Ontology and #OccupySF
by Adam Robbert
On September 29th I did a little bit of amateur ethnography during what we might call an #OccupySF demonstration on Market Street in downtown San Francisco. The protest was peaceful and well organized (the organizing group even had volunteers wearing neon orange vests to help the crowd navigate the streets safely). In my estimation a stubborn – and crucial – problem shows itself here: how does one actually protest against a transnational corporation? Surely the folks down at the local Chase bank which the protestors were rallied around aren’t responsible for the global financial crisis (I didn’t get the impression that anyone at the demonstration believed that either). Nevertheless this was the location the group chose to rally around – an expression of their disapproval of the corporate heads lurking behind the Chase Corporation. I was able to snap a few pictures of the event:
This one shows the central rallying point of the demonstration, within which I estimate there were around 250 people in total:
And this one, not two blocks down the street, goes to show just how many people would be needed in order to really get the city of San Francisco’s attention (let alone the federal government’s). Outside of the demonstration’s small epicenter, the city barely takes notice of anything happening at all:
I don’t highlight this short-coming to disparage the demonstrators in anyway. Rather, I want to call attention to 1) how San Francisco, as the supposedly liberal-left city it is, hasn’t seemed to match its east coast counterparts in New York just yet and 2) that there is a strange philosophical problem lurking here. Specifically, I was struck by the strange ontological problem presented by this situation. A transnational corporation is a massively distributed, interconnected entity that operates via billions of transactions between humans, materials, laws, weapons, thousands of other species, and neoliberal ideologies (in OOO parlance, a corporation is a “hyperobject”). Where, then, does such an entity actually “exist” in our everyday notions of space and time? How do humans, or groups of humans, address such an entity? I see this as an ontological problem insofar as the structures of society (and I mean this literally in the sense, of roads, common areas, buildings, city districts, and the like) limit acts of “public” demonstration to physical locations (like the Chase bank of the protest). Yet there is an important sense in which a transnational corporation exists in space-time in a way different than a protest happening in a public location.
My question is then an open-ended one, meant more to inspire further thinking and action than to produce a single answer. How do you effect something that is there, but not really there? A corporation is a concrete part of experience, i.e., it is an objectively real entity, and yet, the corporation cannot be found in one’s direct experience (though many of its effects can and are) – its too big, too distributed. Its a little bit like trying to see with your own eyes the birth of a solar system – the timescales are just too long for any one human to observe. In this context I think a return to thinking ontology and metaphysics (particularly OOO – and perhaps even more specifically, Levi Bryant’s studious attention to social structure and justice) are arriving just in time. We need a concrete political ontology now more than ever, just as we need more demonstrators, activists, and policy makers to further the ever-increasing problems of ecological and social justice.
San Francisco, I know you can do better than this. Show me what your made of.