Occupy Wall Street, Open Ethnography and the Uncivilized Slot

Chris Garces

Cornell University

Abstract: The Fall 2011 appearance of Occupy Wall Street as a grassroots, anti-political ‘movement of movements’ has broken with post-Cold War US taboos, reactivating sociopolitical class—the 99 percent—as a matter of public debate. Anthropologists’ up-close involvement with the occupied Zuccotti Park warrants self-reflective study of what the discipline has offered to OWS, and how anthropologists’ participation might prefigure shifts in disciplinary conditions and practices.  I suggest that OWS sheds much-needed light on the traffic in anthropological knowledge, highlighting ethnographically revitalized democratic concepts as well as new potentialities for ‘open’ ethnographic standpoints (collaborating with complete strangers). Taking its cue from David Graeber’s involvement, my article probes his and other anthropologists’ careful engagements with OWS to demonstrate how they problematize the ‘uncivilized slot,’ moving beyond the normalized persecution of democratic protest or the evanescence of the liberal political subject.

Surprise, surprise

Someone said it best when declaring Occupy Wall Street was a collective endeavor to create “a vision of the sort of society you want to have in miniature” 1.  Not just OWS protesters, but plenty of ethnographers came to embody this statement during the two-month encampment in Zuccotti Park (ZP).  But one thing that surprised me most about the protest—more than its longevity or actual prefigurative qualities—was the long shadow that anthropological modes-of-knowing cast over the understanding of occupation itself

Undeniably, scholars of multiple backgrounds and disciplinary commitments threw their weight behind OWS.  The earliest YouTube clips out of Zuccotti Park (ZP) saw conspicuous “soap-boxing” on People’s Mic2 from such public intellectuals as Cornel West, Joseph Stieglitz, Gayatri Spivak, Judith Butler and Slavoj Žižek—joined in other major cities by Angela Davis, Noam Chomsky and David Harvey.  Many of their speeches were tremendously affective, garnering the adulation of general assemblies and viral exposure on the internet.  Each reasonably advocated for temporary land grabs, whether in downtown Manhattan or elsewhere; each also put forward truth-claims about the actuality of “occupation”, encouraging protesters to remain steadfast, intransigent, uncompromising—above all, to hold their ground.  

Were OWS protesters in this context merely the preacher’s choir, anonymously repeating these scholars’ ideas using People’s Mic—OWS’s “low-fi” media for mass communication and deliberation?  Or rather, was the assembled multitude—entrenched in ZP in what Tarrow has identified as a politically defiant, “we are here” moment (2011)—doing all the proselytizing?  Amassing OWS participants clearly enjoyed analyzing and hearing different logics for their own, spontaneous mobilization, repeated back to them.  Yet People’s Mic works against the grain of any singular authority.  OWS protesters justified their continuous encampment for a myriad of interconnected reasons, and were beholden to the self-governing process of their own General Assembly (GA) to make sense of it all.  No academic discipline enjoyed a monopoly on the recasting of occupation as an instrument of progressive struggle, though all who identified with OWS seemed to recognize the value of a flourishing GA.    Ethnographically-minded protesters played a major role in drawing attention to OWS’s plurality of grievances.   The usefulness of ethnography as a mode of self-knowledge and collective representation, I would argue, was central to the encampment’s short-lived yet spectacular success.

A number of trained anthropologists were among the key OWS organizers and some of the most critically astute bloggers.  Their boots-on-the-ground logistical and intellectual support could likely have been predicted, given the ethnographic wing of the discipline’s ever-intensifying proclivity to comprehend or sharpen the inter-cultural tools for political activism.  Yet what are we to make of the odd circumstance that, in addition to anthropologists who lent their time, training and vision to OWS “advocacy research,” myriad protesters themselves made use of anthropological modes-of-knowing to throw a more nuanced light on the encampment than was typically available in the major news media? 

This essay highlights multiple, cross-cutting appropriations of ethnographic technique within Occupy Wall Street, and pauses to consider what ethnographic participation in OWS may signal for anthropology’s disciplinary potentialities moving forward.  Implicated both ways is the felt urgency to analyze new struggles and protest strategies that respond the contemporary erasure of civil rights.  In the GA process, ethnographically minded protesters developed a repertoire of methods and dispositions to partner with strangers working together in common cause.  The revaluation of the stranger is a well-known strategy of political metamorphosis, but one that perhaps until the rise of Occupy movements had not been fully harnessed within modes of anthropological critique. 

Open ethnography

 David Graeber’s insider role in developing OWS as a leaderless political movement might be viewed as a case study for public anthropology.  His stem-winding participation will not come as a surprise to those who have followed his advocacy for direct action, or who’ve taught his books, pamphlets and essays on anthropology’s longstanding affinities with anarchist beliefs and practices (eg. 2002, 2004, 2009).  Not only was this activist-ethnographer—at least by his own account (2011b)—the intellectual spark behind OWS’s “We Are The 99%” slogan, a truth-claim around which scores of occupations were established.  Even more central to questions pursued here, Graeber’s ethnographically framed understanding of direct action—activating cross-cultural correlates for “small-a” anarchist organizing, in which you “prefigure” a more just society (or a more politically and economically sustainable world), even if it means establishing a nonviolent “direct democracy” when traditional forms of civil disobedience are prohibited by the state—is now on the lips of untold thousands who participated in Occupy protests nationwide.   

Graeber’s influence within the discipline can no longer be understated, much less dismissed as an outlying trajectory.  But even his efforts are but one, albeit a central node around which the Occupy movement came into being.  Graeber’s research-informed OWS participation is deeply symptomatic of a spontaneous coming-together around the concerns of reducing political demoralization, shared equally between intellectuals and activists who participated in the encampments.  Zuccotti Park, for example, was nothing if not a big ideological tent, welcoming anyone with political grievances who could single out the country’s widening income gaps, the deep-seated inequalities of opportunity, and the unchecked and nearly unconscious financialization of governance itself.   As I have suggested elsewhere, the distinctly communicative and political technologies of OWS—GA, Spokes Council, People’s Mic, the working groups, the protesters’ unwillingness to make specific “demands,” or the “step up, step back” ethic of public speaking—quickly transformed Zuccotti Park’s encampment into a “movement of movements”. 

The points I trace in the following acknowledge, and take their cue from Graeber’s formative role in OWS.  But their guiding thread is rather to problematize how emerging styles of ethnographic activism may signal a shift in disciplinary relationships to the political, highlighting anthropological projects directed against and even beyond the erosion of liberal ideals in their US context.  For what OWS makes abundantly clear is the extent to which ethnography’s methods, theories, and ethics have quietly become inseparable from ‘occupation’ as a grassroots anti-political organizing strategy.  Since cultural anthropology has (re)entered US political discourse through their advocacy for OWS, it is important to grasp OWS’s precursors and to take stock of ethnographic wagers borne of “occupation” itself. 

Cultural anthropologists certainly are no strangers to the often-quoted “leaderless” ideology of Occupy Wall Street protesters.  Several decades’ worth of ethnography in the service of ethnic, intercultural, or community-based activism have insinuated us deep inside a variety of social movements, though most researchers, I suspect, would disavow being part of any capital-V “Vanguard;” instead, the ‘collaborative ethnographer’ performs the role of helpful critic, internal advisor, inter-cultural translator, or co-producer in the step-by-step process of knowledge-making (Lassiter 2008).  Communities (or those individuals who speak in their name), bring a wealth of backgrounds and interests to collaborative research; anthropologists carry their own motivations, formed in tandem with shifting disciplinary-interpretive milieus and geopolitical problems.  But as in any gestalt, the sum of this assemblage is greater than its parts, or greater than any ‘social movement,’understood as an ideologically informed praxis. 

What I find hopeful about OWS as inter-cultural exchange is the speculative freedom of the ethnographic imagination when harnessed to a “movement of movements”.  OWS ethnographers discovered a great variety of ways to participate and to observe while acknowledging that the purpose of the ZP encampment was to promote an irreducible diversity of Occupy engagements.  The special twist to OWS advocacy research, in other words, was the spontaneous development of “open” first-person participation in a heterogeneous and topsy-turvy political assembly.  But let me elaborate what such ‘openness,’ so strongly suggestive of ethnographic practice, indicates for short- and long-term engagement with a movement of movements.  

The OWS ethnographer is neither engaged in a process of “studying up” (Nader 1972), nor is she necessarily required to cede one’s sociological imagination to bureaucratic language or administrative worldviews.  Certainly, OWS advocacy research was diametrically opposed to prioritizing the latter actors’ forms of technocratic expertise, however intellectually precise, hard-won or powerful they might be (Holmes and Marcus 2004).  Rather, protest researchers who embraced OWS’s ethic of horizontality adopted an open-ended and sometimes rather disorienting standpoint, sharing in critique of existing political conditions with complete strangers.  As N+1 editor Mark Grief noted about his own participation in ZP’s General Assembly, “I was sitting close to the aisle of waiting speakers and I was surprised to watch participants whom I assumed knew each other well—since they were working together smoothly—whisper to ask each other’s names.” (Greif 2011). 

Grief’s commentary provides a clue about the genealogical thread for OWS advocacy research.  It is no secret here that co-identifying with “the stranger” has served, here and elsewhere, as the material-symbolic grounds for lasting political metamorphoses.  Such regimes of identification have shifted from the powerful moral consideration of the neighbor/stranger and the birth of Christian universalism (Badiou 1997), to the deep horizontal comradeship of nationalism as an imagined, or largely anonymous community moving across homogeneous time (Anderson 2006), to the intimacy of discourses cultivated between media publication and the generation of counter-publics (Warner 2002).  The OWS ethic of horizontalism participates in the long arc of these epistemic shifts, but in ways, perhaps, that are difficult to fully appreciate.  The best reportage on ZP protesters’ evolving interests and ideological entanglements, for example, was usually to be found in the blog sites of unfamiliar protesters. 

Across the extended NYC blogosphere—whether dedicated to literary, political, or personal issues—both full-time ZP occupiers and those who maintained a irregular or occasional presence would dash off highly self-reflexive and well-informed reports of latest happenings from the GA.  Everyone who thought deeply about the occupation paid close attention to these scattered venues for curating first-person knowledge about ZP as a site of protest.   The stunning aspect of this movement’s success can be assimilated to the fact that protesters themselves, far from adopting the character of a “rabble,” were the group’s most meticulous documenters and promoters of their own cause(s).  Even corporate news reports systematically dove into (yet quickly subverted) the bloggers’ view from the park, at least during those rare moments when they covered the protest with the investigative seriousness it warranted.  If General Assembly mediated OWS as a movement of movements, the blogs tracked directions and expressions of protest within a largely anonymous multitude in real time.

This curious inversion of journalistic expertise shows that long-term, collaborative research alongside strangers was turning into a key technique for producing politically viable knowledge: i.e. knowledge that wasn’t the self-censoring byproduct of intellectual service-for-payment, increasingly hand-in-glove with today’s private-public media hegemony. Such independent bloggers were actively translating everyday life as well as the stakes of public debate in OWS’s veritable town hall meetings.  These GA updates publicized OWS’s ongoing shifts in process and deliberative proceedings.  But they also documented the taking shape of a direct democratic body that might be politically emulated both inside and across different national contexts, a hermeneutic process echoing Clifford Geertz’s mid-20th century disciplinary chestnut that ethnographers “only study in villages,” but respond to broader philosophical questions and geopolitical challenges.  

The OWS blogger-ethnographer, then as much as now, is viewed as a critic who emerges from the margins in order to translate “marginal” interests or values to a broader audience.  But Zuccotti Park’s occupation was undeniably turning participant observers into boots-on-the-ground researchers of this particular, ad hoc village in downtown Manhattan.  And ethnographers, both organic and professionally trained, identified many areas of conflict within the movement that remain central to its success and points of potential dissolution alike.  Below I consider a number of these fault lines in OWS as identified by those who made use of ethnographic methods in Zuccotti Park.  The first task in this endeavor, however, is to re-trace anthropology’s methods and its forms of discontent, insofar as they were quietly rolled into the blogger-ethnographer’s critical repertoire and given new life in the process. 

The uncivilized slot

Michel Rolf-Trouillot has noted that the automatic disciplinary response to “the crisis of anthropology,”—a moment in which the “traditional native subject” of anthropological inquiry seemed destabilized or transformed by decolonization, feminism, critical theory, and other global dynamics (including the rise of the ‘native anthropologist’)—was to problematize genres of ethnographic writing and ethnographic authority alike (1991).  Most who adopt this critique are left with nothing but an infinite regress of suspicion for the pursuit of ethnography, demanding that first-person modes of qualitative research should offer apologies or apologetics.   This negative evaluation overlooks the sharpest point of Trouillot’s argument.  That is to say, Trouillot bravely identifies that any critic presuming the existence of a crisis merely inside anthropology was inevitably participating in yet another debate that would provincialize the discipline and geopolitical critique alike.  By contrast, Trouillot looked far beyond anthropology’s immediate historical formations to recognize what ethnography-as-metaphor arrogates to itself as a proper subject of inquiry.  From this point of view, ethnographic practice is much more varied than the academic discipline remaining its intellectual hallmark and engine—tracing what he called the relationship between “Anthropology and the Savage Slot”.  Anthropological movements for Trouillot always turn on an ever-shifting dialectic of Order, utopia, and savagery.  That is to say:

The dominant metamorphosis, the transformation of savagery into sameness by way of utopia as positive or negative reference, is not the outcome of a textual exercise within the anthropological practice, but part of anthropology’s original conditions of existence (ibid: 29). 

Despite anthropology’s exhaustion with the problematizing of ethnographic rhetoric for the sake of rhetoric, or the discipline’s so-called “postmodern” moment, Trouillot’s argument remains stunningly prescient more than twenty years beyond its date of publication.  In a period in which crisis management is viewed as part of governance, “Anthropology and the Savage Slot” may have even greater urgency today.  In the anthropology’s contemporary milieu, ethnographers produce knowledge of uncertain political value in the midst of omnipresent economic precariousness, open- or low-intensity warfare, and a rising tide of xenophobic nationalism wrought by the very conditions of globalization itself.

In a peculiar inversion of Trouillot’s thesis, anthropology’s rapprochement with politically charged direct action has equipped the OWS blogger-ethnographer to problematize what I call “the uncivilized slot.”  By the uncivilized slot, I draw attention to the contemporary brutalization of citizenship on the rise across the liberal democratic state—an updated twist on Trouillot’s thesis.  Over the last quarter century, US ethnographers bore witness to multiple discourses of state that demonized racial and working class communities, and that largely divested these citizens from established legal protections (Greenhouse 2010).  The American ethnographer since the 1990s has poised herself to analyze the utopic promise as well as the practical failings of political liberalism: to reconfigure the liberal subject—that sovereign individual, marked by one’s difference yet invested with inalienable rights.  Meanwhile, the comparative study of the liberal subject’s imaginative life-worlds and happiness grew synonymous with ethnographic “relevance” (2011).  The great irony, made evident in comparative ethnographic context, is that US state subjects who lay claims to their rights against the interests of private-public state hegemony wre typically viewed as having disregarded or fallen from civilizational norms and expectations.  As witnessed by complaints lodged against OWS protesters, those who engaged in continuous occupation of public spaces (or even the occupation of private property bequeathed to OWS protesters to mount public critiques) had failed to live up to their end of the social contract. 

The open ethnographer actively works against this liberal subject’s political erasure.  If OWS protesters were accorded little or no civil space with which to express their grievances, they themselves now seek to transform private-public spaces through GA and other forms of direct action—collective bodily practices that stimulate the coming together of strangers and the spontaneous, open-ended creation of new political affinities.   Open ethnography as such documents how the uncivilized slot came into force, how the many have fallen within the private-public classificatory grid, and how best to contradict its moral and political hegemony. 

One must first adumbrate these fast-emerging ethnographic challenges, made briefly yet unquestionably plain to see, as the sun breaks through the clouds in Zuccotti Park’s cityscape.  In what follows, my argument will seek (a) to outline the extent of the felicitous OWS appropriation of anthropology’s methods, theories, and ethics; (b) to show how ethnographers of OWS have identified several fault-lines in a “movement of movements,” and lastly, (c) to demonstrate how these ideas articulate around ethnography’s shifting relation to the uncivilized slot, that is, to reverse, or perhaps even to obviate, the erasure of the liberal political subject.   We begin with the Park.

The arrival scene of the arrival scene

The ethnographic arrival scene is almost too cliché.  Symbolically overburdened.  Psychoanalyzed.  Deconstructed.  Rising up from the ashes again, as researcher after researcher, from one generation to another, falls back on this time-tested apparatus for generating ethnographic authority—even when undermining it.  I am doubtless guilty of teaching the arrival scene.  Am I a “true believer”?  When pressed, I’d rather consider it a form of rhetoric—a forensic criteria for evaluating anthropology’s empirical knowledge, shifting from case to case.  Do I set out looking for it in my own fieldwork?  Not really. 

Yet there I was at 11AM, October 8th, 2011, making a pass across one of Zuccotti Park’s diagonal pathways—lined with plastic mats and sleeping bags—walking between ragtag groups of protesters, young and middle-aged, who were making Occupy Wall Street into their open-air home.  I had driven to lower Manhattan from upstate New York, where I was teaching classes Monday through Friday, only to return home inevitably consumed with reading the latest updates from this place.  I came to study the protesters’ use of People’s Mic 3 (cf. Appel 2011b), a new genre of political speech that was immediately standardized in ZP and reproduced mimetically in Occupy encampments nation- and even world-wide.  More than anything, I wanted to take in and to connect with the scene—to be one more face in the GA meeting at 7PM.  But something immediately drew me to sit down with a group of hip young things, seemingly disengaged from everyone but themselves on the makeshift alleyway.

Introducing myself to the one sitting closest—maybe 20 years old, wearing black jeans, mop-head, wispy beard, tee-shirt and hoodie—I explained that I was starting ethnographic work and asked to chat for awhile.  It turns out that Ned, as I will call him, was an undergraduate at an exclusive Northeast liberal arts college.  He had taken the week off (“skipped out of my classes”) to acquaint himself with ZP’s proceedings firsthand.  Yet Ned confessed that he had only slept in the encampment five nights—a relative newcomer to OWS, which began September 17th.  He was nevertheless similar to many others gathered in the Park: wanting do to something to further one’s understanding or personal identification with OWS, yet feeling that one’s relation to the movement was marked by lateness.  Everyone had come too late to ZP, even those who inaugurated OWS or who responded to external aggression with statements such as, “you can’t evict an idea whose time has come”.  Hence the felt urgency of immediate, continuous encampment.  Placing one’s body in the park—peopling the movement—was a common ethical denominator for occupation, linking together anarchists, activists, students, the homeless, the unemployed, the intellectuals, the “Left tourists” or the simply curious.  I wanted to know what Ned thought about People’s Mic and its role in the encampment at ZP.

“How would you study it?,” I asked.  “I don’t know,” Ned demurred. There was an awkward, sincere pause. “Maybe you should just attend the [OWS] General Assembly.  You could participate in it, and maybe just, I don’t know… watch and observe how it works.”

Participant observation was not just on the mind.  It was generally speaking in the air, around and about this movement of movements.  Occupation demanded that writers and critics situate their claims, and write about their experience from a specific location they personally inhabited vis-à-vis OWS as a moving constellation of interests.  The encampment was an experience directly shared with the gathering and semi-unpredictable multitude.   Protesters like Ned were borrowing from the rhetoric of ethnography, it’s qualitative modes of presenting, weighing and comparing experience—as if preparing to tell a story before a court of learned opinion.  As it turned out, Ned had not (yet) taken any coursework in anthropology; I didn’t probe further about whether his friends had, either.  I didn’t want to seem pushy, lacking any previous contact or mutual acquaintance.  But did his answer to my question signal that our fieldwork “roles” were reversed—that I was, quite possibly, the informant to his own, partial, knowledge-accumulating status as participant observer?

I walked away from this encounter—an ethnographic hall-of-mirrors—with multiple and conflicting ways of assimilating it: was Ned, my ethnographic interlocutor, merely pandering to my disciplinary conventions?  Did his response merely reflect conversations he’d previously shared with anthropologically trained undergraduates?  Or more self-critically, could I merely have been tracking the echoes of anthropology’s neo- or counter-colonial forms of reportage—reproducing its myriad presumptions about intellectual order and hegemonic extension?  Or might techniques of participant observation themselves be revisited in light of all their importance to OWS occupation?

Ethnography is a strange forensic technology—a rhetorical mechanism for peeling back the hazy and unsettled frontiers of knowledge, arguably first made philosophically apparent during colonial encounters with difference in the New World (Pagden 1987, 1991).  Ethnography as contemporary anthropologists have come to know it, as a professional “licensing procedure,” allows for long-term, first-person, empirically qualitative research that equips the field worker to parse and to critically assess dominant forms of knowledge, intellectual expertise, or representational schemata.  But ethnography always retains the shadow of its status forged in the originary relationship between sovereign orders and colonial dependencies.  I join with other anthropological critics who suggest that ethnography’s distinctive modality for producing knowledge should distinguish itself from philosophical or strict policy-minded truth-procedures, including “ethnographic facts” created exclusively to attend to them. (Willerslev 2011, Graeber and Col 2011).  Whether or not we accept this formulation, a generation of critics—many of whom are neither anthropologists, nor even academics—have versed themselves in the power of ethnography to reimagine and to inhabit the world in different ways, rehabilitating what they consider long-forgotten modes of democratic subjectivity in the process. 

Ethnographic fault lines

Consider the following observations from Zuccotti Park:

Whether they knew it or not, the occupiers were busy getting an education.  The [ZP] plaza was a school.  They had to provide for themselves, to build the rudiments of a village that could stand in joyful contradiction to the corruption and costly extravagance all around them.  And they had to learn how to reason together—in long general assemblies, by the ancient method of consensus, learned this time from a cadre of very articulate anarchists

People new to this, and sometimes veterans too, couldn’t resist the temptation at first to get up in a meeting and made some daring but completely off-topic speech about what is wrong with the world and what can be done to correct it.  For most, this was the first time they’d ever had their political voices heard in any meaningful way—face to face, at least, and off the internet.  But the novelty wore off and those same people learned how to get down to business, to work and think more in tune with each other because there was no alternative.  The meetings got smoother, at least until the next batch of new people joined. 

I’ve watched this learning curve happen again and again at Occupy Wall Street, as well as the two occupations going on new in DC.  People come in, usually, with ideas about “demands,” and about how the occupation could fit in their existing political frames—how this could help the Democrats, or somesuch.  It might take a few hours, or a few days, or even a few weeks, but their old frames eventually fall away.  They rediscover democracy, democracy like they’ve never really known it before, by practicing it in a sea of people, any of whom has the right to speak and be heard like any other.  They work out the kinds in the process, those vestiges of corruption and prejudice and indifference from the world outside that we can’t help smuggling in with us.  Then they realize that what they do or say in the plaza actually matters less than what they bring back to their own communities and teach others in turn. (Schneider 2011)

What leaps out from the page is an acutely sensitive ethnographic approach, observing how this movement of movements contains a specific ritual logic, a shared etiquette or mode of address, and culturally coded forms of participation: all of which indoctrinates the OWS newcomer and ethnographer alike to prioritizing GA and working group “process” over making political “demands”. The fieldworker’s interpretive accouterments are all present; the hints of a hard-won “deep view” of the way occupiers embody the protest, or acquire their anti-political subjectivities in practice.   Major cross-cultural domains of “experience” have been pressed into the service of a holistic ethnographic critique: education, reason, age-grades, ritual speech, conversion, the strange irresistibility of participation in “authentic” traditions, the slow realization of one’s inter-cultural agency, the cultivation of a particular kind of community. 

I quote the text at some length not because it rehearses many themes that animate Trouillot’s “Savage Slot” argument—though it does that, subtly, too—, but rather because of its clear demonstration of the open ethnographic style and its mode of rolling back the effects of state political demoralization.  Yet it is quite noteworthy that these observations were not the product of an anthropological ethnographer—they come instead from Nathan Schneider, the only blogger journalistically “embedded” within OWS before and after its September 17th inauguration.  In my opinion, Schneider penned a number of unparalleled dispatches from OWS/ZP during its two-month existence and aftermath. There is a subtle difference, I would argue, between his account of how a movement of movements keeps itself in motion, and the reportage provided by professional critics who seek primarily to “situate” OWS by locating its “place” within the US political scene.  The difference I am referring to, specifically, is that between OWS practice and the broader public discourse about OWS. 

For Schneider and other critics, OWS unwillingness to come up with “white papers,” political appeals, or a concrete set of demands addressed to the state requires a good deal of explanation.   Michael Greenberg writing in the New York Review of Books identified what he considers the main point of OWS’s motives, which at first blush appears similar to Schneider’s more extended observations:

[And] [t]his, it seemed, was really the main project of the Occupy Wall Street organizers: to acquaint these new volunteers with their new version of democracy  It was impressive to watch the friendly solemnity of the teachers, if that’s what they are (they had probably volunteered only a few days before themselves), as they explained the protocols of the General Assembly.  Why, they asked, curtail the growing mystique of Occupy Wall Street with something as ordinary as a political demand?4

To which Hendrick Hertzberg of the New Yorker similarly adds:

The process, not the platform, is the point.  Anyway, OWES [sic] is not the Brookings Institution. [i.e. is not a Washington DC-based, political think tank] 5  

Even Kalle Lasn, editor-in-chief of Adbusters, the magazine which put out the original call for an American movement to mirror the Arab Spring, writes: 

 You can criticize them [OWS protesters] for not being clear. But the fact that they don’t have any leaders—and for the moment don’t have any real demands – is the mysterious part that has allowed them to grow.6

Schneider and others explain that something politically engrossing yet hard to define has kept protesters together in GA.  This charismatic element defies both standard-normative political and institutional thinking; and while it is possible to attribute this charisma to People’s Mic, in actuality the discreet public, inner gift of OWS deliberative “process” lies with substantial, affective communication with strangers.  In the eyes of the general public, OWS’s purported ‘lack of demands’ relegates the movement to a utopian project advocating impossible ideals.   The most astute commentators who follow this line of critique argue that OWS’s lack of demands amounts to an “anti-representational” politics, preordained to organizational collapse or failure.  Yet what non-protesters—including most journalists—describe in terms of OWS’s mysterious “impossible” element, those individuals whose direct, personal occupation of ZP verged on the ethnographic tend to describe in terms of the minutia or inner logic of “process” itself.   Schneider narrative to a certain extent demystifies OWS process.  For most professional journalists, a social movement’s “ideals” should be defined by the state and its constitutive elements (government executives, branches of government, juridical bodies, legislative representatives, etc.) or by the state’s auxiliary bodies (parties, platforms, pressure groups, churches, political clubs, etc.).  For the blogger-ethnographer, however, the smallest details of general assembly itself create the emotional charge of OWS “ideals”, and sometimes the key point might appear so insignificant that you couldn’t grasp its effects on the GA’s full body unless you were plugged into to its large and largely anonymous multitude.

Early blogger-ethnographic work on OWS also identified hidden fault lines within the GA and within the smaller working group committees.  Hannah Chadeayne Appel’s blog posts on the Social Text website, for example, chronicled her OWS experiences in wonderfully telling details.  Her post on the private-public demonization of OWS purported lack of hygiene, using Mary Douglas’s notion of dirt as “matter out of place” (2011a), was nearly prophetic to the extent that Zuccotti Park’s owners eventually used the so-called “unsanitary” or even “lawless” conditions of ZP as the pretext for justifying the police removal of protesters—falling back on crude, biopolitical language for a strictly political decision.  Of particular mention in Appel’s blog were a pair of entries on “The Bureaucracies of Anarchy,” addressing how protesters were faced with questions of scale and maintaining their ethic of inclusion as the movement expanded.  Akin to my own argument about the charismatic ensemble of OWS techniques—People’s Mic, hand gestures, stack-taking, etc.— (Garces 2011, forthcoming), Appel’s first post shows how protest-occupiers deliberative ideals of consensus masked the variety of embodied and synchronizing technologies that allowed OWS participants to understand and appreciate process itself (2011b).

But Appel goes further in another post.  Showing how OWS hands signals allow for tacit consensus building among strangers, Appel notes how the process can feel alienating to late-comers to the working groups established in the early days of OWS.  Working group solidarity and friendships were forged in the crucible of the taking of Zuccotti Park, making some working groups difficult to break into and unresponsive to the demands of the non-established members (2011c).  I should note that Appel’s second post was written after the mid-November NYPD dismantling of Zuccotti Park, and that protesters might well have been closing ranks out of the fear of infiltration, or to stimulate working group co-identification with the trauma of their collective brutalization.  Still, Appel succinctly shows how hand signals for a “point of process,” intended to keep OWS participants on the same emotional page or deliberating on the same proposals easily can be applied to exclude certain participants who bring forward issues, however legitimate, that were already “resolved” in previous GA or working group decisions. 

Manissa McCleave Maharawal is a CUNY grad student anthropologist and activist who likewise found herself thrown in to the GA process, somewhat against her will, in ways that turned her into an even more active participant.  Her particular concern with OWS was the specific extent to which the movement could, in spite of the protesters’ best intentions, potentially alienate racialized strangers from identifying with its causes.  Indeed, this anthropologist openly intervened in a large General Assembly, shifting group deliberation on a major OWS decision.  McCleave Maharawal’s blog-site description of her ethical “block” on a single line in the Declaration of Occupation is worth recounting in full:

On Thursday night I showed up at Occupy Wall Street with a bunch of other South Asians coming from a South Asians for Justice meeting. Sonny joked that he should have brought his dhol so we could enter like it was a baarat. When we got there they were passing around and reading a sheet of paper that had the Declaration of the Occupation of Wall Street on it. I had heard the “Declaration of the Occupation” read at the General Assembly the night before but I didn’t realize that it was going to be finalized as THE declaration of the movement right then and there. When I heard it the night before with Sonny we had looked at each other and noted that the line about “being one race, the human race, formally divided by race, class…” was a weird line, one that hit me in the stomach with its naivety and the way it made me feel alienated. But Sonny and I had shrugged it off as the ramblings of one of the many working groups at Occupy Wall Street.

But now we were realizing that this was actually a really important document and that it was going to be sent into the world and read by thousands of people. And that if we let it go into the world written the way it was then it would mean that people like me would shrug this movement off, it would stop people like me and my friends and my community from joining this movement, one that I already felt a part of. So this was urgent. This movement was about to send a document into the world about who and what it was that included a line that erased all power relations and decades of history of oppression. A line that would de-legitimize the movement, this would alienate me and people like me, this would not be able to be something I could get behind. And I was already behind it this movement and somehow I didn’t want to walk away from this. I couldn’t walk away from this. (2011)

McCleave Maharawal’s intervention to a certain degree indicates the fraught place of race and national association in OWS as a whole.  This simple fact should come as no surprise whatsoever to Americanists—given the tremendous divergence of public opinion and experience around matters of ethno-racial identification in the United States.  CUNY-Queens ethnographer Sujatha Fernandes likewise blogged to show how Harlem-based black and latino communities could identify with “the 99%” with great ease, and were generally pleased with the OWS rhetoric of inclusion, while at the same were more concerned with locally repressive police tactics such at the NYPD’s “stop and frisk” policies, disproportionately brutalizing people of color7.  This is one reason why McCleave Maharawal’s action on OWS’s behalf has been paradigmatically important to a movement of movements; her advocacy implicated an open ethnographic approach.  Something as seemingly insignificant as refusing to be handed a political flier “places the participant observer within an unfolding set of events wherein his or her actions affect [sic] the outcome….  Occupy, by virtue of its structure, creates a situation whereby the ethnographer becomes an inherent part of the movement” (Glück & McCleave Maharawal 2012)

Appel’s posts similarly reveal how OWS blogger-ethnographers actively work to preempt the decomposition of their horizontal ethics—holding themselves more accountable to open-ended process.  Face-to-face with urban police brutality and private-public hegemony, OWS protesters and their ethnographic supporters sought to circumvent the erosion of liberal ideals and to find new sources of commonality in direct actions.   The stranger is everywhere in Zuccotti Park, even—perhaps, especially—within those who are working quietly to promote this movement of movements.

Against (and beyond the erasure of the liberal subject)

Ethnographic practices such as took place in ZP may help to illuminate the future of political protest.  I have argued elsewhere that OWS, as a movement of movements, ideally draws on anti-identitarian as well as anti-authoritarian ideologies (Garces forthcoming).  In this article, I have suggested that open ethnographic practices entail a number of interconnected procedures that bring strangers together in an anti-political common cause: (a) to redeploy the very media of political grievances in order to gain moral high-ground; (b) to recognize hopefulness in para-state institutional revolts against democratic impasse; and/or (c) to reinvent structures of political authority at the municipal level. 

Examples of the first procedure include a range of ways that Occupations have recast the mediation of social life.  Social media largely disconnected from corporate funding structures (from Facebook, to independent blog and twitter engines, to pirate or unauthorized print technologies, such as the Occupy Wall Street Journal) is certainly a powerful engine driving global protests.  Yet social media only works in this context when combined with embodied technologies of speech such as People’s Mic, along with the respect and care for strangers openly present in Zuccotti Park’s occupation.  There is something unspeakably ridiculous about reading a CNN news report that British software engineers had developed a new computer program that would allow OWS protesters with smart phones to sync and to let one person speak—a high-tech facsimile of People’s Mic.  The software developers claim they were deeply impressed with the creativity of protesters who made ad hoc use of this speech technology, but were taken aback that activist-minded, tech-savvy progressives couldn’t devise a better mousetrap.  When they presented their device before a huge audience that sync’d up to the presenter’s iPhone, the crowd erupted with applause.  To my way of reading OWS, however, both the software developers of the Inhuman Microphone™ and their audience failed to grasp the “ethnographic” patience, privation, sense of place, and deep personal investments that turned the ZP encampment into a site that would give “occupation” another, globally positive and anti-colonial valence.

Examples of the second procedure might include “para-state institutions” emerging as proxies for anti-state interventions, including military and religious bodies which consider themselves the only source for real political arbitrage, as when mass demoralization with corporate-state-police collusions in Tunisia, Egypt, and other Arab-world countries led to revolutionary uprisings in Spring 2011.  Not surprisingly, OWS discourse similarly has cultivated incipient versions of para-state associations.  Many para-state constituencies within this movement of movements could be identified, but I will mention only two for lack of space.  Anti-war veterans who made common cause with OWS protesters, for example, have garnered tremendous news coverage in spite of their small ranks—nowhere near as large, for example, as the early 1970s Winter Soldier protests.  Likewise, the involvement of church groups has laced the OWS movement of movements with the language of prophecy or moral justice itself.  In ZP itself, Buddhist meditation groups were nearly fixtures in the encampment.  But so too, were priestly representatives of different world religions and their myriad denominations 

Finally, our third procedure (c) includes the “temporary autonomous zones” (Bey 1991) springing to life across the globe, for which Madrid’s Puerta del Sol and Barcelona’s Plaza de Catalunya, Egypt’s Tahiri Quare along with Zuccotti Park may now serve as competing paradigms.  The Occupy movement’s mimetic urban installations will continue to remain open targets for repression, but when forcibly dismantled they usually manage to reappear in other public spaces, empty lots, abandoned buildings or foreclosed homes.  The phoenix-like resilience of Occupation has led, in the opinion of at least one anthropologist, to the development of para-municipal agencies (Corsín Jiménez 2011). Most encampments have become self-governing entities, providing security and basic medical services for protesters, the homeless, and diverse political sympathizers who place their bodies on the line against external forces of repression.  Nearly all protesters steadfastly look after one another—literally as well as figuratively.  There were just as many, if not more digital cameras, smart phones, and professional-grade recording devices in Zuccotti than OWS participants in the park—forcing all conflict and potential violence, from any police or protesters, into the open.

It was Zuccotti Park’s self-policing that drew the greatest critical (indeed, biopolitical) scrutiny from media pundits and NYC municipal leaders—with persistent complaints about the protesters’ lack of hygiene, or allegations of drug use and, of course, sexual improprieties.  But such external critiques, I suggest, are more symptomatic of the Occupy movement’s unprecedented and indeed, often awe-inspiring success at lasting self-governance, instead of any particular transgressions that took place in ZP itself.  What remains surprising about each is the extent to which the occupations remain self-sustaining bodies of mass deliberation in spite of their constituents’ differences, or the myriad examples of external repression at the hands of police and professional media working in concert.  The cultivation of an open ethnographic sensibility within OWS has played no small part in this unforeseen development.  


1 David Graeber, cited in Klein 2011

2 An #OWS “call and response” technology of speech; one of the movement’s most politically galvanizing and innovative rituals (see Garces 2011, Garces forthcoming).

3 OWS own twitter account and blog site were the primary blog site aggregators (www.nycga.net).  But so, too, were blog sites by the N+1 Collective and myriad other groups and individuals.

4 Michael Greenberg “In Zuccotti Park” New York Review of Books  v. LVIII, n 17, November 10th, 2011

5 Hendrick Hertzberg “A Walk in the Park” The New Yorker  October 17th, 2011

6 Ben Piven, “Occupy Wall Street: All day, all week” Al Jazeera October 7th, 2011

7 Sujatha Fernandes “The Imaginative Power of the 99% Politics: Occupy Wall Street Spreads Uptown” Huffington Post November 14th 2011 (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sujatha-fernandes/the-imaginative-power-of-_b_1084484.html)


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2011b “The Ritual of General Assembly and the Bureaucracies of Anarchy” October 30th , Social Text Blog (http://www.socialtextjournal.org/blog/2011/10/the-rituals-of-general-assembly-and-the-bureaucracies-of-anarchy.php)

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Forthcoming.  “Peoples Mic as Immortal Technique: #OWS frontier assemblies and democratic charisma”

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