The use of social networking and micro-blogging technology as organizational tools by protesters was a major feature of American media coverage of the Arab Spring. Whatever role Twitter and Facebook actually played in toppling dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt, the coverage said a great deal more about American media than the ostensible subjects of its reporting. In part, it represented the latest edition of a collective project that dated back to the uprisings in Moldova in 2009, and was rolled out again after the Iranian elections in 2010, to get the Revolution 2.0 meme to stick. It was also an attempt to get a foothold, any foothold, in a series of events that had taken it, along with the national political establishment, entirely by surprise and on which, because of their long-time support of the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes, the latter had only a negative influence. Finally, an attitude of orientalist condescension cannot be discounted: look at what those Arabs get up to when they learn how to play with our toys!
Look at what those Arabs get up to when they learn how to play with our toys!
The media narrative modified slightly when the revolutionary wave crossed the Mediterranean, landing in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol in May, and then considerably when it crossed the Atlantic, landing in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park in September. It is hardly worth mentioning the significance of Zuccotti’s proximity to the New York Stock Exchange, the symbolic center of global capitalism, and the closest the original organizers could get to the bronze ‘economy’ bull; that it is also located within a few mile radius of nearly every level of American media — from the headquarters of the international wire services and the studios of the cable news networks in Midtown to the offices of the little magazines in Brooklyn — is less often noted and no less important. Though many of the first protesters to occupy Zuccotti complained of coverage blackouts and corporate media indifference, the truth is that all levels of media recognized the story relatively quickly, and, on the whole, covered it sympathetically, if not always with total comprehension. Several members of the media, including prominent reporters, intellectuals, filmmakers, and musicians gave their support to the movement, and some even participated in it. Occupy Wall Street evolved a sophisticated press relations strategy, with multiple websites, social network accounts, blogs, and microblogs; it even published a newspaper, with a print run of upwards of 50,000 copies. Perhaps not ironically, the media center at Zuccotti Park was reminiscent of the sort used by the international press corps when it sets up camp in the main hotel of some far flung capital to cover civil unrest there.
While the social media angle did not disappear entirely from the coverage of the Occupy movement, it soon took a backseat vis-à-vis interest in Occupy’s distinctive organizational structure and tactics (and, of course, to a ridiculously desperate search to locate individual leaders from whom to elicit a series of political ‘demands’). While the consensus process, amplified at Zuccotti by the People’s Mic, has long been a feature of anti-hierarchical movements — its origins have been variously traced to anarchist groups, anti-nuclear activism, Quaker churches, and tribes in Madagascar — it is probably fair to say that it first came to mainstream attention in this country with Occupy. No article on a meeting of an OWS General Assembly was complete without mentioning a “Mic Check!” and a sea of twinkling fingers.
Setting aside any well-earned cynicism about the American media, especially of the corporate variety, it is not surprising that the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement should have been covered differently. Though Tahrir Square was a seminal, direct, and stated influence on OWS, the Egyptian Revolution and the Zuccotti Commune were responding to and acting under conditions whose differences it would be wrong to minimize. It is only natural that events appear differently when they are happening in one’s backyard. With regards to social media, then, coverage diminishes when, rightly or wrongly, it is perceived as less of a story. Social media saturation has reached such a point in a city like New York that using it to organize anything—whether a dinner party, or a concert, or an online magazine, or a revolution—seems like second nature. When a reporter is using the very same technologies—Twitter feed, Facebook page, camera phone—as the protest movement he or she is covering, the medium ceases to attract as much attention. Analysis, however, should at least be brought full circle. If we hold up Western media coverage of the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement for comparison, what becomes immediately clear is that we are dealing with a relationship of inverse symmetry. At the same moment protesters in the developing world embrace the latest technologies of the information age, protesters in the developed world have had recourse to a technology older than record: vocal chords and phalanges.
When the future writes the history of the Occupy movement, the People’s Mic and the Occupy hand signals will stand in the same relationship to it as the graffito stood to May 1968 or the poster stood to the Spanish Revolution of 1936. But far from representing mere aesthetic ornament, they indicate the heart of the politics of the Occupy movement. These are not merely strategic responses to a contingent situation (laws prohibiting amplified sound) or tactics retrofitted to a particular geography (NYC’s financial district), they are indicative of developments in something much larger, the history of communication itself. The People’s Mic and the Occupy hand signals will one day come to be regarded as paradigms of politics in a post-literate age.
The term “post-literacy” was coined by Marshal McLuhan in his groundbreaking study The Gutenberg Galaxy to describe the return of many elements of communication typically associated with oral cultures in the “electronic age” of our “global village.”1 His colleague Walter J. Ong called the condition “secondary orality.”2 Though sometimes used to refer to the anxiety that new communications technologies are causing a decline in the practice of reading, this was not what McLuhan or Ong meant by their neologisms. Just as cultures that have only recently become literate retain a “residual orality” that colors their experience, so too do we post-literates retain a residual literacy in our use of new “electronic” communications technologies. Secondary orality is thus a Viconian ricorso to an earlier age that does not cancel out but rather inflects the memory and experience of the intervening history of literacy. Alan Liu, Professor of English at the University of California Santa Barbara and principal investigator of the digital humanities project Transcriptions, prefers the term transliteracy to describe our fluency with multiple media platforms: oral, print, audio-visual, and digital.
SMS, the Twitter account, and Gchat are the quintessential technologies of post-literacy.
“Empathic identification with all the oral modes is not difficult in our century,” McLuhan wrote in 1962.3 Fifty years later, in a new century, in which we are possessed of the “extensions of consciousness” McLuhan only dimly perceived,4 the observation still rings true — and then some. SMS, the Twitter account, and Gchat are the quintessential technologies of post-literacy. Though they all rely on text-based literacy, their function, like the telegraph before them, is an orally-inflected type of communication. And their contents retain many of the features of the earlier mode (though not all: to think of speaking as primarily informative in nature is characteristic of post-literacy rather than pre-literacy5). To take one example: because of the temporal brevity required of the text message and the spatial brevity encoded into the character limit of the tweet, we see the return of the kinds of typographical condensation and abbreviation characteristic of ancient Hebrew and Slavonic Russian texts, stressing the auditory signification of the words (i.e. how they are pronounced) at the expense of their canonical visual form (i.e. how they are spelled).6 To take another: with texts and tweets, the information, especially when read on a telephone, is compressed enough to be taken-in in a single glance, which provides a temporal experience closer to listening than to that of the famed linearity (whether horizontal or vertical) of writing, where the information is understood progressively. Except when we send links, photographs, or when we retweet, when we use SMS or Twitter or Gchat we are really “speaking to each other in text,” a fact recognized by iPhone programmers who designed chats as speech bubbles.
The full panoply of post-literate modes of communication was on display at Zuccotti Park. Aside from the use of aforementioned social media technologies, audio-visual communication was represented by a live streaming video feed, and by videos taken on camera phones and uploaded to YouTube and Facebook. Classic literacy lived on in the Occupied Wall Street Journal and in the contents of the People’s Library. While at the nightly General Assemblies secondary orality was alive and well in the form of the People’s Mic and the hand signals.
Strictly speaking, legal necessity is the mother of OWS’ People’s Mic. New York City law requires permits for the public use of electronic amplification, including bullhorns. Like Zuccotti Park itself, which was occupy-able in the first place because it is a privately-owned rather than public space, the People’s Mic takes advantage of a legal loophole about what constitutes amplified sound.
The virtues that have been made of this necessity are many and have been best described by sympathetic journalists, bloggers, and academics whose writings have contributed to what one of them, Chris Garces, an anthropologist at Cornell, calls, in one of the best articles on the phenomenon, a “preamble to an ethnography of the People’s Mic.”7 Writing in The Nation, Richard Kim notes that the “horizontal acoustics” of the People’s Mic facilitates optimistic messages, while canceling out the effects of demagogy, charismatic leadership, celebrity status, and sectarianism made possible by “the intimacy of electronic sound.”8 Writing for Al Jazeera, Andrea Schmidt praises the “egalitarian attention to one another” created, on the one hand, by the fact that “rambling is not an option” and on the other that “you cannot get distracted or talk over the conversation when you have to repeat every word that is spoken,” including ones with which you disagree.10
Despite the drawbacks of the medium — it is slow-moving, physically taxing, and difficult to put at the service of complicated arguments or sophisticated turns of phrase — all the commentators note the particular experience produced by its use: a feeling of solidarity, collective identity, exhilaration, euphoria, trance-inducement, etc. And they are certainly not alone in doing so; reports that the experience of participation in OWS, for many people their first participation in politics, was personally transformative, are widespread. Garces describes his participation in a General Assembly as a “deeply ascetic experience, to the extent that speaking up refashions oneself as part of the collective, mind, body, and soul” and riffing on Slavoj Žižek’s speech to the GA, traces a genealogy of the People’s Mic to the eighteenth-century town hall frontier assemblies, where one spoke in public under the guidance of the holy spirit.
Garces is right to note two things. First, the kinesthetics of the GA experience. This includes not just speaking, repeating, and listening, but also the hand signals that quite literally “embody” one’s agreement or dissent, ones consensus or dissensus. The physical motions of the vocal chords and fingers are not merely signs, but themselves create the very experience of collectivity consistent with a plurality of viewpoints, which OWS hopes to prefigure in as-yet-unoccupied territory and time. Second, the ritualistic form of the GA. It is also probably correct to point out comparisons to a particular variety of religious experience, whose origins are nonetheless further back than eighteenth-century America. Much further, indeed; back, in fact, all the way to Homeric Greece.
Readers of Orality and Literacy will recognize in the above survey of the phenomenology of the General Assembly many of Ong’s “psychodynamics of orality”: the power and pathos of the spoken word which exists entirely in the present; the use of verbal formulae, clichés, redundancies as mnemonic devices; the particular rhythms of repetitive and recognizable oral patterning; the difficulties of spontaneous intellectual experimentation; the achievement of an empathetic, communal identification between speaker and speech which is participatory and situational rather than objectively distanced and abstract; and finally, and most importantly, the creation of a collective relationship to the sacral.11 (Due to the fact that we’re dealing with secondary rather than primary orality, augmented by digital and print technologies, absent from the psychodynamics of the GA speeches are homeostasis, traditionalism, and the agonistic tone.12)
West was thus able to produce the sacral experience—succinctly captured in the lovely phrase “spiritually break dancing”
The most successful of the celebrity speakers at the NYGA was undoubtedly Cornel West. Both Slavoj Žižek, who was reading from a written text, and Joseph Stiglitz, to name two others, hewed too closely to the format of electronically amplified speeches, their typical modes of address, and consequently used lingustic formulae that got garbled in human amplification. Probably because he self-consciously identifies with and traces his intellectual roots to an oral-poetic tradition — which public intellectual better exemplifies McLuhan’s “jazzman” than he? — West was able to adapt to the form facilitated by the People’s Mic. Overall, he maintained a consistent rhythm (only a few phrases like “You got me spiritually break-dancing all the way here” and “It’s gonna hit the reservations for all of our red brothers and sisters” were longer than twelve syllables [incidentally, all of them also fall within 140 characters, making it easy for whomever was deputized to turn the phrases into tweets]), effectively employing repetitive and recognizable oral patterning (the Biblical use of “and” at the beginning of a line linking together a series of people, cities, and forms of the industrial complex), clichés (e.g. “the elites will shake in their boots,” “we want a transfer of power,” “we movin’ step by step”), and verbal formulae (epithets like “Wall Street oligarchs,” “corporate plutocrats,” “working folk”) that are characteristic of primary orality. He was thus able to produce the sacral experience — succinctly captured in the lovely phrase “spiritually break dancing” — unlike Žižek and Stiglitz, who simply attempted to transpose a literary into an oral mode of communication.
McLuhan and Ong are best known as pioneering media theorists and technology gurus, but their work comes out of one of the oldest intellectual traditions, namely classics. The Gutenberg Galaxy builds on the scholarship of Milman Parry and Albert B. Lord, whose The Singer of Tales investigated modern singers of Yugoslav epics in order to better understand the oral compositional techniques that went into the Iliad and the Odyssey. Ong draws heavily from Eric A. Havelock’s Preface to Plato13, which places the invention of philosophy in the context of the transition from an oral to a literate culture in Greece. Though Athens in the fourth century BC seems like a long detour from New York in 2011, Havelock’s book has a great deal to say, not only about the People’s Mic, but also about the ultimate fate of the Zuccotti Commune.
Essentially, Preface to Plato attempts to answer the question, “Why did Plato expel the poets from his republic?” To a contemporary American audience, this is one of the more puzzling and disquieting episodes in Plato’s most famous dialogue. Disquieting, because we are, in principle, committed to freedom of expression; puzzling, because we don’t find poetry important enough or take poets seriously enough to believe that they merit such harsh treatment. We fail to see how Plato could think writers of verse could ever be thought dangerous to the state or public morality. This is because, Havelock argues, we fail to understand the place of poetry in Plato’s Greece.
We underestimate the role of poets in Ancient Greece, who were regarded as educators, keepers of tradition, and repositories of the collective knowledge of the culture. We do so precisely because we anachronistically think of poetry as primarily a written, or literary, form. When Plato expels the poets, he has in mind, not a literary lyric poet like Wordsworth or Whitman, but an oral epic poet, specifically Homer. The Iliad, Odyssey, and the other Homeric hymns were experienced through reading, as we do today, but in public performances by rhapsodes. Rhapsodes were professional singers who intoned the epics, often accompanied by a lyre; like actors, their primary ability was to memorize long narratives, with the aid of such mnemonic devices as verbal formulae, repetitions, and redundancies with which we have already seen Ong characterize primary orality; since the epics were not written down there is some room for elaborations if they fall within the general formulaic structure laid down by the metrical, syntactical, and narrative conventions of the genre.
The ritualistic performance was also physically demanding, requiring the disciplining of the lungs, larynx, tongue and teeth—but also of the fingers, to pluck the lyre.14 The effect on the rhapsode, according to Havelock, was a kind of self-hypnotism. Which effect was translated to a willing audience:
This meant that like similar reflexes of the sexual or digestive apparatus, [the elaborate mechanisms of early Greek poetry] were highly sensual and were closely linked with the physical pleasures. Moreover, they could confer upon the human subject a specific type of pleasure. The regularity of the performance had a certain effect of hypnosis…15
When the rhapsode intones his invocation to the Muse that is the standard formula with which the Greek epic opens, he is not only praying for aid in remembering, he is entreating the goddess to possess him, much like the holy spirit would later possess Garces’ town hall speakers, creating in both a hypnotic state both sacred and erotic.
Plato was notoriously hostile to physical pleasures generally, and specifically to those the rhapsode was capable of bestowing on his public. For him, they were stumbling blocks in the road toward rationality, a kind of thinking made possible only by the invention of writing. Despite the ambivalence Socrates expresses about writing in the Phaedrus, Havelock argues that Plato’s intellectual revolution away from image-thinking and toward abstract thought was impossible without that form of technology. Writing removes much of the encyclopedic functions of the Homeric rhapsode, transfers the scene of understanding from the public interaction between rhapsode and audience to the private interaction between reader and text, and, finally, allows for the transition from knowledge that is embedded in a series of events, of narrative becoming, to knowledge crystallized in theoretical statements that applied timelessly and eternally to being itself. As Havelock writes:
What [the oral tradition] cannot do is to use the verb to be as a timeless copula in such a sentence as: ‘human beings are responsible for the consequences of their own acts.’ Still less can it say ‘the angles of a triangle are equivalent to two right angles.’ Kantian imperatives and mathematical relationships and analytic sentiments of any kind are inexpressible and also unthinkable. Equally an epistemology which can choose between the logically (and therefore eternally) true and logically (and eternally) false is also impossible. This temporal conditioning is an aspect of that concreteness which attaches itself to all preserved Homeric discourse.16
To move from situational thinking of Homeric narrative to abstract thinking of philosophy and mathematics, it was necessary for Plato to sacrifice the experience of the participatory on the altar of the objectively distanced. And so the poets are purged.
Obviously, there are many important differences between the performance of the rhapsode in Ancient Greece and the NYGA. The first is that the relationship between rhapsode and audience is hierarchical whereas a speech amplified by the People’s Mic is not; in the former case there is a single, charismatic individual performing before a mass, whereas in the case, there is a rotation of the primary speaker and a collective repetition of the act of speech. The second is that the function of the rhapsode is to inculcate a conservative morality and pass on a traditional mode of being through the presentation of a narrative, while the function of a GA is essentially deliberation aiming towards consensus. The third is that, unlike the primary orality of the Ancient Greeks, contemporary Americans have the advantages of the multiple modes of discourse available to members of a post-literate society.
As the political methods of OWS are erotic, an erotics is constitutive of OWS’ politics.
The similarities between the two oralities, separated by two and a half millennia of literacy, are nonetheless revealing. Both involve a kinesthesis that require the vocal chords and the hands. Both tend to produce discourse that is geared towards narrative (cultural-historical in the first case, personal in the second) and is proverbial/formulaic rather than theoretical (consider the difference between the speech act “We are the 99%!” whose purpose is to constitute a community, and the normative evaluation “It is wrong for 1% of the nation to own 40% of its wealth,” which only states a principle). Both, finally, use speech to create a collective experience of the sacral, which is described in terms of physical pleasure (it could be argued that, since they involve a greater degree of participation, the repetitions of the People’s Mic are in fact more effective conduits than the song of the rhapsode for the kind of hypno-erotic sensuality Havelock describes).
In articles like “Occupy Wall Street Sex: Sex and Love in Zuccotti Park,”17 and “Occupy Wall Street Protesters Make Love As Well As Class War,”18 unsympathetic media outlets used reports of sexual activity at Zuccotti to mock the movement. But as the political methods of OWS are erotic, an erotics is constitutive of OWS’ politics. That the experience of collectivity and solidarity embodied in the consensus process, confined to a limited space, and inflected through a sacral orality constructed to produce, now as in Ancient Greece, forms of physical pleasure, should easily translate into sexual forms of solidarity and sacral experience is as understandable as it is predictable. The history of collective movements, whether religious, political, or artistic is more often than not accompanied by a history of collective sexuality. In this respect, OWS is no different from, say, the cult of Dionysus or the Ranters, the Bloomsbury Group or the Situationists, which proceeded it.
Among the many reasons, stated and unstated, for the November 15th police raid that effectively ended the two month Zuccotti Commune, one has got to be the imperative to disrupt the public display of precisely these forms of solidarity. It seems that the NYPD is no more able to tolerate the consequences of a society based on sacral orality than Plato was.
To complete a ricorso of my own, I think it is important to conclude by asking why, in an era defined largely by advances in communications technologies, we are witnessing the return of ancient (in the West at least) forms of communication and social organization. How does the People’s Mic occupy the same historical moment as Twitter and Facebook? To sketch a possible answer, it will be helpful to turn to the Czech philosopher and dissident Jan Patocka’s essay “Is Technological Civilization Decadent, And Why?”19 Doing so, we will have to move laterally, from the triplet pre-literacy/literacy/post-literacy that we have been considering up to now, to the triplet pre-history/history/post-history Patocka considers in his book. Despite not being exactly isomorphic, the terms map well enough. Writing from behind the Iron Curtain, Patocka seems to have been considering a trajectory similar to those taken by McLuhan, Ong, and Havelock in North America.20
What we have thus far been calling the experience of sacral orality, Patocka pointedly calls the “orgiastic” and also the “daemonic.” Replacing the pre-literate with the pre-historical, he, like Havelock, identifies the orgiastic with a pre-Platonic form of sacredness, characterized by an enraptured, ecstatic mode of freedom. Why is it precisely in technological civilization that the orgiastic erupts? Because of the way it orients humanity towards reality, technological civilization produces boredom. This is not exactly the kind of boredom that vulgar critics of the Occupy movement level at its members when it labels them hippies, or tells them to get a job, or alludes to the trust fund that must enable them the free time to engage in non-mainstream forms of political action. It is not a mere mood. Rather it is boredom in the Heideggerean sense, as “the ontological condition of humanity which has subordinated its life in everydayness and its anonymity” as a descent into inauthenticity and decadence.21
Modern technoscience, according to Patocka, posits the relationship between humanity and reality as a relationship between things: the thing-that-knows and the thing-that-is-known. The burden of labor is shifted from persons to things, but persons are only liberated from work into forms of compulsory recreation, from utopianism into the world of consumer offerings, from mystery into common gossip and triviality. As the sacred is conquered by the everydayness of the economy, as persons are reduced into economic actors, the desire for orgiastic experience increases.
While I disagree with the normative emphasis Patocka places on the orgiastic — for Patocka it is a form of irresponsibility, a temptation in the Christian sense of the term, best avoided through a rationalistic conception of religion — I think it appropriately characterizes the kind of freedom experienced by participants in the Occupy movement. And while the portrait of technological civilization painted here is schematic, we can recognize in it some of the features of the culture of our age of information. Media platforms like Twitter and Facebook were no doubt intended to facilitate, in a much more sophisticated and efficient way, the sorts of compulsory recreation, consumerism, gossip, and triviality Patocka associated with the most current technologies of his day. Though the protesters in Moldova, Iran, Tunisia, and Egypt have demonstrated that social media technologies can be put to other uses, the Occupy movement has shown that the social organization of the economy that creates them simultaneously creates the desire to radically alter that economy, not just in terms of a fairer distribution of wealth, but also in terms of a radically different organization of bodies in space. The coexistence of the sacral orality of the People’s Mic in a movement organized entirely online is just the latest contradiction of technoscientific capitalism. “The same hand stages orgies and organizes everydayness,” is how Patocka puts it.22 What Twitter and Facebook make possible, they also make necessary.
McLuhan, Marshal. The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Toronto: The University of Toronto Press, 2010. ↩
Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New York: Routledge Press, 1990. ↩
McLuhan, p. 2 ↩
ibid, p. 197 ↩
ibid, p. 177 ↩
Ong, p. 66 ↩
Ong, p. 31-74 ↩
The use of the People’s Mic as a heckling device does not count as agonistically toned, a reference to the content of the speaking rather than to the speech itself. Ong here means something like flyting rather than the deployment of sound to drown out other, usually electronically amplified sound. ↩
Havelock, Eric A. Preface to Plato. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1963 ↩
ibid, p. 149 ↩
ibid, p. 142 ↩
ibid, p. 181-2 ↩
Patocka, Jan. “Is Technological Civilization Decadent, And Why?” Heretical Essays in the Philosophy of History. Chicago: Open Court Press, 1996. ↩
Though he starts with Gilgamesh rather than the Iliad. ↩
ibid, 112. Though he didn’t write about electronic technologies, McLuhan considers Heidegger to be as much the philosopher of the “electronic age” as Descartes was of the mechanical age. See McLuhan, p. 248-50 ↩
ibid, p. 114 ↩
Ryan Ruby is a writer and teacher of philosophy based in New York City.
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