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.