On the People's Mic

Politics in a Post-literate Age


By Ryan Ruby, February 2012

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.


  1. McLuhan, Mar­shal. The Guten­berg Galaxy: The Mak­ing of Ty­po­graph­ic Man. Toronto: The Uni­versity of Toronto Press, 2010. 

  2. Ong, Wal­ter J. Or­al­ity and Lit­er­acy: The Tech­no­lo­giz­ing of the Word. New York: Rout­ledge Press, 1990. 

  3. McLuhan, p. 2 

  4. ibid, p. 197 

  5. ibid, p. 177 

  6. Ong, p. 66 

  7. ht­tp://so­ma­to­sphere.net/2011/10/pre­amble-to-an-eth­no­graphy-of-the-people’s-mic.html 

  8. ht­tp://www.then­a­tion.com/blog/163767/we-are-all-hu­man-mi­cro­phones-now 

  9. ht­tp://blogs.al­jaz­eera.net/fault-lines/2011/10/10/ows-hu­man-mic 

  10. Garces 

  11. Ong, p. 31-74 

  12. 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. 

  13. Have­lock, Eric A. Pre­face to Pla­to. Cam­bridge: Belknap Press, 1963 

  14. ibid, p. 149 

  15. ibid, p. 142 

  16. ibid, p. 181-2 

  17. ht­tp://blogs.wsj.com/met­ro­pol­is/2011/10/24/oc­cupy-wall-street-sex-at-zuc­cotti-park/ 

  18. ht­tp://www.daily­mail.co.uk/news/art­icle-2047168/Oc­cupy-Wall-Street-pro­test­ers-make-love-class-war-sex-drugs-tap.html 

  19. Patocka, Jan. “Is Tech­no­lo­gic­al Civil­iz­a­tion Dec­ad­ent, And Why?” Heretic­al Es­says in the Philo­sophy of His­tory. Chica­go: Open Court Press, 1996. 

  20. Though he starts with Gil­gamesh rather than the Ili­ad. 

  21. 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 

  22. ibid, p. 114 

Ryan Ruby is a writer and teacher of philosophy based in New York City.

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