"The Revolution Will Be Hashtagged": The Visual Culture of the Occupy Movement

Since September 17, the Occupy Wall Street movement has produced an overwhelming array of visuals, offering a significant lens on the movement itself, its ties to history, its divergent voices, perspectives and styles, as well as its multiple distribution channels from mainstream outlets to social media. Despite the criticism from experts who do not necessarily see much potential in Occupy's "brand," the visual aspects of the protest clearly have impact and traction. Although it would be impossible to fully assess this rich visual output, this blog post attempts to understand its emergent themes as well as the potential uses and value attached to visual commentary and protest. Throughout history, visual culture has played an important role in protest and social change. Although "high" art had long been used to venerate political figures as well as members of the upper classes, with the revolutionary tides of the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe and America, we see a shift and an increase in pictorial depictions of political resistance. These historical examples demonstrate the way visual culture has been fundamental to the politics of protest. They serve as witness and document. They can incite and instigate action.

Thus begins a rich, compelling, and timely post over at the blog maintained by the USC Civic Paths Research Group. Dr. Alison Trope, Clinical Associate Professor, and Lana Swartz, PhD Student, both in USC Annenberg, have assembled an amazing archive of images drawn primarily from the Occupy rallies from around the country and across the globe.

As this opening suggests, their primary emphasis is on visual media -- the signs, costumes, spectacles, which have been deployed to define the terms of the debate. Given the visual rich nature of their post, I can't cross-post it here, so I can only send you there to examine it more closely. But, believe me, it is worth hitting the link...

The Civic Paths team has been studying alternative forms of activism, especially those which involve the intersection between popular culture, participatory culture, and youth, for more than two years. We are affiliated with a research hub focused on Youth and Participatory Politics funded by the MacArthur Foundation and led by Mills College's Joe Kahne. Our own involvement stems from my long-standing interest in fan activism, the theme of a special issue our group is editing for Transformative Works and Culture, which will come out early next year. But, our interest has grown far beyond this.

Our current case studies include work on the young activists who are working to pass the Dream Act to give greater educational and citizenship rights to undocumented youth (Arely Zimmerman), research on youth involvement in Libertarian politics (Liana Thompson), research on Nerdfighters, the Harry Potter Alliance, and Imagine Better (Neta Kligler-Vilenchik), and research into Muslim-American politics post-911 (Sangita Shreshtova). Along the way, though, we have also been looking closely at a broader range of case studies -- from Racebenders to labor organizing in Madison, Wisconsin. This site looks at some of our preliminary examples, which helped pave the way for our current research. Altogether, we have nearly 20 PhD and Masters students contributing to this research, many of whom have posted some preliminary insights through the Civic Paths blog, so if you come to visit the Occupy archive, stay around and check out some of their other contributions.

I was lucky enough to have been able to pay a visit to Washington Square, the home of Occupy Wall Street, a few weeks ago, when I was in New York for the Mobility Shifts conference. An army of people in Zombie costumes, many of them from Zombiecon, a horror fan convention, had arrived at the Park just a few minutes before I did, and they were mingling with folks dressed up like characters from Game of Thrones and carrying signs warning that "the Winter is Coming." Elderly tourists were stopping them and seeking to better understand why they were dressed the ways they were and how they were connected with the Occupy moment, resulting in a series of exchanges which would further spread awareness of the protest. And that's part of the point.

Occupy is not so much a movement, at least not as we've traditionally defined political movements, as it is a provocation. If the mainstream media has difficulty identifying its goals, it may be because its central goal is to provoke discussion, to get people talking about things which our political leadership has refused to address for several decades now -- the profound shifts in economic wealth which have created conditions of gross inequality in opportunity, the role of what Sarah Palin has called "crony capitalism" (and which is really an indication of the role of capital in shaping our political process), and especially the degree to which economic policies under both Republican and Democratic presidents have been written with more regard for Wall Street than Main Street.

The values that Occupy represents are shared by the vast majority of Americans, if recent surveys are any indication, yet they are rarely expressed by mainstream political leaders or the mass media. So, part of the point of these protests is to provide what Stephen Duncombe might call an "ethical spectacle" as a means of focusing attention. And the old women who are asking Zombies questions are part of that process, no doubt sharing what they saw with their friends back home, and thus providing yet another chance to talk about what's been going on here.

The blurring between fan and activist that I observed demonstrates a different relationship between popular culture and politics than we saw in previous protest movements. The Popular Front in the 1930s sought to influence the development of popular culture, giving rise to Aaron Copeland, Norman Rockwell, Frank Capra, and many others, whose work shaped our current image bank of what democracy looks like. The protest movements of the 1960s sought to tap into the language of popular culture -- especially those of rock and comics -- to create an alternative culture, one which was implicitly and often explicitly critical of corporately-owned media and which sought to express the worldview of a younger generation. The protest movements of the early 1990s embraced a DIY aesthetic, giving rise to the Indie-Media movement, and helping to fuel talk of a digital revolution which might democratize access to the channels of communication.

The Occupy movement, by contrast, has laid claim to the iconography of existing popular culture as a set of cultural resources through which to express their collective identities and frame their critiques. Thus, we see a much more playful style of activism, one which owes much to the traditions of fan culture, one which assumes that images and stories from superhero comics or cult television series are shared by many of the participants (and will be understood by a larger public which has not yet joined the protests). So, they are dressing up, designing signs which re-ascribe meanings to familiar characters, creating their own videos, and sending them out into the world, where they will be seen by many who are not going to go to Washington Square, Los Angeles City Hall, or any other site of occupation.

This is protest media designed to spread through social networks -- one which has the homemade qualities of the DIY movements of the past (thus, as Trope and Swartz note, the cardboard signs), the high tech qualities of digital activism, and the playful engagement of fan activism, all rolled into one heady combination. These tactics are not without their contradictions -- Trope and Swartz note that the Guy Fawkes masks, inspired by Alan Moore's V for Vendetta and now symbols of the Anonymous movement, are based on IP owned by Warner Communications who profits for everyone sold in this country.

But, it does seem to reflect the way we are conducting politics in the early 21st century. We saw some of these same images "test marketed" as it were during the pro-labor protests in Madison, as Jonathan Gray noted a while back, and we are seeing these tactics play out on an even bigger stage with Occupy.

There are many other aspects of the Occupy movement we recognize from our ongoing research. More and more contemporary political movements are decentralized, claiming loose affiliations with each other, yet playing out on very local levels, often with significant differences between the various chapters. This approach has proven highly effective for the Dream Activists, for example, where the struggle shifted from Federal to State and Local levels when Congress failed to pass the national Dream Act. These activists have tapped into social networking tools in order to be able to quickly learn from each other, allowing images, messages, and tactics to evolve rapidly. If traditional immigrant rights groups tended to observe ethnic, racial, and national boundaries, these young people have formed coalitions across different immigrant populations, and something similar is going on with Occupy, where many different ideological interests are organizing around the shared frame which Occupy offers.

These groups are refusing to create a simple unified message of the kind that are familiar from "disciplined," hierarchical, and established political movements. Rather, they seek to multiply the messages and to expand the range of different media framings so that they may speak to a broader range of different participants. No one piece of media reaches everyone; rather, media is produced quickly and cheaply and spread widely so that each piece of media produced may speak to a different set of followers.

As Sasha Costanza-Chock, a recent transplant from USC to MIT's Comparative Media Studies Program, wrote in his thesis about the Los Angeles Immigrant Rights Movement:

Effective transmedia organizers are shifting from speaking for movements to speaking with them. Transmedia mobilization thus marks a transition in the role of movement communicators from content creation to aggregation, curation, remix and circulation of rich media texts through networked movement formations. Those movement formations that embrace the decentralization of the movement voice can reap great rewards, while those that attempt to maintain top down control of movement communication practices risk losing credibility.

Occupy, if anything, pushes tactics of transmedia mobilization even further. Refusing to anchor a singular meaning behind the movement keeps the conversations alive, allows for more people to join and help reshape the message, enables quick and tactical responses to outside challenges, and supports creative responses from all participants. As they chanted in the 1990s, this is what democracy looks like. Or as Trope and Swartz write, "The Revolution Will Be Hashtagged."

In the case of the Harry Potter Alliance and the Nerdfighters, there has been a move away from single issue activism to create structures that can be quickly deployed in response to a broad range of concerns and participatory structures that allow local chapters or even individual members to identify and take action around their own issues.

All of this can be confusing to media that keeps looking for the one cause, the one message, and the one spokesperson. Such efforts also compound some of the division within academic thought, since the message of Occupy seems to come from the realm of Critical Studies and Political Economy, where-as much of the tactics and imagery reflect the domains of Cultural Studies.

All of this suggests that we need to rethink the ways we've discussed the relations between politics and culture in the past. That's a central goal of the Civic Paths research group and we invite others to join us in researching not simply the Occupy movement but the ways it illustrates the nature of political engagement in a networked culture. We'd welcome hearing about what other research groups are doing to document and analyze the Occupy protests in their local areas.