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Gillian McIver
alternative media
community media

Media for a Spectacular Society?
part 10


Does the media create and feed our reality to us? Whether you are a post-modernist like Baudrillard who sees the collapse of reality and mimesis into hyper-reality, or a Marxist-Leninist who sees the media as an ideological state apparatus serving its master, or even just an old-fashioned cynic, we are all left with the uneasy suspicion that there is both more and less than what meets the eye in media representation of information. Can alternative culture subvert the status quo or does it preach to the converted? In the end, is Middle America and Middle England even interested in what the alternative culture has to say? On the face of it, no. But dig a little deeper and look past the media representations of Middle America and Middle England: journalist Studs Terkel's interviews with ordinary people about how they survive in the system; the surprising numbers of people the BBC described - shocked - as "middle class" who turned out to fight the police over live animal shipments, the Newbury bypass and the Criminal Justice Bill; the dozens of local community centres who shelter groups like Groundswell (anti-Jobseeker's Allowance); the outpouring of popular support for, and astonishing jury acquittal of, the Project Ploughshares women - and so on.

Does the power of the spectacle allow the fringe elements to produce their "alternative" commodities in order to contain them? Here we come to the problem of recuperation, as the Situationists called it: the commodification of criticism and dissent, in which all attempts to reach consciousness of the possibilities of structural change are thwarted at their inception. [79] Recuperation is not just co-option or integration of criticism, instead, in recuperation, the criticism is actually turned to the benefit of the structures and institutions it means to negate. Criticism of the spectacle is taken out of the hands of those who make it, repackaged and sold back in spectacular forms. The classic late 60's pinup of Che Guevara is one example, the popularity of rap music (especially among white suburban kids) is another. Guevara was a freedom fighter willing to risk his life for his beliefs (unlike those who stuck his mug on the wall); rap was the expression of angry written-off black ghetto dwellers, which the spectacular representation of them make it easy to forget.

The Situationists saw that recuperation is one of the most - if not the most - powerful tools of capitalist relations. Capitalism requires the constant circulation of goods, and so will commodify anything. All experience, all dissatisfaction, will be brought into this alienation. Dissent is packaged and returned to those who experience it in the form of badges and T-shirts," while at the intellectual level, it is confined to the "critical theory" and subordinated to the sterility of academia. [80] Detournement, the Situationist anti-venom to recuperation, is a first-strike measure of subversion, to turn the objects of the spectacle against themselves. [81] The "culture jamming" work of Kalle Lasn of the Media Foundation is in this vein. Lasn counts on the fact that media selling advertising are not going to look to closely or ask too many question about what they are dealing with. When his 30-second anti-automobile TV spot aired on the CBC during a popular motoring programme, he "could just feel a few hundred thousand people in Canada having their media consumer trance popped right out." [82]

The alternative movement's attempts to side-step the consumer condition by living as much as possible in an economy based on voluntary co-operative work (contrary to media reports, not all are not on DSS benefits), barter, free squats, free parties, exchange and recycling of goods, and other non-profit practices, is another example. In a consumption-driven culture, the act of valuing something that has no monetary value, like an old pair of boots or a vegan meal in a squat cafe, is subversive, as it interferes with the operation of spectacular consumption. If everybody simply gave away old boots to someone who needs a pair, or ate in a non-profit vegan squat cafe, who would buy the latest fashionable new boots or the delectable creations of Marco Pierre White?

But the post-modernists ask: isn't the alternative just part of the spectacle? To Baudrillard, hyper-reality is such that it can comfortably and endlessly encompass both the vegan squat cafe and Marco Pierre White, and it is not a matter of an opposition between authenticity and illusion, or a dialectic of recuperation and detournement. If this is true, however, why do the institutions of power waste time and resources destroying traveller and squat communities? Why have television stations refused to sell Kalle Lasn advertising space?

In the end, to challenge the passivity that wrings its hands at, yet accepts, environmental pollution, exploitation, the alliance of government and big business in Third World oppression, structural unemployment and a carceral approach to social problems, we must create intellectual and psychological freedom. To do this, we must be able to discuss ideas, tactics and know what is being done, globally. We need media which will facilitate this. It is very difficult to evade recuperation into the arms of the spectacle. Do we, like, Baudrillard, melt into the passivity of post-modernism, or like Vaneigem, renew the call for action and a deliberate reassessment of how to really live?

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