“Move along; there’s nothing to see here” (or, some Rancière-inspired thoughts on the current “Occupy” protests)

Rancière’s teacher (with whom, you’ll recall, he broke after 1968 rebellions) Louis Althusser is famous for arguing that social practices and ideologies create a particular form of subjectivity. For Althusser, the paradigmatic example of this is when the police officer shouts at a man on the street “Hey, you there!” This moment is what Althusser calls “interpellation,” or the process by which an ideological apparatus stamps or shapes someone into a proper subject. When the policeman hails me (or interpellates me), I know that I am being hailed and called to respond.

Rancière alters Althusser’s basic formula. If, for Althusser, the paradigmatic moment of the police occurs when the officer calls out to me and I recognize myself as the subject of that call, then for Rancière the paradigmatic moment of the police occurs with another phrase: “move along; there’s nothing to see here.” In this phrase, we might note, the core relationship between the police and its subjects is reversed. Althusser focuses attention on the ways in which “the police order” (in Rancière’s sense) “stamps” us (“Help! Help! I’m being interpellated!”). Rancière, by contrast, is interested in the ways in which people morph and transform the police order–in how they stage rights that the order denies that they have–and in how the police order often attempts to resist such transformations: sometimes by ignoring them (as in the “move long, there’s nothing to see here” response) or by transforming the political disagreement into a meaningless clash of violence and power (as when they engage in violent crackdowns).

With these reflections in mind, I give you two videos from the recent “Occupy” protests. The first occurred in New York and depicts a Marine staging a protest against the NYPD’s crackdown on the protests:

The second depicts a much more chilling event, about which I will write more later, at the University of California at Davis (I call it chilling because it is perhaps all too easy for me to see my own students in these events). In this incident, the UC-D police have been ordered to clear the quad of protesters. The outcome of these efforts can be seen below:

The two videos, to my  mind illustrate much of what Rancière has to say about how the police try to fight against a political disagreement. The first video depicts the core logic of a political disagreement. The Marine is shaming the police for attacking unarmed protesters, and in doing so, he is also staging the basic disagreement: he is declaring that the protesters have a right to protest. And in response, the police almost explicitly deny the existence of the disagreement, practically begging everyone involved to “move along,” to ignore the disagreement or to treat it as irrelevant and uninteresting. The strategy in the second video appears to be the same, but in this case, the whole effort breaks down. To eliminate the disagreement, the police simply retreat.

The other thing to note is that in both cases the police met unarmed and non-violent protesters with violence. Interestingly, the protesters met this violence with continued non-violent resistance. The result is almost a kind of shame in which the police have no response: confronted with a determined effort to insist that there is a political disagreement at stake–and not merely a violent clash of powers–the police have nothing more to do than try to end the scene altogether. In the first video, they try to get the protesters to move along and stop staging the dispute. In the second, they withdraw themselves. But in both cases, there is a palpable sense of not knowing what to do. And this, it seems to me, is precisely the evidence that a political disagreement might be emerging.

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