from “The Trouble with Occupy:
Materialism, Transvaluation, and the Symbolic”

Occupy was, and continues to be, an event; we speak of “the event of Occupy” much as we refer to the “event of 9/11.” Occupy poets both participated in the event of Occupy but also continued it as an event through their work, which to a degree anticipated the event in providing terms drawn from poetry. At the center of the Occupy movement was a poetics, one that is not merely represented by its poets or reflected in their work. The spontaneity of decision making, the refusal of hierarchical structures, the advocacy of a “transvaluation of all values” without concrete political goals, the temporal and spatial forms of the movement, its self-understanding as exemplary as much as practical—all point toward a constructivist poetics in which there are no prior givens or certain grounds. My writing on Occupy poetry, too, has had an evental character; what follows develops a sequence of paradigms over several conference presentations and publications as political events continued to unfold. It has not been sufficiently noted that a shift in the register of politics as “event” from Occupy in 2011 to the 2012 reelection of Barack Obama effectively ended the active phase of the movement; since that time, it has persisted as a political imaginary that has been both absorbed into political developments like the Sanders campaign and preserved in an ongoing articulation of poetics and political theory. The event of the 2016 election, however, throws into relief aspects of Occupy as a poetics that it scarcely could have imagined, even as there are fundamental points of connection between them. First would be the emergence of what everyone has assumed is a “populism” in the election of Donald Trump and its similarity to/difference from Occupy’s construction of community as “the 99%.” If we agree with Ernesto Laclau in Critique of Populist Reason that “the people” is an arbitrary construct on uneven ground, or even a ground shot through with abysses of all kinds, it makes sense that a high degree of arbitrariness and even incoherence attends Trump’s claim to represent “the people.” It is worth reflecting on the degree to which this arbitrariness was put forward as a positive value in Occupy’s “99%,” much as it also is common to a congeries of politics on the Right, from the Tea Party to neofascism. In each case, “the 99%” or “the people” are claimed—without foundation—as justification for their strategic articulation as a politics. Poets have been exemplary in seeing the relationship between aesthetic community, as the ground for poetics, and the tactics of Occupy and later movements, which they detail in precise material terms. Jacques Rancière’s “distribution of the sensible” comprehends two key aspects of Occupy poetics: its insistence on material conditions as leading to a “transvaluation of all values,” thus creating a revolutionary imaginary that, in turn, the forms of Occupy poetry make immediate and necessary. What is missing—and where the politics of Occupy poetry start to come undone—is how that process is represented in relation to the community it represents. “The 99%” is not really “the aesthetic community,” in other words, as much as Rancière would see “the redistribution of the sensible” as grounded in the aesthetic. In what follows, I want to look at the problem of representing “the people”—the “but who are we?” that undermines all claims to aesthetic community—in relation to disturbances of the symbolic order that followed on the “event of 2016” and the patently false claims of its populism. Occupy poetry only partly informs the most interesting recent poetic responses to the election, which take up questions of deformed language, false consciousness, and the political unconscious as a poetics. [. . .]

presented at
“Questions of the Present 
in Contemporary Poetics”
Modernist Studies Association13 August 2017

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