The spectacle of police officers at UC Davis pepper-spraying peaceful, seated students last week has, rightly, caused an outraged uproar both within and outside the Occupy movement. Bob Ostertag, a Davis professor, has pointed out that even in prison riots, prison guards are forbidden to use pepper spray on seated prisoners because they are “not considered to be an imminent threat,” and that when prison guards plan to use pepper spray they are required to have medical personnel on the scene to treat the victims. Today, as a means of welcoming this blog back to the land of the living (after my year-long bout with finishing my dissertation), I plan to investigate the significance of the Davis police’s actions in my customarily roundabout way.
Last night, I watched Chris Marker’s La jetée, a 1962 short French dystopian film about time travel, and Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, a 1995 film inspired by La jetée that, as you probably recall, stars Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt. Both films take place in a dystopian future where humanity has been forced to live underground due to the ruination of the earth’s surface — in La jetée, the cause is nuclear war, and in 12 Monkeys it’s a viral epidemic. In both films, the protagonist is forcefully “volunteered” by the draconian government of the survivors and is made to participate in time-travel experiments designed to help humanity out of its desperate situation. In La jetée, the protagonist is sent back in time on a series of short visits, where he befriends a woman seemingly tolerant of his tendency to literally appear and disappear unpredictably. These visits to the past are eventually revealed to be mere rehearsals for the real work at hand: once the protagonist has proven that he is mentally stable enough to handle time travel, he is sent to the distant future to beg help from the more technologically advanced society that he finds there. These future people equip him with technology to save his people, but instead of being hailed as a hero, the protagonist is sentenced to death by his draconian government now that he has served his purpose. The people from the future offer to help him escape to their time permanently, but he asks instead to be sent back to the past to live out his days with the woman he met there. The people from the future do this for him, but he is pursued by an agent from the draconian government of the present who guns him down as soon as he gets back to the past. (I am concealing the biggest plot twist from you out of the goodness of my heart.)
12 Monkeys, being a feature-length studio film from the 1990s rather than a short auteur film from the 1960s, makes many changes and complicates the plot immensely. But the change that bothered me the most is that the circumstances of the hero’s death are entirely different. Bruce Willis is killed not in the midst of trying to build a life with the woman he loves, but in the midst of trying to save the world from the very government for whom he has been forced to work. He discovers that the plague which wiped out the world was aided and abetted by the draconian government that sent him back in time in the first place, and is shot by agents of that government while trying to stop the man who will spread the disease. What bothered me so much about this change is that it actually takes the teeth out of the original film’s criticism of the power of the state. It is not very difficult to imagine a corrupt government trying to protect itself by executing people who are actively trying to bring it down. But what makes the ending of La jetée so shocking is that the protagonist is not trying to bring down the government at all — all he wants is to be left alone and allowed to pursue his own happiness. The state evidently views these desires themselves as a threat, since they are in excess of its instrumental plans for this citizen.
Viewing these films now, in what some are calling the “American Autumn” as a corollary to this year’s “Arab Spring,” I can’t help but notice the parallels to the Occupy movement and the power of the state that has recently been flexed in order to quash it. The powers that be wish they were fighting Bruce Willis, an enemy trying actively to bring them down. If they were, they’d have a much stronger case about the need to use force against the protestors. But in fact, the protestors are much more like the nameless protagonist of La jetée. The Occupy movement’s continued refusal to produce concrete demands has made it clear that — for now, at least — what the movement is about is the occupations themselves. Members of the movement talk enthusiastically about the communities built at the occupation sites: they have libraries, social services, first aid, and many other communal resources. Many people who have been living at the occupations report that the Occupy movement is one of the first communities in which they’ve truly felt at home. What they want, in other words, is to be left alone and allowed to pursue their own happiness.
This is not, however, an insular or apolitical demand — as the fascist government in La jetée realized, and as our own government may also be realizing. Unlike the communes of the 1960s, which were generally set up out in the wilderness away from population centers, the occupations are in our town squares and parks, in our faces every day. As Matt Taibbi recently explained in Rolling Stone, the movement at its heart is about “going on strike from one’s own culture”:
This is a visceral, impassioned, deep-seated rejection of the entire direction of our society, a refusal to take even one more step forward into the shallow commercial abyss of phoniness, short-term calculation, withered idealism and intellectual bankruptcy that American mass society has become.
This idea is, ultimately, much more radical than a list of concrete demands such as “increase regulation on the banks” and “remove money from politics” could ever encompass. The Occupy movement points to the fact that daring to dream of a better and more free life than the one offered by the current economico-political regime is a deep and dangerous threat to the powers that prop up that regime. This is why the government in La jetée had to kill the protagonist of that film, and it’s why the police in Zucotti Park, Oakland, Seattle, and UC Davis feel authorized to use viciously violent force on peaceful protestors. Our challenge, then, is to continue to dream — both because and in spite of the opposition.