by Joseph Natoli
January 17, 2012
In a new kindle book, Occupying Here & Now: The New Class Warfare, I re-kindle a radical-in-theory approach to Occupy Wall Street. That approach is most likely most radical for representing any gasp of postmodernity or post-postmodernity as still “radical.”
The extinction of the word is apt within the postmodern’s own narrative of the rise and fall of the significance of signifiers in accord with the rise and fall of … narratives. The postmodern fell upon its own sword. Or, you could look at its demise as one impaneled at its very unclear and never quite nailed down beginnings. We were all anxious to see the end of such troubling and annoying opaqueness. While photographers and architects offered a recognizable postmodern art, the idea of postmodernity as a paradigm after Enlightenment modernity and detached from 20th century modernity never seemed to be spelled out clearly. The possibility of anything being “spelled out clearly,” however, was itself a postmodern interrogation.
Historical, material and objective conditions, to bring Marx onto the stage, rushed, almost overnight, the postmodern from the stage. I refer specifically to the pressing need after September 11th, 2001 to “spell out clearly” that here indeed was an absolute evil to be universally defined as such for all time. What the postmodern attitude could offer was far less than what was needed.
The notion that geography – place and time – determined what we conjectured as “reality” and that was not only therefore varied but in motion had suddenly lost whatever appeal it had. The notion that truth was a sentence could hardly suffice when what was needed was an unquestioned truth grounded in hard evidence. Such evidence was there in a hard world of fact lying outside any sentence, evidence that could be summoned to arbitrate the truth or falsehood of words.
These remain disturbing as well as confounding notions. We have rushed back to fully determinate and authorized truths and a Reality that is what it is for all of us and in no way trifled with, at least for long, by words, by stories, by images and spectacles, by spins and a media circus.
But of course we have not really rushed back and words are still trifled with. We’re in a bigger circus, one with infinite number of rings, an old fashioned Offline reality and a new cyberspace Online reality. Two geographies to deal with. And because cyberspace is not duplex but multi-plex, we have expanded our confusion exponentially. The more you google, the more you know and the more you know, the more understanding you have. But of course we have not. Think of Google as a Pandora’s Box once opened, never to be shut. Or, think of it as a sort of after-the-Fall Tree of Knowledge, not the paradise one which promised celestial understanding but the google one, the one that speedily delivers our exponentially growing confusion. The Web is aptly named.
It is not, however, cyberspace that the Occupy Wall Street movement targets. They target – let us be direct – the sort of capitalism that has led to plutocracy and all the evils of such. Cyberspace may proliferate narratives at digital speed but that is, in effect, no more than a display of our narrative making genius, the carnival of our own human natures. The intent of OWS, without manifesto and demands, is there to be found in cyberspace, a command center for mobilizing those of like intent.
In a darker view, what OWS protests has much to do with the way capitalism has not only enlisted cyberspace as well as all technology in a quest to occupy brain space, in a quest to broadcast a credo of relentless ever growing profits at the expense of a planet that cannot endure such an assault.
The postmodern mindset has contributed to this darkness by contributing its insights to the powerful forces of politics, economics, and the media, more specifically to political campaigns and lobbying, marketing and advertising, news and entertainment. But the over-riding power that dominates the U.S. most forcefully since Reagan is globalized techno-capitalism. What capitalism does to postmodernity is take what it needs, like a bargain basement sale, and then shuts down the “–ism” so sharply that we’re all ashamed to have shown an interest. Marxism may now be laughable on the global techno-capitalist stage but postmodernity is just embarrassing. There is nothing more to be mocked in a world of second by second tweets than the archaic. And yet if we are to understand how the Occupiers have re-modeled class warfare, we need to understand the postmodern adjustment to everything we hold in regard to self, others and world.
The very nature or essence of material reality is, for humans, what it is culturally mediated to be. Hard facts may be softened or clouded by rhetoric, by talk which has always been a minion of money, hence the expression “nothing talks louder than money.” Though we continue to bow to a tradition of rationality and realism in which reason will reveal reality, especially reason as employed in the scientific method, science has not been exempt from the turn to a postmodern attitude.
While there is a need of the social order to hold on to an undisputed way of revealing reality and the truths therein, there is also evidence that both politics and marketing recognize no such constraints and operate in a “free zone” in which anything can be fixed as real and true if “branded” effectively. When “hard” science threatens profit, as for instance in regard to “global warming” or nuclear waste disposal or how much arsenic in baby formula is okay, and so on, it is “softened” by an opposing narrative that may be no more than “the science is not yet in.” What such opposition always does, however, is place any “hard” science that threatens profit into doubt and creates a politically partisan situation to argue over and take sides. Interminably.
The individual self that is to become a “class warrior” is now in the postmodern world not so much a product of real economic conditions but a “self” shaped within representations of such conditions.
It’s possible then for an individual who would not survive without his Social Security check or his Medicaid or Medicare or his unemployment checks to adopt a narrative which calls for the termination of such “entitlements.”
“Realistic assessments” are a matter of geography and the effectiveness of sentences. Some unpacking of this to come but the point here is that everything hard and fast, everything materialistically and objectively determining are all now in a postmodern clime wrapped up within a cultural narrative frame. The “realistic assessment” you make depends on when and where you are. Powerful sentences linked together to form powerful narratives shape consciousness and the consciousness of anything.
Once again, it doesn’t matter if a culture has moved on to a “post” whatever, as, say to a “post-feminism,” or to a “post-post-modernism” if those events have changed a cultural imaginary and are now implanted there. Politics and marketing are reliable employers of a view that reality is narrated and as such only to be refuted by other narratives and therefore unimpeachable in any Supreme court of judgment.
It’s not simply that someone has been misled by the squawk of Rush Limbaugh but that that “someone’s” identity is already squawk-shaped. The “hard” reality of their situation doesn’t retrieve them from false consciousness because that “hard” reality has already been softened/mediated by a squawk narrative. Consciousness, too, is only conscious within the walls of that narrative.
Because reason is plotted within a narrative and not a free-ranging chicken, reasoning well means no more than reasoning in accordance with what and how reason is demonstrated and used within a particular narrative. Men who argued that women were too emotional and too irrational to vote, or, that black people needed to be enslaved in their own best interests, or, that Native Americans could be exterminated because they didn’t have souls were considered as making rational arguments. Geography and sentence.
Those of the “Free to Personally Choose!” persuasion don’t sidle up to a statement like this. Scientists object, but then the conclusions of science have been objected to in our conservative reign. If a Master Voice of unstoppable globalized techno-capitalism offers us a “reasoning” that supports it, why would we believe that science also is not made to bend and comply? We are awash in instances of this.
“Truth is a sentence” means that what we represent as truth relies on the representation and not any appeal to any reference point outside “Geography” confirming the truth of what we say. And it is here that the media, including cyberspace which has kicked up the “reachability” level of lobbyists, marketers and branders to astronomical levels, turns the undeniable circus of human nature toward a profit-making confusion.
The media is shaped to follow through on a Karl Rove tactic and that tactic is this: in our postmodern clime in which repetition and volume determine “truth” and “reality,” it is essential for the Few who are looting the Many to voice their defending stories – what Nietzsche called “alibis” – often and everywhere. Turn every issue into a debate of equally strong briefs. In a clime when it is now impossible for any side to validate and therefore legitimize its story but only in a self-authorizing way, all that needs be done is to befog or muddy your opponent’s brief, throw it into a state of undecidability.
If you proceed in this fashion with every issue and take advantage of the media’s need to transmit every issue to feed its 24/7 appetite, an over-stimulation of the consciousness of your audience is created.
This I would argue explains much as to why the Many in the U.S. turn from politics as a messy business and politicians as equally at fault. What lurks, however, is awareness by those who have benefited from the casino-like dispensations of capitalism that the unbalanced and unfair support of the wealthy Few by the exploited Many may reach an “exposure moment.” The continued adulation of the Many for those proven entrepreneurial geniuses who are “the engine driving the whole economy,” may vanish and its opposite take the stage. The fog will lift; the emperor is seen as naked; and Americans may have not a Founding Fathers’ real estate revolution but an Old World one, a very French one.
The “exposure moment” entails what?
What does a full disclosure, complete discovery, totally transparent Exposure Moment amount to? Is the OWS movement heading toward such an Exposure Moment? Is that the moment the Very Many will realize that the wealthy just keep getting wealthier, that profits don’t return to workers’ salaries, that giving huge bonuses to Wall Street executives doesn’t improve the schools or the roads or, in fact, anything that the “Public” might use and need, that democracy turned to plutocracy means the end of social and economic mobility, the end of a middle class in everything but name?
The reality of such a moment sparked by an awareness that goes beyond OWS awaits the empowering narratives of a time and a place, of geography. Judging by the backlash to OWS –signs which read “I was told there would be cake” – and the wide spread view that protesters should shut up and get a job indicate that the geography we seek is not the present geography. Though I see no authorizing power in what we discover in history, I do believe that we cannot fully understand the narratives we live within if we fail to view their emergence and fate in other times.
The 1848 revolutions in Europe that announced a “Springtime of the Peoples” arose from a geography more similar to the U.S.’s than our contemporary Arab Spring revolutions. The reason may be a strong presence of a middle class in Europe at that time.
Here’s what Mikhail Bakunin wrote in this “Springtime” revolutionary spirit:
Everywhere, especially in France and England, social and religious societies are being formed which are wholly alien to the world of present-day politics, societies that derive their life from new sources quite unknown to us and that grow and diffuse themselves without fanfare. The people, the poor class, which without doubt constitutes the greatest part of humanity; the class whose rights have already been recognized in theory but which is nevertheless still despised for its birth, for its ties with poverty and ignorance, as well as indeed with actual slavery – this class, which constitutes the true people, is everywhere assuming a threatening attitude and is beginning to count the ranks of its enemy, far weaker in numbers than itself, and to demand the actualization of the right already conceded to it by everyone. “The Reaction in Germany” (1842)
It ended badly in the “group-write” conclusion of Wikipedia:
The uprisings were led by shaky ad-hoc coalitions of reformers, the middle classes and workers, but it could not hold together for long. Tens of thousands of people were killed and many more forced into exile. The only significant reform was the abolition of serfdom in Austria and Hungary. The revolutions were most important in France, Germany, Italy, and Austria, and did not reach Russia, Great Britain, or the United States.
Here’s one of those “free essays” available online which serve term paper needs of beleaguered students:
The goals of the Revolutions of 1848 were not fulfilled to the point where it can be called a turning point. Some things changed, causing Europe to be different from that point on, but nothing exceptionally good came from the revolutions. There was the potential for everything to change and never go back to the way it was before, but the people who were wanting that change did not have the skill or experience to take their opportunity and make it real.
I offer this as a reminder as to the power representation has over reality and of how greatly an historical event, even a Springtime of the Peoples in which fifty countries were affected, is at the mercy of sentences. The narrative battle, the circus of battling narratives, was not won by the revolutionaries of 1848, not I think because they failed “to market” or “to sell” their ideas but because geography, the order of things, was not in their favor. What inspired their revolt inspired too few.
We now have an “Occupying by the Peoples” event, one that promises to recoup reality from the picture drawn for us and within which we have beggared ourselves. The OWS narrative is a simple one of continued witnessing of what we have become. There is an implied urge to re-assume control of how life on this planet is to go on. And by doing that, assure that life on this planet will go on.
I end with sentences of confidence of William Greider in The Nation December 12, 2011:
I am confident this movement will endure. First, because it is very unlikely the establishment will respond substantively to OWS’s grievances – and that will only make the protesters more determined. OWS has brilliantly focused its many complaints on the very sector – the megabanks and financiers – on whom the politicians are dependent.
I’d like to look past the horror-filled scenarios drawn by alarmists who see the current economic malaise as the beginning of the end of civil society, a collapse into total anarchy and violence.
Maybe it’s the beginning of the end of greed. I’d like to think so. If not, we’ll all be broke soon.
Joseph Natoli is a retired college professor and author of numerous books on culture and politics. Learn more about him at www.josephnatoli.com. His latest book on Kindle: Occupying Here & Now: The New Class Warfare.
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