Radical Media: Rebellious Communication and Social Movements

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John D.H. Downing

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    Preface

    Common approaches to communication media are wildly lopsided precisely because they refuse to take seriously the historical persistence and geographical pervasiveness of radical alternative media. Although the extent of such media at the dawn of the 21st century CE is broader than ever before, and therefore ever more demanding of our analytical attention, radical alternative media are by no means latecomers to culture and politics. They are simply relative newcomers to the established research and theory agenda, which has a predilection for the seemingly obvious and the easily counted. By radical media, I refer to media, generally small-scale and in many different forms, that express an alternative vision to hegemonic policies, priorities, and perspectives.

    Filling in a very significant gap is only one reason for focusing on radical alternative media. The other is related, but pragmatic rather than conceptual: the urgency of media activism in the face of blockages of public expression1. These blockages emerge from many quarters: powerful components within the dynamic of capitalist economy, governmental secrecy, religious obscurantism, institutionalized racist and patriarchal codes, other hegemonic2 codes that appear natural and sensible; the insidious impact of reactionary populism, and also reflexes of all of these within oppositional movements themselves. Radical media activism is not the only response needed—media literacy campaigns, growing media democratization, scientific and technical popularization, and support for media professionals struggling to upgrade mainstream media practice are all vital—but it is essential.

    How can small-scale radical media have any impact worth having? This book sets out to answer that question, but the short answer is they have multiple impacts on different levels. Let me offer two rapid examples.

    In the downward spiral of the second Cold War of the early 1980s, I was only one of many Americans, Russians, and others who looked on aghast as the two camps' senile leaders, Brezhnev and Reagan, pointed ever more massive nuclear weapons against each other (with the enthusiastic backing of their military staffs and military-industrial complexes). On this issue, mainstream media followed their leaders in both camps.3 However, in the United States and former West Germany, in particular, but also in Britain, Italy, and the Netherlands, large antinuclear movements sprang up or became reinvigorated, both against nuclear weapons and more broadly against nuclear power. Germany in particular produced a huge array of radical media exposing and attacking the nuclear arms race and the dangers of nuclear power (Downing, 1988a). In the United States, a number of antinuclear documentary films were made and widely screened, notably Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang (1979) and Atomic Café (1982). These, in turn, fed the movements and ongoing demonstrations, which generated tremendous opposition to both the U.S. and U.S.S.R. leadership. A million people marched in New York City alone. This became a factor in the ability of the Soviet leadership to seize the high moral ground, but also provided an opportunity for both leaders to claim credit for stepping back from nuclear proliferation, beginning with the superpower summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1987. Had it not been for these movements and their media, the possibility of mutual assured destruction—the war strategists' official doctrine—would have loomed ever larger.

    This is an instance with major international impact. The Italian, Portuguese, Russian, and Polish case studies in Section 3, the Iranian case that we refer to intermittently, and the international anti-apartheid movement are some others.

    On a much less dramatic plane are the little photographic visiting cards (cartes-de-visite) that Sojourner Truth used to sell to support herself in her later years. These little photographs of oneself, used as visiting cards and as mementos, were something of a national mania in the 1860s. Truth sat for 14 of these, all of them showing her dressed as a respectable upper middle-class woman, mostly sitting with her knitting on her lap. Over a century later, the image may seem entirely banal. But as Nell Irvin Painter (1996) points out, in context, the image made a radical assertion. Truth was not working in the field or over a wash tub (the only other visual images of her). She was, by contrast, a respectable woman:

    Black woman as lady went against the commonplaces of nineteenth-century American culture. But by circulating her photographs widely, Truth claimed womanhood for a black woman who had been a slave, occupying a space ordinarily off limits to women like her. She refused to define herself by her enslavement. Seizing on a new technology, Truth established what few nineteenth-century black women were able to prove: that she was present in her times. (pp. 198–199)

    This instance, aside from encouraging us to acknowledge the all-important question of context, tells us something more. There is no instantaneous alchemy, no uncontested sociochemical procedure, that will divine in a flash or with definitive results truly radical media from the apparently radical or even the nonradical.4

    In this multifarious, seething broth that we name society, what counts as politically oppositional, as personally expressive, as experimental, as embedded in the cultural present, as heralding the public's future, as reclaiming the forgotten merits of the past? For those with instinctively tidy minds, this category dilemma generates genuine pain, a real intellectual abscess. While, nevertheless, not wishing to praise fog for its own pure sake, it is perhaps precisely the indeterminacy of this seething broth that is the most important point. From such cauldrons may emerge social and cultural change in many directions, positive and negative and in between. The 1848 revolutions in Europe, the turbulence in Russia during the first decades of the 20th century, the Weimar Republic period in Germany, the Quit India movement of the 1920s through 1947, the international ferment of the 1960s and 1970s, are only a few examples.

    Without such cauldrons, there is stasis—which may sometimes be preferred by reasonable and constructive people—but the issue here is not so much what is desirable as what actually happens and its relation to radical alternative media. And, simultaneously, what is at issue is the relation between (sometimes imperceptible) eddies and ferments of opinion and expression and the impact of such media. The specific question of whether any particular activity in this alternative public realm is to be considered oppositional or self-indulgent or reaction-ary—or some compound of these—is a matter for argument. Maybe, it will be many decades—if ever—before the significance of such events can be established. But for present purposes, it is the ferment itself that counts, as matrix to radical media.

    In the original edition of this study, published in 1984 by the South End Press collective in Boston, Massachusetts, I adopted an antibinarist and a binarist definition of radical media simultaneously. I was intensely concerned to challenge a prevailing orthodoxy of the time, namely, that there were only two viable models of how to organize media, the Western capitalist one and the Soviet one. Each system had its ideologues and its counterideologues. In the West, a disturbing number of individuals on the political left could be found who were, if not advocates of sovietized media, then at least reluctant to attack them or the Soviet system, on the spurious grounds that to do so would make it easier for Western media barons and ideologues to sing the corrupt glories of their own communication media, supposedly free agents of free expression. In the East, decades of intense frustration at the absurdities and worse of their own media systems led many thinking people to yearn for Western media and to write off critical Western media researchers as smug, deluded idiots. Either way, an international consensus seemed to hold that only two models of media organization were feasible or even imaginable.

    I was determined to query that consensus, and so I spent quite some time critiquing the then-contemporary application of Leninist media theory in the East, as well as underscoring the idiotic triumphalism of those who chanted (and still chant!) the unalloyed virtues of capitalist media. I also endeavored to build up the rudiments of a theory of radical alternative media on the basis of some writings by socialist anarchists, British marxist feminists of that period, and dissident marxist theorists in Eastern Europe. (And I spent time annotating typical vices of alternative media.)

    So that was my antibinarism. “A plague o' both your houses!” groaned Mercutio, unfortunately with virtually his dying breath, just having been stabbed in a street fracas between Montague and Capulet braggadocios. (Not an encouraging precedent, I felt, but I went ahead anyway.)

    My own binarism, however, went unnoticed, at least by myself. It came about, effectively, through my being caught up in the Cold War spiral to which I have already referred. Thus, it seemed especially urgent to try to hammer home the merits of alternative ways of communicating politically, however picayune they might appear in the first instance. Underscoring their significance, however, led me to define radical media more tightly, in strict opposition to mainstream media, to a greater degree than I now believe possible for most conjunctures in political history. It simultaneously led me to write off major commercial media as permanently part of the problem, except on rare and good days. That was my slippage toward binarism. It was only implicit, and indeed, I contradicted it at a number of points in my arguments, but it still seriously simplified both mainstream and alternative media.

    Taken to its ultimate point, that position would discount any movement toward democratizing large-scale commercial media, which would let them off the hook much too easily. It would render the quite often impassioned attacks on major media from the political right and the extreme right somewhere between incomprehensible and irrelevant. It would downplay the uses that oppositional movements and groups may sometimes be able to make of mainstream media.5 It would also flatten out the very considerable variety of radical media.

    Let me sketch out then my preliminary definition of what differentiates radical alternative media from more conventional, mainstream media.

    First, it must be acknowledged that to speak simply of alternative media is almost oxymoronic. Everything, at some point, is alternative to something else. The ever-expanding plethora of niche trade magazines or of corporate industry bulletins, although an interesting phenomenon in its own right, does not belong in the category of media studied here. To some extent, the extra designation radical helps to firm up the definition of alternative media, but even here, we need to make some preliminary qualifications.

    For, second, radical media may, depending on the vantage point of the observer or the activist, represent radically negative as well as constructive forces. From my own angle of vision, fundamentalist or racist or fascist radical media are pushing for society to move backward into even more grotesque problems than we struggle with today. The fact remains that they are radical media. They, too, demand to be understood, even if we differentiate them by certain criteria (examined in Part II) from the media whose agendas dominate this study.

    But, third, in some circumstances, the designation radical media may also include minority ethnic media. So, too, sometimes, religious media. So, too, maybe a vast mass of community news sheets and bulletin boards, depending on the issues at stake in the communities in question. But equally, the adjective radical may well not fit a considerable number of these ethnic, religious, or community media. Everything depends on their content and context. What might abstractly seem a bland and low-key instance could, in a given context, be wielding a hammer blow at some orthodoxy, as the Sojourner Truth example shows.

    Indeed, the very intentions of the communicators themselves may turn out to be no guide at all in this maze, or at least a notably insufficient guide. History is crammed with cases of individuals and groups who had no idea, and could have had no idea, of the chain of socially disruptive events they were setting in motion.

    So context and consequences must be our primary guides to what are or are not definable as radical alternative media. The edges are almost always blurred. Every technology used by radical media activists is and has always been used mostly for mainstream purposes, not theirs.

    Sometimes, fourth, and maybe in a majority of cases, radical media are mixed in the depth of their radicalism, let alone in the effectiveness of their expression. An example would be the cartoons in the U.S. pro-suffragist press (Israels Perry, 1994): Women were typically portrayed as inevitably virtuous, often as victims, rarely as authority figures, almost exclusively as white and well-educated, and if powerful women were depicted, it was as “Amazonian Wonder Women or allegorical figures drawn from classical culture” (p. 10). Thus, while demanding the vote for women, many of these oppositional cartoons simultaneously reiterated patriarchal stereotypes. Strictly binary definitions of these media simply bounce off their actual spectrum.

    Yet, fifth, in some circumstances, when they are forced underground by systematic repression and censorship, especially in its fascist or sovietized variants, or in the typical military regime, then, such media are indeed in a binary, either-or situation. The earlier Reagan years, the Nixon years, and certainly the McCarthy era had some of that flavor for the political left in the United States, thanks to J. Edgar Hoover's FBI.

    Sixth, radical alternative media are to be found in a colossal variety of formats. In the first edition, I focused almost entirely on regularly appearing print and broadcast media, the purpose being to try to understand how media activists, often unpaid or low paid, manage to keep going day by day, month by month, and even year after year. The objective was worthwhile, and indeed, the case studies in this edition are mostly of that ilk. But as a definition of the variety of forms radical media can take, it was impoverished. Such media may even find themselves within an alien media setting, as when waspish leftist cartoons nestle uneasily in conservative newspapers.

    If, seventh, radical alternative media have one thing in common, it is that they break somebody's rules, although rarely all of them in every respect.

    We may also say, eighth, that these media are typically small-scale, generally underfunded, sometimes largely unnoticed at least initially, on occasion the target of great anger or fear or ridicule from on high, or even within the general public, or both. Sometimes they are short-lived, even epiphenomenal; at other times, they last for many decades. Sometimes, they are entrancing, sometimes boring and jargon laden, sometimes frightening, sometimes brilliantly funny.

    Ninth, radical alternative media generally serve two overriding purposes: (a) to express opposition vertically from subordinate quarters directly at the power structure and against its behavior; (b) to build support, solidarity, and networking laterally against policies or even against the very survival of the power structure. In any given instance, both vertical and lateral purposes may be involved.

    Tenth and finally, there is a tendency within their internal organization to try to be somewhat more, or sometimes considerably more democratic than conventional mainstream media.

    In Part I, I will endeavor to put conceptual flesh on these bones. In the rest of the book, I and my co-authors will examine a whole tapestry of radical media.

    Notes

    1. There is a large literature on aspects of mainstream media hegemony, and I will refer the reader to some of it rather than try to encapsulate it here: Bagdikian (1999); Brook and Boal (1995); Curran and Seaton (1991); Dates and Barlow (1993); Entman (1989); Gitlin (1983); Gray (1995); Herman (1999); Herman and Chomsky (1988); Herman and McChesney (1997); Hertsgaard (1988); Kellner (1990, 1992); McChesney (1996); Schlesinger (1992); Sinclair (1991); Sussman (1997); van Zoonen (1993).

    2. In using the term hegemonic, I draw broadly on its use in the work of Gramsci. I discuss Gramsci's work in the first chapter and also in Downing (1996, pp. 199–204).

    3. Although they did so completely slavishly in the Soviet bloc, whereas there were some exceptions on occasion in the West, the Soviets' public stance occupied the higher moral ground of rejecting the so-called “first strike” doctrine, that is, the strategy of initiating nuclear war. The U.S. position under Reagan was not to rule out a first strike. The Soviet position was extremely effective. It simultaneously heartened antinuclear movements in the West, gave them a stick with which to beat their government leaders, and reflected the Soviet public's very deep fear of war, ingrained from its colossal human losses in World War II. In reality, of course, in military matters as in team sports or chess, an impregnable defense makes a policy of attack all the easier to pursue because there is less fear of retribution. Describing weapons as offensive or defensive neatly skates around this reality. The Reagan administration's so-called Strategic Defense Initiative (sometimes referred to as the “Star Wars” project), the multibillion-dollar research program into computer- and laser-based weaponry, was another classic in this mystification: It, too, was claimed to be for defensive purposes only, to provide an impregnable shield around the United States to intercept any incoming missiles. Had it been technologically feasible, it would not have been simply defensive; and those of its elements that actually were feasible could be deployed in attack as well or better. The literature on the subject is enormous, but the following present useful guides: Aldridge, 1983; Lifton & Falk, 1982; Manno, 1984; Pringle & Arkin, 1983.

    4. Equally, in a study of the early years of The Cosby Show (Downing, 1988b), I argue that in context, that seemingly cozy, even bromide-bound series successfully challenged a whole stack of racist shibboleths in and out of the U.S. television industry. In Section I, Chapter 1, and throughout Section II, we will find ourselves revisiting this question of oppositional cultures and their expression.

    5. For a very helpful guide to this last issue, see Ryan (1991).

    Acknowledgments

    First, my thanks to Sage Publications, Inc., and particularly to Margaret Seawell, and before her Sophy Craze, for taking on this project; and thanks to South End Press for publishing the first version back in 1984. As readers of that version will know only too well—and I thank them for their loyalty to the project and their persistence—the glueing by the Dutch firm with which South End Press had contracted was entirely inadequate, and the pages fell out more or less as soon as the book was opened. This time the text is less structurally post-modernist….

    I have un sacco di gente to thank in the various media that I have studied, but before even them, I would like to thank the students in my Alternative Media classes at Hunter College and then the University of Texas at Austin for the stimulation and insights they have given me during the long gestation of this new version, constituting by my reckoning around 75% an entirely new book. Among them, I am glad to single out my co-authors of the chapters on the Internet and U.S. public access television, Tamara Villarreal Ford, Genève Gil, and Laura Stein.

    For the Portuguese case study, my thanks to Fernando da Sousa, Gabriel Ferreira, João Alferes Gonçalves, Jorge Almeida Fernandes, Raúl Rêgo, Fernanda Barao, José Salvador, Fernando Cascais, Alvaro Miranda, Manuel Vilaverde Cabral, Phil Mailer, Bruno Ponte, and Manuel Braga. For the Italian case study, my thanks to Gianni Riotta, Guido Moltedo, Angela Pascucci, Ida Dominjanni, Rina Gagliardi, Sara Maggi, Massimo Smuraglia, Stefano Fabbri, Raffaele Palumbo, Mario Bufono, Margherita Calvalli, Marco Imponente, Livio Sansone and his family, Sandro Scotto, Vito and Ombretta Conteduca, Gabriella Camilotto, Federico Pedrocchi, Biagio Longo, Paolo Hutter, Manuela Barbieri, Sergio Ferrentino, Marcello Lorrai, and Marina Petrillo. For the KPFA and Free Radio Berkeley case studies, my thanks to Vera Hopkins, Bari Scott, Ginny Berson, Eve Matthews, David Salniker, and Stephen Dunifer; and for initial insight into microradio, Tetsuo Kogawa. For the samizdat study, my thanks to A. J. Liehm, Jiri Hochmann, Boris Bagaryatsky, Volodia Padunov, Karol Jakubowicz, Tadek Walendowski, Witek Sulkowski, Piotr Naimski, Ryszard Knauff, Wojciech Ostrowski, Jakab Zoltan, and Szekfü Andras.

    I was fortunate to receive support for the original Portuguese and Italian case studies from the British SSRC in 1980, plus a trimester leave from Thames Polytechnic (today the ESRC and Greenwich University). I received support in 1984, 1986, 1988, and 1990 from the PSC-CUNY Faculty Research Fund for my studies of antinuclear media in what was then West Germany (briefly noted in the text) and for research on Soviet bloc media (some of which touched on samizdat). I also received a travel grant in 1997 from the University of Texas to return to the Italian scene and update my case studies there, as well as a sabbatical semester from the University of Texas at Austin in 1999 to help complete writing this book. Otherwise, it has been carved out in the interstices of my daily existence, but with stimulation from terrific colleagues, staff, and students in the Radio-Television-Film Department at the University of Texas at Austin.

    Thanks to Clemencia Rodríguez and John Sinclair, in particular, for some close reading of earlier drafts; and also to Dana Cloud, Jesse Drew, Bob Jensen, and some anonymous Sage reviewers for their very helpful advice on approaches to the material.

    Last, on a personal note, a word in honor and love for Anneli, Corinna, Juanita, Zoë, chetvero absolyutno zamechatel' nykh i krasivikh docheri; in loving memory of Jamal and Stansil; and in celebration of Ash Corea, la mia compagna dappertutto, who as I wrote first time round, represents what this book strives to bring about.

    JohnDowningAustin, Texas
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    About the Authors

    John D. H. Downing teaches in the radio-television-film department at the University of Texas, Austin. His most recent book, Internationalizing Media Theory (Sage 1996), addressed the challenges to media studies posed by media of many kinds in the former Soviet bloc over the Great Transition of 1980–1995. He is currently working on two further books for Sage. One is with Charles Husband on a cross-Atlantic study of media, racism, and ethnicity. The other is the Sage Handbook of Media Studies, which he is coediting with Dennis McQuail, Philip Schlesinger, and Ellen Wartella.

    Tamara Villarreal Ford is a communications consultant specializing in alternative media, Latino media, and new communications technologies. She has an M.A. from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was an associate with LANIC (the Latin American Network Information Center) conducting Internet research on Latin American/Latino websites and developing a program of computer-assisted education and digital media archives for the Institute of Latin American Studies. She was a 1996 recipient of the Rockefeller Fellowship in Intercultural Collaboration for her work with the ZapNet Collective, a multimedia and website project that traces the Zapatista discourse within emerging public spheres of the Internet. Currently, she is working with the AZ Editorial Collective on a bilingual annotated compilation of “Conversations with Durito,” a series of 30 stories by EZLN spokesman Subcomandante Marcos.

    Genève Gil is a freelance web developer and research consultant in Austin, where she recently completed a master's degree in Latin American Studies at the University of Texas. She has traveled in Chiapas on four occasions and began researching the Tzotziles and Tzeltales in 1987. Her work has focused on social and political movements in Latin America from the early 1970s to the present, including organized popular resistance in the Southern Cone, Tropicalismo in Brazil, and the Zapatista uprising of the 1990s.

    Laura Stein is an assistant professor at the University of San Francisco. She writes about communication law and policy, speech rights, and public communication. She received her Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Austin in 1997.


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