Becoming Other Media:A Reading and Review of Becoming the Media
By Kevin Van Meter | Team Colors
When Jen Angel, former co-founder and co-editor with Jason Kucsma of the countercultural-qua-activist magazine Clamor, first circulated a draft of Becoming the Media: a critical history of Clamor Magazine on the web nearly a year ago, I was excited that a history of the magazine would be available to future projects. With PM Press’s recent printing of an expanded pamphlet this material becomes available to the next generation of ‘media makers’.
Clamor Magazine (2000-2006) and the history described by Angel herein, serves us two fold: first, as a lens to particular point of composition in the counter-globalization and neighboring movements – those years immediately following the protests in Seattle; and secondly, as an example of the general approach taken by radical and progressive media outlets. Foremost, as Angel suggestions, Becoming the Media attempts to provide lessons to the creators of independent media and “radicals and progressives” in social
change movements, to use her terminology. To clarify my own, I often use movement media and independent media interchangeably; in this case the movement is the counterglobalization movement and neighboring movements and while independent media could refer to a larger array of media for the purposes of this article I am speaking of radical and left of left-of-center media.
As a reading and a review Becoming Other Media looks through this lens and utilizes these lessons to explore the history of Clamor, a brief genealogy of social movements, and the approaches of movement media and movement strategies themselves.
Clamor was launched into a volatile and exciting time for radical movements in the United States - following the Seattle protests and the accumulation of nearly two decades of activity. As a publication it utilized the energy of the moment and parlayed it into a growing readership, and its launch was to be followed by an accompanying yearly independent media conference (Allied Media Conference, which continues), Clamor music festival and other activities.
Predominantly Becoming the Media is a personal account, rather then an analytical treatise or inquiry into independent media, and this makes sense in understanding where Angel and many participants in the project come from. Prior to Clamor Angel, Kucsma, and many independent media activists of the counterglobalization movement started with the rich and vibrant zine culture of the 1980’s and
1990’s. Here writers were able to develop the tools that would be useful in large undertakings and the years to come: developing a voice, speaking about the intertwined nature of personal and political issues, communicating effectively (affectively, sometime ineffectively), and of course production and distribution of media. Zines themselves are entrance activities to movements and activities requiring a higher level of involvement, composition, resources and coordination (such as a magazine with a national focus). But here Clamor remained very much in this spirit, and as Angel aptly points out, became a point of entry for new voices. She says, “From the beginning, we chose to prioritize new writers. We felt if you wanted to know what experts had to say, there were enough other magazines already available.” In the spirit of
zine culture, Clamor, Indymedia and additional new media initiatives launched during these years were (and in some cases are) highly participatory. The usual entrance requirements of academic degrees or name recognition in the circle of voices that make up the left in the United States, were tactically avoided in such projects. The possibility of participation in media - in voicing ones own and ones communities’ issues, experiences, and activities - is still unrealized even with the onset of blogs, ready-made
websites and existing alternative media channels. As new subjectivities develop in the course of struggle, utilizing media for both inter/intra-movement and extra-movement communication (often completely different activities) becomes part of the process of mapping struggles, linking them to others, and connecting with the realities faced by neighboring communities.
Here Clamor predominantly served as an inter/intra-movement communications relay for an ever-expanding movement, and the editors and participations of the publication attempted to link the publication to other movements and populations beyond the counter-globalization movement.
Too often when radical projects cease operations they fall in with our fleeting memories
without any documentation on their emergence, development, and eventual decomposition. In the process of documenting Clamor, Angel suggests a number of lessons to movements and movement media.
In providing Clamor as an entrance activity and a site for new voices the magazine attempted to challenge the professionalization of journalism. The process of limiting voices by requiring ‘credentials’, ‘traditional education’ or the output of time and resources unavailable to working class movements and many movements of color; is part and parcel of this professionalization and takes place on the left as well as in corporate media outlets. This attempt by Clamor to open this field, while limited and at times
problematic, should be noted and replicated. Clamor opened this process by, and can credit much of its success to, their approach of putting attraction before recruitment. Not only did the magazine seek to
attract readers by being aesthetically pleasing and interesting, but by providing communications channels and mechanisms for participation beyond just rhetorical openness. This took two forms: first, by presenting a publication that utilized open space, photographs and numerous type-faces, Kucsma (the primary designer) allowed readers in an increasingly visual media landscape to engage with more then just type on a page or screen. Additionally, Angel offers a number of examples of its participatory nature
including: a yearly national conference, regular events, local community reports, numerous opportunities to write in the publication and review recent books and other materials, and a supportive editorial staff that was willing to communicate with potential authors.
Part of this openness was a benefit of geography as the publication was based in the Midwest. Here Clamor editors were able to travel to both coasts while connecting with activists and communities outside of the major cities on either coast. Included among its pages were voices from the geographic center of the country and outside of major cities, and these are results of the relationships the magazine was able to build from its Midwest location.
Being based outside a major city provided Angel and Kucsma affordable rent while laboring part-time on the magazine. Additionally, Clamor ended up taking business loans for its start-up and in doing so took major personal risks. Here Angel concretizes the critique of the nonprofit industrial complex and how money is still a ‘specter’ in radical movements. While she provides no clear answer on how radical projects fund themselves, negotiate between paid staff and volunteers or separate themselves from the funding-state-apparatus; these are all difficult questions that should be addressed in the context of particular projects and initiatives, and strategies developed on a movement-wide basis. But I will comment shortly before moving on: if we seek to separate ourselves from the nonprofit industrial complex then we need to create intramovement structures for our own self-reproduction.
One of the strategies Clamor utilized was to have a tiered decision making structure, whereas Angel and Kucsma in taking the most risk (by taking personal loans) made the decisions that effected that risk. Editorial decisions, while initially made exclusively by the two of them, would eventually spread to a larger collective of participants. Here Clamor decided on a structure that was both ‘task’ based and changed with changing conditions and environs. To often organizational strategies are draw from ideological positions or assumptions of historical forms rather then a strategic analysis of the social field, the composition of movements and the project as an intervention into both these terrains. This flexible structure allowed Clamor to grow and develop during an important period in movement history, though it could not weather the downturn in this movements’ composition.
Finally, Angel provides a discussion of the dynamics at the heart of Clamor and in the process discusses her personal relationship with her partner and co-founder Kucsma. This personal relationship provided the magazine with a full time designer (Kucsma) while the other partner worked full time (Angel). By acknowledging the micropolitical relationships at play within Clamor, we are provided a clearer understanding of its functioning. Without these the form that Clamor takes is not clear, even with stated organizational mechanisms, as one must provide insight into the flows and channels of an activity. These are actually how radical projects function: as negotiations with different personalities, as mechanisms and coordinating bodies, as flows and intensities of activity. Only when we lay this bare – these micropolitical relationships as they intersect with organizational and molar structures - can we draw vital political lessons and map the processes taking place. Often this comes with an honest admission and Angels’ is far too rare in writings about political projects.
As a lens into the movement at the time and as a lesson to future media and radical projects Becoming the Media provides a few clear points. Clamor arose out of a particular set of conditions and precursors some of these factors are tied to the vibrant zine culture of the1980’s and 1990’s, and as a project sought to attract rather then recruit by providing an engaging project and clear avenues for participation (including many beyond just reading the magazine). By organizing decisions within Clamor in a taskbased way, the project was able to change along with changing conditions and grow; and Angel’s honesty when it comes to the personal dynamics at play within the magazine provides us with a useful piece as we engaged without own organizing work. These lessons and this lens become clearer when placed within a critical history.
The Problem of a (critical) History
“Clamor is a do-it-yourself guide to everyday revolution.” As the concluding statement from Clamors’ mission statement this is just part of the terminology thrown around quite recklessly throughout the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, usually referencing the Situationist International or rebellions in France during May of 1968. I didn’t then, and still don’t know, what Clamor or other activists are referring to when they say “everyday life”.
In response to this ambiguity, I suggest, everyday life is a terrain and a conceptualization of certain practices, activities, struggles, power relationships and flows; in spatial, temporal, and compositional ways everyday life functions as a series of moments – not a slogan for grossly abstracted politics. For during these years and rarely in the pages of Clamor was anything resembling an “everyday revolution” described. When theorists such as Henri Lefebvre, Guy Debord, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari speak of everyday life or workers centers, environmental justice projects and coalitions such as Right to the City organize in existing communities they are posing themselves outside and against a politics that seeks to intervene solely on macro-levels. Clamor as much of the counter-globalization movement functioned on the level of rhetoric, of the big issues such globalization and war, and rarely explored the struggles taking place in everyday life by inquiring or intervening directly into them. Specifically everyday life, and hence an everyday revolution, includes discourses and activities that aren’t defined outwardly as political and involve subjectivities that aren’t defined as “activist” or that are purely self-referential.
During the upswing in movement activity (in those few years following Seattle) and the increase in movement composition the affective winds, while powerful, temporarily blinded the movements’ participants to a process of self-reflection that would have revealed that our strategies were not intervening into everyday life. This blindness was summed up quite clearly with the often-quoted slogan spray painted on a wall during the Seattle protests: “We are Winning”. Many in the movements believed this as well, as did the author. The fact that the winds of protest were not tied to larger cycles of struggles was initially apparent in the affinity group structure – as those making up affinity groups didn’t have “affinity” with anyone in their communities beyond each other.
The counter-globalization movement in the United States suffered from ‘a thinness’ of extra-movement relationships and the lack of actual power. This became quite clear in the aftermath of 9/11 and with the onset of the American invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. Following 9/11 the movement already in decline with waning support for summit protests, found itself unable to response to the rhetorical climate. Here the language, energy and participants of the counter-globalization movement were captured by an authoritarian, liberal anti-war movement, which, except for very few examples, has been completely impotent. Neither movement at this point has recomposed itself.
If the counter-globalization had gone beyond the rhetoric of everyday revolution to actual organizing these difficult times could possibly have been weathered. Organizations and groups of affinity in other sections of the ‘movement of movements’ shifted and recomposed after 9/11 and with the onset of the Afghani and Iraqi invasions. In Europe they were tied to vibrant social centers, Asia to radical unions, in South America and South Asia to a multitude of community based organizations. The planets movement of movements shifted and continued organizing around issues of precarity (in Europe), land and water rights (in much of the global south), and the creation of immigrant workers centers and environmental justice projects (here in the United States). The self-identified activist-based counter-globalization movement, which was immensely self-referential, has thus been unable to recompose itself after these defeats, while other areas of the movement in the United States and across the planet have done so.
Clamor was caught up in this process of decomposition and the key fault of Angels’ Becoming the Media is not acknowledging the devastating effects of this. During the same period not only did Clamor cease operations, but so did similar general movement publications such as LIP and Punk Planet; and the North American / English language based publications that remain are increasingly ideologically based (Left Turn, Green Anarchy, Fifth Estate, Upping the Anti), limited to certain organizations or internally conceived voices (Rolling Thunder, Northeastern Anarchist) or are hardened “old left” with entrance requirements (Progressive, Z Magazine, Counterpunch); these are all hence limited in both their scope and functioning. While the past three years have been exciting for specific constituency based movement media (such as the launch and success of $pread Magazine) as well as the continuation and expansion of particular Indymedia projects, there is a serious lack in the independent media landscape in the United States for debate and discussion on movement and political composition.
Currently, while in a period of movement decomposition it is important to look at the range of movement media, how they function, what they do, and how they offer opportunity for theoretical flexibility and strategic innovation. Often organizational, strategic and tactical flaws that are not apparent in a period of movement growth become red herrings in a time of decomposition. The lack of organizational depth, community penetration and relationships in everyday life found in both the media and movement initiatives of the counter-globalization movement led to this decomposition during a shift in the political environment here in the United States. As an inter/intra-movement communications relay the Clamor magazine could not longer continue when the movement it functioned as part of and whose activities and energy flowed through its pages, decomposed. (Here the author challenged Angel on these very matters within her contribution to one-off online journal In the Middle of a Whirlwind: 2008 Convention Protests, Movement and Movements, which he is a co-editor of. The results of this challenge, while still not exhaustive, are available at the journals website www.inthemiddleofawhirlwind.info)
A close reading of Clamor (the Table of Contents and selected materials from its’ 38 issues is available online at www.clamormagazine.org) reveals an attempt at theoretical flexibility and strategic innovation that is trapped within the self-referential counter-globalization and neighboring movements, and limited by its identification with the “activist” archetype and equation of politics with “activism”. Particular offensive was the “What It Means to Be Active” (Issue #13, March/April 2002) issue featuring a white middle-class woman in her twenties on the cover. Beyond the immensely problematic representation of activists being white, middle-class, young, and fitting particular aesthetical, gendered and other standards – which the magazine attempted to addressed proactively in other issues - is this idea of activism-qua-politics all together. The concept of activism is both self-referential and self-limiting as it seeks to contain politics and political intervention within a particular category and set of activities. Additionally, activism as such often deals with molar issues (war, capitalism, the state apparatus) and while these do function in the terrain of everyday life (as the prison industrial complex, as the imposition of work, the violent maintenance of a certain forms of life) the site of intervention is the issues themselves (by activists), rather then substantive organizing campaigns into and throughout everyday life. While Clamor served a specific role as an intra-movement publication, a do-it-yourself guide to everyday revolution would function quite differently; this distinction is important since it reflects the particular political strategy and conceptualization critiqued above. Returning to the critical history contained within Becoming the Media, beyond separating Clamor from changes in movement strength and composition, the text does not address the core failures of the publications approach and the counter-globalization movements it represented.
An additional problem with the text is that it is in fact a history rather then a genealogy. As a genealogy Becoming the Media would account for the discourses flowing through it, the shift in movement composition, and seek to provide an account of the emergence, development and decomposition of the magazine in relation of these developments. A critical history attempts to make an argument for the importance of movement media as a moral argument, rather then a strategic one. Becoming the Media does not explore the important precursors to the magazine, nor does it describe Clamors’ becoming as an initiative and organ attached to the counter-globalization movement. This is not simply a challenge to Angel; but rather to the perspectives held by much of the left and radical movements in the United States and the movement media of which Angel is a part. The dichotomy between a history and a genealogy is tied to another problematic assumption represented by slogan used in movement and left media: “speaking truth to power”. Here neither truth nor power is given any substance or description on how they function. The idea that radical and movement media are speaking truth to the power structure is problematic, but that is an aside. The issue with “speaking truth to power” and the approach of radical and left media is that they are speaking “truth” against the “untruths” of corporate media outlets, the government and society at large. These assumptions force movement media into a corner, arguing for its own existence and self-preservation in moral terms rather then strategic and political ones. Rather movement media is highly subjective, speaks from subjective positions, and should serve as an amplifier for counter-subjectivities and new subjectivities that develop in the course of struggle.
I would argue that this is not simply a rhetorical difference it’s a fundamental difference in how media projects function as inter/intra-movement and extra-movement communications relays and the form its content takes. As stated above Becoming the Media and the magazine that it describes both seek, as does much of the radical and left media, to intervene in the consciousness of the population and the movement itself. Such an intervention, expressed as “truth to power”, attempts to create social change by changing how ‘people’ think – the attempt is that with a leftward or revolutionary change in thinking with come a leftward or revolutionary change in politics - which in turn will change everyday life. Not only is this overly simplistic but it is immensely problematic to believe that radical and left movements are the bearers of “truth”; and the strategies that develop from this poison tree are disastrous – as they cower in affinity groups where none of the activists have affinity with anyone beyond the activist scene, of activists that don’t see a politics beyond their own activism, in organizations that believe they carry the torch leading to a new world, and in movements which develop from moral or ideological arguments rather then from strategic and compositional ones.
Finally, as the bearer of “truth” radical and left movements often adopt a smug certainty and participate in duels between irrelevant positions (between green and red anarchism, between social ecology and participatory economics, between anti-civilization politics and other revolutionary positions), that is, positions that have no relevance outside of the self-referential movements themselves. This is not simply problematic from an organizational perspective – of a politics of attraction and engaging activity over a politics of recruitment and changing consciousness – but as a self-referential mechanism it contains and limits the possibilities for revolutionary change. This leads us to a strategic analysis of independent media generally, and to the question: what does independent media do?
What Does Independent Media Do?
As previously stated Becoming the Media attempts to make an argument for the importance of movement media as a moral argument, rather then a strategic one. Hence it does not situate Clamor within the field of movement media and does not provide a strategic analysis of its position in this field, its functioning as an inter/intra-movement communications relay and its relationships with extra-movement subjectivities and communities.
Different media initiatives do different things, and we need to be clear about what each do if we are going to repopulate the field of movement media. For instance, and for our purposes here I am limiting this outline to print and online text based media:
- zines function as entrance activities for new writers and producers of media, as does blogs and websites, of which Infoshop.org and the Indymedia network are just two examples; these allow for the dissemination of material and ideas without the filter of established radical and left media outlets; and these forms of media often intertwine personal opinions and experiences with overtly political ones.
- general interest movement media such as Left Turn, Clamor, Z Magazine & Znet, Counterpunch and LIP provide pathways for movement discussions around varied issues and portraits of activities taking place within the movement and society at large; these forms of media differ in regards to not just their content but to the extent that they are participatory and accessible.
- specific interest movement magazines as with $pread Magazine utilize an existing community to accomplish much of the same purposes as general interest movement magazines, but with a targeted audience.
- longer form journals as with Upping the Anti and Monthly Review allow for in depth discussion of movement positions and discussions, and attract an audience looking for such discussions beyond the snips provided by the other outlets.
Within this simple sketch there are three axes, which at points intertwine but serve as a useful way of discussing the effect and purpose of movement media; these are the communications relays described throughout Becoming Other Media: inter, intra and extra movement media. There are certainly roles for inter-movement communication (debating strategies for a particular protest campaign, for example), intra (discussing the creation of resources for the reproduction of movement media), extra (for describing movement activities to a wider audience); and the movement media field needs to be populated with all of them. Here we simply need to be clear and honest about what each one does, a particular publication can circulate information and discussion among a sector of the movement and perform this task in a useful manner, but we should not delude ourselves to thinking that it will also serve as a vehicle for extra movement social transformation.
Much of current movement media, of which Clamor posthumous example, don’t move beyond the orgasmic moment – that is beyond providing a portrait connected to an affective response of an issue, project, activity, or action. What is sorely needed is media that provides in depth analysis into the current composition and strength of movements, inquiries into the refusals and struggles taking place in everyday life, identifies new subjectivities arising in these struggles and organizational forms that are emerging in the conflicts with capital and the state-apparatus. This is not an either / or proposal, we need orgasms as much as we need engaged analysis.
Movements in the United States can draw from movement media across the planet that utilize varied mechanisms including militant and co-research | conricerca, inquiry, popular education, community dialogs, encounter | encuentro; and can draw upon the rich history of community organizing in the United States – to create new forms of media in a period of movement decomposition. These mechanisms and traditions seek to produce subjective, dialogical and strategic materials from within movements to intervene in everyday life to “produce breaks and mobilize flows”. Here these mechanisms attempt to engage with and attract those involved in political struggles that do not self-identify as activists, and construct community relays and institutions; hence theoretical flexibility and strategic intervention is developed out of the existing activities of those in struggle on the terrain of everyday life. Movement media becomes the communications relay for said activities and struggles, as it takes a myriad of forms and a multiplicity of voices channel through them. The task of current movements is to repopulating the media landscape in understanding its current composition, and the task of movement media is to map the current composition of the movement, refusals and struggles taking place in everyday life and the movements power visa vi capital and the state-apparatus. This is not just a question of becoming the media, but of becoming other media.
Becoming Other Media
What does a truly dialogical media do? What would our forms of media look like if we took seriously the challenge brought by our brothers and sisters in Zapatista communities and the proposals of The Other Campaign | La otra campaña? How would we in walking ask questions?
The task of becoming other media, of utilizing the lessons from Clamor is not simply to repopulate the movement media landscape but to intertwine the creation of new movement media with a renewal of the movement in general. While we find ourselves in a period of low movement composition and activity, there are a number of promising developments: workers centers, environmental justice projects, support campaigns for political prisoners, the Starbucks Workers Union, the creation of projects addressing sexual assault and mental health in radical communities, the increase in bike spaces and bike based activism, the grown of worker owned coops, the success of the 2007 United States Social Forum, the launch of the Domestic Workers United national campaign and emergence of the Right to the City Alliance and the opening of new infoshops and social centers across the United States. The renewal of independent, movement-based media begins with these struggles and at the point of composition we find ourselves in currently.
Dialogical forms of media - that in walking asks questions – would begin on the terrain of everyday life and seek to become communications relays, sites of encounter, and contain orgasms as well as substantive and useful analysis. Becoming the Media provides insight into how this would function in addition to some of the mistakes made by previous movement media outlets.
Finally, Becoming the Media can certainly be mined for additional lessons then the ones explored here, but the key one is the importance of documenting our genealogy, our endeavors, the functioning of our projects, and the moments that they inhabit. A collection of materials from Clamor should be put together, allowing its contribution and the materials contain therein to speak for itself. It would be a shame to loose these materials to the bottom of closets, and hopefully one of our fine radical publishers will have the foresight to support such a collection.
Kevin Van Meter is a community organizer and researcher (focusing on everyday resistance) originally from Long Island and a member of the militant research collective Team Colors. Van Meter appears, along with Benjamin Holtzman and Craig Hughes, in the AK Press collection Constituent Imagination: Militant Investigation // Collective Theorization, with an article titled "DIY and the Movement Beyond Capitalism”; an excerpt from his article “The Moment I Cannot Escape: Care, Death, Mourning and the Struggle Against It All” is published in the recent zine collection “The Worst: Grief and Radical Politics”; most recently Van Meter as part of Team Colors co-coordinated the one-off online journal published by The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest Press called “In the Middle of a Whirlwind: 2008 Convention Protests, Movement and Movements”, which is available at www.inthemiddleofawhirlwind.info; additional writings can be found and the author contacted at: www.warmachines.info