Way back in September 2011, when a burgeoning movement at Zuccotti Park was still suffering from a dearth of mainstream reportage, Academy Award–winning actress Susan Sarandon paid a visit to the fledgling occupation. Sarandon offered her support, but was notably befuddled by the scene on the ground. Most irksome to Sarandon was the lack of a clear message: “Your weakness is that there are so many issues,” she said. “Is everyone here registered to vote? Are you having people sign petitions?” (Gray 2011). Sarandon’s queries were soon echoed across many media outlets as observers on both the left and the right struggled to make sense of Occupy Wall Street’s (OWS’s) resistance to naming demands (see Kristof 2011). In the weeks following Sarandon’s dubious offerings to the Zuccotti encampment, a palpable about-face occurred across news outlets, precisely over the efficacy of OWS’s refusal to issue demands. Initially dismissed as mere naïveté, the logic of demandlessness and even the anarchist ethos it reflected were increasingly hailed as successful strategy (see Pepitone 2011; Schneider 2011). This was largely a result of the enormous success of the slogan “We are the 99 percent” and of the ensuing swells of occupations across the country and the globe. This discursive shift was also an effect of the curious potential embedded in the refusal to represent a collective body as always already locatable or identifiable.
The radical openness of “the 99 percent” belied the processes of division, classification, and interpellation to which our bodies are typically subjected via the laws of appearance in a neoliberal state. Yet with the passage of two winters since the New York Police Department’s violent [End Page 113] ousting of the Zuccotti encampment in the early hours of November 15, 2011, OWS’s death knell has been repeatedly sounded. Despite enormous evidence of a coordinated government effort to undo OWS, demandlessness has often taken the blame for the perceived failures of this movement (see Madrick 2013; Frank 2012). Even as the movement flourishes in numerous community-organizing campaigns and a highly effective relief effort in the immediate wake of Hurricane Sandy, demandlessness (and its attendant modes of horizontal decision making) has endured the brunt of OWS-weary finger-wagging from Left and Right alike.1 But following Lauren Berlant, reflecting on OWS’s demandlessness allows us to engage the question “How might political breakdown work as something other than a blot, or a botched job?” (1994, 127). In the short life span of this movement thus far, demandlessness has embodied an ever-shifting status: from object of vilification and anxiety, to celebration, and back again. This essay attends to the ways in which demandlessness has interfaced with a wide range of political desires over the course of OWS’s short history.
Affective responses to OWS have run the gamut between extreme hostility and exuberant congeniality. On the one hand, OWS’s demandlessness is held responsible for relegating the movement to the realm of the “merely symbolic” (Michaels 2012). The joining of “symbolic” to the adjective “merely” is itself a curious indictment, suggesting that the symbolic is clearly and definitively cut off from the real. On the other hand, many register this symbolic shift as one of great significance. For example, Rosalyn Deutsche has lauded OWS “for injecting the scandal of extreme economic inequality into what is commonly referred to as ‘public political discourse’” (2012, 42). How might we make sense of such a range—between Deutsche’s congenial gratitude and the sneering hostility of others?
While the lasting effects of the OWS movement remain to be seen, the tactical adherence to demandlessness raises the issue of how to sustain a movement that disidentifies with sanctioned modes of political engagement. Moving beyond normative forms of political involvement—including demands for inclusion, equality, and visibility—demandlessness’s refusal of typical representational protocols demands new modes of relationality that challenge liberal conceptions of representation. The notion of such a movement emerges from, and extends—at times unwittingly—the critiques that racial justice movements, feminist, and queer of color activism have leveled against the viability of rights discourses.2 In [End Page 114...