In response to OWS’s plans to reassemble on its anniversary (#S17) to shut down Wall Street, the forces of order took the unimaginative step of quite literally walling the street. Mikey B is a no nonsense kind of guy. Zuccotti Park and the Stock Exchange are now enclosed by lines of concrete, aluminum, and steel; atop some of these formations perches an NYPD observation post. Humorous preparations for a movement declared long dead, no doubt.
The enclosure of Zuccotti is intriguing for the light it sheds on the processes by which social symbols are formed. No doubt there are tactical reasons that motivated the police to enclose Zuccotti—a rare open space downtown, it is an ideal convergence point for mass actions. But there are others in the vicinity, others that OWS will be using on Monday. It’s clear, I think, that the social-symbolic role of Zuccotti exceeds its possible tactical function. To be sure, the becoming-symbol of the park does not mean that it utterly abstracts or detaches itself from the non-symbolic. Rather, the symbol of the park always refers us back to tactics, to struggle and antagonism: this symbol is the sedimentation of past and projected/future social confrontations. The tactical and the symbolic, the material and the discursive co-constitute one another, interpenetrate: the wall around Zuccotti is both a wall and something-more, but this excess of meaning is not separable from the wall’s construction in the first place. Discourse moves matter, matter moves discourse, each movement indexing the intensification of social antagonisms. I’m interested, here, in how the wall attempts policing—policing in a broad sense of an entire material-discursive coding apparatus—and thus re-coding this antagonism, and re-coding it is non-antagonistic.
First reading: The construction of the wall amounts to a tactical-symbolic inversion of the intentions of OWS. Looking at the wall, one gets a sense that the police are keeping the plebes of Occupy from accessing a space reserved for powerful patricians. This is no doubt true, as we will see. But the concrete-symbolic practice of keeping-out inverts the deeper structure of the intentionality of OWS and of the police. Simply put, OWS does not want to inscribe itself into a space of power, it does not want to enter capitalism—rather, it wants to force an exit, to detach itself from capitalism, to separate itself utterly and completely from power. It is rather the state that wishes to keep us inside of capital, immanent to the relations of command that constitute it. The construction of the wall and the social choreography that the wall invites—demonstrators clamoring to get inside of the park, as they entered it last night at the end of a march, as they sat in it tonight, after filing in one by one, for a Rosh Hashanah celebration—inverts the orientation and directionality of the antagonism.
Second reading: The construction of the wall amounts to a tactical-symbolic ironization of the intentions of OWS. Looking at the space enclosed by the wall, one gets a sense that there is no there there—that conquering this space would not be worth the fight, and any attempt to seize this space would simply be the result of a few bad eggs bloc’ed up and looking for a confrontation. The empty space enclosed by the wall nullifies and expresses the nullity of the desires of OWS; the desire of the plebes to enter the park seems devoid of content, as empty as the empty park they would try to occupy. The wall, in short, encloses a non-target; the intentionality of OWS is non-targeted, its aims at best contrarian, purely formal and reactive to a Power that says No, You Can’t Enter Here. The construction of the park as a targeted non-target de-positivizes the telos of OWS.
The wall, then, attempts two coding operations: On one hand, it accords a substantive rationality to radical intentionality, but it attempts to conduct it, to transform the directionality of struggle: the will to flee capital reappears as the will to get inside it. On the other hand, by constructing the park as a targetable and targeted non-target, it declares the intentionality of OWS to be merely formal and reactive: OWS would not know what it wanted if the walls disappeared. If the state said, sure, okay, have the park, pitch a tent if you want, then OWS would be revealed to lack an aim. The police, with their wall, are both directors of and actors in an insubstantial social drama, self-consciously constructing the possibility of a drama, but a drama about nothing, with no stakes, in which to win is to display the insubstantiality of the victory. In aiming for the park, OWS either aims for capital or for nothing.
Let’s note one bizarre and frightening effect of this ambidextrous coding operation. This concrete repressive apparatus of the police radiates the claim that it is repressing nothing. It redirects and conforms our aims with the dominant or it exposes the utter non-positivity of our aims—but repress? No way. Oddly, this understanding of police has percolated through the movement; when police repression is discussed, it is addressed on a level of pure formality, as the police’s violation of liberal-democratic rights—to gather and assemble, to speak and to express oneself collectively. We become more concerned about the violation of constitutional principles than about the violation of ourselves, of activists gathered-there-together. And so, in effect, the intentionality of Occupy is conducted toward liberal capitalism, its rights guarantees and its constitutional state; and so, in effect, Occupy events seem increasingly to be merely reactive to a power that willfully and eagerly oversteps legal restraints, a power to which we cry “shame shame shame” and “who do you protect” etc as if that were the full point of the action. The aim of our actions, in short, becomes staging situations in which it becomes proper to demand that the liberal-capitalist state and its constitutional guarantees protect us from its armed minions.
The Wall Effect, then: it encourages us to place our faith in constituted, constitutional power. Even as we’re cynical about the intentions of that power, demanding and petitioning become the sole modes of self-help available to us: “Mr Bloomberg, tear down this wall…” We thus ignore the extent to which the wall, the entire material-discursive apparatus of the police, does in fact repress something: our substantive and virtual potential, our constitutive and constituent power that, in its extensive and intensive mobility, exceeds the formalism of constituted Power, its mechanisms of control, capture, and reform. It represses us from moving into that time-space just before us, a field of potential that was once named Liberty Square.
And, so, a third reading, one that adopts the antagonistic perspective of constituted versus constituent power, of Power (calcified and senescent) versus power—mobile and youthful, filled with potential: The wall is just a fucking wall, a contraption of metal and concrete designed to inhibit the construction and realization of alternative modalities of being in the world. It is the vulgarity and stupidity of power, the concretion of the sheer barbarism and brutality required to keep people in their places. It’s not a sign of anything; it is repression, violence, and another brick in the wall of a whole state apparatus. Dividing us from our world-making force, just a fucking wall.
Smashing it would almost accord it too high an honor.