Monday, November 14, 2011

Multiplicity is a Necessary Component of Postmodern Activism

The other night I was speaking with a friend about whether or not the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protesters would “be able” to present a unified goal in a similar way that the Tea Partiers are now known for their limited government agenda. The question he put forth revolved around the ability for OWS to move forward from their “we are the 99%” critique of wealth disparity towards concrete solutions and specific outcomes.

During our discussion, I was struck by the similarities between the tactics and criticisms of OWS and the freegan activists I worked with in New York City. Like OWS, freegan strategies and actions exemplified their criticisms of the status quo as oppressive, inequitable and unsustainable. In 2007 and 2008, I conducted fieldwork with freegan activists for my dissertation “‘A Revolution We Create Daily’: Freegan Alternatives to Capitalist Consumption in New York City.” Freegans are critical consumption activists working to limit their impact on the environment, consumption of resources and participation in the capitalist economy. The ethnography examines the goals, tactics and organizational structures of the movement, exploring where freeganism fits within the larger context of United States consumer, environmental and direct action movements. Freeganism in NYC is a product of and reaction to an overly commodified society that celebrates spectacle while struggling with a vacillating relationship to difference.

Postmodern is a complicated term to use: it (falsely) implies a break with a modernism and a linear progression of history.  Although there are a variety of “postmodernisms,” use of the unified term suggests that there is one, simple definition. What we mean when we talk about postmodern can vary if you talk about architecture, art or social theory. Saying something is “postmodern” from a theoretical standpoint, is to say that it embraces and celebrates difference, complexity and contestation.  It rejects that there is necessarily one metanarrative that describes or can solve all social issues.

Postmodern anthropology is a social theory of context, positionality and power which understands that world views are products of their history and experiences, not essential natures. Postmodern theory emphasizes, Richard Appignanesi et. al writes, “the local and particular as opposed to modernist universalism,” (pp116) arguing that knowledge is a construction of power that functions as a commodity— what we know and how we know it serves the status quo.

Freeganism, like postmodern theory, is a reaction to the “postmodern condition,” the highly commodified, a-historical, spectacle driven, technological, economically globalized culture. It’s helpful to view actions such as the freeganism and OWS through this postmodern lens because they are articulating a response to inequality and the status quo, and because their direct action tactics embrace multifaceted, public responses to their critiques of capitalism. These movements (or attempts at movements) are a postmodern activist response to economic, social and political frustrations that rally a diverse range of concerns. They inherently embrace difference and thus multi-messaging.

Embracing multiplicity and the potential contradictions is one of the postmodern aspects of direct action social movements. People have multiple identities and moments have numerous, equally legitimate, interpretations. In For What Tomorrow…A Dialogue, Jacques Derrida, considered the father of deconstructionism, talks about the term “différance” to challenge the idea of difference being inherently oppositional. He writes: “political choices are often determined by gradations rather than by clearly defined oppositions of the type: I am this or that. No, I am this and that; and I am this rather than that, according to situations and the urgencies at hand….différance is not an opposition, not even a dialectical opposition; it is a reaffirmation of the same,” (pp21-22). The term dialectical is used here to refer inherent logical inconsistencies. He’s saying différance is not really about difference at all but rather about recognizing the sameness in situations and people.

In many ways, this postmodern différance is liberating; it is not based on a fixed identity, but rather is fluid and allows people to participate in a variety of activities.  On October 27th, 1,484 out of 1,607 members of the General Assembly of the Occupy Oakland movement approved a general strike and day of action November 2nd. While the strike calls for participants to meet in downtown Oakland and includes plans to shut down the Port of Oakland in order to “blockade the flow of capital,” the resolution also states:
“While we are calling for a general strike, we are also calling for much more. People who organize out of their neighborhoods, schools, community organizations, affinity groups, workplaces and families are encouraged to self organize in a way that allows them to participate in shutting down the city in whatever manner they are comfortable with and capable of.”

This can be read as a call for more legally daring action, but it is also an opportunity for those more moderate “99%” to participate in other ways. The language “are comfortable with and capable of” indicates solidarity with all levels of participation. In another posting, they write: “Occupy Oakland recognizes that not all workers, students and community members will feel able to strike all day long on November 2, and we welcome any form of participation which they feel is appropriate. We urge them to join us before or after work or during their lunch hours.” A plurality of causes is an integral aspect of postmodern activism and embracing various levels of participation is a vital step towards maintaining an inclusive, equitable social movement.

What this means in terms of creating concrete outcomes isn’t clear yet. It doesn’t mean that, like other groups, OWS won’t eventually concede a unified goal. The Oakland General Strike, which calls on groups to shut down banks and corporations, is just a step towards participants trying to figure out what they’re just society looks like.

This column also appears in the online edition of Anthropology News, the official newspaper of the American Anthropological Association.  

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