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Stanford humanities scholars consider the cultural legacy of the Occupy movement

Through an examination of art, language and literature, Stanford humanities professors reveal how the Occupy movement left its mark on activism, art and language.

L.A. Cicero Paul Ehrlich leading a teach-in discussion

The new book grew out of a 2011 campus-wide teach-in on Occupy by Stanford students and professors including biologist Paul Ehrlich, shown here leading a teach-in discussion on "Equity and the Environment."

Fiery protests and long-term encampments shot the Occupy Movement to the front pages in 2011. For months, cries of the 99% percent dominated the headlines and the airwaves.

Fast-forward two years and the movement has all but disappeared from the national conversation. While some would argue that Occupy did little to reverse economic inequality in America, Stanford scholars from fields as diverse as philosophy, education, English and theater studies make the case that we have much to learn from its efforts.

For these humanists, Occupy has given us new ways to see inequality through its slogan of the 99%, its street art and its non-violent tactics. The idea of "occupying" public spaces to reclaim them for public purposes, the scholars assert, has invigorated the arts and focused scholarly attention on understanding inequality.

Typically, critical discussion of Occupy – foremost a political and economic activist movement – has been the domain of social scientists, op-ed columnists and TV pundits. But in Occupy the Future, a new collection of essays that tackles the movement from a multitude of angles, humanities scholars join the ranks.

The book has a pre-history. What started as a campus-wide teach-in on Occupy by Stanford professors and students became a series of essays in the Boston Review, before MIT Press chose to publish the collection as part of its estimable Boston Review Books series.

Debra Satz, a professor of philosophy at Stanford, was among the faculty who initiated the first teach-in. Now one of the Occupy the Future editors, Satz emphasized the significance of a humanistic perspective in such a collection.

"Arts and the humanities are very powerful ways of giving us entry into worlds we might not see," said Satz. "Literature and the arts have portrayed the extremes of poverty and wealth in ways that have helped us to empathize with the lives of different people."

Thus, while Occupy the Future features social scientists like Nobel Prize-winning economist Ken Arrow and scientists such as Paul Ehrlich, pieces from Professors Jennifer Brody (Theater and Performance Studies), Michele Elam (English), David Palumbo-Liu (Comparative Literature) and H. Samy Alim (Education) round out the book's perspectives. The collection argues that a phenomenon as complex as Occupy needs to be understood through a wide range of disciplines.

As Satz puts it, "The issues Occupy raised were as much moral questions, about who we are, as they were budgetary questions, about what we spend our money on." In her eyes, leaving the humanities out of a discussion on Occupy would be leaving out a "key part of the human condition."

Documenting the revolutionary power of creative expression

So how does theater, for instance, intersect with Occupy? Brody, makes it plain: "Performance studies focuses on multiple forms of doing – including carnivals, street protests, happenings and parades. The fact that the Occupy movement happened on the streets and commons placed it in the purview of performance studies."

Brody and Elam wrote their article, "Occupy Your Imagination," to argue that Occupy catalyzed a resurgence of political art unseen since the countercultural apex of the 1960s, "reviving the idea of art as necessity for an engaged citizenry." Brody and Elam see a re-politicization of art in the past few years as directly linked to the influence of Occupy. "The oeuvre of Occupy embodies the idea that art is activism," they write, reaffirming the revolutionary possibilities of imagination and creative expression.

As Elam said, art produced in and inspired by Occupy galvanized a shift in our collective perception and valuation of art. "Much of my scholarship," Elam said, "and many of my classes deal with this issue: art as a vehicle for social change, not simply as propaganda but as a subtler form of shaping how we perceive people, issues and the world more generally." And what defines "art," under her rubric, is strikingly broad.

Take an Internet meme – the University of California-Davis police officer who blithely pepper sprayed a student, which was then Photoshopped into classic works of art, including Picasso's Guernica. Seeing more significance in this online humor than most, Brody and Elam trace Guernica's lineage as protest art from its 1937 inception through its appropriation by the Art Workers Coalition in the 1970s. For Elam, then, "Some of the early protests were not simply against Wall Street but, more broadly, the economics of art: who has the means to make art, to buy art, to showcase art, to see art, even to assess as 'art.'"

For David Palumbo-Liu, whose work focuses on literature and identity, Occupy issued a similarly edifice-shaking challenge to academia. In his article, "Thinking Big," he writes that Occupy has served to illustrate "the interconnectedness of politics, industry, technology and changes in social and individual life."

How can academia "think big"? Palumbo-Liu offers his discipline as an example. In writing his piece, he said, "I was struck by issues of inequality, and how literature is best to present both the hard empirical data and the human significance of that data. It tells stories of how inequality affects people's live and regard for others." Literature couples the "what" of inequality to a "who," giving a human voice to the graphs and flowcharts that make up most investigations of inequality.

If Occupy has shaken up the status quo of art and scholarship, then education and anthropology specialist H. Samy Alim offers another insight into the movement's legacy – its subtle impact on the way we communicate. "What If We Occupied Language?" is his central question. The answer: Our framing of key issues could change drastically.

Alim argues that Occupy has caused us to examine the power of the language we use, to realize that "words can move entire nations of people – even the world – to action." Words and phrases like "inequality" and the "ninety-nine percent" clearly affected the rhetoric of President Obama, who called economic disparity "the defining issue of our time" in his 2012 State of the Union address.

"Occupying language," then, may manifest real change. Take Alim's analysis of the term "illegal" to refer to undocumented immigrants: "Pejorative, discriminatory language can have real-life consequences. In this case, activists worry about the coincidence of the rise in the use of the term 'illegals' and the spike in hate crimes against all Latinos." Earlier this month, the Associated Press announced it had updated its stylebook to say the word "illegal" may be used to refer only to an action, not a person.

Nate Sloan is a doctoral candidate in musicology at Stanford. For more news about the humanities at Stanford, visit the Human Experience.

Media Contact

Corrie Goldman, director of humanities communication: (650) 724-8156, corrieg@stanford.edu