When we look out at the sky at night, we’re also looking back into the past. The light from distant stars takes so long to reach us that we cannot really be sure that, in reality, they’re still there.
Although the myriad things that surround us on Earth – rocks and rose bushes and panda bears and grapevines and pigeons and people and rivers and grass and grasshoppers and bluebottles – are each much closer to us than the stars, there is also a sense that, in catching sight of them, we are seeing them as they were, not how they really are. There is a sense in which we are surrounded by ghosts.
A ghost species is one that, while its members might seem plentiful today, has already accumulated an extinction debt. Extinction debt is a term ecologists use to describe the unavoidable future demise of a species – or a large percentage thereof – due to events in the past. So we are haunted, by the ghosts of orangutans, black rhino, Rufous-headed hornbills, blunt chaff flowers, candelabra trees and a million other species we do not yet even know. May never know.
Even if the struggle to preserve these species was not massively impeded by corporate and state hegemony over the natural world, even if we could shut down all the logging trucks and feedlots and coal-fired power plants and tar sands operations tomorrow, even if every single car was removed from the road, these accumulated debts must still be paid. For many species, countless billions of living beings, it is simply too late already.
To fully comprehend this is to be struck by a profound sense of hopelessness, coupled with dread. If we cannot tell ghost from living being then how many other species might be haunting us. Are butterflies still real? African elephants? Bonobo chimps? Us?
The night sky suddenly seems a whole lot darker.
We also harvest ghosts, both in time and space. Ghost acreage – millions of years of accumulated decayed matter transformed into fossil fuel along with millions of acres of still-fertile land in the poor but resource-rich areas of the world – has given us an entirely false sense of the sustenance available to us. And so there is a phantom carrying capacity that haunts us too – a vast, amorphous emptiness that we seem almost compelled to try to fill, not recognizing that it expands in direct relation to our hubris. Like a housing bubble.
And the bubble continues to expand, past fundamental planetary boundaries: stratospheric ozone, land use change, freshwater use, ocean acidification, aerosol loading and chemical pollution, climate change, biological diversity and nitrogen and phosphorus inputs to the biosphere and oceans. We have already overstepped the last three, and all the boundaries are deeply connected.
There is also one other thing that haunts us. Something that gives rise to all these other ghosts. We are haunted by possibility.
In some ways this is the curse our species carries: to be aware of not only the immediacy of the material world around us but also of the intensive flows and processes underlying this world; of the possible connections we might make between things in order to create something new; of the infinite becomings we can set in motion. As human beings, then, we see not just the actual world but also an intensive world of lava flows and climactic variations and social unfoldings and extinction debts, and also a virtual world, consisting in the real possibilities embedded within each thing, each being, each connection.
It can be exhilarating to think of the world in this way – to be imbued with this creative power of affect. Lately, however, we have largely forgotten how to be affected. We have learned to change the world without in turn being changed by it. And when we stop being changed by the world, our creative capacities are stifled and stratified. We begin entrench one set of pathways of change between us and the world and assume that this is the full range of possibility. As these pathways become more regulated, we define structures and systems and regulatory mechanisms, and to support them we construct abstractions – complex philosophies and tortuous justifications; finally, in our artifice and confusion, we cede our power to all these.
The singular capacities we each have to create, to change, are sublimated into an acquiescence to the power held over us by abstractions. By Capitalism. By the State. By progress. By the dominator myth of humanity ruling over the natural world.
As we learn to become subservient to power; as through discipline and control we become its loyal subjects, we also reproduce our relation to it in our engagements with everything and everyone around us. Where there is difference between us, we turn it on its side to form hierarchies – between genders, between races, between species, and we are forced by the structures we form part of into hierarchies: of class, of ability, of belonging.
But what if these structures, even these highly elaborate, seemingly infinitely extended loci of power, were themselves little more than particularly enduring hallucinations? Perhaps there is always an outside, always an excess of creative power and power cannot help but produce its own resistance, its own lines of flight away from the overcoding and axiomatizing of the whole of society and towards the open field of possibility. Even other animals resist. Even gorillas have taken up rocks against encroaching humans. Even elephants have liberated captured buck under cover of night. The history of power and control is then also a history of resistance.
Throughout this history, resistance has taken countless forms and delineated routes of escape across all scales: mass uprisings against the injustices of the current order, personal refusal, utopian poetry, the carving out of small niches of temporary autonomy, the creation of unprecedented artforms, the mapping out of subterranean liberatory networks, struggles for recognition by those lower down on the hierarchy, the pulling up of GM crops, the smashing of automated looms and the torching of bulldozers by the elves in the forest.
And, most recently, occupation.
From the eclectic nature of participants, whose sheer diversity of age, race, class, gender and opinion undermines everyday notions of what ought to constitute affinity, right through to the prefigurative, leaderless ethic that seems to emerge so naturally in the interactions of all those who engage it, Occupy remains a conundrum for anyone who insists on describing it in the language of left or right, social democratic or neoliberal, socialist or capitalist, reformist or revolutionary. It is a fundamental challenge to the hegemony – the very reality – of these a priori terms and categories, a call to extend the range of social and political possibilities beyond arbitrarily imposed limitations.
As Noam Chomsky observes, “the smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”
So to occupy is not to fall in line with a party line. It is not to have ideological unity. It is not just subcultural. It is not born of privilege. To occupy is to resist. To resist the life that has been set out before us, to resist the dull alienation of the spectacle, to resist this culture of separation, specialisation, compartmentalisation, domestication. It is to enter, however tentatively, the field of possibilities that for some of us haunts our waking moments more and more.
To occupy is a defiant act of togetherness. It is not based on the logic of calculation and acquisitiveness. It does not share the ends of the dominator culture. It is not an act of submission. It is solidarity. It is a coming together. It is an invocation of the intensive flows and processes underlying the actual, a destabilization of the current regime, a shift away from equilibrium through which we might catch sight of the virtual.
To occupy, then, is, like all the very best forms of resistance, to confront headlong the crisis of imagination between what is and what could be. As Murray Bookchin says, “the assumption that what currently exists must necessarily exist is the acid that corrodes all visionary thinking.” To truly resist is to challenge this assumption. It is to subvert the paradigm of representative democracy, of capitalist relations, of forced participation in our own oppression. To question the legitimacy of the institutions that stand in for us. To deny their hegemony. To no longer countenance the injustice of representation.
At their very best, when they are aimed in the direction of what could be instead of pandering to what is, occupations and other forms of resistance turn hierarchies back on their side in order to acknowledge the productive differences between us; to see what emerges from their intersection. They allow us to explore the creative tensions between what is and what could be. Resistance, occupation, is solidarity. Mutual aid. Voluntary relations. Equality. Freedom. A reclamation of our personal power. Anarchy.
We can now begin to get a sense of why so many people from so many walks of life have, for all its faults and limitations, come to feel so deeply, viscerally connected to Occupy: it is a recreation of the real community we have all but lost, a powerful reminder of our shared being, our togetherness on this fragile planet. It is a call to join in a vital conversation about where we – as individuals, as communities, as a species and as one small but highly consequential part of a once-thriving, now severely threatened bio-community – should go from here.
Or, as the Chilean poet Jesús Sepúlveda puts it, it is the planting of the first seeds in our cultivation of a garden of peculiarities. Whatever grows out of occupation, or whatever new forms of resistance arise, we should all heed this call to cultivation, whether we choose to plant in the full light of day or illuminated only by the ancient light of distant stars.
I will end with a quote from Sepúlveda:
“The garden of peculiarities is a project of humanity. Its visualization consists of realizing the peculiarity of nature. If the original consciousness grew as a result of the recognition of its own death, liberating consciousness will grow as a result of the recognition of its own peculiarity. Life as we conceive of it today will not be erased from the planet as long as we don’t give respite to the empire of “sameness.” The point is to learn to live in the planetary garden without control or authority. And if life is a voyage, it is necessary to let ourselves be carried along with the river’s current without imposing a control to stop it. The current of the river is the current of nature. The social current, standardizing and “mediocratic,” is the electricity of control. To continue in this vein is to die of stress, alienation, anxiety, insanity, hunger, exploitation, repression, and misery. In order to run the rapids it is necessary to learn to live.
When one follows the silvery movement of each tumultuous and savage drop of water, one is creating contact with the rhythm of the natural world. To follow this cadence, avoiding the rocks is a wise act. To fall from the raft is evidence of discomfort. This discomfort is the incompatibility between control and life. Control engenders fear and impedes life. It unleashes paranoia. Life, on the other hand, offers beauty and ingenuity as its native fruits. It depends on us to bite the apple and to learn to dream.
The voyage to the garden of peculiarities is one without return. To listen to the murmuring of civilization, once on the correct path, is to fall into the trap of fear. It means losing one’s way, because the only exit is the escape hatch to the highway that leads to the asphalt of standardization. And while every creature needs a dwelling, it need not be made of concrete. The true human lair can be a cabin in the forest that together with other cabins forms a community of peculiarities. Or it can be a neighborhood that tears up the pavement of idiocy and isolation while leaving one or two routes among other neighborhoods. Each constellation of peculiarities will be a kind of commune that guarantees the horizontal autonomy of each community. Only in this way can hierarchy be abolished. And as social practice between social beings, ritual festivities and community celebration will be an integral part of the strategy to combat accumulation. In this way, all surplus that will eventually be created will be enjoyed as a part of the collective carnival.
The garden of peculiarities is a wager made for the conservation of the environment and the survival of the human race. There intuition should light the way. Not being sidetracked depends on us. There is only one path that leads to the heart of life.”