Nato Thompson

Culture, place and power.

Tag: nato thompson

Legitimating Crisis: Social Networks Decenter the Dominant Narrative

(flickr.com/shankbone)

Reposting, posting, commenting and liking, have emerged as an increasingly important grammar of civic discourse. As we collectively experience the rise of social network platforms, we are slowly becoming more accustomed to the devices and possibilities of this new medium. And with it, we are witnessing a corollary rise in a social movement. The synchronicity is not by chance.

While at first I was reluctant to believe it (there was something almost nauseating about the way in which the U.S. media attributed so much of the social unrest in Egypt to Twitter and Facebook), I am now convinced that the rise of OWS cannot be explained properly without appreciating the radical power and potentiality of social network platforms. It might seem like a trite epiphany by those who don’t understand the real organizing behind social movements, but bare with me as I think the case can be made. While OWS’s growth across the country and now the world has caught most everyone by surprise, it has also provided one of those exceptional moments where one can watch the main circuits of power reeling to retain relevance. There have been the poignant hiccups showing both governments and media off-balance. Michael Bloomberg balking at cleaning up Liberty Plaza and then blaming it on the supposed calls of elected officials. The New York Times rewriting their coverage of the arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge and then having their edits revealed and circulated on scale networks. The numerous Wikileaks communiqués that provide whistleblowers and the leaks in the consolidation of power a platform to spread like wildfire. These hiccups and so many others provide a first-hand view as to a condition where those in control, perhaps, are not.

There have been moments in the past months where those operating in OWS have been provided that wonderful glimpse at power revealing its hand. For everyone has had a front row seat watching the growing disconnect between what the media has reported and what the facts on the ground are. With every disconnect between major media and what people experience, faith is shaken. This part is nothing new. What is different is that now people find themselves able to construct and turn to alternative forms of media that confirm an idea of the real that conforms more readily to what they have experienced. Social networks are providing a distributed form of legitimation that has radical power.

Of course it is ludicrous to ascribe the growing discontent and popular resistance to purely a Mark Zuckerburg invention such as Facebook. Such hyperbolic claims feel like an oversimplification of vast factors such as the one most apparent: massive economic inequality. However, after numerous social movements over the years, this particular movement possesses a noticeably different texture and much of that can be attributed to the extremely important role that social networks have played.

Without question, social networks provide an entirely different platform for gathering news. What only ten years ago was considered fringe media is now circulated at a much faster rate contesting the dichotomy of mainstream and fringe. Narratives that challenge the dominant capitalist-friendly style of corporate media are simply more ubiquitous and available. To be simplistic about it, even the re-introduction of the term “capitalism” has only been an option in the United States since the power of social networks have allowed it to emerge. Without a central space of control such as the major television networks, the narrative around economic and social inequity is able to quickly take on a more radical form. This is a knife of course that cuts both ways as social networks provide a great platform for all kinds of extremism and reactionary paranoid politics. As the circulation of media begins to move through a vastly de-centered distributive network, legitimation (the like button and sharing function) takes on a velocity. It is a speed. After a few months, it develops a culture. It is a becoming machine for many people to radicalize each other. With every share, like, post, and comment, we participate in the production of each other through a rapidly developing culture.

But what is additionally amazing about Occupy Wall Street is that it is a movement that takes space seriously. The radicality of social network technologies has its most power when it mobilizes toward space across time. In looking back at the first few weeks of OWS, one recalls the clear derision it was met with not only in the large media landscape but the progressive as well. If the tools were available, it would be fascinating to watch the spread of information regarding Occupy Wall Street across the nation over time. For if it were only up to the New York Times, ABC, NBC, NPR, and Fox, and many supposedly progressive magazines and websites the first two weeks the occupations would have been remembered as a fringe display by ignorant privileged kids who know how to whine but not much else. Simple visual snapshots were taken of bongo players, women with wigs, and anarchist black clad wearing kids as visual representations of lost disaffected youth. This was the dominant story and one that most of America was hearing and seeing if they heard anything at all. But the occupation kept going, and as it did more unions joined on, more activist celebrities showed up, and more writing in support of the movement appeared. This is all to say that over time the movement gained legitimacy. And legitimacy, that increasingly important function that happens in a culture of vast symbolic production, is that tool that tells our brain that this version of the story, is the one that is important to pay attention to. The occupation itself never changed its political position. It wasn’t any strategic choice that gave it legitimacy. But instead that it gathered momentum over time as more and more people rallied to its cause.

Over the course of time, the mainstream media became increasingly behind in the story.  Looking across the Atlantic at the UK Guardian, one found coverage of the protests almost immediately with numerous sympathetic journalists and theorists such as Naomi Klein and Slavoz Zizek already weighing in the protest’s importance. But here stateside, the major media outlets continued their anti-intellectual Fox News/Bill O’reilly style of reportage whose slanderous approach has been their bread and butter for the last decade. As the movement grew so too did the sympathy reach out from the net to the traditional distributors of information. The progressive outlets began to realize that the people they were resenting were actually their base. They had to rapidly adjust, apologize and get on board for fear of coming across as a media platform that didn’t target their specific target market. On October 2nd, Sally Kohn from Mother Jones blogs an apology for being critical of the occupation movement. On October 5th, Keith Olberman read a statement from Occupy Wall Street. And of course on October 6th President Obama weighed in saying he understands the protest’s frustrations. Suddenly the major media was turning toward a sympathetic approach as the radical fringe became a normal part of the center, all in the manner of three weeks. The position of derision began to seem untenable as more and more movements sprung up across the country appealing a populist base. And the one thing the media can’t stand being against is populism.

But the fact of the matter is none of this would have been possible without Twitter and Facebook. The ability to spread a counter narrative not only served as a social device for legitimating reasonable complaints against power, but it allowed every person to participate in that form of legitimation from the isolated privacy of their home. The private was able to become public and thus political. This ability is something that television simply cannot do. By spreading the word of these protests and being introduced to counter-narratives, people in the social networking milieu were being radicalized from inside their home.

One could say that all this teaches is that social networking is an extremely powerful device (which is true). But there is also another lesson that may be instructive as well. And that lesson for those of us who have tried tirelessly to get this kind of movement off the ground for twenty to thirty years is that the major media has been a bigger problem than one could have ever imagined. For as much as social inequality and the control of government by the financial class is certainly at a relatively high point, the dismantling of the social welfare programs across this country have been occurring for a long time. Social inequities have been a large part of the American reality for a long time. The time to put a stop to it and place populist pressure against it is not specifically unique to this period. What is unique are the devices by which we communicate and organize around these frustrations and the manner in which sociality legitimates these concerns.

What does this mean politically? First, one must also admit a gap between those who have access to social media and those who do not. Those who have found a place to come together, and those whose lives are ever watched, controlled, and policed. For social networks also teaches us something that was known in social movements before: there is an analogue form of coming together and producing community. One can only rely on social networks so much and the movement clearly needs to pound the pavement to listen and open up dialogue across divides of difference. Clearly there is a race and class component to this that must also exist in consideration as a different subjectivity emerges.

But second, we need to appreciate just how powerful the technological tools of legitimation are in shaping the civic. The technologies of major media (namely television) have been a much more critical power tool than I think many have appreciated. The disruption of this technology with new distributed platforms has radically altered the vehicles that make us who we are. And lets be frank, most of the United States still relies on television for their news and entertainment. This obvious reality provides a major culture gap between the subjectivities of a nation as the aggregate forms of becoming a culture pile up over time. A generation grown on social networks is going to seem very strange and radical when confronting their television-watching parents.

What social networks provide is a communicative centrifugal device where the forms of meaning are shaped via people. This is certainly more democratic inherently but also provides an obvious tool for bringing sequestered conversations like capitalism to the forefront. When people’s complaints about their lives are legitimated by other people’s complaints about their lives, an inevitable velocity of subjectivity emerges that has radical potential. There is much to say regarding this, but it is important to note as we become aware that something has shifted. For of course, there are numerous concerns regarding social network technologies including the privatization of these networks, the capacity for surveillance, the race and class composition of such networks, the lack of accountability and due diligence in the spread of this new information for starters. That said, the power of this technology should not be underestimated. It is very real and very powerful and will be a critical device in shaping the subjectivities of the movements and politics to come.

Can a mass movement stay on message?

We have become accustomed to it. You go to a demonstration that is generally uneventful but with thousands of participants. You go home, look online to see what the news had to say, and you find a picture of some black clad anarchist smashing a window or some violent altercation between a cop and some bright eyed youth transpiring. “When did that happen?” you think to yourself. Why couldn’t the news report on the actual demonstration? Why focus on the exception and not the rule? The numbers of people. The issues. Why does it have to focus on the clearly more photogenic but besides the point actions of a few individuals? Anger turns toward these rabble-rousers. Anger turns toward the news. Is it a conspiracy? Why can’t mass movements actually be depicted as being reasonable claims on inequities of power? A new strategy must be developed. Or so one might think.

 

If it bleeds it leads is the common newspaper adage. For those involved in mass movements, the logic of this newspaper and television sensibility makes itself more evident. For whatever reasons, every protest needs an image of a bloodied protester, a burning flag, a smashed window, a hooded malcontent, a crazy dressed hippy, or a cop arresting grannies. Whatever the image, it needs to have some hyper sense of the real. It must be spectacular. Apparently, the images of regular folks peacefully protesting simply doesn’t translate well. As much as movements try to be populist, the media insists on focusing on their wacky and/or dangerous attendees. The image of mom and pops with their kids holding a reasonable protest sign in a group of thousands, isn’t exactly what the media is looking for. Are the newspapers and television media determined to turn this movement into a sideshow?

 

The Occupy Wall Street movement knows this well. It is the reason for the current hemming and hawing regarding the actions of the Black Bloc and various other black clad discontents who apparently steal the spotlight as the news cameras can’t help but follow them in their property damaging hijinks.  There is a very valid concern that the actions of these individuals across the United States is making an easily dismissed circus of this movement as their actions so readily fall prey to a pernicious media determined to use their actions for their own gain. In addition, the actions of the more militant elements of OWS provide a window of opportunity for undercover provocateurs determined to incite violence in order to delegitimize OWS. They provide an alibi for more brutal police repression and lose public sympathy in the process. This is the current mood in OWS as the chill of winter begins to thaw.

 

Certainly it is a frustrating situation for everyone involved. For those who are more militant, they would easily argue that the Black Bloc is a tactic not a group. It is a strategy of direct action. For as much as the movement will complain that the photographs of anarchists breaking windows is damaging for the movement, they will not complain when the videos of pepper sprayed innocent protesters goes viral on YouTube. The movement gained widespread attention as a result of direct action. They would argue that property damage isn’t physical damage and its cost is absolutely incomparable to the routine cost of capitals disenfranchisement of millions across the globe. And, as much as people complain about them covering their faces, they would say, “If you are going to participate in direct action in this surveillance culture, you better protect your identity somehow.” Direct action has been the modus operandi of the movement and it isn’t possible without a certain level of physical confrontation with power. The entire initial actions of this movement, the taking of Zucotti Park, was a physical taking of a space.

 

So there is a frustrating sort of impasse being reached and perhaps it is best to take a step back and consider the landscape of power and spectacle that OWS is working across. As OWS gathered momentum across the country it found itself both taking advantage of and being taken advantage of the spectacular nature of the contemporary mediasphere. It is a bizarre world we live in where the affective outcomes of actions are choreagraphed for viral circulation worldwide and everyone conscious of this, are forced to be somewhat manipulative and strategic in its consideration. Conveniently cropped photographs and edited videos are the materials of a media war for all involved. It isn’t just the media promoting an agenda. The movement has to carefully produce mediated images as well. Everyone is making advertisements for the movement. It is a war. It is a war of images.

 

The movement is a sort of reality television show. It is happening in space, but it is also self-consciously constructing itself for mediation. Since all the world is a stage everyone must learn the skills of theater.

 

But this war isn’t new. And it might be amazing to note, that it isn’t as against progressives as one might think. OWS could learn a thing or two from the brutal UFC-style assault the Tea Party experienced not that long ago. They were embraced then vilified by these very same mechanisms. It is difficult to comprehend, but bare with this a little. Yes, of course it is hard to imagine that the “enemy” are falling prey to the same mechanisms, but the tables aren’t balanced the way one might think. The rule of power isn’t left and right (as the lame political discourse of this country has devolved into), it is power wins over all. That is an equation that supercedes ideological territories in this contemporary landscape.

 

Images that affirm our affective reactions to various issues are easily circulated in an economy of affect. It is an economy of emotional response undergirded by capitalism that drives news and social media. We want people to feel something. Left or right that feeling needs to flow. It needs to draw viewership. It needs to feed the paradigm of fear/attraction/alienation Following in the trailblazing steps of the advertising industry, the news agencies have learned that news is just a vehicle for emotional response. Images are the kicker. For the Tea Party, as much as the excitement of the emerging of a conservative people’s movement was an initial novelty, it became kitsch and then pathetic. It was a cycle of emotional response. Tropes played out over time until finally on Facebook one could find slideshows of misspelled redneck protest signs that affirm a progressive position that these people are just a bunch of idiots. For progressives, it didn’t take long to latch onto this notion and circulate it. And the major media helped in turn. Same is true for the right wings perspective of the left. Right wing radio gets its hands on it and its communists, drugs, no god and various other sub-categories of the paradigm of right wing conspiracy theory.

 

Now the tables are turned and OWS is feeling itself the victim of a similar logic. While its initial appearance gathered media energy and interest, as winter dawned, the gothic tales of horror from the drug fueled unsanitary hovels of Zucotti Park emerged. In a matter of three months, the park went from a symbol of the emergence of the American democratic tradition to the worst nightmare of a drug fueled Lollapalooza let loose in the city equipped with homelessness, violence and sexual abuse. For whatever reason, while the camps occupied civic space across time and space their symbolic position vacillated from the utopian to the catastrophic. Somehow Occupy Wall Street turned into a gripping horror story for National Geographic Channel. The emotion of interest and curiosity gave way to revulsion, paranoia and finally, antipathy. And ultimately, as the protesters in Oakland began an attempt to reclaim Frank Ogawa Plaza, some of their more militant tactics fell prey to an already unsympathetic mass media and provided fuel for a major public relations blows as images of black clad anarchists with shields and helmets circulated widely across the media. If OWS wanted to appeal to everyday Americans as a mass movement, this action had only made the gulf much much wider.

 

The question that should be posed before asking whether or not to embrace certain tactics of direct action should be, is a mass movement even capable of navigating the complexities of spectacular culture? When I hear people complain that direct action tactics of breaking windows is not effective, I feel this inner pain that this person pretends that somehow this is a movement that can be massaged so easily. As though, the entire multitude involved is going to somehow stay on message.

 

Whether or not everyone in the movement “behaves” is sort of beside the point. The cameras will continue to focus on the mediated images of buffoonery and irrational violence that confirms the alienated emotions of a broad based mediated public. Even if a movement behaves, undercovers can easily break a window or incite violence. A mass movement is vulnerable to these techniques no matter what it does. And ultimately, the major media is going to tell the story it wants to. It wasn’t breaking windows that had the media reporting on what a slum Zucotti had become. It wasn’t the Black Bloc that had the New York Times ignoring the story just a mile or so from their building.

 

Direct action is one critical strategy among many in getting media attention on a movement. Playing that game is a necessity but it is a fickle creature that will constantly turn on you. That is its very nature. But the occupying of space is of the utmost importance and continuing to assert basic demands in that pursuit is critical. Much has been said regarding the pros and cons of direct action, but the direct action of the police across the country in removing the movement from the squares is the ultimate set back. It is egregious. The movement was not unified by ideas as much as it was by space. By removing the spatial component of the equation, the powers that be have produced a landscape for in-fighting and second guessing. How to get the movement operating in space is the most critical question and it seems to be one that will be answered via direct action. It will require some media savvy-ness, but it will also require bodies in space. I sympathize with any of the occupations in their attempts to do so. It isn’t easy and it isn’t pretty. But it is a necessity.

 

As much as the spectacular life is a constant flow of emotions for consumption, it is undergirded by a contradiction of capitalism. Inequity is its modus operandi. By continuing to demand justice and economic equality, the movement will at least be unified in a subject that touches every person watching dismally from behind closed doors. Without forcing the issue in spatial terms, the movement will ever fall victim to the whims of a psychotic mediasphere determined to exaggerate, make fun of, or dismiss the basic demands that should seems so obvious. Catering to them may be a part of this movement as long as we all know that the media will betray us at every turn. They are a desperate for viewership and fueled by paranoiac consumption. The betrayal by major media should not be confused as losing the sympathy of the public. For the betrayal by major media is a foregone conclusion. We must act accordingly.

Learning from Chris Hedges

Learning from Chris Hedges

Much has been written regarding Chris Hedges article: The Cancer in the Occupy Movement. The article caught on like wildfire as it exacerbated the ever-nascent tensions between people in a movement who find the tactics of direct action abhorrent on multiple levels and those who are more militant. It suffices to say that if it was Hedges intention was to produce a measured discussion of the underlying concerns with provocateurs and the strategic efficacy of various forms of direct action and militancy, this article certainly failed in that regard. But instead of focusing on the issues this article claims to have raised, I am interested in how the existence of the article has provided a social litmus test for the movement as well. For within the article and the numerous debates on social networks, one realizes what a vast lacuna exists for many in the movement (not just Hedges) regarding what the actual social composition of protest culture is today. In addition, Hedges poorly written hatchet job on not only the Black Bloc but perhaps anarchism in general, demonstrated the problematics of letting recognizable left progressives speak on behalf of the movement.

I find the question of non-violence versus direct action beside the point. Obviously, it is a question worth asking in any movement. If Chris Hedges could have removed himself from the conspiracy of the Black Bloc for a second, he could have more articulately assessed what forms of direct action are useful in a broad based decentralized movement. It isn’t about rock throwing and window breaking but more about how to not let the major media use snapshots of violence to turn public opinion against the movement. This question is important and needs to be wrestled with (and it isn’t new).

But this discussion is happening. What became all the more apparent from the articles reception on social networks was how little was known about Black Bloc tactics. As I sifted through the comment sections of numerous arguments on the subject, I realized that his misunderstandings were more endemic to OWS itself. Many people in the OWS movement are clearly approaching the question of militancy and direct action for the first time. Hedges’s myopia frankly had company.

He has been phenomenal in excoriating the financial speculators on Wall Street and articulating how unregulated capital has decimated the public sector. But on the subject of the Black Bloc he sounded remarkably close to the kind of Fox News propagandistic fear mongering that he so vocally deplores. Having a prominent journalist off course when it comes to anarchists is nothing new. But what is new is that this is predominately an anarchist-inspired movement with prominent left wing spokespeople.

It would be one thing if Hedges spoke and the movement could all say, “this is crazy. We all know that people that use Black Bloc tactics are a variegated bunch many of whom don’t read John Zerzan or dismiss the Zapatistas. We realize generalizations about this are difficult and that they have, in many instances, been a very generative element in OWS and the alternative globalization movement.” But frankly, many people in OWS could only rely on Hedges’ veracity. No fact checkers in the world of web 2.0 certainly has its drawbacks. All these emotions and lack of historic specificity produced a deeply convoluted dialogue that became difficult to tease out. For activists that had worked through the alt-globalization protests a decade ago, anarchism and its various off shoots were familiar and comfortable ground (if not the most comfortable of all the various ideological and strategic positions). For those that haven’t, this kind of specter of a strange violent element of the Black Bloc quickly adopted Hedges’ problematic generalizations of hopped-up testosterone fueled middle class boys determined to ruin the movement in their own narcissistic nihilistic romantics.

So the question isn’t simply why was Chris Hedges so poorly informed, but perhaps, why is he speaking on the movement in the first place?  Why had I/we trusted him? Sure the Pulitzer Prize helps but that isn’t enough. In the realm of Facebook reposting, his talks on television and articles for prominent journals were compelling, well articulated and easy to spread. That sort of rapacity provides a sort of go-to team spirit until something like this article appears. Then all of a sudden one realizes that this person who has so poetically and articulately assaulted the aggregation of power has no experience with actual movement building. His entire approach has been one of a singular person speaking truth to power but in so doing, has never developed the skillsets of organizing with lots of people.

An adage of OWS that has come to be popular is: it is not a leaderless movement but a movement of leaders. It is one of those simple sayings that reflects an inner sort of logic of OWS. One of the central tenets of the consensus-based anarchist inspired methodologies at the center of OWS is that of destabilizing hierarchies. Not only structurally but in spirit as well, OWS is suspicious of leaders and spokespeople. There is a vast amount of reasonable concern regarding co-optation that one will find in any subcommittee. It is an integral part of the movement and wrestling with this tendency is not only what will set it apart from many other movements but will shape its formation in the years to come. It is both its strength and its most complicated hurdle.

As this movement tries to learn what makes it not only unique but how to adapt and work through its specific form, there are certain lessons that are being taught. The actions of Chris Hedges should be considered one of them. As the movement struggles to not jump at the microphone, certain prominent left leaning political personalities eagerly take centers stage. We can all recall the celebrity circus that emerged at the General Assemblies as famous folks arrived to something rather inspiring but not always that insightful. One can easily recall the inspiring speeches of Cornell West, Judith Butler, Slavoz Zizek, or Naomi Klein as they chanted from the center of a circle with the human microphone chanting their words. It seems to me that when it comes to the leaders of this leaderless movement, the default is the people in the beleaguered left pundit world that choose themselves.  The ones that skip the waiting time at the General Assembly are the ones that will get the microphone. The ones that show up at the demonstrations but also eagerly are interviewed on television for their positions on the movement. The ones that will write a report for the UK Guardian on how OWS is shaping up. The ones that already have institutional legitimacy.

While at times this can be a good thing (most of the people mentioned are extremely intelligent interesting people), as we found out with the poorly informed article by Chris Hedges, it can also be extremely problematic.  More often than not, the traditional left leaders have been disconnected from people’s movements for a long time. They do not know that this whole project has a deeply anarchist inspiration. They do not embody the paranoia of hierarchy or question their own relationship to privilege or power. They do not bother with whether they should or should not be speaking on behalf of a movement.

What Chris Hedges revealed in his article was how little he understood how damaging his own role in the movement had become. His critique was a disastrous move in the social ecology of the movement. It produced false enemies and hard line categories where complexity and empathy actually existed. Core organizers who were sympathetic with Black Bloc felt they were now being positioned as “the enemy” which only produced more animosity and made tensions higher. Hedges spoke from a position of ideas because that is all he is working with. We don’t need that. We need people to speak from a position of ideas mixed with a sympathy for people. This is a movement of people coming from radically different positions. Many people in the movement are aware of this. They are sympathetic to it. They want to make room to hear each other. They want to listen and not to scream. They truly want a leaderless movement.

It isn’t Chris Hedges fault. Not exactly. But people with large platforms should obviously stay away from generalizations. They should tread lightly and listen. They should question their own power and why they got where they are. The voice of this movement should abide by the rules of progressive stack in that voices that are typically marginalized should be privileged. But this isn’t something that can be decided by any meeting or gathering. OWS radically decentered and thus often in the space of stasis, the logic of action takes precedent. So in general we need those that speak less to speak up. The public presence of OWS would benefit from voices inside this movement who are sensitive to the issues of capital, who know how we got to where we are both historically, globally, nationally and locally, who can be reflexive in their questioning of power but not paralyzed, and who can speak truth to power strategically and empathetically. Yes, it is a tall order, but this is what the movement needs. It doesn’t need the voices of people out of touch with not only anarchism but how this is a global movement of numerous tactics trying to overthrow a vast consolidation of power and capital. To do so requires movement building and movements are about listening to everyone in it. It is about empathy and direct action. It is about strategy and it is about people. It is a new movement with new attributes. There is no cancer in the occupy movement but certainly turning the conspiracy inwards is a sign of someone needing to be gently moved off the microphone.

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