In the current issue of Philosophy and Rhetoric, Kelly Happe has an interesting paper interpreting Occupy Wall Street (or at least the Zuccotti Park component) as an example of cynical parrhesia. In a time when all expression is always already co-opted by neoliberal capital as a source of surplus value (this point has been canvassed extensively by the autonomist Marxists as “complete subsumption,” and I’m going to take it for granted here. I summarize it here in my discussion of Hardt and Negri’s Empire), it becomes hard to know what kind of speech would count as protest. Anyone who has seen the branding of Che Guevera T-Shirts has some idea what the problem is. It’s also one that has been very difficult to address; in Empire, for example, which lays out the problem quite clearly, we are offered the somewhat discouraging example of Coetzee’s Michael K, a character who drops out and nearly starves to death in caves.
Happe’s move is to suggest that Occupy succeeds in avoiding cooption by way of its rejection of politically expressive speech. As she puts it, “what is striking is the time and space devoted to the material culture and everyday life of public, communal living. Indeed, in the various accounts of the Zuccotti moment of Occupy, the radical imagination is inseparable from the otherwise unremarkable practices of day-to-day living in an encampment” (214). That is, it is in the rejection of symbolic and explicitly “political” speech that Occupy evades neoliberal cooption. Such speech, she proposes, is a good example of the sort of ethical parrhesia that Foucault recounts in the ancient Cynics. For the Cynics, it is precisely the extent to which their speech is unintelligible to politics that makes it radical, suspends its subsumption into the political apparatus, and presents the contingency of a new way of life. Happe writes: