People’s Mic and "Leaderful" Charisma

Have a seat at nearly any General Assembly (GA) or Working Group associated with Occupy Wall Street, or its corollaries in other U.S. towns and cities. People will make use of a peculiar sign language, most notably in tandem with the People’s Microphone (Garces 2011): “Up twinkles,” “down twinkles,” “block,” “direct response,” “point of process,” “wrap it up.” The particular hand signals may vary from one Occupation to another, but the People’s Mic as a communicative repertoire draws on a wide sensory spectrum of corporeal engagement (I would hazard calling it audio-lexico-kinetic) that is basic to OWS as a whole. Why? Because the People’s Mic literally makes sense. The unconscious, normalized use of this repertoire turns GA participation into a hands-on experience, cultivating one’s partial connection to the GA collective as well as one’s instrumental relation to proposals being discussed within it.

This low-tech media is tactile, with multiple applications—alternately wonderful and frightening. It can be used both to facilitate and to shut down public discourse; it can be applied to culture-jamming exercises as well as to culture-generating projects. Someone’s relationship to the People’s Mic can be viewed as a “temperature check” on that person’s identification (or lack of identification) with the Occupy movement. Yet when used in a GA process, the People’s Mic is nothing less than a new genre of political speech. Repurposed from direct democratic consensus-building procedures (e.g. Razsa and Velez 2002), the People’s Mic arose in Zuccotti Park when protesters had to communicate en masse but were prohibited by NYC zoning laws from using voice-amplifying technologies such as electric microphones or battery powered megaphones. While most attention has been drawn to how the People’s Mic lets protesters “amplify each others’ voices,” here I consider how its accompanying hand signals lent this speech its quiet charisma and democratic characteristics.

First and foremost, the hand signals allow for immediate and unambiguous self-identification with the GA process.  No part of oneself or the deliberative body seems to be left out within this extra-linguistic mode of group communication —though such appearances can sometimes be deceiving (Appel 2011). To participate in a Working Group or GA is to follow hands affecting speech in an unscripted, spontaneous choreography of political process: permitting declarations and appeals, but also direct responses, fervent emphasis, reorientation, disagreement, self-removal, etc. The full deployment of these gestures appears to handle or to push along a speaker’s words, transforming the very conditions of political community around a phrase-by-phrase, moment-by-moment sifting of the General Assembly’s dispositions.

Some critics of OWS claim that People’s Mic encourages “group think.” Others might argue that People’s Mic/OWS embodies yet one more “constituent moment” in U.S. political history—at least when tied to spontaneous outbreaks of “unauthorized” assemblies and their claims to democracy (Tarrow 2011). Yet my own experience with OWS showed me that publicly decelerating and engaging with a speaker’s words—flashing up twinkle sparkles, for instance—obligated the speaker to assert oneself with greater attention to one’s rhetorical flourishes, or to speak with enough convivial levity or moral force that GA participants could really get behind you. Far from expressing state-centric or ideological uniformity, however, the hand gestures help to generate solidarity through the self-disclosure and incorporation of actual or even repressed difference. People’s Mic clearly has played a major role in exemplifying  a “prefigurative” movement. The popular appeal of the slogan “We Are the 99%” derives not only from the unyielding character of OWS’s literal or projected masses (or the object of their critique), but also from the exemplary practice of reimagining and remediating democracy.

If this process sounds too abstract, consider its most practical, hands-on manifestation: GA facilitators—i.e. those who manage airtime on the People’s Mic—also help new speakers to adjust to its temporality using a variety of bodily cues, for example, prompting a speaker by tapping his back, shoulder, side, or wrist when his words had echoed across the assembly space as a whole. When especially large crowds came together, these participants would create one or two additional repetitions—“generations,” using OWS’s own term—of a public orator’s words. Yet even generational extension is bound up with embodied practice. Those who sought to create multiple generations of People’s Mic would make a rotating hand gesture to set the pace for each new wave of speech radiating outwards. GA audience members in front of the speaker would occasionally stand up and cast his or her words (in a throwing motion), particularly during the more difficult alternations between the second and third speech generations, or the third and fourth.

Watching all this orchestration of democratic speech take place, I often felt wordlessly insinuated in the General Assembly. I am not the only commentator who noticed the effervescence of speaking or being spoken through People’s Mic, generation by generation, watching as new OWS constituencies were unfolding. Many drew strong parallels with liturgy. Participating in the GA was indeed deeply ascetic, to the extent that “step up, step back” (OWS’s ethical code for the management of the People’s Mic, i.e. passing this human microphone along to other speakers, particularly to minority constituencies, without monopolizing it) refashions one’s speech as both part of the assembly and for the perpetuity of an open-ended, flourishing GA. Some Occupy speakers exhibited what seemed like a special gift for using People’s Mic. Still, what allows a “gift for speaking” to develop silently in tandem with the GA is another matter altogether.

In my opinion, what has kept occupiers fully engaged is attributable to the air of charisma surrounding this new genre of political speech—allowing audience and speaker to co-deliberate and to respond collectively to statements being made in the name of any Occupation. But isn’t “charisma” defined as a quality of individual leadership? For Weber, of course, charisma may be embodied within a single individual, but its true register is always that of the group or the crowd. In opposition to any entrenched or reproducible authority (whether “traditional” or “bureaucratic”), Weberian charisma is an evanescent property; the very moment you attempt to transfer it from one leader to another, or to orchestrate a charismatic succession to one’s disciple(s), charismatic authority as such will always lose its integrity, intensity, or vitality. Charisma is never successfully “routinized.”

Yet GA participation offers a plausible and fascinating counter-argument. Since GA collectively orchestrates People’s Mic, its peculiar charisma derives from a political assembly partly yet deliberately managing the speaker. The GA audience does not merely lend its quiet applause or disapproval using hand signals. Though the metaphor is not exact, the audience may be imaginatively likened to a puppeteer, co-producing an orator’s words as she speaks to the GA and generates its consensus-based ideals. The best puppeteer successfully manages her marionettes, working off the audience’s reactions, in any engaging performance—only in this case, the “audience” and the “actors” switch places interactively, from one moment to another, looking for the right cues. People’s Mic makes for especially captivating theater. In the end, I would submit that the exuberance of democratic self-fashioning across these Occupations stems from the felicitous, back-and-forth exchanges that gave GA participant observers a front row seat in the generation of democratic becoming, well outside the confines of traditional electoral or even grassroots politics.

Hence popular claims that OWS amounts to a “leaderless movement,” while no doubt rhetorically useful, tend to leave me somewhat unconvinced. As the hand gestures demonstrate, People’s Mic performance successfully cultivated a leaderful movement, the very basis for a “movement of movements”—to borrow a phrase from global justice theorists. Indeed, OWS has forged a variety of novel affinities precisely because the very medium of constituency in the United States, however momentarily, shifted its political potentialities.

The People’s Mic produces political charisma using the speaker’s words in tandem with a sea of hand gestures, modifying the intentionality of the speaker’s truth-claims or propositions in the process. In Zuccotti Park, I have watched as even the shakiest at public speech steadied themselves. I have listened and felt as certain speakers, hell-bent on unilaterally changing the subject of GA deliberations, were eased away from the People’s Mic. I have tuned in to various media streams, whether live or pre-recorded, as scores of Occupy encampments borrowed from this technology of speech to generate powerful claims to political renascence. Much can be positively attested. That People’s Mic has produced democratic effervescence is hard to deny when considering the rapidity with which this genre of public speaking, always used in tandem with a repertoire of hand gestures, spontaneously became the single most distinguishable characteristic of OWS beyond the occupation of space itself—a quiet claim on political reawakening for any season. 

Chris Garces teaches in the Department of Anthropology at Cornell University. His ethnographic interests range from the study of politics and religion—or contemporary political theologies—to the unchecked global development of penal state politics, and the history of Catholic humanitarianism in Latin America.