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From Activism to Occupation

James J. Brown, Jr.

Malcom Gladwell’s 2010 assertion that “the revolution will not be tweeted,” raises difficult questions for anyone interested in digital activism. His essay “Small Change” returns to 1960s’ sit-in protests in various U.S. cities in order to draw a clean line between contemporary digital activism and a previous moment, a moment when people made “real sacrifice.” Gladwell shows us how the sit-ins required intense coordination as “plans were drawn up” and locations were scouted. Focusing much of his description on the “Greensboro Four”—four African-American men who triggered sit-ins across southern cities by ordering coffee at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina—Gladwell demonstrates the importance of “close ties” in the coordination of the Civil Rights movement:

[The Greensboro Four] had close ties with the head of the local N.A.A.C.P. chapter. They had been briefed on the earlier wave of sit-ins in Durham, and had been part of a series of movement meetings in activist churches. When the sit-in movement spread from Greensboro throughout the South, it did not spread indiscriminately. It spread to those cities which had preëxisting ‘movement centers’—a core of dedicated and trained activists ready to turn the ‘fever’ into action.

Unlike the strong, close ties that bound these protesters together, Gladwell describes social networking technologies such as Facebook and Twitter as relying on weak ties that only motivate people “to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make real sacrifice.” He goes on, putting the proverbial nail in the coffin: “We are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro” (Gladwell). In other words, Gladwell sees the role of social media in so-called “Twitter Revolutions” in Moldova and Iran as, at best, lethargic attempts to organize. At worst, social media convince us that we are doing something important while leaving big social problems untouched. While protesters march and face off against authorities, bloggers and tweeters have “forgotten what activism is” (Gladwell).

This is a difficult argument to counter. The “like” button is the encapsulation of the kind of digital activism (or “clicktivism”) Gladwell has in mind, offering Facebook users the supposed opportunity to click their way to political relevance. In such situations, even donating money becomes only a marginally better way to encourage what Gladwell would consider “real” activism. These are activities that allow people to participate from a distance, to dip a toe into what is, for those on the ground, a dangerous environment. Participating in Iranian protests by turning one’s Twitter avatar green may offer symbolic support for protesters, but it is quite different from the sustained, organized efforts of the Greensboro Four and their legion of supporters. It is more or less uncontroversial to grant all of this to Gladwell. However, we find a profound flaw in his argument as we encounter his description of networks. For Gladwell, the problem with networks is that they lack hierarchical organization. Unlike the planning and close ties of the Greensboro Four,

social media are not about this kind of hierarchical organization. Facebook and the like are tools for building networks, which are the opposite, in structure and character, of hierarchies. Unlike hierarchies, with their rules and procedures, networks aren’t controlled by a single central authority. Decisions are made through consensus, and the ties that bind people to the group are loose. (Gladwell)

Gladwell’s networks are messy, disorganized, and noisy. Rather than “promot[ing] strategic and disciplined activity,” Facebook and Twitter allow everyone to have a say, to express ideas, but they make it “harder for that expression to have any impact” (Gladwell). Gladwell suggests that networks are good if you are looking for small change—to offer the world “a little buffing around the edges”—but that they are not much help if “there are still lunch counters out there that need integrating.” Without centralized leadership, networks “have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals” (Gladwell).

This description of networks as frictionless, rhizomatic spaces in which information flows freely without the constraints of “rules and procedures” is by no means unique to Gladwell. In fact, this is the picture many might conjure if asked to compare hierarchical organizations to networks. However, to put it quite directly, this conception is completely wrong. Theorists such as Alexander Galloway, Wendy Chun, and Rita Raley have demonstrated, in detail, how power moves through networks and how activism in networks must contend with top-down procedures and hierarchies. We will examine such work later in this essay. For now, it is enough to say that while networks are different from other types of infrastructure and other organizational structures, they are not without hierarchy. Understanding how power moves and how structures assert themselves in networks is crucial for anyone interested in contemporary activism, digital or otherwise.

Gladwell’s discussion of networks can be understood as more than just a critique of “digital activism.” He is leveling charges at writing, at the use of writing for activism that happens at a distance and that is disembodied. But the very term “activism” presents problems when we consider how writing and rhetorical action happen in networks. Activism shifts power from one location to another: this is what Gladwell has in mind when he spurns “buffing around the edges” (the type of social change one gets from clicking, liking, and retweeting) in favor of big, systemic changes. But contemporary activism requires a different metaphor, one that addresses the complexities of networked life and the possibilities for understanding how writing shapes and is shaped by contemporary organizations of power. Activism suggests that one is acting upon a system. It suggests an easily locatable point of origin and a situation in which cause and effect are, at least in theory, tightly linked. But networked life requires an entirely different understanding of political and rhetorical activity—and of writing. In networks, writing does not act upon the system but rather from within it. In short, the various rhetorical ecologies of networked life require that we shift our frame from activism to occupation.

Advocating this kind of reconception of politics, rhetoric, and writing in networks immediately puts me at a disadvantage, as I find myself arguing against activism. But I am not arguing for passivity. Instead, as we will see, occupation presents us with a set of strategies for inventing arguments, for transforming space, and for seeing how networked life calls for new ways of understanding how power shapes rhetorical action. Such a project is particularly crucial for scholars of rhetoric and writing who are looking to counter claims like Gladwell’s. Without an understanding of how writing occupies and transforms space, the field is left with little to say about how writing in networks (and the writing of networks, that writing that helps to create and sustain networks) can be part of the contemporary political landscape.

Occupy Writing

It is impossible to discuss occupation and activism without addressing the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests of 2011. Protestors in New York City occupied Zucotti Park, transforming it into what they called “Liberty Park,” and triggered a global movement that, as it gained momentum, made arguments about corporate greed, economic equality, and government regulation of the banking industry. The OWS movement left its mark and immediately transformed the term “occupy.” However, my own discussion does not take up OWS directly. The arguments and actions of OWS are hovering at the edges of the following discussion, and a sustained study of OWS would help us deal with Gladwell’s central concern that digital activism only works from a distance. OWS is a wonderful example of how digital and “analog” (if, in fact, this is the opposite of digital activism) actions are threaded through one another. The Occupy movement eventually spread to other cities. OWS began in Zuccoti Park, but it became a much more distributed, networked, and global movement, one that was coordinated by way of writing. Through websites, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other digital spaces, the various occupy movements communicated with one another and with the rest of the world. These movements were not necessarily tightly coordinated, and they often pursued disparate political programs. But neither were they completely disorganized. OWS may have relied on Gladwell’s “loose ties,” but it was not without its rules and procedures. But instead of focusing on OWS, I turn to a text that (prophetically) theorized occupation prior to OWS. Sidney Dobrin’s Postcomposition, published the summer before OWS (perhaps suggesting that something was in the air) presents us with a detailed theoretical consideration of occupation. More than that, he presents occupation as a central concern of those who study rhetoric and writing.

While my focus is on his theorization of occupation and how it helps us understand contemporary networked writing and rhetorical action, it is worth noting that Dobrin’s argument is aimed squarely at the field of composition studies. Dobrin’s book disrupts composition in an attempt to move outside of composition. The “post” of Dobrin’s concept of postcomposition is not primarily temporal but is rather spatial, and he encourages the field to move its focus away from managing student subjects and the pedagogical imperative. For Dobrin, postcomposition asks the field of composition studies to transform itself, to theorize writing itself, and to do so without focusing only on classrooms and student subjects. Dobrin knows that this project will be viewed suspiciously, but he insists that writing theory (something that he sees as quite different from composition theory) must break new ground:

Because of composition studies’ historical foundations as an educational initiative . . . research that breaks orbit and ventures into other spaces has always been seen as suspect, as not championing the imperative . . . Writing theory must move beyond composition studies’ neurosis of pedagogy, must escape the shackles of classrooms, students, and management. (28)

His own effort to escape these shackles leads to two key theoretical interventions: occupation and saturation. These terms help us understand writing as a complex activity that moves through and creates networks. My own attempt to take these terms to the space of contemporary activism accepts Dobrin’s invitation by asking the following: What can the field of rhetoric and composition have to say about digital activism, and how might it offer counterarguments to Gladwell? How might we consider writing as part of rather than supplemental to or parasitic of offline, face-to-face activism?

Networked spaces are more than just the channels through which writing flows. In fact, I use the term “networked life” here to suggest that networks are more than the digital spaces in which we work and play. Networked life means never getting to turn off the network. It means always being exposed to the arrivals of various others. Attempting to avoid these difficulties by shutting down one’s laptop or smartphone ignores how online and offline life are increasingly tangling and commingling. Still, this move to understanding networks beyond the Internet and beyond computational machines is not meant to paint the picture of a fluid free-for-all in which any connection can happen at any time. This is the picture of networks put forth by Gladwell, but it is a picture that only tells part of the story. We can begin to flesh out our conception of networks by understanding how they are comprised of procedures and rules that dictate how or whether information and bodies can move. In the language given to us by Dobrin, we can begin to understand writing in networks as occupations and the writing of networks as the saturation of space.

For Dobrin, writing is “an attempt to occupy space, to name and to make areas of spaces into places” (55). He explores the terms various meanings, from military connotations (in which one state occupies another), to considerations of how objects occupy space, to the pursuit of an activity. Occupation provides one way of understanding how writing creates place:

To make a sign in space is to give signification. To signify is to assign meaning, to produce a place, to occupy that place. To occupy a place is to produce that place; to produce a place is to occupy it, to write it in the script of hegemony, to make it safe in a glimpse of time. (50)

Dobrin gives writing studies its own spatial metaphor, arguing that composition theory has historically relied upon established or received metaphors. Writing not only occupies and transforms space; it also requires space. Dobrin is careful not to attribute too much power to writing. He insists that “writing sets up occupancy within or saturates a particular space” and that occupation “not only sets in motion the alteration of the space occupied but also authorizes the writing in varying degrees of distance to the occupied space” (56). Writing occupies space and it occupies us. It takes up both space and time.

If occupation presents us with a way to understand the way writing names spaces and sets up shop, then saturation describes how writing soaks and fills in our various networks. Extending and contending with Thomas Rickert’s theorization of ambience, Dobrin argues that

nodes and knots are not merely in an ambient environment; they are saturated by writing. Writing penetrates nodes, knots, and networks, altering and influencing the very makeup of what a node, knot, or network is. Without the saturation of writing, nodes, knots, and networks are not. (183)

There is no network without writing, which spreads to fill in the spaces. Writing is constantly “adjusting to and contributing to changes in networks, filling in new spaces, perpetually permeating all of a network while simultaneously eroding away the very edges of its own boundaries, seeking to expand its space while providing new spaces in and through which networks may move” (Dobrin 183). Writing saturates networks, creating possibility spaces, and writing occupies networks, exploring those possibilities, exposing limits. Put differently: Saturation imbues; Occupation provokes.

 Occupy Networks

The imbuing power of Dobrin’s saturation is easily aligned with Alexander Galloway’s notion of protocol, which describes contemporary organizations of networked power. Galloway examines computer protocols that “govern how specific technologies are agreed to, adopted, implemented, and ultimately used by people around the world. What was once a question of consideration and sense is now a question of logic and physics" (7). In this sense, protocol is less about what should happen (such as a protocol for how one addresses the Queen of England) than it is about what can happen. Technological protocols establish a possibility space, and on the Internet they determine how (or whether) packets of information flow between nodes. This means that an understanding of protocols is central to understanding political action in networks and that protocols are the primary method for regulating activity in networks. Most importantly, protocols are written. They saturate space, turning it into a particular kind of place. The saturation of protocol is multidirectional and complex, and this is our first signal that Gladwell’s picture of networks as free-for-alls is flawed.

Galloway argues that protocol is “a technique for achieving voluntary regulation within a contingent environment" (7). However, protocological power is not the simple exertion of force by way of top-down regulation. It operates in a complex fashion and is the result of what Galloway describes as “two opposing machines”: “One machine radically distributes control into autonomous locales, the other machine focuses control into rigidly defined hierarchies" (8) Galloway's primary example of protocological power comes in his description of how two machines—Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) and the Domain Name System (DNS)—work together to define the protocological space of the Internet. TCP/IP is a set of protocols that defines how packets of information move between servers. It ensures that these servers know how to format and read those packets of information, and it ensures the flow of information amongst nodes. However, this flow is always accompanied by the vertical, top-down mechanism of DNS. DNS matches particular IP addresses with particular domain names, ensuring that the information moving through the Internet and sitting on servers can be accessed. DNS establishes a rigid hierarchy of top-level domains (TLDs) such as .com and .net, and it sorts servers into each of these categories.

Working within this same complex architecture of control, Wendy Chun argues that any assertion of “freedom” in networked life always stems from infrastructures of control. Chun presents control and freedom as a tightly coupled pair, demonstrating that openness does not necessarily mean democracy or egalitarianism: “control and freedom are not opposites but different sides of the same coin: just as discipline served as a grid on which liberty was established, control is the matrix that enables freedom and openness” (71). Like Galloway, Chun defines this set of problems in terms of Gilles Deleuze’s control society, which takes different forms than the disciplinary society envisioned by Michel Foucault. Disciplinary society, encapsulated by Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, relies on power that was visible but unverifiable. The subject in a disciplinary society can see that they are watched, but they never know exactly if or when surveillance mechanisms are active. On the other hand, control societies make power more difficult to detect: “Digital language makes control systems invisible: we no longer experience the visible yet unverifiable gaze but a network of nonvisualizable digital control” (Chun 9). Such complex, contradictory, and invisible structures of control do not, however, foreclose the possibility for political action or democracy. Structures of control like the Internet rely on control-freedom, but they also “[open] up possibilities for reimagining democracy and democratic structures” (Chun 72). For Chun, these new possibilities require that we recognize and embrace the vulnerability coded into networked life rather than allowing paranoia to freeze out political action.

The multidirectional exertion of power theorized by Chun and Galloway is not confined to digital networks. For these two thinkers, this coupling of horizontal and vertical power defines contemporary life, both online and offline. Translated into Dobrin’s theoretical system, without written protocols, the knots of a network are “not.” Protocols, as writing, saturate networked life, helping to define what can or cannot happen in a given space. In fact, Dobrin addresses code (albeit in passing) in his discussion of saturation, suggesting that the posthuman/postcomposition condition makes technological code paramount and that such code “is better understood as writing”: “As writing saturates, its codes become more universal, or more universally adaptive, as digital writing/electracy might reveal . . . Such a shift opens dynamic spaces in which to consider the role of writing postcomposition” (185). The dynamic spaces that Dobrin describes are multiple, meaning that the role of code is not confined to digital spaces. Here, Galloway, Chun, and Dobrin are in complete agreement: the arrangements of protocological power may be most clearly embodied in Internet technologies, but protocol defines and codes all contemporary space, digital or otherwise.

            But if such spaces are coded, what of writing in the network? How does one write in networks that are written, saturated, coded? Here, hacking offers perhaps the clearest articulation of how one makes things happen in the network. Computer programmers write code that exposes gaps in protocols, problems with security, and technological flaws. As Galloway argues in a separate text, The Exploit (co-authored with Eugene Thacker), political action in networks does not coincide with a clear shift in power. In disciplinary societies, change happens when one entity gains power and another loses it. One example is the institution of the forty-hour workweek, which was the result of shifting power relations between capital and labor. However, Galloway and Thacker argue that this dynamic changes drastically under regimes of protocological control: “within protocological networks, political acts generally happen not by shifting power from one place to another but by exploiting power differentials already existing in the system” (81). These power differentials are holes or gaps that exist inside the system; they are not imposed from without. Drawing on the hacker’s vocabulary, Galloway and Thacker describe these gaps as “exploits”: “Protocological struggles do not center around changing existent technologies but instead involve discovering holes in existent technologies and projecting potential change through those holes. Hackers call these holes ‘exploits’” (81). These exploits pull at the seams and reveal the potential for change.

But the results of pulling at the seams are often difficult to track. As Rita Raley argues in Tactical Media, political action in networks may, on first glance, appear to be little more than temporary, fleeting eruptions. Raley’s focus is on tactical media—the use of digital technologies to disrupt and reconceptualize networked arrangements. These activities use writing to expose contradictions or power imbalances, but they often do so without resulting in massive, immediate change:

A skeptic might wonder what difference a temporary disturbance makes, but for tactical media there is a certain power in the spontaneous eruption, the momentary evasion of protocological control structures, the creation of temporary autonomous zones, that surely play their part in making possible the opening for political transformations. (27)

Raley offers us multiple examples of tactical media, a term which she uses to describe “intervention and disruption of a dominant semiotic regime, the temporary creation of a situation in which signs, messages, and narratives are set into play and critical thinking becomes possible” (6). She has something much more significant in mind than clicking a “like” button, and her examples range from videogames that critique post-9/11 foreign policy to “virtual sit-ins” directed against the California and Arizona Minutemen organizations. The latter are of particular interest here, given that they were occupations carried out by way of writing. By writing a java applet that flooded these websites with requests for files that did not exist—files such as “Justice, Freedom, and the names of those who have died crossing the border”—this denial of service attack was an occupation that took advantage of a saturated network, a network soaked with protocols (Raley 41). Raley’s discussion of tactical media is essential for those of us interested in tracking how writing’s occupations intervene, and it reminds us that the force of such interventions are “invested with a transformative power that may not be immediately perceptible but in which one must place a certain belief” (14). The occupations of networked life, many of which are carried out through writing, emerge from within networks of activity and are both enabled and constrained by protocological power. Tracking concrete change in such situations is difficult. However, these occupations do not necessarily lead to the “small change” that Gladwell associates with digital activism. They very well could, but this is not a necessary relationship. What’s more likely is that exploits reverberate in ways that we are not accustomed to noticing. A network exploit, as an occupation, acts differently from previous forms of activism, and we are only recently beginning to understand its effects on networked life. The theorists glossed here present us with the tools for following these effects, and they ask us to resist the urge to associate digital activism with clicking, “liking,” and retweeting.

            The most important effects of the exploit are its ability to occupy us, to perform an argument rather than to explain it, and to slow things down in order to hold open questions. For instance, take the following two examples of the complex dynamics of the exploit:

  • In October 2011, the hacker collective Anonymous exposed a disturbing corner of the Internet, referred to as the “darknet” or the “Invisible Web.” These sections of the Web offer respite from both the law and from search engines, networking computers while attempting to keep out Google indexing spiders. Anonymous’ specific target was a site called Hidden Wiki, which provided a guide to accessing hidden child pornography sites. Anonymous took aim at one file sharing site for pedophiles, Lolita City, by publishing the names of more than 1,500 active members (Liebowitz). They posted the user data of these active members to a website called Pastebin, and they also shared a detailed account of how they were able to gain access to this data.
  • In March 2008, an Internet forum administered by the Epilepsy Foundation was shut down for a time after certain users posted “JavaScript code and flashing computer animation to trigger migraine headaches and seizures in some users” (Poulson). Kevin Poulson of Wired speculated that this was perhaps the “first computer attack to inflict physical harm on the victims.” Some forum users, such as RyAnne Fultz, experienced seizures after clicking links that launched flashing images: “It was a spike of pain in my head…and the lockup, that only happens with really bad ones. I don't think I've had a seizure like that in about a year” (Poulson). Anonymous was blamed for the attack, but the administrators of argued that The Church of Scientology carried out the attack in order to discredit Anonymous (Ramadge).

While the first of these exploits might lead us to champion the exploit as a way to shed light on heinous activities, the second gives us pause. The users of the epilepsy forum seem to be collateral damage, perhaps caught in the crossfire of a battle between Anonymous and the Church of Scientology. Regardless of who carried out the exploit, those affected by it were left to wonder why this particular space had been exposed as insecure. While exposing the activities of a “darknet” is, most would agree, a necessary activity, this second exploit opens up a difficult set of questions. But for multiple reasons, both of these exploits should give us pause as we consider the role of writing in digital life. First, they both expose the difficulties of drawing a line between “online” and “offline” life. Both the children abused by sexual predators and those suffering epileptic seizures would contend that these “digital” activities are not removed from the various concerns of our offline lives. Second, both of these exploits occupy a networked space, taking it over and transforming it. “The Invisible Web” is suddenly made visible and the Epilepsy Foundation is instantaneously transformed into a kind of weapon or, at the very least, a health hazard. Finally, both exploits are examples of writing that occupies our time, opening up multiple disturbing and difficult questions.

In these situations, the writing is code, but exploits are not necessarily confined to software manipulation. What these two examples provide are a model for how writing occupies networks of people, machines, and activities, exploiting holes and gaps. While these episodes may or may not fit our definition of “activism”—though it seems clear that they are both making political arguments—they nonetheless stand as models of how writing, as occupation, transforms saturated space and cuts across our attempts to distinguish between online and offline life. Exploits, as occupations, are often about exploring and demonstrating possibilities. As we can see with these two examples, they expose the dimensions of space, focusing less on what ought to happen and more on what can happen. This points to the difficult ethics of software exploits. Hacking is a way to perform the possible, to show (rather than tell) us what is going on.

We might ask: Are such occupations ethical? If we reduce ethics to rational choice, hacking is unethical. A more “rational” move would be to tell people about the problem, to explain the difficulties rather than to go around releasing data or causing seizures. But exposing the power relations of networked life and attempting to transform them often calls for and enables an entirely different set of possibilities for the writer and rhetor. Rather than using writing to affect the network from outside (writing about a problem or an issue), an exploit occupies the network, working from within, poking around, tinkering with possibilities. The exploit forces us to follow all of the meanings of occupy, just as Dobrin does. Writing occupies networks, takes up space, transforms space into place, holds open questions that we might not otherwise have considered, and it does so in a sustained way. An occupation demonstrates the possible means of persuasion—which is different and more expansive than Aristotle’s available means of persuasion—and attempts to hold open the question. It presents us with an opportunity for invention.

All of this happens not as the result of “activism” in the sense that we typically understand it, as the ability to exert force from some easily locatable place or origin. Instead, an occupation emerges from within a network. It is, in fact, a sit-in, forcing us to confront and deal with a flaw in the architecture. The exploit does not exert force from without, trying to transfer power from one place to another: Dobrin argues that this has been the limitation of composition’s understanding of networks. We have recognized that a network “responds/reacts to contact, to disruption, to movement,” but we have assumed that this “movement or disruption initiates from an external, identifiable agent whose (independent) action works as a trigger mechanism” (151). For Dobrin, writing does not trigger from the outside. Instead, it occupies. The exploit, as an occupation, operates by way of a kind of jujitsu, using the network’s momentum against itself. In fact, this is what raises such difficult questions when it comes to these activities: Where is the origin point of a network occupation, and who or what is responsible for the exploit? Is it the network administrator, who allows users to post Javascript to a forum? Or is it the hacker who demonstrates this flaw by posting a snippet of code? There are too many agents and agencies circulating to find the point of origin, and none can be situated outside the network. All of this activity works from within, occupying our saturated networks.

Interlude: Occupy Gymnasia

The hacking efforts of collectives such as Anonymous and LulzSec are just some recent examples of such occupations, but the tradition extends backward and spiders out. If the exploit is an occupation that explores a possibility space, then perhaps the rhetorical tradition contains within it a kind of genealogy of such occupations. For instance, Debra Hawhee’s Bodily Arts examines how the shifting layout of the gymnasium—a space to watch athletics and to “gather, to socialize, to develop and share ideas”—can be read as an expression of the complex interconnections between athletic training and rhetorical training (114). Hawhee explains that the gymnasium was also a “gathering place for Athenian male citizens and for citizens-in-training” (114–5). The open layout of the gymnasium meant that bodies and minds were shaped simultaneously and in multiple ways. As Hawhee shows us, it was “among the areas where agonistic athletic training was occurring that instances of early training in rhetoric and philosophy took place” (122). Most important, for our purposes, were the sophists who helped to transform these gymnasia. Traveling sophists who moved amongst cities collecting fees in exchange for lessons in rhetoric saw the gymnasia as a place to set up shop, and their presence reshaped these spaces:

The infiltration of gymnasia and palaestrae by sophists and philosophers changed the facilities structures over time. The most notable change, aside from the broadening of colonnades and addition of benches described by Vitruvius, was the development of libraries within gymnasia. (Hawhee 128)

Eventually, rhetorical and philosophical activities began to take precedence over athletic activities (Hawhee 129). The gymnasium was not a free-for-all. It was defined and regulated, if only in loose ways, but the itinerant sophist found a home there. Occupying these spaces, the sophists transformed them. Eventually, their role as bystanders shifted into something more active, and along with this change came a transformation of the space of the gymnasium. This transformation redirected and shaped the shifting priorities of the space—changing the scenes of these schools for citizens. Through occupation, these spaces were rewritten.

            Our contemporary occupations are linked to these ancient efforts to occupy the gymnasia and palaestrae. Both the hacker and the sophist occupy. Early sophists were, much like hackers, interested in exploring (and sometimes transforming) possibility spaces. In the case of both hacking and sophistry, these explorations may often have little to do with utility or practical matters. When Gorgias refers to his Encomium of Helen as a paignion, a child’s game or a plaything, we begin to see how the sophists were occupiers (256). Gorgias's Encomium did not offer an explicit political proposal or a courtroom-style defense. Instead, it answered the various arguments made against Helen, “freeing her of blame.” It served to occupy time and space, to open the question and slow the rush to judgment. This speech was not only an exploration of what was possible, an attempt to show what Gorgias could do with language. More than this, it was an occupation. It occupied Gorgias and his audience, and it continues to occupy us today, as we re-read and re-examine its movements and strategies. An occupation demonstrates spatial and temporal possibilities, and in this sense it may be the most useful way of understanding rhetorical action. The sophists show us that writing, as occupation, begins from the assumption that we always operate from within, exposing the possible means of persuasion.

 Occupy Woolworth’s

This brief tour through the ancient gymnasia is not only an attempt to link the rhetorical tradition to occupation. It is also a way of understanding that digital activism is, in so many ways, inseparable from any other type of activism. After all of the attempts to draw lines between discipline societies and control societies, online activism and offline activism, loose ties and close ties, one simple fact should not escape our attention: The Greensboro Four occupied Woolworth’s lunch counter, and they occupied the attention of a nation. They helped to open up the question. These four were perhaps prophetic (like Dobrin), showing us that “activism” and its associations with acting from the outside rather than acting within, is not the best way to understand change, big or small. The Greensboro Four did not only act upon Woolworth’s. They occupied it, and sitting in silence they demonstrated what was and was not possible, performing rather than explaining their argument. This, of course, does not remove the force of what they did. Rather, it shows us that activism has perhaps always been better understood as occupation. As the shapes and forms of dissent, politics, rhetoric, and writing shift, our challenge is not to laud the old or the new but to learn to notice emerging possibilities, to understand the histories of those possibilities, and to carefully track how our occupations of time and space transform networked life.

And writing, understood in terms of occupation, can be a part of those possibilities. There is no doubt that “clicktivism” is qualitatively different from sitting at that counter, risking one’s life, and occupying space in order to transform it into a different kind of place. This essay is by no means an attempt to flatten out that difference. Instead, my aim has been to offer a richer understanding of the complexities of networked life and to help correct ongoing misconceptions: that networks are disorganized, nonhierarchical places and that writing is diametrically opposed to the embodied action of those “in the streets.” Clicking a button or making a donation may or may not count as writing, and it may or may not count as effective, meaningful action. However, making that judgment requires us to understand the specific dynamics of a situation, and it requires that we refrain from determining that particular categories of writing or action always operate in the same way. Big claims that decide which activities do or do not count based upon medium or proximity to violence are, in the end, not all that useful for those of us trying to understand the complexities and challenges of rhetorical action in complex networks of activity. Instead of bombast, we are better served by examining how occupation helps us imagine rhetorical and political action as embedded in and emerging from networks of online and offline activity. Understanding how writing occupies, how it helps us to reimagine a saturated possibility space, how it helps to create and transform places, can move us toward meaningful change (big or small) by opening the question and by learning how we might variously occupy our saturated, networked lives. 

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Jim Brown is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he also teaches in the Composition and Rhetoric program and the Digital Studies program. His work has appeared in College Composition and Communication, Computers and Composition, and The Computer Cultures Reader. His research and teaching focus on rhetoric, writing, and new media studies.

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