OWS, Discourse, and Narratives

One of the fascinating things about the nascent movement on Wall Street and elsewhere is the attempt by various groups to characterize and to some extent normalize it through devices of discourse and narrative.     

Media outlets prefer clean and concise narratives.  In terms of substance, they want to be able to report on the specific, concrete demands of a group or movement.  The OWS demonstrations have obviously been frustrating in that regard.  In the absence of a concrete slogan or message (and sometimes despite one),  the media tend to resort to a bias in favor of conflict reporting.  They focus on confrontation with police, or highlight fringe elements in the group.  There has been plenty of this kind or reporting, and fake reporting (e.g., The Daily Show), concerning the OWS demonstrations.  Many pundits and commentators have offered serious proposals in terms of potential OWS agenda items.  The political right and left have their own narratives.  As the New York Times put it:  “The take on the right is that Occupy Wall Street is the same old riffraff of leftist anarchists, unlike the grass-roots conservative Tea Party; seen from the left, it’s an authentic uprising against the huge income disparity in America and a call for redistributing the wealth.”  The comparison to the Tea Party was inevitable.  Although each protest movement is unique, many seek to make sense of new movements by referring to movements of the recent, and even distant, past.  Historical narratives can be somewhat helpful in terms of situating and understanding new movements.     

Constitutional law professors have their own preferred discourse with respect to social movements.  As I discussed in my last post, Jack Balkin has suggested that the OWS demonstrations could be framed as a constitutionally-inspired movement.  Whether the roots are in the Guarantee Clause, as Balkin suggests, or the Preamble, which I offered as a plausible list of OWS concerns, engaging in this sort of discourse may be something of an occupational hazard.  Of course, Balkin and I may genuinely think we see a connection to the Constitution in the OWS protests.  However, the truth is that this is a convenient and familar discourse for constitutional scholars.  It allows us to talk about OWS in a way that makes sense to us, in a language rooted in constitutional text and expertise.  As Paul Horwitz and others have observed, however, focusing on constitutional dicourse and pressing this kind of narrative on the OWS movement may not be wise or particularly healthy in terms of public discourse.  As the Tea Party’s success has demonstrated, rooting a movement in the Constitution provides a structure for arguments and a narrative that many find attractive.  However, not all movements are about the Constitution.  Not all protests make substantive constitutional claims.  

The basic desire to understand and frame the OWS demonstrations is perfectly understandable.  This is how people generally tend to make sense of seemingly unique phenomena — by comparing them to similar phenomena, or situating them in a familiar narrative or discourse.  Perhaps, though, we ought simply to give this potential movement, like others, the necessary breathing space to channel its anger and resentment into a coherent set of political and social (and perhaps constitutional) claims.  This requires someting ubiquitous media and the blogosphere make extremely difficult — namely, the patience to allow the protesters to engage in speech, peaceable assembly, and petition and to listen through the clatter that attends public protests to their specific complaints.  At this point, no one knows which narrative best fits this movement — or even whether it will eventually become a movement.  There may be kernels of truth to the media narratives, the left/right narratives, and the constitutional discourse.  We ought to listen to OWS supporters’ complaints, to gauge their frustration and the extent to which it is shared by other Americans, and to try to understand the implications of their grievances.  As the Times put it:  “When a cold Washington [or New York] winter arrives, most of these tents are likely to fold up. It’s not as likely that the sentiments will disappear.”     


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5 Responses

  1. Paul Horwitz says:

    An excellent post, Tim. I would add only one thing, which I think is mostly there in your post already. As you say, it is a natural human tendency to situate phenomena in a narrative or discourse. That leads me to want to emphasize two points. First, it would be a mistake for readers of your post to conclude that efforts by the media and others to “characterize and to some extent normalize[OWS] through devices of discourse and narrative” is either unusual or demonstrative of some pernicious intent. Explanation is a part of reporting, and we always make sense of things through discourse and narrative. One hardly need conclude, as some seem wont to do, that there is something shady or malicious in the media’s actions. Of course, one can disagree with what believes is an incorrect narrative or discourse frame on the media’s part, but one needn’t believe the media is up to something malicious just because one disagrees with it. It begs pointing out that, inchoate as OWS may be at times, its supporters, organizers, and participants, and not just its critics or opponents, are also always imposing frames of narrative and discourse on it. Others on this blog have written fulsomely in support of OWS; they, too, are engaged in imposing a narrative on the protests. It is simply an inevitable feature of human life. I understand your belief that it might be best to give OWS the breathing space to come up with its own narrative; but if and when it does, we should approach that narrative with skepticism too. If one believes that all narratives are about power, surely that is true of whatever narrative the OWS will come up with too.

    Second, if I am right in saying that the urge to come up with narratives, discourses, and other frames to attempt to understand social phenomena is an inevitable human phenomenon, then I am not sure that your breathing space proposal quite works. There are certainly good reasons to argue for it, but we might want to think about it a little differently. Against our urge to come up with narrative frames to explain the world, we can recommend that we all display a little patience and humility, and try not to reach our own conclusions or impose our own narratives too quickly on a developing event. That makes sense to me. But that we will, to some extent, continue to try to do so seems inevitable.

  2. Ha! Of course those who want to “characterize” and “normalize” OWS are frustrated–that’s part of the point.

    The two best articles I have read on what OWS is about are Gary Kamiya’s fascinating Salon piece, “Original Mad Men,” and Bernard Harcourt’s insightful analysis for the New York Times where he suggests the movement is engaged in what he calls “political disobedience.”

    Like the ballet dancer on top of the Wall Street bull in the original Adbusters poster, the movement seeks to “evade and exceed” traditional politics. Or, as Harcourt puts it, OWS “resists the structure of partisan politics, the demand for policy reforms, the call for party identification, and the very ideologies that dominated the post-War period.”

    So it’s not enough that Balkin, for example, might be sympathetic to the group’s ends; the offering of traditional means to achieve those ends is, for now anyway, a nonstarter.

    Good on them. I hope they achieve something lasting and important.

  3. Tim Zick says:

    Hi Paul. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I think it’s understandable that reporters, like others, seek to present some narrative with respect to nascent moments/movements. Nothing at all pernicious about it; my point was merely that we all come to the moment/movement with different biases and frameworks. I think you’re quite right that although patience would be a virtue, it’s in our nature to characterize, frame, and shape the event or narrative. I think it’s up to the movement, if it is to be one, to formulate and disseminate a message or platform. Until it does, others will undoubtedly continue to fill the gap. Thanks again.

  4. Paul writes that “it would be a mistake for readers of your post to conclude that efforts by the media and others to ‘characterize and to some extent normalize[OWS] through devices of discourse and narrative’ is either unusual or demonstrative of some pernicious intent. Explanation is a part of reporting, and we always make sense of things through discourse and narrative. One hardly need conclude, as some seem wont to do, that there is something shady or malicious in the media’s actions.”

    And much of that is true enough, the exception perhaps being the “shady” part, which has not so much to do with anything necessarily intentional in any straightforward sense, but rather (structural) problems that arise owing to the way corporate media functions in our society. Thus it seems to me, and in the spirit if not letter of Tim’s reply that “we all come to the moment/movement with different biases and frameworks,” that we should make some effort to understand how contemporary mass media in this country frames and narrates media events and especially those with bearing on political questions, and in particular for our purposes, political protest on the Left. Fortunately, there are a number of works that are quite helpful in this regard, and so I’ve assembled below a short list of what I take to be (much of) the best of that literature. Were I to accord it a title, it would be something like “Narratives and Sociological Framing of Social Protest on the Left: Toward a Democratically Motivated Critique of the Mass Media in the United States.”

    · Alterman, Eric C. What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News. New York: Basic Books, 2003.
    · Bagdikian, Ben H. The New Media Monopoly. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2004 ed.
    · Baker, C. Edwin. Media, Markets, and Democracy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
    · Baker, C. Edwin. Media Concentration and Democracy: Why Ownership Matters. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
    · Bennett, W. Lance, Regina G. Lawrence, and Steven Livingston. When the Press Fails: Political Power and the News Media from Iraq to Katrina. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2007.
    · Chomsky, Noam. Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2nd ed., 2002.
    · Cockburn, Alexander and Jeffrey St. Clair. End Times: The Death of the Fourth Estate. Oakland, CA: CounterPunch and AK Press, 2007.
    · Cook, Timothy E. Governing with the News: The News Media as a Political Institution. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2nd ed., 2005.
    · Dahlgren, Peter. Media and Political Engagement: Citizens, Communication and Democracy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
    · Davenport, Christian. Media Bias, Perspective, and State Repression: The Black Panther Party. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
    · Gans, Herbert J. Democracy and the News. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
    · Gitlin, Todd. The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2nd ed., 2003.
    · Herman, Edward S. Triumph of the Market: Essays on Economics, Politics, and the Media. Boston, MA: South End Press, 1999.
    · Herman, Edward S. and Noam Chomsky. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon Books, 1988.
    · Herman, Edward S. and Robert W. McChesney. The Global Media: The New Missionaries of Corporate Capitalism. London: Cassell, 1997.
    · Hunt, Darnell M. Screening the Los Angeles “Riots:” Race, Seeing, and Resistance. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
    · Iyengar, Shanto. Is Anyone Responsible? How Television Frames Political Issues. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1991.
    · Jenkins, Henry and David Thorburn, eds. Democracy and New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003.
    · Jones, Alex S. Losing the News: The Future of the News that Feeds Democracy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
    · Keller, Perry. Liberal Democracy and the New Media. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
    · Martin, Christopher R. Framed: Labor and the Corporate Media. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004.
    · McChesney, Robert W. Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times. New York: The New Press, 2000.
    · McChesney, Robert W. The Political Economy of Media: Enduring Issues, Emerging Dilemmas. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2008.
    · McChesney, Robert W. and John Nichols. The Death and Life of American Journalism. New York: Nation Books, 2010.
    · Parenti, Michael. Inventing Reality: The Politics of the Mass Media. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986.
    · Shiffrin, Steven H. Dissent, Injustice, and the Meanings of America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.

  5. Ken Knabb says:


    This is a critique of Kamiya’s atrocious article.