When we speak of “pop,” we often speak of an instance or, more likely, a set of similar instances that seem to elucidate the character of a given moment (that would be the “circumstance” part). Two examples is a coincidence; three, a zeitgeist.
What if we ignore instances altogether, at least for the moment? Pop exists, after all, independent of specific cases. It’s the 100-minute film narratively structured like a suspension bridge, or it’s the three-minute song. The forms can be filled time after time with infinitely varied contents. But the song remains the same: verse, chorus, bridge, chorus. It keeps working. The shape is the pop.
Every now and then, however, a new shape materializes, or an old shape suddenly seems able to hold the mercurial soul of an era, to give coherence to the hour’s charisma. In the last few years, a shape has stepped forth onto the world stage with precisely this capacity, a form that asks us to recognize it as popular culture while revising the category. I speak, naturally, of the square.
Zuccotti Park is likely the best known, but there is no shortage of celebrated candidates—the Acampada Sol (Madrid), Oscar Grant Plaza (Oakland), Syntagma (Athens), Tahrir (Cairo), Taksim (Istanbul)—that can serve as examples for the defining political feature of our time, mass phenomena repeated and repeatable, shifting from city to city, continent to continent. Astute commentators point to Tiananmen Square in 1989 as precursor, and reasonably so. People have gathered in squares to express political sentiment since the dawn of geometry; nonetheless, there is nothing as tiresome as nothing-new-under-the-sun-ism. If the political pop of the square has a history, what doesn’t? But pop forms claim their moments precisely by seeming timeless, by suddenly suiting their own circumstances so well as to appear natural. The brilliant student movement in Quebec, more often in the streets than the camp, nonetheless drafted the red square as its symbol. It was 2012; nothing else would do.
The square now seems like the most natural form for refusal, resistance and revolt. This is not a development that content can explain—not quite, at least. If Occupy directed itself against banks, corruption and corporate power, urban squares were filled as well with calls to honor the Constitution, to abolish the Constitution, to go back to the Keynesian compromise, to go forward to some unimaginable future. No few were also neo-Hoovervilles. Internationally, the grievances were even more varied, ranging from the specifics of a transit fare hike in Brazil to the Arab Spring’s “The people want the regime to fall”—a maximalist slogan with a perverse fate, to say the least. Ask for the general, and the general you shall receive.