Thursday, March 1, 2012

Anthropology & Occupy

On September 17, 2011, largely in response to an Adbusters campaign and growing frustration with the state of affairs in the US economy, people flocked to Zuccotti Park to, tents in hand, to make their voices heard.  Similar movements around the US (and beyond) were soon to follow.  One thing is pretty clear: there were many different opinions about OWS, and plenty of disagreements.  Some people felt it was a necessary step to take to challenge the status quo, while others seemed to see it as a harbinger of disaster for US society.

If nothing else, OWS certainly garnered its fair share of attention, whether in the form of support, solidarity, derision, or outright counter-protest.  Searching for meaning in the midst of such a massive (and contentious) social movement is anything but simple.  Contemporaneous events are all the more difficult to analyze, understand, and assess.  So where to begin?  Well, here's the basic OWS summary from Wikipedia (apropos for an issue that deals with Open Access):
Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is a protest movement that began September 17, 2011 in Zuccotti Park, located in New York City's Wall Street financial district. The protests are against social and economic inequality, greed, corruption and the undue influence of corporations on government—particularly from the financial services sector. To effect change OWS uses "direct action" instead of petitioning authorities.[5]Their slogan, We are the 99%, addresses the growing income inequality and wealth distribution in the U.S. between the wealthiest 1% and the rest of the population. OWS was initiated by the Canadian activist group Adbusters and has led to Occupy protests and movements around the world.

For people who feel like they already know everything they need to know about OWS, or who have already heard enough, maybe that quick summary is enough.  It gets to the point.  What I'm wondering, though, is where all the anthropologists (who study these sorts of things) were during all of this.  Where were you, for example?  I can tell you pretty much exactly where I was on September 17, 2011: sitting in front of this very laptop, working on one or another draft of a grant proposal.

Like many graduate students, I was basically buried in the process of becoming an anthropologist, for better or worse.  Considering many of the concerns that OWS protesters voiced, my trapped-behind-the-computer-fate is somewhat a part of the problem.  What happens, after all, if everyone is "just too busy" to deal with a social and economic system that has basically run right off the track?  I'm not going to try to answer that.  Instead, I'll leave that question hanging and see if anyone picks it up.

Anyway, my experience of "OWS" was mediated through things like TV news, twitter, blogs, and Facebook.  Does this mean that I was completely disconnected?  Does it mean that I was just some passive observer, and no more?  Not really (and see Adam Fish's post a little later on).  At the same time, I wasn't exactly in the thick of things, even if I tried to follow along, read up, and see what was going on.

One of the issues that I saw with OWS was that it was so polarizing: for some people there was no middle ground.  They were either for it, or against it.  During the whole time I wondered about the people who found themselves somewhere in between.  I also wondered who, among those really active voices, had actually been to an OWS protest and seen how things were actually playing out on the ground (outside of the clips and sound bites on TV).  Sometimes "being there" is a good antidote to both unflinching idealism and unending criticism and cynicism.  And the idea of "being there" is part of anthropology's stock and trade.  So where were all the anthropologists?

Well, that's a good question.  For the rest of this post, I am going to do a sort of informal, online review of some of the anthropological reactions to OWS.  Keep in mind the fact that this is a pretty cursory look at what anthropologists were doing and saying in relation to OWS.  But it's a start.  If you have more links, citations, or suggestions, definitely post them in the comments section.  Or email them to me.  So let's get started.

Stand up!  "Occupy Wall Street"  by VBlessNYC (CC BY-ND 2.0)
For anyone who paid attention to the role of anthropology in OWS, you know that one person above all the rest had the most active voice and presence (especially as someone who was constantly referred to as an anthropologist).  That person is David Graeber.  He was all over this thing--and he wasn't just writing about it from some comfortable office chair at a university...he was clearly in the midst of what was going on (although there may have been comfortable chairs involved at some point, I'm not sure about that).  The interesting thing about Graeber's role in OWS is that he was as much (if not more) of a participant as he was an anthropologist.  He was more like an anthropologist who was taking part in OWS, rather than an anthropologist who was sitting outside of OWS with a clipboard assessing the social meaning of the event from afar.  So it's pretty safe to say that his involvement was pretty deep.  Here's a selection from a piece he wrote for Naked Capitalism that provides some background and history about the initial formation of the protests:
On August 2, I showed up at a 7 PM meeting at Bowling Green, that a Greek anarchist friend, who I’d met at a recent activist get together at 16 Beaver Street, had told me was meant to plan some kind of action on Wall Street in mid-September. At the time I was only vaguely aware of the background: that a month before, the Canadian magazine Adbusters had put out the call to “Occupy Wall Street”, but had really just floated the idea on the internet, along with some very compelling graphics, to see if it would take hold; that a local anti-budget cut coalition top-heavy with NGOs, unions, and socialist groups had tried to take possession of the process and called for a “General Assembly” at Bowling Green. The title proved extremely misleading.
The piece is interesting because it's equal parts history, personal experience, opinion, and analysis.  Definitely worth reading through--and this includes the comments section as well which has a range of reactions (understatement).  He posted a piece on Daily Kos that gives some background as well.  For more about the political and philosophical roots of OWS (at least according to Graeber), check this out

To keep on with the Graeber theme, Greg Downey wrote a piece for Neuroanthropology called "David Graeber: anthropologist, anarchist, financial analyst."  This post has tons of links, video, you name it.  Downey provides a lot of background on Graeber, and a discussion of his work and ideas.  Speaking about Graeber's work, Downey writes:
...anthropological research like Graeber’s can offer a kind of evidence-based idealism, a utopianism that’s hard headed and founded firmly in observations of diverse communities, not contrived in a sheltered cloister or from untested principles. When apologists for our own current situation offer excuses or tell us that we shouldn’t seek greater justice, equity or governance, because ‘It can’t be any other way but the way it is,’ anthropological research can show that this is not the case.  Perhaps few other areas of contemporary life beg for this reality-based imagination more than economic activity.
And this:
Graeber doesn’t just offer us critique or the threat of chaos; his work shows how anarchism and alternative systems, not only can be imagined, but in fact exist around us, in distant times and places but sometimes quite close to home. This hard-headed, evidence-based idealism is a crucial resource in anthropology and an essential foil to our critical mission. Graeber and other commentators close to social movements like the Wall Street Occupation aren’t just arguing from a basis of vague principles; they are often presenting alternative models, some of which anthropologists know well through the kind of wide-ranging, first-hand field research that is a hallmark of our field.   
On October 19, 2011, Jason Antrosio posted "Anthropology and Occupy Wall Street" on his site Living Anthropologically.  He starts off by acknowledging the work of Downey and Daniel Lende at Neuroanthropology, and then jumps into his own thoughts and reactions about OWS.  He admits that he was initially ambivalent about OWS.  Here are two reasons why:
First, I was unsure of the parallels to the Arab Spring–although these tactics seem appropriate for dictatorial regimes, do they make sense in electoral democracies? Second, I was perhaps taken in by the mainstream media portrayal of a lack of coherent message, and even some proponents seemed to say the message was “against greed.”
Yet this initial ambivalence did not hold:
That said, Occupy Wall Street can answer both of these objections. To the first, although the United States is technically an electoral democracy, an entrenched plutocracy dominates most political decisions. To the second, it is also the case that what we have seen in recent decades is a complete overturning of the “ethics of capitalism” in which greed and realizing short-term profit at any cost threatens the very capitalist system that makes such profits possible.
Adam Fish from Savage Minds posted "The Public Sphere of Occupy Wall Street" on October 30, 2011.  He uses and challenges Jurgen Habermas's ideas about the public sphere in order to rethink notions of participation and resistance at OWS.  Here's one selection where he highlights an important issue about media and activism:
For most of us too busy (in our non-market activities) to be sleeping at the various liberation parks around the nation and globe, we know the Occupy Movement as #occupywallstreet, or #occupyla. It is something we know less through the experience of inhabiting a space in protest but more as something known through sitting at home and engaging with social media. For others, we know the Occupy Movement through cable television news–Fox, MSNBC, CNN, or Current. Cable television is a networked communication technology with specific cultures of consumption. Unlike those reading about Occupy through Twitter and its hashtag #occupywallstreet, cable news viewers have few options of engaging with the material through the media itself. Habermas, who correctly prioritizes two-way, dialogic engagement over top-down listening, thinks this form of political mediation expressed by cable news is part of the problem of democracy—passivity and propaganda.
But, as Fish points out, we should not simply assume that people are passive recipients of media.  He writes: "Habermas misses the point of active cultures of consumption and how information can lead to action."  This is where the idea of a media ecology, which seeks to explore the wider connections of media, power, information, and action, helps to move away from static assumptions about the role that media can play in our political lives. 

Now, technically David Harvey is a geographer, but since he is currently at the anthropology department at CUNY, I think I can add him here.  On October 28, 2011 he wrote an essay called "The Party of Wall Street Meets its Nemesis."  Who or what is this nemesis?  Read on:
But now, for the first time, there is an explicit movement to confront The Party of Wall Street and its unalloyed money power. The “street” in Wall Street is being occupied—oh horror upon horrors—by others! Spreading from city to city, the tactics of Occupy Wall Street are to take a central public space, a park or a square, close to where many of the levers of power are centered, and by putting human bodies there convert public space into a political commons, a place for open discussion and debate over what that power is doing and how best to oppose its reach. This tactic, most conspicuously re-animated in the noble and on-going struggles centered on Tahrir Square in Cairo, has spread across the world (Plaza del Sol in Madrid, Syntagma Square in Athens, now the steps of Saint Paul’s in London as well as Wall Street itself). It shows us that the collective power of bodies in public space is still the most effective instrument of opposition when all other means of access are blocked.
Harvey ends the essay with a provocative question: "Whose side will each of us as individuals come down on? Which street will we occupy?"   

Harvey, Graeber, and numerous others are listed in a piece on the Berkeley Journal of Sociology website called "Understanding the Occupy Movement: Perspectives from the Social Sciences."  There are lots of links here to work from anthropologists and many others.  There's one more from this site that I want to highlight: it's an article from the OWS Gazzette by Christopher Herring and Zoltan Gluck called "The Homeless Question."  This piece raises important questions about power, exclusion, and participation even within a movement that seeks to advocate justice and equality.  The essay starts off by describing a conflict between a homeless man and some of the Occupy protesters.  The man was supposedly sent to the encampment at Zucotti Park by local police, and for that reason the protesters wanted him out.  If he wasn't "part of the movement" then some felt he didn't belong.  In response to this incident, Herring and Gluck write: 
This encounter conveys the challenges that lie ahead in relations between the Occupy Movement and chronically homeless, who have been present since its inception.  Based on our own observations, it appears that the general exclusion of the homeless from public life has already begun to take root in the Occupy Movement as a way of establishing legitimate occupation against mere homelessness.  When these troubling discourses lead us to a roughshod political calculus of whether the homeless "deserve" to be a part of the movement, they threaten to reproduce existing forms of structural violence and exclusion within the heart of the movement (22-23).
These authors bring up critical points that are well worth consideration, especially for those who accept overly simplistic narratives about what OWS "means" in a general sense.  Through the details of experience, and "being there," these authors expose contradictions that rupture some of the utopian discourses that frame some Occupy narratives.

Speaking of "being there," Chris Garces wrote a fantastic, detailed piece for Somatosphere on October 27, 2011 called "Preamble to an Ethnography of the People's Mic."  Here are the opening lines of the essay:
I am not afraid to confess feeling swept, against my will, into the whirlpool of news coverage from Zuccotti Park.  To begin with, initial media reports on Occupy Wall Street seemed almost proudly negligent in their characterizations of protesters’ manifold and serious grievances with the state of this country.  While New York Times protest reporters N.R. Kleinfeld and Cara Buckley claimed, for example, that “[t]heir politics zigzag wildly,” it was rather the corporate news coverage that found itself profoundly disoriented, and lashing out confusedly, when face-to-face with an event of undeniable political renascence.  If journalists weren’t branding the occupiers a bunch of latte-sipping Ivy Leaguers, with their high-end laptops and pda devices, they were being summarily dismissed as unproductive anarchist elements, new-age idealists, the deliberately unwashed or the serially unemployed.
Read this piece for some of the experiential details, but also for the background and discussion about the history and use of the social/communicative phenomenon known as "The People's Mic."  A selection that explores some of the background:
But People’s Mic as a technology of speech should not be defined as Occupy Wall Street’s own private or autochthonous invention, either; the historical similarities with other forms of message-carrying and political communication are simply too many to be ignored.  The tactic was frequently used last decade among protest groups who found themselves hounded by police or kettled into separate areas—allowing groups who are violently segregated to speak to one another in spite of their distance or separation.  A modified version of this tactic, more akin to the game of telegraph, was also used when marchers needed their voices projected up or down their ranks.  Amongst encampments of the indignados in Spain, the People’s Mic was quickly deployed and then abandoned as the movement to protest the country’s draconian national debt-restructuration models swelled and diminished last summer. 
Read the rest, especially how Garces develops and explores the use of this system in OWS.  I also think that the point he raises above--that this is not unique to OWS--is important to keep in mind.  While many people may have never heard of this practice before these protests, it's interesting and important to provide context and talk about where they came from.  This helps people to understand the connections and histories that exist between various social movements--they don't just spring from nowhere.

Robert R. Sauders wrote a piece for Anthrpology News called "Occupy Wall Street; Occupy the World" that looks at how the OWS movement radiated out from the US to other parts of the world.  He writes:
Based on analysis of social networks, specifically Facebook and MeetUp, the map below reveals the distribution of Occupy groups across the globe. Presently there are 826 Occupy groups organized in the United States and 352 organized in other parts of the world.   Canada (50), Germany (48) and the United Kingdom (38) have the highest number of Occupy groups outside the United States; however, other countries, such as Albania, Bangladesh, Chile, Dominican Republic, Israel, Jordan, Malaysia, Namibia, Sri Lanka, Turkey and Taiwan, have also seen the rise of local OWS groups. The spread of OWS is continuing as activists make common cause and form bonds of solidarity with social protest movements at work in other parts of the world (e.g. anti-austerity movements in Greece, ‘Arab Spring’ movements in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, social justice protests in Israel).
Click on the link above to see the map he refers to.  What's interesting about this is how Sauders seeks to map out the interconnections between various Occupy-inspired movements in space.  Since OWS was originally inspired by the whole Arab Spring in places like North Africa, I think it would be pretty fascinating to create more graphic/geographic representations of those activities, and how they connect (or don't) with the movements that started up in the US (i.e. how they connect literally, or thematically, or maybe through twitter conversations--there would be lots of interesting way to try to map this out).  I am sure someone has done this--let me know if you have any examples.

The last piece I want to highlight was posted on the Society for Linguistic Anthropology site.  It's an opinion essay in the New York Times by H. Samy Alim called "What if We Occupied Language?"  Alim explores some of the histories and various semantic meanings of the term "occupy," and then discusses some contemporary ways in which it could be marshaled for other socio-political uses:
What if we transformed the meaning of occupy yet again? Specifically, what if we thought of Occupy Language as more than the language of the Occupy movement, and began to think about it as a movement in and of itself? What kinds of issues would Occupy Language address? What would taking language back from its self-appointed “masters” look like?  We might start by looking at these questions from the perspective of race and discrimination, and answer with how to foster fairness and equality in that realm.
The ultimate point of the essay is that meaning and language not only matter, but they can also be primary drivers in campaigns of change and action.  The final lines: "As the global Occupy movement has shown, words can move entire nations of people—even the world—to action. Occupy Language, as a movement, should speak to the power of language to transform how we think about the past, how we act in the present, and how we envision the future."  Now go back and read the rest.

Ok, it's about time to wrap this up.  As I said at the outset, this is just a cursory look at what's out there when it comes to anthropology and the Occupy Movements.  Surely there is more--and please feel free to share your links and citations in the comments section.  My main question here, at the end, is what role anthropology can play in understanding complex, contradictory, and contested social movements like this.  What can anthropologists tell us about what happened?  What perspectives can they add that differ from the sound bites and short clips on the six o'clock news?  I am also really fascinated with the question of participation--should anthropologists actively take part in these sorts of movements?  If so, to what extent?  Where is the line?  Is there a clear division between participation and observation?  Undoubtedly, many people will disagree about the proper role of anthropology in all of this--but that's part of what makes things interesting.  One way or another, what I do know is that these kinds of contemporary social currents clearly provide rich and poignant territory for anthropological perspectives, debates, and explorations.


Ryan Anderson said...

Ok, here's one source to add: The Journal of Occupied Studies < >

Came across this thanks to the twitter feed of the Social Science Research Council @SSRC_org

John said...

Congratulations to Ryan and all of the authors. You have created an historic document. They critical question is, of course, the one that Ryan raises, "What happens, after all, if everyone is "just too busy" to deal with a social and economic system that has basically run right off the track?"

Has anyone written about how "just too busy" functions as a mechanism keeping the current regime in place — and not only in academic publishing?

Ryan Anderson said...

Hi John,

Thanks for your comment. Sorry for taking a while to reply...had some internet access issues for a while (talk about some basic issues with the whole 'open access' debate). Anyway, I think that question about being "too busy" is a big one...and I think you're right that this can act as a mechanism to keep the current regime plugging along. At some point, I guess, we are going to have to shift our priorities and find some time to deal with some of these things head on.

Thanks again for your comment.

Todd S. said...


Arguably, that is exactly what the mass production/consumption economy is intended to do: keep us too "occupied" to worry about what's going on outside our own limited viewpoints.