Change knowledge

Sean Scalmer, Macquarie University

Susan Hopkins Girl Heroes: The New Force in Popular Culture, Australia, Pluto Press, 2002 (233 pp). ISBN 1-6403-157-3 (paperback) RRP $34.95.

Graham Meikle Future Active: Media Activism and the Internet, Australia, Pluto Press, 2002 (225 pp). ISBN 1-6403-148-4 (paperback) RRP $34.95.

Kathleen McPhillips (ed.) Local Heroes: Australian Crusades from the Environmental Frontline, Australia, Pluto Press, 2002 (216 pp). ISBN 1-86403-058-5 (paperback) RRP $32.95.

February 14–16, 2002. Australian citizens march for peace. They stride along thoroughfares, overspill capacious parks, stand on tippy-toes to catch the full expanse of the crowd. ‘No War’, they chant in unison. For many, the experience is exhilarating. For others, it is ultimately dispiriting. ‘What difference does it make?’, they mutter, ‘how can we hope to make a change?’

Is change possible? One answer is found in the history of collective action. The changing forms of popular struggle—riots, rebellions, revolutions, petitions, strikes, demonstrations, sit-ins, political parties, and social movements—might all be thought of as evolving attempts to answer this question. Each improvisation offers a new response to the quest for change; each gathering a new hope of success.

Thought of this way, collective action has an historical and rational basis. The repertoire of political performances is a gift from previous activists; our own improvisations represent further attempts to develop and perfect it. The size and form of the February peace marches followed well-established precedents. They were heir to the struggles, victories, and tactics of countless campaigns that had gone before. In a small way, they may have advanced them further.

But if the quest for social change is etched in the changing form of popular gatherings, it is also written on the page. Intellectuals have long promised to find the key to political victory. This is the dream of Lenin’s What Is To Be Done?, of Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj, and of countless lesser texts. Australian intellectuals have been busy here, too. Three recent books by Australian authors question the possibilities of contemporary social change in very different ways.

In Girl Heroes: The New Force in Popular Culture, Susan Hopkins confidently assays the terrain of gender politics. Is change possible? Emphatically, Hopkins assures us, the answer is ‘yes’. We live in a moment of ‘Girl Power’, as a new stereotype of ideal femininity rises to dominance within the mass media. Girl Power is ‘post-feminist’ (p. 2). It is ‘optimistic’, ‘individualistic’ (p.2), sexually and morally ambiguous (p. 3), competitive, combative, and as capable of violence as any male character (p. 6). It is evident in the Spice Girls, Supermodels, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Madonna, and the popular embrace of witchcraft.

Throughout the text, Hopkins counterposes the apparently new force of Girl Power with the apparently tired force of feminism. She sometimes describes the latter as ‘1970s’ feminism’ (p. 11), sometimes as ‘‘adult’ or ‘academic’ feminism’ (p. 32), and sometimes simply as ‘traditional feminism’ (p. 101). I could find no reference in the text to a 1990s feminism, a young or ‘girlish’ feminism, a practical feminism, or a contemporary feminism. Why are they not present? Hopkins offers no justification. I can only assume that she believes that they do not exist, or that they are not worthy of analysis.

Girl Heroes is weak on its own territory: the bland, po-mo celebration of the mass-media.

Studying contemporary feminism outside the media may be beside the point, for Hopkins suggests that Girl Power is hegemonic. It reflects the ‘primary experience’ of young women: ‘as media spectator and consumer of popular culture’ (p. 185). Its contemporary feminine icons have superseded feminist critique (p. 94). It cannot be successfully resisted, since the culture industries are able to absorb every oppositional meaning (p. 8). Indeed, it cannot be opposed at all. Hopkins states that: ‘Today social and political issues are defined and delimited by celebrity discourses’ (p. 212). If you are not with the mass media, you may as well give up.

What are we to make of the Girl Power strategy, and of the consumerist triumphalism that underpins it? The glaring weaknesses of this book mean that the strategy is never properly tested. It is compromised by grossly inflated claims, contemporary blindness, and historical ignorance.

Inflated claims are distracting. Did you know that ‘girl heroes’ have led the way in breaking down the distinction between art and life, illusion and reality? Hopkins argues that this is so (p. 6). Blindness to contemporary politics and culture is more serious. In 216 pages of text, Hopkins spends only four pages on counter-publics outside the mass media (a discussion of the Riot Grrl movement, p. 29–320). Even when she is forced to admit of the presence of contemporary feminist activism, such as the campaign of graffiti against Calvin Klein billboards (p. 98–9), she refuses to discuss it, or to test it against her generational arguments.

The historical ignorance of the text is most embarrassing. If Girl Power is truly original, it needs to be tested against its feminist precursors. Yet Hopkins shows no interest in what has gone on before. At one point, she argues that the Spice Girls did not really need to vote, as their ‘mass-mediated influence’ had reached ‘hyperreal levels’ (p. 18). The obvious historical retort eludes her: the Suffragettes attained far greater ‘mass-mediated influence’, articulated a new brand of femininity, and fused art and life in the battle for the vote more than 90 years ago.

But if Girl Heroes fails on the terrain of political analysis, it is also weak on its own territory the bland, po-mo celebration of the mass media. Hopkins’ repeated quoting of Catharine Lumby appears heavy-handed and matey: for example, I do not think Hopkins needs to cite Lumby for the view that ‘our sense of reality is constantly filtered and informed by the media’ (p.178). Hopkins’ arguments are frequently outdated—thirteen pages extolling Madonna’s achievements is more than a decade too late (p. 39–51). There are frequent banalities—‘When it comes to putting on a show, nobody does it better than Madonna’ (p. 49). There are pop-cultural mistakes—for example, the character of Giles is Buffy’s ‘watcher’, not her assistant (p. 116). Hopkins grasp of postmodern theory is insecure—for example, she argues that ‘media imagery’ has ‘superseded reality’ (p. 11), when the classic argument suggests that it has subsumed and now defines that reality.

The book is a disappointment. If the cause of social change depended on Girl Heroes, then all of us (besides boyish evil-doers like me) would be in pretty big trouble.

Meikle finds very little evidence of entirely new tactics and suggests that the Net will not solve all problems.

Fortunately, the two other books under discussion examine alternative political strategies more seriously. Graham Meikle’s Future Active is a rigorous analysis of recent attempts to use the Internet for political change. It contrasts with Girl Heroes on a number of counts. It is organised around clear analytical distinctions, for example. Meikle offers developed taxonomies that illuminate different versions of the Net (p. 7–9), forms of interactivity (p. 30–1), and uses of the media (p. 119). Nor does he make inflated claims. Indeed, Meikle offers a strong critique of ‘cyberhype’ (p. 36), carefully testing the claims of scholars and activists against the evidence.

The book presents case studies of diverse Internet activists, from Scott Balson and the One Nation Party to McSpotlight campaigners against McDonalds; from Serbian radio station B92 to Sydney-based, indymedia activists. Meikle sought interviews with all major players. His judgments are typically sober—Meikle finds little evidence of entirely new tactics (p. 24 & p. 68), and suggests that the technology of the Net will not solve all problems (p.100).

In place of celebration of one arm of the media, Future Active is concerned with political and communicative relations. Its major findings emphasise connections and networks. First, Internet activism is not exclusively net-centred (p. 41). Activists often use the Net to attain wider coverage in the mass media (p. 117). Second, the physical world remains important, and virtual strategies are never enough (p. 178). Third, building bridges between groups and between forms of activism is central to political creativity and success (p. 172).

This is a very useful book. Meikle aims to build the capacities of his readers. As a result, Future Active closes with the views of Internet activists on the struggles ahead and the best ways of tackling them. It is a model of democratic, engaged, critical scholarship.

Like Future Active, Kathleen McPhillips’ Local Heroes is also an intensely democratic and political enterprise. The editor has brought together the stories of ten environmental campaigns. Most involve secrecy and duplicity on the part of corporations. The majority are urban campaigns, and the vast bulk are led by women. They tell their own stories in neat, impassioned, and warm prose.

Local Heroes is a humble book, but its activist basis gives it a fresh perspective on social movements. Reading the contributions together, what can we learn about the rhythms of popular struggle?

First, political involvement does not come easy. For some, it arrives only after troubling internal dialogue and a resolute confronting of fears (p. 81). Often, it is a sudden discovery—like the unexplained sores on a baby’s skin (p. 69) or the sudden explosion of a toxic cloud (p. 182)—that leads a citizen into environmental activism.

Second, crusaders quickly develop a deep skepticism toward officialdom and expert knowledge (p. 131 & p. 153). They need to educate themselves (p. 128–9). Indeed, Local Heroes is overflowing with the evidence of intense self-education. The knowledge of science activists acquire and display is frequently impressive (see, for example, pp. 2–5). The joy in such knowledge (p. 177) is contagious and inspiring.

Third, solidarity is a common theme. Activists clearly believe that co-operation with others brings practical benefits (p. 188). They believe that friendship and faith in others eases organisational tensions (p. 178). They speak of their fellow campaigners as dear friends (pp. 59–63).

Fourth, they exhibit tactical flexibility. These activists frequently adopt a range of techniques, among them: letters, petitions, interviews, networking (p. 169), picketing (p. 80), court cases (p. 81), public meetings (p. 174), and forming organisations (p. 123). They use the media as an important tool to gain attention and pressure corporations (p. 46). However, they are conscious that media power is sometimes not enough (p. 91), and they believe that sometimes a ‘ballpoint pen’ can do as much damage as ‘modern technologies’ (p. 115).

Social-movement scholars invariably support activism, but rarely listen to activists.

Finally, they offer gems of activist wisdom. Among many: you should always begin a campaign with achievable targets (p. 34) and you should always keep a personal diary, so that you can balance political and personal demands (p. 167).

My only criticism of Local Heroes is that this activist-centred view of social change is not fully exploited. The various viewpoints in the book are not synthesised or analysed; they are not tested in relation to each other. The organisation or development of activist-knowledge is not seriously examined. How do activists develop their knowledge? Are there common patterns? Are there general lessons, or is practical knowledge inevitably local, intrinsic, untranslatable? Not surprisingly, the contributors do not pose such questions. They could have been usefully considered in a more ambitious conclusion. Instead, the book ends rather abruptly.

But if Local Heroes stops a little short, it does raise interesting questions. Its activist-centred organisation opens up an untapped resource in existing studies of social movements—the intelligent reflections of activists themselves. If social-movement scholars invariably support activism, it is true that they rarely listen to activists. Certainly, the detailed interview and the ‘life history’ method have not always been used by social-movement scholars. Local Heroes shows how much we have been missing. Perhaps, if we can bring together the activist knowledge of Local Heroes with the analytical rigour of Future Active, we might gain deeper insights into the question of social change. Perhaps next time we mutter ‘What’s the point?’, we might then have a stronger answer.

Sean Scalmer, Department of Politics and International Relations, Macquarie University. His recently published book on social movements and the media is Dissent Events: Protest, the Media and the Political Gimmick in Australia, Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2002.

View other articles by Sean Scalmer: