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Marta Zimniak-Halajko (University of Warsaw)

New Critical Power: Radical Forms of Communication and Social Movements

In my paper I would like to present the analysis of alternative and radical forms of communication of new social movements of radical left and radical right orientation, mainly in the Polish context. I will concentrate on communication practices of several social movements, which were a subject of my research interest. These include groups of Marxist, anarchist, ultraconservative and nationalist orientations. My study of these groups is based on participant observation technique. I will focus on the alternative Internet use, but I will also try to explain why the research of social movements’ activity in the Internet should be complemented by an analysis of other forms of their communication practises (such as ritual and iconic communication, demonstrations, leaflets and so on). My analysis draws on alterative media theories of John Downing and Chris Atton. My analysis will map out the research field for alternative media and social movements in general and the alternative Internet in particular. The main thesis of my presentation is that alternative media are key instruments for the articulation of critical social reflection and for communicating alternative system diagnoses for the conditions of contemporary culture and society.

In contrast to Downing and Atton, who discovered the role of social movements by studying radical and alternative media issues, I discovered the significance of alternative media communication while conducting my social movements research. My thesis is that new social movements are alternative media themselves and that unconventional and radical communication is their key social function.

I did my previous research on religious movements and communities. When I changed my research subject to social movements, I expected to find similar type of social ties and communities, a kind of Gemeinschaft. I was very surprised by the lack of emotional ties typical for communities. It turned out that my new research subjects were alternative types of Gesellschaft, quite amorphous structures unified by symbols and ideas, turning to the external world rather than thematising their inner ties and emotions. The rotation of members between organizations, sometimes between leftist or rightist orientations, was a frequent practice. These organizations have weak structure and usually their lifespan is quite short. They also tend to undergo constant changes. That is also reflected by migration of their members. It is quite often that the members of a newly formed or transformed organization come from different organizations, bringing a mixture of ideological background. What I found interesting was the long-term existence of the particular ideas, which survived only slightly transformed in different appearing and disappearing groups: Marxist, anarchist, ultraconservative and nationalist.

The well-known slogan “the personal is political” does not work in social movements I have researched (the groups I have approached are interested in changing “the system” in general, they are not the single-issue movements). The personal life of their members is important only if it is included in communication practices of the group. The part of personal life that does not appear in public sphere may even be contradictory to the group’s ideology.

What I have observed is a crucial role of communicating the message: if you are not engaged enough in communication activities, you are excluded if not expelled from the group, sometimes formally and without sentiments. All of the above leads me to the conclusion that the new social movements are in fact media organisations. Each movement is a set of different media, central and peripheral ones. All these media act against the mainstream mass media and their discourse: they offer holistic analysis of social system, invite to reflection and activity, put intellectual and axiological passion into politics rather than focusing on the details and images.

The core media of each movement are the intellectual ones, those creating system interpretations: newspapers, edited books (sometimes libraries, understood as a process of selecting valuable information) and internet portals. The role of “native reporting” and the effectiveness of contributing the information and interpretation are crucial here, however they are not necessarily combined with “prefigurative” organization of these media. The term “prefigurative”, used by Downing and Atton for describing egalitarian process of knowledge production, mainly by the use of Internet, is rather characteristic for anarchists media. Downind and Atton crucially underestimate another media approach, which while still being alternative, presumes using different solutions. The conservative Metapedia project is a good example of this kind of media. Metapedia’s idea is in its essence a critique of Internet open creativity, symbolised by Wikipedia. The articles in Metapedia are selected by topics according to ideological purity and written and signed by authors with university degrees.

The second group of media in social movements are ritual and action ones: a diverse set of communication actions, such as demonstrations, distributing leaflets and posters, destructing or repainting banners and so on. Sometimes these types of activities can be more important for a group than editing newspapers or other forms of systematic reflective production. Social knowledge can increase and crystallize in social action, even in a ritual one. Therefore a social action can initiate or empower an intellectual reflection.

Another part of actions in social movements are strategies of personal lives of activists, partly connected with the ideology of organizations. For example, their symbolic choices are manifested in styles of clothing or consumption. What is interesting here is that the core members of organizations usually pay less attention to these kinds of symbolic messages than the “satellite” ones.

In conclusion, we can consider social movements as a reflection on process of communication and knowledge production in contemporary society. Influence of this reflection is, like Downing says, “enzymatic”. This metaphor illustrates both a weakness and a strength of social movements, potentially capable of changing (in the long term) the environment they act in.