Notes from Downtown

Not too long after those marches we went to in DC that so effectively stopped the war in Iraq, a friend of mine said one of those sentences that got pasted on my brain like a bumper sticker*. “Chanting in unison,” he said, “makes me ambivalent about, oh, just about everything.” I had felt this way, if I hadn’t had quite the words for it. A friend of mine recently told me I sounded like a Woody Allen character when I said one reason I didn’t go to protests anymore was that repeating after other people made me feel too much like I was twelve years old and at Yom Kippur services.

There were better reasons, too. It just felt like an outmoded tactic, marginalized out of any influence by time and money and, maybe somewhere, cynical or even malevolent volition. The march I remember in DC was deeply dispiriting. It was big, and we were very certain we were right, and it was in and out of the papers in a day. Nobody cared except us and possibly Anne Fucking Coulter.

Maybe Occupy Wall Street will vanish, too. It’s cold out there, and momentum is not an easy thing to regain. But already this is very different. NY1 is talking about it right now as I type, and the guy is saying it’s two months already it’s in the news. Fait accompli, as much noted: a substantive, non-negligible redirecting of public discourse, an energizing of some dormant leftist impulse, the wide dissemination of things about class you and I and all our friends knew and considered important, and the grudging attention of the ever centripetal leftish establishment.

Making a demand is a very short process if it’s denied. This is process that resists resolution for the moment, and that’s almost entirely good. Favorite concepts of mine like “negative capability” and “sitting with the question” are in operation here, and that means we’re already off the script, off the chute from gratification to impotence.

I’ve gone a couple of times. I’ve gone to show support for something that my gut says is right despite some misgivings, and to sort out my own feelings about the whole thing. I went with a friend with whom I’d never had a political conversation, and we had one. I’ve talked to strangers, which is easy to do there, and been alienated by a few zealots, and wondered how much I will participate and what I should do.

Your fellow Whatsiteer and I went down on Saturday. We stood near the southeastern corner of Zuccotti Park and watched a charismatic young woman facilitate a basically uninteresting General Assembly that, while we were there, was focused on whether fifteen people marching to DC could and should use the name “Occupy Wall Street.” Two months in, the crowd was orderly, attentive to established process, ruly when prodded to be more attentive, and I think it’s fair to say, alive with purpose and good will.

We participated in the human microphone, the technique I’m told was devised by farm workers, and here used to sidestep the problems of amplification. The speaker’s words are echoed by the crowd, outward in enough waves to reach the edge. It is a speech act not unrelated to the lamentable three-word chant, except it’s engaging and utile. It accomplishes a number of things at once including, I daresay, shunting that need to speak that causes people to tell their life stories in the form of questions into a focusing activity rather than a diffusing one.

Repeating words that have just been thought up sidesteps the numbness that comes from what is more properly termed chanting. It didn’t feel like Yom Kippur is what I’m trying to say.

*My favorite of these is my friend S’s unintended manifesto “The history of me working for other people can be summed up in the question ‘who the hell are you to tell me what to do?’”

3 responses to “Notes from Downtown”

  1. swells says:

    I like the idea that “resisting resolution” is almost an end in itself as it keeps the conversation going. I have worried over the inevitable fizzling out of the movements everywhere as the weather gets colder and the occupiers lose their zeal for the movement in the face of discomfort and boredom. Is the rest of America just waiting them out, waiting either for that to happen or for them to implode on themselves by stupid acts of violence and frustration that end up turning everyone against them? In either scenario, what happens then–did “we” “lose”? Thinking about it in these terms, of more abstract goals and more enduring discussions, lets me see what I wanted to see in it all along but didn’t know how to say.

  2. J-Man says:

    I’m glad that you described this “human microphone”. I was listening yesterday to a piece by Alex Chadwick on a documentary radio program called “Unfictional”, in which he spent a few days with Occupy Wall Street. At several times during the half-hour broadcast, there was this repetitious chanting in the background that sounded to me like a sort of methodical brainwashing exercise. I found it both interesting and somewhat disturbing, and I was mostly waiting for him to explain what they were doing, which he never did. Having been to many, many protests and marches, you’d think that I’d know this technique, but it just shows how slovenly I’ve become in my middle age.

  3. F. P. Smearcase says:

    Swells: We talked this weekend about what should be done when everyone goes indoors. Not conclusively, of course. D said one big mistake would be to make the occupation virtual/online, and he was right. I don’t know what happens next.

    J-Man another interesting thing about it, I think, is that it discourages speechifying. You have to talk in short phrases and your intonation and rhetorical fire will be immediately lost. It discourages those people that think they’ve got then next “I have a dream” up their sleeves. It improves the communication:performance ratio.