Protest, postmodern style

Occupy MovementThe Occupy Wall Street movement is the West’s first brush with protest, postmodern style. Eventually, it’ll be known simply as the “Occupy Movement,” because the energy behind it goes far beyond what Wall Street represents.

The protest is confusing a lot of people but especially the media assigned to cover it. This is because the press doesn’t understand postmodernism and is trying to frame the narrative in hierarchical terms. Who’s the leader? Once that’s determined, then we can start studying her or him, followed by the lieutenants. It’s a quest to find holes in their beliefs or theories. What’s their cause? Once we can determine that, then we can begin to construct the reasonableness of their protest. And so it goes.

This is the way we’ve always done it. However, we’ve only come face-to-face with hierarchical movements in the past, and this is very, very anti-hierarchy. It will continue to baffle the hierarchical press until a new press comes along, so that we can observe and say, “Oh, THAT’S what they meant.”

My social and media commentary and philosophy has always been bathed in the belief that the Web offers a second Gutenberg moment, in that, like the printing press, the Internet moves knowledge from the élite to the masses. I’ve argued that the age of modernism, with its beaming, bean-counting industrial processes, is coming to a close and that postmodernism, with its emphasis on shared knowledge and responsibility is taking its place. One doesn’t supplant the other as much as it just modifies it. When the modern era birthed, for example, it didn’t destroy the faith-based premodern era; it simply modified it. So it is today.

Premodernism: “I believe, therefore I understand.”
Modernism: “I think and reason, therefore I understand.”
Postmodernism: “I experience or participate, therefore I understand.”

In my view, postmodernism is held together by, among others, the following principles, the combination of which seems entirely chaotic to the modernist mind.

  • Modernists view the world as posed, while postmodernists (pomos) see the world in collages.
  • Modernists share a universal faith in logic and science. Postmodernists see the realism of limitations.
  • Words like purpose, design and hierarchy are modernist, while postmodernists would rather use play, chance and anarchy.
  • Pomos don’t completely reject logic, but their own experiences tell them that order isn’t over all, and they passionately despise what they see as the inherent and self-serving elitism of hierarchy.
  • Modernists view much of life of life at arm’s length. Postmodernists experience it as participatory. Life is not “out there” to pomos; rather, it is all around us — something that we can have as little or as much of as we choose.
  • One of the most defining differences is with God, where the modernist would first see God, the Father. The postmodernist would see God, the Holy Spirit. God, the Father, represents distant authority, which pomos reject, while God, the Holy Spirit, is among us, something we can experience for ourselves.
  • For the modernist, the parts logically make up the whole, but the pomo views the whole as greater than the parts.
  • The basic unit of modernist culture is the family. For postmodernists, it’s the tribe.

It is the chaotic view of this that leads to problems covering it for a press that is very much modernist. I’ve often pointed to Alcoholics Anonymous as the prototypical postmodern organization. A study of its traditions reveals that there really is no organization in the hierarchical sense; it’s simply people helping other people by following a path that has worked for others before them. There is no orthodoxy, no set of rules, and no governing body. Nobody speaks for it, so personalities can’t conflict with its principles. Just as this gives freedom to those seeking its help, it also gives freedom to those who seek to criticize its inevitable human failings. The criticism, however, is always a fight without an opponent. The dynamics of the Occupy Movement are very similar. They’re protesting, because protesting works, but the organization of this one is nonexistent, at least for now (Here’s a tip: if this changes, it’s no longer the Occupy Movement.).

We have a bunch of angry people gathering to protest what? The status quo? Wall Street? What Wall Street stands for? The economy? The failings of the public and private sectors? Dissatisfaction with the direction in which we’re headed? The gap between the haves and have-nots? The failure of American dream? How about political correctness, lies from every direction, a power structure that’s beaming transparent BS to those from without, corruption, a crumbling infrastructure, joblessness, prices of everything, rot and decay from within, and a future with no future?

This is a postmodern revolt, and it’s too big to be pigeonholed, for pigeonholes can be controlled. What does it want? It wants something different. What’s that? Who knows?

My advice to reporters attempting to cover this as it spreads from community to community is to dismiss any attempts by people to speak on its behalf as self-serving manipulations for attention. Look around you and talk to everyday people. Tell their stories. If anybody claiming to represent the group tries to explain what they want, take it with a grain of salt and skepticism, because the person speaking has a particular axe to grind or cause to represent.

Who’s complaining? Everybody. What are they complaining about? Everything. The single unifying factor is a deep belief that we can do anything, climb any mountain, solve any problem, if we only work together.

One final prediction: this is a whole lot bigger than it appears, and its impact will be wholesale change. It may even get violent, for the status quo will not step aside without complaint. Remember that we’re all networked together today, and that’s what’s really different about our world. It mitigates old concerns and raises new ones, but it is, for sure, different.

If I were younger, I’d be in New York.


  1. when’s kent state?

  2. So, isn’t postmodernism kind of like, anarchism? And if it does succeed in toppling elements of the existing order, won’t some new plan (order) have to replace it? Won’t that be the “new modern”? Or do you suggest that postmodern social organization (or lack thereof) is a viable operating system (in the sense of providing food, shelter, comforts of life) for a planet that has just recently topped 7B in aggregate population?

    You’ve done a good job of showing how postmodernism may be getting traction on subverting the existing order (I’m not so sure but it’s a good argument). Not to clear though on what comes next?

  3. Ron, if I knew that, it wouldn’t be postmodern. It would be ordered and known. Modernity, for all its inventions, is very process-driven, so it’s natural we should be asking the process questions. The truth is nobody knows, and if they say they do, they’re missing the bigger point. Will there be new hierarchies? I mean, somebody has to be “in charge,” right? I just don’t know, but if we let the defeatist inclinations of an enormous task stand in the way, we’re simply going to miss a creative opportunity. Vision is what we need. The processes will follow.

    The difference between anarchism and postmodernism, to me, is that anarchism is historically pejorative, and postmodernism is unknown. Hyperconnectivity is what’s new, and we can’t dismiss that by pigeon-holing this as just a bunch of anarchists running around demanding license. As I noted in the piece, AA seems anarchistic on the surface, but it is held together by the wants and needs of the individual members. Its governor, therefore, is internal, not external. Can the network get there? I don’t know, but it would be a very different world, if we could.

    It’s going to be an interesting ride.

  4. Ron above asked my first question so I’ll go to my 2nd.

    re this — “One of the most defining differences is with God, where the modernist would first see God, the Father. The postmodernist would see God, the Holy Spirit. God, the Father, represents distant authority, which pomos reject, while God, the Holy Spirit, is among us, something we can experience for ourselves.”

    The bigger Pentecostal movement began in the early 1900s. So this aspect you describe was likely going on before the pomo movement began. I guess my question is — in this case — did religion (or religious experience) lead a movement or is it still following along behind, or as you infer — missing in action?

  5. Vince, as far as I know, Pentecostals view the spirit as one of three manifestations of God, so I’m not sure the Pentecostal movement is relevant to the discussion. It’s an interesting thought, though. In addition, many people use the phrase “post Christian” as a substitute for postmodernism, although the reference is more towards the culture as a whole as opposed to “post religion.” The idea that God is present with us allows the pomo to experience God in a way other than as presiding over some distant throne, distant both in terms of time and space and distant in terms of unreachable without help, usually provided by the various hieracharies of the church.


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