American Studies and Occupy Wall Street

Since September 17, a large group of protesters has been convening in New York City’s Zuccotti Park in the Wall Street district to express their dissatisfaction with America’s financial system, corporate greed, and economic inequality.  Similar protests have sprung up in hundreds of cities worldwide (Austin included, naturally). Because these protests have been so widespread, we’re likely seeing the birth of a lasting social movement, one that will potentially have substantial political consequences. This is an important moment.


These protests – their methods, their demographic composition, their ongoing presence in cities all over the world  – are ripe for exploration from the vantage point of American Studies. With such methodological fluidity, we can consider both personal narratives and stories from protesters and quantitative data about their political proclivities. We can consider both artistic expressions of protest and the intellectual foundations of opposition. Essentially, we can explore the protest through an endless variety of forms, more so than any other field.

It comes as no surprise then, that several of our own faculty members have weighed in on the protests in various forums. For the Austin American-Statesman, Janet Davis describes how these protests might be representative of a more permanent social movement. In The Daily Texan, Randy Lewis offers a fascinating discussion of the use of art and satire in protest movements, drawing comparisons between Occupy Sesame Street and the Situationists.

#Occupy Sesame Street

Yet traditional written analysis might be insufficient in communicating the lived experience of these protests. This, of course, is no new issue within the scholarly tradition: how does a journal article or a book treat a passionate but ultimately ephemeral moment, an event steeped in the experiential? The big methodological tent of American Studies means we can lean away from typical scholarly analysis towards more creative forms of expression with more fluidity than might a more traditional field. Randy Lewis, for example, recorded the sounds of the first day of the Occupy Austin protest, and in doing so, more readily captures the visceral fervor of the event:

Ultimately, all of these approaches enable telling comprehensive stories.

We might also consider how American Studies might not simply analyze and document the Occupy Wall Street protests, but also how we participate – intentionally or not. Some protesters in New York have been using academic material strategically: Tales from Little Rebels, a collection of radical children’s literature edited by Julia Mickenberg and Philip Nel, has been circulating within Occupy Wall Street as an instructive source for defying authority. That tactic has raised some eyebrows, and Philip Nel weighs in here.

Taking a broader glance at the movement, American Studies as a field may stand to gain from the changes that many of these protesters are hoping for. In the face of slashed education budgets and attacks on the nature of liberal arts education itself, we might naturally share concerns about a nation defined by skewed economic priorities and a tendency to view education as a means to a well-paying career, rather than as a valuable end in itself. The environment that the protesters critique has not always been hospitable to American Studies, nor to higher education.

So, last weekend, the Council of the American Studies Association released an official statement in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement, emphasizing those attacks on higher education and how the work of the field dovetails with the protests:

We are the public. We are workers.  We are the 99%.  We speak with the people here in Baltimore and around the globe occupying plazas, parks, and squares in opposition to failed austerity programs, to oligarchy, and to the unequal distribution of wealth and power.  The loss of jobs, healthcare, and homes, the distressing use of mass incarceration and mass deportations, and the destruction of environments have brought so many households and individuals to crisis. We join with people re-claiming commons rights to public resources.  We join in the call against privatization and for a democratic re-awakening.

As educators, we experience the dismantling of public education, rising tuition, unsustainable student debt, and the assault on every dimension of education.  As American Studies scholars, our work includes, among other things, addressing the problems and challenges societies face, drawing lessons from the past, comparing across polities, and making informed recommendations that will spark open debate.  We draw inspiration from earlier social movements that have challenged the unequal distribution of power, wealth, and authority. Today’s movements continue this necessary work. The uprisings compel us to lift our voices and dedicate our effort to realizing the democratic aspirations for an equitable and habitable world.  We are the 99%.

So where does this leave us? American Studies, thanks to its broad focus and interdisciplinarity, is able to engage with Occupy Wall Street in ways that other fields might not. We can wear the hat of the analytic scholar, the documentarian, the artist, the participant, the supporter. And, by engaging with Occupy Wall Street in so many ways, we are better positioned to interrogate the meanings of the movement – and, by extension, its value.

3 comments on “American Studies and Occupy Wall Street

  1. grant b says:

    I feel like there needs to be some kind of mandatory occupy (anywhere) involvement for all AMS students.

  2. […] augmented eyes of “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. Wall Street Isn’t Winning – It’s Cheating. American Studies and Occupy Wall Street. How Does Occupy Wall Street Speak To A Broken Education System? A Manifesto. […]

  3. Julia Mickenberg says:

    This is a very thoughtful meditation on the question of how students and scholars of American Studies can engage with contemporary protests and the issues that motivate those protests. Well done!

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