Two days ago, Nathan Jurgenson wrote on what has become one of the central questions around Occupy Wall Street: Now that the encampments are closing up and the winter is coming on, can Occupy survive? The crucial point that Nathan makes is that we need to think about Occupy not just in terms of space but in terms of time – that permanence has been a part of what’s given the movement so much symbolic and discursive power. Nathan brings up an additional point, to which I want to respond here: that the role of physical permanence that the encampments represented was powerful because it resulted in a form of cognitive permanence in the minds of everyone who saw them (and heard them; the auditory side of Occupy is also vital to pay close attention to).
While I clearly agree with Nathan that the physical permanence that tents represent has been what’s given Occupy a lot of its power, I think we can glean enough evidence from how things have proceeded so far to at least make an educated guess at an answer to his question. For me, the answer is yes: I expect that Occupy will survive the winter and emerge in spring, albeit – like a bear emerging from hibernation – perhaps in somewhat of a different shape. There are several reasons why I come down on this side of things.
First, we need to remember what space is and how it can be understood in this case. I think Nathan is exactly correct when he claims that cognitive permanence is crucial to any measure of Occupy’s power. I think he’s also exactly correct when he points out that we need to consider time in conjunction with space. But in considering this, we also need to remember Occupy’s existence as an augmented movement – the “space” it occupies is not always physical. We’re speaking here not only of atoms but also of bits, not only of where people are but also of what they see and hear (and how they see and hear it), and when one brings time into the picture, then one is also speaking of memory. And in this case, I think we can usefully conceive of memory as atemporal – not only as a collection of mental artifacts of the past but as a cognitive framework through which people understand the present and imagine the future.
In short, when one is dealing with people’s minds, the boundaries between space and time become interestingly blurry; they essentially become features of each other. If we’re going to pick out cognitive permanence as crucial to Occupy’s power, we need to bear this in mind.
PJ Rey has already pointed out the power of memes in Occupy, both in terms of how well-situated it is to take advantage of them, and how well-suited it is to generate them in the first place. It’s useful at this point to remember what memes are – essentially occupations of mental spacetime. And we need to remember that memes are, as PJ does, something beyond image macros and .gifs; they are units for the transmission – and the longevity – of ideas, symbols, and meanings.
The symbolic power of tents and encampments, in this sense, extends beyond their physical presence. Once these symbols have permeated the culture, they tend to stick around; even if they aren’t physically present in the kind of numbers that they once were, people retain the ideas of what they are and what they mean, especially when those meanings are so efficiently transmitted through the richly myth-making environment of the internet. They retain mental and emotional force even when they are not physically present – and, additionally, they can be returned to once the environment is friendlier to their use. From a contentious politics perspective, it’s useful to think about these things as tools in a tool box; once they have been used successfully, they are available for anyone to make use of at any time in the future.
Physical encampments may be taking a break. But I think people will remember them, with all the emotional and symbolic power that has accumulated around them. And I think we’ll see them again, once protesters perceive that their use is once more effective.
So let’s leave that as an open possibility for the spring – and the oncoming election season – and return to the prospect of the next few months. Occupy has to survive them. And, given that it has a lot in its repertoire toolkit besides encampments, I think it will. In order to maintain its cognitive permanence, it needs to stay at the forefront of people’s attention without becoming just another easily-ignored feature of the landscape – and I think it is extremely well-situated to do that. Tents are a useful, efficient, and powerful way of achieving cognitive permanence, but they are not the only way. Claims on public – and private – space are likely to remain crucial, but even if the physical occupations are only short-term, their mental presence is likely to be much longer-lived.
To make a long story somewhat shorter, I believe that Occupy is entering a period of hibernation: it isn’t gone, and it will probably emerge again with a changing environment, but what it does and how it does it is likely to temporarily scale-shift downward in order to adapt. The big question for me is not whether Occupy can survive, but what it will look like come spring. And how government authorities, having had their own winter to regroup and prepare, will respond.