The People’s Mic: Dancing Between Collective and Personal Identities?

“Mic check,” the speaker says.

“MIC CHECK!” the crowd roars. And roars. And roars, until finally the words buzz along the farthest edge of the crowd.

When attending a General Assembly of an Occupy camp for the first time, one is inevitably struck by the unusual communication device that is the people’s mic (or human microphone, as the Wikipedia community seems to prefer). Pragmatically, the people’s mic—in which the words of the individual speaker are repeated collectively until they have reached everyone gathered—serves as an alternative amplification system in situations where electronic amplification isn’t allowed, typically because such amplification requires a permit.

Polletta and Jasper, in discussing collective identity alignment/expression as both an explanation for why individuals become involved in social movements and a strategy in and of itself (2001), define collective identity as “an individual’s cognitive, moral, and emotional connection with a broader community, category, practice, or institution” (285). The device of the people’s mic offers an embodied experience of this connection. It serves, moreover, as a component of the larger prefigurative project of the Occupy movement that Gabi mentioned last week in his blog entry. That is, it strives to be the change that it seeks to enact, not only through its message and actions, but also through its form and practices. Thus, the people’s mic emphasizes the many: the participation of many, the power of the many, and the interaction level of many to many. Richard Kim at the Nation suggests that this communication practice naturally encourages the simplification of messages and de-emphasizes individual celebrity; further, he extolls its slowness, suggesting that it symbolizes a model of “slow growth activism…[that] poses a provocative counter-model to Wall Street’s regime of instant profits.”

Anecdotally, in addition to attending a General Assembly myself, I have spoken to individuals who have attended General Assemblies in Boston and DC. Although everyone I’ve spoken with identifies with/supports the movement, no one has a positive opinion of the people’s mic. In the words of one individual, the people’s mic feels “orchestrated and staged.” Its symbolism is just a little too overt.

Polleta and Jasper note that “One of the chief causes of movement decline is that collective identity stops lining up with the movement. We stop believing that the movement “represents” us” (2001, 292). From this perspective, issues of authenticity and contrivance may play an important role in the maintenance of a sense of collective identity.

I would like to suggest another way of understanding this. Polleta and Jasper touch briefly on the relationship between the collective identity and the personal identity. I’m wondering whether the visibility of the mechanism itself doesn’t trigger a shift away from a collective identity and toward a personal identity. That is, it dislocates us from the extended group experience and returns us to our individual existence. This leaves me with several questions: If personal and collective identities do indeed perform a recurring dialectic dance like this, does this dance have clear patterns? Are there identifiable triggers for shifts between the identity types? Finally, might it not be better to think of the collective identity not as representing the personal identity in some way, but as an entirely different state, the shift from the one to the other a phase change?

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One thought on “The People’s Mic: Dancing Between Collective and Personal Identities?

  1. Pingback: Collective Movement Identity Megablog | Networked Social Movements

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