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Home arrow Language & Literature arrow Occupying Space in American Literature and Culture: Static Heroes, Social Movements and Empowerment
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WE THE 99%

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

—U.S. Constitution

Just as the Spanish movement named itself after a particular day, 15-M (March 15), the day regional elections were held in 2011, that September day, widely discussed on Twitter and other social media sites, was simply named September 17th. For some, it was “the United States Day of Rage, an apparent reference to a series of disruptive protests against the Vietnam War held in Chicago in 1969” (Moynihan 2011). September 17th was also the 224th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution before it went to the states for ratification (Schmitt, Taylor, and Greif 2011, 4). If the community that named itself “We the People of the United States” created a compact in order to form a “more perfect Union,” the protesters created a revised version of the “We” in order to perfect a union marked by internal rifts. The assembly approved a declaration of “Principles of Solidarity” that recorded the rising of a people against political disenfranchisement, “greed, corporate influence, gross social inequality and other nasty byproducts of wayward capitalism” (Bellafante 2011). Through the declaration, the protesters performatively constituted themselves into “autonomous political beings engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience and building solidarity.” A later “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City” included a list of twenty-three grievances that gravitated around injustice and invisibility, the very complaints that drove the Arab Spring. Symbolically, they were also the key elements that drove the colonies against royal injustice (Slaughter 2011). The document concluded not with a declaration of war, but with an exhortation to exercise power and “occupy public space,” as the means to “create a process to address the problems that we face, and generate solutions accessible to everyone” (Gelder et al. 2011, 38). The call was firmly rooted in the history of the U.S. and the tradition of student sit-ins during the civil rights movement, and its emphasis on civil disobedience.5 Occupy updated these historical occasions of “illegal” occupations as it reconnected with the revolutionary spirit of the country. As Judith Butler expressed it, the performativity of the occupation created a new political entity: “We are assembling in public, we are coming together as bodies in alliance, in the street and in the square. We’re standing here together making democracy, enacting the phrase ‘We the people!’” (2011, 193).

“We the People” blends with its contemporary spin-off, “We Are the 99%.” The new We, started in mid-August 2011, on the “We Are the 99%” Tumblr page by Chris and Pricilla Grim (Castells 2012, 172), enunciated dissent and rupture. At the same time, it constituted itself into a political entity, voicing a discourse that, in Ranciere’s words “claims a place in the order of things, demanding ‘the part for those who had no part’” (2001, 6). The new We have names and faces, as a visit to the website “We Are the 99%” reveals. The site allows one to see the Mohamed Bouazizis of the U.S., page after page of testimonies from members of the middle class who took out loans to pay for education, took out mortgages to buy their houses and a piece of the American Dream, worked hard at the jobs they could find, and ended up unemployed or radically underemployed and on the precipice of financial and social ruin. The short bios end with the refrain “I am the 99 percent” or “We are the 99 percent.” It is a portrait in aggregate of the emerging majority of Americans: indebted, often overeducated for the jobs and salaries available to them, stripped of dignity (Roth 2011, 25), and evicted from the ideological premises of the country. The new We emerges as the masses of those unassimilated and unbelonging to institutional power. Like the masses of demonstrators in the Arab Spring, the actors of the OWS movement are caught in between. This amorphous and indefinable We exists between the gospel of the American Dream and the realities of corporate America. They can be considered as the subaltern, the dispossessed, the disposable nonentities, or, in Hannah Arendt’s term, the “superfluous” ([1958] 1962, 296). Like the Arab Revolution, this was a revolution of the vanquished (cf. Spanos 2012, 102).6

Virtually or physically, the revisited We encamped in Zuccotti Park, an empty space with very symbolic spatial coordinates, around the corner from Ground Zero and two blocks north of Wall Street. Thus citizens reclaimed a place in the city, “a city from where they were evicted by real estate speculation and municipal bureaucracy” (Castells 2012, 11). Even if there was a parallel mobilization in the social networks, physical place became a major actor in the popular uprising, and the demonstrators expressed the need “to be left alone in our plazas, parks, schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods so as to meet one another, reflect together, and in assembly forms decide what our alternatives are” (Sitrin 2011, 8). The words, like Bartleby’s response from within the office, “I am occupied,” express the overlap between the active and the passive modes. The protesters moved from occupying the premises of Wall Street to being themselves “occupied.” As in Melville’s story, the physical occupation was the first stage of an ideological occupation and in the obstruction of capitalist domination. Like Bartleby, the demonstrators did not need to move to a new space in order to realize the full revolutionary potential of the movement. The space they occupied was not out there, on a new frontier, but within the structured and mapped inscriptions of power in New York City. The transit is not from striated to smooth spaces, but within the striae of spaces. And yet, by remaining on those premises, there is the intimation of the creation of a different spatiality. Zuccotti Park became disinscripted, imbued with Bartleby’s blankness. As in Melville’s story, reclaiming an absence out of a presence is the necessary step for proposing a new presence, or, as one of the protesters put it, a new “architecture of consciousness” (Kimmelman 2011).

 
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