Lulzsec, Charlie Sheen and Occupy Wall Street
by Lap Le
In this essay I would like to describe a particular set of events and the subsequent inertia that, for me, most excitingly outlines the shape of critique. Admittedly these events will be predominantly Western - as will their effects - and have played out alongside more visceral forms of critique. I am aware, for instance, of another important set of events that can't be emphasized enough: I speak, of course, of the current crises and movements of the Arab world. Inevitably those events remain a second order of reality to me - the designation Arab Spring remains an energetic series of reports, bites, clips and others' opinions; documented into a fixture of reality within the solipsism presumed by my youth and Western-American worldview. I mention this because for the purposes of this essay I will need to bracket off those events - in service of focus and in defense of my greater ignorance to their complexities - but knowing that they exist in tandem is important. Relatable parallels do emerge despite the media's persistent and obfuscating hum. The events I will focus on are Lulzsec's 50-day bender (or cruise if you prefer), the spectacle that is/was Charlie Sheen (specifically Bret Easton Ellis's interpretation in his article "Notes on Charlie Sheen and the End of Empire") and finally, the Occupy Wall Street movement now gripping New York and the nation.
Sometime around May of this year a grayhat hacker group that called themselves Lulz Security (or Lulzsec) created a twitter account, a website, and set off on a havoc wreaking joy 'cruise'. Flouting "We're in it for the lulz" as a tentative credo - an exacting rejection of capitalist structures and possibly also the life philosophy of psychotics and hedonists - they began hacking into corporations, government institutions, private security contractors and anyone that got in their way. The actual damage committed is hard to measure, but the act more so than its measure is what's significant. It was equal parts exposing the nude emperor and disenchanting the sovereign impenetrability of the system. (They were also supporters of Wikileaks). Their strategy was as seemingly arbitrary as it was reactionary; the senselessness rendered them dangerous and a facade of naiveté kept us all guessing, enthralled. (They had nearly a quarter million subscribers by the end). I imagine this type of activity isn't uncommon within the hacking community, though that sort of thing probably remains, when it can, in the shadows and periphery. In contrast, Lulzsec's intentions were to be anything but covert. Their press releases were explanatory, accusatory and flamboyantly entertaining; a lot of bravado thrown in with alarmingly cognizant insight. They boasted their achievements with adolescent abandon - their witty responses were invariably young, angry and powerful in comparison to the plaintiff cries from the Man.
"We want to send a message that chaos on the Internet is unacceptable," declares Steve Chabinsky, deputy assistant FBI director - the condemnation and narrow view of chaos comes off as a succinct eulogy for Empire. The gauntlet was immediately picked up: "Let me ask you, good sir, when was the Internet not the Wild Wild West? Do you really believe you were in control of it at any point? You were not… That does not mean that everyone behaves like an outlaw. You see, most people do not behave like bandits if they have no reason to. We become bandits on the Internet because you have forced our hand. The Anonymous bitchslap rings through your ears like hacktivism movements of the 90s. We're back—and we're not going anywhere. Expect us."(1)
For all the ethical and legal dilemmas raised, Lulzsec did a few things brilliantly. The first was their self-imposed timeline of 50 days. Setting such a parameter promises two things: "We're here to party," (this isn't an arbitrary action) and "Anything goes," (we're going to make every day count). Embracing anarchy as a medium, or anchor, set the stage whereby "sensible" or "civil" methods of reproach were rendered impotent. The only recourse was to arrest them (which means they have to be found) or wallow in their wake. The former further emphasizes the sovereignty of the powers that be (which is exactly what's being interrogated) and the latter flags the structure up for new management. The second important factor was their non-identity. We see this in the leaderless organization of OWS as well, but we will get back to that later. Anonymous, whom Lulzsec is alleged to be affiliated, must live up to its namesake in order to survive. The decentralization of the group and its anonymity reject any desire to be equals in the conversation, if there is any conversation at all - they aren't here to play by the established rules or discuss things on established terms. Those were the problems to begin with. And since you can't negotiate with a force that wants nothing you have to give, it goes to prove that, quite frankly, getting what they wanted was never the point. An agenda is only important if the governing structures are satisfactory and are able to mitigate the results. When the structures are completely broken, "agendas" force square pegs into round holes. "What do you want from us?" and "What can we give you?" become strategies to deflect the issue from the core of the matter to vestigial ones; effectively reincorporating the discussion into the terms of the sovereign system and clothing its structure again. Lulzsec wasn't interested in compromises or negotiations; they understood the situation - the structure was being mis-handled and is breaking; they wanted to reveal that condition and that's everything.
A little before Lulzsec, around the beginnings of 2011, Charlie Sheen was going crazy. No, that's not entirely correct - he was rather lucid. What Sheen was doing was getting real, maybe too real, which came off as crazy. And of course, the sharks came. In the beginning it seemed like business as usual whenever celebs are targeted by the media; and c'mon, Sheen has been fucking up for a few years now - flitting in and out of the lime light with some domestic abuse or another. Very quickly though, it became clear that something was different. It wasn't that Sheen fought back exactly, it was something deeper than that. The reports on Sheen started to become more frequent. He became more vocal. Then suddenly it was a media clusterfuck and Charile Sheen was the candyman. The only way I can describe it is to compare it to that scene in Avatar where Jake Sully is trying to break in an ikran; they wrestled for a bit, lives were on the line, and in the middle of it Sully (Sheen) takes his braid and jams it into ikran's ear; everything is tsahaylu'd together and the two run amok, connected in a fashion that neither fully understood but accepted as natural. Everyone else was on the rocks watching, wanting him to fail or cheering him on (in spite of themselves). As for us, far as we could tell if everyone is on the stage who's running the show? And this is exactly why Sheen became a game changer - he gave us VIP passes backstage and outed the wizard at once.
Bret Easton Ellis's article "Notes on Charlie Sheen and the End of Empire" - the most insightful interpretation of the thing I have read yet - concisely points out the exact structures that Sheen, consciously or not, is fighting against, yet within. Ellis draws a line between the too-smart-to-be-stupid players of the Empire and the people like Sheen who were too fed up to play the game at all, but win regardless. Sheen became a poster boy for just about anything anyone wanted him to be - drugs, sex, freedom, addiction, money, honesty, celebrity, America, the list goes on. It was phenomenal. He was everything and nothing at the same time. He took full accountability for his actions, then went a step further and used them to question the framework that judged them.
"He’s raw now, and lucid and intense and the most fascinating person wandering through the culture. (No, it’s not Colin Firth or David Fincher or Bruno Mars or super-Empire Tiger Woods, guys.) We’re not used to these kinds of interviews. It’s coming off almost as performance art and we’ve never seen anything like it—because he’s not apologizing for anything. It’s an irresistible spectacle, but it’s also telling because we are watching someone profoundly bored and contemptuous of the media engaging with the media and using the media to admit things about themselves and their desires that seem “shocking” because of society’s old-ass Empire guidelines. No one has ever seen a celebrity more nakedly revealing—even in Sheen’s evasions there’s a truthful playfulness that makes Tiger’s mea culpa press conference look like something manufactured by Nicholas Sparks."(2)
Those guidelines, those "old-ass Empire" structures, were exactly the thing that wound Sheen so tight that he exploded; tearing as much of it apart in the process as his tiger-blooded hands could (for as long as he could--I'm pretty sure getting Roasted on Comedy Central was throwing in the towel - what towel?). He simply out-evolved the system he was incorporated to and found himself having to carve out his own space to exist in, or die trying. We see the same thing happening with Occupy Wall Street. The structures are failing us - have been failing us for some time - but are so enshrouded in layers upon layers of shit that theres no way to see the rotten core until it collapses in on itself. In Sheen's case, its harder to see how it failed him, but if Charlie's Korner isn't the smoke that signals the fire, surely the nations' inability to figure out what was happening is.
#Occupy Wall Street
Economic crises grip the greater part of the First World and a new empowerment is rippling across the globe; the marginalized once again finding voice and identity - helped perhaps by the equivocating force of the internet. When Egypt erupted, all the bytes that documented it circled the world and were witnessed by an audience like never before from perspectives never seen before. We find that with the growing decentralization of media and advances in individual agency in that arena, historicism becomes a more democratic endeavor. As the network becomes more comprehensive so does its ability to hold people and institutions accountable; it is getting harder to keep lies hidden, charades are called out, puppet strings are followed to cloven hooves and, counter-intuitively, misinformation becomes a harder game to keep up.
Now, in lieu of Lulzsec's cruise and Sheen's glorious awakening, we find that festering pieces of a failing structure are peeking through the velvet and trim. Officially beginning on September 17th, the occupation of Zuccotti Park - or more poetically, Liberty Plaza - was a phenomenon that relatively few expected, but was long overdue. Since then, Occupy Wall Street has grown at a tremendous rate and spread across the nation, galvanizing people together under a common motive (if you would excuse an oversimplification): There is something deeply wrong, and we're not going to be quiet about it any longer. It seemingly hit a nerve that had been dormant in the American psyche (possibly since Reagan's time, but more likely with the maturation of Capitalism prior to that) and when the opportunity came, so did the people.
If the movement can be said to have begun rather rapidly, with the bulk of its initial supporters seemingly more reactionary or emotional as a whole, then I think it is important to recognize how quickly the intellectual framework followed up - calcifying the initial sentiments and ideas of its organizers and then pushing beyond anyone's expectations. Opinion columns from major newspapers, outspoken critics and advocates alike, bloggers, bar patrons, and the guy who kind of just shouts in Union Square all had something to say about it - and there is a lot to say. Those who dismissed what was going on were inevitably soldiers of the Empire with gleaming coats of passivity; those who were against OWS were inevitably still (unknowingly) part of it. The conversation is the lifeblood of OWS; in a way, more than the marches and drums, it will be the resulting discourse that will push the movement forward. 'They' know this, and will try to control it - they'll send the Kevin O'Learys to try and reign it in, to label it, to cage it again.
"They're going to try to identify fake leaders, draw phony battle lines, and then herd everybody back into the same left-right cage matches of old. Whenever that happens, we just have to remember not to fall for the trap. When someone says this or that person speaks for OWS, don't believe it. This thing is bigger than one or two or a few people, and it isn't part of the same old story." (3, Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone). We see the same Empire strategies over and over again. "What is your agenda?" "What do you want?" The primary strategy of the sovereignty is to reincorporate any dissent back into its terms and contain all discourse to the gravity of its value-system. This is fine so long as the system isn't rigged. When it is, the cheated are left no viable recourse but to dissent.
Here, Bernard E. Harcourt offers a way to describe what is going on and also an essential point of importance about the movement: "Civil disobedience accepted the legitimacy of political institutions, but resisted the moral authority of resulting laws. Political disobedience, by contrast, resists the very way in which we are governed: it 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."(4)
As with Sheen and Lulzsec, OWS's political disobedience is necessitated by a failure of the sovereign structure. To fix something so ingrained into the fabric of our politics, ideologies and value-systems you have to target the structures that govern the symptoms; that perpetuate the values. One of the strategies for this has always been anarchy. In 2011, we see that it is not necessarily anarchy as chaos, or even as protest, but rather anarchy as critique - the difference essentially being what Harcourt poses as the difference between civil and political: that critique offers an assessment and judgment of the actual structures as opposed to a reaction to their products. Anarchy then presupposes a wholesale non-recognition of those same products whereby the assessment is made to come from without rather than within; removing the hierarchies of traditional protest where a tacit victimization of the dissenting party is commonly felt, if never said. Lulzsec wasn't prepared to follow the rules at all, much less present themselves as not in control; Sheen exercised his own version of non-recognition (which can possibly be reduced to an advanced form of "not giving a fuck"); and OWS's latitude and inclusivity all but rejects the victim role - proposing in its place a definitive, "Its not us, its you" break-up scenario.
While it'll be some time before we realize the full effect of OWS, there is one thing I know for certain: the longer it continues, the better. Longevity will allow the framework around the movement to develop and mature; the politic and language of it becoming more nuanced, complex, tangible and then who knows what will happen. Even now the discourse surrounding OWS is some of the healthiest this nation has had in the last few decades.
I framed this article around the idea of critique, I would like to return to that now. While these events can be categorized as forms of protest I would like to offer that they are more. Specifically for the reason that the term protest connotes a power dynamic I don't think is productive. In anarchy you find a dissociated form of that dynamic which gets rid of the disempowerment seen in traditional oppositions. I think we see that in the events outlined in this article as well. While I'm not saying anarchy is a precondition for critique, it does illustrate one of the most important roles of critique: to identify the real structures of things - and with critique, so that everything of and within it can be assessed. This is opposed to taking things at face value without understanding its value-system (or your own). This is opposed to giving things the benefit of the doubt without the facility to identify doubt. This is opposed to any form of passivity in a structure that decisively dampens self-determination or agency.
I am also not saying that these events should be taken strictly as forms of critique; I intended to use them lightly in that way. More important to me, was that they glimpsed upon and contoured a sentiment that I found invigorating, exciting - strong. If these events do anything, I hope they show us that we don't have to accept a rigged deck - ever.
To end, and perhaps also to extend the conversation, I would like to quote Walter Benn Michaels in something he recently wrote for the Brooklyn Rail. His article is titled "The Beauty of a Social Problem" and here he is discussing Viktoria Binschtok's photograph "Wand #1":
"If we think what matters about our relation to the unemployed is our ability to feel their pain, we’re missing the point. And if we think that political art should provide identification rather than “beauty,” we’re missing it again. Rather, to feel the beauty of the problem is precisely not to feel the pathos of the suffering produced by the problem; it’s instead to feel the structure that makes the problem."
(1) Damon Poeter's "Anonymous to FBI: You Can't Arrest an Idea" for PCMag