Occupy Wall Street occurred as I was laid up, recovering from a shoulder surgery in my parents’ house in suburban New Jersey. From there, across the river, the movement appeared a chimera of ideals, naiveté, and anger. Media accounts emphasized its inarticulacy and its internal dissonance, the youth of its members and its overarching ridiculousness. It seemed nebulous and fragile, an illusion that would vanish if I adjusted my contacts. Laura’s “Strange Bodies,” though, is a counternarrative, presenting an Occupy built of the concrete and the particular. The movement’s lofty goals are, at times, held up quizzically for inspection—and sometimes the subject of jest. However, the piece’s primary concern is with the forming of the community in Zuccotti Park—as it was, redolent of apple pulp and cigarette smoke, sticky with jam and hummus.
From its first scene, in the kitchen of Occupy, the piece introduces the reader to small stories about the individuals who are the movement: “fire-haired Anj” who navigates the kitchen and manages to look beautiful, the man tattooed with horns and spirals who never sleeps until he drops at the Blarney Stone, a girl who is in Puerto Rico now, but remarked on the constant light of NYC—even her friend, Shane, who exists beyond the park, is included (we learn he is attending college after receiving a tribal grant). Occupy here is a collaboration of specific individuals with specific needs and demands that existed before the movement and continue to exist now, after its 59 feverous nights have faded into memory.
But even that overview of the people described gives it away: this is not just about Occupy. It engages with the before and the after; Occupy is the eruption, but Laura is interested in the turbid undercurrents that brought it about. Interpreting her own anxiety about working in a world moving at “hyper-speed,” where the demand to produce is a constant menace, to be representative of the social illnesses diagnosed by Roy Porter and Silvia Federici, her essay traces her experiences at Zuccotti Park back to the social forces preying upon her. Though she doesn’t pretend to speak for the rest of the persons in the camp, the essay’s vast scope and ambition invites the reader to make the move that its author, out of humility, I suppose, declined to make, and root Occupy as a whole in a collective, generalized generational anxiety. Though there is much of interest and beauty in the essay, perhaps this is the boldest and most important claim it generates—it offers Occupy a genesis beyond Kalle Lasn’s meme.
However, the question must be asked: Is it true? Before I read this, I always thought Occupy to be less about nerves and more about unbearable frustration. It was a sign of generational discontent, of anger—that we finally had decided to make a clean break of it and no longer live contentedly in the continuum that our parents had established in the 70s. We were angry about inequality. We were angry about a broken system. We were angry about a society that kept us in perpetual adolescence. And we were determined to change that.
The more I’ve thought about it, though, the more right she seems to be. Taking a look at my limited generational sample (basically, people I’ve met), I know a surprising number who take Xanax, and even more who pointedly dull themselves with weed and beer “just to slow things down.” And I have met few persons my age who are actually angry. By and large, most people are nice, though we might be disillusioned and jaded, cynical and ironic. Anxiety, at the base, makes more sense than rage. It can present with all the symptoms of anger—it too can erupt in protest and riots—and just seems to fit us better. Maybe I just hadn’t peered deep enough down the well, followed the cord far back enough.
And yet, I can’t help but wonder if this anxiety isn’t necessarily a product of capitalism alone, but one of capitalism and of America’s democracy. I wonder if we wouldn’t feel this same nervous malaise if we hadn’t internalized the prescript that the pursuit of happiness was our inalienable and achievable right. Would Occupy have mobilized so strongly if it were simply about basic needs? I think not. I think Laura’s piece gets us thinking about the right thing—the source of the anxiety—but I think we need more interrogation before we settle on the culprit. Amerrica’s myths are in for a day of reckoning.