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The critique that the current generation is politically apathetic is well-worn. Indeed, it has been recycled for several generations at this point and maybe is always cast at each generation by the last.

It’s certainly true that civic involvement in the form in which we’ve traditionally known it is down—people aren’t voting or going to political organization meetings or canvassing nearly as much as they did in yesteryear. But there’s also a huge wave of consumer activism through means like voting with dollars and petitions pressuring companies to go green or treat their workers better or stop supporting human rights violations by world governments.

(Which, incidentally—though this kind of action has obviously increased dramatically with the Internet, it’s not terribly different from We are the World  or Do they know it’s Christmas?  “buy a single for unfortunate people” activism in the 1980s.)

Taking these newer forms of action seriously as activism is partially the topic of the recent special issue of Transformative Works and Cultures on Transformative Works and Fan Activism, edited by Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shresthova of the University of Southern California. Melissa M. Brough and Sangita Shresthova, in a piece from that issue titled Fandom meets activism: Rethinking civic and political participation,  argue that they want “social movement scholars to explore the fertile but understudied terrain of fan and fanlike forms of civic and political participation” (1.2).

In the related essay Learning Through Practice: Participatory Culture Civics,  (tied to the special issue because both are rooted in the Civic Paths project housed at the University of Southern California), Neta Kligler-Vilenchik and Sangita Shresthova frame the issue as that young people “are conducting politics through a new language and through a different set of practices than more traditional organizations. (p. 48)

This comment gestures toward the point I want to make in this post: It’s not just that young people are doing things that are new and different, as the Civic Paths-involved folks argue, but a bigger change: as power has shifted from the state to transnational capital, activism has actually responded to that, which means that everything we think we know about activism is about to be wrong.

Kligler-Vilenchik and Shresthova describe “the ‘slacktivism’ critique, which claims that social action online is easy to do, and thus banal” (46), and this is an argument that has some merit, as I’ve discussed before.  But I think that a substantial portion of why people with traditional definitions of politics are so offended is that these actions and investments are directed less and less at electoral or legislative goals and more pointed at or directed through the materials of corporations.

 However, the complaint about not doing politics right is unwarranted; as I’ve argued drawing on Saskia Sassen,  the nation overall is a less relevant political category than it formerly was. Kligler-Vilenchik and Shresthova note that the fannish activists they interviewed “rarely linked their concerns to governmental solutions and often expressed feelings of alienation from ‘politics as usual’” (32-3). The idea of governmental solutions or regular politics directed at the nation, that is, has become less relevant to the contemporary distribution of power.

The other traditional kind of politics is local, but that has declined as well. Indeed, though  Ashley Hinck, in her Theorizing a public engagement keystone: Seeing fandom’s integral connection to civic engagement through the case of the Harry Potter Alliance, contends that “fandom scholars cannot talk about fandom’s public engagement as being anchored to the local in Dewey’s sense” (4.5) what she misses is that neither is anyone else’s public only spatially local. As Sassen notes in the pieces discussed in the above-linked blog post, the world is not completely dis-located or globalized, but localities are articulated to each other in very different ways than ever before.

How people make sense of the world, then, is not oriented the same frames of reference it used to be. As Henry Jenkins put it in his piece, “Cultural acupuncture”: Fan activism and the Harry Potter Alliance,  “the forums for expressing political concerns, and the policies and infrastructures shaping our capacities to do so, are controlled by private interests. Our political struggles often take place through languages and contexts heavily shaped by commercial culture” (1.6).

This suggests that we should take seriously the “significance of content worlds and storytelling (including transmedia storytelling) in the development of collective identity and the formation and mobilization of publics” (Brough and Shresthova 7.2). That is: who people are and what they care about are filtered through these largely commercial products—not nation, not locality.

Political concerns are inextricable from corporateness, I argue, because power is increasingly residing with capital and decreasingly with the state—not that the state can’t regulate industry if it has a mind to, but it hasn’t had much of a mind to lately. This means that some of Alex Jones’s arguments hold some water—“Bankers pull the strings on world governments to solidify their power”? Kind of. Transnational capital is a weight in governmental processes, to be sure.

“Companies are harming you and ducking responsibility”? Absolutely. It’s common knowledge now Big Tobacco knew about the dangers of their product long before the public caught on but hid the information. In the contemporary era there’s Big Corn (their “a calorie is a calorie” argument isn’t true when it’s fructose), Big Oil (fracking, tar sands), Big Coal (mountaintop removal), Big Gun . . . you name it, they do things that hurt people directly or indirectly and don’t pay for it. (And it may not be true yet that “President Barack Obama is using drones against Americans,” but it’s certainly possible for him or a later president to decide to do so given post-9/11 anti-terrorism cover for free rein).

Ultimately Jones is wrong to see these as governmental conspiracies to strip the God-given rights of free ‘Muricans, of course, but these results of decades of letting capital impact laws still matter. Thus, when Kligler-Vilenchik and Shresthova note that “scholars often worry that young people’s withdrawal from civic and political engagement is so significant that it endangers the healthy functioning of democracies” (p. 6), there’s actually a case to be made that the healthy functioning in of democracies has been imperiled long since as elections and representatives have been bought and paid for, and youth withdrawal from that system is a response to its fundamental brokenness.

This is why traditional definitions of what is political or activist are perhaps becoming wrong. We might want to question the system that is slowly eroding the power of the state, since no one else really can stand up to transnational capital, but given the state’s current weakness turning away from it is potentially a sane response to an insane system. Jenkins takes a stab at redefining what might count as political or activist, “describing as ‘civic’ those practices that are designed to improve the quality of life and strengthen social ties within a community, whether defined in geographically local or dispersed terms” (1.8), and that seems to be a reasonable baseline.

Getting people with a traditional definition of the political to take this seriously is an uphill battle, of course. Brough and Shresthova describe “false dichotomies of commercial versus political (or activist), and participation versus resistance” (7.2). Even when Harry Potter fans “engage in very traditional expressions of citizenship: petitioning, donating money, sending letters to government representatives, and so on,” these actions “are still met with skepticism by scholars of civic engagement because they are done in the name of Harry Potter, instead of solely in the name of duty to one’s country or ideological commitment to a political party” (Hinck 1.2).

Similarly, as Kligler-Vilenchik and coauthors Joshua McVeigh-Schultz, Christine Weitbrecht, and Chris Tokuhama contend in Experiencing fan activism: Understanding the power of fan activist organizations through members’ narratives,  “at least some of the critique around Kony 2012, we argue, can be read as a policing of the boundaries of social action, and what it should look and feel like. Many of these critiques claimed that social advocacy should be left to experts—to politicians, to ‘serious’ NGOs, to erudites” (7.5).

And indeed even these advocates of redefinition get caught up in old definitions at times, with Brough and Shresthova carefully distinguishing work for “the representation of racial or sexual minorities, or the promotion of social themes in program content”  from “real-world issues” (2.2-2.3), as if the former set of things are trivial and not important in the real world. Jenkins argues that the group he examines “is targeting young people who are engaged culturally, who may already be producing and sharing fan culture, and it helps them to extend their engagement into politics” (6.2) as if cultural engagement is not political.

Similarly, Jenkins and Shresthova, in their introduction to the special issue, Up, up, and away! The power and potential of fan activism encourage moving “beyond abstract notions of cultural resistance to focus on specific sways that fan culture has affected debates around law and public policy” (1.9) narrowing what counts as important to law and policy.

(It may of course be strategic for this particular group of scholars to go with law and policy as what counts, given Civic Paths’ funding by traditional organizations that may not recognize alternative actions as valid. Given that they are already looking at fans, they perhaps could not then also say that what is political is more expansive. This is an unfortunate reality of specific-research grants, whether philanthropic or corporate.)

However, I am not saying that anything and everything is always political. (I mean, yes, it is always political in that it is always power-laden, but not in the meaning of political as aware and taking action). There are certainly limits, where the slacktivism critique is not unwarranted.

Brough and Shrestova warn that “we may risk diluting our notion of the political to a point that makes it difficult to debate the merits of different strategies and tactics of civic participation, and difficult to focus on their material (not just cultural) outcomes. Framing all acts of engagement with popular entertainment as political acts can have a depoliticizing effect and limit analytical and tactical advancements” (3.11), and I certainly don’t want to participate in that.

 I do think, however, that the changing power landscape of the contemporary world requires changing responses, that it has actually generated new kinds of responses, and that these responses should be taken seriously, because looking to the state for protection against multinational capital is not likely to be a viable strategy in the foreseeable future—and certainly not without working on the world as it is, corporate-dominated and all.

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  1. […] not convinced about the balance of power shifting toward the citizen (I’ve argued that it’s a shift from the state to capital, and generally contracts require the knowledge and consent of the contracted parties), but there is […]

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