my formula to override writer’s block

I originally posted this long rambling post in early 2009, right after moving to Providence, RI — as the first post on my original albeit short-lived Devoke the Apocalypse blog. FWIW…


It’s chemicals.

But it’s still magic. And it’s also intention.

Through observation and experimentation, I developed a complex formula to cure writer’s block. For myself.

That’s the thing about formulas. They often don’t apply. Unless you’re talking about a fully controlled lab setting, formulas can be very problematic. I’m not talking about any specific formulas here, but the very idea of a formula. I hesitate to say what I have found to work for me, for fear that someone might try to replicate it without respect for context.

When you set out to do something, you’re starting with a goal. You want to accomplish a certain thing. Now, goals aren’t fixed things either. Our goals may change, and it behooves us to allow for that possibility. But, in the short-term, when you set out to do something, you have a goal.

If it’s something you have done before, then you may have a very clear idea about how to do it. But that doesn’t mean your idea will work every time. For example, the other morning I had a goal of purchasing an adjustable wrench. I had a clear idea about how I would do it. I would bike to the local hardware store. Specifically, I’d pull left out of my driveway, take another left onto Ives, and then a right onto Wickenden. However, after turning left onto Ives, I saw that it was blocked off for street work.

I had an idea about what would work, and it didn’t work.

No matter. I turned onto East Transit and took another route. I was focused on my goal of getting to the hardware store – not on the particular route. I could easily adjust, and didn’t even think twice about it. Common sense. Almost anyone would manage fine in a similar situation.

That’s why it may be useful as a metaphor for achieving more complex goals. You don’t become so fixated on your idea about how to do something (get to the hardware store) that you can’t adjust to new information or changed circumstances (street work on Ives St.). Continue reading

Falling in love with ourselves

Also published in Occupy! #5. Occupy! is an OWS-inspired gazette, published by n+1.

In late October of last year my cousin came down to Liberty Square, then home of a thriving Occupy Wall Street, to meet me for a drink. He arrived early so he could check things out for himself. I was eager to hear his impressions.

“What stood out to me,” he told me at a bar around the corner, “was how you all are recreating society—or creating a microcosm of society. It’s all there: a kitchen, a medical tent, a security force, a public library, and a whole alternative decision-making structure. It’s fascinating!”

Much has been made about the prefigurative aspects of Occupy Wall Street and the occupy encampments across the country, when they existed. The camps, for example, served as more than just a protest, more than just a tactic. Participants consciously prefigured the kind of society that they were striving to build. It was indeed a compelling moment for my cousin—or for any stranger—to witness. In the two months of the physical occupation of Liberty Square, newcomers like him could walk in off the street and join our world—could even speak up during a General Assembly meeting if they felt so moved. Everyone’s participation was welcomed. A modified consensus decision-making process is used in the General Assembly and in working group meetings so that decisions have to take into account everyone’s input and ideas, thus prefiguring a kind of direct democracy lacking in the wider world, particularly in the realm of mainstream politics.

“It’s kind of utopian,” my cousin suggested.

“I hope not!” I replied. Continue reading

Radicals and the 99%: Core and Mass Movement

This essay is a chapter in the new book from AK Press We Are Many: Critical Reflections on Movement Strategy from Occupation to Liberation. The book is 450 pages with contributions from 50 authors — most of whom have been active in Occupy Wall Street. Order it here!

Occupy Wall Street audaciously claimed to be a movement of “the 99%,” challenging the extreme consolidation of wealth and political power by the top one percent. Our opponents, however, claim that the 99% movement is little more than a handful of fringe radicals who are out of touch with mainstream America.

They’re not 100% wrong about us being radicals. Radicals played pivotal roles in initiating Occupy Wall Street. And radicals continue to pour an enormous amount of time, energy, creativity, and strategic thinking into this burgeoning movement.

What our opponents are wrong about is the equation of radical with fringe. The word radical literally means going to the root of something. Establishment forces use the label radical interchangeably with the disparaging label extremist—as a means to “otherize” the movement. But clearly the radicals did something right here. We flipped the script by framing the top 1% as the real extremists—as the people who are truly out of touch. By striking at the root of the problem and naming the primary culprit in our economic and democratic crises—by creating a defiant symbol on Wall Street’s doorstep—a new generation of young radicals has struck a chord with mainstream America. A movement that started as an audacious act by a committed core of radicals quickly and dramatically broadened its appeal.

Radicals will likely continue to play a crucial role in this movement. Throughout history the radicals have tended to be among those who give the most of their time and energy to movements for change. They tend to make up a large part of the movement’s core. As such, their contributions are absolutely indispensable.

However, successful movements need a lot more than a radical core. For every core participant who gives nearly everything of herself or himself, a strong movement needs a hundred more people in the next “tier” of participation—folks who are contributing something, while balancing other commitments in their lives. If we are to effectively challenge the most powerful institutions in the world (e.g. capitalism), we will need the active involvement of hundreds of thousands if not millions of people—folks who are willing to give something. If the core fails to involve a big enough next tier of participants, it will certainly fail to maintain effective engagement with the broader society. These “next tier” participants are not even the base, but rather the start of the base needed to accomplish our big-picture aims. Continue reading

We Are Many: #OWS Book Launch in NYC this Saturday (Sept.15)

Next week marks the one-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street — the movement that took New York’s financial district by storm, rapidly swept across the nation, and dramatically shifted the dominant political discourse. AK Press is releasing their new book We Are Many: Reflections on Movement Strategy from Occupation to Liberation just in time for the anniversary — with the official book launch event happening at Bluestockings Books in NYC, this Saturday, September 15, starting at 7:30pm. Click here for details and here to RSVP on Facebook.

Kate Khatib from AK Press will present the book, followed by comments from some of the book’s contributors, followed by audience questions. I’ll be there, and I have a chapter in the book (Radicals and the 99%, Core and Mass Movement). I’m really looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of the book and checking out my comrades’ contributions.

The book is 450 pages and has 50 authors, including: Michael Andrews, Michael Belt, Nadine Bloch, Rose Bookbinder, Mark Bray, Emily Brissette, George Caffentzis, George Ciccariello-Maher, Annie Cockrell, Joshua Clover, Andy Cornell, Molly Crabapple, CrimethInc., CROATOAN, Paul Dalton, Chris Dixon, John Duda, Brendan M. Dunn, Lisa Fithian, Gabriella, David Graeber, Ryan Harvey, Gabriel Hetland, Marisa Holmes, Mike King, Koala Largess, Yvonne Yen Liu, Josh MacPhee, Manissa M. Maharawal, Yotam Marom, Cindy Milstein, Occupy Research, Joel Olson, Isaac Ontiveros, Morrigan Phillips, Frances Fox Piven, Vijay Prashad, Michael Premo, Max Rameau, RANT, Research & Destroy, Nathan Schneider, Jonathan Matthew Smucker, Some Oakland Antagonists, Lester Spence, Janaina Stronzake, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Team Colors Collective, Janelle Treibitz, Unwoman, Immanuel Wallerstein, Sophie Whittemore, Kristian Williams, and Jaime Omar Yassin.

The editors are Kate Khatib, Margaret Killjoy, and Mike McGuire. They describe the book as, “messy, chaotic, imperfect, surprising, inspiring, and wonderful, just like the movement it reflects upon.” They did a great job taking this project over the finish line!

I hope to see you at the launch event on Saturday! If you can’t make it, be sure to order your copy from AK Press!

Claiming and Contesting Meanings and Symbols of the Nation

The nation as a constructed concept frames a commonality amongst citizens who live within the borders of a defined land mass. The conceptual common terrain of nation has provided a large part of the ground upon which the idea of a public was built. Though a plausibly common terrain, it is also an arena of contestation. Different particular actors within nations vie for hegemony — to shape both power relations and the symbolic universe through which relations and reality are interpreted. Other particular actors have to emerge, to construct themselves (i.e. to organize), and to demand their place and their rights as equals within—as part of—the nation and the public.

Here by actors I mean groups, aggregations, identities, etc. that congeal and organize sufficiently to develop the capacity for aligned collective action. The emergence of such actors requires some articulated common aspect of identity (e.g. women, blacks, workers of the world, Protestants, etc.). That commonality, internal to the identity of the actor/aggregation, also defines ways that members of the group are different from others. Such aggregations, if they are to become political actors, must simultaneously perform two challenging identity-related tasks: bonding and bridging. (I was introduced to the bonding and bridging terminology through Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone.)

Bonding: The group has to articulate and celebrate its particular internal commonality — the thing its members hold in common, which is also the basis of their difference from others. This bonding is the political actor’s premise and source of collective motivation, dignity, strength, and organization.

Bridging: The group has also to appeal to a potent commonality beyond the boundaries of its particular identity. Within a heterogeneous public, the political actor/challenger must assert itself as a legitimate contributing member of that public. It must appeal to the solidarity that is projected onto the imagined community of the nation — solidarity that is felt by those who identify with the nation. It must enlist specific allies (i.e. other actors within the nation) to support its claims. It cannot do this effectively without appealing to a potent commonality larger than itself. Continue reading

Communicative Capitalism, Status Update Psychology, and Filter Bubbles

Have you ever taken photos at an event — with the thought that you would later post them to Facebook? Maybe you even loaded them from your smartphone while the event was still in progress? Have you ever Tweeted from a protest? Have you ever found yourself thinking about how you would translate something you were experiencing into a status update?

I’ll cop to all of the above.

In my post last week (Internet: R.I.P. Democracy?) I discussed Jodi Dean’s Communicative Capitalism: Circulation and the Foreclosure of Politics. As the title of her article suggests, Dean argues that the virtual world—with its incredibly abundant circulation of information—is foreclosing on real-world political action. Sharing, “liking”, or commenting on a political article can create the illusion of taking action, as can blogging, signing an online petition, and countless other virtual political expressions. These forms give us a feeling of participation, but our virtual “contributions” are drowned in “a massive stream of content” that nobody—let alone anybody in power—actually has to respond to.

Today I want to suggest that this illusion does not only impact people whose political activity is limited to the virtual world. I think it also negatively affects the thinking of many people who are very active “on the ground” and in the streets. During real-world actions—protests, marches, occupations, etc.—we’re already thinking about their virtual representations. We’re Tweeting, live-streaming, posting photos, and updating our statuses in real time. It’s not that we shouldn’t be thinking about the strategic projections and representations of our actions and our movements. We should definitely be doing so. How movements are perceived is critically important. The problem is that the cluster structure of the virtual world shifts who our audience is. Our audience doesn’t just shift; it shrinks. And it doesn’t just shrink; it becomes just us. We ourselves become our only audience. Continue reading