Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Occupations old and new

Revolution as Theatre: Notes on the New Radical Style

Revolution as Theatre: Notes on the New Radical Style by Robert Brustein

This is a collection of essays written in 1969 and 1970 critiquing the radical student movement and its effect on the university as an institution. It was a time when, among other things, Yale University (where Brustein was a dean) was actually voting on motions to suspend academic activity in order to dedicate its undivided attention to the trial of the Black Panthers.

Brustein expresses concern about the quality of these revolutionary movements, and whether they might be mirroring some of the negative aspects of the society they wished to transform: anti-intellectual, impatient with discourse, violent, and authoritarian. He vividly describes two events: a panel discussion in New York that gets taken over by members and/or followers of the Living Theatre, and a speech on the Yale campus by David Hilliard of the Black Panthers -- how he almost loses his adoring audience, and the peculiar way he wins back their affection.

He moves on to a discussion of the role of the university and how, in his view, the student movement had become so passionate for social relevance that they had become impatient to the point of becoming anti-intellectual and anti-professional. His essays wrestle with the project of reconciling the conservative, the liberal, and the radical. One preserves what is traditional and valuable, the next is open to new ideas, and the radical critiques the foundational structures that support one's beliefs.

Recently, the first anniversary of the Occupy movement passed, and the media reports were mostly disappointing if predictable, writing it off as a passing fad and minimizing its significance.  I would argue that the Occupy presented two radical and necessary ideas: (1) it is now okay to criticize our economic system and the social order that it creates -- and news coverage about economics and inequality has improved as a result; and (2) the movement showed an admirable devotion to process over results -- it was faulted for its "failure" to coalesce around a leader and a political platform, even though this was never the point.  "Occupy" was never accepted for what it was: a non-violent movement of people gathering in order to interrupt the system's daily operation, educate themselves on the problems and their causes, and work in a democratic manner with other people to envision solutions.  The process had a different structure and character than what we read in Brustein's reports -- in particular, its attitude toward learning and to democratic structure.

Sadly, these aspects were not celebrated in the media remembrances -- more like eulogies -- of the Occupy movement.

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