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Author: Gillian Mciver


in the beginning…

The expansion of industrial capitalism led to the realisation of the consumer society, which creates a society split between leisure and labour, a leisure society in which we work to obtain the instruments of leisure, the machines of pleasure, and this split organises our thoughts in every way. Eventually everything has to be subordinated to the illusion of leisure as information becomes “infotainment” and work becomes almost a luxury, a privilege. In our desperation to free ourselves we rush with open arms to the soothsayers of technical futures, to the Utopias made possible by technology. We, and they, forget that it is purely a human and social decision as to how any technology is used. If, for example, we live in a deregulated monopoly capitalist society, then they way we use technology will serve the interests of that society, unless an effort is made to create the freedom, intellectually and psychologically, to that will allow us to use the technology the way we dream we are able to: to make a better world.


The Limits of Democracy

“…society becomes a mechanism and an organism which ceases to be comprehensible to the very people who participate in it, and who maintain it through their labour.” Henri Lefebvre, on the process of alienation. [1]

“The Western model has made tabula rasa of the old forms of oppression and instated a democracy of the supermarket, a self-service autonomy, a hedonism whose pleasures must be paid for. … The system has realised in the nick of time that a dead human being is more of a paying proposition than a dead human being – or one riddled by pollutants.” Raoul Vaneigem [2]

The trouble with a state that purports to base its existence on the People’s Will, is that it then has to go some way in ensuring that the People’s Will is met, or at least pay lipservice to the idea. This is the position in which the Western industrial nations found themselves after the Second World War. Vestiges of old notions of tradition, privilege and precedent could no longer be appealed to. People knew their “rights” and one of these was the right to vote. In response, the expansion of the “consumer society” which had been developing steadily since the turn of the 19th century due to assembly-line mass-production techniques [3], was stepped up, partly as a response to the Cold War challenge of Stalinism and Communist theory. The consumer society served to create an ideology of consumer capitalism based on the notion of the citizen as consumer and spectator, rather than participant, of events. This was even true in the Soviet Bloc, as post-Stalinist leaders were able to hold out promises of consumer goods to ensure the smooth running of the state apparatus. [4] Of course, none of the capitalist oligarchs and communist apparatchiks wanted to have anything to do with the “People’s Will.” In the Soviet sphere, the carrot-and-stick approach was dependent upon a rather big stick, the gulag. In the West, as the above quote from Raoul Vaneigem points out, a cunning system of free elections, consumer choice and growth of an entertainment culture served to keep the energies of the population in check, while actual freedoms were tightly governed by State control. 1968 saw the crisis point of this system in both East and West. In Czechoslovakia, reformers within the Czech Communist Party were instituting a series of mild reforms, while, far more importantly, allowing an explosion of free speech all over the country. It was this latter development that alarmed the Russians, and influenced their decision to send in troops. The crushing of the Prague Spring showed how terrified the system was of freedom of thought, and discredited, for once and for all, the Soviet system. [5] In the West in that same year, French students and workers revolted against de Gaulle’s government and the whole post-war French state system. In the United States, opposition to and criticism of US involvement in Indochina was dramatically increasing, encompassing, as in France, a wholesale rejection of the American state and what it now stood for. In the West, although a police response was used to counter these expressions of protest, allegiance to the system was ensured by still greater abundance of pleasures to consume. [6] But it is more than simply “bread and circuses” that maintains the Western system of consumer capitalism. Rather, it is the mentality of consumption and spectatorship which dominates our thought and decides our priorities.

Hegemony: Power and Practice

As early as the 1920′s, jailed Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci was articulating the idea of what he called “egemonia” (in Italian “the presence of power,” usually translated as “hegemony”). Hegemony is not simply the “superstructure” as more conservative Marxist critics would maintain, but the most everyday factors of life as these are lived within the frames that we think of – if we think of them at all – as having freely chosen. This “everyday consciousness” is produced and shared by all members of the polity, but is dominated by the dominant class. There is political society, which is the realm of the State, and civil society, the realm of the people – and Gramsci sees these in a conceptual opposition, although they are one and the same. Gramsci is careful to avoid reductionism, however. For example, a state-run broadcasting system is clearly at one level part of political society. But this does not mean that everything which takes place within the system, or everything that is broadcast, will be subservient to the State or reflect ruling-class interests. [7] Civil society is the site of consent and hegemony; political or state society is the site of coercion and control, yet of course they make up the single entity we live in and consider “society.” Gramsci’s analysis of hegemony, or the permeation of popular thought by the ruling class, is a useful tool for cultural historians and in cultural studies, as it can be used to analyse culture as a set of material forms and practices, and the institutions in which cultural forms are produced and by which they are rendered significant. For practical purposes, Gramsci had no innovative solution to the problem of the domination of hegemony by the ruling class. He hoped that it might be counteracted by a systematic but gradual re-education of the People by an organised Communist intelligentsia based on the experience of the workplace. [8]

The New Left

Following the Second World War, and the defeat of fascism by the combined strengths of “democracy” and “communism,” the forces that shaped the popular consciousness were influenced by technological development, deliberate expansion of the consumer society and the even further decline of traditional society and traditional social bonds. In the Soviet bloc, no secret was made of the fact that the State was the source and regulator of this. In the West, however, the democratic idea meant that choice and participation were still expected to be the deciding factor in what kind of society people lived in. There were critics who distrusted the democratic idea, seeing it as essentially self-serving the oligarchies and the “military industrial complex.” To old-style Leninists it was all perfectly clear: the repository of all good lay in Moscow, the precedent of the Bolshevik revolution was a serviceable global precedent, and it was up to them, the slogan-wielding vanguard of the working class (even if they were not personally working class) to lead the class struggle. Other socialists preferred a Gramscian approach to revolution, of permeation through education, where they vied with liberals who followed the ideas of Matthew Arnold to attempt to create a culturally aware, individually-responsible morally “good” intellectual and political culture. Other leftist intellectuals attempted to look more deeply into why the society of capitalist consumer production appeared to be working, not to mention thriving. To Althusser, the institutions which direct our information, culture and education are “ideological state apparatuses” and we are controlled by them, and that is a large part of how we function as a society. But schools, universities, newspapers, broadcast media, churches, political parties, “think tanks” and so on are more than State apparatuses, though they may be that too – they are agencies of power which organise our thinking. Michel Foucault maintained that modern society is marked by the unending struggle, or Will, towards power – conflicting discourses piled upon discourses. Foucault suggested notions of sabotage, resistance and counter-discourse to wrest power from the dominant. But he rejected the economic bais: the needs of the system of industrial capitalism, and thus forgot, or ignored, that the discourses of power and the truths they claim, do emerge from social, economic and technological realities. The struggle for power is not (deterministic) necessarily for its own sake but because these particular realities present crucial threats or opportunities to the contestants. But Foucault was right to see contestation for the power-domination, rather than the simpler assumption that one sector of society (e.g. the Rich, Men etc.) was bigger and stronger and therefore would dominate. Cultural and intellectual domination also perturbed the Frankfurt school. These philosophers and cultural critics on the Left disagreed with Leninism and its methods, but at the same time, warned against the industry of cultural production, identifying “mass” culture as manipulated and degenerate and serving only the status quo. To them, cultural production under capitalism worked the way religion had in Marx’s day, as “opiate of the masses” to lull them into passivity and consumerism of shoddy, hollow junk goods. [9]

Henri Lefebvre and “Everyday Life”

In France, Henri Lefebvre was less concerned with the shoddiness of the goods and more concerned with the fact of alienation, one of the linchpins of Marxist thought but one which had gone virtually unremarked in orthodox Marxism. Lefebvre saw that alienation operated at all levels and in both capitalism and Soviet societies, where it was declared to no longer exist. To Lefebvre, everything in contemporary industrial consumer culture worked to turn the worker’s attention from the realities of everyday life and exploit the alienation that capitalism relied on to operate. That is, alienation was more than simply the by-product of industrial capitalism but a cornerstone of it. The division of life into the realm of labour and the realm of leisure served to divide the human “from himself, from nature, from his consciousness, dragged down and dehumanised by his own social products.” (p. 180) the realm of labour is one that Marxist had hitherto spent a lot of time discussing, and the workplace was considered the starting point of revolution. But Lefebvre argued for the consideration of leisure as at least as important. We think of “leisure” as something we have earned after putting in time at the factory or office. But leisure exists in a dialectic with work; it is not free, it is not hours but is as dictated by the rhythms and needs of capitalism as much as is the timeclock and the paystub. Furthermore, leisure as it exists substitutes for an “immediate sensory life” and is instead more often than not passive activity, which itself alienates or anaethsetises man from his “everyday life.” Lefebvre exempts the all too rare occurrence “cultivated or cultural leisure” by which he means productive leisure such as hobby photography or painting, and is critical instead of the leisure we obtain through “leisure machines” (p. 33) which we buy with our wage packets purely to serve the purpose of occupying our time, our “leisure” time, as passively as possible while we are excused from labour. We have even created “leisure activities” which mimic work, like camping and sailing, as a response to the charge of passivity, though these too are essentially escapist and fantasial. But most leisure is extremely passive: Lefebvre notes the phenomenon of the “sportsman” who “participates in the action and plays sport via an intermediary” i.e. as a spectator.(p. 41) But the main form of leisure in the post-war era was of course the “couch potato” forms of radio and, even more so, television, of which more later. To Lefebvre, everyday life and the commodities, roles and discourses which inhabit (and inhibit) it, are the true realm of political debate. It is the very realm over which we ought to have the most control, yet we experience “everyday life” as dull and mundane, a source of worry and insecurity that is largely constructed by the promises of fulfilment to which we rush, in dazzled blindness, in the world of commodity pleasures.

Media for a Spectacular Society

Situationism: Create and Arm Your Desires

Lefebvre’s critique of alienated man was taken up by the Situationists of the 1950s and 60′s. The Situationists were concerned with recapturing the arena of everyday life and most importantly recapturing the spirit of desire unfettered by the artificial desires created by commodity culture. [10] They called the commodity culture, which forced the worker into passive consumption of leisure, and deprived him of any real opportunity to participate in the construction of his own reality, the “society of the spectacle” and called for the creations of “situations” outside the spectacle to challenge its domination. Guy Debord was one of the main theorists of the “society of the spectacle” in his 1967 work of the same name, which followed many essays and pamphlets developing these ideas. He begins by asserting that “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.” [11] The spectacle, he goes on to say, “presents itself simultaneously as all of society, as part of society, and as the instrument of unification. As a part of society it is specifically the sector which concentrates all gazing and consciousness” but “the unification it achieves is nothing but an official language of generalised separation.” [12] To challenge the spectacle, Debord and the Situationists believed, nothing less than popular action to reclaim creative control of everyday life as well as political control of the means of production, would be needed. To the Situationists, the real horror in the society of the spectacle was its boringness. The dialectic of alienated Labour in the workplace and alienated leisure, made a dreary, mundane substitute for reality, lacking passion, desire and joie de vivre. As Ivan Chtcheglov wrote, “it has become essential to bring about a complete spiritual transformation by bringing to light forgotten desires and by creating entirely new ones. And by carrying out an intensive propaganda in favour of these desires. [13] And Vaneigem promised that “we have a world of pleasures to win, and nothing to lose but boredom.” [14]

From the New Left to DIY culture and Beyond

Vaneigem said, of romantic individualist liberalism and revolutionary communism, that “too many corpses strew the paths of individualism and collectivism. Two apparently contrary rationalities cloak an identical gangsterism, and identical oppression of the individual man.” (p. 23) The course of political movements in the latter part of the twentieth century has shown the truth of Vaneigem’s assertion. Following the events of 1968 it started to become clear that the intellectual critiques of modern culture that took into account how mentalities and perspectives are created and perpetuated, were legitimate analyses on which to base radical action. Radicalism in the contemporary period shares several things in common: criticism and suspicion of democratic political systems as they exist today; suspicion of the media and “big business” interests and perhaps most significantly, the idea that “everyday life” can be reclaimed by looking at the smaller issues which then build into a comprehensive challenge to the status quo. Contemporary “alternative culture” is deeply suspicious of the work/leisure dialectic. For the dialectic no longer works in reality: in this “post-industrial” society of structural unemployment, underemployment and deskilling, “work” is no longer the assured centrepoint of most people’s lives. However, our “leisure” activities predominate in our consciousness, and most of them appear to be based around the media. Contemporary alternative culture is largely concerned with creating viable alternatives to the mainstream culture of media and commodity exchange, and framing their protest in terms of these alternatives.

Media for a Spectacular Society

Lefebvre had noted the importance of the passive media as early as 1947:

Television – the sudden violent intrusion of the whole world into family and “private” life, “presentified” in a way which directly captures the immediate moment, which offers truth and participation, or at least appears to do so. (p. 41)

Arguably, all forms of media are entertainment, even if not overtly “entertaining.” But crucially, they also offer information, and we base most of our knowledge about the world and ourselves on the information supplied to us by the media. What is “the media” and how does it work? There are essentially three types of media available in Western society: public service media, which is usually broadcast media (but also includes newsletters etc.) which are produced by State-owned, tax-funded bodies which may or may not be responsible to the governing Party; Private enterprise media, which today are deregulated conglomerate media, often encompassing the whole range of media, from broadcast to print to music to digital media in one multinational corporation; and alternative or Do-It-Yourself (DIY) media, in which individuals or small independent groups take responsibility for creating and disseminating their work with no recourse to either of the other two media, examples include fanzines and small magazines, underground film and music, video journals, pirate radio, the Internet.

In this paper I am going to concentrate on the efforts of alternative media to challenge the society of the spectacle by creating and representing themselves as an alternative culture based on desires, and disseminating their ideas through the use of carnival and pleasure, while at the same time overtly challenging the dominance of ideas about culture, economics and society portrayed in the mass media. In part 4 I will look briefly at the history of popular radicalism and the media; in parts 5 and 6 I will look at television and the uses of video; part 7 will describe the relationship of activism and the media; part 8 will present a case study of Small World Media, an alternative media company struggling to survive by creating Undercurrents “alternative television”; and part 9 will consider alternative futures promised by the fusion of television and computer. Concluding , in part 10, will be a discussion as to whether alternative culture and alternative media is fated to recuperation.

Popular Radicalism and the Media

“Knowledge is Freedom”

“The free flow of information and communication is essential to a democratic society, and thus democracy requires that powerful instruments of information and communication be accessible to all.” Douglas Kellner [15]

The democratic idea is predicated upon two essentials: knowledge and choice. Knowledge so that the citizen/voter knows what the issues are, and choice so that s/he can make an informed decision between possible options. Yet is these very essentials that are most tightly controlled and subjected to dissimulation. There are various reasons for this: the interests of governments, businesses, interest groups which vie to dominate popular thinking; and basic laziness and willingness to accept whatever is put before one. This, however, is often the result of realising that the choices offered are illusionary, but not considering whether one can do anything about it. “The media” are routinely blamed for disseminating half-truths, speculations and opinions disguised as “news” or “information.” So much so that contemporary alternative publications speak of “media-proofing:” techniques, if not charms, to disempower the hold that media (usually broadcast media, in this context) has on everyday life. [16] Yet until recently “the media” was held to be the cornerstone of democracy, and still is, as Kellner’s quote asserts.

Print Culture and Popular Radicalism

The printing press was invented in Europe in the late 15th century, though a type of press was in use in China long before that. Nevertheless the press easily lent itself to producing printed work in the far simpler European alphabet in Latin and then, swiftly, the vernacular tongues. Immediately upon its invention it was constantly modified, altered and perfected in details, and its products turned to a growing diversity of uses. With the availability of printed matter came a desire to understand it, and although there are no proper indicators of literacy rates for the Renaissance-Early-Modern period, we do know that the literacy rates grew in all European regions, until, on the eve of the French revolution in Paris, literacy rates stood at between 86 and 93 percent for all classes. [17] In addition, for every reader of a printed item, there were those who could be read to, not to mention the milieu of coffee-houses and cafes. [18] Literary culture allowed for the dissemination of “fact” which purports to be unambiguous and to imply reality. The first publications which may be said to be devoted to this were the early newspapers, such as More Newes from Europe (1623) which was one of the first to provide a consistent account of events which also provided a recapping of earlier news. This foreign news, which dealt mainly with the events of the Thirty Years War, was soon followed by several papers which reported the news from Parliament, and during the Civil War rival newspapers purported to tell the “truth” from the King’s or Parliament’s point of view. These early papers were text-based but featured elaborate woodcut illustrations, mainly of a symbolic rather than an illustrative nature, thus keeping contact with the older methods of communication. In 1665 the first regular paper appeared in England, the Gazette and the first American paper appeared in Boston in 1690, but was soon suppressed. [19] Advertisements appeared in the 18th century and became very prevalent by the end of the century. In the 18th century the press was refined to the point that a small, easy-to use hand-operated press could be purchased relatively inexpensively. These were bought or leased to operate as small family-run businesses. This ease of access made the press available to a much greater number of people and especially to political radicals who wished to disseminate their ideas and gain support for their aims. Despite heavy Government suppression and censorship, these publications continued. [20] The printers and writers played their part in the great agitation for social and political reform of the late eighteenth century, in France (where newspapermen like Danton were key Revolutionary players) and elsewhere. As Richard Barbrook notes, “according to the revolutionaries, individual citizens directly shaped the policies of the state by engaging in reasoned debate over political issues in print,” thus creating a common political culture based on freedom of expression and private ownership of the means of production and distribution. [21] Despite Government suppression of the unlicensed press, there remained a high demand for cheaply-printed texts until the second half of the nineteenth century. A whole popular political culture was shaped by this access: “the mass of broadsides, addresses, letters, pamphlets, newspapers and occasional books were the very fabric of political activity.” [22] The life of 1840′s Chartist radical Thomas Frost is indicative: with some knowledge of compositing and a small capital of £25, Frost was able to earn his living by founding and editing a local newspaper in his native Croydon, launching a short-lived satirical magazine called Penny Punch, editing the Owenite Communist Chronicle and then his own Communist Journal, acting as correspondent for Lloyd’s London Newspaper and the South Eastern Gazette, and contributing to Chambers’s Papers for the People. Throughout the period he was continually on the bread line … but he was able to launch a series of publications with virtually no capital and, what is of equal significance, see them all fail without being permanently ruined. [23]

Karl Marx was in the thick of the newspaper milieu when, as a young man, he wrote for the liberal ‘Rheinische Zeitung.’ Throughout his life and work, he never developed the awe of the power of the press to manipulate thought that is the hallmark of most post-Marx political orders. Rather, he insisted upon the right to a free press, and, in his early work, envisioned a DIY culture where writers and artists would simply be ordinary people expressing themselves, not “professionals.” [24] However, rival Utopian socialist Wilhelm Weitling noted that “a ‘free’ press is impossible if people are not free and editors [are] hirelings of a wage system.” [25]

The steam press made possible faster and immeasurably better quality papers to be produced far more cheaply. The price of a good-quality illustrated paper fell dramatically, due to economies of scale which allowed far greater variety of reading material. The drawback was that the press itself was very expensive to own and operate. So only wealthy concerns could afford them. The rotary press, developed in 1870, allowed real mass-production of printed material for the first time, but again, the hardware was very expensive. Within a few years the large presses were churning out all manner of printed material, from comics to newspapers, under the aegis of a large capitalist concern. What we can recognise as our modern-day “newspaper” came into being, but these could only be created “by the collective labour of large numbers of wage workers on mechanised presses.” [26] Writers, artists and, later, photographers, were put on salary and their work strictly supervised as to content, and spirit, by the owner or his representatives. Press barons like Northcliffe and Beaverbrook became very powerful. The era of the individual or small group producing their own information or creative work and putting it out into the world was all but over.

After the press was professionalised, the idea of a DIY press was taken up by artists, but artists with a political agenda, from the Futurists to the Dadaists, the Lettrists and the Situationists, and spilled into the late 60′s-early 70′s hippie “counterculture” movement. The “punk” era of the 1970s saw the creation of the “fanzine,” deliberately crude, photocopied magazines which blended cod-anarchist politics and an appreciation of punk style and music. These “fanzines” still exist, as does an informal international network of distribution. [27] Revolutionary political groups equally saw the press as an organ of change, from Lenin’s “What is to be Done?” to last month’s Class War tabloid, the classic mouthpiece of the vanguard has been the newspaper, as anyone who has walked the Socialist Worker gauntlet of paper-sellers will recognise.

The alternative press gained dramatically with the advent of the desktop computer and printer: a whole magazine could be produced and typeset in an afternoon, if necessary. It could incorporate text and pictures, even pictures taken directly from video. Distribution was still a problem, as only small independently-run bookshops – themselves a vanishing breed – could usually be persuaded to sell them. Then the Internet was set up. That same magazine could be put onto the Web, saving paper and distribution hassles. As the software advances, the pages themselves become more graphic and less dependent on text, even incorporating small video clips. Even better, anyone with access to a computer can write in and share news, opinion and ideas. The potential for political and social debate away from governments, moral arbiters (these used to be the churches but now it seems anyone with enough gall can set themself as a moral spokesperson) and capitalist forces is tremendous.

Broadcast Media and the “Couch Potato”

The millions of human beings who were shot, tortured, gaoled, starved, treated like animals and made the object of a conspiracy of ridicule, can sleep in peace in their communal graves, for at least the struggle in which they died has enabled their descendants, isolated in the air-conditioned apartments, to believe, on the strength of their daily dose of television, that they are happy and free. [28]

Vaneigem’s bitter statement reflects a dissatisfaction with the way the broadcast media has apparently turned its back on its role in providing the tools of democracy; information upon which to base knowledge, and choice. He sees the history of the struggle for freedom as betrayed by a broadcast media which tells us we are happy and free, entertains us, tells us what and what not to worry about (e.g. “the economy” – whatever that is, in real terms – not “poverty”). Prior to broadcast media, which is essentially designed for private consumption in the home, film – the newsreel, the comedy and the melodrama projected as a neat package – was the agent of shared cultural experience. It still fulfils a role in cultural consciousness but it is nowhere near as powerful as television for explaining the world to us, and for sheer routine entertainment. As with print media, film and radio in their earliest stages appeared to be a participatory format. Although difficult to master, the technology of early film and radio was not impossible for an enthusiast to learn. But, as Barbrook notes about radio, “using mass production techniques, radio-set manufacturers soon started producing simple receivers as consumer commodities … by using Taylorist labour discipline and assembly-lines, manufacturers were able to lower the price of radio receivers until almost everyone could afford a set.” Radio programming became mass programming, created by people hired to produce certain things in a particular way. Similarly, film-making soon passed from the realm of independent artists to the businessmen of Hollywood, who created the studio system and enormously expensive, widely-distributed spectacles. By the 1960s, television and radio, had totally replaced film as the information media, as the newsreels which used to precede every feature quietly disappeared from the screens. The public experience of theatrically-released film was made over solely to fictional entertainment, and news and information reception was to be a private experience. The Fordist production of media, its reliance on economies of scale, creates a vast division between producers and consumers. As Vaneigem acerbically notes, “it is useless to expect even the caricature of creativity from the conveyor-belt,” as the products become ever more formulaic, predictable and remote from human experience.


Watching the Box

“Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.” Walter Benjamin [31]

Who can forget the late winter of 1991? Sitting glued to the television as CNN delivered the horrendous news from the far-flung desert wastes of Iraq: war. [32] As the scene unfolded, we watched in enchanted, stricken horror, never knowing whether it would all result in nuclear annihilation. As the days passed, we gradually became aware that the news reports and interviews with steely-eyed military personnel were more and more broken by commercial advertisements. This was war, brought to you by Coca Cola, McDonalds and The Gap. At any moment it seemed that Sly Stallone would turn up and “waste” Saddam Hussein, and everything would be all right. The very unreality of the war on television, a “spectacle” unlike any hitherto seen, made it seem like an entertainment. Jean Baudrillard even went so far as to claim that the war never really happened, that it was a media construct. [33] This would certainly have been possible. Instead, as we now know, the coverage of the Gulf War was as biased as it could possibly have been, hiding the realities of heavy civilian casualties and the murder of retreating Iraqi troops.

As noted earlier, television viewing is essentially a private activity, but one in which the “sudden and violent intrusion of the whole world into family and ‘private’ life” means that the world comes to us; we do not have to go ‘out there’ for our information about the world around us; we don’t have to go into the marketplace or out on the road. [34] As we passively contemplate the world through the rectangular box, we are sharing our private experience with others all over the globe. The technology of television is global and, increasingly, the content of what we see is global too. The homogenisation of culture is a fact. American cultural producers dominate television broadcasting internationally, just as they dominate film production. Economies of scale mean that vast media conglomerates, including networks and their subsidiaries, can reproduce and recycle almost infinitely a relatively small amount of cultural product. George Gerbner, a media researcher and outspoken critic of global media consolidation explains:

“Most of what we see and what our children see on television is not produced for us [Americans]; it is produced for the global market. The reason other countries import it is because our syndicators present them with an irresistible deal. They say: “We can sell you an hour’s worth of this television show or motion picture for less money than it would cost you to produce one minute of your own programming.” That’s destroying their own industries, their own creative people, the integrity of their own culture … [for the sake of] dumping action-packed cheaply produced violent material on them.” [35]

Gerbner goes on to explain why this tendency has negative consequences for the American people: their own culture and society is not represented accurately, nor are their interests in terms of everyday life addressed. Since programs essentially serve as an atmosphere for sales, they have to be compatible with the advertising message. That means they present a world where the best customers dominate. In this world, men outnumber women three to one…One third of our population – namely people with lower incomes and less education – is represented by 1.2 per cent of the characters.

The sort of programming Gerbner is talking about is concerned with selling not only a particular product (say, sports shoes), but a way of life in which we see these products as essential to living. This is not only happening in television, but in the full range of the “media corporations’” services. “By eroding cultural differences between nations, [media multinationals] dreamt of an international electronic marketplace where all forms of information would be traded under their control.” [36]


Here Gerbner has been talking about programming that is overtly “entertaining” – sitcoms, films, game shows. But increasingly, “news” and documentary television has been reshaped to reflect the obsession with entertainment. Finding the “entertainment” angle on the news is easier than one might think: in the afore-mentioned example of the Gulf War, once it became clear that the world was not going to be blown up by the nuclear arsenal, people felt free to cheer on “their team” and to collect Gulf War trading cards. [37] In terms of day-to-day news programming, the Undercurrents video “Snodland News” features a typical ITN “human interest” story that takes up a full two minutes of news time, and over the saccharine tale lists nine important news stories which didn’t make it into ITN’s broadcast that day, including:

Seven London police charged with assault and attempt to pervert the course of justice. Muslims clash with Government forces in Nigeria following the arrest of their spiritual leader. The first senior French politician is forced to stand trial for sending Jews to death camps. MoD blocks a Newbury District Council survey of radiation leaks from two atomic power stations. Australian maritime unions impose a ban on shipping movements to protest at the arrest of two Indonesian labour leaders.

Any of these would have made an interesting and informative two minutes, but ITN chose instead the story of a toddler who ran away from nursery school and was found safe at home?! [38] Television documentary film-making is likewise under pressure to create a “human interest” angle. Commissioning editors invariably want a documentary with distinct “characters” and for the piece to unfold in a dramatic way, that is, to resemble dramatic entertainment.

Both George Gerbner and Richard Barbrook believe that “the imposition of a marketing formula on journalists and creative people” [30] forms a particularly tight noose of censorship, as “the majority of the population were only offered a choice between almost identical one-way flows of communications.” [30] Both blame the deregulation and privatisation of the electronic media, which sacrifices creativity, public input and fresh approaches to representation, to the financial bottom line.

Public Service Broadcasting

Outside the United States, most countries have at least some form of public broadcasting. This is a publicly-funded (through taxes and/or license fees) television network which may or may not have advertising. In Britain, the BBC was founded in the 1920s, and the Canadian CBC was modelled upon it. Both the BBC and the CBC were supposed to completely independent of any kind of direct control by Government or other interests. [41] In recent years public service broadcasting has come under attack from neo-liberal “market force” advocates who claim that private enterprise has the money to buy in the creativity to make better programmes and thus provide greater choice. Notable exceptional programmes from private broadcasters do not unfortunately prove this true. The license fee debate is represented in the popular press as a “cash grab” by the snob John Birt to rip off the television consumer, who would rather watch private, cable or satellite television anyway. It is no accident that the papers which make this claim (the Sun among others) are owned by corporate media magnates that are ideologically hostile to public broadcast television, such as Rupert Murdoch. Governments are following on this trend, with swingeing cuts as a result. The BBC has just laid off thousands of workers as it closed many departments in favour of “contracting out.” In Canada, the CBC, which is financed by a direct government grant (no license fee) and advertising, was severely cut in the recent Liberal budget. Approaching election year, the CBC fought back. In a carefully-staged “town hall” style public meeting, the campaigning Prime Minister Jean Chretien was to meet with members of the public to answer questions and listen to their views. Alas for Chretien, the CBC staffers had carefully chosen the most verbose, aggressive and angry voters for the meeting, and the Prime Minister, a career populaist whose image has been crafted to represent that of an “ordinary guy,” was made to look foolish, arrogant and vague as he was bombarded with questions about unemployment and the future of the resource industries under NAFTA, issues he had wanted to side-step. [42]

The Uses of Video

Video and Utopian Technology

Video has enabled events to be captured immediately upon happening; thus it is much faster than film and, since it employs push-button technology, is easier to learn (though not necessarily easier to do well). “Video Vultures, TV News in America” shows how a freelance camera unit combs the streets of New York City recording events, and selling them to television stations as “news.” The significance of the Rodney King case cannot be underestimated for what it says about the possibilities of camcorder culture and ways of challenging mainstream representation and interpretation. In Britain, various counterculture and political groups – which have far more adherents than the mainstream media would like to acknowledge – have started producing their own camcorder-generated news-video compilations which are sold, lent and exhibited in squats, clubs and pubs around the country. In the USA, video-based cable-access television allows groups to make their own television programmes for limited broadcast. The ability to distribute information and generate debate appears to be within the grasp of possibility, given that a V-8 or VHS camcorder can cost as little as £500 (or $500), implying that anyone can record and present documentary programmes and “news.”

The technological determinism of Marshall McLuhan still hold appeal for both pundits and developers of new electronic media technology. McLuhan’s assertion that the development of print media determined the emergence of liberal society ignores most other historical developments in the period. [43] But Utopianism is still with us; having predicted glorious futures for radio, television and video, Utopians now see our future salvation in the Internet. Jon Dovey, in “the Revelation of Unguessed Worlds” cites the experience of video as a heralded Utopian technology to caution overly optimistic thinking about digital technology. [44] While acknowledging the potential impact for camcorder activism, he notes the current fashion for camcorder-based television: incredibly cheap, populist “home movie” TV which use mainly camcorder-generated material. The end result is not so much “reality TV” as simply cheap and nasty television. “The trick,” said Vaneigem, “is that the spectators of the cultural and ideological vacuum are here enlisted as its organisers. The spectacle’s inanity is made up for by forcing its spectators … to participate in it.” [45] Meanwhile, camcorder activists like the Undercurrents and Conscious Cinema crews, don’t get a look in.

Fear of the Electronic Eye

In one local daily paper on one day chosen at random I discovered the following TV-fear stories:

“Tougher TV curbs to protect children” London Evening Standard, 10 December 1996, page 2 – a call for censorship of television to protect children from sex and violence.

“1 in 4 Children Under 5 Have Bedroom TVs” London Evening Standard, 10 December 1996 page 4 – this is written in such a way as to assume that this is a bad thing.

The second story suggests several things, the main one being that we have evidently achieved a society where parents need an electronic device as a child-minder. The first story appears at first glance to be yet another annoying and wearisome call for censorship. Will these uptight people never give up? Surely they could exercise some form of voluntary control over their children’s viewing habits? But then I realised, these people calling for regulation of violent and sexual content in television are actually crying out for some kind of input, some kind of participation and role in deciding what is fed to them by the great leisure machine. Gerbner makes a similar point when he notes that “the so-called culture warriors” like evangelist Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan are cashing in on people’s legitimate grievance. [46]

The newspaper press regularly features stories about television, but very rarely positive stories about television. The idea that television corrupts children is a familiar theme. If it is true that “by the late 1980′s many people within the advanced industrial countries were spending more time watching television than working,” then we are obviously doomed. [47] Why this fear? It cannot be simply rivalry – rather, is it the intrinsic fear of the “electric eye” in the house, the alien within, whom we cannot live without but whom we secretly fear?

To answer these fears, Canadian university professor Timothy Collings has invented the “V-chip” which has been taken up enthusiastically by the Clinton administration as a sop to conservative critics, and will be marketed in the US this year. This device allows the television to filter out sex and violence that is broadcast, presumably allowing the parents to disengage it so that they can freely watch the ruttings and maimings that are so unsuitable for their young. Unfortunately, the chip does not filter out poor plot, bad characterisation, wooden acting, idiotic advertisements, shallow reportage, fatuous hosts, racial and sexual stereotyping, sheer dullness and condescension … the list goes on.

What we really fear is not so much sex and violence, but the fact that we are enslaved to a television culture, we rely on it to palliate us, entertain us, inform us, narcotise us and recreate us in the fashion of the day. Yet we feel powerless before its seductive glamour. We don’t realise that, in its essence, television is as simple as picking up a video camera and sticking a transmitter on top of a tall tree or tower-block.

Activism and the Media

DIY Culture

“The struggle against mass culture can consist only in pointing out its connection with the persistence of social injustice.” Max Horkheimer [48]

“To be radical is to grasp something at its roots. But for man the root is man himself.” Karl Marx

According to Jon Dovey, the use of a technology is only as good as who is using it: the 1970′s Utopian project of community video failed “because the political movements in which it was embedded failed.” [49] In the mid-1990′s there are new radical movements, which use video and computer technology, to doubly challenge the social and political status quo, and to offer a participatory alternative to the mainstream media itself. They reject what they see as an “official” culture sanctioned by the partnership of government, corporations and the media elite as being appropriate for public consumption. Further, they reject politics, believing that popular participation in the official political prcess is possible but pointless. [50] They use the tactics of direct action, and many were first influenced by the environmental movement. [51]

Direct action does work in the West to the extent that, since we don’t live under the sort of oppressive regimes that exist elsewhere, propped up by Western-armed dictators and Western-owned multinationals, the activist is unlikely to be found headless and mutilated in a ditch. In the end, the main threat Western states can offer the activist is prison. According to activist Lotte Kronhild of Project Ploughshares, fear of prison keeps us inactive; by openly doing action which will send us to prison we break the power of the state. [52] In the eighteenth century, when the death penalty was laid down for crimes of property, particularly poaching, juries were reluctant to convict. Challenging the dominance of the State is not risk-free but it is not a life-or-death situation. However, the price of challenging the corporations can be high, for example, the gargantuan two-year libel suit McDonald’s has brought against pro-vegetarian activists. [53] The main weapon Western regimes have toward activists is the weapon of silence, isolation. This doesn’t always work., as activists have learned the skills of networking (e.g. persuading a popular music group to openly support them) and guerrilla publicity (e.g. AIDS awareness group ACT-UP).

Since the 1960s, the underground press, community television and radio, in small self-managed groups, usually co-operatives, have waxed and waned in the alternative scene. They have never entirely gone away. The underground press continues, especially in the USA, to thrive and produce interesting material. The promise of cable-access local television comes and goes; in parts of the US, several years ago, cable access was certainly serving the alternative movement, but the neo-Nazi alternative. Lately, however, the price of video equipment has dropped so dramatically that for the first time, real community and/or activist television is possible in the same way that pirate radio is possible. And alternative groups are making videos, setting up websites. Examples of current alternative campaigns are too numerous to describe fully, but instead of a single movement (e.g.socialist struggle) there are many, which together make up a sort of counterculture. The fact that there is no great plan or scheme is both a strength and a weakness. The Situationist ideas of direct democracy and reclamation of everyday life from consumer culture, are a large part of alternative practice. Do-It-Yourself culture is the expression of a generation which grew up into an adulthood of shrinking job opportunities, lowered expectations and a deep distrust of the political system, in which parties offer variations on the single theme of conservatism and the reign of “free market” economics at the expense of the environment, people and the future. “You don’t sit around wait for something to be handed to you on a plate,” says one woman involved in creating free festivals. However, rejecting the yuppie idea of “go and get it,” the DIY culture attempts to provide as much as possible for free, funded by donations, or through co-operative means. They “create situations” rather than sloganeer and demonstrate (e.g. Reclaim the Streets festive urban street parties; the anti-roads campaign inhabiting Claremont Road and throwing vast free parties every week; Earth First proclaiming the “Cascadia Free State” in the Oregon forest, and so on). With the same sort of enthusiasm, the activist’s disgust at the media’s portrayal of them has led them to try and make an alternative media. How successful this will be remains to be seen.

The New Radicalism

In the past, governments relied on class divisions and the power of the state to crush popular radicalism, while at the same time it was buying allegiance with material goodies. Now, children of the middle classes reject as unattainable the certainties that their parents built their lives upon: career, marriage, nice home etc. since the reality they see is divorce, unemployment, underemployment, debt, environmental damage, corporate greed, homelessness and so on.

Alternative culture tries to counter the globalism of the media by forging grassroots global links with other groups around the world.

Alternative culture is carnivalesque. The whole ethos of DIY is to cast off passivity and embrace life, action, decision, in everyday life. According to Mikhail Bakhtin, the great theorist of carnival, carnival is oppositional. It is not simply a “break” from labour or everyday life, not a leisure or entertainment. It has no utilitarian motive. It is not to be observed, but to be lived. The point of the DIY culture as it exists in free festivals, squat centres and activist campaigns, is to live in a carnivalesque manner. Use of costume, mask and theatrical devices, which are “connected with the joy of change an reincarnation, with gay relativity and with the merry negation of uniformity and similarity,” are common. [54] Gone is the sacrificial radicalism derided by Vaneigem:

Violence has changed its meaning. Not that the rebel has grown weary of fighting exploitation, boredom, poverty and death: the rebel has simply resolved no longer to fight them with the weapons of exploitation, boredom, poverty and death. For the first victim of any such struggle is anyone who engages in it full of contempt for their own life… If the ancient cry of “Death to the Exploiters” no longer echoes through the streets, it is because it has given way to another cry, one harking back to childhood and issuing from a passion which, though more serene is no less tenacious. That cry is “Life First!”. [55]

Replacing the revolutionary tactics of the past, Vaneigem sees the activists of the present as “groups whose collective decision-making admits of no intrusion by political representation, shuns all organisers or leaders and combats all hierarchy.”

One recurring theme in radical culture and the emphasis of many of the actions which are carried out, is a call for love and respect for the natural world. While there are echoes of a “golden age” mythology at work here, a hearkening after a lost state of innocence, it cannot be ignored that modern global capitalist practices are causing rapid depredation of both the natural environment and the cultivated/inhabited environment. Whether it is forced monoculture dependent on harsh pesticides, chemical-based animal-rearing practices, opencast mining, clearcut logging or pro-roads/pro-automobile policies, all of these practices are factored inot the global economy now. Short term profit there may be, but activists realise that the long term consequences are ones which we have to live with, in terms of health and quality of life, and these have the potential to be very dangerous. Instead of nostalgia, the activists of today seek to recoup that which we have lost and are losing by an insistence on direct democracy and radical action.

Anarchism is the one romantic idea that has not yet been tainted by corrupt practice, and so many people involved in creating alternative culture are self-confessed anarchists. Like the hippies of the late 60′s, some glory in the fact that mainstream consumer culture recoils at their style and behaviour: a song accompanying an Earth First video of an action to protest Clinton allowing logging of old-growth forests had these lyrics:

“Hurrah for the riffraff. Come join our circle of jolly fools Squatters and crusties who make their own rules. Rebels and beggars, carousers and thieves. Our only motto: Anarchy!”

and has other references to Luddites and Diggers, and ends with “go ahead and stare, we’re everywhere!” [56]

Rejection of the mainstream is more than just about wearing dreadlocks and mohawk hairstyles, or adopting veganism. One anti-logging protester says from his camp in the Oregon wilderness “the collective spirit that’s evolved up here is nothing like anything that exists down below. It’s truly the Cascadia Free State, nothing to do with the Babylonian US principles of individuality and everyone for themselves and greed.” [57] As stated earlier, the rebels of the 1990′s differ from those of the 1960′s and early 70′s in that they have much less to lose by rebelling. They know that most of the old hippies became yuppies, as Vaneigem notes, “became career bureaucrats and covered themselves with glory as cogs in the apparat of State and marketplace.” [58]

Alternative culture is not afraid to use the mainstream. Undercurrents (of which more later) sells camcorder footage to television to help finance its activist video projects. The band Zion Train, interviewed at a free rave, acknowledges that the label they have signed to, Time-Warner, are “arms manufacturing completely cold-hearted capitalist pigs.” Zion Train defend their decision to sign however, by saying that Time Warner can now “spread the message much further than we ever could, and that way we are able to provide an alternative to Quentin Tarantino, Ice T, the Fugees, glorifying sex, death and money, coz that’s not what we’re about! We’ve had chart entries and as a result we’ve had people come up to us who’ve never heard of Newbury or RTS [Reclaim the Streets] or anything like that and say “I’ve joined the animal rights movement,” or “I was down at Newbury…” We do what we can.” [59] In the summer of 1996, the activists opposing the Newbury bypass joined forces with mainstream group Friends of the Earth (prominently sponsored by Tory-supporter Andrew Lloyd-Webber) and a number of artists to create a huge one-day art festival on the land immediately adjacent to the bypass site, and spilling over into the site. The event was well-attended, as genteel Guardian readers mixed with dreadlocked stewards for a day of performance and visual art with an anti-automobile theme.

The representation of activists in the mainstream media has long been one of “shiftless, lazy hippies.” This dates back to the 1960s when many in the counterculture adopted a distinctive aesthetic style which made them very easy to identify. Creating a common bond using subcultural style has its assets and its drawbacks. It can help to create a sense of an identifiable community, but it can also serve as a “uniform” which excludes as much as it includes. What is interesting in the contemporary scene is that increasingly people who might once have been identified as “straight” or mainstream are starting sympathise with alternative culture. [60]

In the video “Celtic Enemy” the dispute is between local people in rural Wales and Celtic Energy over open-cast mining in their area, documented on video and distributed by Undercurrents [52]. The locals, mainly elderly and middle aged, describe how they tried “all conventional routes as far as campaigning is concerned” but “for three years we tried all the legal channels and got nowhere.” As news of their protest filtered outside of the community, numbers of activists arrived in the village. At first they shocked the locals by their appearance (“some of them had dreadlocks…”) but soon the locals realised that “somebody cared” about what was happening, and together they embarked on a fierce protest. The vile images of environmental ruin wreaked in the end by the mine contrasts with the beauty of the countryside in its original state, but the locals state that they feel that the struggle has given them the courage to continue the fight. The video shows clearly the brutality of the police, directed by big-business interests and the government, and the equally-brutal destruction of the landscape; the vaunted “reconstruction” of the countryside after the mining companies have gorged their fill, is shown to be a surreal joke: the the new landscape is hideous and artificial and nothing like what was there before.

By making a video like Celtic Enemy, the activist video-makers and Undercurrents want to provide information about the struggle of the Welsh villagers against the Establishment of big business and the government, but also, and more subversively, they want to show the gradual alliance of the villagers with the counterculture activists.

Today the ennui of the assembly-line has been replaced by the ennui of the dole queue and the McJob. [61] Unless things change drastically, there is no real reason not to put energies into creating a viable radical critique and an alternative way of life.


Undercurrents And The Camcorder Action Network

“Subjectivity is the only truth” Soren Kierkegaard

“How can anybody be truly objective? Everybody has a point of view, and that’s what makes you take up the camcorder in the first place The idea is to be honest and show people what they’re otherwise not going to get to see.” Paul O’Connor, Undercurrents [62]

By the early 1990s, the grassroots direct action movement was finding its own strength as people tackled situations issue by issue, refusing to get caught up in mainstream political posturing.

The road protest movement formed spontaneously as a response to the Government’s policy of creating access and bypass roads to facilitate motorway traffic. In the process, land which had been zoned for agriculture, for environment protection, or – as in the case of the M11, residential – was expropriated. Rather than simply demonstrating, the protestors occupied the sites, creating “alternative communities.” The protestors at Claremont Road, in East London, created a kind of “alternative village” and held regular free parties and art exhibitions, attracting international media attention. The Government’s response was to send in heavy security forces to enforce the building of the road.

With the rapid drop in prices of video-recording equipment in the 1990s – when a basic camcorder can be had for under £400 and a Hi-8 for under £1000, new possibilities arose for documenting the struggles.

At the M11 protest site, Thomas Harding, a Cambridge graduate, who had been involved in the protest movement surrounding the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, met Jamie Hartzell, another neophyte documentary film-maker, who was also a trainee editor at the BBC, and Zoe Broughton a media studies student. Paul O’Connor, originally Irish, an activist and photographer, also became involved in the group. As well as being actively involved in the protest action, all were attempting to document the event, seeing it as a crucial change in British political involvement on the grassroots level. They all found that their environmental films and photographs were rejected by the media as being “too political.” While they took this as a compliment, as the work was intended to be political, they were getting no distribution and the movement was getting no recognition.

They made a 40-minute documentary on the M11 road protests, which came out long before the movement had any publicity whatsoever, failed to be broadcast on any British station, though it later won first prize at Germany’s 1994 Okomedia Film Festival

Hartzell then left the BBC and he, Broughton, O’Connor and Harding set up Small World Media, as a co-operatively-owned non-profit media company to rectify the trouble that they and other independent documentary makers were having getting their work distributed and/or broadcast. They started Undercurrents, a video magazine of “camcorder journalism” to report on the issues and events ignored by the rest of the broadcast media, and to encourage grassroots direct-action.

The first issue of Undercurrents came out in April 1994, and featured the M11 film, together with a film on the subject of the media’s self-censorship of direct action, a critique of local councils’ attitudes to environmental issues, and a round-up of the UK’s direct action campaigns. This effort was the result of around 50 pieces of footage shot by the Small World group, and collected from other activists. Edited together and “whacked out” as O’Connor calls it, onto five hundred VHS tapes, the first Undercurrents video went out on sale at alternative bookshops, festivals and mail order.

Sales were slow, which did not discourage the group, which by now was actively seeking material from activists up and down the country. In December 1994, the second issue came out, with a focus on the impending Criminal Justice and Public Order Act: videos on squatting, common land issues, Solsbury Hill, Claremont Road road-protests and the rave crackdown were featured, along with a report on the McLibel campaign and television censorship of anti-Indonesian logging adverts.

At this point, the Guardian did an interview (December 5th, 1994) followed in February by the Independent. These articles prompted an “avalanche” of media response: TV, magazines – all wanted to interview the group. This presented the members of the group and the activists with whom they were working with a dilemma: to gain coverage for the campaigns they supported and to sell videos and fund the continuation of the project they would have to get as much “free” publicity as possible. But they were also aware that they ran the risk of becoming “flavour of the month.” While they did agree to be featured on “The Little Picture Show” and “The Late Show,” they insisted that no reporters were to come to their offices and film them in the spartan Oxfam-furnished editing suite as talking heads behind desks. Instead, the journalists were to accompany them “into the field” to the campaign sites and show them working on site with activists, filming security-protester conflicts etc. This gave publicity to the campaigners as well as to Undercurrents.

At this point, Undercurrents was hoping to capitalise on the publicity to try and convince national and local television to purchase individual items. The creation of the Camcorder Action Network and creation of an archive of activist video has gone some way to realise this goal but as yet no television station has seen fit to broadcast any Undercurrents film. O’Connor says, “ideally, really we’d like to see a spot maybe twice a week on Channel Four where the videos could be broadcast and there would be some opportunity for feedback.” In fact, Channel Four has a mandate to show “alternative views” and has publicly said they want more innovative documentary work. [63]

Simon Hattenstone, writing in The Guardian, summed up the relationship of Undercurrents and groups like it to the broadcast media:

“Actually, Undercurrents would sit easily and proudly in the medium for the masses, but TV has never been quite as democratic as it likes us to believe, not even in the days when the BBC cuddled up to Ken Loach, or when Channel Four darned the socks of any documentary film-maker who could spell “anti-establishment.” [64]

Undercurrents and TV : Ethics and Aesthetics

Undercurrents’ most recent video issues have “blown the whistle” on the mystique of television reportage. As O’Connor says, “we’ve never met anyone yet who can’t do it. By the time it’s finished it’s a good film.” In fact, he goes on to say, the worst films are made by those who fancy themselves as film-makers: the auteur impulse is too strong to make effective reportage! The incredible power of television to get the message across is not so difficult to access. Over the past two and a half years, the Undercurrents team has trained over one hundred people in camcorder video technology. Some of these have started their own activist video co-ops, like Brighton’s Conscious Cinema and the anarchists of the 56a Infoshop in London. Others continue to contribute to Undercurrents and projects in their own communities.

O’Connor and Harding both agree that that what they are trying to do with Undercurrents is not television-making but “camcorder activism.” The problem, if it is a problem, is that in order to appeal to people brought up on television, it must be entertaining enough so they will watch it. The Undercurrents videos are entertaining, but as O’Connor says “most of the people who involve themselves with Undercurrents come from a DIY cultural backgrounds, and there’s always been a strong sense of humour there. Natural humour, not scripted humour – real people not sound bites!” The rhetoric and aesthetic of carnival are present in the anarchic, irreverent humour of the activist videos, implicitly recognising the truth of Vaneigem’s statement that “the project of participation is grounded in the passion for play.” [65] The question is, would this type of humour appeal to people outside of the DIY cultural background? Obviously it is difficult to tread the fine line between the spactacular nature of our telelvision-viewing habits and expectations, and the use of television as a medium for alternative news. The work of Undercurrents is designed to inform and provoke, not simply to entertain. But they realise, rightly, that didacticism and humourlessness have no popular appeal. The aesthetics of television are difficult, and maybe impossible, to avoid. The trick is to combine the ethics of activism with the aesthetics of television. This in itself means aping as well as satirising the medium that they are criticizing. There are no easy answers.

But it may be a problem that the rhetoric and aesthetic of television is too seductive to camcorder activists. O’Connor admits that, compared to the first few issues, Undercurrents 5, when the group had the Avid and had mastered the equipment well enough, was “so slick it’s – sick!” It may be difficult to go on producing material that challenges, mocks and exposes television, yet operates within its boundaries. It must entertain, but not so much that people confuse it with television, and treat it with the same passive consumerism that they treat “The X Files.” The other potential “danger” is the lure of a professional broadcast career as a result of this activist work. This is already happening with Undercurrents: Zoe Broughton is already working on BBC commissions. There are potential benefits of this, of course; the danger lies in the possibility of recuperation (see part 10).

Keeping the Thing Alive

As the experience of the New Left radical movement shows, the co-operatively run self-management model of media production declined and fell away during the 1980′s period of reaction, as the former activists decided to go and make some money, and the tenuous financial support that had been available dried up. In the United States, formerly hard-core radical Bibles of the 60′s and 70′s like Mother Jones, Rolling Stone, Ms. and Village Voice became slick, glossy, expensive – or disappeared. College radio, in some campuses a hotbed of free speech and focus for environmental and social justice groups, was forced throughout the 1980′s to chase after corporate sponsorship as student funding was cut. Undercurrents are already feeling this type of squeeze: one original member has already left. A recent grant has allowed them to recruit new administrative personnel, but in order for Undercurrents to survive, the new blood will have to be as firmly committed as they are highly competent. Will they survive? O’Connor does not think it is so important that the actual entity of Undercurrents survives, so long as camcorder activism continues. “We don’t want to become an institution here,” he says. “Ultimately the dream is more powerful than the product.”

“Broadcast Quality”

According to both the BBC and Channel Four, the problem with “activist productions” is that they are not ‘broadcast quality.’ This is a charge that might initially have been levelled at Undercurrents; in the beginning none of the members knew how to do more than the most rudimentary editing, for example. However, this is no longer true. Personal financing, gifts, an EU grant and the sales of footage have allowed Undercurrents to set up a professional Beta/Avid editing suite, a format transfer system and Hi-8 camcorders. In addition, they train activists onsite and in the edit suite to shoot and edit their own videos, with an emphasis on quality. Finally, as the Undercurrents group has learned more about the techniques of editing, they have made the last few issues quite slick and televisual. Cheap and cheerful the videos Undercurrents, Conscious Cinema and the anarchists of the 56a Infoshop produce may be, their quality is high enough to make them accessible, and their aesthetic and rhetoric retains the carnivalesque flair that characterises contemporary radical DIY culture.

This move has been mirrored by the BBC and CNN, among others, who send many of their foreign correspondents into the field equipped with nothing more than Hi-8 camcorders. And news programmes do buy camcorder-generated material.But still they are reluctant to broadcast activist films. Ironically, this intransigence comes at a time when television, in Britain as in the USA, is buying up cheap camcorder material for dubious “real life” programmes, also known ingenuously as “reality TV.” [66] Jon Dovey, in “The Revelation of Unguessed Worlds” argues that it is “the application of the camcorder within the regime of “reality TV” that characterises the dominant face of its culture,” thus ever-marginalizing radical interventions using the technology. [67]

Cheap and cheerful the videos Undercurrents, Conscious Cinema and the anarchists of the 56a Infoshop produce may be, their quality is high enough to make them accessible, and their aesthetic and rhetoric retains the carnivalesque flair that characterises contemporary radical DIY culture.

Interestingly, despite the BBC’s refusal to recognise activist independent documentary producers and broadcast their work, the new Director of Television, Michael Jackson (a former producer of the Late Show, among others), recently reflected upon his role and the future of the BBC: “…it shouldn’t cut itself off from different ways of thinking about the world and different ways of making programmes, or people wandering off and doing things we wouldn’t have thought of ourselves.” He goes on to predict a new, more accessible broadcast culture in the face of the “threat” of Murdoch and digital TV: “…you can see how television is going to become – despite everything you read every day about Rupert Murdoch or whatever – much more available. The days of gated sanctuaries are over.” [68]

Over the past thirty years it has become increasingly apparent that it is important in any struggle to attempt to harness the power of television. However, this has invariably been very difficult to do, given that television access is limited and expensive. The Undercurrents videos are not “television” in the true sense of the word, they are not for broadcast but are sold as VHS cassettes for playing in a video cassette recorder. But they seek to imitate television, news and documentary television. By showing the “news they don’t want you to see” [italics mine] the Undercurrents videos are in some ways subversive of television, but since they are not broadcast, they have no access to the power that television has to invade the private space, no power to create “the sudden violent intrusion of the whole world into family and “private” life,” (to quote Lefevbre again). And it is precisely this power which makes television so unique, so fraught with danger yet so full of possibility.

Alternative Futures?

An “Information Culture?”

“Categorically, we need freedom, but a freedom based in our deepest spiritual needs, in our most severe and human desires of the flesh.” Henri Lefebvre [69]

“It is no mean feat to imprison liberty in the name of liberty” Raoul Vaneigem [70]

We are constantly being told that we live in a post-industrial age of information. An “information culture.” What kind of information? Useful information? Useless information? Does it lead to knowledge, which is the application of information? The plethora of useless “information” that constantly bombards us turns us away from knowledge, which we can only come by through critical judgement. We will soon grow tired of this novelty of “facts.” The old idea that “knowledge is power” has been drowned in a deluge of “information” which must be “processed.” Meaningless terms, but manipulative.

Some of this information is obviously surveillance: what you watch, what you buy, read, suffer from, believe – all quantified and stored so that you can become the specially-selected target of a marketing campaign. But for the rest, we’re promised all the information we could ever dream of, all the knowledge and understanding – we’ll know everything about everywhere; if we believe them, the promises of the information culture are such as to make us godlike: omniscience, omnipresence and, with “Choice”- being the key word, omnipotence.

It is true that new technology and the expansion of existing technology is making more stuff available to us than ever before. Cable and satellite channels, home video, home shopping, CD-ROM and so on have changed the way many of us use our “leisure” time and, following the existing post-war trend, have driven us further and further into the womblike privacy of the home.

None of these things are more than passive activities. Some promise to “save us time.” Time for what? For more passive entertainment? The illusion of choice is just that, an illusion. What is the point of sixty or a hundred television channels if most of them are showing the same programmes? What is the point of more and wider-reaching news if it means the information is condensed into shallow sound bites, with little analysis and a predictable point of view?

Television is still a powerful medium. The viewer still has the power to choose to switch on or off, and between stations. S/he can videotape programmes and thus cut out annoying advertisements. Basic television programming using video is easy and cheap to produce.

But the freedom offered in our neoliberal spectacular society is the freedom of deregulated monopoly disguised as private enterprise, and this applies especially to media freedom. So, in the United States, the four main sources of popular information, the four main television networks, are owned by four enormous companies: Disney, Murdoch, Westinghouse and General Electric. [71] Public broadcasting is dependent on grants from companies like Mobil and Shell, which explains why they are eager to buy British costume dramas rather than John Pilger’s documentary work. In Britain, we are promised an orgy of choice by Murdoch, while our government turns a blind eye to monopoly regulations, happily sees BBC services cut to the bone, and considers turning Channel Four into a completely private network. [72]

Given the domination of neo-liberalism, with its rhetoric of freedom, defence of liberty and choice, are the current structures flexible enough to allow the realisation of “alternative television?” In Britain, Channel Four’s idea of “alternative” appears to be “The Girlie Show,” and despite the shake-up of the television services there is no scheme to create local public-access television. A general State crackdown on all forms of alternative culture as part of an overall increasing of coercive power means that opportunities for pirate television are very remote. [73] In the United States, the radical far-right is far better funded than the radical left, and appears to dominate such alternative broadcast media production as does exist. For this reason, many are nervous to call for expanded opportunities in popular media production.

In this climate, we get the sort of information you would be likely to expect from such sources: bland, soporific paeans to the capitalist ethic. Celebrity “news” features prominently in all forms of the media: Debord called the celebrity “the spectacular representation of a living human being” who is famous for not being what s/he is. [74] He is “the enemy of the individual in himself as well as in others.” [75] They are “the admirable people in which the system personifies itself,” however briefly the may shine. And, in the system of planned obsolescence, their shelf-lives are not usually very long.

Digital Future

The new promise is “interactivity.” This term, as it is used by media pundits and salespeople, is a toy which will be given to us to play with so we think that we are making choices and rising from our passive couch potato sloth. While the structures could be put in place for local-access DIY television, but this is either disregarded or considered dated. Instead the Internet is proposed as an interactive media with popular accessibility. Up until now, the Internet has indeed been both interactive and accessible. It is not difficult to master, to search for material and to post bulletins and set up basic websites. and a single set-up can be used by any number of people. Until recently it has not been a medium enjoyed in the private home: access was generally confined to academic and other institutions, and “cybercafes.” Taking advantage of this, many radical groups have managed to get Internet access and set up websites. Examples include the Zapatista rebels in Mexico, Reclaim the Streets in Britain, and Earth First, as well as larger organisations like Amnesty International. Less “organised” forums for debate exist, so you can debate policy with anarchists and Situationists all over the world, or get the latest news on the McLibel campaign. Activist groups have discovered that the user-friendly nature of new technology of computer networks can help break through isolation and silence of mainstream media. The Internet promises the greatest tool of communication of alternative/ DIY culture for the immediate future – combining images and text, video and sound – combine the cheapness and immediacy of the newsletter/zine and the entertainment and graphics of photography, animation and video. And above all, it is not regulated – as yet. Undercurrents, for instance, hope that within the next year or two the technology will allow activist videos to be shown over the Internet, thus bypassing the broadcasting system, and allowing immediate e-mail feedback. [76]

Fear and Loathing

If we assume that attempts to regulate the Internet will fail, this is promising indeed. As with television, the Internet is accused of having a hand in the perceived corruption of society, with websites offering pornography and prostitution and the threat of paedophiles using the Internet. [77] Such sites do exist, as they would in a society that has pornography, prostitution and, regrettably, paedophiles. However, unlike television, the majority of households are not as yet linked up to the Internet. So why the outrage? Because there is fear of a medium which is accessible, popular, and unregulated. Fear of a media technology which allows people to express their ideas and tell their own stories and discuss globally ideas and practices for change. The fear comes from the spectacular coalition of governments, media corporations, military interests multinationals, companies with dubious business practices, and “moral” arbiters – who enlist in their ranks of civilian supporters people who are afraid of life, bitter that their own lives are so subjected, enslaved and curtailed by the spectacle that they will cry out to urge social control in the name of “society,” and repression in the name of liberty. To paraphrase Raoul Vaneigem, perhaps the suppression of memory of what they have lost is what chains them most firmly to the pillory of submission. [78]

If attempts to control the Internet by regulation fail, there are alternate ways to undermine it. Phillips is currently marketing “Web TV.” This allows you to “consume” the Internet at home, cheaply, using your television and a remote control. You can “surf” the Net to your heart’s desire, but you can’t put up a website, or e-mail anyone. The marketing blurb talks about accessibility and affordability, but if this venture is successful, it means that the Internet may go the way of radio: people at home with their receivers, waiting to be fed the next titbit of infotainment.

The hope though, is that video and computer technology can work toward creating a media that challenges the passivity of spectacular society. As one activist put it, “We want to create a “community of activism”- activism as a part of everyday life, a way of life, not of protest so much as of claiming what is rightfully ours. Not a “revolutionary” programme but a forum for people to tell each other their own stories, to join struggles and share pleasures.”

Media for a Spectacular Society?


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?


[1] Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life (Verso 1991) p. 180.

[2] Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life (2nd ed. Rebel Press, 1994) p.10.

[3] “Fordism.”

[4] Titoism was the most successful of these systems; notable exceptions include Hoxha’s Albania and Ceaucescu’s Romania.

[5] Playing devil’s advocate, one might argue that, at least the Soviets had the decency to invade Prague openly, unlike the American treatment of Cuba and the rest of Central America.

[6] And, of course, the tried and true device of the “Common Enemy” – in America these were the oil barons of the Middle East, who threatened to sanctity of the Big American Car; in Europe the immigrants, who threatened “the culture.”

[7] Antonio Gramsci, The Antonio Gramsci Reader, Selected Writings 1916 – 1935, ed. David Forgacs. (New York: Schocken, 1988) pp.222 – 225. Gramsci avoids the reductionism of liberalism, which wants to see civil society as one of individual freedom, entirely separate from the State, and the reductionism of the hard-line Left and philosophy of Althusser, which holds that everything in capitalist society belongs to the State and serves its interests, a view Gramsci would have recognised as also being that of fascists like Giovanni Gentile.

[8] “In the modern world, technical education, closely bound to industrial labour … must form the basis of the new type of intellectual.” p. 321.

[9] Theodore Adorno, Minima Moralia; reflections from damaged life. Trans. EFN Jephcott. (London: New Left Books, 1974.); Also “Adorno” in Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers: from structuralism to postmodernity. John Lechte (London: Routledge, 1994) pp. 177 – 181.

[10] For the purposes of this paper I am using the term Situationist loosely and including all those who were involved with the group, or agreed at least in part with their approach.

[11] Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (Detroit: Black and Red 1983) 1.

[12] ibid. 3

[13] Chtcheglov, “Formulary for a new urbanism” (October 1953) in Situationist International Anthology ed. and trans. Ken Knabb. Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1981. p.3. 14 This is the closing line of his major work, The Revolution of Everyday Life, also published in 1967.

[15] Kellner, Media Culture (London: Routledge, 1995) p. 338.

[16] See the January-February issue of the Utne Reader, a compilation magazine from the alternative press (also a website at gleaned from around the English-speaking world: a section headed “How to Media-Proof Your Life.”

[17] Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of Revolution (New York: Vintage, 1989) p. 180, pointing out that this rate is higher than that of the late 20th century USA.

[18] In Paris in the Revolutionary era, W. Scott Haine has found that the role of the cafe was significant in radical politics from 1789 through to at least the Second Empire. Cafe society, he finds, was about ideas, and was the most radical sphere of Parisian life, above the “low” milieu of the tavern, which revolved around drink, and the “high” milieu of the salon, which revolved around manners and presentation. W. Scott Haine. “Cafe Politics in Paris, 1789 – 1851″ Consortium 1988 305 – 20. This tradition seems to go on right through to the 1950s and 60s – Greil Marcus describes how the Lettrist International used to meet at Moineau’s Cafe on the Left Bank in the early 50′s (Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces, 376-382). 5 Alison Hutt, The Changing Newspaper. p.17.

[19] Iain MacCalman, Radical Underworld.

[20] Barbrook, “The Republic of Letters”, in Hypermedia Research Centre website,

[21] David Vincent, Bread, Knowledge and Freedom (London: Methuen, 1981) p.28.

[22] ibid. 153 – 154.

[23] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels The German Ideology in Collected Works, V, New York 1976.

[24] Weitling in Carl Wittke, The Utopian Communist: A Biography of Wilhelm Weitling (Baton Rouge, 1950) p. 57.

[25] Barbrook, op. cit, and “The Industrialisation of the Media,” HRC website.

[26] Vaneigem, op cit. p.68.

[27] Barbrook, “The Industrialisation of the Media,” HRC website.

[28] The very few exceptions we see prove the rule: most feature documentaries only ever appear theatrically at film festivals and we are most likely to see them on television anyway.

[31] “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations (London: Jonathan Cape, 170) p. 244.

[32] I write of my experience witnessing the war while in Canada, where it was universally unpopular. During the same period I visited the United States, where cynicism and disgust had not set in, and people were waving flags all over the place calling for the death of Saddam Hussein. In Canada, we relied on US television in the initial phase of the war, as Canadian television did not have the resources CNN and the US networks do. As the war progressed, however, some Canadian programmes were broadcast which were critical of the war and which challenged American versions of events. Douglas Kellner, Media Culture, pp. 198 – 228, describes the process of creating the Gulf War reportage for American television

[33] Norris, Christopher. Uncritical Theory: Postmodernism, Intellectuals and the Gulf War, London: Lawrence and Wishart 1992. Baudrillard is one of the main philosophical spokesmen for the “post-modern,” as he believes that the commodity system has taken on a life of its own, and the distinctions between reality and illusion, between society and spectacle, have imploded, leaving us only “hyperreality” to contend with. Baudrillard obviously owes a lot to Situationism for his analysis, but he wants to go further and deny the lurking existence of “authentic” everyday life, which Vaneigem and the others urged as essential to recapture. Baudrillard argued that the Situationist analysis, as a modernist analysis dependent upon notions of history, reality and interpretation, was obsolete in the face of simulation and hyperreality. Later, Debord, troubled by the problem of recuperation, and generally disillusioned, moved to a Baudrillardian position, but Raoul Vaneigem continues to maintain a modernist stance (Debord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, (London: Verso, 1990; Vaneigem’s 1991 introduction to the first paperback edition of The Revolution of Everyday Life) Steven Best, “The Commodification of Reality and the Reality of Commodification: Baudrillard, Debord and Postmodern Theory” in Baudrillard, A Critical Reader, ed. Douglas Kellner, Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.

[34] Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, p. 41.

[35] Interview with George Gerbner in the Utne Reader, January-February 1997, p.80.

[36] Richard Barbrook, “The Revival of the Media Utopias” HRC website.

[37] These came, like hockey cards, with a stick of bubblegum. Saddam Hussein cards were especially prized.

[38] “Snodland News” Undercurrents 6.

[39] Gerbner, op. cit.

[40] Barbrook, “Infotainment” HRC website.

[41] This is not always the case. Labour activists’ views were routinely excluded form the airwaves, and press watchdogs have uncovered various forms of pro-Establishment bias on various programmes.

[42] In the event, a lack of any credible opposition candidate means that Chretien and his party are going to win the election, and the CBC’s audience will have to make do with fewer original programmes, more US buy-ins, more advertising.

[43] See, for example, Ferdinand Braudel’s study of early modern Europe, Civilisation and Capitalism. Jon Dovey says of McLuhan “his work stands in a similar relation as Baudrillard’s in our own period, powerfully resonant without being in the least use to anyone actually producing in the field. ( see below p.115)

[44] in Fractal Dreams: New Media in Social Context (London: Lawrence and Wishart 1996)

[45] Vaneigem, p.85.

[46] Gerbner, p. 81.

[47] Barbrook, “The Re-regulation of the Media” HRC website.

[48] Quoted in Adorno, Prisms (Merlin Press, 1968) p.109.

[49] Dovey, p. 130.

[50] As with much of the material in this chapter, this assertion is based on interviews. Informal surveys conducted at the University of Westminster and at a squat centre in Hackney revealed that well over 90 per cent of the people questioned felt there was no point in voting, that all the parties/candidates were the same, and that nothing could change through the political system.

[51] Although Joanna Wilson of Ploughshares claims that it was John Pilger’s television documentary Death of a Nation, about East Timor, that influenced her decision to be an activist.

[52] Lotte Kronhild, quoted in “If I Had a Hammer” distributed on Undercurrents 6 (1996).

[53] See for all the details.

[54] Bakhtin, Rabelais (University of Indiana Press, 1984) p.39.

[55] Vaneigem, p. 8. From his 1991 preface.

[56] “Salvage Rider” Undercurrents 6.

[57] ibid.

[58] Vaneigem, p. 9.

[59] Interview by Cosmo, Undercurrents 6.

[60] The public response to the road protesters “Swampy” and “Animal” and the the others who tunnelled deep beneath the protest site could be read as a sea-change in attitudes to alternative culture activists. Even no less an Establishment figure as A.N. Wilson praised them from his Evening Standard pulpit.

[61] “McJob” – phrase coined by Doug Coupland in his brilliantly incisive novel Generation X, to describe a low-paid low-satisfaction service industry job usually held by a college graduate who was brought up with much higher expectations.

[62] Information about Undercurrents is based on interviews with Paul O’Connor.

[63] Broadcasting magazine, week of November 1.

[64] Guardian, Monday, December 5, 1994

[65] Vaneigem, p. 236.

[66] Crimewatch, You’ve Been Framed, Video Diaries, Emergency 999, Takeover TV, Caught on Camera – just a few examples of current camcorder-generated programming; In America the long-running series Hardcopy, A Current Affair and Inside Edition, which specialise in gossip and seediness, all use primarily camcorder footage.

[67] Jon Dovey, “The Revelation of Unguessed Worlds” Fractal Dreams: New Media in Social Context. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1996, p. 125.

[68] Guardian Friday November 29, 1996.

[69] a youthful cry, from “La revolution d’abord et toujours” in La Revolution surrealiste, no.5, 15 Oct. 1925. quoted in Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces, p. 190.

[70] p. 169.

[71] For the record, the latter two have military and arms-manufacturing interests.

[72] It must be recognised that there are potential benefits as well as dangers in mass media controlled by a few large cultural producers. Perhaps globalisation of culture can help to eradicate ethnic and nationalist hatred; it is true that the concentration of money in large organisations allows more research and development. And the propaganda put out by Murdoch and Disney is not the kind of propaganda put out by fascist regimes. But still, we have to weigh these benefits against the question of whether we want to have a voice in what kind of ideas and information we have access to, and if this kind of media allows us to do so.

[73] The combination of 1994 Criminal Justice Act and Michael Howard’s increase in prison facilities combine to create a climate of coercion, though the inefficiency of the system makes it less oppressive than it seems.

[74] Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 60.

[75] ibid, 61, also below.

[76] Already Reclaim the Streets includes some video in its web-site.

[77] E.g. “Adverts Selling Women Flood Onto The Internet” Guardian 13 November 1995.

[78] Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life, p. 97.

[79] Sadie Plant, The Most Radical Gesture (London: Routledge, 1992) and “The Situationist International: A Case of Spectacular Neglect” in Radical Philosophy, summer 1990, p.3.

[80] Plant, “The Situationist International”, p 5.

[81] Vaneigem, “Basic Banalities” no.19, in The Situationist International Anthology, ed. Ken Knabb, p. 125.

[82] “Madison Avenue’s Worst Nightmare,” Utne Reader, p. 74. (An attempted interview with Lasn and the Media Foundation in Vancouver in December 1996 had to be cancelled due to heavy snow).


Newspaper Articles

Simon Hattenstone “Candid Camcorder” Guardian 5 Dec. 1994
Cole Moreton “‘Resistance Culture’ sets up news network” Independent on Sunday, 5 Feb. 1995.
“Adverts Selling Women Flood On To The Internet” Guardian 13.Nov.95
James Houston “But What Will They Use To Wrap Fish? Journalist Oct/Nov 95 p.21

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The Utne Reader (Minneapolis) January-February 1997
Earth First Action Update
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Schnews (Brighton)
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Within this MySpace version of the electronic agora, cybernetic communism was mainstream and unexceptional. What had once been a revolutionary dream was now an enjoyable part of everyday life.