Blog Post

Blog Diss: LTP Situation Within Fields (Counterpublic Media Studies)

Here's the final version (for draft one) of my Counterpublic Media Studies field.

Revision history, thus far: Minor stylistic and mechanical changes; changed previous examples to focus more directly on cases directly involved in my project; altered transitions between several paragraphs to attempt to create a stronger narrative flow.


Though the field I am calling counterpublic media studies is not necessarily united by a shared identification with that terminology[1], the range of scholarship I locate under this heading shares a concern with how marginalized bodies and experiences have represented themselves and their concerns within various types of media. More specifically, I understand the field of counterpublic media studies to exist at the intersection of counterpublic theory and media/communication histories.

Counterpublic theory is itself a reply to and expansion of theorizations of the public sphere. The latter, many (Fraser, Felski) contend, has neglected how publics have historically been constituted through the exclusion of those marked by varying forms of difference. Michael Warner’s contributions to the field have also emphasized how resistance to these exclusionary practices, or the formation of counterpublics, is not only a social, but a textual practice. His (2002) article-length treatment, “Publics and Counterpublics”, focuses on the types of (counter)public he describes as “com[ing] into being only in relation to texts and their circulation” (50). Rather than defining counterpublics primarily by the “subaltern” status of their members, as he contends Fraser’s work does (85), Warner emphasizes how counterpublics exist by “virtue of being addressed” (50), and are maintained through the committed “attention” (61) of their members as well as the “reflexive circulation of discourse” (62).[2]Some of the domains I am considering within my study might not traditionally be considered counterpublics; while many might identify intellectual property pirates as counterpublics, for example, fans of mainstream cultural products might be considered too complicit with capitalist modes of production and consumption to warrant the term. However, because my focus is on forms of labour that are marginalized due to the embodied subjectivity of labourers and/or the content of the products of such work, I argue that the term remains relevant in each case.

Chris Atton's (2002) work, though not using the language of counterpublics, offers a typology of what he calls “alternative and radical media”, which provides a useful means of considering the multiplicity of mechanisms which can give media a counterpublic orientation (27). The list is divided roughly into two parts, “products and process”, with the former constituted by “form, content, and reprographic innovations/adaptations”, and the latter by “distributive use, transformed social relations, roles and responsibilities” as well as “transformed communication processes” (27). Though my analysis will not attend equally to all of these elements in every chapter, my intent is ultimately to consider how these aspects of counterpublic media production have historically been configured in specific ways, and how they have shifted (or not) within new media.

In "How a Revolutionary Counter-Mood is Made" (2012), for example, Jonathan Flatley offers an account of the "Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (or DRUM)", an explicitly Marxist-Leninist organization that responded to racist and exploitative labour conditions at their factory by publishing a weekly newsletter. The publication, he argues, exhibited a "tactically and theoretically sophisticated exertion of agency over collective experiences of mood" (505). Flatley goes on to emphasize the importance of alternative modes of distribution to the group's success, arguing that the hand-delivery of the issues created intimacy and affective alignment amongst workers. This method of circulation, he argues, "works against a feeling of isolation and establishes a way of being-with that contrasts to the institutional logic of the plant and the union" (519).

The impact of digital mediation on traditional counterpublic distribution methods and tactics like those described by Flatley is more complex than many had anticipated. While comic artist Scott McCloud (2000) argued that the rise of web comics would revolutionize the comic industry, making the move from "selling ten comics to selling ten thousand comics to selling ten million smooth as ice” (188) the Visual Rhetoric Research Group has noted that this prediction was not only inaccurate, but undesired by many, particularly those artists working within and representing counterpublics. "The end goal of these artists," they argue, "is not to go from selling ten to ten thousand to ten million comics because—even if that were possible for an independent artist to do—it would require pandering to the broadest possible audience" (par. 3). Many online counterpublics thus intentionally limit the circulation of their media, relying on the self-curation of Internet users, or the increasingly common tendency of many to view only material that is aligned with their political, social, and religious affiliations (Downey and Fenton). However, moments like the one described by McCloud do happen, and have varying impacts on counterpublic media producers. During a Q&A with writers, producers and actors from BBC’s Sherlock, for instance, UK writer Caitlin Moran asked the show’s leads to read aloud from a popular work of slash fanfiction (that is, one depicting a romantic relationship between central characters Sherlock and Watson). Angry responses from fans noted that Moran’s use of fanfiction for a “cheap laugh” highlighted the violence of removing such a text, without permission or notice, from its intended space of circulation and opening it up to broader audiences, particularly those with the influence and visibility that accompanies actual involvement with the show (Romano). While many online counterpublics are thus able to draw upon forms of immediacy and intimacy similar to those described by Flatley, digital media’s scale and context of distribution can rapidly shift in ways that have affective, material impacts on that media's producers.

An issue very much related to distribution and circulation is that of funding, and a counterpublic media studies approach can similarly highlight how this struggle plays out in digital media in ways that are both similar to and unique from its predecessors. Barbara M. Freeman’s (2012) “One Part Creativity and Nine Parts Hard Work: The Legacy of Feminist Periodicals” tracks a range of Canadian feminist periodicals (running from the 1970s until the turn of the century) with attention to their relationships with institutional bodies. Considering a range of publications, Freeman argues their “structure…both mirrored and subverted the…tactics that were accepted practice in mainstream women’s publications” (85). Fearing infiltration from anti-feminist contingents of the Left in Toronto, the women of Broadside magazine consented to “certain capitalist practices, such as filing corporate tax returns and selling investment shares in the company”, even while the organization unofficially continued to run as a collective (90). Many periodicals also relied on provincial and federal grants (95), while struggling against the official and unofficial restrictions on content that tended to accompany this funding. Alan Fountain (2007) notes a similar tendency in Britain during the same period, particularly for alternative film and television (32), and Valerie Allia highlights the importance of Canadian federal communications infrastructure funding to Indigenous uses of media, especially radio (88).

While much of this state-level funding had been reduced or eliminated prior to the popular adoption of the Internet, the ambivalent and strategic relationship these cases indicate counterpublics have shared with both corporate and governmental structures is by no means irrelevant in the digital era. At times, the complexity of such relationships materializes into open tension. Shakina Nayfack’s “KickstartHer”, a crowdfunding campaign raising funds for Nayfack’s upcoming gender reassignment surgery, has been openly critiqued by the owners of the site she is using. YouCaring, a crowdfunding platform with strong religious affiliations, was intended to aid those paying for “medical expenses, memorial/funeral expenses…[and] mission trips”, spokesman Brock Ketcher noted. While the site has no intention of removing Nayfack’s campaign, he made it clear that he finds Nayfack’s cause “disturbing”, and that he “never intended for [the] site to be used for causes such as this” (Evans). While Nayfack and YouCaring owners ended up having what Nayfack describes as a productive dialogue over the statement as well as their shared religious convictions (Nayfack n.p.), other spaces such as Pirate Bay maintain a more openly antagonistic orientation, particularly toward state-based regulation. At the same time, though, the massively popular site has to be able to afford to operate, and often relies on external ads for everything from weight-loss to job advice, and especially pornography[3]. Some elements of Pirate Bay’s situation are distinct from similar struggles in other media forms. Many users who have enough technical ability to pirate in the first place, for instance, are also capable of finding one of the dozens of freely-available ad-blockers which will remove that material from the site. However, Pirate Bay nonetheless requires some level of affiliation with larger and more institutionalized media bodies in order to function, and thus is struggling with an issue that long predates specifically digital counterpublic forms of media and activism.

My point in foregrounding Counterpublic Media Studies as a field within my project is not to entirely equate the case studies I am taking up with more established forms of media, nor to suggest that any uses of digital media by counterpublics are entirely determined by other forms of mediation. Indeed, I advance the opposite claim: I argue that elements of counterpublic media labour which are truly unique to new media cannot adequately be accounted for within my study without first attending to how those same counterpublics have historically been created and sustained through other formal and mediatory practices. 

[1]Coyer et. al. note that while “alternative media” is currently the preferred term by many contemporary scholars, others prefer a range of other descriptors , including “radical…independent…tactical, activist, or autonomous” media (3). I have elected to use the term counterpublic media because I argue that terms like alternative, independent and autonomous imply a division at the level of form and/or mediation between mainstream media and other forms that are less applicable in the digital context.

[2]I recognize that there is a particular danger in applying this description to digital counterpublic production and circulation. While emphasis on digital media as disembodied and identity-free (Turkle, Wiley) have been critiqued and complicated by many (Daniels, O’Brien) there is nonetheless a risk of Warner’s emphasis on counterpublics as discursive entities aligning itself neatly with such rhetoric, which could serve to erase the importance of lived experience to online interaction. However, I contend that we can nonetheless use Warner’s work as a productive starting point from which to consider how the discursive or mediated production of counterpublics shapes and is shaped by material experiences of oppression shared by some (not all) of its members.

[3] While other advertisements tend to occur through ‘pop ups’, or ads that open in a separate window, ads for pornography tend to be placed on the main window of Pirate Bay itself, such that anyone using the site will be viewing the graphic images throughout their searches for various media.


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