Reading Lars Lih's monumental Lenin Rediscovered, I find myself drifting back and forth between 1898-1904 and the last ten years. More specifically, I've been wondering about the ways my account of tactical and participatory media under communicative capitalism may have been too one-sided. Here are two ways that I may have been wrong:
1. Tactical media, particularly Indymedia and outlets like Alternet and Dissident Voice but also potentially including a wide variety of artistic projects and experiments, is important in providing alternatives to mainstream media. Without these alternatives, commercial media in all its idiocy would dominate not only news but also the cultural landscape. The crucial contribution of tactical media, then, is less the specific content of the items but its role in counter-hegemonic struggle.
2. Participatory media is important as a critical practice against elitism. If anyone can produce interesting content, then financial monopolies over the production of this content make no sense. The more people participate in the production of content, the more they start to realize--through their very practice--the fundamental inequality and injustice of our contemporary arrangements.
How should I respond? Are these criticisms correct?
Perhaps I can undermine the apparent force of the first criticism by unpacking some of its assumptions. The most prominent, unstated, assumption concerns the 'role' of tactical media in counter-hegemonic struggle. That is, the assumption is that there is a role, that there is some kind of vaguely unified counter-hegemonic struggle. In other words, the criticism presumes a setting of antagonism where we know who the antagonists are. Has this assumption made sense over the last twenty years? Or does it only make sense when one begins from concrete political commitments, such as communism and/or a Marxist analysis?
But maybe one would say that there has been a clear opponent in tactical media circles, namely, the mainstream media. This point, though, blurs political lines--the far right has been vicious in its attack on the mainstream media. The field of counter-hegemonic struggle, then, would be itself diffuse and variable, inclusive of religious fundamentalists of various stripes, feminists, libertarians, conspiracy theorists, communists, environmentalists etc.
So it's valuable to have progressive, anti-racist, feminist, anti-capitalist, anti-war, and Green media productions. These hold open spaces against the corporate mainstream. But these are helpful primarily for those who know what they are looking for, who know what they support and what they oppose. Alternative media provide information and point of view to those who know to look for it. In a turbulent media environment, a multitude of singular media productions don't function to win new hearts and minds but to keep the old ones from breaking or going crazy. (The previous post's link to the article on google's selective search results indicates that this selectivity and isolation is getting worse.)
But this is good (and hence my earlier criticisms fail to go far enough)! Fragmentation can strengthen partisan positions and make the other positions appear in all their stupidity. The criticism of blogs, for example, as amplifying extreme voices mistakes a strength for a weakness, and it makes this mistakes because it operates within a democratic imaginary rather than from a position of full acknowledgement of antagonism.
Alas, this is too quick. Why? Because it fails to see how fragmentation under neoliberalism becomes individualism, personalization, and even whatever being as every possible support or identification dissolves. Since the 90s (at least) fragmentation has gone designer and become intertwined with the injunction to be unique. The political forces that have successfully combatted these fragmenting, individualizing, and personalizing moves are precisely the forces that urge them on the rest of us: conservatives, the religious right, corporations, Republicans. So Grover Norquist can get Republicans to adhere in lockstep to the pledge not to raise taxes even as they do so in the name of freedom and individual choice. Folks like Palin go on and on about freedom and taking our country back and ending big government--and they create a unified message that they repeat constantly. Differently put, there is a fundamental asymmetry in the fragmentation and personalization that goes under the name of freedom: corporations act politically with more unity than the rest of us (Business Roundtable, Chamber of Commerce, lobbying groups for finance as a sector).
If the left would unify around anti Wall Street, anti-capitalist, socialist, and communist ideals, then tactical media could be understood as having a vital counter-hegemonic role.
What about the second criticism, the one about participatory media? With respect to blogging, the moment has passed. Blogs have already become to imbricated in capitalist media, over-flowing with adds, over-burdened by a neoliberalized approach to the attention economy (so, interlinked with Twitter, Facebook, and other outlets that increase page views). Facebook and YouTube should be a different case--people are fully aware that we provide the content. But the dominant mentality seems to be that we are fortunate that they are basically free. Most folks seem to think that giving up personal information and being subjected to ads is a fair enough exchange for the service.
Of course there are a number of small experiments with new platforms--and these then fall into the same fragmentation I addressed in my responses to the first criticism.
Maybe, though, a combination of these experiments and consciousness-raising, that is, emphasis on the new forms of exploitation that accompany mass social media, could have effects. So my mistake would be in treating as settled a terrain of practice that is turbulent. The very platforms that suck up our data give us opportunities to connect and redeploy them, potentially in the interest of taking them over (a provisional step before the revolution: Facebook users demanding shares in the company, organizing themselves to pressure for reforms--and I don't mean simply individuals liking or not liking particularly privacy features but collectives empowered to meet with corporate people on site features).
Unfortunately, the line of thinking in the previous paragraph does not follow the direction of developing critical practice. Perhaps because social media are systematically corrupting criticism and practice. Criticism is more than like or not like. Practice requires more than uploading photos and sharing links. Under current condition, anything more is coopted as free labor for someone else's profit.
The more this point is emphasized, the more the problem of unpaid net labor is brought to the fore, then the more the fundamental class division driving communicative capitalism appears, pushing forward the way the few are profitting from the many.