Occupy as Form: Shane Boyle

The Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley is sponsoring the working session “Occupy as Form” on February 10, 2012. Participants have been invited to post some brief thoughts on the topic in advance of the event. This guest posting is by Shane Boyle, graduate student in Theater, Dance and Performance Studies at UC Berkeley.
Keyword: Direct Action 
Since the start of Occupy, “direct action” has gone from being a term hardly spoken to a pair of words on everyone’s tongue. Accompanying the term’s discursive proliferation, however, has been a proliferation of what direct action signifies—a development that threatens to make direct action as a term essentially meaningless. 
Direct action has become a category used to encompass everything from lobbying days and mass rallies to encampments and pitched street-fights with police. It has become a blanket under which Occupy’s diverse tactics are forced to restlessly fit. Its current discursive meaninglessness is symptomatic of the generally impoverished vocabulary we have for addressing the non-identity of the forms that Occupy takes.
In his recent book, Direct Action: An Ethnography, anthropologist David Graeber writes: 
“[I]n its essence direct action is the insistence, when faced with structures of unjust authority, on acting as if one is already free. One does not solicit the state. One does not even necessarily make a grand gesture of defiance. Insofar as one is capable, one proceeds as if the state does not exist.” 
What might it mean to act “as if” structures of authority and the state do not exist? What forms can this type of action take? How does the subjunctive “as if” tense of such acting shape the action that is performed, as well as the actor who does the performing? And if direct action is not a “grand gesture of defiance,” can it be a form of protest?
Graeber’s argument that direct action’s “essence” involves a refusal to acknowledge authority sits uncomfortably with direct action’s most common appearance—as a literal confrontation with authority. Rather than lead us to dismiss Graeber’s definition, this seeming discrepancy should prompt us to reflect on how we as scholars (and as activists) grapple with the appearance and essence of direct action.
We should consider direct action to be not only a symbolic form of protest, but also an embodied action whose very performance can profoundly shape activist subjectivities and communities. In addition to seeing direct action as a performance waiting to be read, we must also attend to what the performance of direct action entails. Direct action is not just a mode of expression. We cannot focus only on what motivates activists to act or what messages they look to convey. To approach direct action as such might make it easier to reconcile with a liberal political system in which voting and freedom of speech are the privileged forms of political action—but that hardly means this approach is sufficient.

10 thoughts on “Occupy as Form: Shane Boyle

  • Sima Belmar

    Thanks for the post, Shane. I am interested in the idea of “direct action” being an embodied phenomenon whose “meanings” are not necessarily to be read, but rather to be experienced. If the bodies involved in direct action are not merely symbols, but rather actively engaged in a form of contact improvisation, what sort of guiding principles should be foregrounded such that the subjectivities and communities you mention have some way to “make sense” of this engagement? Is there something to a notion of the paradox of “indirect action,” an action that is performed by actors who partially “step aside” from the action simultaneously? What bodily forms of critical distance can be cultivated by those who put their bodies on the line? How can those being directly acted against be given an opportunity to understand the experience of an action that is both direct (willful yet habitual) and indirect (having effects outside the intentions of the action itself)?

  • shane

    sima these are exactly the types i am trying to engage—thanks for raising them. the last point is particularly crucial and i am still working it out. as you can probably tell, my method is to a certain extent lifted from dance studies, so i would love your thoughts on this…

    regarding your idea of “indirect action.” the limits of graeber’s “as if” paradigm seems crucial here. he implies that although we act as if authority do not exist, we nevertheless know that authority exists. but a question seems to me how do we nevertheless know this? for graeber the “as if” entails a conscious recognition of this “as if.” but i dont think we can assume that this “as if” only applies to consciousness. part of what i am interested in is what happens to subjectivity when the conscious “as if” is absent, but nevertheless the “as if” remains in other ways. for example, the “as if” can also be embodied, something that can be particularly felt in moments of repression and confrontation, but also in moments of collective action, etc.

    regarding “bodily forms of critical distance,” what exactly do you mean? does this link to your idea of “indirect action” or do you mean something that has less to do with conscious critical distance? it would be interesting to think of this in terms of the bodily protection one might wear, or learning how to position one’s body.

    • Sima Belmar

      Now we have something to frame that coffee we’ve been meant to get for so long! I reread my post and realize that the last question can be read in two directions: protestors facing physical violence and police or other “officers of the peace” facing embodied direct action, peaceful or otherwise. At the town hall yesterday, one of the questions asked during the split-off groups was about how to define violence. Our group never got to it, but I thought a lot about the force of a large group of people, arms linked, shouting or even singing, and about how that force is felt by officers in riot gear, men and women who are obviously in a position to inflict more physical harm (batons, guns, etc.), but who less obviously are, if not inflicted upon, affected by the physical presence of a mass of people, no matter how peacefully organized.

      As per the “as if,” I am drawing from somatic practices such as The Alexander Technique or the Feldenkrais Method to think about the “as.” These methods focus, indirectly!, on what is being enacted while it is being enacted, how we are embodied while we act. We do not “act” as if, but we can think as if as we act. Twelve-step programs use the “as if” a lot to help people move through the world with a sense of self they do not yet have. In the somatic formulation, I think it is more about attending to the movement that is happening as it is happening and suspending judgment. This is a difficult prospect in any event, including lying peacefully on the ground in a dance studio with five other like-minded people, never mind during a political protest. But I am truly interested in exploring the kind of awareness building that works with subjectivity “when the ‘as if’ is absent” as you say.

      Finally, on “bodily forms of critical distance,” I am thinking again of those physical practices that cultivate modes of attention to sensation that are not immediately or necessarily ever “translated” into spoken/verbal/thought language. This mode of attention becomes indirect action when we act with it. Perhaps “non-action” is a better term. Non-action would be a negative that acts, not “not acting” but rather non-acting. In other words, rather than either avoiding embodied protest or using one’s body in protest with the intention to have a particular effect, one could move/act/be in a protest situation and observe one’s physical impulses, inhibit physical responses, offer a lag between hopeful intention and action to make space for something, perhaps something unexpected. Intersubjectively, this might open space for the “bodies on the other side” to act differently. Sounds utopic? Vague? It does to me, but I’d be thrilled to keep pursuing these ideas with you and others. I wonder what sorts of physical practices are involved in the non-violent training going on on campus?

    • amanda

      Sima, Shane,
      Thank you!
      This is such a helpful conversation (with super-clear specifics!) on the way we create perspective, critical distance, affinity, all the aspects of relating to others we usually associate with emotions, language, logic – with our bodies, not just in times of protest but in the dance studio, on the street, etc.

      To speak to the question about the non-violent trainings, I’ve only attended one so far, but I can say that physical practices have not been addressed robustly, and I would imagine there’s room for suggestion/collaboration/intervention. Next week is the student training, and I know there is an active effort to involve a more physical/dynamic structure for the workshop. Might be interesting to talk with Catherine Cole about this…

  • Adam Hefty

    I’ve been thinking about the notion of direct action and the fetishization of an idea of taking direct action in the movement for a couple of years, so I’m really glad you wrote this up.

    An angle from which I was approaching it: in contemporary society with all its massified and spectacular features, any collective action is going to have a symbolic component. It’s a traditional schema of how one ought to appeal to or (civilly) disobey the authority of representative democracy that activists are rejecting when they use the notion of direct action, I think. But taking such actions always involve representing ourselves within an existing social symbolic matrix.

  • shane

    exactly adam, but there is a certain tendency within occupy—not to mention certain groups/orgs playing off occupy (which I know you are familiar with…)—to emphasize direct action as merely a symbolic form action to such an extent that from an organizing and assessment perspective it eliminates consideration of how such actions might also function on other levels. not only does this threaten to limit the possible political horizon for direct action to a realm of electoral politics and “media warfare” (as one columnist for alternet recently put it in the wake of OO’s move-in day), but it can also have tremendous material consequences for activists themselves.

  • Anonymous

    I wonder whether:

    (1) direct action was really “a term hardly spoken” before Occupy – I suppose it depends on the frame of reference for ‘hardly’. Certainly there have been plenty of debates in numerous social justice and enviromentalist circles over the past two decades about DA, not to mention dozens of decades before that, even if the term ‘da’ wasn’t explicitly used. A serious interrogation of the term needs to do some genealogy into that, which could certainly give some insights/perspective on the symbolic and practical dimensions.

    (2) whether direct action is really “on everyone’s tongues” (eww). Really, this sort of self-referential fanciful exageration is all too common in what can be rather closed narcissitic activist circles, but does little to clarify.

  • Shane

    I’ll give you #2, but the point I was trying to make (to address #1) is that the term “direct action” now circulates far beyond the social justice and environmentalist circles you mention. This is an important discursive development for a variety of reasons, and indexes to a number of recent developments nationally and globally. But what many who use this term (in the media, in activist circles, in the academy) mean by DA is very different than what, say, the groups Graeber, Epstein, and others who have traced the genealogy you ask for, meant by it. This is not to say that any one grouping or movement hold a monopoly over the term’s meaning, but we need to carefully understand why it has become a contested term, and what the consequences of this can be both when scholars talk about Occupy, and when activists organize and plan. What is the consequence, for example, when a coalition pushing the Millionaire’s tax initiative calls what they do direct action, when a year ago they called it petitioning? I think, in this case, there are clear opportunistic reasons for deploying this term.

    • Cheryl

      Shane, Sima, Amanda, everyone,
      I am glad you are clarifying your thoughts on direct action, and bringing the topic forward in this way. Thinking about what is the essence of the term, and looking at Graeber’s definition is helpful. I do think, though that the recent opening up of actions that could be considered direction action is quite fruitful, given the essence as described by historical anarchists. Voltairine De Cleyre, in her essay about Direct Action: “Every person who ever had a plan to do anything, and went and did it, or who laid his plan before others, and won their co-operation to do it with him, without going to external authorities to please do the thing for them, was a direct actionist. All co-operative experiments are essentially direct action.” This observation really does open up the term to more forms than the standard moves of most protests as planned.

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