Writing About Horizontal Structure Becomes “Structureless” When We Write About It

Photo by Paul

by Adam Rothstein

As a member of the media, as a contributor to the linguistic and philosophical discourse emerging from the Occupations, and as point-of-contact for The Occupier, I’m constantly confronted with one of my main frustrations throughout the two months I’ve been involved in this Occupation: I can’t stand writers who write about the Occupations. This is a very strange sentiment coming from a person who, because of the just-mentioned qualifications, is constantly surrounded by, immersed within, engaged in enabling, and even embodying exactly that: writers who write about the Occupation, and that writing that they produce.

On The Occupier, we post many different types of articles. In addition to the news and current events of the Portland Occupation, we post many more editorial style pieces. Some are letters and general opinion style sentiments, whereas others are deeper investigations into strategy or tactics. We like to have a variety. One of the main goals of this publication is to give a voice to the individuals making up the movement, and not adopt a solid editorial voice, GA-endorsed or otherwise.

The downside of this, of course, is that we end up presenting a characteristically diverse, un-unified voice, just like the entire Occupy movement around the world. We’re fine with it–after all, this diversity is something that we celebrate, and the different individuals taking part in our movement bring many different ideas and strategies to the substance of what it is we’re doing, all of which has aided us so far, in making us adaptable, evolutionary, and horizontally mobile. But if one was looking to identify a “party line” or some such media-ready, “coherent argument”, then one would be better off going back to the status quo of party-politics and plank/platform media echo.

All of which would be fine, if it wasn’t for writers. It’s one thing for all of us, and by that I mean any of us, to write something about the Occupation. These are the voices of the movement, and when we represent ourselves, we are making the movement. But then, we feel the need to turn around and write about it. And because we are writers, we try to sum up the issue. We identify a few easily relatable categories and ideas, and reduce the entire thing down to a piece of writing. And the movement is anything but a piece of writing.

This may seem like some sort of post-modern, meta-issue, wherein trying to talk about something destroys our ability to talk about it, and we are left tumbling through a negative theology of general wills and incoherently uttered political feelings, rather than actually having anything to say. But the problem is really far simpler: writers who write about the Occupation always write something wrong.

Let me show you what I mean. Watch here as Vinay Gupta, a writer of many reasonable and clever things, writes about Occupations and by doing so, completely misses the point:

Next year, I’m going after #Occupy. The current political culture inside of #Occupy is dangerously shallow. If we get large scale economic breakage, and Occupy goes from being 2,000 people in New York to being 200,000 people, if it becomes the army of the dispossessed, the Tyranny of Structurelessness is going to be an immense bane, as a lot of angry, frightened people get together in a non-democratic environment and attempt to figure out where to apply their political weight to get solutions. There’s a name for that: it’s called a mob. We can, and must, do better than first-past-the-post voting every four years for leaders pre-selected by political power elites and corporate-controlled media. But we must also do better than small groups of people waving their hands at each other at emotive appeals.

Let us set aside for the moment why he is suddenly going to have time for “#Occupy” next year (whatever the hell #Occupy is) and why he hasn’t been “going after it” already (whatever the hell “going after it” is). Let us talk about “structurelessness”.

Structurelessness would seem to be that “characteristically diverse, un-unified voice” I cited above, when characterizing the presentation of the writing by and for Occupiers, such as those writings collected in this publication. But the problem is this: anyone who has taken part in an Occupation (which one would assume might be a qualification for writing about it) could tell you that the Occupation is nothing like that. It is very unified, even as it is distributed. If anything, it has a surplus of structure, even as it is separated and horizontal. There is a danger of the mob here, just like anywhere (and I have looked it square in the face on multiple occasions) but this is not a mob. It is a movement. We know what the difference is. A mob does not argue about procedure and process, it does not have outreach committees, it does not critique itself to see if it is doing too much self-critiquing.

The problem is, perhaps, that “structureless” appears most often in writing about Occupy as a pejorative word. When we wish to speak of the brokenness of the horizontal structure that exists, we speak of the “lack” of structure. There is a structure, of course, it just isn’t functioning as we’d like. When it isn’t functioning, our mind seeks a return to the familarity of class society. We seek the “formal” structures, rather than “informal” ones; we are used to the more vertical structures in society, and are told to trust them. After all, it is the vertical structures that reward us with perks like the “middle class” when we defend that sort of organization. Compared to the pomp and circumstance of vertical structure, horizontal structure may indeed seem to be non-existent, or structureless.

We know what real structurelessness looks like, and it is nothing like Occupy. It is that “mob”. But we don’t refer to the horizontal structure of, say, choosing at which bar to meet with friends as a “mob” action. We wouldn’t call a couple making a joint decision “structureless”. We just wouldn’t treat it with the same societal respect, as, say, the way we trust rich people to make decisions for us just because they are rich. And that is the definitional pattern we wish to change.

The number of incredibly talented and intelligent people down here working on this project boggles my ability to gush laudatory kisses on all those who deserve it. I never once used a “best minds of my generation” line in earnest before I came to the Occupation. These are the organizers here: scientists, engineers, literary minds, politicians, and people of incredible industry. And of course, there are those who are less talented, but mean no less well. But this is society. It is not a segment or a sliver; those who Occupy are not simply the disoriented, the disillusioned, and the discontents. We are everyone, just currently a limited number of everyone. If society ever had a chance to save itself from its own challenges, it would happen at Occupy. We are turning away from the vertical structures that have spurned us, and building out those horizontal ones that are far more resilient than we ever knew. There is no larger group or organization, no super-structure to appeal to, no saving, coddling arms of the State or Supra-State. There is only us, and then more of us, as more people have nowhere else to turn. We are the ones who have realized that there will soon be no structure other than that we are building. And so, we have gotten to work.

So then, why do we write in such a way that we present the structure of the Occupations as structurelessness? We spend all day organizing, and then write about how loosely organized we are. Why do we never tire of presenting ourselves as an organic movement that “flows like water”, as people who never were involved with politics until a few months ago, as a “diverse, un-unified” group, as something tangential, tactically horizontal, asynchronous, rhizomatic, and all of these other Deleuzian buzzwords of loose-network zeitgeist?

Well, for one thing, we love the loose-network zeitgeist. But even with that set aside, this is a characteristic imbued to the Occupation by the fact of our writing about it–not because of any mistaken description. If we wrote in any sort of detail about the sort of organization we are doing, we would be penning an incredibly complex document. It would be almost useless to the reader, who would save time by not reading about the Occupation, and just go on down and start getting involved so he or she could see first-hand. The opposing possibility is an abstraction: a short piece that barely scratches the surface of what is going on, and unfortunately, gets less-than-accurate in this short schrift. Not just a single faulty abstraction either, but a plethora of them, as every writer with any interest in the Occupation adds their piece to the pile and we end up as many tiny crystallizations of the movement as grains of sand on a beach, spreading the discourse thin and sliding, like gravel on asphalt.

One could forgive this thin paste of discourse as the output of writers without time or need to really write the full history of the Occupations, who are instead giving their elevator pitch on the movement. They don’t intend to explain it. They want to put the idea out there as quick as possible from their own unique perspective, in the hopes that those who hear a fragment of resonance get on down to the Occupation itself. These writings are text messages: “get on down! We’ll talk about it more when you get here.” If I had a goal in my task as point-of-contact, it would be to be the best short messaging service for the Occupation that I could possibly be. I aspire to be the discursive Twitter API for Occupy Portland, and nothing more. If I could be half as effective as a 140 character message, I would be effective for this movement indeed.

But the problem occurs when the writers, like myself, engage the writing. We see the words we have written, and momentarily forget that they are only words. We see the protest signs, and think they are what we are doing, and not just signs. I even forget my own role as propagandist on occasion, and forget that despite all the inspiration around here, there are serious difficulties that we have in and among those talented folks that constitute the Occupation–that is to say, how dense the challenges of society are. These are challenges that aren’t going to work themselves out in writing, or even in writing about writing. If they were, then society would have fixed itself long ago. When we start talking about only what we’re talking about, rather than talking about what we’re doing, then we get off track. In writing, the structure that we’re building takes the back seat, and indeed, things begin to appear structureless.

And so, I like writers who write about the Occupation best when they aren’t writing about the Occupation–for instance, when they are actually occupying. And yet, I love writers! I love writing. And most days, I make my Occupation by helping writers write, and urging them to so better and more often. So where does this leave me? I’m at the end of writing an op-ed about how one ought not to write about writing. If I knew what it was I was trying to achieve by writing this, I might say that I had succeeded. But alternately, if not being able to articulate exactly how one ought to write about the Occupation make a reader like yourself take me less seriously, then let me say this–let’s write more. The only way to Occupy better is to keep Occupying. I think that those of you that know what I mean, will understand what this means.

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  16 comments for “Writing About Horizontal Structure Becomes “Structureless” When We Write About It

  1. Vinay Gupta
    December 20, 2011 at 3:02 PM

    Hi. Did you read the “Tyrrany of Structurelessness” link in my essay? I think you’ll find the collection of observations from feminist activism really useful.

    Give it a read, then lets discuss Occupy.

    • OccupyPDXjacob
      December 20, 2011 at 4:35 PM

      It seems to me that Jo Freeman is talking about a very ordered unofficial hierarchy masquerading as an officially structureless group, while you are talking about no order, official or otherwise.

      The occupy movement is anything but small groups of people waving their hands.

      Give it some real attention, then let’s discuss it.

      • December 20, 2011 at 5:00 PM

        Firstly, I do not participate in consensus decision making for ethical reasons. I saw many people who’d been deeply emotionally scarred by a lifetime of consensus decision making in the commune movement. On reflection, I realized it was inevitable.

        Consensus personalizes the political. This is good. It also politicizes the personal. This is bad. Over time, it burns people out emotionally, because every aspect of life affects one’s ability to express and use political voice at the next consensus meeting. Think about that.

        I think that Jo’s points sound very, very much like a lot of the critique of Occupy coming from people inside of the movement, and they were written 40 years ago. Has so little been learned?

        And, yes, Occupy is small. Five thousand here and ten thousand there is still small groups. America is 300 million people, the European Union is, what, 500 million people. London’s about 10 million, New York about twice that.

        My political concerns are global, and local action does not reach all of them unless that local action is astonishingly disciplined and coordinated. Climate’s the obvious venue for that kind of concern, but there are others.

        Anyway, yes, I’ve been around the block and thought about this. The complaints in The Tyranny of Structurelessness sound a lot like the complaints I hear about Occupy.

        But, of course, if you haven’t been present at every occupy in the world, on every day, at every meeting, you may not have seen the things people are complaining about. As my friend Ella says, some things can only be experienced in first person plural.

        Good chatting, V>

        • OccupyPDXjacob
          December 22, 2011 at 1:34 PM

          i was going to come back here and apologize for my snide comment and see if we could get a real conversation going but it seems the trolls have gotten to you already.

          I’ll try anyway: first, sorry. that was rude of me and no better than a troll.

          you make a few interesting points, but the “going after” language bothers me. not that i fear an outsider, but that a stance of agressive attack doesn’t seem to me to be the best way to learn something about a(n attempt at) cooperative government. I’ve been reading the article that line came from, and this difference we’re having seems to be an example of this hyperreality thing we may or may not be involved in, as i understand it. that is, there isn’t one big truth we’re each going after, though we may think we are, but we’re (all of us, really) in a tug-of-war over the little truths of perception, and we’re really only playing parts in the dialectic between factions. at least, i know i play a part when i make myself public in this way.

          i’ve never known someone to be emotionally scarred by consensus. i don’t have the experience you have probably had with communality, but that does strike me strange. i mean, what about the scarring by dictatorial leadership? those fellows in the gulags could have had something to say to those scarred by radical democracy.

      • December 21, 2011 at 1:48 PM

        Anyone who is “going after Occupy” is either hostile to it or thinks they know better than it. The last thing we need is Monday morning quarterbacking. If he doesn’t like how things are done he needs to get in the trenches himself and show and prove that there is a better way. I share a lot of his criticisms myself but I’m not going to sit on the sidelines and wag my finger while the battle is raging.

  2. AlonK
    December 20, 2011 at 3:36 PM

    Occupywriters.org contains dozens of articles, poems, and essays, by well-known writers and by first-time writers. I read most of them and very few moved me, one being the short poem by Ann Waldman,

    Haiku from Zuccotti Park

    Moloch’s motor got stuck

    on the roof of Casino Wall Street

    look up! moon, a ghost chip in the sky…

    10/ 10/11 “Columbus” Day/Liberty Plaza

    Too much written is of the “I visited the park, spoke with a few people, wow!”
    Perhaps perspective and time are needed, or perhaps this is what is to be expected, because of so many people wanting change, and also because a culture (including that of the occupy movement) where everything is “awesome.”
    I too have contributed an article; hopefully I avoided some of the pitfalls you mention.

  3. Hart
    December 20, 2011 at 10:09 PM

    You did not address your own total lack of understanding of horizontal structure. I find it hard to believe you have spent much time at all participating in Occupy if you are this far out of touch with our tactics and decision making.

    • rothstei
      December 20, 2011 at 10:36 PM

      While I don’t think that Vinay is fully appreciating some of the real breakthroughs in horizontal structure at Occupy (in my personal experience) I don’t think it’s fair to portray his view as a “total lack of understanding of horizontal structure.” In fact, he has written many insightful things about just such a topic, which is why I wanted to use his example to highlight how the act of speaking about our “structure” in general leads to a misconception of the details of how we are actually making that structure. I think it is particularly poignant that someone like himself has missed important points. It would show this is not a problem of ignorance (I would hardly take up the argument, by extreme contrary example, that some horrendous neo-con is missing the details of our horizontal organization, as there is little constructive point in doing so). Instead, I think it is a serious epistemological and strategic issue with the Occupation, that we need to dig into.

      I would ask you to consider checking out some of Vinay’s written work (I might suggest you start here), if not his design, which also deals with very real problems that Occupiers are inherently interested in. It’s good stuff! I like engage in conversations with fellows and colleagues, not enemies. In general. 🙂

    • Vinay Gupta
      December 21, 2011 at 3:43 AM

      As noted, Occupy is large. You have seen as little of the whole as little I have. What percentage of occupy have you visited?

      • Hart
        December 21, 2011 at 12:17 PM

        Your assumption of what I’ve personally seen is as flawed as your understanding of what the word ‘structure’ means. I’d also encourage you to get involved more and write less, maybe then your words wouldn’t ring so hollow.

  4. December 21, 2011 at 11:07 AM

    I appreciate both points of view from the prospective of a learning being. Something I think we should all consider the Occupy Movement to deeply represent, as the ‘teacher has arrived’. I love the point of how we reflect on something as amorphous as this movement with a framework of structure lingering in our rear-view mirror. We have expectations built in about how society looks and feels, we have close proximity with the problems that it represents without the solutions for how to change it in a way that makes a difference, and I don’t see anyone to blame.

    Talking about Horizontalism often finds itself struggling to break through the conditions set in place in the “others” about us, but think about this. Occupy’s “structure” is to talk about this moment. That’s the core purpose of it, and we can do it to whatever level of comfort we share. The challenge, for society, is it threatens every structure in place and restores a natural state of being to an unpracticed audience. We are entirely unfamiliar with the theory, while the practice activates the embedded ancestral memory. It’s very difficult for any idea, especially one as off as Capitalism, to compete with the clarifying value of true, direct, communication.

    With a huge array of topics, it may seem like a lot to take in at first, but it’s the beginning and the possibilities from here are endless. Impossible to communicate if we consider the amount of issues worth discussing, and the possibilities we face as choices. Love it or hate it, Occupy has given the World a view of direct Democratic tools that we can utilize to shape our surroundings. This mechanism may not be ready for production, but it is being fine-tuned now, and has been for over for over 10 years in practice in Argentina, Egypt, Greece and Spain. It’s really not so much of a question about whether or not it works, but rather how can we shape it to fit the value of it’s worth.

    On a personal note, I agree Vinay when it comes to (hidden) hierarchies that form inside horizontal organizations. I’ve seen this a lot in the California Redwoods Movement to save the Headwaters Forest. There was always a silent sense of loyalty to agendas and cults of personalities that had obvious influences on groups or activity meetings. Noobs were ignored, it really made me feel uninterested in the whole thing. I am an Anarchist even when it comes to structure that reflects a Horizontal ideal while being practiced like a pillar. And how do we avoid the same trappings that came with, so called, Republic Democracy and Free Enterprise?

    My belief about it is that we should really operate as an autonomous collective of small groups that operate independently in support of their own members, that leadership is an action and not a person or group. One could easily say that that’s what it is now, and to a degree I concur, but I also have seen how the attachment to camping has slowed community growth and set a precedence of hanging out when there’s so much work to do if we as a species are to catch the fall of the economic system, that’s coming whether we like it or not.

    We need to be spreading out, facilitating Community Assemblies, meeting with our community face to face, door to door, and listening to the real 99%. Stop arguing with people about being right and focus on listening. Take the time to hear the grievances that are coming from the people we are supposed to be helping. Shutting down ports and stopping commuters is confusing people in the wrong way. If the same number of people would have spent the day canvassing neighborhoods in Oakland, talking to people and inviting them to small community assemblies, rather than shutting down the ports, who knows what would have been possible.

  5. December 21, 2011 at 3:23 PM

    Bottom line is read Tyranny of Structurelessness and learn from it.

    People are very prone to re-invent the wheel, with all of its problems. There are lessons we can learn from the past.

  6. Hart
    December 21, 2011 at 6:47 PM

    You claim that Occupy is too “large” to assert it is a movement with structure. Hmm, so in order to have simultaneous actions in cities across the entire planet making it impossible to be in all places at once, would that not then have to be some form of collaborative organization? Nope, not according to Vinay, we’re just one big mob that accidentally show up to the same place all at the same time. You make me laugh. The “tyranny” is not in the fluid, adaptable nature of Occupy, it is in those who knowingly make others suffer for their own greed. This is a movement in its infancy, we are seeing for the first time on a global scale a unification of numerous issues of social injustice being addressed by millions of activists connected in unprecedented ways. You cannot seriously say this has happened without thought, planning, and structure. Again, I encourage you to get involved instead of flame-waring from the side lines.

    • December 22, 2011 at 7:04 AM

      I asked a simple question: what percentage of the global Occupy have you seen. You answered a question with bluster, not with data.

      As for my opinion, it’s a lot more subtle, nuanced and (frankly) private than I’m willing to discuss at this point. I take Occupy *very* seriously, which is why it’s (obvious, particularly to participants) flaws bother me. If I thought you were irrelevant I’d ignore Occupy. If I thought you had this nailed, I’d be all-out in support of Occupy.

      I’m in a difficult third position: I think Occupy’s strengths are the strengths of our time, networks and cooperation and global-local interconnectedness. I think Occupy’s weaknesses are weaknesses of the past: consensus, which has never worked, rule-by-those-who-show-up which tends to privilege zealots with a lot of time to go to meetings (poorly correlated with actual competence) and (as always) problems with infiltration and agent provocateurs. That’s been a big issue in the UK, perhaps not at Occupy, but we’ve had several decade-long mole operations in the climate protest movement over here which are, bluntly, unacceptable.

      I’d like to see a renewal in opposition to the flaws in our global economic and political system. I’d like that opposition to be something creative, a better alternative, a New Way. I wish Occupy had the intellectual (and even spiritual) foundations to do that.

      I guess we’ll all see what the new year brings. My fear is that the worst of Occupy will expand beyond all recognition as the global economic problems worsen, and it’s best will be washed out in endless tirades. My hope is that real political positions will emerge, over time, putting a positive pressure on our global plight.

      Only time will tell. Good luck.

  7. Hart
    December 22, 2011 at 6:52 PM

    If you count them up, there are 12 sentences there that you started with the word ‘I’ or ‘My’. You are telling us everything about yourself and nothing about Occupy. Again, you can whine about what you’d “like” Occupy to be, or your can get off your ass and get involved.

  8. Frank White
    December 27, 2011 at 5:15 PM

    The gold standard of writing in a movement like occupy is very simple:

    Can a normal member of the 99% understand what the hell you are even talking about?

    You both fail

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