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Our Occupations (after the Occupations): Anelise Chen
Anelise Chen is next up in a series of posts for National Poetry Month regarding how writing and art practices have changed in response to the occupations. Previous respondents include Stephen Collis and Steve Benson; Richard Owens and Brian Whitener; Brian Ang and Ana Božičević; David Buuck; Suzanne Stein and Anna Vitale; Dan Thomas Glass and Lauren Levin. The following two paragraphs contain part of the prompt that I provided to participants:
Something I am wondering about kind of broadly is how your practices might have changed since the beginning of the occupations, if we can mark this beginning in the fall of 2011 (the occupations obviously having their immediate precedent in the Middle East and Europe).
Do you think it may be possible to speak to this a bit? […] Succinctly, in a paragraph or two? Maybe it has had no perceivable effect, which is fine of course, and in which case you might talk about why it is important to maintain what you are doing parallel to (or beyond?) current social movements and political events.
I am writing a book in which the word “I” appears—at last count—968 times. Some have said that the book “rides on a wave of extreme egoism.” Since the book is about capitalism and competition and suicide, it seems fitting to me that the word “I” should appear so often. It is, as Sontag would say, my will objectified, my impulse for self-preservation captured on sheets of paper. I started writing the book in 2010, two years after the financial meltdown.
Emile Durkheim’s Suicide, a book I have come to rely heavily upon, shows with convincing statistical evidence how suicide rates increase in times of economic prosperity and depression and decrease in times of social unrest (revolutions, wars). What happens during periods of social unrest is that the individual is temporarily integrated into “society,” or any unit that is other than the self, including spouses, families, small groups of like-minded people. This integration reduces the risk of egoistic suicide (which happens when people have too much individuality), and anomic suicide (when society fails to serve as a check to our desires).
Having only experienced the economic depression side of that equation, when the occupations came, I did feel a kind of “resurrection.” The occupations were a promise against the death grip of capitalism. Perhaps when Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif wrote that during the twenty days of the Egyptian Revolution her friends “forgot to take their pills and have now thrown them away,” that was the life force they were also experiencing. Capitalism had made us all narcissists, and we were sick with the self.
For most people, the marches and chants provided a welcome reprieve from the loneliness of self-regard. We had finally escaped the funhouse! But what did this freedom look like, for the artist?
An unexpected consequence of the ressurection: while the occupations were happening, I found it almost impossible to write. Something inside me had come to life, but it did not want to be at a desk. I had people to speak to. I didn’t need to fill my own silence. I was wholly preoccupied with reality. I had no time for anything else.
And here was Durkheim, again: “To think, it is said, is to abstain from action; in the same degree, therefore, it is to abstain from living.”
As a person, I couldn’t have felt more alive. As a writer, I felt dead. Probably it seems ridiculous to make this kind of distinction between “person” and “writer,” but it feels accurate. I knew I had to make a decision: I could either think or do. The necessary annihilation was itself double-aspected. In order to think, I had to abstain from action, but by abstaining from action I was making myself complicit with the system that made me feel dead.
That November, Arundhati Roy was scheduled to speak to occupiers at Washington Square. It was pouring rain that day, so we all went inside the auditorium at Judson Church, across the street. Since there was a podium, we assumed the shape of an audience, and sat quietly waiting for the invisible curtain between performer and spectator to lift. Unsurprisingly, it felt ridiculous doing the human mic. Roy shouted into her (actual) mic, and we shouted back from our seats. Something was amiss. But Roy went along with it, and said her usual powerful things, which we obediently mirrored back to her.
After, there was a casual book signing, which again seemed out of place. This was turning out to be an event merely in the “Style of the Revolution.” The rain drove us indoors, and there had been no time between the weather and her appearance to figure out an alternative format. While she signed my book, I asked her if it was possible to be an activist and a novelist at the same time, or if one had to be one or the other at separate times. “I believe it is possible to be both,” she said with a sort of sly smile that suggested more. She would not have time to elaborate how one could pull it off.
Liberty Plaza would be evacuated. As I watched police and sanitation workers toss books into giant garbage bins, something again, died. I had nowhere to go, suddenly, on Friday evenings when Poetry Assembly was supposed to be happening. I stayed at home and wrote.
At Poetry Assembly the facilitator asks what a radical poetic practice might look like. The facilitator says that what we are doing is playing out a structure of horizontal inclusiveness. Maybe it’s time we start switching up our metaphors. To replace the verticality of the I with something else. This is an interesting request to ask of artists because of our egos, and our inevitable control issues. I go to the Arts and Culture working group and everyone’s eyes are bright with the enthusiasm of their own ideas. One group wants to sell Occupy-related art at locations around the city. A well-known orchestra conductor asks if he and a small quartet can play for the protestors, because they never get to perform for the 99%. There is much discussion about occupying museums. The group talks earnestly for several minutes about whether to collaborate with for-profit organizations. After each person has said his or her piece, they leave to do other things. I can’t tell if this is for the sake of efficiency, or if it’s indicative of something else. In support of the movement, a rising young novelist organizes a marathon reading with a bunch of other rising young novelists. All their names are listed under his name like a roster in a program. I am surprised by how much this arrangement bothers me. Which means, maybe, that the experiment is working. Perhaps I’ve recognized something of myself in this gesture, this unquenchable need to be acknowledged.
Is it important to be critical of how things are done, as long as they are being done? I think the occupations have taught us that yes—style matters. Sontag: “Style is a means of insisting on something.” The occupations themselves are works of art; the collective will objectified, with their own sets of rhythms and tropes. Style has to be (the occupation’s) main preoccupation. The revolution won’t live any other way.
But who will be making this work of art? Will I be included? Does the revolution even need me? How can I proceed as an artist—how can I live? The relationship between art and revolution, I think, is one that will require many deaths and many resurrections. Or, I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure it out.