Leaderful Charisma

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Chris Garces:

"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." (http://culanth.org/?q=node/628)

More Information

Appel, Hannah Chadeayne. 2011 “People Before Process: The Bureaucracies of Anarchy Pt. 2” social Text blog December 14th, http://www.socialtextjournal.org/blog/2011/12/people-before-process-the-bureaucracies-of-anarchy-part-ii.php, accessed May 22, 2012.

Garces, Chris. 2011 “Preamble to an Ethnography of the People’s Mic” http://somatosphere.net/2011/10/preamble-to-an-ethnography-of-the-people’s-mic.html, accessed May 22, 2012.