On OWS: unity and renunciation

I haven’t paid particularly close attention to OWS but one argument constantly resurfacing in debates caught my interest – because I found it strange.  The argument appeared in many forms but basically ran like this: the people of OWS are all in general against the same thing, but what they are for, the alternatives they have in mind are so diverse and multiplicitous that their protest can never work. The assumption here is that a protest cannot be successful or effective when the unity of the group is negatively founded (i.e. what we are against); rather, there must be a universal goal that they can all be for. I suspect that this is simply another attempt by secularism to assert its claim-to-be-a-universal and I submit that this is epistemologically violent. (See Daniel Colucciello Barber, “Epistemological Violence, Christianity, and the Secular,” for more on the violence of particulars-that-claim-to-be-universals).

Enter transcendent ideal/hope and the value of particularity (both for renunciation and imagination).  “The relevance of a transcendent ideal is sometimes that of the unmasking of idols. There are times when a society is so totally controlled by an ideology that the greatest need is that someone simply identify a point where he can say a clear no in the name of his loyalty to a higher authority. [This is not a Kantian moral authority, in fact, precisely the opposite because Yoder’s transcendent ideal consists in particularity, namely the the hope in Jesus, and not another universalism]. […] The imperative of denunciation of idolatry is not conditioned by our immediate capacity to bring about an alternate world. Many times the nonconformist or the conscientious objector are the ones who discover new and creative social solutions. But the obligation to refuse conformity is independent of the capacity to project better solutions.” The validity of the “no” of OWS is not dependent on the unity of the 99% on a universal alternative.  Their unity consists not merely in their resounding “no!” but in their unspoken agreement for engagement, discussion, and imagination both within and with other particularities.  The “no!” creates a liminal space in which particularity is made present (rather than somehow homogenized in the “no!”).  And the creative resources for social change will therefore be different in Vancouver than in New York City, different in Oakland than in Winnipeg. There is no one OWS “for,” nor should there be.  That would be a replication of the same system we already have, the one we are revolting against.

All quotes from: John Howard Yoder, “Christ, the Hope of the World,” in The Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiological and Ecumenical, ed. Michael G. Cartwright (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1998), 205. Emphasis is the author’s own except the bold.


4 comments on “On OWS: unity and renunciation

  1. I read Salem a children’s book about a pencil that created the rest of the story. At one point it needed to create an eraser but the eraser grew hungry with its power and the only thing the pencil could do to stop it was create another eraser. Maybe not the most accurate image but a reminder of the need at times for a strong negative as the most positive contribution.
    Your appeal to idolatry in this instance I think is helpful. A major theme in my own theological thinking is the Holy of Holies in which the main challenge is to keep the space empty. It is the negative imperative of not fixing an idol within that space. This of course then is so that God may actually speak into the life of the community.
    Occupy Winnipeg seemed to really fade away. I suspect most folks with authority knew that winter would do most of the work.

    • Kampen says:

      Right, which is why it is not negativity as such, or an absolute negative/absence/emptiness but rather an openness, a posture of receptivity if you will. It is dynamic, particular, and diverse.
      As for Occupy Winnipeg, though it was small and looked rather insignificant, it was the last Canadian occupation to be evicted. But you’re right, it’s size and winter certainly helped authorities. We’ll have to see if they 99% return with the spring.

  2. And I certainly didn’t mean that as an insult to Occupy Winnipeg as I posted earlier.

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