#OWS: Storm Cloud of the 21st Century?

2011 October 15
by Carl Watson

A caring Kanye? Get real

Well now it appears that anybody who’s looking for some political street “cred” has got to make an appearance down at Zuccotti Square. Rappers like Kanye West are showing up. Al Sharpton. Bloomberg too has finally made an appearance and ordered the place “cleaned up.” It won’t be long before Miley Cyrus and other Disney characters make a requisite appearance. Why are these millionaires siding with the unemployed and pension deprived? Apparently sympathy for the financially challenged is hip. Zuccotti Square is the hippest club in town. It’s the place to be seen, though not necessarily to see. In fact, really it is difficult to see anybody down there what with the crowds and the cardboard and the blue tarps. But revolution is messy and maybe seeing isn’t what it’s cracked up to be anyway.

I myself went down at the demonstration to get my “fair share of abuse,” less that day out of any political commitment than the fact that I was doing a little celebrity stalking myself, as I’d heard Naomi Klein was going to make a speech. She was there and she did say something.

Diva of the intellectual left. Leather jacket, blue jeans. The love was palpable.

I am not quite sure about all she said, but she certainly had the audience in thrall, which led me to a desire to comment on the human microphone phenomenon by which this thrall was being propagated, the thralling messages rolling out from the center of OWS in waves of sound.

We’ve all heard the description of the human megaphone by now. It’s been repeated in all the papers and radio shows. Here you have at the center a speaker, sometimes a General Assembly person, sometimes a celebrity—a Michael Moore or a Naomi Klein or a Kanye West—and this person serves as the center. The center issues a phrase, a proclamation, a sound bite, or part of a longer more complicated statement. (Although truly long, complex or sophisticated statement are problematic in this atmosphere.) Then the first human ring echoes this statement. A hundred people perhaps. Ideally a second human ring of amplification takes place after the first, repeating the message further out. However, they may not have completely understood.

What I noticed was that the first ring of repetition is often also the second and that the real second (which in this case should have been the third) never actually happens, or it happens in a fragmented disjunctive manner. Thus the outer reaches of the park never really get the message. More importantly (and amusingly), while one side is repeating an earlier line, another side is repeating a new message and these two lines of messages often cross, creating a jumble of words and sound bites. Standing in various places in the park I had the distinct feeling of being washed over, not so much with a specific instruction or statement, but rather with waves of political emotion, and that it didn’t matter what the words were. One could assume they were advocations of liberality, revolution, steadfastness of cause, etc. It was enough to realize that everyone was into the dynamic of transfer, to keep it going, like it was a typhoon coming, a hard rain coming, a gathering storm cloud of the 21st century.

The center is empty, or perhaps over-full. Anyone can step in. Who dares? The point is to keep it going.

Now to make an unlikely analogy, or rather to stretch the above metaphor a little more, I tied this phenomenon in my mind to another recent significant wavelike event—Hurricane Irene. I remember the night of Hurricane Irene, listening to the waves of rain pound my metal roof upstate. There was no message in the rain, none but ominous dread. Dread, however, was enough. But now I realized that the waves of sound like the waves of rain could be seen as a kind of storm, a political storm, a form of organization arising out of turbulence. But at the center of the political storm was the intellectual/celebrity of the day, or whoever else, whose function was merely to be that center. And the repeating people were the weather, the waves, the weather of revolution. But that’s not all—I mean it wasn’t only aural.

Because as I walked about the square of freedom, I noticed another phenomenon—as I strained to see the celebrity at the center of the aural storm, I noticed nearly everyone around me was not actually looking, or maybe they were looking, but they were also recording the event on various devices that seemed to be standing-in for seeing the event. I myself (in my memory, of course) recorded the fact that I was able to watch the event by looking into the screen of the iPad ahead of me, and within that iPad I could see the iPhone ahead of it and in that iPhone I could see the screen of a Sony digital video camera ahead of that. So while I could actually see Naomi Klein easily enough some thirty feet ahead of me, I could re-see her in any number of proximate screens. In fact, it was a virtual tunnel of screens that reached from me to her. It was a tunnel of visual echoes washing over me like waves of revolution fervor. I started pumping my fist and applauding along with the others. We were all trying to be in sync; we weren’t, but the effort was enough.

Hall of mirrors, echo chamber, or storm cloud of the Digital Century?

The visual waves were not aligned with the waves of sound in the real life experience, which would have been cool, but I am sure this will happen when the movie is made of this event later this month. I think Ryan Gosling is going to play one of the OWS leaders and Susan Sarandon will play Susan Sarandon, and I believe there will be news crews there in greater numbers to cover the filming. The movie may indeed be the thing that launches the investigation into corporate corruption, which is one of the things the Occupiers want.  Bloomberg will no doubt grant a permit for the Occupation Film.  After all, the movie of outraged New Yorkers is always better than real outraged New Yorkers to the political class.  It feeds the coffers, especially Bloomberg’s coffers.  He can watch it and not have to think about real people. On the plus side, we might think of the film of the protest as another wave of the protest storm, an extension of the microphone to an nth degree, perhaps even generating more protests that can then be filmed again.  Who knows where it might end.

Lastly, I would like to comment on how the whole human megaphone thing kind of slows down the experience of being there, at Zucotti Square. It takes an hour to give a ten-minute speech and maybe this is a good thing. Maybe the revolution will come with the slowing down of information. In fact, I think there’s a company selling stock options right now, on the future of digital Ritardando. God’s speed to those marketers, those entrepreneurs, what the GOP calls the Job Creators.  Revolution might become a great new employer for Americans.  Could be a positive thing.

Coming to your town?

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