Culture, Politics, Uncategorized

Occupy the language

Photo credit: Jeffrey H. Campagna
x-posted to Justice in the City
One young man in Zuccoti Park in New York, part of the Occupy Wall Street encampment, holds up a sign which boldly declares: “We’re here, we’re unclear, get used to it.” This tongue in cheek message gets to the heart of what is uncomfortable for many in the media and the chattering class about the Occupy movement (OWS and its many many offshoots in all major American cities and many cities around the world). There is an expected, almost ritual nature to American political discourse. There are critiques, followed by demands, supported by emotional anecdotes and statistics, followed by the suggestion of legislative remedies. The chattering class then gets to work vetting these remedies on two levels. First, and most important, is the “horse race” analysis. The political climate will not allow this or the votes are there but only if the opposing party will compromise on this. And so on and so forth. Somewhere farther down, or on the inside pages, the wonks get to work dissecting the numbers. Within a week at most (usually a news cycle), its all old news. Nothing has changed. Perhaps a catch phrase has been added to the stump speech of this or that candidate.
It is very frustrating when a large group of Americans peacefully assemble to air their grievances without participating in these tried and true rituals. When they do not attempt to position themselves behind a candidate or leverage a powerful constituency, but, rather display their disaffection without feeling the need to issue bullet points which any politician or pundit could easily digest and regurgitate. And then they stick around. For a long time. And they do not feel the pressure of the news cycle to make decisions or appoint telegenic spokespeople. They just put up tents, hold long meetings which need to reach a consensus for a decision, put themselves in danger by reclaiming public space and using non-violence as a trigger and a weapon to reveal the repressive reflexes of the financial and political elites. It is maddening.
I would suggest that what is going on, intentionally and unintentionally, is a massive project of rethinking the language, of redefining central terms of our vocabulary. This is a somewhat glacial enterprise which is also, at times baffling. Its been done before. Those efforts also met with resistance and lack of comprehension by those in power (“the 1%”).
First, though, I must digress. In 1961 a fifty six year old French Jewish philosopher by the name of Emmanuel Levinas  published a book—a very important though very dense, turgid, even at times opaque book—whose stated purpose was to redefine our philosophical vocabulary so war could not be thought, let alone waged.
Levinas argued that the problem with the western philosophical tradition to his day was that it could not really define or analyze or understand the most important and urgent object of philosophical analysis—another person. The reason for this failure was that philosophy traditionally used categories of thought in order to analyze any and all “objects”—animate and inanimate, people or tables. When I gather information about the world, I categorize it by species and difference. A person is like an animal but it talks. You are like my friend Ralph but you are a woman and way smarter. However, here is the problem. Levinas points out that this is not actually describing another person. What is going on here is that I am putting the other person—Ralph or Emily—into the categories that I have already constructed in my mind. I am not thinking about you as much as I am thinking about me. The basic fact of another person is that they are just that—“other.” Being other means that they are beyond my grasp. I cannot ever completely know another person. Moreover, meeting another person disturbs my very complacency with the way I am in the world—wandering here and there, gathering information, knowing stuff, incorporating all that stuff into my intellectual categories and thereby, in a sense, acquiring more and more of the world through knowing it. When I meet another person this whole paradigm blows up. I have a revelation: I don’t know anything beyond me, therefore I don’t, can’t know you. Once humbled by this revelation, a second revelation follows immediately upon this first one: the only action that I can take in relation to another person is to respond to their needs. I cannot gather them into my growing storehouse of knowledge, because another person is radically different. It is this radical difference which reveals to me that I may not harm this other person and the only interaction that I may have is to respond to him or serve her needs or try to heal their wounds.
Okay, so this is not what happens on an everyday basis as we are walking on the mean streets of our beloved megalopolises—Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Oakland and on. However, that is because we are not seeing the other person as other. We are seeing them as ourselves. “Oh, I know that type.” “I know what she’s going to say.” “I know what he’s going to do.” This is a bit confusing because we are taught to think that the way to get beyond hatred is not to think of somebody as other. Aren’t we all the same?!
Levinas’ most powerful insight is exactly this: each person is radically different and cannot be fully grasped by the preconceived categories that I store in my mind, and therefore is not interchangeable with other people that I already have stored in my mind. This makes life difficult. How would the pollsters ever be able to tell us that 74% of consumers like the SUV with 12 cupholders better than the one with 9 cupholders but an extra apartment in the rear, if they had to actually see each person as an individual? This would be even more challenging for the general who wanted to capture the hill and knew that there would be 7% percent casualties. Would he be able to give the order if instead of thinking of a mass of interchangeable soldiers who are cogs in a massive machine, he thought of each soldier as a person with their own families and narratives and desires. How would we be able to tell a coherent narrative of heroism if the overriding focus was not on the narrative which sweeps us all together? If each person was recognized in their infinite complexity, the machine would grind to a halt. Every person would be recognized as being the focus of a narrative, rather than the extra who can get blown up as the opening credits for the latest Bruce Willis flik roll across the screen. The more we focus on the complexity and difference of each person, the less we can see all people as a mass of indistinguishable statistics. We begin to see each individual as singular, as someone to whom I must respond and must nor harm. I slowly begin to distinguish the cashier from the cash register. I recognize the infinite demand for justice in the face of the homeless guy sitting on the park bench and also in the face of the banker who blithely walks past him. If we truly begin to see, we will not be able to mobilize people as cogs in a machine for the purposes of war—or for any purpose which makes of unique individuals an indistinguishable mass of humanity.
Once we begin to recognize the infinite worth of another person, the rationale behind the sentiment that we are fighting a war so there will be peace falls apart. The narrative which ends in peace, that will make sense of all the lives lost in the wars, is deconstructed by the infinitely complex narrative of each person involved in those wars. A narrative which equally focuses on every character loses all coherence. This is the point. It is the other person who is worthwhile, not the narrative. When the vocabulary of war is incoherent we will have peace.
This discourse changes slowly, with great effort. When the Memphis sanitation workers struck in 1968, they carried signs saying “I am a Man,” because the white culture did not believe them.
Getting from here to there is, however, almost absurdly messy. In one version, people take tents and sleep out on public land and listen to each other for hours a day, and then carry messages of their individual discontent to the people whose corporations are grounded in practices which are dependent on treating these individuals as an indistinguishable mass of humanity—as “human capital,” or the “consumer market,” or “collateral damage.”
Democracy, though, is actually a government of the people, by the people and for the people.
No, really.

7 thoughts on “Occupy the language

  1. While there nothing wrong with embracing unclarity, I think this argument misses some key issues. First, it’s not just the “media & chattering class” that has a problem with a lack of specificity. Many of the 99%, us sort-of-regular people, want good proposals that have legs behind them. To assume that any criticism of the protests – even from critics who agree on the big issues – must be part of the chattering class is both alienating & committing the same sin of fitting people into existing categories.
    People are unified in protest of problems in our system. The protests are getting attention that other efforts haven’t. Even those on the right are starting to talk about income inequality. These are very good things that are a direct results of the Occupy protests, but what’s next? When does having people camp out in public places change from a powerful statement a suboptimal way to effect change?
    To put the lack of specific proposals as some well thought out philosophical statement doesn’t do more than let like-minded-folk pat each other on the back. Someone is going to put out proposals & capitalize off these protests. Are the proposals going to come from the protestors or someone grabbing the attention for personal interests? Any bets on the first mainstream brand to put out an “Occupy” line of clothing?
    Putting together concrete and realistic proposals is hard. Any effort to define goals more specifically will undoubtedly spit apart people who are currently unified. Still, can you point to a single successful protest movement that wasn’t working towards specific goals? If protesting for public recognition of one’s humanity and subsequent humane treatment of workers, like the Memphis sanitation works strike, isn’t a specific goal, I don’t know what is. Just because it might not be possible to complete and enact perfect policy changes doesn’t free people to desist from trying.
    To say that this is all about individualizing the other according to the philosophy of Levinas would probably draw a lot of blank stares from people holding signs trying to label a few million people as “the 1%.” I think you’ll need to look somewhere besides Levinas to find meaning in these protests.

  2. ohhh- that what the protest are about..
    thanks for putting out Levinas’ for the masses- it definitely needs more doing… yehi zichro baruch…
    although recognizing individuals as humans and narratives doesn’t mean the end of all war– the utopian part of ourfantasy in Levinas’ writing is that after realizing the depth of another person– “how could one ever conceive of hurting that human” is only so useful in a conflict where not everyone is doing the same thing… The Torah also dreams and encourages us to see Tzelem Elokim in all, but is conscious that there will be a Rodef (murderous person) to whom you are obligated to recognize and act.. BUt the courts and system are to know their function is to protect humanity and life- when courts and punishment no longer serve to deter crime- its the courts that humbly admitted and stepped down as opposed to sentencing the lot to death.
    Living Levinas’ consciousness is probably like what it is to be a Rebbe- a spiritual master. After a friend of mine sat with the Amshinover Rebbe he said– ” I think thats the first time in my life anybody has REALLY LISTENED to me…” how the deep truths Levinas’ expresses can come to be played out in public discourse– i think we’re all davening/ mrching/ playing/ organizing for that…

  3. @Dan Ab: What is going on in the encampment is already accomplishing political ends. The political rhetoric in the Democratic party is becoming more forceful (from the President on down) in backing legislation (e.g. the jobs bill) which addresses the wealth gap and the inequalities in wealth and resources distribution. Second, according to a recent CBS/Times poll (cited Robert Reich in his blog), for the first time a majority of Americans are in favor of a more equitable distribution of wealth.
    These are just the most obvious or noticeable impacts of the ongoing (and I must stress ongoing) Occupy encampments. Each group, and then, perhaps all the groups are working at eventually articulating more specific goals which might be realized through the legislative process. For now, though, it is the creative and moral act of the camps themselves as witness to both the injustice of a country controlled by economic interests, and the alternative of a society run on the basis of the recognition of the infinite complexity of the Other person which is the vitally important task of the Occupy movement.
    @Shaul: While as a constant, having a Levinasian consciousness is aspirational. I do think that it is an important corrective as the voice which is constantly telling us not to commodify people even as we organize for justice.

  4. @Aryeh, I agree regarding the effects so far, but will note that these are the cases were the policy prescriptions are the most clear. The 99%/1% rhetoric is the ultimate TV news soundbite and sinks into people’s mind. Pushing to address income inequality is also a good thing. I understand the protests didn’t start with a full slate of policy proposals, but don’t like that being used as an excuse to embrace a continued lack of focus.
    As for infinite complexity and Levinas, I have doubts that this is the type of discussion happening at encampments around the country and I’m generally a skeptic of over-arching philosophical constructs which haven’t been updated with respect to the past 50 years of research into human cognition as a basis for utopian societies, but that’s probably a discussion for another day.

  5. @Dan Ab: My limited experience at Occupy LA (probably ten hours all together) leads me to believe that there definitely are some people having these discussions, there are others who are just acting in this way, and then many folks are just there doing whatever. However, the folks who are doing the work: serving food, making sure the encampment is clean, facilitating and participating in committees and GAs, running the medical tent, seem to be oriented towards seeing Other people as infinitely complex. Just my limited experience as I say.

  6. I am not opposed to your analysis of OWS with respect to Levinas’ ineffable. But here’s the rub: this protester writes: WE’RE here, WE’RE unclear. Moving from the I to the WE is an enormous step toward political collectivity and away from the unknowable individual. In other words, to join OWS or any occupation, movement, or collectivity means you automatically forego SOME of your individuality in the service of collective messaging and collective will. I don’t hear from your essay any mention of how Levinas accounts for social collectivities, which are NOT the same as the human individual.
    I think it is something a bit more shallow and a lot more clever that drives OWS disunity, and it is on the level of the discursive. They escape and elude partisan politics by marching with their bodies and not with their mouths, per se. They create social discomfort as the opponents second-guess themselves and flap their wings as they stand in the face of the black hole of your demands. When I think of OWS, I immediately think of another Jewish philosopher, Herbert Marcuse, and his ground-breaking work: One-Dimensional Man.

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