Never the Usual Terms: A Song for 21st Century Occupations

First, a word about what these thoughts, and we, are not.  We write not as archivists, historians, or even critics of what has been called the Occupy Movement, nor for that matter as particularly historicizing readers of Walt Whitman’s poem from 1855, later named “A Song For Occupations.”  Rather, as observers and sometimes participants of Occupy, we’d like to use some of what we find in Whitman’s curiously apposite poem — some of the dialectics he offers around questions of labor and public-ness and sex — to meditate upon what we take to be a set of generative problems in the 21st-century scene that is Occupy.[1]
And scene is the word we want.  By “scene” we mean to refer, first, to Occupy’s distinctive heterogeneity: to the overlapping, suggestively asynchronous ways Occupy expresses itself as (all at once) a movement, a protest politics, a loose collectivity, a place of habitation, and, most broadly, as a set of unsolidified and shifting aspirations in relation to a range of contemporary impasses. So we wish to invoke the psychoanalytic sense of “scene” as affording unpredictable directions, identifications, and kinds of uptake.  But we mean “scene” in the more local sense too — as in a punk scene, a leather scene, or a lesbian bicycle messenger scene — suggestive of a porous and often haphazard sodality given whatever solidity it has by crossings of circumstance, elective affinity, and, not at all infrequently, desire.  Who better to turn to, in thinking through these senses of scene, than Whitman? — Whitman who, as we hope to show, gives us an extraordinarily supple purchase on things that are like social protest movements, things that are like publics, and things that are like sex.
First, a few observations about the word “occupation.” We’re struck by its two dominant registers: the instrumental and the complexly non-instrumental. There is the economic sense of “occupy” as in to work at a job, to use an object or time, to possess or take possession, to trade or invest (as in “go occupy the king’s gold”).[2]  These are the senses we might have in mind when we think of the movement as condemning various kinds of specifically material inequality and alienation. And these are the senses Whitman clearly has in mind when he writes of “the workshop, factory, yard, office, store, or desk,” or when he produces his thronging catalogs of the tools and terms of labor, or when he says, more directly, “I send no agent or medium, offer no representative of value.”[3]
But “occupy” extends in other directions as well, encompassing senses that are less instrumental but are yet not non-material. There is “to occupy” as in to dwell, evident in lines like “you and your soul enclose all things, regardless of estimation” (96). Or to be occupied, in the sense of captivated in thought. And, gloriously and obsoletely, there is  “to occupy” as in “to have sexual intercourse.”  The Oxford English Dictionary gives as an example “a good wench, one that occupies freely,” while Whitman’s favorite occupation is evident in lines like “do I not often meet strangers in the street and love them?” (88).[4] Whitman’s “Song for Occupations” interlaces the efficacious and the less efficacious registers in ways we think worth tracking closely. We think of a resonant line from Lauren Berlant’s new book, Cruel Optimism, where she writes of trying “to see what is halting, stuttering, and aching about being in the middle of detaching from a waning fantasy of the good life.”[5]  Our chief claim here is that Whitman’s poem might usefully be thought as an account of just this sort of detaching, undertaken as a curious project of something like de-alienation. It’s curious, this project, because it is a de-alienation without coherent proscription of what we might be alienated by — it’s not “critique” in this sense — and without a specified imagining of the nature of the object or atmosphere to which this de-alienation might bring us, beyond its capacity to sustain an elementally affirming orientation. Whitman’s meditation on the interface between the instrumental and the non-instrumental, between states of alienation and possibilities for affirmation, seems to us especially resonant as we begin to describe the scene of Occupy outside of what Whitman, in the poem, calls “the usual terms” (87) of political critique, even as we also acknowledge the way Occupy itself exceeds and exhausts these terms.
Our discussion, then, will take place under three rubrics: alienation, detachment, affirmation.
1. Alienation
In the classical Marxist account of alienation, the worker finds his energy, creativity, and the set of social relations that constitute the system of production (i.e., the owners’ power over workers) obscured, objectified, or otherwise “locked into” the commodity. The process of overcoming this involves the classic contradiction of capitalism, wherein the new social relations enabled by wage work allow laborers to analyze their position in the system and resist it, bringing them back into contact with their power as makers, thinkers, and repositories of physical energy. We’d note about Marxist alienation its double temporal orientation toward restoration of a lost past and reinvention of the social field. “A Song for Occupations” certainly envisions restoration: its speaker asks, almost plaintively, “Will the whole come back then?” (92). But in the place of a secure Marxist futurity in which the proletariat overthrows the owners and establishes a new system of production, we find in Whitman, frustratingly and invitingly, the interrogative mode: “Were all educations practical and ornamental well displayed out of me, what would it amount to?” (87, emphasis added). “A Song” takes place through a strangely tensed interrogative: the questions invoke a past tense, but the answers presume a future tense whose contents it will not divulge: “You may read in many languages, yet read nothing about it” (90).
Just this temporal cross-wiring explains our own attachment to the term “occupy.” Even in the teeth of strong, useful critiques of the term occupy — for instance, that the militarized “occupy” ought to be transformed into the liberationist verb “decolonize” — we feel that “occupy” does things “decolonize” may not. First, a verb like “decolonize” might recall to us the implicit fantasy of return such as we sometimes see in Whitman and Marx both. There are of course languages of temporal overlap, multiplicity, and discontinuity in Marx — the Eighteenth Brumaire, for instance, offers a bedazzling reading of what Marx understands as the commonplace mismatch between, on the one hand, certain rhetorics of revolution, and on the other the material conditions that do and do not make possible certain kinds of rupture and advancement. But what’s clear even in that complexly delineated polytemporality is Marx’s investment in a kind of normative teleology, a genealogy — feudal to capitalist to communist, say. The disruption and reshuffling of that normative temporality makes for intensely interesting political-economic historiography (as the essay shows) but ultimately can issue only in failure, or “farce.” For Marx, when you get time wrong, you get revolution wrong.
Occupy instructs us in different clarities.  For Occupy demands that we understand its asynchrony, and even the seeming inconsistency that attends its multiplicity, as something other than failure. One can be struck, in Zuccotti Park and elsewhere, by the intimate co-presence of ways of dwelling in public, and dwelling in protest, that do not sit in easily genealogical relation to one another — that do not seem to have as their object a singular set of problems, grievances, or for that matter longed-for interventions — but are not for that incoherent. They are so only from a perspective that presumes some normative temporality of social forms. This simultaneity of inconsistency and coherence seems to us to capture something about modes of capitalism after the 20th century, in ways that complicate the language we get from Marx. For that assemblage-like multiplicity of noncoincident forms suggests an important, difficult to describe wrinkle in the contemporary (neoliberal, transnational, militarized) unfolding of power. If as Zižek says we have at present no language in which to articulate our unfreedom, it is in part because the power that constrains and produces us is not properly disciplinary, not properly that of the “control society,” not properly feudal or bourgeois or colonial or imperial, but is rather a composite of such modes, assembled in singular forms for given locales, and structured beyond any need for consistency — structured indeed in a way that makes inconsistency itself a vector of control.[6]  This is the image of power Occupy gives back to us. For the subject, this form of power is experienced as what Berlant rightly calls an “impasse”: a saturating sense of impossibility seeded with enough promise of some habitable otherwise, enough cruel optimism, to keep that subject attached however ambivalently to modes of being that are themselves actively being hollowed out.
And this is where Whitman comes in. For Whitman gives us one account of what it might be like to live inside of this kind of impasse, this kind of inconsistency and multiplicity. “A Song for Occupations” suggests to us the possibility of a move from “de-alienation” and “de-colonization” and toward a mode of askesis that is striking for being as pleasure-saturated as it is. We will call that “detachment.”
2. Detachment
Again, detachment seems to come in at least two forms. One, like “alienation,” describes the separation of self from nature and from labor power enacted by commodity capitalism: Whitman writes of elemental objects being abstracted into signs of prestige, teasingly asking whether “the landscape took substance and form that it might be painted in a picture[,]” or “the brown land and the blue sea for maps and charts” (91). This is detachment as abstraction. But the other sense of detachment involves trying to figure out what it might mean to decathect the “usual terms” that organize our strivings, with no replacement fantasy of what will be.  The usual terms float to the surface of Whitman’s poem (“the profits of your store,” “a gentleman’s leisure,” “our Union… and our Constitution”) but the matter isn’t so much that Whitman wishes to offer these things up for critique, as that the poem works to refuse our disappearance into the scene of any of them as complete or encompassing (91). We see this, too, in Occupy’s deep identification with homelessness: the communal kitchens, the collectively tended mini-gardens of potted plants, the tent cities and children’s villages, the mobile libraries, the ad hoc forms of medical care are, at once, shadow versions of the social safety net with no means testing or identity card required for entry, and replications of smaller encampments of homeless people in parks, underpasses, and abandoned buildings across the country — homage, we might say, to their ways of creating order, care, beauty, or bare survival out of odds and ends, even as they eschew “home” as an end-point for these activities.[7]
Part of how detachment works in “A Song” is through a similar suspension of outcomes: one stanza of the poem, for instance, sets up the “if/then” conditions that ordinarily organize management’s demand on labor, as in “if you work you will get paid X,” and labor’s demands on management, as in “if you give us the contract, we’ll go back to work,” and capitalism’s entire ruse, as in “if you work hard, then you’ll achieve the good life.”  But Whitman’s speaker uses the if/then subjunctive case to level distinctions and muddle end-points: “If you are a workman or workwoman I stand as nigh as the nighest in the same shop” (88).  It goes on like this: If you give your loved ones gifts I want as good a one as they get… If your lover is welcome anytime, I want to be too, etc.  In the place of the material gain, “if you are a workman, then…” seems to predict something in between an identification and an assertion of a kind of togetherness that, like all forms of togetherness in Whitman, seems impossible to parse in the immediate, available terms for belonging: some sodality as much without name as it is suffused with erotic potentiality, as in  “[i]f you meet some stranger in the street and love him or her, do I not often meet strangers in the street and love them?” (88).  What is produced by these attenuations in the poem is never anything like a legible social form: it demands that we detach not only from, say, the couple-form, but also from, say, the proletariat.  The forms there are to be are indwelling but inarticulable, or as one participant of Occupy puts it, “messy, exasperating and miraculous.”[8]
Crucially, Occupy too takes communal living seriously, but does not decide in advance upon what basis human affiliations should form. First-person accounts from Occupiers and visitors to the encampments often refer to modes of belonging that surprise even their participants. Writer after writer expresses astonishment at the multiplicity of kinds of people whom they encounter: one account lists in Whitmanesque, anaphoric catalogues, “I saw families with small children. I saw yuppies without. I saw quite a few senior citizens (some in wheelchairs). I saw high school and college students. I saw the homeless who live on the streets being marched. I saw middle aged men in Ralph Lauren…”[9]  As the work of José Muñoz has taught us, attachment to the peculiarities of these scenes–scenes of people–is the first step to detaching from the certainties of legible sodalities.[10] A writer for “In These Times” suggests that from this mode of indeterminate sociability comes another surprising affect: love. “Love,” she remarks, “does not erase the facts of our social reality, but it illuminates them; through complete absorption in the particular, it reveals the shakiness and incompleteness of our relation to the whole.”[11]  Here are terms that cannot be subsumed into the economic: it is not the totality that is revealed, but the promising contingency and partiality of our engagement with it.
This sense of the energies radiating from depersonalized, unmarked constituencies whose “demands” are both enacted and met in the scene of their doing animates “A Song for Occupations,” which is profoundly not a song for job-creation. Indeed, the poem runs on Whitman’s refusal to specify (and on the erotics of that refusal): what he finds in the “labor of engines and trades and the labor of fields” may be “the developments/And … the eternal meanings,” but he won’t tell what those things are.  Whitman’s future eludes full signification and textualization: it is “not what is printed or preached or discussed… it eludes discussion and print/It is not to be put in a book… it is not in this book” (90). So “detachment” involves not insisting on what politics will look like or the forms in which it can be found, but not for that reason refusing to engage. This is somewhat different from Lee Edelman’s injunction to abjure politics altogether just because they may traffic in the chimeras of form.[12] Indeed, Whitman is not at all an antinomian: if a form is known, he refuses to hold it in contempt while also refusing to settle for it. Queer theory, of course, has produced an especially generative uncertainty about the parameters of what sex is. To view Occupy through a queer lens, then, means recognizing that it could be worthwhile to transfer this detachment from the proper object of sex to the proper object of politics.
One Occupy observer captures something of this when she writes of the discombobulations of presence and absence in Oakland’s occupation of Snow Park: chalk outlines of the bicycles seized or reclaimed when the police violently cleared that park on October 26, 2011; Twitter posts and blogs capturing the tear-gassing that ABC and CBS livestreams refused to show, face-to-face General Assemblies as the inverse of agentless corporate personhood; the human mic as a mimicry of what the Fourth Estate is supposed to do but abjures.[13] All of these examples of Occupy strategies invoke some of the usual terms, drawing their discursive energies from the die-in, the guerrilla video, the commune, the public protest.  Yet each is revealed as never sufficient, and their outcomes are recognized as both fleeting and resonant, “ephemeral moment[s] … that lasted much, much longer than a minute should,” each, in this writer’s words, “a shadow whose original has disappeared, and … all the more significant for that.”
3. Affirmation
What such detachment from permanence and proper political objects issues in, for Whitman, is a kind of affirmation — that familiar, complex Whitmanian mode — we now want to consider: affirmation less of any one thing than as an orientation. Most elementally, we might take “A Song for Occupations” to be a poem about finding one’s way through the unfinished business of detaching from the usual terms via contact: “the contact of bodies and souls.” But from the first Whitman reminds us that this navigation around the usual terms, this riding-out of the impasse in such a way that might foster these replenishing kinds of contact, itself requires a certain solidity, a certain plenitude in one’s self-relation. “Why what have you thought of yourself?” he asks. “Is it you then that thought yourself less?” (88 emphasis added). The usual terms, it seems, conspire toward a kind of depletion: a depletion of the capacity, itself inequitably distributed across the social, not to think less of ourselves.[14]
As it proves, this capacity not to think less of ourselves has a great deal riding on it: it sustains an openness at the scene of the impasse, of the non-knowing that is so much the poem’s subject.  What one learns to be open to, Whitman cajolingly asserts, is a “something that comes home to one now and perpetually,” a something Whitman then teases out in lines that have delighted us not least for the ways their refusals of “usual” forms of content are also, quite resolutely, not negations.
The sun and stars that float in the open air… the apple-shaped earth and we upon it… surely the drift of them is something grand;
I do not know what it is except that it is grand, and that it is happiness,

And that the enclosing purport of us here is not a speculation or bon-mot or reconnoissance,
And that it is not something which by luck may turn out well for us, and without luck must be a failure for us,
And not something which may yet be retracted in a certain contingency.
The light and shade — the curious sense of body and identity — the greed that with perfect complaisance devours all things — the endless pride and outstretching of man — unspeakable joys and sorrows,
The wonder every one sees in every one else he sees… and the wonders that fill each minute of time forever and each acre of surface and space forever (90)
What is described here, we think, is the world as it might appear to the subject detaching from the usual terms and sustained in that detachment by a style of plentiful self-belief that, following Whitman, we want to name grandiosity.  “I do not know what it is except that it is grand, and that it is happiness,” Whitman writes, happiness here naming no particular object–“not a speculation or bon-mot or reconnoisance.”  Instead, the “enclosing purport” that is happiness becomes, splendidly, an unpredetermined trajectory that like the sun and stars floats, a “drift”: a movement and a sense at once. What is grand belongs not only to the world but equally to the self unwilling to be diminished or depleted by the usual terms: the self that is as supersaturated with wonder as the world of which it is an extension.
Note the charm with which Whitman detaches this grandiosity first from those familiar American terms of success like luck, failure, and turning out well, and then from the idea that what is grand in the self is in any way alienable. It is “not something that may be retracted in a certain contingency.” What is grand in the self, that is, cannot be given away — as Michael Warner says of one of the registers of “dignity”: you cannot not have it[15] — though you might perhaps be convinced by the diminishing terms of the world that you do not have access to it. And note too the way such grandiosity opens us out to a world made radiant with desire, a desire Whitman daringly names “greed” — “the greed that with perfect complaisance devours all things” — daring, that is, for its willingness to reclaim greed as erotic, as not exhausted in materiality: greed as the name for wanting even in the absence of lack. And this makes sense: Whitman’s world, as he imagines it here, is as little a scene of lack as is the self marked by the “endless pride and outstretching of man.”

n, is to consummate your own urgencies.

By insistence and example, then, the stanza works toward the cultivation of grandiosity–a live sense of the self’s outstretching, inalienable, and unretractable expansiveness–as the orientation, the being-toward-the-world, that allows one to negotiate impasses instead of being smothered by them, to find access via the giving-way of the usual terms to an unnameable something grand rather than to a feeling of immobilizing entrapment. Grandiosity, in all, names the disposition toward the scene of being that allows for affirmation. It marks out the orientation that is, for the poem — in another term rich with American antecedents — happiness.
Grandiosity is of course a term itself rich with theoretical inflection, much of it derived from psychoanalysis keyed to object-relations, where it is largely a term of disapprobation. Grandiosity marks the infant’s delusional sense that the world is, and should be, co-terminus with its wishes: marks, that is, a position that in the more normative registers of “development” must be abandoned. We, on the other hand, are lovers of Whitman — and are also, in our loves, people who have passionately, stubbornly resisted the notion that we cannot, with the force of our desire, remake the world as we wish it to be. So we incline to think grandiosity more kindly. It names for us a quality of abundance, of an achieved amplitude on the scene of self-relation, that is willing to risk a lot on behalf of the revised constellation of possibilities such an orientation can bring into relief. Grandiosity is a willingness to risk, first, not being critical, at least not in the modes we’ve come to know. It marks a detachment from irony or camp, as well as the various exteriorities of “critique,” as modes understood to be exhaustive or exclusive. And it names too, in ways the Kleinians would be quick to recognize, an openness to the kinds of wounding that might follow from grandiosity’s perhaps inevitable disappointments — or, we might say, from its collisions with intractability in its many guises.
We like grandiosity, then, because it frames out much of what we find in Occupy and in its captivating willingnesses: its extravagances of political imagining, its willingness to risk the discovery that all that optimism might indeed turn out to have been cruel, and its willingness to sustain woundings not solely psychic in the name of those extravagances. We like grandiosity because of its insistence that desire is not made for foreswearing, and that satisfactions of the most expansive sort are not to be abandoned as possibilities because of the range of conditions that curtail them. Or, as an Occupy protestor put it, “The point that the mainstream US media has missed in its obsequious haste to criticize the occupation for not having any clear ‘demands’ or a sophisticated analysis of the financiers, is that the space itself is very much its own demand.”[16]
To occupy, then, in terms Whitmania

Elizabeth Freeman

Peter Coviello

Peter Coviello is a professor of English at the University of Illinois-Chicago and the author of three books: Intimacy in America (2005), Tomorrow’s Parties (2013)--a finalist for Lambda Literary Award in LGBT Studies and honorable mention for the Alan Bray Memorial Book Prize--and, most recently, Long Players: A Love Story in Eighteen Songs, appearing in 2018 from Penguin Books. His next book, Make Yourselves Gods: The Unfinished Business of American Secularism--A Mormon Story, will appear from the University of Chicago Press in 2019.