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Welcome! I am Jason Nguyen, a graduate student in ethnomusicology at Indiana University, Bloomington, and this blog is where I make observations about music, culture, and academic life.

Discursive and Material Effects of a Movement: OWS as a case study

Sometimes, I get really annoyed when people say a movement like “Occupy Wall Street” doesn’t have a purpose or its just the anarchic activities of a bunch of ne’er-do-wells. Perhaps it is those things, but that doesn’t mean that it has no political effect.

So, the point of this post is not to take a stand on the movement either way, but to articulate in clear terms, with supporting evidence, that a movement without an easily perceptible agenda can have both discursive and material effects on political activity in a nation.

Not having a single goal/spokesperson/agenda/policy prescription/etc.  is not the same as not having an effect. They’re occupying space, both literally and in the cognitive sense; consequently, we are thinking and doing different things because of it. Notice the effect on political discourse in the media:

[Graph: mentions of the phrase “income inequality” in the media over the past two months]

“Whatever the objectives of protesters involved in Occupy Wall Street, they have succeeded in engaging the country in a conversation about income inequality,” writes Dylan Byers at Ben Smith’s new and expanded blog. “A quick search of the news — including print articles, web stories and broadcast transcripts — via Nexis reveals a significant rise in the use of the term ‘income inequality,’ from less than 91 instances in the week before the occupation started to almost 500 instances last week.”

(Ezra Klein on his Washington Post blog)

There is a steady shift in the discourse. Heck, Paul Ryan is talking about income inequality.

And even if many in the general population see OWS as a group of kids sitting around instead of getting jobs, Wall Street and its lobbyists are taking notice. Those are the material effects:


A well-known Washington lobbying firm with links to the financial industry has proposed an $850,000 plan to take on Occupy Wall Street and politicians who might express sympathy for the protests, according to a memo obtained by the MSNBC program “Up w/ Chris Hayes.”

The proposal was written on the letterhead of the lobbying firm Clark Lytle Geduldig & Cranford and addressed to one of CLGC’s clients, the American Bankers Association.

CLGC’s memo proposes that the ABA pay CLGC $850,000 to conduct “opposition research” on Occupy Wall Street in order to construct “negative narratives” about the protests and allied politicians. The memo also asserts that Democratic victories in 2012 would be detrimental for Wall Street and targets specific races in which it says Wall Street would benefit by electing Republicans instead.

According to the memo, if Democrats embrace OWS, “This would mean more than just short-term political discomfort for Wall Street. … It has the potential to have very long-lasting political, policy and financial impacts on the companies in the center of the bullseye.”

(Jonathan Larsen and Ken Olshansky on the blog of Up with Chris Hayes)

I can totally understand why somebody would disagree with this movement. I get it, and we can have a really good conversation about it. But these people are making a difference–it might not be the difference that you want, but that doesn’t mean you can act like it’s a bunch of hippies doing nothing.

In short, it’s not anarchy or crazy nonsense. The evidence seems to show the opposite: slow, deliberate changes to the ways in which people around the country think about politics, economics, and society–and the subsequent anxieties of prevailing institutions that have a stake in paying attention to and arresting those changes.

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