The Body Acoustic

The Body Acoustic

The Occupy movement is not a sexual revolution. But in a society organized for alienation, it has made human contact its sword and its shield.


Condoms were available almost from the start of the occupation of Zuccotti Park. Like rain ponchos—or water, food, cardboard (quickly upgraded to ground mats), blankets, tarps, directions to the most compliant businesses with lavatories—they were part of the basic survival kit. Books came later. Talent shows and political workshops came later. The cellphone charging unit came later. Nick at Night, the cigarette rolling station, was probably established at the same time. “Oh, there is movement in the movement,” a young man told me with a twinkle, but it was a bit like saying, There is food in the movement. He had had his eye on another young man, but someone else moved on him first. No matter; there would be other chances for something delicious to eat. In the meantime… what’s that you were saying about a transaction tax?

This is not a sexual revolution, at least from my impressions of two quite different places, New York and Tennessee. At Occupy Nashville a man stood up at the general assembly to say, “There should not be any sex going on here! Really.” No one offered a riposte, and the women camping out on Legislative Plaza have been equipped with plastic whistles to hang from their necks as they sleep. This is, however, a profoundly corporeal movement. Notwithstanding its facility with technology, in a society organized for alienation it has made human contact its sword and its shield.

1. We just talked and talked. “You know, if you count it up,” said a beautiful boy at Zuccotti Park, “the average college senior has spent two years of his life playing video games.” David was his name and he had read a study, but the evidence was under his own dark-coffee skin. He was 21. It seemed entirely plausible to him that he had expended 10 percent of life-so-far in solitary electronic combat. He had merged into the mass at the renamed Liberty Square with a camera, but put it aside and sat talking with my friend Prerna and me for two hours. What had so much video gaming wrought? I asked. An abstraction from reality, he reckoned. An abstraction deepened, Prerna thought, by almost never having known a time when “reality” was not also coupled with “TV.”

Now there was elation just to feel, talk, press against another shoulder, hear one’s own voice with others echoing, “We are… we are… we are…” Maybe that is why the cold, the rain, the relative privation, have not mattered so much to the relatively privileged protesters. They have hungered for their moment of true feeling. A skinny blond boy rolling cigarettes had not slept in days but anchored Nick at Night—“more popular than the food table,” he said—where others came for a loosey and talked the night away. In a far corner of the park, drums beat and girls whirled in thin silk shifts. They had done it for hours. They could do it all day if rules hadn’t placed limits on noise. Check your cynicism, I told myself on my second visit to the park. These are people drunk with love, and feeling thus, are loving in return.

2. To the comfort station. Not since ACT UP has the body been so central to a US resistance movement. The body in motion and in need. The body whose labor is contingent, whose life precarious. Surplus man, woman, trans, rejecting surplus status simply by putting their bodies in the way of the ordinary course of things. Critics itching for “demands” need only pay attention, because like the women’s health movement in the 1970s and the AIDS solidarity network that evolved from it in the ’80s, Occupy Wall Street and its spinoffs embody their demands. “It’s going to rain, people; like, right now!” a young man announced at a GA in New York. “Anyone who wants a poncho, raise your hand. Comfort is handing out ponchos.” A man wearing tights and a gold lamé cape with shiny silver tinsel around the neck leapt into the crowd with a great carton of hooded rain gear. Within seconds, everyone was covered as the rains poured down.

At Occupy Nashville a couple of weeks later, I met a girl who had traveled to New York for the first time. She came with nothing, no plan or cash for a hotel; she slept in the park with a mat and blanket, amid the companionship of erstwhile strangers, under a night watch of sentries identified by a slash of pink tape, near the kitchen, where she would eat the next day, and the health station, where medics wearing red tape crosses dispensed simple treatments and counsel for avoiding hypothermia. What do these people want? A world fit to live in. They need a tiny fraction of the bravery of the students who organized sit-ins in the 1960 South, but in terms of demonstrating a common humanity and physically rejecting a culture of violence and fear, they are their heirs too.

3. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. At an early GA in New York a woman called Monica said, “We make a city/inside the city/to show the city/how the city can be.” It is a lovely sentiment, true in essence, which for a movement means quite a lot. But as a material fact, living in the streets, even collectively, is not utopian; it is a light set upon a lampstand in dystopia. Nashville underlines this. Here the movement’s ritualized homelessness bumps up starkly against the real. At least half the people encamped have no other home; many are young and troubled in a poor city whose downtown does not conceal this national disgrace. At Legislative Plaza “comfort” means providing not just food and supplies but consideration for people who are typically invisible even when seen. It means willingness on the part of homeless people to engage. No part of this is easy. Occupy Nashville has not added homelessness to any list of grievances. “That would be one grievance real easy to solve: sweep us out,” a 24-year-old named Christopher, with six years’ experience of the pavement, on and off, and still at arm’s length from the occupation, told me. The project has, instead, created a structure and space for both groups to move toward each other, to speak and think anew, and rediscover humanity in the practice of democracy. It is not romanticized. That is its special grace. Thirty years ago in New York a body exposed to the elements was shocking. Today in Liberty Square it is phenomenal. In Nashville, it is what it is, and Occupy Nashville confronts us with the pain of that inequity and the price of our accommodation.

4. Please to remember the 5th of November. A year ago the most popular Halloween costume in the country, so far as I could tell, was the living dead. Zombie. Vampire. This year the avenging angel, the grinning image of Guy Fawkes from V for Vendetta, is Amazon’s top-selling mask. Somewhere between those pop culture markers, the Zeitgeist shifted. The Occupy movement does not hammer on the defining horror of twenty-first-century America: the normalization of torture, detention without trial, remote-control assassination, a body in pain as the source of public glee. But those affronts to physical integrity—demonstrated most recently in the murder of POW Muammar el-Qaddafi and the celebration of this war crime via videotape, still photos of the stripped corpse and satisfied purrs from the administration—are embedded in the movement’s iconography. The stylization of Guy Fawkes, representing insurrection more than the ghastly execution suffered by the actual man in seventeenth-century England, pops up in every city’s occupation and march, in huge GAs in New York and small ones in Nashville. We may say that only proves the absorptive power of capital. Sometimes a mask is just a mask. But the eerie visage prompts a question; and the question, a conversation; and the conversation, a historical memory both of extreme state cruelty and human resistance.

It cannot be overstated that the youth raised on video games were also raised on fear and the specter of terror from all directions. Their political identity may still be as curious as the juxtapositions in their People’s Libraries—Plato’s Republic beside Judy Blume, a box or two away from Marx and Augustine—or as hard to decipher as the grab bag of symbols and references in V for Vendetta. Theirs is a kind of twenty-first-century surreality, so let us recall an aphorism by surrealism’s great poet, Paul Éluard: “There cannot be total revolution but only permanent revolution. Like love, it is the fundamental joy of life.” Talk of revolution is premature, but a joyless generation has finally tasted public happiness.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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