Roots of Alternative and Activists New Media

The second chapter of this book by Leah Lievrouw is dedicated to the Roots of Alternative and Activist New Media, which means its aim is to establish the framework where the genre studies of following chapters are going to fit, creating a whole view of the new social movements in the digital era.  This theoretical framework is what gives the book its real sociological value, distinguishing it from other works that offer just a description of activist actions, without further analysis of its meaning for collective action theory.

In this sense, the main strength of that framework is the possibility to connect contemporary social activism with its historical background. Something very important, as we usually to forget that the present is always built over the past… specially nowadays when technological developments may blind our historical perspective.

The Roots of Alternative and Activist New Media can be traced back to Dadaism, the artistic avant-garde of the twenties which challenged the structures of power through cultural activism. Dadaism as other abstract art movements is a reaction to the industrial way of production, but it offers an special critical approach to its socio-cultural consequences in contrast with other vanguardisms, as futurism, which allied with actual powers.

Another main root is the Situationism International (SI), that represents a more complex reaction to the dominant culture spread through mass media. Guy Deborg is an important theorist of SI, whose contribution in the analysis of “Spectacle Society” is one of the most important critical analysis of mass media culture. The quote “The spectacle is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image” summarizes the essence of SI critic to mass media, and the reason why alternative and activist media is necessary in order to redefine cultural spaces of interaction.

From Situationism we get to French May ’68 and the importance of Alan Touraine and his disciple Alberto Melucci as relevant scholars who studied the New social movements that began in the sixties and the eighties, and continued evolving until our days (even though, we may claim the emergence of another new era in social movements after the Arab Revolts, the Spanish May and the American Occupy movements).

In this point, Lievrouw makes a review of the theoretical approaches for the interpretation and analysis of social movements. From the collective behavior theory, that think of social movements as sudden and spontaneous action driven by irrationality, to the mobilization resources theory which emphasizes the auto-organization of social movements as a key ability for the success of their fights. Until we reach to new social movements theory, where Touraine and Melucci made a great work describing how new dynamics emerged from the postindustrial society, differing in important aspects from the previous social movements.

Then, the book offers a description of the characteristics of new social movements, are they related to the actors involved or to their actions.

Characteristics of NSM’s actors:

The key idea here is that participants of NSM comes from the “knowledge”, students, middle classes and qualified workers are the main actors of these movements, who rebels against the instrumentalization of knowledge, and hence their own alienation as workers and thinkers. This characteristic makes the media and cultural activism a natural mean of action for NSM, in the same line of thought as Situationists argued that we have to change our perspective among society in order to change society itself. Also, the actors identity en NSM is quite important, as they do no represent “class interest” or ideology, but their subjective identity (interests and experiences) and their independence toward dominant institutions.

These subjetive identities, based on gender, youth, sexual-orientation, profesional background, ethnicity, etc, emerged in the sixties, in interaction with the postindustrial economy, and turned into a second wave of NSM in the nineties focused on global inequalities, rather than particular identity struggles (or we could say, synthesizing all of them). We can also say that the new century is bringing up another stage of social movements, characterized by the intensive use of communication technologies.

Characteristics of NSM’s actions:

In correspondence with the previous characteristics, NSM develop through network-horizontal structures, which allow the actors to maintain some freedom of action while coordinating collective projects. The cultural dimension of their claims also implies changing life style, in what is called prefigurative politics: to act in everyday life in consonance with your ideas. The use of ICT and new media is, obviously, another important characteristic of NSM, which allows activists to maintain and improve their network-horizontal and dynamic structures.

In essence, NSM means the emergence of a new sensibility among social change, bringing the processes of construction of meaning in human society to the front line of the discussion. Acknowledging that, at the end of the day, we (as society) are the ones that construct our realities, and that positive change depends more on how clearly we think and understand our world, than in some kind of historical class struggle. From these point, the rest of the book is going to present different “genres of NSM”, all of them trying to accomplish positive social change through the New Media.


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