In his Times column this morning, David Carr wonders about the future of the Occupy Wall Street movement and, specifically, its fate as an ongoing topic of mass-media conversation. “Occupy Wall Street left many all revved up with no place to go,” he writes. Which is a problem, traditional-press-coverage wise, because: “In addition to the 5 W’s — who, what, when, where and why — the media are obsessed with a sixth: what’s next? Occupy Wall Street, for all its appeal as a story, is very hard to roll forward.”
That could be true (though “very hard,” of course, is quite different from “impossible”). And it could also be true that the features that may give Occupy, potentially, enduring power as a movement — its malleability, its permissiveness, its ability to act as an interface as well as an event — might also be the forces that, day to day, challenge its ability to convene attention. Particularly at the level of the mass culture.
It’s worth returning, for a moment, to the idea of trending topics algorithms, which reward discrete events over ongoing movements, favoring spikes over steadiness, effectively punishing trends that build, gradually, over time. (Which is to say: effectively punishing the notion of a “movement” itself.) This bias toward the spiky over the sticky is a defining feature, as well, of the daily workings of the traditional media (and of their great organizational mechanism, the Epiphanator): Occupy’s much-discussed lack of a singular identity has been not only kind of the whole point, but also, to some extent, the result of the way the movement has been mediated by a press that tends to reward newness over endurance. Occupy’s story — like all stories of ongoing political movements that are told by traditional producers of daily journalism — has been told episodically, in staccato rhythms that emphasize explosive ruptures in expectation. (“Expectation,” of course, being defined by the Epiphanator itself.) Occupy is, like so many other movements, subject to “the tyranny of recency.”
But that may well have just changed. This weekend, a series of photographs — images of a riot-gear-wearing cop shooting a group of students in the face with pepper spray — made their transition from journalistic documents to sources of outrage to, soon enough, Official Internet Meme. Perhaps the most iconic image (taken by UC Davis student Brian Nguyen, and shown at top) isn’t explicitly political; instead, it captures a moment of violence and resistance in almost allegoric dimensions: the solidarity of the students versus the singularity of the cop in question, Lt. Pike; their steely resolve versus his sauntering nonchalance; the panic of the observers, gathered chorus-like and open-mouthed at the edges of the frame. The human figures here are layered, classified, distant from each other: cops, protestors, observers, each occupying distinct spaces — physical, psychical, moral — within the image’s landscape.
As James Fallows put it, “You don’t have to idealize everything about them or the Occupy movement to recognize this as a moral drama that the protestors clearly won.”
Exactly. The image — and its subsequent meme-ification — marked the moment when the Occupy movement expanded its purview: It moved beyond its concern with economic justice to espouse, simply, justice. It became as much about inequality as a kind of Platonic concern as it is about income inequality as a practical one. It became, in other words, something more than a political movement.
The image itself, I think — as a singular artifact that took different shapes — contributed to that transition, in large part because the photo’s narrative is built into its imagery. It depicts not just a scene, but a story. It requires of viewers very little background knowledge; even more significantly, it requires of them very few political convictions, save for the blanket assumption that justice, somehow, means fairness. The human drama the photo lays bare — the powerless being exploited by the powerful — has a universality that makes its particularities (geographical location, political context) all but irrelevant. There’s video of the scene, too, and it is horrific in its own way — but it’s the still image, so easily readable, so easily Photoshoppable, that’s become the overnight icon. It’s the image that offers, in trending topic terms, a spike — a rupture, an irregularity, a breach of normalcy. It’s the image that demands, in trending topic terms, attention.