YES WE CAMP: THE AGORA AND THE DOMUS
So, the urbs or the polis starts by being an empty space, the forum, the agora, and all the rest is just a means of fixing that empty space, of limiting its outlines. The polis is not primarily a collection of habitable dwellings, but a meeting-place for citizens, a space set apart for public functions. The city is not built, as is the cottage or the domus, to shelter from the weather and to propagate the species—these are personal, family concerns—but in order to discuss public affairs. Observe that this signifies nothing less than the invention of a new kind of space, much more new than the space of Einstein.
—Jose Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses
Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth!
—Isaiah 5:8, King James Bible
You pick someplace to stand, and when you stand there, you find your other occupation, as a member of civil society. At this moment in history, occupation should be everyone’s occupation.
—Rebecca Solnit, “The Occupation of Hope:
Letter to a Dead Man”
“We tend to underestimate the political power of physical places,” commented Michael Kimmelman in an article published in October 2011. It is indeed physical place that engenders the agora, the meeting place for citizens, and the space set apart for public functions. The Greek agora was a central part of the polis and could not be appropriated. In the agora, all became alike and equal, and everything had to be said and accomplished in the open. “Nothing concerning the public domain may be secret.” In the agora, public space is understood literally (Henaff and Strong 2001, 11).7 That is the transformative public space that emerged in Tahrir Square in Cairo, la Puerta del Sol in Madrid, Zuccotti Park, and, more recently, in Taksim Square in Istanbul.8 What these emblematic places have in common is that they are literally empty places that updated the original meaning of public space at a time when, as Isaiah prophesized, house adjoins house, field adjoins field, until there is no empty place; at a time when, as a result of the “neoliberal onslaught” that characterized the 1980s and the attendant reregulation of public space, the latter has been transfigured at the behest of state and corporate strategies. The tendency peaked in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, and the unprecedented circumscription of popular uses of public space in the name of public safety and homeland security (Low and Smith 2006, 1). As Giorgio Agamben notices, the new metropolitan spatialization is invested in a process of de-politicization and it is impossible to decide what is private and what is public. The empty place has become privately owned, and the agora becomes indistinctive from the domus. Zuccotti Park, formerly Liberty Plaza, is an illustration of the blurring of both categories, for it can be qualified as a privately owned public space (Foderaro 2011).9 The occupation of this oxymoronic site by demonstrators on September 17, however, marked its transformation from an apparent into an actual agora. In occupying the park, the demonstrators created a heterotopic blank page that harbored an updated version of the Greek polis where they could occupy themselves in the practice of genuine democracy. The park itself fit the ideal size of a polis, extending to the limits of a herald’s cry. The people’s mic, the arrangement whereby anyone could speak, saying a few words at a time so that others could shout the words on to those behind them in the crowd, ensured that information rippled through the crowd. Zuccotti, like the rest of the occupied zones, became not just a place to talk about the possibility of creating a new society, but also an example in egalitarian living (Gelder 2011, 8).
The experiment might have looked like a refugee camp, a miniature polis in the making, or a specular city where citizens actually discussed public affairs, adopting the mechanisms of direct democracy. A “people’s assembly” would meet every night at seven. Inspired by the Arab Spring and by similar movements in Greece, Spain, and Argentina, the assembly exemplified two basic principles: it created new forms of “togetherness” and its immediate correlate, horizontality. Like Bartleby, the protesters undid the premises of social/economic subordination inscribed within the very verticality of the physical premises of Wall Street. Bartleby’s efforts at erasing the marks of hierarchy and subordination at the office run parallel to those of the 99 percent and the disenfranchised from the economic and political system. Just as Bartleby challenged the rigidly organized patterns of work in the office, OWS questioned a legal system based on inequality. Togetherness and horizontality intertwined to create a new city that offered a kitchen, a legal desk, and a sanitation department, a library of donated books, an area where the general assembly met, a medical station, a media center where people were able to recharge their laptops using portable generators, and even a general store, called the comfort center, stocked with donated clothing, bedding, toothpaste, and deodorant—like the food, all free for the taking (cf. Kimmelman 2011). The new polis illustrated new structures that created an open, participatory, and democratic space in consonance with the principles of the agora (Sitrin 2011, 9).10 This new architecture brought in those who are not entitled to exercise power, and hence produced a rupture in the order of legitimacy and domination. Democracy, claims Ranciere, “is the paradoxical power of those who do not count: the count of the ‘unaccounted for”’ (2000, 124). That is where, for the philosopher, politics exists, “wherever the count of parts and parties of society is disturbed by the inscription of a part of those who have no part” (Ranciere 1998, 123). Not pertaining to any particular party or denomination, the protesters were subjects who did not “have the consistency of coherent social groups united by a common property or a common birth, etc. They exist entirely within the act, and their actions are manifestations of a dissensus,” an eruption of difference. During the occupation of Zuc- cotti Park, the demonstrators made visible “that which is not perceivable, that which, under the optics of a given perceptive field, did not possess a raison d’etre, that which did not have a name.” This, for Ranciere, “constitutes the ground for political action: certain subjects that do not count create a common polemical scene where they put into contention the objective status of what is ‘given’ and impose an examination and discussion of those things that were not ‘visible,’ that were not accounted for previously” (2000, 124-25).
This bringing into the foreground what was traditionally pushed aside was short-lived. Like the actors that performed the Wall Street ocularpa- tion, the demonstrators in Zuccotti Park were unceremoniously evicted after Judge Michael D. Stallman handed down his decision, ruling for the city and saying the protesters could go into Zuccotti Park but could not take their tents and sleeping bags (Barron and Moynihan 2011). Stallman argued that the protesters had not demonstrated that they had a First Amendment right to remain in the park, along with their belongings, “to the exclusion of the landlord” or “others who might wish to use the space safely” (ibid.). Some claimed that the eviction of the encampment might have done OWS a favor “by providing a dramatic ending” before winter itself dispersed the campers. There were no political messages after the eviction, for the encampment, as an occupation of the agora, questioned the premises, literal and ideological, of public space and its spaces of consensus versus dissensus. The Adbusters poster turned prophetic, for the occupation of public space turned into a light tread that challenged but did not manage to change the deep structures of American society. The agora became homeless, an empty space that lacks a topos. Yet, Henri Lefebvre argues, “no space ever vanishes utterly, leaving no trace” ( 1991, 164). Were it otherwise, the philosopher argues, there would be no “interpenetration, whether of spaces, rhythms or polarities” (ibid.); there would be, in Foucault’s words, no heterotopias. This heterotopic sense of space permeates Norton’s assessment of Zuccotti Park months after the eviction:
Walking on the stones of Zuccotti at 1 a.m. on a February night, surrounded by police and private guards . . . I began to feel the spirit of the place welling up through my soles. These stones were infused with something that the police and the powerwashing hadn’t driven away. They’d been soaked with the tears and sweat and sometimes blood of the children of present and future who lived here. It still poured out of the stones, like the ghost of an unrestful place. (2012)
What to make of this spatial palimpsest? How do we recalibrate it in the midst of the occupations and evictions this volume has analyzed? In the line of flight between the horizontality of an empty Zuccotti Park and the texturology of power of lower Manhattan, the pervasive feeling is Occupy was a preview of what is to come. The police had “beat the people that had come back from the future with lifeboats” (Norton 2012). Much in the fashion of hysteron proteron that alters the logical and chronological sequence of events, it seems accurate to state, as Norton does, that “OWS was a messenger from the future, not so much fighting the system as explaining to the old way of doing things that it had already lost. . . . But the old world around us had rejected the message from the new world, never understanding that theirs was a mission of mercy to the lost” (ibid.). If the political arises “when the given order of things is questioned; when those whose voice is only recognized as noise by the police order claim the right to speak, acquire speech” (Swyngedouw 2009, 607), it is possible to argue that OWS disrupted the complacent and naturalized order of things and returned the political to the public arena as it redistributed spaces; in doing so Zuccotti became a space of dissensus, a new ground zero for a nation under attack, not from without but from within, from the various fault lines that divide the country.