I want to keep this brief, partly because I don’t have a real interest in politics and we already have a poly sci major on board, and partly because I don’t think it’s a big deal. But I guess the latter is belied by my posting. I need to preface this by saying that I am by no means sympathetic to the conservative agenda or its candidates, but I am sympathetic to logic and tempered thinking, as emotionality is the quickest route to bad policy (see: 9/11 and the Patriot Act).
Anyway, the nonissue of the Romney/Perry $10k bet from last night’s debate exploded in the media immediately, with #what10kbuys becoming a trending topic on Twitter among the whining liberal class. Apparently, Mit has “lost” his common appeal because he can afford to make a random bet for $10,000, while the more valiant of our 99% class are spending that money on broken down cars and hospital bills. But when you look at the public tax records of our elected officials (and as you overlook the invasion of privacy in obtaining and obsessing over those records), THEY’RE ALL MILLIONAIRES. The Clintons, Obamas, Edwards, Romney, etc. Every last one of them. Since our form of democracy is more like a covert oligarchy/plutocracy/quibble with semantics as you wish, we (on both sides of the proverbial aisle) like to pretend we want, or could ever get, an outsider, some mythical “Maverick from Main Street” to shake up the system. And then we want to ridicule, rightfully so, the Sarah Palins and Michelle Bachmanns and (maybe less rightfully so) the Ron Pauls who do have more of a claim to “outsider” thinking, notwithstanding their seeming incompetence.
In my own opinion, I of the 0.0000000028% that resides at (address withheld), it would be MORE deceptive/insulting for a candidate to make a $1 bet, a la the movie Trading Places, and to continue to pretend that they are among the “common folk”, as has been the conservative M.O. for years (not surprisingly coinciding with the stark increase in wealth disparity). Of course, politics is all about impressions, not substance, and this has produced a hashtaggable trend for whiny liberals to rally around. But it will be just as quickly subverted when the winner of the wager donates that $10k to charity, which is the obvious course of action for a savvy campaign manager. And then, will the liberal rabble complain about the fact that the rich have the ability to make such donations, or will they suckle at the welfarish teat that is private giving?
The first occupation of Wall Street took place during the final months of 1853 in the pages of Putnam’s Magazine. This occupation was much smaller than the one currently taking place (it consisted of only one person), and initial reception was decidedly lukewarm. Years later, the story would inspire a new generation of thinkers and writers, eventually earning a place in the canon of American letters. I think it’s about time for Bartleby, of Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street, to come down from the shelf and enter into our contemporary conversation yet again.
Slavoj Žižek gave a talk at the Wall Street protests the other day (transcript here), which I thought was really good. But I was surprised that he didn’t mention Melville’s character. In The Parallax View, Žižek identifies Bartleby’s attitude, embodied in his invariable response–“I would prefer not to”–to any and all appeals, as “the very source and background,” the “permanent foundation,” of a new alternative order (382).
Why? Because Bartleby’s refusals to participate in the prevailing socio-economic order precipitates a crisis of conscience for the story’s narrator:
It is not seldom the case that when a man is browbeaten in some unprecedented and violently unreasonable way, he begins to stagger in his own plainest faith. He begins, as it were, vaguely to surmise that, wonderful as it may be, all the justice and all the reason is on the other side.
By refusing that which was heretofore unquestionable, Bartleby establishes the existence of the alternative(s). In Donald Rumsfeld’s terms, turning the unknown unknowns into known unknowns: The narrator knows that another way exists, even if he doesn’t know what that way might be.
This is, for Žižek, a positive form of violence: “[T]he violent act of actually changing the basic coordinates of a constellation”(381). Not solely the act of hitting someone over the head, violence is also the act (non-act) that splits someone’s head open by smashing the boundaries of thought, opening up for the subject new ways of thinking and being in the world.
There’s a lot more here to be fleshed out and expanded on (e.g., the narrative’s place within the financial world of Wall Street), which I’ll continue to write about, but the first step toward a discussion of Bartleby and the insights it may have to offer the ongoing occupation is to smash some heads and open other people up to thinking about it.
Žižek’s The Parallax View is published by MIT Press, 2006.
Let’s start with a little backstory:
I had been kicking around the idea that would eventually become this website ever since Fall 2009, my first semester of grad school, when I enrolled in a class called The Ethics of Fiction and the American Novel (pdf course flyer). In hindsight, it was really the ideal class to kick off any grad school career, and the animating impulses behind it have continued to inform my work and thought as they have evolved over the course of the intervening years:”What do we mean by ‘serious’ fiction, and why do we read it? What is its relation to life off the page? Can or should a novel provide guidance, inspiration, or even food for thought for a life well lived? If so, what are the ethical responsibilities of authors and of readers? What, if anything, can works of fiction add to a discussion of ethics in ordinary lives?”
What ultimately came out of that class was an essay called “Expatriate Everywhere: Self, Other and the American Ethos“(pdf), a reexamination of the idea of the American individual, primarily through readings of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth and Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, two portraits of New York society that bookend 20th Century American fiction. Rereading it, even from this distance, there are parts that make me squirm in the same way as when I listen to my 7th-grade self sing another stupid song about a girl. And while I’m still not as smart as I thought I was, there are some parts that make me think maybe I wasn’t all that dumb either. That being said, I think it is worth the time to read in full, but for our purposes here I’m just pulling from the last few paragraphs:
This American scholarship of the Self has failed us. We have seen the inviability of the inviolable individual. Our society’s ethos tells us not to look outside of our selves, but to turn inward, steeling our selves, compacting our selves into cold, hard atoms whose only contact with others are accidental violent collisions. We need a new model—a true model—because, as David Foster Wallace said in … This is Water, “The most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”
What the hell is the Self? It is the ever-present mediator of our experience, yet we rarely stop to think about how it is defined or how it affects such experience. We spend our time reading up, building our selves their own personal ivory towers, “tiny skull-sized kingdoms”(Wallace 117), that by the time we look up it is too late. We are stone cold, 200 feet tall and utterly alone. When these towers come crumbling down, like on September 11th, we are given the opportunity to reconceptualize our selves.
This new model must be able to accommodate shocks, sudden changes, entrances and exits. It must also abolish the individual, acknowledge the essential interconnectedness of all selves. It should replace the “kill-or-be-killed gladiatorial amphitheatre” that we currently reside in with “a busily collaborative beehive or anthill”(Coetzee 119). It should enable us “to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars—compassion, love, the subsurface unity of things”(Wallace 93)…. [W]e have described the unmooring of the Self, the fluid nature of the boundary between Self and Other, the need to be anchored to a referent to gain meaning, the drift that occurs when we have nothing to anchor our selves to…. “This is water.” We are water.
Taking this as our jumping-off point, I want to update and expand upon some of the ideas I started to develop nearly two years ago.
In the coming days, I’ll be taking on what Adrienne Rich called the “never-to-be-finished, still unbegun work of repair,” stringing things together here as I go. Yes, it will be unpolished and rough around the edges (and around the edges I didn’t even know were there). But writing doesn’t stop when you or I click “Publish,” and I think this project can only be made better by feeding back off of people engaged in dialogue along the way.
I really do not have much desire to talk about politics with anyone outside my small circle of college friends that have (or are working on) a degree in political science. It is not that I don’t think they have valid points or are knowledgeable about the subject. I feel that I become just too damn judgmental when discussing anything within that field. I find that most everyone I talk to about the upcoming election, the “Arab spring” or state and local government see things in blacks and whites. It is probably not what they are actually saying…it is just what I hear. I cannot help that and I am sorry. I am a bit of an elitist when it comes to my field. I myself struggle when talking to a Literature major or a Economics major about those fields. I can hold quasi-intellectual conversations about almost everything but I feel only confident in political science.
However, one very specific topic within the realm of politics I find I can casually discuss with another individual is the upcoming Republican candidates chances of becoming President of the United States. The reason I think I can do this has nothing to do with my degree. I have confidence in my ability (however self-deluded that may be), to predict with some level of certainty, who stands a chance in actually getting elected. It probably is because I listen to the radio, read the newspaper, watch television very casually and voyeuristically follow social media outlets. I do not really dig deep into the issues. I simply listen to the mood of people that do dig deep. What the news stories of a given day, month, year are can give you a very good feel of the pulse of a nation at any given time. What details are inside those news stories (a.k.a. the specifics) I believe, are kind of dispensable. That is my non-scientific approach to politics and life in general.
This brings me to today’s announcement by the Sarah Palin camp that she will not seek the Republican nomination for President of the United States. I believe that this is horrible news. She was my great female hope. Meaning…she is self-destructive, arrogant, and frankly, didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning in the general election next fall. In other words…my perfect Republican candidate (fingers crossed for my #2 Michelle Bachmann). So anyone wanting to discuss any of the other candidates chances with me please feel free. I might not be able to tell you who will win next November, or why he or she might or might not, but I can tell you my own little personal Vegas line.
Obama v. Perry (Obama +10)
Obama v. Cain (Obama +2)
Obama v. every other GOP candidate (Obama + 100)
* I will try to update this somewhat regularly because as everyone but political scientists say, “anything can happen.”
While I appreciate the impulse behind #OccupyWallStreet’s call to action, I think the movement’s limited success so far stems from a lack of identity and, consequently, a lack of purpose.
OccupyWallSt.org describes OWS as a “leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions” that “plan[s] to use the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic of mass occupation to restore democracy in America,” which sounds good in theory, but doesn’t turn out quite as well in practice because the US isn’t Egypt and Wall Street isn’t Tahrir Square. And pretending that they are will not make for productive political action.
In general, Arab cultures have a strong sense of a shared public sphere, while in America there is much more emphasis on the individual and the private–public spaces are increasingly being taken over and replaced by privately owned and operated ones, e.g., charter schools. Wall Street itself is effectively a private space; as the iconic center of the financial world, it’s business is business. A space like Tahrir Square, on the other hand, is public in the sense that it doesn’t have an essential politics associated with it–that’s what people bring when they gather there.
So if protesters are trying to occupy Wall Street in the sense of taking up physical space within a private space, they are impeded by barricades and police. But if protesters are trying to occupy Wall Street in the sense of getting the people who work at financial institutions located there to engage with them (i.e., the protesters), you run into a different problem: that of the “leaderless resistance” (more below). In either case, the impulse to occupy Wall Street is a result of being occupied with Wall Street.
Because this stuff only matters if you believe it matters. Saying the financial industry and corporate America are to blame for the current economic and ecological crises we’re facing is fine, you won’t hear any argument. But, to me, trying to hold financial institutions accountable for the mess in order to enact positive change is like a 5-year-old trying to make a bigger kid kicking sand in his face stop by saying, “The practice of kicking sand in people’s faces is wrong! It has to stop now!” And everyone knows this kid. He’ll stop and say, “Oh, I’m so sorry. I promise I’ll never kick sand in your face ever again!”–as he throws the first handful. But in real life, that’s not what you do, because making someone else responsible for fixing things that are a problems for you means those problems never get solved. That kid is having the time of his life getting sand all in and around the sense organs arrayed on the front of your head. What you need to do is stop occupying that sandbox, get up, and go to another sandbox. Or better yet: build a new, better sandbox.
Leaderless movements are great, but they have not been successful on a large scale in the US. The American Revolution had the founding fathers, the Civil War had Abraham Lincoln, Civil Rights had MLK. There wasn’t just one person these movements hinged on. Other prominent figures were involved, and every person who gave their support, in whatever form, was integral to their successes. But there has always been a somebody–or somebodies–to serve as a rallying point. Again, I would argue that it’s a cultural thing, not good or bad, but a necessary to consider when trying to mobilize a popular nonviolent movement.
A corollary to the adage “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything” could be “If you try to stand for everything, you’ll collapse under the weight and never get off the ground.” And I think this applies to OWS. Everyone wants their own personal interests served first, often at the cost of coming to a consensus. In a leaderless movement, individuals are less willing to make the personal concessions required for consensus because, to them, that isn’t consensus; it’s just someone else’s personal demands. If someone is posting “Vegan Occupiers Deserve Menu Options” on the OWS forum, it’s not that surprising the protest hasn’t received a lot of serious attention.
No one deserves vegan-friendly food, but everyone deserves a safe place to live, a nutritious diet, a well-rounded education, a living wage, and a public sphere where we can engage with one another.
So let’s go build a sandbox.