Where are the Intellectuals? An Essay on Occupy Wall Street

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In the cattle-market chatter about Occupy Wall Street, a whisper can be heard: that of the intellectuals. But far from throwing themselves into the fray, they’re tentatively poking at it with a long stick. While assorted commentators – ranging from musicians and actors, to writers and activists – are weighing in, intellectuals, at least the heavyweights, have been making only murmurs.

Granted, Noam Chomsky has spoken at length about the historical context of the movement and the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has drawn parallels between OWS and his reading of psychoanalysis. Political philosophers Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have analyzed the organizational structure of the movement, and literary theorist Judith Butler has made some few initial observations. All starting points, to be sure, but still only the seeds of a conversation.

So why the quiet from so many of those who often have a good deal to say?

I can’t help but agree with Žižek, who last week wrote in a Danish paper that, while it’s not for intellectuals to emerge as the leaders of the Occupy Wall Street movement, it is their responsibility to curate the rampant conversations taking place about it. In small doses, we’ve started to see this happen at universities. Panel discussions have been held, in an attempt to find meaning in what has been taking place these past six weeks at Zuccotti Park – and ever more in cities across the country, and world. Talk in these academic circles is preoccupied with the issue of who – if anyone – should lead the movement and what direction it should take. The consensus in this ever-morphing phenomenon thus far has been that the movement now known by an acronym — OWS — should remain a leaderless movement, because what matters most are the issues it raises, and the debate it sparks. But, by holding their tongues and pens the intellectual heavyweights risk allowed this bubbling conversation to continue unattended, and without the insight they can provide, run the risk of letting it boil over.


On October 26, a small group of Columbia University scholars gathered at a panel discussion to debate the issues surrounding OWS. The room was nearly full, predominantly with students, patiently vying to discuss the deeper issues at play in Zuccotti Park. Leading the discussion was Stathis Gourgouris, a professor of comparative literature. He spoke alongside Saskia Sassen, a professor of sociology; Nadia Urbinati, a professor of political theory and Hellenic studies; and Suresh Naidu, an assistant professor in economics and international and public affairs. The event was student-organized, a point Gourgourgis emphasized. He was “delighted” to see their desire to push the conversation forward.

The panel’s organizer, Joseph Blankholm, a doctoral candidate in religion, agreed that academics do have a role to play in the conversation. But to him they represent only one form of engagement. Blankholm has faith in the ability of the public to break through the often-erratic debate taking place, especially younger people who, he argued, are programmed to filter meaningful information from noise.

While OWS has captured the attention of an audience beyond the “Facebook generation,” there is a danger that the movement’s messages will be lost if it’s communicated in an inaccessible, fragmented manner. The often-elevated tone of academic discourse also runs the risk of alienating people. But it can offer a vehicle for, at the very least, steering the conversation. In fact, the Columbia panel demonstrated the potential that this very sort of discourse can offer. In reflecting on the issues at play in Zuccotti Park, the professors brought their particular expertise to the conversation. Nadia Urbinati, for instance, spoke about the issue of representation – not in terms of the need for leadership, but the extent to which OWS questions the decisions government makes in the name of citizens. Saskia Sassen, the sociologist, argued that the most “urgent outcome” of OWS is the clear signal it sends to a large section of America that something is fundamentally wrong. As an economic historian, Suresh Naidu said it was too soon to apply extensive economic analysis, but there something to be gained in observing the movement’s non-hierarchical organization.

Still, it wasn’t until the debate was opened to the floor that things got interesting. The students were less interested in asking questions of the scholars than they were in making provocative statements – mirroring precisely the sort of maddeningly circular conversation about OWS that currently prevails. A woman who has been sleeping in Zuccotti Park since day three gently chided the panelists on their use of the word “rage” in capturing the mood at the park. She wasn’t angry, she said. Rather, she was fearful. For her, Zuccotti Park is a place where “the fearful can come together and experience heroism.” She was received with rapturous applause. It was a tiny glimpse of the potential that structured debate encourages and thus can help to shape dispersed dialogue.

Meanwhile, at Harvard, Hamline, and Cal Poly similar panels have also been held, further indication that while still on small scale, this discussion is slowly taking on the form of, and gaining the advantages of, a true discourse. At Cal Poly, for instance, professors from a range of disciplines including communications studies, economics, political science and philosophy, joined Stephen Lloyd-Moffett, an assistant professor of religious studies who organized the discussion, on the panel. From a recording of the event, Lloyd-Moffett can be heard opening the discussion by saying “education should have an effect on the world we live in.” He wrote in a follow-up email that he organized the event because in making sense of the movement, it’s important to take advantage of the range of perspectives academics can offer.

So who will shape these perspectives? Scores of writers, including Salman Rushdie, Neil Gaiman, Daphnee Carr, and Hari Kunzru, have come out in support of OWS by signing the Occupy Writers petition. In an interview with Slate magazine, Hari Kunzru said the role of the writers in OWS is to “help by exposing this ideological mystification so that a more honest assessment can be made.” The occupywriters.com site is constantly being updated with submissions of poetry and prose. But these contributions are visceral responses to the scenes in Zuccotti Park. The novelist, Daniel Handler, contributed a piece titled, “Thirteen Observations made by Lemony Snicket while watching Occupy Wall Street from a Discreet Distance.” His observations are insightful and beautifully articulated, but they are as advertised: observations. Post-structuralist philosopher Judith Butler, and professor of rhetoric and comparative literature at Berkley, also posted her “composite remarks” on the site — supporting the movement, stating it to be an embodiment of “we the people,” but leaving it at that.

Where Butler’s reflections were sparse, Noam Chomsky’s were disappointing. It wasn’t a surprise to hear the linguist and philosopher speak out in support of OWS. But what was surprising was the content of his address to Occupy Boston on October 22, in which he spent most of his time looking backwards. Chomsky drew historical parallels with the current movement, referring to the sit-ins of the 1930s, which were precursors to “take-overs of the factory.” He spoke of a “pervasive sense of hopelessness and despair that’s new in American history.”

Chomsky categorically doesn’t want to see a leader emerge. Nor do Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, who believe the occupiers are able to conduct matters on their own. But it falls to Slavoj Žižek to articulate a clear proposal not for what should not exist, but for what, in fact, is needed: a structured conversation. Žižek addressed the occupiers in Zuccotti Park on October 9. Amplified by the “people’s mic” – the technique of repeating what the speaker says because they can’t use a megaphone – he urged the assembled, “Don’t be afraid to really want what you desire.” On October 25, he expanded on these initial sentiments of support and wrote an essay in the Danish paper, Information. He warned of the dangers of the occupiers falling in love with themselves, reiterating the point he made in park that “carnivals come cheap.”

In his essay, Žižek addressed the role of intellectuals in OWS. Drawing on the model of psycholanalysis, Žižek envisages a dialogue between the intellectuals and protestors in which the intellectuals, playing the analyst’s role, ask the questions designed to lead the protesters toward insight and clarity. From such wisdom, he argues, a course of action emerges.

This movement is still very much in its nascent stages. Demanding structured thought for something that requires more time to ponder is perhaps unrealistic. Or maybe not.

What those college events and those fleeting insights suggest is that more than simply offering support or an opinion, intellectuals can play a vital role in helping move a conversation akin to a dog chasing its tail into one that helps make sense of the anger bubbling up across the nation.

Maybe this is something we’ve just never seen before, something racked in confusion and emotion; something that even the heavyweight intellectuals are struggling, like the rest of us, to make sense of over the dinner table.

Follow Anna on Twitter: @annacod

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