The Situations of Occupy Wall Street

Just the other day, I came across this useful post from Jill Walker Rettberg, which is also discussing this useful post from Mike “Rortybomb” Konczal, both about the use of social media and the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Walker Rettberg is more or less summarizing Konczal’s analysis of the Tumblr site We Are the 99 Percent and also of the site Occupy Together, which is a sort of hub for all things “Occupy-ish.”

The point here with Walker Rettberg’s post and these (and other) sites is that these sort of events are perhaps only possible nowadays with social media of the sort you are reading right now, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc.  I’m inclined to agree, and I’ve been thinking about all that lately because I have been fiddling around with finally getting off my butt and doing something book-like with my dissertation.  I don’t want to make promises here; saying that I am going to write this book is a little like saying I am going to stay on this diet, both the kind of things that are probably wise to bet against.

In my diss, I used the term “immediacy” to suggest both the profound sense of intimacy that can happen in these situations from proximity (albeit electronic proximity at times) and chaos that results in the immediate speed of these situations playing out.  The Arab Spring uprisings are another good example of this, of course.  The other aspect of the Occupy Wall Street movement (and the Arab Spring, for that matter) is that there is a lack of a singular rhetor/leader offering a single message.  This is probably more true with Occupy Wall Street, though that’s the point of Konczal’s post:  he’s trying to analyze the text on that Tumblr site to ascertain the concerns of the movement as articulated there.  And in brief, those concerns are student loans, children (which I also think might be interpreted as “the future”), unemployment, and health care.

As for my own thoughts about the whole Occupy Wall Street thing:  I am very torn.  On the one hand, I am sympathetic to the broad concerns about student loan debt, jobs, taxes on the rich (or a lack thereof), health care, and I guess what I would describe as the just general frustration that makes people think “nothing else is working; I’m going to go out into the street and beat a drum.”  On the other hand, the lack of a unifying message and leader(s) makes it unlikely that this group is going to get a lot of traction in the analog and very traditional situation of government:  that is, I don’t think the federal government is going to pay a whole lot of attention to these folks until they are able to swing elections.

The other issue I have is the “99 Percent” depicted on Tumblr and other places is that who is in that group is a little problematic to me; or maybe a different way of putting it is there is a certain level of inequality regarding who has it worse.  Most/many of the folks on that blog have legitimate “that sucks” kinds of stories, but there are also many that frankly look like college kids looking for something to protest/join.

Of course, I suppose all of that is just normal and is not a reason to not be frustrated.  I mean, I’m not in the 99 percent of most of the people depicted here– that is, I’m securely employed, I’m not worried a lot about debt, I have decent health insurance, etc.  At the same time, I want to help folks not as lucky as me, and I do worry about the future for my son and his generation, I worry about stupid government cuts in taxes to rich people, etc.

3 thoughts on “The Situations of Occupy Wall Street”

  1. I profoundly disagree with the notion that “that these sort of events are perhaps only possible nowadays with social media,” and would point out that the protests in Egypt actually militate against that conclusion (as I pointed out in extended analyses here and here). I think saying “Look what social media can do!” is more of the silly, myopic techno-determinism that’s gotten our field in trouble. It looks at methods and sees tools; it looks at practices and sees cool gee-whiz gadgets; it looks at democracy and sees a Brookstone catalog. Most of the folks in Egypt are too poor to have computers or internet, and to declare the Egyptian revolution to have been a victory for social media is to willfully misunderstand what happened and fail to acknowledge the profound economic inequalities that the protests were about.

    Let’s try that thesis again with a variation: “these sort of events [i.e., mass protests] are only possible with social media.” Nonsense. There have been plenty of protests in years past without social media. So the argument is, essentially, that what happened on Wall Street within a contemporary context that included social media could have only have happened on Wall Street within a contemporary context that included social media. In other words, current events happen in a context structured by the context of current events.

    That’s not an argument, it’s a tautology. It says nothing interesting about social media or technology.

    1. Certainly social media is not a cause (an “exigency” in the language of rhetorical situation) of Occupy Wall Street or the Arab Spring. And certainly there have been lots of protests and uprisings and the like well before social media and the internet and even not so contemporary organizational tools like print.

      However, what’s going on here with technology and these events are different and important from what has happened before. From a theoretical point of view (and that’s what is most immediately of interest to me, no pun intended), communication technologies like social media change the way that rhetoric functions in situations as has been described by folks like Bitzer, Vatz, Consigny, Edbauer-Rice, etc. I could belabor this, but that’s essentially my diss and what might come next project. The short answer is I think that technology problematizes the time and space of situations, and I think there are few better examples of that then social media.

      The less theoretical/more pragmatic issue here is not a matter of cause but the ways in which social media enable this kind of action, especially as it comes out of a culture literate in these tools. Discontent existed in Egypt long before social media, of course; but there was also a critical mass of users of social media who were able to use those tools to take some action, one that I also am aware had been growing for quite some time before the MSM started following the story. I think the same is true (in very general terms) with Occupy Wall Street.

      Now, juxtapose this to a place like Syria or a place like Cuba. We know there’s a lot of discontent/revolution in Syria, but because the state keeps much MUCH more authoritarian control over networks and also because there is not as deep of a social media culture in Syria (in part because of the control issue), it has not gone as well. And in Cuba, where there is essentially no internet, there is no opportunity for a rebellion against Castro et al.

      Certainly there are many other issues swirling around these situations. I’m not trying to suggest that Twitter/Facebook = overthrow of the government in Egypt etc., and I haven’t read anyone who has made a similar claim. But clearly the opposite of that is not true either, and that’s what’s interesting and different for me.

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