Occupied with Illegibility


Occupy Wall Street is an uprising against a value system, not any particular set of offensive activities. There has been an ongoing critique of these values, but the astute articulation of its flaws has not made its way into the mainstream discussion, any more than the Occupy Wall Street movement itself did until sometime last week.

At that point in time the sit-in “Occupy” protests had spread widely enough and become large enough that it had become awkward not to mention them, an unusual situation for media organizations which have for many years made fairly accurate calls on what aspects of counter-culture could be safely ignored.

The Internet is definitely playing a part in undermining the feigned ignorance of the mainstream media. Citizen journalism, and it’s devious little brother – frantic Tweeters and Facebook denizens – have managed to draw quite a bit of attention to the subject. It’s as if the American media has learned very little from the Arab Spring.

Most of the news commentary regarding the Occupy Wall Street movement has so far been either dismissive, sarcastic, or outright hostile. CNN, CBS, ABC, Fox and the like have reported that “it’s hard to say” what the protesters at Wall Street and elsewhere in the United States want, due to “lack of clear goals” or “coherent list of demands”.

This reading of the situation is entirely understandable, but not because they’re right. It’s because the protesters are speaking in a language which has no meaning to the traditional media.

First off, the protesters are not speaking with a single voice. There are many voices, and they’re not all saying the same thing. Each has its own ideas, its own narrative, its own goals and desires. They are not all being filtered through the lips of one figurehead because the people behind them realise that reductio ad vicarius is not a political mechanism which has been serving them very well. The math on this is simple.

Each person brings 100% of their hopes and dreams to the table. If forced to choose a representative from a small group of potential leaders, there is a small possibility 60% of their opinions, hopes and dreams represented. This then gets further diluted by the process of political negotiations, tactical voting, prioritization and allotted time, and by the time your representative actually gets around to doing anything you’re extremely lucky if what is done manages to account for 1% of your hopes and dreams.

So the people of Occupy Wall Street go the alternative route of individualism – a concept that
has historically, ironically, and surprisingly been championed primarily by politicians claiming to represent the interests of their citizens. This in effect means that there is no automatically relevant interviewee, there is no pundit, there is no talking head. There is no easy distillation.

The lack of easily definable heroes immediately removes the most base of journalistic abstractions. While during the Arab Spring the various news media attempted to make heroes out of characters such as Wael Ghonim and Alaa Abd El Fattah, ultimately they failed to reduce the idea behind the movement to a dramatic tale describing the actions of just a few people. And they failed not due to any lack of heroism enacted by their chosen, but rather because the entire movement was so steeped in heroics that no simplification could do the whole justice.

Secondly, the issues the media are digging at always revolve around the tweaking of control variables. Lower taxes. More welfare. Cheaper health care, better education. Comparatives run amok in a world of superlatives. And in their interviews with the protesters, they ask about these and get faltering responses from people who have been arguing the issue at such an abstract level that these technicalities haven’t even factored into the discourse, at least not in terms of specific goals and solutions.

To assume that the average protester at Wall Street, whose chagrin de jour is with a cleverly engineered financial system which works to disenfranchise the “99%” while bolstering the pockets of a small clique, would have anything specific to say about the Federal income tax policy, is absurd. The correspondents and beltway boomers who make light of the fact that the protesting public doesn’t have canned answers to questions about debt reduction and austerity measures evidently feel they are exposing the Occupy Wall Street movement as a sham, while they are in fact exposing their own imbecility and lack of depth.

Jesse Lagreca is one of the more eloquent and outspoken protesters that has been repeatedly captured by the media for soundbites. There is no question that he is a representative of the commonalities of the Occupy Wall Street movement, but he would undoubtedly be the first to point out that he cannot represent the opinions of all the people there, nor does he possess solutions for all the problems they are facing. He might well be the next El Fattah or Ghonim, but he’s still just a one voice in among a multitude of others.

If the Internet has taught us anything, it’s that complexity cannot be bargained out with force of character. Despite some notable individuals emerging in recent years, the real story lies with the groups that work towards common goals – be it the protesters at Tahrir or Liberty Square, the Indignados in Spain, the Pirate parties, or groups such as Anonymous. All of these are equally illegible to people who are used to subjecting the universe to their world view.

The nomadic blogger Venkatesh Rao explained the recipe for the commonplace worldview quite expertly. First, look at a complex and confusing reality, such as the social dynamics of an old city, or the Occupy Wall Street movement. Then fail to understand all the subtleties of how the complex reality works and attribute that failure to the irrationality of what you are looking at, rather than your own limitations. Having failed thus, come up with an idealized blank-slate vision of what that reality ought to look like and argue that the relative simplicity and platonic orderliness of the vision represents rationality. Then use authoritarian power to impose that vision, by demolishing the old reality if necessary. Now stand back and watch your rational Utopia fail horribly.

The current lay of the world is rather shocking for those who are used to looking at it through goggles of imaginary simplicity. More and more countries are plunging into a seemingly apocalyptic debt crisis. Roughly half of the workforce under the age of 25 are out of work in Spain, while the political dogma of simplicity espouses the “human right to work”, ignoring the fact that economic policies over the last several decades have pushed for more consumption, more production, and less actual progress. All of this has effectively created a subsection of society that cannot work, cannot survive without work, and has no economic leverage to relocate or discover a new occupation. For the young people of this world, innovating their way out of wage slavery is not an option.

Speculative fiction author Neal Stephenson lamented in a recent article the fact that humanity appears to have lost the ability to “Get Big Things Done”, echoing various entrepreneurs who fondly remember the days when humanity had the ability to go to the moon, for example. I for one come from a generation of people who has been entirely uninspired by the human endeavours of my time, and I think it’s time for that to change.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, the labor movement has found itself at an all time low. Labor leaders haven’t gotten off their fat surpluses since the Haymarket incident, and even though they claim to represent the views of an increasingly disillusioned workforce, some people are leaving the unions to fend for themselves. The rest, the silent majority fantastically stupefied by hundreds of years of disenfranchisement, are used as an excuse by governments all over the world to dismiss the vocal minority.

The legitimacy of the Occupy movement has been questioned. But how are the criteria for legitimacy set, and by whom? Could it be that the legitimization process has been overrun by the very same ideologies that the Occupy movement is fighting against? To put it differently, the United States’ bid for independence was founded on the idea of no taxation without representation. What, then, is the appropriate form of governance in a world where nobody can be accurately represented?

I want to urge the media to drop their faux rationalism and put away the goggles of legibility, for these ongoing demonstrations will not be understood through the inappropriate application of broken mental models, and failure to understand the issues do not make the issues, or the protesters, go away.

(Thanks to Allison Remy Hall, Samir Allioui, Hélène Marquer and Herbert Snorrason for help framing this discussion and revising drafts of this post)