Contentious Subjects: Non/violence as Topic and Trope in the Occupy Movement

Meckfessel, Shon. Contentious Subjects: Non/violence as Topic and Trope in the Occupy Movement. 2014. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.

Why was there such heated disagreement within the Occupy movement around the word nonviolence, and why was this disagreement so generationally marked? Why were the social movements in the 2011 global wave of unrest so suddenly disruptive, even violent, almost always involving riots? What does this have to teach us about the rhetorical power of embodied, contentious rhetorics, and what does it tell us about the characteristics of movements to come?

Social movements are faced with exigencies under neoliberalism to which they often respond differently than the large-scale demonstrations of previous eras: a) protesting counterpublics often make their appeals immediately and intensively rather than extensively through mass media, b) challenging the status quo more in terms of power (in its aspects of agency, capacity, and possibility) than in claims of justice, and c) often do so in part by performing antagonism with existing institutions of enforcement: namely, police. Nonviolence discourse is inconsistent with the rhetorical strategies best suited to these conditions, although in its "strategic" rather than "principled" variants, it shares more in common with them than is usually thought: strategies, social processes enacted, goals, and the aversion to inflicting injury to bodies. Rioting has proved central to recent movements because it is exemplary (though not exclusive) of how such strategies are enacted, and bears out in condensed form their logic: necessarily embodied and risky in the discursive action of transgressing previous semiotic systems, articulating new contentious subjects through physically confronting old foci of power. Like the more confrontational aspects of the Occupy movement, future movements are likely to perform power in similar ways, fostering a complementarity of diverse, innovative approaches, broaching semiotic expectations, and not relying on the categories of victimhood and innocence which have proven central to previous generations of social movement rhetoric.

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