How to Occupy a Speech Act: The Mic Check as Performative Utterance

Curator's Note

The mic check is derived from the police prohibiting the amplification of occupiers' voices and involves the crowd repeating the words “mic check” uttered by an initial speaker. It is phatic; it checks to see if a channel of communication is available. It is also performative—it enacts its intention and clears a space for the speaker and auditor. The mic check works: I participated in a demonstration in which a speaker used her mic check to let everyone know that police were threatening to arrest anyone who did not move to the sidewalk. When we repeated her words, we knew what was at stake; the added volume of our voices also allowed for more protesters to hear her message. 

This repetition provides a way for collective human voices to broadcast. Borne of necessity and bordering on tediousness, the mic check is key to the creation of group identity. The speech that succeeds the mic check is also repeated, and it both encourages brevity on the part of the speaker and allows opportunity for the crowd to inhabit the speaker's words. This "echolalia" promotes intersubjectivity in occupied spaces.

The mic check reveals that listening is always already responsive. It is also expands Roman Jakobson’s notion of the empty sign (such as the word “I”) that becomes full by way of the speech act. With the mic check, the first person singular shifts to accommodate the many. When the crowd utters an “I” simultaneously, the pronoun is changed, providing the opportunity to see if the utterance also articulates the experience of its audience. When the speaker uses “we” the audience gets a chance to test out this identification--to see if the utterance is indeed valid for collective expression. The sign becomes replete with the presence of multiple “I”’s within this rhetorical “we.” The significations of I and we overlap and intertwine. In this way, the mic check forces the speech act to adapt to the demands of the newly-formed linguistic community.


I like the idea of a "democratic" version of the "royal" we, and mic check not as an act of an MC (Master of Ceremonies), but as a creator of publics (though MC's can and do intiate publics, albeit in a more top down fashion).  That said, I worry that the echolalia induced intersubjectivity you describe might limit the extent to which one public might connect with another, and in so doing fail to create a network of publics joined by a common interest.  At what point does the consolidation of this public stunt its expansion, or limit the diffsusion of its message?

N. Atkinson is correct that the intersubjectivity created with the use of the human mic can also serve as a limiter of connections; taking part in OWS protests, I thought a lot about this in terms of who is "we" and whether "we" included onlookers, the police, etc. Clearly there was a good deal of play with the "we" going on when we were chanting "We... are... the 99%" and then included "YOU... are... the 99%," chanted directly at onlookers and the police. This then shifted into "We ALL... are... the 99%" -- which is, of course, not true, especially when this was echoing off the granite edifices of Wall Street. Personally, I was using the "we" to invite passersby to join us, and to urge rank and file police officers, many of them young people of color, to cross the lines and join us during the labor marches as brother and sister union members.

But Edward Miller has identified something really powerful here, and as an example of how powerful that can be, I'd like to share a mic check by Jim Goodman, a Wisconsin dairy farmer, at the Farmers' March, 12/04/2011:

Finally, this from Wired: -- I'd love to hear thoughts on the impact of this new "solution" to the "problem" of the human mic.

It seems like this mode of calling and repeating is present in other Occupy activities, such as the reading of lists of demands and other things at General Assemblies. 

Is the Mic Check different? And to relate to Nathan's question, does this diffuse the message or the words of other performances? Or are they serving mostly as acts of unity and anonymity (or leaderlessness, perhaps)?


Thanks all for your comments and questions. 

Perhaps the unique nature of the term mic check can be seen in the ease in which it has become a verb: “to mic check.” Now the term also means staging an intervention at an event in which a political leader is speaking and forcing the leader to hear and to respond to the concerns of the specific occupiers.

To utter “mic check” is an intervention that is also enabling. It sets a precedent and lays the groundwork for the pronominal shifting that occurs afterward, so that occupiers in Zuccotti Park can announce they are also “dairy farmers from Wisconsin” even when they are not. The mic check that precedes such a statement allows for the “call and repeat” to be truthful. It sets up a zone of liminality…or what Gregory Bateson might call a frame of play. 

I agree with Catherine and Nathan about the mic check as a limitation. The mic check is a way of measuring the dimensions of the occupied space by way of acoustics, and even as it has become a ubiquitous tactic, it is always specific to a locale, and sets in motion a dynamic of “us” and “those who have not realized that they could be part of us” (e.g., the rank and file of the police) and the economically elite whose interests are being catered to by lack of regulations, bail-outs, and the dismantling of occupied sites. As I heard at the Thanksgiving table some of the speech acts of OWS are off-putting to on-lookers (who have seen/heard it via popular media) even as they seem to work in defining specific spaces of occupation. But this limitation may also serve to intensify moments of unity among occupiers... 

Catherine, I love the inhuman microphone app—and I think it may also prove to be useful in the classroom!

I think this is fascinating, so thank you. I was also intrigued, however, by some of the discipling that accompanies the mic-check and how that part of it evolved. The elimination of the 'double mic-check' (if I have that correctly), but more interestingly the turning of the human-microphone back on the speakers seem to me to be important moments of resistance or transformation of these speech-acts where the 'we' stops or a new 'us' emerges?


Yes I think that mic check is disciplining, and this can prove to be effective—and perhaps necessary—especially when it comes to interrupting politicians like Karl Rove and Michele Bachmann. But for occupiers, there are definitely “do’s and “don’t’s” -–and as you argue this extends to dress codes.


What I noticed in my first visit to Zuccotti Park was the deployment of many rules and the performance of significant rituals (including gestures) even though the park was newly occupied and relatively empty. Many of the procedures were new to me but the usefulness—and playfulness—of the rites was apparent from the get-go. Even as they constrained forms of behavior, they also allowed for variances in expressive style.

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