Occupy: Three Inquiries in Disobedience

Occupy: Three Inquiries in Disobedience


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Mic check! Mic check! Lacking amplification in Zuccotti Park, Occupy Wall Street protestors addressed one another by repeating and echoing speeches throughout the crowd. In Occupy, W. J. T. Mitchell, Bernard E. Harcourt, and Michael Taussig take the protestors’ lead and perform their own resonant call-and-response, playing off of each other in three essays that engage the extraordinary Occupy movement that has swept across the world, examining everything from self-immolations in the Middle East to the G8 crackdown in Chicago to the many protest signs still visible worldwide.
“You break through the screen like Alice in Wonderland,” Taussig writes in the opening essay, “and now you can’t leave or do without it.” Following Taussig’s artful blend of participatory ethnography and poetic meditation on Zuccotti Park, political and legal scholar Harcourt examines the crucial difference between civil and political disobedience. He shows how by effecting the latter—by rejecting the very discourse and strategy of politics—Occupy Wall Street protestors enacted a radical new form of protest. Finally, media critic and theorist Mitchell surveys the global circulation of Occupy images across mass and social media and looks at contemporary works by artists such as Antony Gormley and how they engage the body politic, ultimately examining the use of empty space itself as a revolutionary monument.
Occupy stands not as a primer on or an authoritative account of 2011’s revolutions, but as a snapshot, a second draft of history, beyond journalism and the polemics of the moment—an occupation itself.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226042749
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/23/2013
Series: TRIOS Series
Pages: 152
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

W. J. T. Mitchell is the Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor of English and Art History at the University of Chicago and editor of Critical Inquiry.

Bernard E. Harcourt is Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law at Columbia Law School and the director of the Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought. 

Michael Taussig is the Class of 1933 Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University. He is the author of several books, including The Corn Wolf and Beauty and the Beast, both published by the University of Chicago Press. 

Read an Excerpt



By W.J.T. Mitchell, BERNARD E. Harcourt, MICHAEL Taussig

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2013The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-04288-6




Michael Taussig


I have inserted the signs in Zuccotti Park as set-apart quotations in the center of the page. And sometimes I have also inserted quotes from texts by philosophers, poets, and other people worth listening to. They, too, look like signs. I don't think you will confuse them, but it's better if you do.


Nietzsche says somewhere that a historian has to create a text equal to what is being written about. This would seem especially compelling when it comes to Occupy Wall Street.

In The Gay Science, Nietzsche has a paragraph, "To Destroy Only as Creators," which I take to mean a demand not for "positive critique," but that we be aware of how description and analysis of an event is a culture-creating activity, and write accordingly.

Coming back to this text of mine six months after it was written is like visiting a strange and fabulous land. I imagine it will be the same for you.

Wall St is everywhere therefore we have to occupy everywhere

11:00 P.M., OCTOBER 13, 2011

On my way downtown to Occupy Wall Street, Zuccotti Park, New York City. Flustered and excited. E-mails coming in from Yesenia, and from Michelle and Alex in my sorcery and magic class at Columbia. They should be writing their weekly assignments for school. They are so far behind. But this is the night the mayor will attack. I stop by the bagel store to tell this to my Mexican friend who serves behind the counter. He is counting money and is preoccupied. He has never heard of OWS and he tries to look interested. My canvas bag is stuffed with sleeping bags for Saa and myself. Long wait for the #1 train. Unbearable. Alex says rumors of police closing in at midnight. Danny Alonso, also in my sorcery class, once compared visiting Zuccotti Park—which he did all the time from day one—to the excitement of going to the movies and getting into the trance of that other reality. You get hooked, he later wrote. "I would be hypnotized and turned into someone else." In fact, many selves. A drumming self. A facilitator self. A hunting and gathering self roaming Manhattan for tarpaulins and food from dumpsters to bring the tribe, listening to stories "and healing from people who had come from all over to share in this moment." Many of these people had lost their jobs.

Lost my job but found an occupation

You break through the screen, like Alice in Wonderland. And now you can't leave or do without it. Everything else seems fake and boring. So how do you write about it? In such circumstances of dissolving norms, effervescent atmosphere, invention and reinvention, what happens to the ethnographer's magic—as Malinowski called it—and that old standby of "participant observation?"

And is the magic strong enough?

Am I clear here? I don't think so, and I think this is the problem of writing surprise and writing strangeness, surely the dilemma and sine qua non of ethnography? As soon as you write surprise—or, rather, attempt to write it—it is as if the surprise has been made digestible so it is no longer surprising, no longer strange. To "occupy ethnography" is to get around that somehow, to seize on the means and manner of representation as estranged. An exuberant style is not enough. That is why I so much like the zombie-style bodies and faces of the sign holders who populate Zuccotti Park, graven images outside time.

Welcome to Hakim Bey's Temporary Autonomous Zone. I recall Paris, May 1968: people said they lived in that zone for months, didn't sleep, didn't need to. Out of nowhere a community forms, fueled by the unforeseen chance to fight back. Decades drift away. Decades of Fox News and Goldman Sachs. Decades of gutting what was left of the social contract. Decades in which kids came to think being a banker was sexy. When that happens, you know it's all over—or about to explode, as once again history throws a curveball. Once in a lifetime, the unpredictable occurs and reality gets redefined.

The most striking sign I have seen at Zuccotti Park over three months was a life-size painting of a man's striped tie on a white background. The tie was knotted to form a circle at the top like a hangman's noose. Wordless. Next to it was a sign with blotchy patches of white over some of the letters:

They piss on us and call it trickle down

America wakes up from the American Dream. "I've been waiting for this all my life," says Craig, who stayed with me overnight from California with naught but a backpack on his way to Zuccotti Park.

I awoke in a sweat from the American Dream

"At night we lie all together on the concrete," writes Alex, "a few sleeping, the rest talking in low voices, or reading next to the street lights, or cursing the constant sirens that we are certain the NYPD sends around the park at night just to keep us poorly rested and easily dominated, or looking through the thin canopy of leaves between the dark towers and the sky. The first morning we all agreed that we felt as if those buildings would fall in on us.

"Dear WB," she goes on, "maybe OWS is something like that awakening that is between sleep and consciousness. We are emerging from slumber but we are disoriented, stupored, caught between the dream logic of capitalism and the newly forming world."

"Dear WB." How blessed is that? She is writing code, of course—direct from the state of emergency. She is searching the zone of the dialectical image that Walter Benjamin envisaged as emerging from the dream sleep of capitalism that reactivated mythic powers. Just as one swims in the surreal zone of semisleep as harbinger of revolution, so does the epoch. Does the new security state understand and believe this too, along with Walter? Why else would they walk silently through the park at night, filming the sleepers?

you must be asleep to experience the American Dream

Salomeya put it a little differently. She has a theory, as usual. Working out of the sense of the body and magic she finds in Malinowski's discussions of clan and sub-clan solidarity and sorcery, she discerns a form of human bonding relevant to OWS that she calls "erotic materialism." It is a brilliant rereading of classical anthropology applied as much to Zuccotti Park as to aforesaid dream sleep mythology. (Now she tells me she suffers from being too abstract, but there's little she can do about it.)

But the lines get blurred. Solidarity gets tested. As time goes by, it is said that undercover police roam the park disguised as protesters. (Question: What does a protester look like?) It is said that homeless people are being directed by the police and shelters to go to Zuccotti Park in the hope that they will dilute and factionalize the occupation. The ideals of the radical hipsters from Brooklyn with their web-savvy culture are being tested like never before by these homeless men who seem uninterested in what the hipsters stand for, yet the whole point of OWS is homelessness. As time goes by—horror of horrors!—something like property and real estate interests surface. Someone quips that there is an Upper East Side section of tents in the park, and one hears muttering of gentrification, as if this utopic space is reproducing what it is against.

We just bought real estate in your mind

It is said that there are rapes and stealing, and there certainly is stealing. Craig got all his stuff swiped after he left for half an hour to wash up in the bathroom of Trinity Church.

I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other Jay Gould

I walk out of the subway at Fulton Street into the canyons of Wall Street, Fritz Lang's Metropolis of soaring towers holding up a black sky heavy with rain clouds, workers in cages like moles—no speech (1927), only cryptic subtitles and madly gesticulating figures with pasty white expressionist faces caught in frozen grimace. Police cars and vans are everywhere around the park and secreted in back alleys.

Down on the ground it is a war zone crackling with expectancy. But overhead, Freedom Tower, sheathed in mirrors, dwarfs everything, glistening with blue light. What did Benjamin say in "This Space for Rent" in One Way Street, that other OWS published as the fuse was being lit in Europe, in 1928, one year after Metropolis:

What, in the end, makes advertisements superior to criticism? Not what the moving red neon says—but the fiery pool reflecting it in the asphalt

You take a deep breath when you get there, and you can't breathe again until you leave. It is devastatingly spectacular and inhuman: the architecture of what Marx called M-M', meaning money making money, meaning finance capital, of which credit default swaps are the ultimate expression of the moneylenders Christ drove from the temple.

Is this what occupation of the park means—a moral movement against the exploitation of people not only by the moneylenders, but by the apparently neutral means of money doing it all on its own, meaning M-M'? Does the occupation occupy the magical energy of this fetish, and from this abundant source draw its energy?

Wall Street is forbiddingly allegorical. Fritz Lang provides a frightening topography of heaven and hell, of our Metropolis. But, closer to home, so did Diego Rivera in 1931, during the Great Depression, with his painting Fondos Congelados (Frozen Assets), showing the serene temples of Manhattan as an archaelogical stratum atop a dimly lit subterranean morgue with corpses laid out in rows, supervised by a lonely guard. Perhaps they are not corpses, you say to yourself, but merely sleeping bodies. These are the "frozen assets": the unemployed laid out like corpses in prisonlike dwellings, bringing to mind the notion of capital as "congealed labor." It is a terrible picture. You could hear a pin drop.

But now, miraculously, with the occupation in full swing, the picture had come alive as the architecture of M-M' lost its grip. We looked at each other eye-to-eye in those days, never quite knowing what the next enchanted moment would bring. We were bigger than the buildings, and instead of being physically compressed and mentally scripted, like the poor bastards in the offices all around us, we lived moment by moment, sparks flying from a knife grinder's wheel.

Even if Zuccotti was barren in winter as I wrote this, rarely did a day pass without mention in the media of OWS or the huge gap between the rich and the rest. The day I passed Zuccotti Park in mid-January, the mothers of girls in private schools of the Upper East Side, like Spence and Brearley, were reported in the New York Times as bemoaning the fact that, for the first time ever, their daughters had not gotten into Yale on early admission. Was that because of anger at the 1 percent? they wondered. That same day I passed a hole-in-the-wall restaurant uptown on Amsterdam Avenue and 102nd Street called Busters of New York. On a blackboard outside was displayed its menu:

Wrap: "Occupy the Dream"

Down the street from Zuccotti Park, the Museum of the American Indian. Right by the park, an African slave burial ground. How extraordinary! And right here in Zuccotti Park, many black protesters. But amid the hustle and bustle of the streets, does anyone notice that the center of the world's money—what makes this city so "global"—rests on top of skeletons of African slaves and ghosts of Indians, no doubt shaking wampum and featherwork. It is all so arty now, like Julie Mehretu's gorgeous five-million-dollar, eighty-foot-long mural adorning the glass-walled lobby of the new Goldman Sachs building along the Hudson, not so far away. They so want art, the 1 percent. Man does not live by bread alone. And art is a great—many say the greatest—investment in these troubled times. Three days before the occupation is forcibly ended by the baton-wielding NYPD, art shows its power:

As Stocks Fall Art Surges at a $315 Million Sale

Despite (or perhaps because of) the stock market's nearly 400 point plunge on Wednesday, collectors on Wednesday night raced to put their available cash–and lots of it—into art

(New York Times, November 10, 2011)

But try to be a young artist impassioned by art—something you could die for—if you don't have a trust fund and your parents aren't rich with connections in the art world. I dare you. The humiliation. The slime. The eating away of self-confidence. Do anything, anything at all, to survive. The heart-rending questions: What is art? Why that, and not this?

A little further uptown, where prostitutes practiced their art and hoary truckers got laid, where the smell of rancid fat from the meat packing district used to be, now you have the lovely "high line" of swaying grasses along the abandoned railway tracks, the capstone of gentrification from which you can peer down into boutique stores and forget that Manhattan has become unlivable for most people. What are all those smart people talking about in those chic restaurants? "Ultimately what Zuccotti Park is all about," Reinhold tells me (and he should know, urban planner that he is), "is real estate." What he means is that the occupation is testing the limits of monetarized space. So what we have is

real estate finance capital art and now OWS (another form of art)

Man does not live by bread alone. They so need art, the 1 percent. But so does OWS. This is not only a struggle about income disparity and corporate control of democracy. It is about the practice of art, too, including the art of being alive.

History congeals, then dissolves; and somehow art always ends up being art. When some OWS-inspired people dropped a banner inside the Museum of Modern Art in support of the art handlers locked out of Sotheby's, MOMA people quickly appropriated the banner as art.

History congeals, then dissolves. The chiseled stone of the older Wall Street buildings gives way to mirrored buildings fighting free of history on postmodern wings. Money helps. Night and day, the crescendo of jackhammers obliterates time itself. Cranes lace the sky, adding new constellations. "All that is solid melts into air." The Communist Manifesto. Marshall Berman, "the bourgeoisie has a vested interest in destruction." But one day it will go too far. Marx and the Wobblies, giving birth to the new society in the womb of the old. Dreams of the classless society. Tomb and womb. Space of death. Indians with the ghost dance. Starting up again. "Fellow slave" is how the Wobblies addressed each other. Fellow slave. A sign on the pavement:

Nobody is more hopelessly enslaved than those who believe they are free

I look in heaps of garbage for plastic bags to cover us if we try to get some sleep. Huge white plastic bags outside Starbucks look usable. Homeless woman asleep in a doorway, wrapped in a enormous black plastic bag. Right idea. Slight drizzle. Warm. Get to the park. A crazy-looking guy walks by with a sign:

We are the future We are going to win

He is dragging a white dog. He is ready to fight, but his forked fingers mean peace. Some people are ripping open plastic bags. The "human microphone," which everyone spells as "mic check" but is pronounced "mike check," is in full swing, explaining civil disobedience and what to do when arrested. I hook up with my students and with Saa. Magic markers are passed around, for writing the telephone number of the Lawyers' Guild on one's skin. Rain is getting heavier. We are being encouraged to clean the park, which seems absurd to me, because that validates the mayor's excuse for dealing with protesters, as vermin that need extermination ... time and again, the unclean, the disorderly, the un-uniformed, the un-uniform. And let's not forget the worst, the anarchists, as much vilified by the police as by Marx and Engels.

We all know where the real dirt is

"It has to be cleaned up," the "chief executive" (note the nomenclature) of the management company overseeing the park is reported as saying. The billionaire mayor's girlfriend is on the board of the company that owns the park, and the mayor (according to the New York Times, October 15, 2011) "is a mayor obsessed with the cleanliness of the city's public spaces." Later we hear that the management company is way behind in paying its taxes to the city. There are brooms and soap galore, and here I am with a broom, side-by-side with a merry fellow in a Santa Claus outfit leading the crew. A woman starts up a mic check.


Excerpted from OCCUPY by W.J.T. Mitchell. Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Preface, W. J. T. Mitchell....................     vii     

I'M SO ANGRY I MADE A SIGN Michael Taussig....................     3     

POLITICAL DISOBEDIENCE Bernard E. Harcourt....................     45     

IMAGE, SPACE, REVOLUTION The Arts of Occupation W. J. T. Mitchell........     93     

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