Thursday, March 1, 2012

Picturing Direct Action

On the dawn of December 10, 2011, after three months of occupation, the Boston police evicted the protesters from Dewey Square. In response occupiers made posters brandishing: “You can’t evict an idea.” They were right to underscore the power of ideas. Yet, they have come to realize that physical presence defined the radical nature of their call to direct action. The tents constituted a sore reminder of capitalist plunder and the injustices it brings forth in the otherwise sterile urban landscape. Occupiers liken the occupations of cities to an itch that cannot be soothed. Authorities act under the impression that the slap has removed the infection while it is just a matter of time before a new site will be occupied.

These pictures, taken at the Occupy Boston encampment on Dewey Square, are not intended to document the struggle for social justice (always imbued by discourses on rights subject to the approval of the state), but to join the action taken against the belief in endless progress that binds the logic of capital to the state. The pictures participate in the occupiers’ distribution of the sensible—to borrow Jacques Rancière’s expression—by shattering the illusion that capitalism and the state could be reformed. As a cultural anthropologist I have chosen to express myself through photography rather than through a conceptual analysis of ethnographic data.  These pictures seek to interrupt the languages of power, academic politics, and the state that have mastered the accommodation of social movements. They underscore the displacement of civil society by political society as argued by Partha Chatterjee and Raúl Zibechi. 

I liken the process of taking pictures to an “ethnographic flânerie,” an activity in which I combine participation, dream, contemplation, and critical thought. This approximation may seem odd since photography, in the history of anthropology, has often fulfilled the role of objectifying cultures. And yet through photography I dwell in the world. I seek to open vistas that contribute to the spirit of occupation rather than record the event. A world of forbidden, marginalized, and persecuted ideas emanate from my intimate relationship with the visible world. 

Rather than a story line, these pictures engage the aesthetics of protesting the corporate, fiscal, political, and capitalist class (the 1%).  They share the spirit denouncing the power that marginalizes large sectors of its own society while conducting “land grabs” in new geographical areas (e.g. Asia, Africa, Latin-America, ex-Soviet bloc, etc) in cooperation with national elites avid to benefit from the extraction of natural resources by multi-national corporations. Capitalism and the state cannot be reformed is a mantra voiced at the occupation sites. On the pictures one can see how the tents infect the façade of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. The call for the 99% conveys how the capitalist class can perpetuate its power only if the mass of people continues to labor under exploitative conditions, to give up their dignity, and to suffer environmental degradation. David Harvey has insistently argued that if the capitalist class and capitalism can survive temporally, it does not mean that it is predestinated to do so. The spirit of occupation materializes an opposition to irrational capital accumulation and the complacency of those in power. The Occupy Wall Street movement that has spread all over the United States (and abroad), surviving police violence and political repression, forebodes the beginning of a radical transformation of the real. In the opposition to the state and capital resides the possibility of living in a meaningful “world,” rather than in a “globe” or “land of exile,” to adopt Jean-Luc Nancy terms. 

Laurence Cuelenaere
Research Associate, Department of Anthropology, Harvard University

*Photographs shot with 35mm film and printed in wet darkroom.

Minimal Bibliography

Chatterjee, Partha.  2004.  The Politics of the Governed, Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World, Columbia University Press: New York.

Harvey, David.  2010.  The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism, Oxford University Press: Oxford, New York.

Nancy, Jean-Luc.  2001.  The Creation of the World or Globalization, Translated by F. Raffoul and D. Pettigrew, State University of New York Press: New York. 

Zibechi, Raul.  2011.  Política & Miseria, La Relación entrel el modelo extractivo, los planes sociales y los gobiernos progresistas, Lavaca: Buenos Aires. 

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