Occupy Wall Street as a Node of Resonance

The North American in­sur­rec­tion began when a handful of people oc­cu­pied public space and began pro­du­cing res­on­ance. This is the ma­terial force that toppled three polit­ical re­gimes in North Africa and can only be pro­duced by mul­ti­tudes coming to­gether on the streets. Liberty Square be­came a human as­semblage that de­bates, eats, sings, drums, marches, sleeps, and dreams to­gether and, in doing so, turns space into a ma­chine of res­on­ance gen­er­a­tion. This res­on­ance is em­bodied in the human mic that makes bodies speak in unison and vi­brate to­gether. The node of res­on­ance in New York has ra­di­ated its force in all dir­ec­tions and pre­cip­it­ated the emer­gence of a con­tin­ental polit­ical move­ment whose spa­tial form is the rhizome: a de-​centered, ho­ri­zontal, multi-​sited as­semblage of myriad other nodes in­ter­con­nected with each other and re­cog­nizing no au­thority other than the col­lective power gen­er­ated by the nodes.

The tem­por­ality of this spa­tial form, also gen­er­ated in Tunisia and Egypt, seems his­tor­ic­ally unique and de­serves closer scru­tiny. In what fol­lows I seek to ex­amine the shifting spa­tial form and af­fective pulsa­tions of the nodes that make up the local ar­tic­u­la­tions of a lead­er­less anti-​capitalist network.

Nodes of res­on­ance ex­pand by af­fecting people else­where and making them res­onate. But this ex­pan­sion only takes place if it in­volves re­ceptive audi­ences. Countless nodes of res­on­ance dis­sipate be­cause they en­counter a limit in audi­ences that are not af­fected, or are af­fected neg­at­ively. In North America, the in­spir­a­tion cre­ated by the node of res­on­ance on Tahrir Square and the des­pair gen­er­ated by Obama’s un­apo­lo­getic em­brace of the cap­it­alist looters fi­nally cre­ated a more re­ceptive polit­ical to­po­graphy, a fer­tile ground for the ex­pan­sion and mul­ti­plic­a­tion of anti-​systemic spa­tial nodes.

The power of the res­on­ance first cre­ated on Liberty Square on September 17 has been its sus­tained tem­por­ality: the fact that it has been re­ver­ber­ating con­tinu­ously for al­most two months. Yet the tem­por­ality of res­on­ance ex­pan­sion is not linear or pre­dict­able and never will be. Political res­on­ances do not simply “propagate” in a smooth space free of ma­terial and af­fective obstacles, as if they were waves cre­ated by a stone falling on a pond. Resonance ex­pan­sion is un­even and a per­manent arena of dis­pute in­volving mul­ti­tudes on the street, mes­sages and im­ages cir­cu­lating at high speed through media net­works, and state vi­ol­ence. And this tem­por­ality is not Bergson’s, un­folding on dead, un­chan­ging space. The oc­cupy move­ment is not acting on a fixed spa­tial matrix; it is trans­forming the ma­terial form and af­fective nature of space. The rhizome of nodes of res­on­ance now in­ter­con­necting hun­dreds of sites all over North America has changed the polit­ical cli­mate be­cause it has changed the shape of space.

In a re­cent and im­portant piece, Judith Butler wrote that while demon­stra­tions de­pend on the prior phys­ical ex­ist­ence of streets and squares to exist, “it is equally true that the col­lective ac­tions col­lect the space it­self, gather the pave­ment, and an­imate and or­ganize the ar­chi­tec­ture. As much as we must in­sist on there being ma­terial con­di­tions for public as­sembly and public speech, we have also to ask how it is that as­sembly and speech re­con­figure the ma­ter­i­ality of public space, and pro­duce, or re­pro­duce, the public char­acter of that ma­terial en­vir­on­ment.” Butler poses the right ques­tion, but does not get to an­swer it in full. Nodes of res­on­ance, in­deed, gather, an­imate, and or­ganize parks and squares and re­con­figure their ma­ter­i­ality. But to say that a node has changed a “space” or a “place” gives us only a lim­ited glimpse of this ma­terial trans­form­a­tion. These con­cepts pre­vent us from seeing that what changed is the form and af­fective pulsa­tion of what I pro­pose to call the ter­rain. This essay, in­spired by the oc­cupy move­ment, is my first at­tempt to out­line the prin­ciples of a theory of the ter­rain, which I first began ex­ploring in my review-​essay on the doc­u­mentary Restrepo.

The ter­rain is space as phys­ical form. The ex­plor­a­tion of its polit­ical sa­li­ence in the global in­sur­rec­tions that are chan­ging the world de­mands an ap­proach to space as form first ar­tic­u­lated by Henri Lefebvre. In The Urban Revolution, he wrote that the urban should be con­ceived as a par­tic­ular form, “that can best be ap­pre­ci­ated at night from an air­plane.” When we see the urban form from above, we can identify a spa­tial density that or­gan­izes mo­bility around a core. Cities are dis­tinct shapes of that form. It is not sur­prising that New York City is usu­ally rep­res­ented visu­ally from the sky: a dense con­glom­erate of tall build­ings (with a green rect­angle in the middle) sat­ur­ating an is­land on the edge of the Atlantic and sur­rounded by a much wider urban density sprawling in all dir­ec­tions. The form of the twin towers, like­wise, was in­sep­ar­able from their de­struc­tion ten years ago, be­cause their dis­tinct ver­tical form at the tip of Manhattan at­tracted the hi­jacked planes like a magnet. Paris is equally in­sep­ar­able from its form (which is also best dis­tin­guished from above): the waving course of the Seine, the flat ho­rizon ex­tending over build­ings of the same height, the ver­tic­ality of the Eiffel power.

But the view from above is also the eye of the state, which is re­ified on the two-​dimensional flat­ness of maps. And this pan­op­tical field of vision evokes tran­scend­ence de­tached from ac­tual bodies. Alfred Korzybski said it in 1931, “the map is not the ter­rain.” This is why the ter­rain, once it is ap­pre­ci­ated as form from above, can only be ex­amined in its con­tested rug­ged­ness from the ground level, where the eyes and bodies of non-​state actors move, act, plot, and face the vi­ol­ence of the state.

The people cur­rently gen­er­ating nodes of res­on­ance all over North America know all too well they are fully im­mersed in the three-​dimensional forms of the ter­rain: the park, the tents, the build­ings around them. More im­port­antly, the ter­rain of the nodes is a space in flux, first, be­cause bodies in mo­tion are pro­foundly phys­ical (if clearly dis­tinct) com­pon­ents of its ma­ter­i­ality. The ter­rain is, in this re­gard, in­sep­ar­able from human ac­tion and mo­bility. The node of res­on­ance in New York is a stri­ation of the spa­tial smooth­ness of Liberty Square that is “real, phys­ical” (as Reverend Billy de­scribed the oc­cupy move­ment): a maze of bodies, tents, sleeping bags, laptops, food, and sign­posts that make up a form of an elastic nature, made and re­made by pat­terns of movement.

These pat­terns in­volve not only pro­testers but also the ef­forts by the po­lice to dis­rupt and dis­mantle this form using phys­ical force. The same way the cre­ative labor of the pro­testers pro­duced the node as a phys­ical living form, the vi­ol­ence of the po­lice is aimed at phys­ic­ally des­troying the node as a par­tic­ular col­lective form that stri­ates public space in un­coded ways. This is why the the po­lice vi­olent at­tacks on nodes of res­on­ance cre­ates wide­spread bodily damage and ma­terial debris: the ruins of the node.

But the form of the node is also made up of the built en­vir­on­ment, which is in each case dis­tinct. A dis­tinct di­men­sion of the spa­tial form of Occupy Wall Street is that it is sur­rounded by tall build­ings: the cor­porate ver­tic­ality that defines much of the form of the Manhattan grid: the phallic form of ab­stract space. The his­tory of this park re­veals how this space was secreted by cap­ital: a cor­por­a­tion built Liberty Square in ex­change for being au­thor­ized by the city to build, next to it, a tower above city-​approved limits.

A public space under cor­porate sov­er­eignty was the form that this cor­por­a­tion was asked to create in ex­change for a fur­ther pull to­ward the spa­tial smooth­ness of the sky, where the cap­it­alist fantasies of ab­so­lute speed on smooth space seem more real. That is the ver­tic­ality bril­liantly par­odied by Stephen Colbert, who gazed at Occupy Wall Street from above in a nearby building, safe in the heights of cor­porate space. The state has its own pan­op­ticum on Liberty Square, an odd, ver­tical ro­botic struc­ture that looks at the node from above through dark win­dows, per­man­ently ob­serving the form of the node.

That pro­testers, un­like the state, look around them ho­ri­zont­ally (rather than above) also sig­nals that the field of vision of the in­sur­rec­tion, un­like the pan­op­ticum eye of the state, is grounded on the af­fective, shifting, mo­bile ma­ter­i­ality of the ter­rain. This is a rhizomic eye that, armed with myriad re­cording devices and con­nected to the web, cre­ates a non-​state pan­op­ticum: the eye of a mul­ti­tude scan­ning the streets for im­ages of state vi­ol­ence that can be then dis­sem­in­ated glob­ally and used against the state.

The cur­rent ma­terial form of Liberty Square can cer­tainly be called “a place.” But treating it as a place and not as a node with a dis­tinct form ab­stracts, first, the bodily and res­onant pres­ence that has re­made it and, second, the myriad ma­terial re­la­tions and flows that in­ter­con­nect Liberty Square with the rest of the city and the rest of the world. A node is not just any space but a point of en­tan­gle­ment, thick­ness, and ar­tic­u­la­tion that opens re­la­tions with other nodes in the rhizome and with the mul­ti­pli­city of the global else­where. And a node is a space whose form is not tem­por­arily stable.

What the con­cepts of place and space cannot really ac­count for is that the ma­terial form of the ter­rain has a tem­por­ality that changes the very form of space. In many parts of the world, the ma­ter­i­ality of the ter­rain changes dra­mat­ic­ally from one season to the next. In the South American Gran Chaco (where I have con­ducted most of my an­thro­po­lo­gical field­work), the rainy season that be­gins in December trans­forms a flat, semi­arid re­gion into a vast and im­pass­able swamp. The ter­rain be­comes so sat­ur­ated with water that for a few months space is at points defined by vis­cosity rather than solidity. Russia in the winter epi­tom­izes how the freezing of the ground and the massive pres­ence of solid blocs of snow alter the form of the ter­rain in an equally ma­terial way. And these shifting forms severely re­strain human mo­bility. The sea­sonal stri­ation of the Russian flat­lands was cru­cial in the de­feat of a Nazi war ma­chine stopped on its tracks by the huge phys­ical obstacles planted on the ter­rain by “General Winter.”

Likewise, the ar­rival of colder tem­per­at­ures throughout North America has trans­formed the form and pulsa­tion of the nodes of res­on­ance. In late October, a snowstorm fell over the east coast and covered many nodes, in­cluding Liberty Square, with snow and freezing tem­per­at­ures. A sensory af­fect, cold, cre­ated a new pri­ority: to pro­tect the bodies from it by fur­ther trans­forming the form of the ter­rain. Contradicting many pun­dits’ pre­dic­tions, the early ar­rival of winter con­di­tions pre­cip­it­ated not the end of the nodes but their phys­ical trans­form­a­tion into more solid winter quar­ters. In Occupy Toronto, pro­testers set up three Mongolian wood huts with a heater in­side and rap­idly in­su­lated tents with rolls of foam thermal sheeting. At Occupy Wall Street, the con­fis­ca­tion by the po­lice of their fuel gen­er­ators changed the node in a dif­ferent way: through the in­tro­duc­tion of a dozen bicycle-​mounted gen­er­ators. These gen­er­ators that trans­form bodily en­ergy into elec­tric en­ergy graph­ic­ally il­lus­trates that the node is the bodies sus­taining it through their own res­on­ances. The res­on­ance an­im­ating the node is the same used to re­charge bat­teries, create heat, and provide the node with “people’s power.”

The tem­por­ality in the phys­ical changes on the ter­rain, how­ever, is primarily the product of polit­ical forces that re­veal the af­fective nature of the ter­rain, i.e. its power to af­fect. Political res­on­ance usu­ally ex­pands in bursts pro­duced by af­fective shocks. In both North Africa and North America, in­sur­gent res­on­ances ex­panded dra­mat­ic­ally when the public was ex­posed to im­ages of state vi­ol­ence against peaceful protestors. These im­ages af­fected thou­sands and made them act, cre­ating a ter­rain more re­ceptive to anti-​status quo res­on­ances and pro­du­cing fur­ther changes in the form of the node. As in Egypt, at­tempts by the state to shut down the nodes of res­on­ance on Liberty Square and else­where have back­fired and made them bigger and stronger, even if some nodes are in­deed tem­por­arily dis­rupted. The rhizomic form of the oc­cupy move­ment is most ap­parent in its lead­er­less and multi-​centered spa­tial elasti­city, which has been dis­rupted here and there but only mo­ment­arily and without dis­rupting the rhizomic whole. “A rhizome may be broken, shattered at a given spot, but it will start up again on one of its old lines, or on new lines”; and these lines “al­ways tie back to one an­other” (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 9).

Because the spa­tial nodes of the oc­cupy move­ment are outward-​looking, ad­apt­able, and elastic, they have propag­ated the phys­ical pres­ence of their anti-​capitalist res­on­ances else­where in the urban fabric through reg­ular marches and demon­stra­tions. This re­veals that the ma­terial trans­form­a­tions on the ter­rain gen­er­ated by the rhizome are polit­ic­ally ex­pansive and work through lines of­spa­tial sat­ur­a­tion: the sat­ur­a­tion of space with a high density of bodies and sounds. This spa­tial sat­ur­a­tion is the “Occupy Everywhere.” It was the spa­tial sat­ur­a­tion of the streets, after all, cre­ated by huge mul­ti­tudes all over Egypt on February 10 2011, which over­whelmed the Mubarak re­gime and its media modulations.

This sat­ur­a­tion is dis­rupting, even if only loc­ally and for brief mo­ments, the ma­terial and ideo­lo­gical flow of the capitalist-​state ma­chine, cre­ating stri­ations on the smooth space of cap­ital. A case in point is the ex­plosive rise of the node of Occupy Oakland, which shut down a node in the flow of the global cap­it­alist cur­rent (the port) and has now spilled over onto the UC Berkeley campus. At a smaller scale, this is also the sat­ur­a­tion cre­ated by pro­testers who in­filt­rated man­i­cured in­door spaces where Republican politi­cians (such as the Wisconsin gov­ernor or Michele Bachman) were propagating the usual cap­it­alist pro­pa­ganda. Those spaces were im­mersed in, and dis­rupted by, the col­lective res­on­ance of the “mic check!”

The state has re­sponded with spa­tial sat­ur­a­tions of its own, which at the level of the street in­volve massive po­lice forces and the use of teargas. Teargas is the smell of all in­sur­rec­tions. Its smell and cloud form re­veals that the state has lost con­trol of the streets to mul­ti­tudes that need to be dis­persed with chem­icals. The use of teargas by the Oakland po­lice in late October marked, for this reason, a threshold: the coming of age of the oc­cupy move­ment as a coast-​to-​coast in­sur­rec­tion and the con­sol­id­a­tion of Oakland as the main node of res­on­ance on the west coast.

These mul­tiple and ever shifting forms of spa­tial sat­ur­a­tion create dis­son­ance: rup­tures in the everyday flow of the cor­porate or­dering of the world. And hereby lies the polit­ical neg­at­ivity guiding the af­firm­ative pres­ence of the oc­cupy move­ment: the cre­ation of widening cracks in the cor­porate spa­tial fabric. Yet this ex­pansive res­on­ance is im­mersed in a per­manent field of struggle with the state ma­chine, which is re­cur­rently trying to shut down the nodes both phys­ic­ally and through the cre­ation of its own af­fective shocks: news re­ports about drug abuse, sexual abuse, and vi­ol­ence at the nodes that seek to make the public fearful and less re­ceptive to the res­on­ances gen­er­ated by them. The media tells the public what the state wants to hear: that these are nodes of dis­son­ance devoid of pos­it­ivity; sources of anti-​systemic in­stability that are threat­ening, dan­gerous, dirty, pol­luting. The re­cent wave of at­tempts by the state to shut down nodes all over North America, in­cluding the raiding of Liberty Square which is hap­pening as I finish this essay, make ap­parent what pro­testers already know: that the fu­ture of this in­cip­ient but growing in­sur­rec­tion de­pends on their ca­pa­city to keep these nodes res­on­ating so that their ex­pansive dis­son­ances begin dis­rupting the global cap­it­alist machine.

From Space and Politics

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