Feral Dissent
By: Matthew Battles | Categories: Browbeating, Codebreaking, Kudos, Most Visited

I’m coming to my understanding of the Occupy Wall Street moment by a confessedly retrograde avenue: namely, the low-middlebrow rantings of NPR sports commentator Frank Deford, who recently fretted about the broadening of an idiom that signal to him a “guyification” of everyday life —

How did everyone become guys? Remember, too, that a male guy was something of a scoundrel. And a wise guy was a fresh kid, a whippersnapper. In its most other famous evocation, men in Brooklyn said “youse guys.” Damon Runyon referred to hustlers, gamblers and other nefarious types as guys….

Understand, I have nothing against women becoming guys, too. I’m just tired of everything being guy-ish. Now we’re all just … guys. All guys are created equal. God is a guy now. Your father is just another guy. So is your mother. Guys, start your engines. Happy Valentines, my guy. A pretty guy is like a melody. We’re all the same guys under the skin.

Deford ends his complaint with a classically-styled curmodgeonly plea: “Yo dude, let’s stop guying.”

Listening to Deford’s complaint, my instinct was to roll my eyes. Yet another paean to language lost, I thought; yet another bitch-slap from the angel of history. And yet I reconsidered. For something about this “guyness” does seem diminishing. It’s not merely that we’re free to be ourselves; we’re fairly commanded to be Our Selves: to be restricted to them, limited to them, cordoned off and held captive in, of, and by ourselves. It’s a subtle and ubiquitous system of solitary confinement, the uncanny opposite of a panopticon (and to say that we’ve built it ourselves only perpetuates our captivity).

I caught a clearer strain of such concern a bit later in the day when I revisited “The Coming Insurrection,” an anonymously-penned tract taken as the manifesto of the riots in the Paris banlieue riots of Fall 2005—

“I AM WHAT I AM.” Never has domination found such an innocent-sounding slogan. …It is at the same time the most voracious consumer and, paradoxically, the most productive self, the one that will most eagerly and energetically throw itself into the slightest project, only to return later to its original larval state….“I AM WHAT I AM,” then, is not simply a lie, a simple advertising campaign, but a military campaign, a war cry directed against everything that exists between beings, against everything that circulates indistinctly, everything that invisibly links them, everything that prevents complete desolation, against everything that makes us exist….

The excerpt of the “Coming Insurrection” above instances a Reebok ad campaign that ran in 2005-06, in which various athletes extol the virtues of relying on the self, believing in the self, perfecting the self — not in the old Emersonian sense of self-realization (an ideology already fraught with its own troublesome entrancements), but with the goal of being Number One. The raised forefinger, I’m beginning to think, will one day be understood as our era’s contribution to the vocabulary of gestural obscenity.

What have we done with our richly-intersecting borders? No longer is there any productive stratification, no longer any limit to scry between the edge of the body and the totality of global media. Fear of immigration; fear of socialized medicine; fear of not being famous — we find ourselves with alone with our fears, stripped bare on the darkling plain of transmodernity. Add the ever-growing fear of pandemic, and even the body’s cordons are thrown down — and in this abyss, in the nothingness, we finally learn to be our nakedness.

It’s in this context that the “guyification” Deford talks about ceases being an object of curmudgeonly complaint, taking on a more sinister cast. The criminal quality of guyness he instances is the key: through the second half of the twentieth century, the culture increasingly resorted to images of outlawry, the last bastion of effective liberty. It’s a tale told much better elsewhere than I can admit here. The culture saw its quarry hiding in thuggery, and relentlessly sought it there, turning the trappings of criminality into quatschy fun for people of all ages. Not everyone took up the look and feel in full, but the resonances leaked out adequately enough into everyday life. It’s the key to our predicament that John Berger elucidated in his recent essay in Guernica, proclaiming that “across the planet we are living in a prison.”

This is what the Occupy Wall Street moment seems to speak to: a desperate seeking for the lock on this cage of ever-improving selfness. It’s an early sign of a prison break; the cans are rattling against the bars.

Here I want to observe that the terms of resistance defined in “the Coming Insurrection” are distinctly feral in nature; among their advices, they recommend the following tactics:

¶Create territories. Multiply zones of opacity.
¶Travel. Open our own lines of communication.
¶Flee visibility. Turn anonymity into an offensive position (“No leader, no demands, no organization, but words, gestures, complicities. To be socially nothing is not a humiliating condition, the source of some tragic lack of recognition — from whom do we seek recognition? — but is on the contrary the condition for maximum freedom of action.”)

Feral habits offered in handy, outline form!

Isn’t it clear that “protest” as such — with its cordoned-off “free-speech zones,” its imprimatur-laden marches, its ritual handcuffings — has been fully domesticated? Power meanwhile pursues its nutriment elsewhere; indeed it has long ferally flown the coop, seeking its fluid and furtive ways in the stratospheric habitats of global finance and the tanks of neoliberal consensus. Anonymity, cunning, and incomprehension — these are the ways not of the protester, but the dissident, the feral creature of totalitarian ecosystems pre-1989. Now we, too, are beginning to discern the necessity of such habits of dissent.

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ALSO SEE: Rushkoff vs. the 1% (1) | Tactical Utopia | Feral Dissent | Don’t Mourn, Organize | Occupying Our Gardens | Grand Theft Politics | The Black Iron Prison | News about the Wage Slave’s Glossary

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Matthew Battles, Hilobrow's cofounder, has written about language, history, and the natural world for many publications. When he makes poems, he puts them here. A fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, he's also the author of Library, An Unquiet History.