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Occupy Is Failing — And That’s A Good Thing

February 7, 2012


Holy smokes, is this a welcome morsel of public intellectualism.

The entire piece is deft and deeply relevant — worth a read, for sure. And since I seem incapable of connective theorizing that extends beyond whichever book I’ve last read, or whatever idea I’ve most recently started exploring (“Neuroplasticity, you say? You know, in a weird way that comes up in this book/article/Facebook post I just read on Black politics/Barbara Kingsolver/the disappearance of bees.” Lazy, I know, but at least the randomized combinations keep things surprising), I’m struck by the similarities between the recent work of Keith Hennessey (a performance artist who just presented and workshopped here at the MFAIA program) and the kind of thinking that Jeb Purucker applies to Occupy Oakland.

“Failure” is evidently enjoying a current popularity surge within academia: Jack Halberstam and a few others are releasing books on the topic. In his lectures and hands-on workshop here, Keith discussed a recent piece of his called Turbulence, in which he explores the concept of failure — as in, a performance piece that is set up to fail. Without going too much into it, I’ll say that participating in his workshops helped remind me of (a) the fruitfulness and dignity that come from improvisation, (b) the usefulness of reflecting on failures in order to glean lessons, and (c) the ways in which, with “success” kind of off the table, we are freed up to redouble our focus on how we work together. The process.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I like success. It’s part of the reason I’ve felt so compelled and inspired by the SeaSol model: tangible wins. But I’m also kinda jazzed about this generative, improv-oriented failure thing. And the way I see it, the Occupy / Decolonize movements are a wonderful “laboratory” or improv space, because this is a movement that is set up to fail.

Remember the chorus of media criticism at the beginning? “This movement has no goals! It has no demands! It can’t win.

EXACTLY. Freed from the confines of goals or airtight “messaging,” unsustainable and seemingly destined to fail / die down / burn off like morning fog, Occupy / Decolonize became this amazing space for focusing on process, and rediscovering what it can mean to act and learn together in our own towns and cities. By breaking out of the traditional “U.S. mass movement” mold, Occupy has pushed us toward our edges — which, as any artist or can tell you, is a fantastic place to work.

Purucker articulates how, though the confrontations with cops throughout the country have illuminated the realities of police brutality (especially for those who don’t live them daily), now is the time to take our improvisations to the next level.

Saturday clearly demonstrated the limits of a mode of organizing that has thus far been successful. Up until now, Occupy has involved a contradictory and unstable mixture of liberal and more radical elements held together by a thin tissue of stories of injustice and violated ‘rights.’ This fact has led to endless unproductive disputes about the role of ‘violence’ in our movement, of which Chris Hedges is just the most recent and banal example. The problem is that if our unity can be reduced to our shared victimization, we are reliant on police and civic officials to continually give us these stories. As police tactics adapt, and as the demands we make of the system become more radical, this will become increasingly difficult. The basis of the connections we make within the movement must involve a deeper sort of radicalization.

What will the next level be? We don’t know yet. But I have a feeling that, like the first stages of the Occupy encampments, it will involve art. And it will certainly involve combinations of learning from history and making shit up as we go. In the end, we may not succeed, but we might fail (and learn) enough to get what we want.

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