Radical media, stop fighting the mainstream - instead, let's build the future

Radical media are wasting too much energy competing with the mainstream. They should return to their great strength: discovering new ways of 'doing' media in the service of progressive change.
James Hamilton
25 October 2011

I read in openDemocracy about the London Rebellious Media Conference from my home in Athens, Georgia, an oasis in one of the reddest Republican states in the US. I was equally inspired by its attendees’ amazing commitment and effort, and dismayed by this incredible energy getting sidetracked by trying to figure out how to catch up with the mainstream.

I believe radical media on both sides of the Atlantic should concentrate less on what we feel we lack (capital and technology), and more on our strength, which historically has been and continues to be creating and innovating new ways of ‘doing’ media in the service of progressive change.

Front to back

Given even a little hindsight, it’s clear that radical media—and not the mainstream—have been driving media change and innovation. A recent example is the now-hoary Independent Media Centres, which pioneered the practice of collective self-publishing in 1999. In its accessibility to mobilized individuals who wanted to act and get involved, Indymedia even does one better than such revolutionary rethinkings of how to use the master’s tools against the master as the Deep Dish satellite-television network in the US, which began its work in the 1980s.

Whether Mark Zuckerberg and other social-media titans like it or not, radical media in the form of Indymedia worked out many of the key bases and practices of social media. Facebook wasn’t even a gleam in Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s eye until 2003—four years after Indymedia. And, while roughly contemporary to Indymedia, blogging by contrast was simply a means for isolated individuals to address the world via cookie-cutter web pages—hardly a collective, empowering political effort.

However, this innovation wasn’t left alone for long. In parasitic fashion, the radical-media DNA spawned by Indymedia was cloned then re-engineered to produce the commercial, generally deradicalized social media of today (the Iranian Green Movement, Tahrir Square and other momentary radical hijackings notwithstanding). In a similar fashion, citizen journalism underwritten by commercial and statist media organizations cloaks the goals of building stronger brand identification and lowering labor costs within purple-verse paeans to the glories of user empowerment.

Indeed, social media such as Facebook and Twitter embody the penultimate examples of the content-agnostic culture industry, for which close to anything goes—even revolutionary organizing—as long as it generates marketable, monetized user activity. This is a cynical comment to be sure, but the only people more cynical are the owners and CEOs of such ventures who decide to put such a cynical plan into action.

By incorporation radical innovation, commercial media—particularly promotional uses in advertising—have built upon their insurmountable capitalization and technological sophistication to sometimes even out-innovate us. Compared to new kinds of mobile, public real-time composition such as laser tagging, or to new forms of communal production such as the light sculpture created by users worldwide as part of last year’s promotion of the videogame ‘Halo: Reach’, much radical media continues to cling to being poorer-cousin, mirror images of commercial journalism, complete with user-composed articles, one-off photos, and the occasional comment.

Indeed, today the Internet is de rigueur for radical media, but is used most often for the mundane task of distribution, with the obligatory “Comment” box for individuals to post equally individualized responses. Such a use constitutes the cutting edge of the Internet as it existed with mainstream commercial newspapers of the mid-1990s. Adding buttons for ‘liking’ and bookmarking simply makes it easier to incorporate publications and movements within the reigning commercial new-media empires.

I suspect we mimic the mainstream in the hopes that we be taken ‘seriously’ by that very same mainstream. It is a vicious cycle of dependency that reverses through sleight of hand the leading role radical media have always taken.

New places of practice

Right now, however, we’re seeing radical media innovating ways of doing media in startling new forms. Currently the most progressive and innovative radical-media projects are those that act as an integral facet of community life, not simply a standalone means of message propagation and delivery. Integration within a community—as Raymond Williams put it some years ago, speaking ‘from’ a community rather than ‘for’ it—is actually an insight renewed from many years of radical-media work. For example, such a position was already a source of strength, support, and identification in the working-class presses of the early 19th Century. This key difference separates them both from despatialized radical media without a home (apologies, OpenDemocracy; I'm thinking in part of you) as well as philanthropic, progressive commercial efforts, such as Advertisers Without Borders.

A video clip on the Rebellious Media Conference site of a representative from News from Nowhere Bookshop makes clear how relevant this still is. The bookshop opened its doors on May Day 1974 (how many small bookstores have survived 35 years?), and its not-for-profit business and women’s collective occupies a five-storey building in a Liverpool neighborhood. The rep was justifiably proud of this accomplishment, but emphasized throughout that this success was due to its being a community institution.

Being an organic part of a community forms a key part of many current social struggles. Indeed, radical media are integral to the political act of what could be called the domestication of space. Such an act is not a take-over, but a taking back of public space. It is not a military occupation, but a carving out of space for living collectively one’s day-to-day life. These efforts of domestication as radical political action make the everyday exceptional. They recontextualize the simple act of living with all the domestic routines into one with radical political import, thus reminiscent of recent calls such as Stears’ for ‘everyday democracy’.

Similar to integrating radical media within its community, taking back space for living as a political act is also a strategy with a long pedigree, from at least the time of the Paris Commune and the free-speech fights of the Industrial Workers of the World. It continues to be exemplified today by urban squats and settlements, We The People Media in neighborhoods of south Chicago, the recent Hetherington action, the Arab Spring of Tahrir Square and related actions, including the ongoing Occupy Wall Street movement.

Interestingly, Occupy Wall Street was apparently sparked (although not overseen or directed) by the decades’ old radical-media organization Adbusters, which is based in Vancouver. Although preoccupied with a retro-1960s McLuhan/Debord-inspired critique of the toxic media environment, and publisher of a brainy, arty and glossy magazine of little resonance to many activists, damned if it doesn’t come up with some good ideas.

In the 1990s, it drew upon long-standing critical-modernist aesthetic ideas such as détournement of the Situationist International for what it came to call its ‘ad spoofs’. These parodies of famous ad layouts and slogans focused attention on the underbelly of commercial products, thereby doing much to usher in what became known as ‘culture jamming’. It engaged critically the orgy of end-of-year holiday shopping by promoting what it called Buy Nothing Day, which consisted largely of soliciting and posting tales of activist interventions taken in specific places. Adbusters also dramatized the ideological limits of a ‘free’ commercial media system by being refused air time for its television commercials for Buy Nothing Day, despite being willing to pay the full rate.

Radical-media practice in such efforts isn’t simply standalone message production and advocacy abstracted from people’s day-to-day lives, but an integral continual process of community formulation, organization, confrontation, and critique on the terrain of a kind of critical domesticity. In these examples, we see critiques becoming integrated with the politics of place, all within the confluence of the particular historical moment and opportunity.

In one such ‘mini-municipality’ of Occupy Wall Street set up in Boston, National Public Radio reported thousands of people ‘camped out in tents, all arranged in rows, even marked with street signs’. One of the protester-residents reflected that ‘we’ve created this intentional community where we take care of everyone in this community, and you have a voice. So for us, living this process was the best example that we had of what our fix was’. Radical media are used to distribute rationales, purposes and goals, but also to send out calls for clean, dry socks, to post pictures to friends, and to describe the settlement’s system of gray-water filtration.

We should never apologize for being out-capitalized and out-technologized. We should leave behind forever the dreams of gargantuan battles against dominant media conglomerates for capital, technology, and marketshare. Indeed, radical media are alive and well, if only we can see more fully what they are and can be.

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