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Responding to “Tactical Media” by Rita Raley

This post is going to be a bit tangential and ranty. I just spent a weekend out of town with relatively little Internet, thinking about academia and theory and neoliberalist values and power. The reading for this week provided a platform from which came a lot of other questions that have been at the forefront in my mind. So I apologize that not all the contents in this post will directly relate to the reading, but, well, here it is anyway.

I constantly grapple with that question of how effective new and social media are in affecting social change and bringing about social justice. Malcolm Gladwell’s article, “The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted” comes to mind, where he invokes sit-ins during the civil rights movement, and the physicality of revolution and activism. I wonder if social media is a distraction, a conglomeration of carnivalesque moments, where the act of subverting is relegated to a tweet or a status update on Facebook, an electronic signature on a website – enough to give people the illusion of helping bring about change at a minimal investment cost.

I do, however, very much appreciate Raley’s point that new media projects “engage in a micropolitics of disruption, invention, and education.” (pg. 1) This is where the potential value of new, or “tactical” media lies – the potential to raise awareness and change hearts and minds, or, as Raley points out, to “disrupt.”

I think the question that we have to continuously ask, though, is what the implications of tactical media and activism or “hacktivism” are in light of the digital divide, and the fact that the people who have access to information and this postmodern ideology, by and large, are the ones who can afford digital technologies and Internet, not to mention the fact that they also need to possess the education in order to be literate in digital media. I think this is always the major problematic while talking about new media and digital technologies as an avenue to raise awareness and subvert dominant forms of power. Do the people who have the power to speak and to participate in these digital discourses necessarily speak for all they proclaim, and for those who really need their voices heard?

And, unless I’m missing something (which I very well may be), tactical media sounds like a lot of saliva – a lot of talking and interacting, giving credence to the viewpoints of the many, the audience as heterogenous, and less doing. Raley suggests that Carbon Defense League “proposes that tactical media aims to create situations ‘where criticality can occur.’” (pg. 9) Which is great and all, but where is the productivity in that? The only productivity I can think of is to raise awareness in an attempt to change ideology, but does the act of deconstruction ever lead directly to constructive production to change anything? I am not saying, by any means, that we should not be having critical discussions, but that we need to see if new media can take things a step further to enact a course of action to effect changes. And if, as Raley brings up (pg. 10), the hegemonic framework cannot ever actually be subverted, what is the value in small disruptions and the guerilla warfare-type tactics that tactical media employs? What does it hope to accomplish if the larger system still stands in place with no hope of making changes on that large scale?

The ways in which Raley writes also makes me think of the ideologies that we hold. For example, she talks of audiences being heterogenous, and paints homogeneity into a bad thing. I have to ask, then, from whence does the ideology of diversity come? Why does diversity get celebrated in our society, even when the greater hegemonic framework (read: white, male, heterosexual) doesn’t really change? Will it ever? Or are these projects in diversity merely like the forms of tactical media, which wages guerilla warfare on the dominant structure, yet never subverts it? Does the movements of social justice want to subvert the dominant structure? What does a utopian state for equality look like? Would it be one of homogeneity?

All this being said, there is certainly value in activism and awareness-raising through hacking, tinkering, and other acts that puncture the structure upon which our fabric of society is sewn. Thinking of things too broadly and theoretically (like our previous discussion about power and human nature) often results in discourse spiral into a carousel of unproductive thought and deconstruction, making it hard to see the value in these small acts of subversion (I don’t really like the word “resistance,” because that implies that something is actively being forced upon, whereas I find societal structures, norms, and ideology function rather invisibly, with a necessary degree of manufactured consent from the populace). I would, though, like to see if tactical media effects any sort of significant economic impact on the powers they subvert, or the structures and frameworks they seek to rupture. Can not participating in this culture of “clicktivism” be seen as a sign of apathy?

I feel there’s this constant tension (as in cases of charity) here. Do we do something small, even when it makes no significant change in the power structure? Or do we try to change the structure, even though, as Raley states, that sort of change that moves in an unforeseen direction, is “too troubling” (pg. 27) and will no doubt take more time? She calls out skeptics of this temporary disturbance (which, I believe, may be addressed to me), but I would also like to see if there is tangible proof of a sort of change in power begotten from these new media tactics.

Don’t get me wrong. I think it is imperative that we have these initiatives that rupture the hegemonic framework, makes people question social norms, bring awareness to social issues and inequality. But if these actions are done out of a discontent of the system, yet do little to actually change the system permanently, does it perpetuate the illusion that the Internet and digital media are liberatory?

For fun, I Wordle-ed this post.

Wordle: Cynthia's Response to Tactical Media

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