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Reckless Seeing (Seeing Like a State)

illuminator eye

In the park, we learned how to see. We saw each other. And that allowed us to see them--the police, the state, the regime. This was not a simple task. You do not just claim the right to look and have done with it. It is a process. After a certain point in that process, you are not yourself anymore. And that is what they most want to prevent.

First, then, we found that we could see each other.  Next, we learned how to see unlike the state, allowing us to see them as they really are. Seeing them allowed us to unsee ourselves in the fashion that they wish to see us. And then you can stop being a spectator of this process and become a part of it. Unspectating is unspectacular but transformative. It is the moment of becoming. What do we then become? In rejecting their order, we became wild. We were already outside after all.

And so now we know a great deal more about what it is to claim the right to look and what happens when you do. Now the question becomes, what did we do with that right to look?

Let's look back.

Over the next several posts, I will try to unpack the summary above and produce an analysis of this becoming. Today I will think about how we saw each other and learned to see them.

1. Seeing Each Other

Before there is law, there is the common. On the commons, and in the undercommons, we have always had the right to look. In common. I don't have this right, we do. It is a look that is exchanged between us. It is the look into each other's eyes that expresses friendship, trust, and love. It creates a commons between us. Collectively, the common co-creation of the right to look brings about a commons, a space where no one dominates.

It is not an exchange that is always possible. Under segregation, a person (of color) could be accused of "reckless eyeballing," meaning an improper look at a white person, presumed to have sexual intent. Matt Ingram (below) was convicted of this offense in North Carolina in 1951. In the prison-industrial complex, "don't eyeball me" is still a routine instruction. The state marks its secrets "eyes only."

Under representation, the direct exchange of the commons becomes a dominating gaze. Think how film director Alfred Hitchcock turned intimate moments into intrusions. Because such gazing is central to heteronormative patriarchy, the right to look is literally and metaphorically queer. Time and again, people spoke of finding each other in the encampments and occupations. They described it as falling in love. This was not (just) the romantic love of mass popular culture but the love that Martin Luther King Jr. described as the means of sustaining a beloved community. Militant love.

When I wrote about this prior to 2011, it was hard to make it seem real. Now I say it is what happened at Tahrir, Syntagma, Puerta del Sol, Zuccotti and dozens of other spaces that were remade into commons from the privatized enclosures of neo-liberalism. We have now seen each other face to face, on livestream, on Twitter, on Facebook, on social media; and we have heard the call of the other, in their murmuring, their casseroles, their chants. To occupy was to place your body in space, there where it is not supposed to be: and be seen to do so, both by the commons and by the police.

To occupy this global city space was to intervene in the highly-mediated imaginary of "New York," a "reckless" way of being for the era of globalization. The once-familiar cityscape of New York had disappeared behind the facade of the "global city," a phantasmagoria of the coup of finance capital. This imaginary pushed the long histories of settlement, colonization and internationalization into the shades of the unspeakable.

Occupy's city returned from the cross-hatched corners, where resistance to those processes always lived, to allow for a circulation that is not that of finance. In the jargon of "theory," it reterritorialized the non-space of the global city. Meaning what was once a meaningless strip of urban parkland could become "Zuccotti Park," a place that hundreds, if not thousands, came to think of as "home." Thus it seemed obvious to state power that removing those bodies from their spaces would end Occupy.

2. Seeing Them

The horizontalidad of direct democracy challenged and displaced the verticality of power and neo-liberalism: and vice-versa. We became able to see the regime when we stopped circulating and claimed space. The one per cent visualizes what it imagines history to be to itself. It even sells "futures." And it buys our futures as debt. This is its claim to authority: the ability to determine where history is going. It also claims we cannot and should not be able to do such visualizing. Our task is to do the work allotted to us and nothing else.

But in the reckless moment, we saw them quite clearly and we learned how they see. The state sees in a singular and vertical fashion. The anthropologist James C. Scott has highlighted the way in which "seeing like a state" means a certain abstracting, centralizing vision. The state sees a tree simply as timber, compared to all the other known uses for the wood, bark and even leaves of the tree, let alone its existence as a living ecosystem.

When you see like a state, you cannot see that life has a value in and of itself. It can only have value in exchange. At the beginning of neo-liberalism in 1972, legal theorist Christopher Stone published a landmark book asking  "should trees have standing?" Meaning, could trees be considered to have legal rights, what lawyers call "standing"? Less technically, you see a tree as a tree. From this point, it became possible to name and protect animals, air and water, even ecosystems like coral reefs. Such actions as the prioritization of the spotted owl over logging defy the abstracting vision of the state. They find it reckless. And so the regime retaliated by defining corporations as people, giving them the standing to enter politics.

Seeing un-like a state means seeing as a grounded system. Space is not abstract or rendered into a commodity form as real estate. It is the grounds of freedom. Those seeing are not an abstract singular entity like "the market" but a decentered collective of living beings.  The collective is an amalgam of human and non-human ways of seeing. And what we saw first was them.

The experience of Occupy showed us again that the state is simply one form of regime that can be deployed against the multitude, the people, the commons or what you will. The formal, bureaucratic state represented by its police says, "move on, there's nothing to see here," meaning two things. One: there is something to see but you are not authorized to see it. And two, what there is here counts as nothing to see from the point of view of the state. When police surrounded Zuccotti Park after the eviction on November 13, 2011 and defended the empty space, they combined both forms of state seeing: there's nothing here for you to see and the state says that this is nothing.

During the social movements, two other forms of seeing like a regime became apparent. For those who inherently felt that they should have the right to look (whether by class, ethnicity or education), the systematic violence used by the police against OWS often came as a surprise. For the police, it was routine, as evidenced by the bored expression on the faces of Officers Bologna and Pike as they pepper sprayed protestors in New York and California respectively. Experienced activists were not taken aback, having seen this many times before.

But for those watching via social media for whom this was new, the violence seemed for a moment to delegitimate the state and validate the claim that the occupiers were "the people." Certainly, it created outrage in liberal circles and brought far more people to demonstrations of support than had been seen previously.

This violence was not without a message of its own. It condensed "move on, there's nothing to see here" into the simple statement: "you are nothing." The voice speaking here is the regime, or what we might call the "dark state." The dark state is purportedly invisible. It is not subject to question or election. In its view, you have no rights, no claim, no place from which to look or speak because you are nothing. This violence of erasure, of unseeing and of making invisible has long been directed at the marginal, at people of color and especially (in the United States) at African Americans.

The NSA spying is exemplary of this way of seeing like a regime. We can look, says the regime, with Prism and other such visually-named software, at everything you do because you are nothing. With the financializing of capital and the elimination of the need for mass labor in the United States, other than in service and consumer industries, the need to share even limited access to what there is to see has been reduced. More and more people have discovered that to the police, they are nothing.

When you are nothing, you are subject to summary justice and indiscriminate violence. In these circumstances, the regime calls to you as follows: "Freeze, or we shoot."  Or it simply speaks by shooting. This is the long story of settler colonialism, plantation slavery, colonial expansion and global policing. To start more recently, we saw this after Hurricane Katrina. We saw it again with the murder of Trayvon Martin. Or that of Kimani Gray in East Flatbush. Or Reneisha McBride in Dearborn, MI, just outside Detroit. Again and again and again.  In locations where we cannot see, drones fire on people at will, regardless of the consequences and what they call the collateral damage of death and injury to those not targeted.

People talk of taking state power. After learning to see what it is, I don't want it.

This was originally posted on After Occupy.

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