Speech and substance

I am studying at Columbia University this semester, and every time I enter Zuccotti Park, hot tears roll down my cheeks. Lately, the onset of winter has given those tears an especially pronounced effect. Such was the case on Thanksgiving Day when I entered the park – having maneuvered between the NYPD trucks, cars and motor bikes, the many police officers stationed on the surrounding blocks – and, inside, confronted the disruptive recasting of my sensorium: Arms outstretched with individually wrapped Thanksgiving dinners – “are you hungry?” – legs, hair in excess, faces, noses, posters, signs, letters, shards of plenitude; a terrain of bodies calling for a new political count, reconfiguring what Jacques Ranciere would call the police-enforced “distribution of the sensible.” In these terms, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) has succeeded not only in creating a platform on which concrete political agendas have been promoted, but also has promoted those agendas in ways that we may not easily recognize according to traditional conceptions of political agency and emancipation.

Those tears, however, even as effects of such powerful disruption, are representable now only when articulated to what is antithetical to their causative disruption: the desire for self-representation, the offering of recognition to a subject. As I registered my somatic response, I was more than just an equal participatory body; I was a calculating subject involved in the sort of transcendental narcissism upon which recognition of subjecthood (in the form of writing about crying) is necessarily predicated. Such subjecthood (from which I am moving away the more time I spend at OWS) is invested primarily in offering recognition to itself, to words, to verbiage, and it is precisely these attributes that restrict its ability to enter the realm of equal bodies and make way for the kind of disruption and political revolution that it otherwise seeks.

Whereas writing an op-ed in the Record is possible only with remnants of such subjecthood, I hope that these remnants will make way for a useful comparison between OWS’s successful political disruption and the difference in response to last month’s hate crime between a unique group of Williams students and senior administrators at the College, the latter on which I feel strongly compelled to comment. I comment, however, with the preface that, in doing so, I wish not to target particular individuals, but to reflect critically on the effect of an act of speech that assumes an authorial power but delivers empty rhetoric.

What senior administrators offered us in response to the hate crime were a series of performative gestures lacking constitutive substance. This response, reiterated at the student assembly in Goodrich and at the all-campus meeting the following Monday [Nov. 14] even after the administration’s initial response to the hate crime was rightly critiqued, made use of the following terms, and here I quote a representative speaker: “Thank you. Thank you for coming here to support … I’m really happy we’re all together. I’m so impressed that there are so many people here.” Assuming his authorial position, the speaker thanked us for showing up, and then attempted to describe the gravity of the issue, relating it to a personal narrative, placing it on a recognizable spectrum, as if the events at which he spoke were accomplishments, ends in themselves. In doing so, the speaker jeopardized the gravity of the crime, its relation to a larger systemic College problem. This constitutes a problematic misalignment between what the speaker desired or was expected to say – what his authorial position assumes – and the very little, if anything at all, that he actually said.

I’ll recount, by contrast, the response at OWS to Mayor Bloomberg’s order to clean Zuccotti Park, which at the time would have ended its occupation. The OWS organizers responded with an immediate plan to “save” the park, taking full responsibility for making sure their political movement for equality is sustained. Employing the “people’s microphone” – a system in which the speaker, relaying information in phrases, allows nearby members of the group to repeat each phrase in unison until it reaches everyone – the organizers began with the following, quoted verbatim: “I need (“I need”) volunteers (“volunteers”) to move this laundry (“to move this laundry”) over there! (“over there!”). Thank you!” What is clear: The gratuitous, unnecessary, ultimately performative final gesture of repeating the “Thank you!” wasn’t registered by the group; what was repeated, with vigor and absolute resolve, was what needed to be done. During the silence that followed, all those in attendance took not to the repetition of words, not to self-congratulatory rhetoric, not to patting each other for showing up to something that is ultimately of primary concern to them, but to action, to work, to cleaning the park. In their employment of words, they gathered as equal bodies and succeeded in avoiding eviction from the park, ultimately continuing a politically powerful movement that has, according to leading economist Jeffrey Sachs, “significantly changed political discourse in the U.S.”

Similarly, the brilliant student organizers at the College who managed the mics, gave equal right to speakers and cut short administrators when they attempted to dominate discussion, offer us a model to follow. In learning from the organizers in New York and at the College, let us not respond to trauma with words that become ends in themselves, but instead with constitutive action.


Abdullah Awad ’13 is a religion and philosophy major from Amman, Jordan. He is currently studying at Columbia.

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