, it is better to be controlled by someone else than by oneself. Better to be oppressed, exploited, persecuted, and manipulated by someone other than oneself” (Baudrillard, 1993:167). Condemned by his community, Genet can either be oppressed by them (accept the name), or he can express his authorship of his own life and take responsibility for it himself (fight for his innocence).
The Occupiers share this choice. They’ve learned of their absolute freedom, which also means their absolute responsibility. Every injustice is their fault, because they always could have done more, been more ethical. Only when oppression comes from elsewhere does it free them of their self-oppression. Only when they’ve been arrested do they have their autonomy. Only the martyrs, who’ve been pepper-sprayed, jailed, and harassed, are able to enjoy their freedom, because only they have been oppressed by their community, rather than oppressing themselves. They are criminals, and they have merely accepted their imprisonment.
OWS’s insistence of their headlessness should remind us of another movement: Acéphale (The Headless). George Bataille founded Acéphale as a secret society to be the first truly headless movement. Bataille had born witness first-hand to the theft of Friedrich Nietzsche’s corpus from the grave by the Nazi party. To prevent political misappropriation of this sort, he insisted the movement must be rendered literally headless with his own literal decapitation. A few members volunteered to be decapitated, but no one would be the executioner (Goldhammer, 2005:84). OWS has a unique opportunity – the police have taken up the role of executioner. They no longer need executioners, the state will do it for them. This is where OWS’s power lies: not in paeans about the power of the human spirit unbound by relations of greed, not by giving birth a movement never-before seen on Earth, not in producing ruminations on bio-power or human rights, or in positive political change. Their power lies in their death.
This has been true historically. The protests of 1968 gained widespread traction when the police barracked the universities. Economic liberalization in China gained traction with the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Tibetan Independence won global support with the self-immolation of Buddhist monks. Baudrillard himself identifies the suicide of Lee Kyung Hae, when he climbed atop to police barricade keeping protesters from the WTO summit in Cancun, Mexico in 2003 and stabbed himself, as a gesture with the power to disrupt neo-liberalism. He says that, in refusing to offer political arguments for or against globalization – instead totally self-destructing – Lee represents a singularity which cannot be recapitulated to the political morality of good and evil (Baudrillard, 2006).
Even the police know this. Riot-police throughout the developed world are told not to respond to crowds, but to simply absorb a crowds anger. They have learned that any response will only empower the rioting forces. But the officers responding to Occupy movements across the US have missed this simple truth. The power to oppose the current hegemony lies not in positive political action. It lies purely in their self-destruction at the hands of the law. It’s here that all their symbolic force resides.
Let us consider now the real history of class struggle whose only moments were those when the dominated class fought on the basis of its self-denial “as such,” on the basis of the sole fact that it amounted to nothing. Marx had told it that it should be abolished one day, but this was still a political perspective. When the class itself, or a fraction of it, prefers to act as a radical non-class, or as the lack of existence of a class, i.e., to act out its own death right away within the explosive structure of capital, when it chooses to implode suddenly instead of seeking political expansion and class hegemony, then the result is June ’48, the Commune, or May ’68 . The secret of the void lies here, in the incalculable force of the implosion (contrary to our imaginary concept of revolutionary explosion)-think of the Latin Quarter on the afternoon of May 3 (Baudrillard and Lotringer, 1988:63).
The strength of the movement lies not in what they accomplish, in any demand they have met, but in what they suffer. As political subjects they are utter failures, and thank god. If more of them put forward political demands, they would be easily accommodated and assimilated. They would be allowed the proper avenue to speak, they would be required to voice their concerns in an easily understood and managed way, and anyone who continued to resist would be eliminated by the police as unrepentant barbarians shitting in the street, trespassing on private property, and making too much trouble for the corporate elite. With the majority channeled into rational political dialogue, the remaining protesters would simply be managed by police forces and washed away. But because they refuse such means like circulating petitions, like raising money for a PAC or candidate, like posting activist slogans on Facebook and Twitter, the overwhelming mass of their heretical refusal cannot be contained, and the police violently strike back.
I said earlier that OWS finds themselves caught in a trap. When an animal is caught in a trap, it’s struggles will only enmesh it more. When Jean Genet was handed his fate as a criminal, his guilt and regret only ensured he stayed beholden to the law. When OWS insists on political change, their justifications and platforms only ensure they remain mired in traditional politics. Instead, the animal must play dead, give up on struggling, and the trap will slip loose on its own.
News conglomerates, reporters, politicians, all seeking to castigate Occupy Wall Street scrambling to find an official platform so that they can mock it. Many have taken OccupyWallSt.org to state the official platform, and decried it as socialist. Elsewhere, in Denver, Mayor Michael Hancock demanded that the Occupiers in his town pick an official leader to meet with him, and offer an official platform.
But like Genet, OWS has been too wise for this. Platforms have proliferated online, so that OccupyWallSt.org alone lists over 10,000, and there are many more at protests around the US. In Denver, the protesters elected a border collie named Shelby, who they say “exhibits heart, warmth and an appreciation for the group over personal ambition that Occupy Denver members feel are sorely lacking in the leaders some of them have voted for” (ODGA, 2011). They had Shelby meet with Mayor Hancock the next week, but I expect he was disappointed.
It is the strategy Baudrillard describes as drawing one’s enemy out into the open, of playing dead rather than resisting. Political moves against corporatism, even if successful, would amount to nothing. A law might be passed through a Congress dominated by special interests, a few radical or third party representatives might be elected to the House only to drown in a sea of conservatism, the Democratic party might win back the House in the 2012 elections, but all would signify a continuation of the status quo. The occupiers, through their political non-affectivity, turned the tools of our society against itself, so that the government would demonstrate its own corruption and violence.
In their stupidity, the Occupy Wall Street protesters have opened the way for a more radical and effective response – that is, pure stupidity itself. Having no goals, no aims, no strategy means they cannot be accommodated or reasoned with. They are precisely the entitled, apolitical hippies that they have been accused of being (you cannot argue with someone who admits to having no argument, and not caring about an argument, anyways). So, they have drawn police forces to the only response left against such a group: committing abuse after abuse.
Indeed, OWS seem like some perverse band of quantum hobos, like the photons in Young’s double-slit experiment. If Baudrillard is correct and politics is dead, perhaps these protests are the United State’s political
objects enacting their revenge upon the politicians. The individual protesters seem to disappear, while socialists and hipsters and lay-abouts are “pro-duced” (made visible) more and more by this endless cycle.
Politics is no longer possible, there can be no more true events. Yet in OWS we are confronted by a weird non-event, like reality television. Of course, if not for the TV cameras and reporting, the protesters wouldn’t be there. The protesters are merely creating a spectacle for the cameras. Yet in the response we see something unplanned, something intended to be hidden. When the police use riot clubs, tear gas, or pepper-spray on non-violent protesters, it happens as a rogue event, something they do not want seen. The police and the politicians commanding them want to act decisively, to regain control of their city, to create the security and order which they so desperately desire. They act as responsible subjects to maintain the moral order (but as “officer” rather than “thief”), and in-so-doing they allow the object to enact it’s revenge. All those apolitical lay-abouts they exert their power over suddenly force those in charge to expose their violent will. And when the police and the politicians get lured out like this, they collapse upon themselves. The police, in attempting to prevent anything from happening, any disturbance in their ideological hegemony, enact the only event that can really be said to have happened.
They act with a preemptive logic, one attempting to prevent a riot before it even begins. They fear these occupiers will exert their subjectivity in a forceful revolt, so they douse the protesters with pepper-spray before they can even begin. This is clear in the justification by the police and politicians. In protests at University of California: Davis, one scene – video-taped from multiple angles – shows a line of seated and immobile protesters as an officer calmly walks up and sprays the line of students for 10 to 15 seconds. When they remain sitting, unmoving, he walks to a fellow office, grabs another bottle of pepper-spray, and sprays them all once more. The police chief came out to say they had to do it because the officers were feeling boxed-in by the surrounding crowd, and violence would have broken out had the officers not used non-lethal force against them first (Rankin, 2011). Similar scenes, and apologias, have appeared nation-wide at Occupy protests. At these protests, we see how “all rational, preventive, prophylactic countermeasures are automatically turned against themselves through their own excesses. Security is the best medium for terror” (Baudrillard, 2010:98).
All this was magnified and made tangible on Thursday, 8 December 2011, when Law and Order: SVU attempted to make an episode on OWS. Law and Order recreated the OWS camp in Foley Square in Manhattan (just a few blocks from Zuccotti Park where the OWS movement was encamped until 15 November) during the day. They put up tents, a kitchen/dining station, anti-corporate signs and placards, and so on. That night, the protesters, who’d been forced to leave Zuccotti Park, arrived. Some climbed in the tents and went to sleep. Some set up a drum circle. Some began eating the food out of the kitchen. They thought it was unfair that they couldn’t set up camp in a park less than a mile away, but Law and Order could create an identical camp, with all the same slogans and public nuisances, because it was farce rather than reality. So the protesters occupied the fake camp (chanting “Who’s fake park? Our fake park!” and even calling themselves “mockupiers”) and refused to leave (Barron and Moynihan, 2011).
They remained until the producers of Law and Order called the police to evacuate them. However, Law and Order had failed to secure the proper permits to film in the park, so when the police showed up, they threatened to arrest everyone – protester, Law and Order “protester” extras, and production assistant – alike, unless they cleared the area (Chiaramonte, 2011). According to one account, SVU had acquired all necessary permits, but because the police couldn’t tell the protesters and the show’s employees apart, they revoked the permit and forced them all to leave (Ibid.).
Their chants (“Who’s fake park? Our fake park!”) proved they embodied Genet’s choice better than anything else OWS had done. Ever since Andy Warhol promised us our 15 minutes of fame, we all know that celebrity has been the dream of ever privileged suburbanite. These protesters didn’t even need to be cast, they claimed the position themselves (not only fame obsessed, but self-entitled). They arrived, became the extras in the television-set camp, ate the television-set food, waved the television-set signs, and disappeared among the crew and props.
Here, we see the literalization of Baudrillard’s “more false than false,” no story, no narrative, no liberation or aim, only the mocking of Law and Order’s story about OWS. The only possible response by the police or the producers was to become “more true than true[.]” (Baudrillard, 1985). The producers had to become real, appear not just as actors, but manifest themselves as corporate interests directing a profit-driven enterprise. And the police had to force not only the protesters to leave, but to turn against and shut down the entire corporate production, and force Law and Order to leave its own film set.
OWS functioned like a reality making machine. Just as Jean Genet did not believe he was evil or a criminal, they possess no reality in themselves. For both, their power is in letting others believe that they are real, and forcing them to respond. That’s proven when the police tear down the fake encampment just as they tore down the original encampment.
Their occupations sprang up randomly and with no grounding or meaning, with radicals across the US branding themselves “Occupy” wherever they were. On their own, the occupations would have disappeared just as easily as their arose. They are altogether empty and ineffectual. Their only power was in forcing others to live up to those individuals’ own realities. Law and Order creates a fake camp, and the occupiers make it into a real camp. The police show up to control them, and the occupiers force them to exercise their authority.
The occupiers thrive in making themselves more fake than the fake (“Our fake park!” or the puppy elected as leader, because who doesn’t love a puppy). In this way, the protest of Law and Order demonstrates exactly the logic of Jean Genet. The dissidents are branded as irreverent, protesting for no reason and with no real goal. So when Hollywood attempts to revive the movement, to celebrate them, to show them in only a positive light, they appear to protest for no reason at all. They protested merely because there’s a perfect location for them to protest, ready-made with a kitchen, food, places to sleep, and pre-made placards with appropriate political slogans. Law and Order created a camp site lacking only the protesters, so OWS supplied them.
Many defenders of the movement attempt to explain that they have goals, but are amorphous and leaderless. They know what they want, but are unwilling to do the violence of pretending their own goals represent everyone. The reality, from conversations with protesters and news reports, is far less patronizing. They have no idea why they protest, or what they protest for, they are divinely idiotic. They are like the French who voted “No” to the European Union’s constitutional referendum (Baudrillard, 2006b). They have felt their displacement from a system in which they no longer have any part, and they refuse to be integrated into this complex machine not of their making.
In describing how to philosophize as one wages war, Lotringer says “the enemy’s center of gravity must be identified right away, the inner spring of its movement, and then pushed to the limit” (Baudrillard and Lotringer, 1988:24). We can see this move in Steven Colbert’s response to the protests. First, he provokes them, inviting them to a penthouse suite, ordering a 10 course breakfast which he eats before them, even offering them to eat along with them (a gesture which, coming from the center of privilege and corporate extravagance, they must refuse). Then, he inverts their logic, and when the female interviewee identifies herself as a “female-bodied person,” he asks the man if he is a male-bodied person or a female-bodied person.
It is incorrect to identify Colbert as parody – in which one inverts the dominant logic, saying it while actually implying/meaning the opposite – and Baudrillard even designates such acts as “parody” (Baudrillard and Lotringer, 1985: 64). Colbert is not actually defending the Occupy movement any more than he is actually defending corporations. Rather, as Jameson (1991:17) points out, it is pastiche. Colbert cuts and pastes together fragments of either’s ideology to render them entirely meaningless and free-floating, demonstrating their groundlessness. It is a modern form of reductioadabsurdum. The Occupy protesters, engaging in similar moves, are doing the same thing.
The Occupy Denver protesters also embody this logic. First, they provoke, with a headless movement, anti-corporate slogans, vagrancy, and so on. Then, when forced to elect a leader, they select Shelby, a dog, saying that if a corporation is a person, certainly Shelby is. Shelby is even more of a person, because while the Denver Mayor could not meet with a corporation – only its representatives and agents – he can actually meet with a puppy, which is a living creature.
Genet, at that moment as a child, had a choice. He responded by answering his violent interpolation genuinely. He accepted responsibility, internalized the guilt of society, and tried to repent. Many occupiers followed this tact, and to that extent their failure was destined. However, after four years Genet realized that he was a thief, that society was right, and that he need not feel guilty. “Thief” was a mask that he could disappear behind, so he became and thief and embodied that role. The occupiers, at their best, hide behind the mask of their stupidity, their privilege, their inanity. They are a mere product, produced by a system of accumulation freed of all bounds. OWS are not subjects. When the banking and housing sector collapsed, OWS emerged as the reverberation of that collapse, spelling out the truth of its corporatist logic. It was fated from the beginning. Even the slogan “We are the 99%” merely serves to force those in power to justify themselves, to locate some referent in democracy or justice or truth. Hence, they had to occupy Law and Order, because the occupation was already there. Protesters were already there. The only thing missing was reality. Protesters injected that reality into Law and Order and it became too real, just as they did with the NYPD, just as their did with the corporate banking system.
Genet finally embraced the fate handed to him when he was 10, a thief condemned to the gallows. Rather than seeking freedom from authority (which is only self-enslavement), OWS should accept their fate as worthless and apolitical. Rather than emphasizing no leader and radical freedom, they should elect a dog as a leader, or maybe even a kitten (everyone loves kittens).
Editor`s note: Jean Baudrillard once opined: “There are no children of May” (2001:124). As for the possible offspring of OWS …
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