This past weekend, while in New York City I walked through Zuccotti Park, the birthplace of Occupy Wall Street. I couldn’t help but notice the new notice that was clearly much more recently installed than the earlier weathered notice beside it.
Rather than the simple, familiar text of “No Skateboarding, Rollerblading, or Bicycling Allowed in the Park”—one that leaves all other activities open to public interpretation—the new text reads with the detailed care of a legal document. The notice clarifies that the park is private property and can only be used for “passive recreation.”
While it does leave open the definition of exactly what this passive recreation might be, the list of prohibitions tell an interesting story of the results of the protests held there in the fall of 2011—protests which still find an echo in the events going on right now in Hong Kong. In the name of “safety and enjoyment of everyone” there will clearly be no more “occupying.”
This past week I finished reading Saskia Sassen’s new book Expulsions. While I was disappointed with parts of the book (which I hope to detail in a brief review at some point soon), her image of the logic of expulsion was in my mind as I considered the notice in Zuccotti Park. The space of the park is no longer one that can be the site of activities open to a wide variety of public interpretation. The space has been expelled—”removed” from the map of possible sites for specific kinds of public gatherings. It has been expelled from formerly diverse interpretations in which it had been experienced by park goers and is now cordoned off exclusively for leisure.
The space of the park is no longer one that can be the site of activities open to a wide variety of public interpretation. The space has been expelled—”removed” from the map of possible sites for specific kinds of public gatherings. It has been expelled from formerly diverse interpretations in which it had been experienced by park goers and is now cordoned off exclusively for leisure.
An aspect of Sassen’s analysis that I find most promising and at the same time most unsatisfying is her observation that material instances of expulsion across states are signs of what she calls “conceptually subterranean trends” that may be “systematically akin” to one another. They are, in other words, related in ways that have yet to be adequately theorized. This observation acknowledges the feelings we have of the striking similarity of activities going on across states and cultures, and yet I was disappointed that Sassen could only conclude that our current categories for understanding these trends do not make their connections visible in ways that we can find meaningful. Basically we know they are connected—we feel their similarity—but cannot apprehend the connections at this moment because we cannot recognize them.
Yet, this is the feeling I had while in Zuccotti Park.
How is the expulsion of Zucotti’s Parkspace from the diversity of activities that New Yorkers might site there any different than the expulsion, say, of Tiananmen Square from the diversity of activities that Beijingers once used it for in the 1980s? I can’t see how in any substantial way it isn’t.
I could only think how a sign in Chinese, similar to that posted in Zuccotti Park, posted in downtown Beijing might be read by the American media. Certainly when the Chinese government does something—say forcibly end a protest—in the name of “peace and stability” it is read cross culturally and translinguiscally askance.
Were a sign like this posted, it would certainly be read as the artifact of a single party state exerting its governing pressure on its population. Yet why isn’t a similar sign exhorting the population of NYC to “passively recreate only” not read in a similar way? It is as if the categories of culture and language and history provide a ready-made explanation for how things must be different.
Then I considered the similar signs that are, or soon will be prepared, printed and no doubt posted by the appropriate authorities in Hong Kong. They will be, and we know it.