Alternative Media


Chris Atton

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    • Box 1. A typology of alternative and radical media 27
    • Figure 1. Darnton's communication circuit (after Darnton, 1990) 26


    I would like to thank my colleagues in alternative media studies, Jay Hamilton and Nick Couldry, who were generous enough to read and comment on various draft chapters of this book. John Downing read the entire first draft and offered much pertinent criticism: I am in his debt. Their encouragement kept me going at dark moments. Natalie Fenton, Simon Frith, Peter Golding and Tony Harcup provided much welcome enthusiasm, support and criticism for this project. Sharif Gemie and Jon Purkis at Anarchist Studies trusted me: had they not, much of this work would be undone. Parts of the book began life as my PhD thesis: I thank my supervisors David Finkelstein, Alistair McCleery and Desmond Bell for their support and criticism, also my examiners George McKay and Ian Welsh. Numerous colleagues in the Popular Culture Association and the Media Studies, Communication and Cultural Studies Association provided much opportunity for discussion of the main themes of this work. I must also thank those editors, writers and readers who so generously and patiently answered my questions. Lucy Green at Popular Music cheered me up at an important moment. Thanks to Earache Records, Cyclops Records and Champagne Lake Productions for sonic refreshment in the final stages. Julia Hall, my editor at Sage, placed much faith in me – I hope it is repaid here. As is customary, I end by thanking those who had to endure this project out of hours: Kate, Daniel and Jacob. And Godzilla.

    An earlier version of Chapter 2 appeared as ‘A Re-assessment of the Alternative Press’, Media, Culture and Society, 21(1), January 1999, 51–76. Parts of Chapter 6 appeared in earlier forms as parts of ‘Are There Alternative Media after CMC?’, M/C Reviews, 12 April 2000. <> and Anarchy on the Internet: Obstacles and Opportunities for Alternative Electronic Publishing’, Anarchist Studies, 4(2), October 1996, 115–132. The material on Green Anarchist in Chapters 4 and 5 first appeared as part of ‘Green Anarchist: A Case Study in Radical Media’, Anarchist Studies, 7(1), March 1999, 25–49.

  • Conclusion

    The present study has repeatedly emphasized that the alternative media – as a major constituent in the dissemination of the views and opinion formation of ‘subaltern counterpublics’ (Fraser, 1992) – have the potential to offer even more than ‘interpretation’; they provide readers with access to other readers’ (activists’) lived experiences and on occasion offers these as part of a network of sociocultural and sociopolitical projects (often aimed at social change through extra-parliamentary means). The alternative media can provide empowering narratives of resistance for those counter-publics that are written by those very counter-publics. If such counter-publics ‘want nothing more than the writing of their own texts’ (as Njabulo Ndebele expressed the desire of the repressed of South Africa; cited in Carusi, 1991: 103) then the contemporary alternative media appear able to realize that desire. A key feature of these media is the erosion of the expert who is dependent on formal education and professionalization, to be replaced by the autodidact, informally skilled often through collective experimentation. In Bourdieusian terms this autodidact has ‘a relation to legitimate culture that is at once “liberated” and disabused, familiar and disenchanted’ (Bourdieu, 1984: 84). The ‘heretical mode of acquisition’ (ibid.: 328) of cultural capital by the counter-cultural intellectual ‘leads to a refusal to be classified, with the injunction to resist fixed codes’ (Featherstone, 1991: 44).

    We see here the erasure or weakening of the influence of educational accomplishments and social background that Bourdieu argues are necessary for entry into legitimate culture. These autodidacts are not entering legitimate culture at all; neither does their lack of cultural capital condemn them to the middle- or lowbrow- theirs is an oppositional culture. Frith (1996) has argued that low culture as much as high culture ‘generates’ cultural capital and its attendant cultural authority amongst its consumers (see also Fiske, 1992b; Thornton, 1995). Alternative media appear quite indifferent to formal education. They are as interested in education gained through action as in that gained through the written word. I have shown how within new social movements the production of the printed word is often an encumbrance that can get in the way of the ‘real job’: activism. But education can also come from involvement in the production and organization of the media. Education in the alternative media leads to self-reflexive practice. If the notion of mobilizing information, of information for action, is to be seen as ‘action on action’ (as Melucci has it), as the development of a reflexive practice that aims to change the ‘lifeworld’ of its participants, then self-reflexivity within a ‘free space’ such as an alternative media project may be seen as ‘self-action on self-action’ (Cox, undated), where all individuals are able to realize their own potential and develop the self-awareness that can arise from understanding one's position within the free space and one's own potential to create and contribute from that position. Experimentation and creativity with alternative possibilities of ‘being’ and ‘doing’ will form the heart of such activity; autonomy and the absence of unbalanced power relations can develop ‘a reflexive habitus’ (Cox, 1997) that can connect the self with the lifeworld: ‘[t]his grassroots intellectual activity of rethinking and reorganising everyday life links … “transformation of self and transformation of social structures”’ (ibid., incorporating a quote from Hilary Wainwright).

    Such possibilities are strongly suggestive of the strategies promoted by Paulo Freire's (1972) critical pedagogy. Freire was concerned with achieving the educational empowerment of the oppressed, the disenfranchised and the marginalized through encouraging dialogue as a form of study, as horizontal communication that privileged empathy, hope, trust and criticism. This dialogue would be grounded in the everyday language and reality of the students and aimed to critique (and ultimately to change) the oppressive social forces that surrounded them without reproducing those oppressive structures in their own social practices. One of the many applications of Freire's approach is that of Ira Shor (1980) who worked with Open Admissions students at the City University of New York in the 1970s to engender an egalitarian form of education that was ‘mobilizing, the pedagogical means to advance political consciousness’ (1980: 95). The characteristics of many of the alternative media practices I have examined in this book – horizontal and dialogic forms of communication, an emphasis on self-reflexivity, the employment of everyday language, critical approaches to the media and its objects, mobilizing power and the significance of prefigurative politics – all suggest educational and transformational possibilities that might constitute an autonomous project of critical pedagogy.

    The ability to express and publish opinions in the alternative media is radically different from the situation in the mass media. Whereas access to the mass media by readers is severely limited, in the main being through letters to the editor (the majority remaining unpublished, thus further limiting access), the alternative media claim a democratic, participatory ethos, where readers are very often able to contribute articles and take part in editorial decision-making, even becoming editors themselves. Such an ethos promotes what Ben Agger (1990: 36) has termed ‘intellectual democracy’ which, he argues, is essential to halt the decline in discourse that he identifies as a key element in the withering of the dominant public sphere. The alternative media, in offering their pages to activists and readers, enable the members of an alternative public sphere to function as Habermas argues they must if they are to be a public body: ‘to confer in an unrestricted fashion – that is, with the guarantee of freedom of assembly and association and the freedom to express and publish their opinions’ (Habermas, cited in Eley, 1992: 289).

    Access to the alternative media encourages self-publishing, whereby readers may publish their own papers and magazines quite independently from one another (most often as zines), with minimal financial outlay. There is less restraint on form, too. The alternative media in their public sphere not only involve people directly in their production and distribution, but they do so with far less commodification than do the mass media, which have become, in John Durham Peters's words, ‘a means for imagining community… just splendid for representation but horrid for participation’ (Peters, 1993: 566). Alternative media actively elicit such participation by their very construction, offering it in the place of spectacle; identity instead of mere representation (p. 559). As social practices democratize involvement in media production, such roles are further eroded. The desires and demands of agents are articulated through alternative media by a set of transgressive practices that challenge dominant forms of organization and cultural and political practice, and that establish their own alternative frames of participation, power and creative action. Participants do not simply consume reflexively, but produce reflexively in an attempt to ‘change the way in which we construct our selves, our actions and our lifeworlds’ (Cox, 1997); ‘as more people learn to communicate about communication, they revolutionize the traditional order’ (Eder, 1993: 22). Raymond Williams has highlighted both the value of communication in social networks and its role in reflexive learning processes:

    What we call society is not only a network of political and economic arrangements, but also a process of learning and communication. Communication begins in the struggle to learn and describe. (Williams, 1976: 11)

    I have argued that the alternative public sphere is an appropriate conceptual foundation from which to understand the production and reception of autonomously developed accounts of experience, critiques, information and knowledge. Here are Nancy Fraser's ‘subaltern counter-publics’ engaging in ‘parallel discursive arenas’ in order ‘to invent and circulate counterdiscourses to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs’ (Fraser, 1992: 123).

    Within this sphere we might consider alternative media as instances of the ‘free spaces’ identified by Melucci (1995), who stresses the necessary independence of such spaces from government, the state and other dominant political institutions and practices – particularities they hold in common with a public sphere model – an independence that allows for their maintenance as experimental zones within which alternative means of ‘sociation’ may be developed. Cox (undated) similarly defines free spaces as ‘situations of a relative weakening of determination by the logics of power and economics’ and Bookchin considers the affinity group as the ‘free space’ par excellence, ‘in which revolutionaries can make themselves, individually, and also as social beings’ (Bookchin, 1986: 243). Such theorizations bear upon the characteristics and values we have found in the practices of alternative media; they centre on autonomy, solidarity and the development of reflexivity in the creative processes of democratic media production.


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