This is a simple, powerful talk by Judith Butler at OWS, calling upon the classic "very well then, we demand the impossible" trope, and ending with the wonderful line, "we're standing here together, making democracy, enacting the phrase, 'We the People'."
And here's the text of a longer talk by Butler in Venice about constituting political space while acknowledging the material precarity of bodies, developed alongside a critical analysis of Arendt's notion of a political "space of appearance." The overall aim is set forth here, I believe:
a different social ontology would have to start from the presumption that there is a shared condition of precarity that situates our political lives.
A brief excerpt from the beginning of the talk sets out some of the main lines of thought:
assembly and speech reconfigure the materiality of public space, and produce, or reproduce, the public character of that material environment. And when crowds move outside the square, to the side street or the back alley, to the neighborhoods where streets are not yet paved, then something more happens. At such a moment, politics is no longer defined as the exclusive business of public sphere distinct from a private one, but it crosses that line again and again, bringing attention to the way that politics is already in the home, or on the street, or in the neighborhood, or indeed in those virtual spaces that are unbound by the architecture of the public square....
But in the case of public assemblies, we see quite clearly not only that there is a struggle over what will be public space, but a struggle as well over those basic ways in which we are, as bodies, supported in the world – a struggle against disenfranchisement, effacement, and abandonment.
I'd like to add something here about the way the human microphone works, quite literally, to amplify the constitution of political space by assembled bodies. The human microphone offers an entry into examining political affect in the enacting of the phrase "We the People" at OWS. It shows us how direct democracy is enacted by producing an intermodal resonance among the semantic, pragmatic, and affective dimensions of collective action.
The upshot of this research is that humans fall into collective rhythms easily and that such collective rhythms produce an affective experience, a feeling of being together, an eros or ecstasis if you want to use classical terms, the characteristic joy of being together felt in collective action.
So I wonder if the human microphone, an invention of the OWS assembly when NYC banned electric bullhorns, doesn't contribute a little to the joful collective affect of OWS. (Needless to say, the prospect that the human microphone might aid in the production of such collective joy frightens the right-wing commenters.) It's not quite a choir, but it's a chorus, and so the bodies of the chanters (their chests, guts, throats, eardrums) would be vibrating at something close to the same frequency, something close to being in phase.
Now I'm not a reductionist; the semantic cannot be reduced to the corporeal; the message isn't dissolved into the medium. What interests me is how in the human microphone the message (enact the phrase "We the People") is resonant with and amplified by the medium (collective rhythm). In her Venice talk Butler analyzes the Tahrir Square chant translated as "peacefully, peacefully" in these terms:
Secondly, when up against violent attack or extreme threats, many people chanted the word "silmiyya" which comes from the root verb (salima) which means to be safe and sound, unharmed, unimpaired, intact, safe, and secure; but also, to be unobjectionable, blameless, faultless; and yet also, to be certain, established, clearly proven. The term comes from the noun "silm" which means "peace" but also, interchangeably and significantly, "the religion of Islam." One variant of the term is “Hubb as-silm” which is Arabic for "pacifism." Most usually, the chanting of “Silmiyya” comes across as a gentle exhortation: “peaceful, peaceful.” Although the revolution was for the most part non-violent, it was not necessarily led by a principled opposition to violence. Rather, the collective chant was a way of encouraging people to resist the mimetic pull of military aggression – and the aggression of the gangs – by keeping in mind the larger goal – radical democratic change. To be swept into a violent exchange of the moment was to lose the patience needed to realize the revolution. What interests me here is the chant, the way in which language worked not to incite an action, but to restrain one. A restraint in the name of an emerging community of equals whose primary way of doing politics would not be violence.
This is an insightful, eloquent analysis of the pragmatics and semantics of the chant. So it's not to undercut it that I call attention to the material dimension of the resonating bodies that accompany the semantic content and pragmatic implications of this chant. It's to point to the way in which an analysis of material rhythms reveals the political affect of joyous collectivity, and the inter-modal (semantic, pragmatic, affective) resonance such chanting produces.
So I'm going to propose that a full enactment of direct democracy means producing a body politic whose semantic ("we are the people, we are equal, free, and deserving of respect in our precarity and solidarity"), pragmatic (the act of respecting and supporting each other the assembly performs), and affective (the joy felt in collective action) registers resonate in spiraling, intermodal feedback.