Spaces and Times of Occupation



The following essay introduces the special issue of Transforming Anthropology entitled “Spaces and Times of Occupation.” It does so by placing the various interventions into a direct conversation with some of the dynamics of struggle that emerged in the course of the evolution of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

More than 3 years have passed since millions of people took to the streets in surprisingly rapid fashion, and across different national contexts, in an effort to depose some of the most repressive and undemocratic governments in the Arab world. These struggles, which became known as the Arab Spring, struck a chord not only with Arabs but also with Europeans facing harsh austerity measures, Africans struggling against similarly authoritarian regimes, Latin American students fighting educational reforms, and everyday people in the United States identifying themselves as the 99%. The mutation of these struggles into a particularly American context led to highlighting of a persistence of the hegemony of finance capital, even after the 2007–2008 economic crisis, the subsequent boom in foreclosures, and the spike in unemployment had together revealed the tremendous problems with concentrating so much power in the one percent's hands.1

The Occupy Wall Street movement that took America by storm in the fall of 2011 took a direct cue from Tahrir Square, Pearl Roundabout, and Plaza del Sol in making an enduring claim to public space. The temporality of the movement similarly seemed to leapfrog traditional measure, as it had immediate resonance with people across the country who took to the streets in occupations spread throughout most major cities. Today, while the core of the movement remains active in interesting projects focused around alternative banking and the student loan crisis, much of the initial energy has subsided, as have most of the actual occupations. In this special issue of Transforming Anthropology, contributors from the Working Group on Globalization and Culture at Yale University take the impulse of the occupy movement as an opportunity to reflect broadly on the multiple meanings and resonances of occupation. As they explain: “This collective project…explores the connotations of a keyword in contemporary culture: occupation. At once a word for an exceptional state, and for the ordinary practices of making a living, it houses multiple histories and geographies. How do occupations create cultures of resistance? Beginning from the Occupy movement of 2011–2012, the panel examines the occupation of, and preoccupation with, public, natural, and psychic spaces in the wake of crisis, as well as legacies and afterlives of colonial and anticolonial occupations in intimate and public spaces.”

Enclosed in this issue, readers will find a fascinating collection of papers that can roughly be divided into two interlinked sub-themes: the exploration of occupation as work and the occupation of workplaces, and the ties between occupation and the colonial and anticolonial experience, both historically and in what Derek Gregory has called “the colonial present.” Andrew Hannon opens the discussion with a reflection on the immediate experiences of Occupy Wall Street. This is Occupation in the way the movement originally imagined it. However, Hannon also points to the unexpected paths the movement traveled along by paralleling Judith Butler in an exploration of its performative components. He reads the movement from within, examining not only the dynamics of Occupy but also the last decade of activity by the American Left. Hannon argues that the extension of the everyday into the space of struggle politics was best typified by the Occupy movement's greatest success: its ability to realize an alternative world in the here and now through the provision of concrete services such as food, shelter, and culture. This builds on a long tradition of movement service provision that operates alongside of, or sometimes pending, the event of revolution.

While many participants in the Occupy movement were concerned with economic questions regarding job loss and precarious work, it was not a struggle rooted in the workplace itself. And yet, both Occupy and many of the Arab Spring struggles were preceded by symbolic and important occupations of factories. Michael Denning makes the argument that workplace occupations represent the conjoining of the two Utopian traditions of the Workers’ Movement: the refusal of work and worker control. The correspondence between workplace occupation and refusal of work is perhaps Denning's most interesting claim, and it offers a nice parallel between the Occupations of public space represented by Zuccotti and Tahrir, and the argument Hannon makes about the affirmative politics, often rooted in an extension of everyday life, typified by the many services provided in these spaces. If workplace occupations represent in part a refusal to work, the affirmative practices that were elaborated by the best of Occupy Wall Street stand for a potential project that can “occupy” our free time once we are free from work. In Chicago, the Republic of Windows and Doors factory transmogrifying into the New Era Windows worker cooperative is one important sign of the ongoing changes that were part of the Great Recession, and the achievements that are possible when we attend to the diversity of meanings at play in occupation.

If occupying the factory is one potential response to the looming threat of what elsewhere Denning (2010) has referred to as “wageless life,” then inventing your own job is another. Amina El-Annan's study of the rise of celebrity trainers provides a window into a rapidly growing occupation that uses self-employment to fill the gap created by rising unemployment. While the physical side of personal training is patently clear, El-Annan's exploration of this rising field brings out the centrality of affective labor, something also at play in the performative side of Occupy that Hannon highlights. This affective dimension of personal training should be read as a part of a larger shift in our economy toward the hegemony of immaterial labor, “that is, labor that creates immaterial products, such as knowledge, information, communication, a relationship, or an emotional response” (Hardt and Negri 2004:108). What would it mean to conceptualize Occupy Wall Street within this broader conjuncture of a shift to immaterial labor? How might the terrain of affect be deployed not only to exploitative ends but also as a means of transcending the capital–labor relation through what Denning refers to as the refusal of work and worker control?

While Denning and El-Annan highlight the economic struggles around the workplace, Sigma Colón forces us to think about the links between the workplace as a site for doing battle and the broader environment. In other parlance, she raises the question of how to tie together the “red” and “green” politics of the labor and environmental movements, respectively. In decentering an all too-often anthropocentric conversation about crisis, Colon asks why the problem of species invasions—in her case, the example of the “Asian” carp occupying the river systems throughout the United States—is tied to specific imaginations of racialized geographies. Just think of the older, but more obvious, case of the purportedly more aggressive “Africanized killer bees” invading the United States from Mexico. And although Colon does not raise the issue directly in her piece, she leaves us with the lingering question about the generalized xenophobia that has emerged in the wake of the anti-austerity struggles in Europe and the inability of the Occupy Wall Street movement to forge lasting ties with the prior immigrants rights movement in the United States (an important part of the pre-2011 genealogy of the American Left that Hannon traces for us).

Similar debates did emerge in some of the most forward-thinking encampments of Occupy Wall Street, most notably perhaps at Occupy Oakland. There, activists of color put forward a proposal to change the name of the encampment from Occupy to De-Colonize Oakland, in part as recognition of the original indigenous presence in the area and also to make a more direct link between the ongoing struggles among communities of color as battles that could best be framed through the continued necessity for a project of decolonization. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that the second half of the essays presented here address the ties between occupation, colonialism, and decolonization in a global context.

Samar Al-Bulushi's exploration of the work involved in maintaining a multinational “peacekeeping” occupying force in Somalia serves as one response to the debate about whether the Arab Spring was really an African Spring. While many commentators have rightly pointed to the fact that much of the Arab Spring occurred within the geographical and social bounds of North Africa, the relevance of this for the rest of the continent has so far been unclear. Indeed, in Libya, the many attacks on Black Libyans and other dark-skinned individuals that occurred coeval with the uprising against Qaddafi was a sign of an important fissure between certain aspects of the Arab Spring and the dilemmas facing the rest of the continent. While some wonderful collections have emerged to argue that there has been a parallel ongoing revolt of the oppressed throughout sub-Saharan Africa (Ekine and Manji 2011), we should be careful not to overstate this claim. Al-Bulushi's piece reminds us that for much of the African continent, and certainly for Somalis as well as the underresourced troops used to sustain the AMISOM presence there, occupation brings up not a language of liberation but of a foreign occupying force and the labor required to sustain it. She draws from Danny Hoffman's studies of West African conflict, where he points to the appeal of participation in violence as just another job that could put food on one's table. This becomes an example of necropolitics as a pervasive logic in much of the African continent, a paradigm that is arguably far removed from the Occupy Wall Street framing of the world. And by forcing us to think about what Farred (2002) calls the “mundanacity of violence,” she extends our focus on the occupying forces in Somalia to the bureaucratic “troops,” often operating from behind office desks in nearby metropolises such as Nairobi or far-away global cities such as New York that provide the logistical and financial means to sustain, coordinate, and otherwise make possible occupations like AMISOM.

Turning away from necropolitics toward the mutually constitutive dynamics of oppression and resistance, Ed King and Eli Shapiro both draw upon Frantz Fanon to examine the dual-sided nature of technologies available for both colonialism and the anticolonial struggle. Is it a surprise that the figure of Fanon would figure prominently in a discussion of occupation and colonialism? Fanon was the pre-eminent theorist of colonial occupation and the struggles to overturn it. He was then drawn upon by a range of revolutionaries throughout the world, including activists in the Black Panther Party in Oakland. His writing is certainly still relevant for thinking through the above-referenced debate that emerged primarily, but not exclusively, in Occupy Oakland 45 years later: the racialized tension between occupation and decolonization in contemporary struggles. Thus, the bridge that these essays build from occupy activism and work-based struggles in the United States to the continued problematic of colonialism and its legacy around the world is a crucial one for any attempt to grapple with the politics of the Occupy movement and arguably most contemporary struggles.

Ed King's intervention assesses the power of radio as a tool for both colonizer and the colonized. For the colonizer, it breaks down the core-periphery barriers and works to homogenize cultures. For the colonized, King draws from Fanon to get at the neutrality of the radio as a form of technology, its ability to ignite resistance even when listening to static, and the way in which it facilitates the construction of an imagined community, planting the seeds of revolutionary nationalism. This leaves us with the question: What kind of technology best served the Occupy movement? One might argue that Twitter and other social media operate in a similar fashion today, under both the directive of the surveillance state and the democratic impulses of decentralized technology, as an organizing medium for nonstate actors. Thus, while recognizing the importance of such technologies in the current round of uprisings, we learn from King to be wary of overly determined fantasies regarding the impact of technology on its own. Rather, social relations form the real substance of both oppression and transformation, a key terrain of struggle.

King makes an interesting argument regarding the “territoriality of radio” as often overlapping “the boundaries of political and cultural sovereignty.” In Algeria and Nigeria, the national orientation of the colonizer's radio too often slipped into a terrain for national consciousness raising among the colonized; but in the Dutch East Indies, a regional orientation of the radio—extending to the entire transnational area of Dutch colonization—sought to prevent the emergence of a coeval national consciousness facilitated by a nationally oriented territoriality of radio. The Dutch also deployed a bifurcated model of radio, a technology that functioned similarly to what Mamdani (1996) has termed centralized and decentralized despotism in the African context. Instead of deploying a single radio project, the Dutch had a European station for the cities and an Eastern station for the rural areas, preventing the deployment of radio as a tool in any potential project of linking the urban and the rural in anticolonial struggles. In this vein, King's intervention leads one to wonder why the initial transnational resonance of the Arab Spring—in part facilitated by the decentralized and immediately global technology of social media, communicated in the regional language of Arabic, for example—eventually collapsed into a variety of nationally specific contexts that demobilized the uprisings and prevented future cross-border coordination of the mobilizations.

This same dynamic between oppression and resistance is at play in Eli Shapiro's discussion of apartheid South Africa through the lens of three terrains of spatial resistance: settlement, transport, and urbanity. He argues that they operate both as mechanisms of control and as terrains of resistance, just as King claims with regard to the technology of radio. Space, like technology, is open-ended and can serve multiple purposes. Shapiro ends with a reflection on the power of the spatially inflected occupy vocabulary in the current round of uprisings from Cairo to Madrid, Istanbul, Athens, and New York. In all of these contexts, colonialism's legacy clearly persists, and he argues that it is often inscribed in the landscape. But the mechanisms of resistance also leave residues, providing important lessons on how to fight the current battle of anticolonial occupation.

Having grappled with the spatial regime of apartheid, it is perhaps not surprising that Shapiro's exploration is arguably the most attuned to the spatial problematic in this collection. But, the patently spatial strategies of the Occupy movement encourage each of the writers in this collection to explore both the temporal and spatial dimensions of occupation, broadly conceived. Spatializing resistance often entails hijacking places that were built with other purposes in mind. As Shapiro reminds us, “Like the colonial power it counters, the spatial logic of resistance seeks to stage a drama that will transform the parameters and content of the stage itself.” This brings to mind the Situationist strategy of detournement, and it is one that dovetails nicely with the global movements we are still witnessing unfold. And yet, the uneven outcomes of these movements offer cause for pause and reflection regarding missed opportunities and lacunas in the strategies and tactics of any such detournement. Tao Leigh Goffe's literary reflection on queering the colonial archive through an examination of the lacuna around “coolie” labor, therefore, provides us with an interesting and imaginative example of how to expand our conceptions of resistance and occupation.

Her article highlights how identifying Asian migrants referred to as “coolies” too narrowly with their occupations functions to reproduce their erasure from the colonial archive. While their work was obviously an important part of what they did, they also led interior lives, which, when examined—or imagined posthumously—might illuminate an important gap in the literature on the colonial experience. The queering of this archive by inventing such histories through literature, and placing them within the confines of the gendered and sexualized dynamics of colonialism and the predominantly male experience of “coolie” migrants, opens our minds to alternative imaginaries of what life was like for Asian migrants and how agency might be reconceived in the present. Again, this requires looking beyond the confines of a particular occupation as work and the demands of the political economy of colonialism.

Goffe's study is therefore a fitting note to end this collection on, as she opens the question of what it would mean to queer occupation today. From a certain perspective, this is precisely what the essays collected here took on as a project: how to take a now seemingly familiar term—Occupation—and unpack, deconstruct, and re-imagine it in order to make it unfamiliar and come alive with new resonances. While assessing the strategy and tactics of each particular movement involved in Occupy Wall Street would obviously entail careful empirical study and direct participation in the struggle, what seems beyond doubt is the capacity of these movements taken together to effectively open up our imagination again to the very possibilities of radical struggle in the 21st century. In a broader context, and through an examination of the spaces and times of occupation writ large, we hope these essays will make their own small contribution to this very same project.


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    Much appreciation to Michael Ralph for all his assistance in putting together this special issue. Thanks also to the Yale Working Group on Globalization and Culture for taking on the project and for continuing to tackle important issues from an interdisciplinary approach.