Occupy Wall Street: The aesthetics of unorganization.


There are calls for the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests to become better organized. Here in New Orleans, for instance, at the (somewhat) alternative news organization The Lens, the reporter (@mattdavis999) assigned to the OWS beat has made lack of organization the main theme of his coverage. But this is common elsewhere as well.

These calls for OWS to become better organized view the movement from a singular and somewhat repressive perspective: one that would subdue and interpret individual behavior within collective action. Sometimes this collective action is called community or compromise or reformation. But it is all the same in that each of these assumes a particular sociology of art.

And why is it suddenly important to refer to news media aesthetics?


  • The OWS movement is fundamentally an aesthetic protest, and
  • An aesthetic protest presents contradictions to conventional culture, institutions, and their organizing principles.

As an aesthetic protest, the OWS has its own form, apart from any social organization or control. The news media, burdened by their allegiance to the benefits of collective action, struggle to conceptualize such an event, much less explain it.

And what, exactly, is an aesthetic protest?

It is a protest that, like a work of art, is not bound by the sociological context of its origin.

Unfortunately, with such a claim, I move beyond the ability to explicate matters news-media-style, in stories and packages. I can only here reference Adorno’s notion of the formal autonomy of art and, equally briefly, reproduce that which Adorno’s aesthetics would argue most strongly against (as described by Edgar,1990) :

In sum, any work that cannot be attributed a role as entertainment or as of ritual significance within a consensus of values common to significant consumer groups is dismissed as socially irrelevant….The sociology of art thereby becomes an instrument to facilitate the administration of art, and so a form of market research that enables the more efficient coordination of the production and consumption of cultural artefacts.

I am struck by how well this quote describes news coverage of the OWS movement. Those calling for more organization seem clearly to be doing so from a position in parallel with what Edgar above calls a sociology of art: “an instrument to facilitate the administration of art.”

Most tellingly, this particular sociology demands organization from protests in order for those protests to have more effect. But, in the case of the OWS movement, the effect has already been had. As an aesthetic protest, the effect is the expressiveness of OWS, not any supposed (or imposed) rhetorical goal.

For instance, in analogy, we do not fall in love in order to organize our emotions. Nor do we feel anger, or sadness, or dissatisfaction because it would be more effective to do so (even if it later turns out that it would).  We fall in love because we must.  And there it is.

Of course, this is not to say that pragmatic, even calculating, human behavior cannot or does not occur within the OWS movement. It can and does occur. But this sort of calculated planning and organization — e. g., in order to achieve a particular effect — is the planning and organization of the actor: it is the practice of mimesis and representation. And, as such, it is, at some level, the practice of the political and the disingenuous.

The core of the OWS movement, unlike (and despite) other protests to which it is often compared, does not at all appear mimetic. Republicans, Democrats, Tea Party members, and the like represent a particular point of view, usually expressed in their choice of a particular iconic representation: a “candidate.”

The OWS movement has no candidate, nor needs one — nor any other superficiality to appease cultural morals. It is enough to point out the most important victory of the OWS movement:  revelation of the failure of news media to recognize and explain the human condition without reference to those structures and materials — those organizations — with which they are aligned and by which they are sustained.