Thursday, October 06, 2011

The Event: Occupy Wall Street and Steve Jobs

History takes a strange twist when two big things happen on the same day, and they're related enough that they converge in the news media. That's what happened yesterday, when the Occupy Wall Street protests got big enough to spark some police conflict, and then, in the evening, the death of Steve Jobs was announced and totally took over the media. I've been personally following the protests, finding in them an interesting change in the timbre of political participation. Most of the country is still ignoring them, but this is becoming less and less possible.

The news of Jobs' death, on the other hand... nobody could ignore that. It totally overwhelmed public discourse for the rest of the night. Even the protestors, caught up as they were in the surge of a mass demonstration, had to find time to tweet about the Apple CEO's passing.

The two events create a stark contrast, happening at the same time like this. The protests, in the words of McKenzie Wark, are truly an "event" -- they feel unprecedented, as if they're subverting the media cycle of sensationalism and forgetfulness. This kind of public gathering and outpouring of emotion, this mass expression of discontent, perpetual because it doesn't articulate a terminating condition -- it's a rare occasion, and this is truly the first event of its kind in the age of mass media.  It demonstrates the validity of those philosophical concepts like "aletheia" (Heidegger) or "event" (Badiou), which seem so useless most of the time, but that take on a new vitality when you're in a situation like this, and you truly don't know where it's going.

Jobs' death is totally different. The signs were there for months: the autobiography, the resignation from Apple -- and yet, it was sudden, like getting jabbed with a needle is sudden, even after thirty seconds of watching the doctor get the syringe ready. In that way, even its suddenness was sort of predictable. Jobs' death was a confirmation of the cycles of seasons, the rhythm of life and death, sweeping up even those people who have been elevated to icons, to ideals. He joins the ranks of Amy Winehouse and Mother Theresa in that respect, a victim of the tyranny of the inevitable.  His death wasn't an "event" in the radical sense... it was a landmark, a testament to the power of Eternal Return.

It's hard to overstate the importance Steve Jobs had in our culture. His name is one of the most widely-recognized, and he presided over Apple at a time when it was systematically shaping our whole cultural framework.  This is an information age, and Apple's always been at the leading edge of information access and organization. The number of loving eulogies is a testament to this fact (read many of them here, as noted by Jason Kottke).

And maybe Jobs' infamous lack of corporate charity is part of the zeitgeist, too -- the zeitgeist of the super-rich in-crowd, a massive social class of self-made millionaires and billionaires, created by market speculation and booms in information technology. It's been argued that this crowd suffers from a problem of entitlement and self-interest, a disconnected (almost patronizing and authoritarian) attitude toward the social and political structures, which they're subject to, but not really a part of.  That's another topic altogether, worth pursing, but outside the scope of this reflection.

Indeed, if we can't pay tribute to Jobs as a humanitarian, we can pay tribute to him as a projection, representing capitalism in all its best and worst attributes. Out of self-interest, he created world-changing products and historical innovations -- radical events in their own right -- and he represented the power of freedom and ambition and authoritarianism.  That's free-market capitalism: a blind visionary, seeing the whole world through the prism of itself.

Acknowledging that fact is a cause for concern for some activists, because it leads to a deluge of criticisms, like this one and this one, from both inside and outside the movement.  Twitter: the new platform for mass soul-searching, amiright?

Chances are, a lot of people at Occupy Wall Street had to make some very quick assessments of what they really thought of Steve Jobs last night. On one hand, there's a good chance they were using iPhones and iPads.  They may have been radicals, struggling to excuse their own brand-loyalty; they may have been moderates, trying to decide where Apple's consumer-friendly empire fits on their gradient of indignation. A few of them -- notably the occasional left-leaning libertarian -- may have looked at their iPhones, looked up at a pro-Obama sign, and thought, "Should I really be aligning myself with this movement?"

Self-defenses are simple to generate.  "We're unhappy with the system, not the individuals who have done well for themselves within in." Or how about, "It's the collusion between money and politics, not the actual companies themselves." Or, most obviously, "This is about banks and financial speculation, not about companies making retail products."  These are all reasonable, though they don't completely close off the argument.

Ultimately, though, the final answer is a universal truth: we have to accept, in some measure, what we oppose in another measure, or in another form.  We have to "waffle," as it were, between seeing the value in personal ambition and monetary incentives, and seeing the danger in letting it run unfettered.  In its healthiest form, market capitalism drives human progress and keeps economies balanced.  When it's toxic, it takes over everything: the political process, the lives of individuals, the educational system, the military.

The Occupy Wall Street protests aren't so militant that they can't struggle with these questions. It's one of the visible struggles within the protests: anti-capitalist? Anti-consumerist? Or just anti-Big-Five-corporate-banking? It goes right along with the other tensions that are being dealt with: pro- or anti-Obama? Pro- or anti-Cop? These dichotomies are yet to be decided, and in some cases, it may be up to the subject of the dichotomy (Obama, the police, etc.) to win or lose the movement's favor.

Because of this mushy flexibility, the protests are able to absorb outside resources -- support from unions, support from celebrities -- without, thus far, being infected or assimilated by them. These allies are accepted in good faith, even as their merit is being internally debated. Like any good democratic mass, this collective has constant ideological indigestion.

In fact, Occupy Wall Street exhibits all the best and worst of the democratic process, just as Steve Jobs exhibited the best and worst of capitalism. Occupy Wall Street is flexible and open, few voices are "silenced" arbitrarily, and it's in constant flux, adapting to situations and expressing the changing ideologies that are allowing it to build momentum. It's ecstatic and troubled and massively inclusive. At the same time, it's indecisive, anemic in terms of concrete long-term goals, and it frequently splits. Sometimes it seems to teeter on the edge of mindless mob rule. One part goes to Liberty Square, one part goes to the NYPD, one part goes to the Brooklyn Bridge. The human megaphone is empowering somebody, and we can all hear them echoed in that messy multitude, but nobody knows who's talking, or what the hell their qualifications are.

This Occupy Wall Street movement, this "event," as it were, will only survive if it stays true to its troubled nature, its indistinct but deeply-rooted value system. Certainly, as this Tea Partier points out, there will be lots of attempts to appropriate it.  It needs to keep thriving off that kick, that emotional resonance, that you get when you're part of a collective sentiment... when your own unsettled idealism is amplified by the voice of the masses.

There is no right time for a landmark like Steve Jobs' death -- it was always predestined, and no matter when it happened, it would have been a shock. Occupy Wall Street, on the other hand, is delivering the kick of rupture, of the radical event -- and those of us who are investing in this movement are watching closely, hoping that for this movement, the "right time" is here.

1 comment:

Garreth said...

I knew you'd have something to say on Jobs' passing. I "grew up" with Jobs: learning Basic programing on an Apple II+, passing long afternoons at my friend's house camped infront of the strange colors of of the Apple monitor, wondering for days if I'd ever figure out the text adventure of Zork. My belief in his vision was cemented when I read his quote about computers being like "bicycles for the mind" (type in the phrase and watch the schooltube video). I've never owned anything but an Apple computer. (Well, ok, so there was an Atari 600XL with 16kb of ram...but really.)

I've not read about Jobs' philanthropy or lack thereof. But then, you don't read about too many Buddhists and their philanthropy, do you? Additionally, true Catholic Philanthropy is to be anonymous. Not that Jobs was a Catholic, but rather that there are those who give in ways that do not elevate the giver over the gift. This is wholly out of line with American Corporate Philanthropy from Carnegie on up to Gates, et al. So I'm reserving my judgment on that. However, I think this article ( is instructive in giving us yet another way to conceive of Philanthropy.

I've ordered Isaacson's bio of Jobs, and I anticipate a heavy heart on many pages. At least 1/4 of what I do in my classroom is directly the result of Jobs and Apple's presence in the world. For me, he stands up there with Richard Feynman as a role model on how living a life of uncompromising truth to one's ideals can be the single-most important element of making a change in the world. It is not easy, and it can be downright lonely, almost ascetic. But there is a bittersweet beauty in that. I'm reminded of Darren G. here. His ethical code is as rigid as I've ever seen.

I noticed your "Southern Gothic" reviews. I need to find time to read them. I perused the Sling Blade of my personal favorites..

Keep up the great work.

Oh...and um, I think I need to offer you congratulations (at least if I'm reading the pictures I was looking at on Facebook correctly...).

All the best to you,