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Re: <nettime> A Movement Without Demands?
Prem Chandavarkar on Fri, 6 Jan 2012 17:03:47 +0100 (CET)


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Re: <nettime> A Movement Without Demands?


On 06-Jan-2012, at 5:33 AM, Brian Holmes wrote:

> You say the Occupy movement lacks strong core principles that could serve to define itself as a transformative force in society. I agree. 

Brian,
A few thoughts:
To examine the Occupy movements in terms of demands or principles is to only see the movement in political terms.  It may be worthwhile to also examine it in spatial terms.
Spatially, when OWS says "we are the 99%", they are only seeking to articulate their presence.  Your presence is notional until it is physically and spatially defined - that is your body is located within space and is recognized and acknowledged by all others within that same space.
The reason why articulation of presence is important is that mediatized democratic politics has begun to revolve around fanatical minority positions.  John Allen Paulos in his book "A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper" argues that it is naive to believe that in a democracy it is the majority that prevails.  Votes of the majority are extremely difficult to mobilize because of the unavoidable fact that their opinions do not coalesce into a discrete set of issues which can be sensationalized in the media into a political discussion.  So politics is based on making a set of vague generic promises that can obtain a base level of votes, and then to court constituencies of single-cause minorities that will swing the election one way or the other.  Eventually it is the agenda of these single-cause minorities that become the agenda for mainstream political action, and the majority are sidelined.  Demonstrating presence becomes a problem of the majority.
The recognition of presence is a prerequisite for any discourse on demands or principles.  What is the point of your seeking a discussion of your demands and principles if I do not even recognize your presence?  Perhaps if the powers-that-be genuinely said to OWS "We recognize your presence and the need to listen to your voice" the movement would feel it had accomplished its purpose.
The spatial strategy of OWS can be read in terms of the work of Michel de Certeau who postulated two ways of dealing with urban space which he called ?strategies? (which are based on place) and ?tactics? (which are based on time).  Strategies represent the practices of those in power, postulating a ?place? that can be delimited as its own from which relations with an exteriority can be ordered and managed.  Such places are posited as the natural order of the city, by suggesting a set of ?proper? places, either spatial or institutional, that represent political, economic and scientific rationalities.  In contrast, ?tactics? are ways of operating without a proper place and so depend on time. Tactics lack the borders necessary for designation as visible totalities.  The place of the tactic belongs to the other  - tactics are the art of the weak, incursions into the field of the powerful.  Without a proper place, tactics depend on seized opportunities, cleverly chosen movements, 
 and on the rapidity of movements that can change the organisation of a space.  Tactics are a form of everyday creativity, and by challenging the ?proper? places of the city, this range of transitory, temporary and ephemeral practices constitutes counterpractices to officially sanctioned urbanisms.
In cities in India, and many other parts of the developing world, the poor (who constitute a majority) sustain economic and social life through tactics rather than strategies.  In the absence of a welfare state, this is their only choice.  And they are able to do so because master planning is weak, and its enforcement even weaker, so they are granted the space to operate informal systems of tenure that do not necessarily conform to officially sanctioned spaces.  
Till recently, in the western city a highly regulated welfare state, driven by notions of the social contract, did not require the middle class majority to resort to tactics for economic or social life as officially sanctioned urbanism provided for their homes.  This allowed most people to experience the cities in terms of strategies rather than tactics.  
But there were exceptions in the western city:   poorer communities who were marginalized due to problems of race or recent immigration that was unable to integrate; and these communities wound up in the spatial condition of ghettos.  The space to operate in terms of tactics was restricted due to the overwhelming regulation of the tightly planned city.  Which is why discriminatory barriers are seen as far more rigid.  A classic differentiation drawn in urban planning literature is the differentiation between "slums of hope" and "slums of despair": and it has been argued that this difference in attitudes is of greater significance than differences in the material conditions of slums.  It is significant that the examples cited of "slums of despair" tend to be in the developed world where the stranglehold of regulation is tighter; whereas the examples of "slums of hope" tend to be in South Asia and other parts of the developing world, where regulation is loose and allows suffici
 ent space for informality.  In this condition, the exercise of tactics in the developed world required extreme measures, and often were exercised through forms of violence: street crime and/or riots.
The middle class majority could remain comfortable within the western city because they could anchor in the city through strategies rather than tactics.  . And they did not need to exercise great political or economic power in order to do so.  So they could remain relatively detached (even apathetic) to the political process, and it did not matter to them if their opinions did not affect decision making in democratic politics.  The spatial recognition they received was a sufficient acknowledgment of their presence.
However this spatial equilibrium has been significantly disrupted.  These disruptions have been there for some time, but came to a head in the 2008 financial crisis.  The economy is now disconnected from spaces of the city and is dictated by the logic of globalized networks of capital.  As Manuel Castells put it - our lives are governed by the logic of the "space of flows" and are no longer governed by a logic of the "space of places".  But structural failures in the space of flows do not remain confined to the space of flows - they spill over with significantly destructive effect into the space of places.  People lose their homes as a result.
This disruption has created a crisis of articulating presence for the middle class majority in the western city.  Deprived of the security of their spatial foundations (strategies), they have to resort to tactics.  Fortunately their use of tactics so far has been non-violent.
The spatial problems of the western city are further aggravated by the retreat of two kinds of significant spaces: "civic space" and "third space".
Civic space is to be differentiated from public space (for example the atrium of a mall is a public space that is not a civic space).  Civic spaces promote engagement over spectacle, slowness over speed, openness over security controls, and visual integration with urban space over introversion from urban space.  The need for civic space has disappeared from political life, whose exhortations have retreated into virtual worlds behind TV or internet screens, whose sole physical traces are only to be ephemerally found in print media. In addition, the presence of civic space was typically anchored by the architecture of public institutions, whose presence once dominated the city.  But for quite some time now, the speculative real estate projects has acquired an architectural scale that a public institution cannot compete with.  The church, palace, or castle that once formed the city centre has given way in modern capitalism to the central business district.  As a result the publi
 c spaces of a city are dominated by the spaces of consumption, and to a lesser extent the spaces of leisure.
"Third space" (a term coined by Ray Oldenburg) is a space that we need that is beyond the first space of home and the second space of work.  It is a space where one engages with peers, forming an anchor of community life, and facilitating broader and creative interaction.  Third spaces are often provided by churches and other religions institutions, but in secular life were typically provided by spaces such as coffee houses or taverns.  While third spaces are still to be found in smaller towns, they are in sharp decline in large globalized cities.  This is again because of an intrusion of the space of flows into the space of places, where rental values are no longer tied solely to local economies.  The resultant sharp rise in rental values demands that any enterprise meets a minimum threshold of speed and volume of business: a standard that most third spaces cannot meet.
So OWS must also be treated as the symptom of a serious underlying structural problem: a spatial problem of the articulation of presence in the modern globalized democratic city in the developed world.  Our analysis, thought, and suggestions must acknowledge this.

Regards,
Prem


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