Occupy: The Public Body, The Open Signifier

Cross-posted at Fraylie's blog

On October 15, Michael Kimmelman, the architecture critic of The New York Times, published an article with a discursive take on physical structures.  Readers were confronted with a discussion of the politics of space.  (Kimmelman calls it place, though I would contest that the difference between place and space is that the former is purely physical and the latter involves enacted discourse.)

The piece is titled In Protest, the Power of Place and can be found here.  “Kent State, Tiananmen Square, the Berlin Wall: we clearly use locales, edifices, architecture to house our memories and political energy. Politics troubles our consciences. But places haunt our imaginations,” writes Kimmelman.

During an address from Judith Butler on October 23rd at Washington Square Park, the philosopher echoed a similar sentiment.  “It matters that as bodies we arrive together in public, that we are assembling in public; we are coming together as bodies in alliance in the street and in the square,” she stated.

Since September 17th, Liberty Square has transformed from an almost invisible place to an occupied space.  By this, I imply that physical bodies – and the discourse between these physical bodies – are the nucleus of a now global movement.  The world’s reactions, whether it is the multiplicity of occupations budding from ripe ground or the shifting political consciousness – the zeitgeist – all hedge on the ideas that bodies, individually anden masse are powerful.

It should be fairly clear that physicality matters, for a number of reasons, in building a movement.  As Kimmelmen points out, “places haunt our imaginations.”  Spaces also give the global gaze an identifiable, physical referent.  Spaces are symbolic.

In New York City, a city especially known for crowded spaces often mediated by structures like mobile technology or the fear of strangers, Liberty Square seems to do the impossible.  In one small space, the discourse of bodies en masse has shifted from averted eyes and “missed connections” to a willful and immediate need to communicate.  Bodies sit, sleep, eat, march and engage in direct Democratic discourse while physically touching and making eye contact.  This sort of space is a petri dish of political thought, activism, art and, most importantly, empowerment.  Through the multiplicity of bodies, individuals can realize and internalize a human tool often silenced in everyday life: the voice.

Use of voice allows the movement to communicate with itself, to grow from a fledgling grassroots call-to-arms to a more paramount internalization of what it means to “occupy.”  As strangers come together as bodies, to live and engage in discourse, the movement grows bigger than any park or public space.  While the reclamation of public space is, without a doubt, imperative, it is only the start.  The movement’s shifting gaze, internally, and the world’s gaze upon it, give rise to the possibility of something revolutionary.

While occupy began as a physical movement, it has grown into less tangible realms.  Occupy has grown into what I have called an infinitely open signifier.  It is individualized, though self aware.  It loosely refers to a type of paradigm shift.  The term “occupy,” once rooted in the very physicality that helped it rise as a cultural zeitgeist, is no longer chained to bodies en masse.  It has grown to occupy education, occupy the newsroom, and occupy the mind.

While less tangible, these new realms are just as powerful – perhaps more.  Occupy has successfully inserted itself into the public discourse – and for all the critics out there – I don’t think it’s going to go anywhere, anytime soon.  Raid a space, more tents spring up.  Evict bodies from a space permanently, the zeitgeist remains.  While the physicality of Liberty Square is what inspired the movement’s beginning, occupy is now so large and so multi-faceted that no amount of street cleaning or police threat will demolish it.  Frankly, there’s nowhere left to go but forward.


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