Occupy Wall Street is, on one important level, a movement of signs. I mean this quite literally. Handmade signs with witty epigrams, pithy epithets, and heartfelt emotions took root in Zuccotti Park and blossomed on the web. The signs are not simply the old-fashioned placards of protests past. Rather, the signs proliferated in large measure specifically so they could be photographed, uploaded, and disseminated on the World Wide Web. In many ways, Occupy Wall Street communicated its message through photographs of signs.
Pictures of signs, like the one below, tell human stories of average, hard-working Americans who have been upended by the Great Recession.
In the war of signs, pictures of military veterans occupy a privileged role. The military protester shows, in an image, that the anger, despair, and hope that the Occupy Movement represents is not limited to entitled young hipsters. The signs were, quite often, expressions of the average American, the soldier and the homeowner, who had been devastated by economic hardship. The implication is that these individuals lived honorably, played by the rules, and are suddenly in dire straits as a result of a financial crisis.
I first encountered one such iconic picture on Facebook. It shows an older man telling a sad story. This cheerful, gray-haired, bespectacled Navy Veteran and schoolteacher clad in his oxford shirt neatly pressed under a burgundy sweater is undoubtedly one of the poster-children of Occupy Wall Street. His story is common and sad. He has served his country and taught our children. And now his pension doesn’t allow him the means to live with dignity.
Older individuals, like soldiers and children, hold a special place in the iconography of the Occupy Movement. They bespeak a kind of innocence and vulnerability. They are hard working and have paid their dues. All they want is what is fair and right. As a Navy veteran and a teacher, this man’s simple sign expresses American ideals, and their betrayal. He did the right thing and hoped for a comfortable retirement in his own home, with annual vacations and visits to the grandchildren. Is this too much to hope for? The claim here is, he followed the rules and he got steamrolled.
Not long after this sign and thousands of others like it zipped around the web on Tumblr and Facebook, another sign appeared, as if to answer this veteran’s lament and other sad stories of foreclosed homeowners and indebted students. This sign claims to be from a student (not pictured and thus questionable), but one who played by the rules in another sense.
I wrote more about these signs here and here. Both signs appeal to a basic ideal of fairness. But fairness means different things to each. The first sign sees fairness as a kind of social contract. If I work hard and play by the rules, I should be guaranteed a certain standard of living and insured against catastrophe. Especially when the well off in society, those whose freedoms I fought for and whose children I taught, were bailed out by my tax dollars.
The second announces a different view of fairness as individual responsibility. Life is not fair and no one should expect a handout. Playing by the rules means living within your means, not taking out mortgages you can’t afford or student loans that will saddle you with debt. Working hard is not enough, but you must also be thrifty and responsible. If you do decide to take risks or live beyond your means, that is your choice, but don’t expect me to feel sorry for you if you fail.
The argument between two notions of responsibility that these competing signs take up is an important one. It goes to the heart of our ideas of personal responsibility, individualism, community, entitlement, and empathy. I have written at length about Occupy Wall Street here and here. But what does it mean that this conversation about who we are and what our country should be is happening through pictures of signs on the Internet?
Occupy Wall Street began with an image, created and disseminated by Adbusters, a Canadian media and anti-advertising group. A charging bull, iconic to the world of finance, gracefully ridden by a female dancer, in front of a surging crowd wearing gas masks and brandishing batons. Smoke fills the air. It is an image of revolution; but what does the revolution call for? Dance? The power of grace and beauty over brawn? Escape from unrestrained capitalism and a return to more spiritual values?
Undoubtedly the victory of the gracefulness of spirit over the aggression of calculation is one metaphorical text of the image. So too is the power of the people; the mob, which rages behind both the ballerina and the bull. Unresolved is whether the mob stands with the ballerina or the bull, or whether its fury threatens both.
The image of the ballerina and the bull is a political call, but one issued through images and metaphors. Our economy and our politics are like the bull—uncontrolled, wild, and in need of a spiritual master. Such metaphorical thinking is at the very root of both political and metaphysical thinking for it carries over the thinking of everyday reality into a higher and more truthful state. A metaphor—literally a carrying over as its Greek etymology suggests—elevates thinking from the mundane to the speculative, and thus energizes everyday thinking through the power of ideas.
Immanuel Kant once described a despotic state as a “mere machine”—a hand grinder—because both are governed by an absolute individual will that can make mince meat of the individuals under their grip. Kant offered the hand grinder as an example of a successful metaphor—an image that shows a “perfect resemblance of two relations between two totally dissimilar things.”
Hannah Arendt discusses Kant’s use of the metaphor in her book The Life of the Mind. She quotes there as well from Ernest Fenollosa, in an essay originally published by Ezra Pound:
Metaphor is … the very substance of poetry”; without it, “there would have been no bridge whereby to cross from the minor truth of the seen to the major truth of the unseen.”
For Arendt thought images are unavoidable in thinking and speaking, for we cannot approach any concept or idea without in some way employing an analogy or metaphor from our lived and daily experience. We have no entry into the temple of truth except through the passageways of metaphor and symbolic thought. We cannot even recognize a dog as a dog or God as God without an idea or concept of “dog” or of “God” that themselves are metaphorical or analogical ideas taken from our experience of the world. Friendship, too, Arendt writes, must originally be thought in images and metaphors, as the Chinese do for whom the character for friendship shows an image of two united hands.
As Arendt writes:
[The Chinese] think in images and not in words. And this thinking in images always remains “concrete” and cannot be discursive, traveling through an ordered train of thought, nor can it give account of itself (logon didonai); the answer to the typically Socratic question ‘What is friendship?’ is visibly present and evident in the emblem of two united hands, and “the emblem liberates a whole stream of pictorial representations” through plausible associations by which images are joined together.
Arendt’s point is that Chinese and other pictorial languages offer direct version of the kinds of metaphorical thinking that must attend to all languages, even purely alphabetical languages like those in the West. Even our language depends upon the images and analogies of metaphors to carry our thought beyond the everyday to the deeper level of significance and meaning, on which both philosophy and politics might build a publicly accessible and shared common world.
That thinking happens in images is, Arendt writes, “fascinating and disquieting.” It is disquieting because it puts into question the priority of language and reason that so defines the tradition of Western thought—the demand for rational justification in philosophy and politics that is so central to the rationalist foundations of modern society in a scientific age. For rational justification can happen only in words whereas higher truths are accessible only through metaphors and images.
The priority of images over words is the reason that Arendt remains one of the most poetic thinkers in the modern canon. She is uniquely aware throughout all her writing that
“poetry,” when read aloud, “will affect the hearer optically; he will not stick to the word he hears but to the sign he remembers and with it to the sights to which the sign clearly points.”
I spoke about this coincidence of thinking, seeing, and acting with the great dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones in 2010. For Bill T., the effort in his dance “Floating the Tongue” is to enact the process of taking something invisible and internal and bringing it to appear on the stage and in the world. In Arendt’s words, the effort of poetic language must be to bridge “the gulf between the realm of the invisible and the world of appearances.”
Political thinking, too, has much to learn from poetry and metaphor. “Politics,” writes Hannah Arendt, “deals with the coexistence and association of different men.” As we live with others, we human beings aim at freedom—the freedom to be an individual and also the freedom to build a common world together. For Arendt, politics is the activity through which a plurality of human beings constitute themselves as a people, a unity of differences. The political actor is he or she who acts and speaks in such a way as to show the different people around him the common truths that bind them together as a people. It is because politics must employ metaphors and images that build a foundation for a new and public space for freedom to flourish that politics also demands a public space where citizens can meet, speak, and act in public.
A great virtue of the Occupy Wall Street and also the Tea Party movements have been the return of signs, images, and symbols to political discourse. Even the written text on the signs that now carom around the web can only be read within the images that provide their poetry; images of the rich and poor, elderly and young, military and civilian. Politics, it seems, is leaving behind the rationalist fantasy that if we just all talk about the issues, we will come to some kind of sensible agreement.
For this reason, the Hannah Arendt Center has partnered with Visualize Conversation in an experiment; to ask how and in what ways political images can spur a public discussion. We have created a new kind of website, Visualize Conversation , dedicated to the visual images that are defining the political world. The site is being launched around the images that have come to characterize the Occupy Movement. Soon, we will begin to focus on imagery that relates to the 2012 Presidential election as well as other national issues.
On this website you are invited to respond to these images with both words and other images, to share the images, and to debate about them with others. It may be fun, but it is also, in part, an opportunity to think about and create the images and metaphors that very well might engage and re-enliven our politics.