Monday, November 28, 2011

Adventures in Negative Space: Some Thoughts on Occupation Wall Street by Gregory Christopher Baggett

...Now you might think my taking time to talk about conspicuous consumption is not the best use of our time given the seriousness of the business we have convened here this afternoon to wrestle with. But the Russian novelists, Fedor Dostoevsky would have recognized the question as not only appropriate but also necessary. Keep in mind that the New York Times columnist, Charles Blow reported in a recent op-ed that a pillow-fight was supposed to be the first scheduled event before the formal occupation of Zucotti Park was to take place. And just recently, OWS released a new broadside (illus. 3) with an image of a ballerina atop the iconic bronze sculpture, “Charging Bull,” a work of art that has its own controversial occupation-history as guerrilla art. (Those of you in the audience who are in search of a senior thesis could teach OWS something about the history of that object they chose to mock whose origin affirms the very work they have chosen to undertake.) Not unlike the end-to-end march, the pillow-fight did not happen either, but its meaning still resonates within me. Fashion, pillow fights, and a ballet dancer holding her position atop a charging bull are all ways that I have found useful in my efforts to comprehend and absorb the content of OWS as the political confrontation that it is.

And indeed that is exactly what OWS is; it is politics, plain and simple—not the formal politics of political parties and voting blocks but a genuine contest of power. But the contest, its struggle and its negotiation, takes place in negative space, and because of its location in negative space it is damn near impossible to comprehend. And yet, the contest must be waged in negative space; it must because negative space is where the source of problem has taken refuge. OWS operates in the space around and between the problem. For the movement’s periscope or dorsal fin to prematurely break through that space only exposes the movement’s position and allows the problem to once again recede and reconfigure itself (illus. 4). OWS is an effort to reverse the tones such that the space between and around the problem makes the problem apparent. It is an elusive effort to fill the negative space in and around our society in order to bring about the kind of consciousness necessary to identify, isolate, and eradicate the problem (illus. 5).

The movement is abstract because of the abstraction of power. It recognizes that it is not easy to finger the bastards, as it might have been in colonial Virginia where an Afro-American slave or Euro-American indenture servant could say in no uncertain terms: “there is the bastard who is exploiting me.” We do not know where the enemy lives, and as much as I enjoyed watching the march on Park Avenue, we all know that the problem does not reside behind that door alone, if at all. But the idea of banging on that metaphorical door is both instructive and cathartic (illus. 6). The strategists and tacticians of OWS are shrew enough to recognize that the instant they stoop to make demands on behalf of that abstraction we know as the people, rather than identify the space from which the people can direct their own demands, the movement could end up washed ashore harpooned or even worse torpedoed.

Social movements such as OWS are by their very nature historical, and more often than not they require the formation of a new language to aid those in the business of explaining social phenomenon. As educators, scholars, and public intellectuals we must be candid enough with ourselves, our students, and our audiences to confess and accept the fact that we may not have the language at our disposal to fully comprehend or explain the events we are experiencing on the ground. ...


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