zaterdag 24 maart 2012

Occupy as psychogeographic urbanism [draft 5]

[Draft 5 is much longer and edited in many places, to make it a bit easier: # mostly unchanged, # changed, # new paragraph.]
“As we gather together in solidarity to express a feeling of mass injustice, we must not lose sight of what brought us together. We write so that all people who feel wronged by the corporate forces of the world can know that we are your allies.” - Declaration of the Occupation of New York City [1]

“It is like a little village. They have got a food tent, a welfare tent, a first aid tent, an information tent, a library tent and a university tent where they have their daily meetings. It is very well organised… They have organised there own portaloos but there is still a problem with street urination… The rainwater gullies have been blocked up with food waste.” – Assistant director of Street Scene on OccupyLSX [2]

“At night, with such a big crowd in it, the space had started to redefine itself a bit, and more by ambience than function. People arranged themselves in it more according to how they felt about it. There was an unanswerable question in the air, or so it seemed to me, about what forms of life are possible. In different parts of the Park people gravitated toward different answers.” - McKenzie Wark on Zucotti Park [3]
"The districts of this city could correspond to the whole spectrum of diverse feelings that one encounters by chance in everyday life." - Ivan Chtcheglov[4]
# Psychogeography has moved from revolution (say: Guy Debord) to nostalgia (say: Iain Sinclair) and I think I know why. The psychogeographers of the middle 20th century imagined the city as a collage of grandiose shape-shifting sectors that would be endlessly explored by its inhabitants. The city would be in permanent revolution, urbanism would by participatory, work would have be abolished and play would be the core activity of life. Sixty years later we find psychogeography evoking historic and fantasmagoric cities as part of the contemporary city through narrative pyrotechnics and the wilful paranoia of associative anecdote. Its politics is regressive rather than pro-active, its demands on reality humble. The psychogeographer rather than create alternative visions from scratch has gone searching for them in places that have so far escaped ‘development’. The psychogeographer of today walks, in various funny ways, reports it finds and little else [5] with the idea that keeping streets alive by using them non-functionally is politics enough. For some psychogeography has become a career. Where did the enthusiasm for town planning and architecture go? City planning has become suspect and socially responsible architects are without exception the ones who destroy the most in their wake. Beware of the demagogue who knows morality and justice on his or her side.  Architects are upmarket pimps hiding deprivation and slavery behind a smokescreen of perfumed pompadour and slick braggadocio. Nicholas Hawkmoor had style, Baron Haussmann at least was earnest and who do we have? A bunch of nameless 'partners' kissing some hand of some godfather in some back room. Psychogeography has become nostalgic because the present has so little to offer. The psychogeographer looks out over a tower block, a gigantic mall, a four-lane motorway and sighs (a psychogeographer is by definition someone without a driver’s licence). As it happens the psychogeographer is the only one left to sigh because the rest of the world is too busy talking into their mobile phones. Needless to say: psychogeographers are suspicious about mobile phones too…

# Sure, an interesting building sometimes gets built but nobody can still look at a modern building without seeing the invisible hand behind it: the cabal of investors, bankers, estate-agents, crooked politicians, construction firms, marketing firms, law-firms, extractive industries, all dodgy, all corrupt, all purely self-interested. Housing has ceased to be a basic human right and the simple wish to have a roof over your head means being forced to commit yourself to a pyramid scheme where the newcomers will always pay for the exorbitant riches of those who came first. A house is no longer a home but an investment, a city is no longer a society but a marketing ploy to be sold to its inhabitants. Of course you can download a ‘psychogeographic’, ‘Situationist-inspired’ augmented reality app that helps you to forget all this. They cost only 99 cents and will keep you just as stupid as you already are.

# Every city has its cryptoforests, places that are camouflaged by nature to hide the discontinued urban. Cryptoforests are places that are forested and wild but which will inevitable reveal humans at the heart of it. All forests are psychological actors and the cryptoforest is no exception, but the cryptoforest is not a 'real' forest, it's also city and all cities could improve by allowing themselves to cryptofy: to become cryptoforests, or, like a half-empty glass is also half-full, cryptocities. Cities that cater to the needs of tent-dwelling semi-nomadic foragers who dance the night away to celebrate the new grub season. The forager is the psychogeographic double[6].

# The eviction of the Occupy Wall Street camp from Zuccotti park on grounds of hygiene is akin to the arrest of Al Capone for tax evasion. And far away from Manhattan, in my sleepy Utrecht where nothing ever happens, the same gambit has been tried for the local camp. Conservative politicians objecting to the camp on the front door of the city council are citing the major disruption of tourists tripping over tent pegs as reason for eviction. Apart from offering a way to get rid of a camp on terms that might lead to awkward accusations of curtailing unarguable rights like the freedom of speech, political and judicial resistance to Occupy has a deeper reason: they need to protect the housing-investment pyramid scheme. It is probably safe to say that not a single one of the 2600+ Occupy groups the world has counted defined beforehand which of their goals should be met before they will voluntary abandon camp[7]. They exist indefinitely until society changes significantly and this is unlikely to happen soon. As Pete Wright has written: “Change happens through the imperative for change, not the request,“[8] and because the economic crisis is the best thing that ever happened to the established economic superpowers the imperative is not thereat all[9]. In the indeterminate process of occupation people will quickly learn that a house really is a luxury you can do without, that long exposure to winter cold (talking about Europeans winters here, not Canadian or Russian ones) makes you look a bit scary but is perfectly survivable. The criminalization of squatting and the eviction of Occupy camps are part of the same motive: you are not allowed to escape.

# The General Assembly model where "the process toward creative synthesis is really the essence of the thing" is such a fragile process that it will create a close-knitted community of trusted others or will fall apart[10]. The consensus model takes away endless talk from a professional class of politicians to the 'people' and everybody who has ever been involved in non-hierarchical decision making knows that a person with strong opinions but little facts and little self-criticism can turn any meeting into a race with the red queen of dreadful infinity and this alone provides an excellent reasons for socially cohesive subgroups to break off from the main camp and try their luck elsewhere.

# The internal organization of Occupy, the refusal to create leaders, the refusal to legitimize outside power and governance (even if only in theory), its indeterminate duration, its state of permanent crisis (read: the risk of eviction) can create a situation where tribal life-ways can be discovered and explored. Occupy starts a process that can turn a well functioning, socially cohesive camp into a self defined tribe (as much Hell Angel as Yanomami) that may feel the need to turn their back on society[11]. At least a few people have recognized from the start that this is the real substance of Occupy. Anthropologist and Occupy Wall Street co-organizer David Graeber has written:

"Zuccotti Park, and all subsequent encampments, became spaces of experiment with creating the institutions of a new society - not only democratic General Assemblies but kitchens, libraries, clinics, media centres and a host of other institutions, all operating on anarchist principles of mutual aid and self-organisation - a genuine attempt to create the institutions of a new society in the shell of the old.” [12] [13]
What he is really saying is: we don’t have concrete demands because we are not interested in changing the world, we are interested in finding a way to live where we can more fully ignore it. Occupy provides a meeting place and testing ground for would-be communards. The Scriptonite blog perhaps puts it best:

“To understand Occupy, you must get one thing. The Occupy Movement is as much about education and information sharing as it is about protest.  The purpose of the camps, are to act as villages.  They bring people together to share a space, food, ideas and build the personal relationships that galvanise a movement.  There is also a massive support structure behind that of social media, direct action and organisational capabilities able to manifest ideas generated on the camps, into realities in the outside world.” [14]
# Once village utilities are in place camps may want to look further for ways to severe more links to the outside world. Learning from experts on foraging, alternative sanitation, alternative energy, alternative medicine, etc, etc, to become fully prepared to move from Wall Street to Wild Street.

# There comes a moment for every Occupy camp that eviction is the best thing that can happen to it. In Utrecht, where the Greens are the biggest political party and likely to agree with Occupy demands, the camp is protected from eviction. But where does that leave you? The camp wilts under the stress of fluffy non-committing tolerance. I was genuinely surprised by the activity and the conversation that was generated at one of their first Saturday-afternoon festivals, but as camp continues people will probably just get used to it and once people get used to they will start to ask awkward questions like: what do you really want. And: does the 99% really exist outside of statistics and is it a statistic that is valid outside the US?

# The occupation of a square or a park may be a photogenic way to show that what’s happening on the news is also happening in the lives of millions of people, but there comes a time to declutter. A few weeks before its eviction the OWS Tumblr page mentioned the rumour that the police were telling homeless to move to Zuccotti park. True or not: the phenomena is recurrent, homeless people find Occupy camps congenial to their own needs but they will often fail to take notice of the rules. Occupy Amsterdam went as far as to negotiate a strategic half-eviction with the police that would evict the drunks, the homeless and the Slavic and leave the prudent and well-behaved true occupiers in their tents. The police as the mercenaries of a middle class tea-cup revolution. Occupy’s Empty Tent Syndrome may not be as bad as the media likes to make it appear but it’s certainly there: taking a bath, recharging your Iphone, phoning you mother, eating a take-away meal (with all that cold you can use the grease), catching an event of your favourite sport, those are things most people prefer to do at home and this is where the homeless and the vagrant win: they can afford to be there all day.

# A movement without leadership is controlled by an elite. There is no reason to invoke a Bourne Provocateur to explain it. A supposedly egalitarian social structure will always create informal leaders and these will have more power if the number of participants increases. I can’t explain the process as a law like a social psychologist can but I am sure it is true. Instead of clinging to willful naivety of 19th century anarchism why not borrow from tribal knowledge and install a chief. Someone from whom you demand feasts and impeccable generosity. Anthropology can offer many cases of social systems where the chief has to work twice as hard to acquire the goods for redistribution he needs to keep his people happy without ever gaining him any power other than the right to speak at the general assembly. I repeat: a leader has the right to speak, and the guarantee that no one will listen. Chiefdom is a way to keep the bossy ones from being boss by isolating them[15]. Start a meeting by calling for a volunteer to be the chairman and then send him or her away to clean the toilets. The Golden Bough starts with an overview of ancient ways to get rid of kings when their time is up; find inspiration there.

# There is a maxim that a culture in decline needs to look outside of itself to freshen up and Occupy is a good example. It has borrowed the idea of a tent camp from Tharir Square, the general assembly model from Quaker public worship (as the Spanish Indignadas claim) and it comes as no surprise that David Graeber, an anthropologist, has become the most visible representative of Occupy Wall Street and by affiliation of the world wide movement. Graeber's thesis advisor was Marshall Sahlins, whose 1966 essay 'The Original Affluent Society' is a foundational text in modern day hunter-gatherer studies (and often reprinted as a primitivist punk zine) pioneering the thought that foraging people are not backwards but free, egalitarian and happy[16]. Add Pierre Clastres' observation that most foraging societies are not relics from the stone age but forms of self-barbarization, a way to be flexible and permanently ready to escape from outside control and you begin to see the true vision of Occupy: the tent is not just a symbol of resistance, it's a promise of tactical lightness that is not defined by protest but by its incorporation of alternative sources of practical skill. Occupy doesn’t need politicians, it needs Eskimo’s, Aboriginals, Bushmen and other people with genuine commitment to their independence. Looked at like this the Occupy movement is not an anarchist movement but an anthropological experiment in  creating a situation in which different ways of being a political and social individual can be experienced. There is also a paradox: the only successful communities that could be called successfully anarchic came about by being ignored by the state, not by breaking away from it.

# Dutch newspapers extensively covered the story of 14 year old runway Kelly who disappeared from suburbia to Occupy Amsterdam where she fell in love with a 17 year old Czech nicknamed Pikachu, after Pokemon, how sweet. Together they travelled to Occupy Paris, were involved in a failed attempt to set up camp in Central Marseilles and planned to travel to Barcelona when her parent intercepted her and took her back home. A newspaper quoted her mother as saying: “She was driven by love and a bad time at school[17]”. It shows that Occupy provides a much needed setting for adventure. It also shows how Occupy has created a network of places for people to freely move in to, meet people, discuss the world, share the food, and, hopefully, offer to help prepare it too. This practical, welcoming, quality of occupy where a willingness to help pays out in comradely dividend is also addressed by the New Yorker in an article describing Ray Kachel’s move from unemployment in Seattle to the adventures of Occupy Wall Street. More than anything else the article stresses the open sociality of Occupy as one of its strongest assets:

“He tweeted regularly, and soon had more than thirteen hundred followers. Perhaps readers were drawn to the modesty and the objectivity of Kachel’s notes on the occupation. October 8th: “There are elements of communal living. it’s a really amazing experience tho totally out of my comfort level.” October 22nd: “It surprises me i have a guardian angel. it doesn’t surprise me he’s a soft-spoken, hard working Irish guy from the bronx.” October 23rd: “Dear mr. ferguson. i have lived in new york for over two weeks now. it does not smell of wee.” October 27th: “Keep seeing reference to ‘horrendous police abuse’ re: ows. I’ve been here 2+ weeks and have seen none and heard of little.” November 13th: “I lived in my old apartment in Seattle for nearly a decade and barely knew 2 other tenants. . . . i’ve lived in liberty square for just over a month and regularly talk with many of my neighbors and have made many new friends.[18]

# By March 2012 Occupy Utrecht had been dealing with street violence for a few months but this time one of the occupiers had retaliated a harasser by beating him on the head with a hammer. A statement was issued by Occupy condemning the action in the strongest terms without taking the only proper consequence. They should have pulled backwards from the boat in order to enter it, as Coleridge would say, and disbanding camp citing their unwavering commitment to non-violence. They didn’t, displaying a shocking lack of strategic insight while showing the unwavering stubbornness of the true believer, and everything that will happen from now on will be a deception. Incidentally: a while back a university teacher involved with Occupy Utrecht allowed himself to be interviewed by a newspaper and was quoted as saying that there are good bankers and bad bankers and that it is important to see the difference. I wonder how that stellar insight would go down at an OWS GA. It shows that not all camps are making the same choices when it comes to tactics, and that not all camps have strategies.

# “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” It’s a 1845 Marx quote used by Occupy groups around the world. Marx had little patience with the well intentioned but doomed naivety of small groups trying to design a perfect society in the seclusion of a wilderness. If you want to improve society you must start by improving political structures. Occupy is unequivocally not seeking to change the political system from the inside out and this makes it, in the Marxian analysis, a utopist movement misunderstanding Marx’s slogan. Still: it is to better to quote Marx wrongly than to quote rightly from that great unwashed Hegelian harlequin: Slavoj Zizek.     

# “The dérive, a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences. Dérives involve playful-constructive behaviour and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll.[19]” Debord wrote this in 1956 and it has been quoted by psychogeographers every since as its defining statement. What it means is that the drift (usually taken as the same thing as psychogeography, though it wasn’t for Debord) is a political act that releases you, even if only temporarily, from all  forms of economic productivity and consumption. Sixty years later we take extensive leisure time for granted and the drift is evoked as a value free term for personal advancement by artists, app-developers and all other scum that wants to make it in the so-called creative industries. The drift is not a walk that is not from A to B, it’s a way of life that feeds into the psychogeographical restructuring of the city as a platform of political struggle. Creating a village on the footsteps of the stock-exchange is psychogeographic, reading Walter Benjamin in a Starbucks is not. 

# Tent city urbanism (and what comes after) is a far cry from the spectacular models of Constant's New Babylon or the magico-marxist rereading of the Hawksmoor churches and Canary Wharf. In that the psychogeography of the recent past has fallen for the spectacle of the 'legacy'. My first impression of the Occupy camp was that it was paltry, a dynamo of underwhelming sadness, a place of insignificant littleness, but I soon realized my initial response was a form of conditioning that must be exorcised with a pickaxe. I was looking for a hacienda, baroque optical illusions and empty spaces creating richly filled time and I saw..... battered tents against a grey building on a clouded day on a miserable Monday morning[20]. And it may well be that at least a few tents are permanently empty, but I like the idea of Potemkin tent village, a farcical pow-wow of bleeding ugliness at the heart of the city. Dubai is a travesty, a weed patch a place of wonder and discovery. The cryproforest is also battered and paltry, a cheap undefined green that is not a forest, not a garden, not even a park, but give it half a chance and it will take over everywhere where humans retreat. The urbanism of the future is the cryptoforestation of derelict properties, abandoned carparks and never developed building sites. In this respect the economic crisis is on our side. Occupy communities are working toward it from the other end, and when the cryptocity arrives they will find themselves fully prepared for it.

[December 2011 – March 2012]

- Image from
The general assembly planning the occupation on Wall Street, 13 Augustus 2011.

[1] From October 2011,
[2] The problems of urbanism in a nutshell:
[4] Ivan Chtcheglov's Formula for a New Urbanism.1953; see: http://www.bopsecrets.or/SI/Chtcheglov.htm
[5] For an overview of contemporary psychogeography see the Psychogeographic Field Reports [2011]:
[6] See: Forage Psychogeography:
[7] "By October 9, Occupy protests had taken place or were ongoing in over 95 cities, across 82 countries, and over 600 communities in the United States. As of November 17 the Meetup page "Occupy Together" listed Occupy communities in 2,609 towns and cities worldwide." quoted from
[9] Manuel Castells on the economic crisis in a TV interview:

This idea that this is not a crisis, but a trick, do you agree with that?  
Absolutely. On the trick part. It is a crisis, in economic terms, but the crisis in fact has been used to improve the power and the profits of the financial groups which are in fact the leading elite in our society. All major banks and financial institutions in the last year have reported extraordinary profits. But now the governments are in a fiscal crisis, the governments need the money, and the banks say: “Well, in order to be stable and not to go back into our trouble, we cannot lend it to you. And in fact, the only way we are going to lend something to someone if you start cutting wages, firing workers, curtailing social rights and eliminating the collective power of the unions.” In that sense, the trick part of this statement seems to be empirically supported. Because profits are hugely up, some of the Spanish banks have reported largest profits in history, in 2010. And at the same time, the condition has been created for an assault on the welfare state, social rights, labour union power, and in fact on all the institutions that were constructing people’s lives in terms of their basic needs. So I don't think it’s necessarily conspiracy of the capitalist class and organisation but ultimately it is being used in those terms. So in the perception of people this is obviously a trick.

[10] David Graeber:
[11] For a historic precedent see Gary Snyder, Why Tribe, 1969:
We use the term Tribe because it suggest the type of new society now emerging within the  industrial nations. In America of course the word has associations with the American Indians which we like . This new subculture is in fact more similar to that ancient and successful tribe, the European Gypsies-- a group without nation or territory which maintains its own values, its language and religion, no matter what country it may be in. The Tribe proposes a totally different style: based on community houses, villages and ashrams; tribe-run farms or workshops or companies; large open families; pilgrimages and wanderings from center to center. A synthesis of Gandhian "village anarchism" and I.W.W. syndicalism.
[12] David Graeber: Occupy Wall Street's anarchist roots,
[13] This sounds like a distant echo from Buenaventura Durruti’s quote from 1936 that was quoted and re-quoted by a number of Occupy-related blogs

"We have always lived in slums and holes in the wall. We will know how to accommodate ourselves for a while. For you must not forget that we can also build. It is we who built these palaces and cities, here in Spain and America and everywhere. We, the workers. We can build others to take their place. And better ones. We are not in the least afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth; there is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world here, in our hearts. That world is growing in this minute."

[15] For a fascinating similar discussion from the early 1970ties read Jo Freeman’s ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’ and Cathy Levine’s response, ‘The Tyranny of Tyranny’.
[16] Sahlins ‘The Original Affluent Society’ also offers an aesthetic of forage psychogeography,

The construction of substantial houses likewise becomes absurd if they must soon be abandoned. Hence the hunter's very ascetic conceptions of material welfare: an interest only in minimal equipment, "if that; a valuation of smaller things over bigger; a disinterest in acquiring two or more of most goods; and the like. Ecological pressure assumes a rare form of concreteness when it has to be shouldered. If the gross product is trimmed down in comparison with other economies, it is not the hunter's productivity that is at fault, but his mobility.
[20] Paraphrasing Ivan Chtcheglov's ‘Formula for a New Urbanism’.

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