Sunday, September 18, 2011

Occupy Wall Street Premediates the Occupation of Wall Street

Nearing the end of its second week, the movement called Occupy Wall Street has begun to attract both media and celebrity attention. Excessive police brutality over the past weekend caught the eye of the New York Times, the big three US network news broadcasts, and (before either of the other two) cable news networks like MSNBC, CNN, and Fox. This mainstream media discussion has fostered an increasingly intense debate in online media and the blogosphere about the trivial or condescending nature of the media coverage, as well as about the significance of this "occupation," its strategy, tactics, messaging, and long-term goals.

The focus of much of this discussion (even the meta-media critiques) has been on the significance of the occupation itself, what it represents, what it might become. What has been missing from these mainstream and participatory media accounts is any sustained critical and theoretical discussion of Occupy Wall Street as itself an act of mediation, or as I understand it, of premediation. Occupy Wall Street is best understood as a premediation of the occupation of Wall Street. Let me explain.

Because most of the successful political premediations of the 21st century have been in the service of state and corporate power, I have often been asked whether premediation could contest, oppose, or overturn hegemonic power. Put most starkly, can premediation advocate or help to actualize political change or revolution?

Since introducing the concept in 2003, I have consistently maintained that premediation is not tied to a particular politics. Premediation describes a media formation which emerged and intensified within a historically specific social, political, and technical media regime. Because premediation readily fuels and is fueled by fear, the post-9/11 security environment has been a particularly rich moment for state power to deploy strategies of premediation as a form of preemptive control, as seen in Bush-Cheney's dramatic expansion of executive power in waging the Iraq War and creating a powerful domestic security apparatus.

Insofar as premediation generates potential or virtual futures as a way to mobilize individual and collective affect in the present, there is no reason why such futures could not kindle or nourish a collective affective state of opposition or rebellion. This, I would argue, is what Occupy Wall Street has succeeded in doing, no matter how long the occupation lasts or what eventually comes of it. And in so doing Occupy Wall Street opens up paths to potential futures in which the occupation of Wall Street (or the political occupation of other sites) is actualized. No matter what its goals, tactics, or ultimate conclusion, Occupy Wall Street is successfully premediating the occupation of Wall Street.

This premediation was already evident in the July call for a September 17 occupation, presented on the Adbusters website. The current site archives the ways in which the September 17 event was premediated for over two months. In its initial call to occupy Wall Street on September 17, the Adbusters website seemed designed more to premediate potential occupations in the future than to prompt an actual occupation in September 2011. In the run-up to September 17 the site offered a variety of premediated formats to promote and mobilize individual and collective revolutionary affect through circulation across socially networked media.

The way that Occupy Wall Street functions mainly as a premediation of the occupation of Wall Street can be further drawn out if we compare it to the large protests and 24-7 occupation of the Wisconsin state capitol building in Madison in February and March of this year. Writing about those protests in February, I suggested that they functioned as Benjaminian test performances for socially networked media. This seems even more to be the case with Occupy Wall Street, which seems to have as much to do with generating audiovisual images of protest, occupation, and rebellion in print, televisual, and networked media as with occupying any particular portion of institutional Wall Street.

Still the differences between the two protests should not be understated. The Madison protests were motivated by clear and immediate political wrongs, which were threatening to be made into state law. Occupy Wall Street scheduled its demonstrations and occupations as far back as July and premediated the September 17 occupation in a variety of media forms. Occupy Wall Street differs from the Madison protests as well in regard to the contrast between the significant national celebrity presence at the Wall Street protest as compared to the more regional presence of labor leaders and local politicians in the Madison protests earlier this year.

In making this comparison I am not making the (perhaps justifiable) claim that the Madison protests were authentic expressions of widespread popular political opposition while Occupy Wall Street was an inauthentic political action staged by a group of net activists. Rather I am arguing that it is precisely the premediation of potential future occupations that constitutes Occupy Wall Street's political efficacy and that this premediation is no less "authentic" (a concept I find problematic in any event) than the protests in Wisconsin.

That Occupy Wall Street is first and foremost a successful instance of premediation is borne out in part by the heavy Hollywood and public intellectual media presence, from Roseanne Barr, Susan Sarandon, and Lupe Fiasco to Michael Moore, Cornel West, and the Yes Men. Again, this is not to criticize Occupy Wall Street but to try to explain what I take to be its long-term social and political impact. The presence of media figures from the left is part and parcel of the liberal premediation assemblage, much as the presence of televangelicals and right-wing "intellectuals" populate and propagate conservative versions of premediation.

The most lasting legacy of Occupy Wall Street might very well be precisely its successful demonstration of how premediation can be mobilized in the service of resistance and opposition rather than securitization and control.