Broken Turtle Blog

Broken Turtle Blog

Monday, October 17, 2011

Occupy Wall Street: the Space in the Spandrels

We hear quite a bit about the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon in terms of a space: “opening a space for a conversation about the economy,” for example.

Everyone who has been trying to raise the alarm in the space of rational argument about the wholesale transfer of wealth and power upward in America for the last thirty years has failed to be heard. And now some hippies show up in a park beating on drums and everyone is talking about economic justice. How did they do that?

Many are puzzled about this term space. Spacey is how some have stereotyped the partisans of this movement. Maybe a way to understand this space is in terms of a spandrel.

A spandrel is an architectural term. An architect constructs a building with a combination of straight lines and curves, which don’t really mix that well, so he or she ends up with leftover space. What spans the space between, say, the curve of an arch and the square that boxes it in is a spandrel. It wasn’t exactly planned; it’s just an unavoidable feature of the structure. (Spandrels also exist in evolutionary biology: features that arise as side effects of adaptive processes and are accidentally useful in sustaining life, a thought that may pertain to my theme).*

photo by Einar Einarsson Kvaran aka Carptrash 19:35, 23 October 2006 (UTC) These spandrel figures representing Astronomy (left) and Sculpture (right) were created by Bela Pratt for the Library of Congress Building around 1896.
Society, too, has a structure. It is constructed not of pillars, lintels, and arches but of culture, politics, the economy, and just about anything that relates people to one another. Some voices among the Occupiers suggest that those of us who have challenged the elite in the past are even part of this structure.

And that makes us defensive. After all, we’ve organized, struggled, and even thrown our bodies under the machine. We got the tread marks to prove it. But maybe it’s true that we are part of the structure, at least in the sense that society bears the marks of treading over us, too.

The structure we live in has been imprinted with adaptations that thwart whatever we do to oppose it, be it educating, organizing, writing poetry, or, for that matter, waging armed insurrection. A well-cited example is how the “commons,” those spaces where citizens could pass out flyers, rally, or put up a picket line, have shrunk as shopping malls have privatized the spaces between shops. But it is not merely the physical space that is disappearing. Just ten years ago tens of millions of folks rallied in the commons against the impending invasion of Iraq to no avail. All the political structures that might previously have been compelled to respond to protests on this scale had adapted, with the obvious help of corporate treasure, so they felt no need to respond. It was as if the space where those multitudes marched had been rendered space no more.

Somehow these Occupiers have found the spandrels.

This is important to me as a poet, because I have been thinking for some time that arguing has not been able break the spell that fear and powerlessness has on our society. I have been thinking that only poetry could counter this spell, working in the space of the heart rather than the brain. I may have found this space in the spandrels.

What happens in these spandrels?

Well, for one thing, people give testimony about what the economic collapse has meant to them and their families. It’s about a middle class Puerto Rican family living the American Dream, father a physician, daughters with degrees and 100,000-dollar debts, losing the home they had lived in for forty years when pop is fired. It’s about a single mother of two offered a four-dollar-per hour job. About an autoworker with twelve-years seniority whose plant has just been raised to the ground. Black, brown, white, and up to now, unheard. You can see some of this testimony in Dana Garrett’s video of the October 15 Occupy Delaware rally in Rodney Square.

For another thing, there is a democratic process with no leaders. Rallies are called General Assemblies. You’re lucky if there is a PA system. Sometimes they use a “human megaphone,” whereby a speaker utters information or speeches in three- to five-word segments that are then repeated by the crowd nearby. Totally ad hoc conveners follow a simple process of proposals, clarifications, concerns, amendments, straw polls, and votes. We old radicals, trade unionists, and peaceniks stand aside as this newer world’s in birth.

It has a kind of poetry of its own, scribbled in the spandrels of the system. There is a kind of faith that ninety-nine percent of the people really can and do count.

So what is the role of the poet in this? Occupy Delaware has an Arts, Culture & Education Committee. In its Face Book discussion group the committee mentions education about the banking crisis and injustices by corporations and the use of art to engage supporters and to educate people about Occupy Delaware.

Now, programmatic poetry is problematic to poets of the highly crafted poem, poetry composed and read in contemplation, poetry like that of Dylan Thomas, which I love. Perhaps the distinction between programmatic and contemplative poetry is the same as that posed by the late revolutionary poet, Tom McGrath regarding Tactical and Strategic Poetry. Tactical Poetry is tied to “some immediate thing” like a “strike.” Strategic poetry, on the other hand, is “a poetry in which the writer trusts himself enough to write about whatever comes along, with the assumption that what he is doing will be, in the long run, useful, consciousness raising or enriching.” To me, that means writers of tactical poems will be writing under a deadline, bringing whatever poetic gifts they have to the immediate task, trusting that an accessible message gains profundity in its timeliness, and, as McGrath warns, facing the fact that eventually “the events they were about have moved out from under them.” Sic transit gloria.

My own attempt at a tactical poem, “Global Solidarity” can be read here or heard at about 5:26 in Dana Garrett’s video, above. Almost immediately after is a stirring poem called “Freedom Fighter,” by Red Lip Poetry Salon’s Amy Eyre.

In the architecture of manipulation, exploitation, and violence, there are spandrels, the left over spaces. There find the poet’s workshop and stage.

*See David M Buss et al., “Adaptations, Exaptations, and Spandrels,” American Psychologist 53:5, 1998, pp. 533-48, cited in Slavoj Žižek, Living in the End Times, p. 227.


  1. Good show, Phil. Douglas Morea here. You know how to use an evil world as a resource for keeping young. Also, you did your book-club home-work on those spandrels from our Darwin readings. The poetry and political connection rules. Was it Darwin who said life is what happens when you're making other plans? No, but he could have.