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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Occupy Austin and the Idle Talk of ‘the they’

In relation to the ongoing Occupation movements I’ve been split in terms of whether I have hope in them, identify with them or simply let sputter out unnoticed. Initially I thought they were rather novel and if they gained enough inertia they could potentially lead to mass strikes that could reinvigorate organized labor. But as I began to look into the demography of the movements, the landscape appears to be characterized more by trustafarians playing hacky sack and drinking micro-brews. Even the recent campus movements that chant “we’re the 99%” seem somewhat ridiculous to me. Yes you are the 99% but most likely if you’re attending this university you’re the top 10% of the country, and top 1% of the world.

In a lot of ways, the movement has been somewhat self-aggrandizing in many senses. I understand it is decentralized and leaderless, and thus is may be wrong to make sweeping generalizations, nonetheless I think writ large what is being produced will end up remaining unorganized and position-less. It comes off as an outburst of populism, not a tangible political force. I think the result is that either politicians will pander to and co-opt them, and van Jones has already attempted to do just that, or the movement will refuse the influence and they will drift into obscurity. Transforming a moment of potentiality into a nullity.

There are those that proffer broad based class critique, [and I say critique instead of ‘warfare’ because this is nothing like ‘warfare,’ just watch the Brooklyn balloon resistance] but its typically aimed at scapegoating ceo’s rather than the totality. Then there are those that criticize ‘the system’ yet the response they seek to garner is simply a reinstatement of the unemployed. More taxes, less bread!

In my previous post I indicated that I would not be reducing my analysis to class critique and that I would engage in a more phenomenological approach. In Sein und Zeit in The everyday being of the “there,” and the Falling of Dasein section Heidegger writes

Our interpretation is purely ontological in its aims, and is far removed from any moralizing critique of everyday Dasein, and from the aspirations of a ‘philosophy of culture’ (SuZ, 210).

Likewise, my interpretation of these movements does not come as a distanced recluse rather I went and observed the movements first hand the last couple of days. I may be somewhat more moralistic than Heidegger in tenor, but will attempt to use the phenomenological analysis as a jumping off point for questioning the effects, modes, and genuineness of the movements as a thing in and of themselves.

Yesterday when I went to the pre-rally on the main mall of the University of Texas at Austin I spoke with Professor Miller (I hate sharing my last name with this guy) of the McCombs Business School. He was talking to some of the protesters and a journalist from the Daily Texan. After pontificating about the ills of government regulation his basic point was that ‘these kids’ need to quit ‘complaining’ and start coming up with incentive based solutions to the market. One of the things that sparked this post however was a comment he made that these protests simply get people to join on board something without understanding the ‘back story’ of the situation. Basically that the protests make people unreflectively bandwagon onto a movement they are ignorant about.

At the time I quickly retorted that symbolic protests are not public policy forums and that his argument was generally more characteristic of the right than the left, and that this is simply a response to the rhetorical branding that’s worked so well since the Gingrich revolution. On further reflection after watching the protests evolve in person and online, and seeing the media’s coverage of the movements it seems he might have had a decent point after all.

Heidegger produces the idea of Idle Talk as a mode of Dasein’s average everydayness. It’s not that Idle Talk is more or less present-at-hand as a mode of discourse than others, it points to the ways that this mode can only come from the sort of Being that has disclosedness as a necessary and essential aspect of its existence. Heidegger’s definition,

The Being-said, the dictum, the pronouncement [Ausspruch]-all these now stand surety for the genuineness of the discourse and of the understanding which belongs to it, and for its appropriateness to the facts. And because this discoursing has lost its primary relationship-of-Being towards the entity talked about, or else has never achieved such a relationship, it does not communicate in such a way as to let this entity be appropriated in a primordial manner, but communicates rather by following the route of gossiping and passing the word along. What is said-in-the-talk as such, spreads in wider circles and takes on an authoritative characters. Things are so because one says so. Idle talk is constituted by just such gossiping and passing the word along- a process by which its initial lack of grounds to stand on becomes aggravated to complete groundlessness (SuZ, 212, emphasis original).

Idle talk is a people magazine, shooting the breeze, speaking without ground. What’s interesting here is not just a basic description of people talking without either being sincere or having acquired a level of expertise to do so but rather the analysis of the ways in which Idle Talk lends itself to circulation. Idle Talk as a mode of communication is more apt to circulate because its very nature implies that lack of ontological questioning; things can simply be taken on face. This precludes a search for the grounds upon which the discourse is spoken from, it is a part of the larger forces of nihilism in which the Being of beings that speaks is forgotten. The type of entities that language possesses is likewise forgotten, concealed, and covered over. Heidegger writes;

The groundlessness of idle talk is no obstacle to its becoming public; instead it encourages this. Idle talk is the possibility of understanding everything without previously making the thing one’s own. If this were done, idle talk would founder; and it already guards against such a danger. Idle talk is something which anyone can rake up; it not only releases one from the task of genuinely understanding, but develops an undifferentiated kind of intelligibility, for which nothing is closed off any longer (SuZ, 213).

Idle Talk circulates throughout the public because of its simple reductive ‘truth’ value. Things don’t have truth for a specific Being as the result of making it their own through ontological reflection, rather things are because ‘they’ have said so. The desire for understanding pure and simple obscures the necessity for inquiry,

The average understanding of the reader will never be able to decide what has been drawn from primordial sources with a struggle and how much is just gossip. The average understanding, moreover, will not want any such distinction, and does not need it, because, of course, it understands everything (SuZ, 212, emphasis original). 

This is what upsets me about the Occupation movements. Its not that I want to see these people engaged in riveting dialectical materialist analyses that would rival Marx or Harvey today, but I think the lack of anything resembling a coherent message points to the fact that the movement embraces an anything goes sort of mentality. Everyone’s sign is just fine. There aren’t any internal tensions being exposed. I understand the left has been plagued by in-fighting for far too long and a generous disposition of alliance is strategic, but to what end? Its probably more strategic to create some sort of signifying point at which the criticism crystallizes. I understand it’s a movement against Wall Street, but does capitalism really have a center? It will always be more dispersed and decentralized than your movement, how successful can mimicry be?

Heidegger puts it best,

Thus, by its very nature, idle talk is a closing-off, since to go back to the ground of what is talked about is something which it leaves undone….Because of this, idle talk discourages any new inquiry and any disputation, and in a peculiar way suppresses them and holds them back (SuZ, 213)

Idle talk as a modality of communication cuts off and closes down. It seeks to shelter being from agonistic engagement. For movements to be successful they need to be more aggressive and explicity. This movement is nothing like the Battle for Seattle or the Arab Spring. There is no attempt to disrupt the flow of goods, traffic, or people. Simple chanting and cheering may ‘speak truth to power’ but it won’t redirect the power relationships.

The dominance of the public way in which things have been interpreted has already been decisive even for the possibilities of having a mood-that is, for the basic way in which Dasein lets the world “matter” to it. The “they” prescribes on’s state-of-mind, and determines what and how one ‘sees’ (SuZ, 213).

Thus my critique is not aimed at tweaking or reforming a bit of the content within the movement writ large, but rather to expose the ways that the general disposition of the movement in terms of the way it inculcates a mood of critique and movement is problematic. It enframes the complex flows of global capitalism and the populist energy of America into neat easily understood and thus subverted forces. This obscures the contradictions of capital rather than searching for breaking points. It assumes single individuals are evil, rather than attempting to smash the oppressor within. It views capital as a disembodied structure rather than one that operates moreso on the ability to reproduce the relations of production by commodifying the sensorium, our musculature, emotive tendencies and perceptual capacities.

When Dasein maintains itself in idle talk, it is – as Being-in-the-world – cut off from its primary and primordially genuine relationships-of-Being towards the world, towards Dasein-with, and towards its very Being-in. Such a Dasein keeps floating unattached [in einer Schwebe]; yet in so doing, it is always alongside the world, with Others, and towards itself (SuZ 214).

This general mood cuts off our capacities to care for the Other’s we are speaking about and for more generally. The desire for completely intelligible system of capitalism and the arrogance it breeds cultivates a general cynicism that fails to see the objectifying processes within the everyday. Capital does not exist solely as an invisible structure that occurs behind the closed doors of the New York Stock Exchange its refracted through our movements, modes of speaking, and friend and family interactions. Until greater attention is paid to the minutiae of everyday biopolitical processes, than the reversal of such power relations will always remain a utopian, moralistic castle in the sky.

While the particular Dasein drifts along towards an ever-increasing groundlessness as it floats, the uncanniness of this floating remains hidden from it under their protecting shelter (SuZ, 214)

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