Academia and #OWS: An open thread

There have been a couple of good posts online about the links between anthropology and the Occupy Wall Street protests. See, in particular, these links:

As many of these posts make a lot of David Graeber’s contribution, I also recommend reading Aaron Bady’s post “Intellectual Roots of Wall St. Protest Lie in Academe” where Graeber responds to the attempts by the Chronicle of Higher Education to paint him as a “leader” of a leaderless movement.

Anyway, reading all this I was thinking back to how important universities were to the protest movements of the 60s, and the few “teach ins” I attended as an observer during the buildup to the US invasion of Afghanistan, and I was wondering if there weren’t more stories to be told here? What’s happening on college campuses in the US? Are there teach ins about economic inequality? Is #OWS affecting class discussion? Research topics? Campus politics? Consider this an open thread on the links between #OWS and academia.


9 thoughts on “Academia and #OWS: An open thread

  1. There has been some discussion of the movement in my classes. In my international relations class the sentiment seems to be that without a focus the movement will not make a difference, I have argued that with a focus the movement loses it’s point. (I made this point on my blog and would be willing to copy and paste some of that argument in to these comments if people were interested in reading my take on it.)

    In other classes there has been less talk of it which is nice to one extent and disappointing to another. Even as an undergrad I try to sit in on graduate colloquiums and again I’m not hearing too much.

  2. Thanks for this. I have been following the various online threads on OWS with interest and David’s contributions are definitely very important.

    I would like to draw attention, though, to the work of other anthropologists researching the global “indignados” movements. I am a little startled, I have to admit, at the centripetalisation of all analyses around OWS. As interesting and important as OWS no doubt is, I dare say that much of its infrastructural, organisational, digital and urban public moments resonates with, e.g., the earlier movements in Spain and in Madrid in particular.

    John Postill has been studying and documenting much of what happened and is still happening in Barcelona ( Along with my colleague Adolfo Estalella, we have been carrying out ethnographic work on Madrid’s original #acampadasol ( and the popular and neighbourhood assemblies that developed thereof.

    The movements have a specificity that anthropologists, of all people, should be keen to pay attention to. And in the spirit of taking a little provocative position, I would want to suggest that some of the most creative activist and political strategies may be taking place far from Wall Street.

  3. OWS has definitely had an impact on college campuses. I am a student at Ohio State, and we have witnessed the growth of an on-campus Occupy, centered around our quad (‘The Oval’), which will be held this coming Monday. Its going to involve a teach-in, a number of different speakers (including possibly John Carlos.. yes the John Carlos), as well as a number of issue specific activities related to our campus (opposition to attempts to begin privatization of what is currently a public university). I’ve been using my ethnographic training to study the Occupy Columbus and Occupy the Oval movements and writing about it in our progressive student newspaper at OSU ‘The Pulse’. I’d be interested in hearing how OWS has affected grassroots organizing on other campuses.

  4. Thank you, Kerim, for starting an open thread on this and for the link to my post. I’ve been working from the comments on my earlier post and trying to incorporate things Daniel Lende challenged me to do. I’ve begun another kind of open thread, the first draft of a manifesto. (Do manifestos have first drafts? Are we allowed to use that word?) I would invite people to read and comment. I’ll also check back here to hopefully incorporate revisions and ideas. Thanks!

    Anthropology, Moral Optimism, and Capitalism: A Four-Field Manifesto

  5. One of my favorite quotes from Jason’s latest post (which he linked to above): “When powerful financiers, politicians, and economists tell billions of humans that they should adopt the market as sole social regulator, anthropologists are well placed to show that what is presented as a logical necessity is actually a choice” (Trouillot in Global Transformations, 138).

  6. From John McCreery’s post over at the OAC:

    “How should we think of social justice. Here I turn to Amartya Sen, who in Inequality Reexamined observes that all economic arrangements present themselves as fair. The critical difference is the units in which “fair” is calculated, units of capital (US dollars or stock shares, for example) or human lives. If units of capital is the measure, it is fair that larger stockholders have a bigger say in how organizations are run than those with fewer shares. It is fair that the wealthy control the government. They literally own more of it. If human lives is the measure, these arrangements are not fair.”


  7. I do hope that these protests, and the movement they represent in the face of inequality and concentration of power, can become something more linked in a global way, the same way that global capital and institutional power have gone global. But in many ways, all politics is local, so there is that side as well.

    I asked my Bio Anthro class – the one that inspired me to write about the protests and inequality and human biology in the Why We Protest essay – whether they had talked about the economic crisis and the protests in other college classes. Very few students raised their hands. Very few students also knew about how much inequality there actually is in the United States, most viewing the US as better off or average in this area compared to other places.

    I do think academia doesn’t always connect to the real world issues students are facing, and will face, and that raises questions for me about what universities do as institutions. What counts as basic education and how to connect a vast and important research/scholarly enterprise with core social, artistic and science issues in society have been on my mind since last week.

    Anthropology seems to be one of the few areas where these types of discussions do come up, both online and in the classroom, it seems to me. And for me, that means that anthropology is one of the few disciplines with the institutional history and present engagement to imagine and to effect new ways of doing what we do, from the university to our local politics to global institutions.

  8. Since some years parts of my ever-repeating rants circle around what I like to call the “cyberpunk discourse”. The gist is my conviction that this global transmedial portfolio constitutes a dominant discourse inspiring and influencing all kinds of sociocultural phenomena.
    On a more ethnographical and tangible level I naturally was delighted when Anonymous from the beginning on chose the Guy-Fawkes mask as a prominent trademark, because I was able to rant about the influence of 1980s British cyberpunk.
    I am similarly delighted by the #OWS phenomenon, as it already features standard elements of a cyberpunk plot. We e.g. have the violation of civil rights, police brutality documented by the grass-roots use of smartphones and then unveiled to the world via an exuberantly growing mesh of information brought online. Here we have cyberpunk’s core theme: the ambivalence of technology. Technology not exclusively serves “the establishment” as a means of suppression and social control, but may well empower and emancipate the underdogs.
    My delight went straight through the ceiling when Guy Fawkes crept up at #OWS again and again. So like a mole I dug through a ton of online pictures of the various manifestations of #OWS (not very systematically and hence not at all representative) all over the world, and got the impression that the Guy-Fawkes mask most prominently is featured in pictures taken and distributed by media professionals like the big news agencies, newspapers, BBC, and so on.
    Now here’s my suspicion: The Guy-Fawkes mask as a symbol is far more popular with the media industry than with the protesters themselves. In other words: traditional mass media coverage needs and craves for symbols with the quality of a logo transporting “corporate identity.” If a symbol of that ilk is not readily at hand, the media may well construct it by selection and subsequent emphasis.
    That’s all very speculative and rests on frail legs, may well be completely wrong, but it haunts me.

  9. Jason and others, I don’t mean to be morally pessimistic, but has David Graeber read Kojin Karatani’s book Transcritique? So much of the Occupy Wall Street movement appears to be mobilizing folks to imagine alternatives. But according to Karatani, alternatives are part and parcel of capital’s success. On the other hand, in Debt Graeber conceives money as something quite different from Karatani’s definition, which focuses more on speculation than on debt. I would love to get them on a panel together to trade ideas.

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