Monday, October 10, 2011

More Thoughts on the "Mere Attention" Thesis

As is the custom, I read a great deal of conservative media coverage. This is in no small part because I agree with a lot the sentiments in this piece today by The Nation's Eric Alterman. I am discovering that reading the conservative coverage of the "Occupy Wall Street" movement shines some lights on one of the driving theses in contemporary political study: namely, Michael Warner's observation in Publics and Counterpublics that "A public is constituted by mere attention...The cognitive quality of that attention is less important than the mere fact of active uptake" (p. 87). I follow this, and perhaps tend to agree more often than not. After all, existence is kind of a big deal in a world where political discourses opt to deny the existence of a political "Other" with demands. Take, for example, the constant play of patriotism (this is a tactic of Right and Left, although the Right is better at it) introduced by arguments about the "Americanness" of a particular candidate, party, or political demand. Such arguments circumscribe opposition in such a way that the argument/opponent is thought not to even exist by being outside the space of "America." However, even these arguments are forced to grapple with the possible legitimacy of such claims: in and of itself a minor victory. Conservative strategies of "colorblindness" work by even denying the existence of a "marked" racial subject: their effectiveness is in their actual denial of the possibility of "attention" given to the relevant marks, by denying the existence of a racialized public sphere in the first place.

Its with this in mind that I survey three conservative responses to the OWS movement: Mark Steyn's "American Autum" at NRO, Robert McCain's "DIE YOU COWARDLY COMMIE SCUM!" on his blog and Matt Labash's eyewitness take at The Weekly Standard.

One common thought to all three columnists is a focus on the cleanliness of the protestors. McCain calls them "unwashed," while Labash calls it a "hygenic disaster area," even as Stein implies that the protestors do not know how to bathe. Now I'm not a rally planner or a master of logistics, but if your plan is to occupy a large swath of territory for a long time with a critical mass of people, many of whom are not from the area, it is unclear what options for washing exist: moreover, as these folks are in many cases people who find themselves on the wrong end of the current economic bargain, they probably could not afford hotel rooms. If we are to take these complaints at their face value, we have a standard for social protest: no social protest without regular showers! Of course it seems more likely that this argument circulates because it serves to generate a connection between the image of the unwashed longhairs of the 60's with the contemporary protests: and as those protests also rose up in the face of a Silent Majority, so to do these protestors so revel in their opposition to the establishment that they care not at all about hygiene. Or perhaps: the propriety of public space dictates no unwashed masses protesting! Please, only locally found protestors capable of showering every evening!

This might also support the "attention" thesis. The media can no longer afford to ignore the protests (unlike say, the Malachi Ritchser self-immolation in 2006) in part because the coverage of the Tea Party produced an expectation that protest action was a legitimate form of political behavior. Because the conservative opposition can no longer say "Don't bother with those clowns!" (far too many, it seems, ARE bothering with those clowns) the next step is a denigration of the actors involved: some protests might be ok, but probably only the ones where people are dressed as Colonials rather than as sixties radicals.

McCain points indirectly to this problem in his own commentary, where he complains that while the media went out of their way to find associations between the most "radical" members of the Tea Party crowd, they are not commenting upon statements of global solidarity from organizations like the Workers World Party. Of course, it took almost two weeks for major media coverage to settle upon occupy Wall Street. Counterpose this with the immediate almost universal recirculation of Rick Santelli's "Rant Heard Round the World" that launched the Tea Party: consciousness of that rant a scant two days after it happened (a rant by one person, who just happened to have an institutional megaphone) as opposed to a fairly well attended protest taking a few weeks to make it into major media narratives.

Labash's piece operates by a logic of reduction, focused on attempting to manufacture representative anecdotes for "proper" workers opposed to the protestors. Labash spends some time interviewing someone named "Spooky," and while Labash concedes that the approach has a real organic root, he finds in Spooky (a fellow who is unemployed and unabashedly trying to milk his time at OWS for food and profit) the zeitgeist of the protest: free riding for profit. Pizzas, blankets, they have it all. Labash's focus on the agency of Spooky (and those he represents) occludes the reader from asking the question about how Spooky got where he is today: why is someone so resourceful unemployed? Maybe, Labash notes, he just isn't interested in working: Spooky is homeless by choice and came from Orlando because they are not generous to panhandlers there. Labash's anecdote about Spooky takes up roughly half of his column. This allows Labash to imply his major premise: those who "choose joblessness" like Spooky so they can "come and go as they please" make up the vanguard of the protests.

Labash contrasts Spooky with a black man named David Harvey, who is well dressed, and working as a flyer distributor, who says that we ought to "Complain all you want--but on your way to work." This again, begs the question: what about those who do not have a job? The implicit rebuttal is, of course, that these people should go get jobs. Whether or not one is employed is resulted to a simple matter of individual choice: choose (wisely) to get a job or choose (irresponsibly) to not work and simply float.

Labash also quotes a magazine poll indicating that 37% of the protestors think capitalism is immoral. I must admit, given the way the conservatives describe these protests, I rather expected that number to come in at roughly double. Only slightly more than a third...meaning, what, the 0ther 63% are good red blooded Americans who also happen to have legitimate gripes?

McCain's tactic is to ask, with an even/or style, are the revolutionaries mainstream/relevant or are they wacky Communist psychopaths? McCain posits this as a forced choice, buying off and eliding another possibility: that the protests might turn out to be both radical AND popular! Such would be radical politics: a meeting between radicality and general publicity that reconfigures the political.

Mark Steyn's column advances one central argument: that the youth of American are lazy, and want to enjoy a Western lifestyle without earning it. They only like an open border policy because it brings in cheap immigrant labor to do the jobs they don't want, and they are apolectic over having massive amounts of student loans and no career prospects. The question begged is: if Americans have a trillion dollars in student loans, how is it that every individual's judgment is so woeful that they all got a student loan? And in fact if it is woeful than what good comes from reducing individual's agency in making choices (they can't be trusted to make educational decisions, obviously)? Once again being bad off is understood as a choice, with luck, misfortune, and the actions of other individuals and institutions eradicated.

All the responses manifest an anxiety about what Occupy Wall Street means. I mean that in the following way: the discursive performance of all three works acts to A) reduce the protestors to exceptional rather than representative actors, B) locate their status as unemployed/economically disadvantaged as a result of "bad judgment" or an inability to make the right choice, and C) to imply that a concern about economic status is revolutionary rather than sincere and legitimate. The "mere attention" received by Occupy Wall Street, combined with the newfound legitimacy of political protest as a form (in the wake of the Tea Party's rise) necessitates these discursive maneuvers, because the sensus communis can not be trusted to ignore the protests so long as they are receiving attention. Part of the anxiety of communication is the anxiety of interpretation and its multiples: this condition is accentuated under the conditions of liberalism, where individual judgment's sovereignty is encoded in a powerful web of social discourses. We might double down on this proposition in a democracy: the terror that a set of individual judgment's might reign sovereign, and thus reconfigure political space itself, is somewhat terrifying indeed.


  1. 1) It is really funny that the blogger ad showing on your page as I read this is "Stand with Ron Paul: Suuport the Right to Work."

    2) I think there's an interesting twist to consider the 1960s vs 2010s time lapse here. Who is it that is seemingly opposing both by paralleling them? Is it the generation in the middle - I'm presuming that might be the 1980s yuppies (so the late bloomer boomers)? Or is some other generation? Would these be the same people who put on "Woodstock II" for instance? Do previous cycles of economic crisis and recovery as they have been linked to generational turnover offer any useful insights about what we are seeing this time?

  2. Interesting generational question. I don't know. I tend to say its rather bipartisan/non-generational: we have to think historically to make meaning.