Stephen Duncombe is an Associate Professor at the Gallatin School and the Department of Media, Culture and Communications of New York University where he teaches the history and politics of media. He is the author of Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy and Notes From Underground: Zines and the Politics of Underground Culture; co-author of The Bobbed Haired Bandit: Crime and Celebrity in 1920s New York; editor of the Cultural Resistance Reader and co-editor of White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race. He writes on the intersection of culture and politics for a range of scholarly and popular publications, from the cerebral The Nation, to the prurient Playboy.
Stephen will speak at Literature Unbound: Radical Strategies for Social Literature at NYU during Social Media Week. I interviewed Stephen to learn more about his work and experiences.
What are the best ways for political activists to harness social media’s value?
There’s the obvious ways: using social media as a way to communicate better than we’ve been able todo before, reaching more people, with more information, faster, easier and cheaper. But what excites me most about the power of social media in activism is less how it is being used as a instrumental tool and more how it is had been integrated into on-the ground activist practice as a sort of social protocol. The organization of social media — distributed, participatory, individualized within the context of a collectivity — is being mirrored on the streets in the very social forms of the protests that are taking place: the largely leader-less, horizontally-organized, mass occupations of public space that are sweeping the world. Back in the 1960s the great critic Lionel Trilling called the demonstrations that were happening “Modernism in the Streets.” I think we could call what is happening around the world today “Internet in the Streets.”
Can you explain the ramifications that recent political uprisings aided by social media channels have had on the social media landscape as a whole, and particularly where restrictive governments reign?
I think the simplest answer to this is that restrictive governments have a hard time reigning-in Twitter and Facebook. They can try, and sometimes they succeed. Some governments, like China, are very good at these restrictions, but repressive governments are caught in a fundamental bind. The very tools of communications and networking that are essential for economic innovations and the wealth of the nation, can be — and are — also used for political innovations as well.
What is social literature?
This is what we’ll find out on February 14! Literature has always been social, that is: it’s a communication between an author and a reader. The development of print greatly expanded the range of this relationship — a writer in India could reach a reader in Canada, but it also restricted the sociality into a one-way communications: the author writes and the reader reads. With the digital revolution all this has changed. Since every digital device is both a receiver and a transmitter, the flow of communications can go both ways and, because these devices are networked, this conversation can be opened up to many others.
You created the Open Utopia, an open-access, open-source, web-based edition of Thomas More’s Utopia. What inspired this project?
A few years back I had the privilege of teaching a Fulbright seminar at Moscow State University on the topic of “political imagination.” In preparation for doing this, I re-read Thomas More’s 16th century classic Utopia. But when I did this I read a completely different book that what I had remembered reading in High School. This time I realized that what More was creating was less a authoritative plan of an alternative society and more an “imaginal machine” — a technology for stimulating the imagination of his readers. How he does this would take a long time to explain, but simply put, by creating an alternative world that he then names No-Place (which is what Utopia means in Greek), more pushes his readers to imagine what an alternative some-place might look like for themselves.
But More was stuck with the technology of his day: the printed page, and so his readers had to do all their imaginative work in their heads and as individuals. By creating an open-access, open-source, web-based edition of Thomas More’s Utopia, I’ve tried to “Open” up the book to the reader’s active participation. In my digital edition of Utopia readers become writers and editors and collaborators. One of the ways they can do this is WikiTopia–a mediawiki on which people can draft their own ideal society, or collaborate with others in creating a collectively authored Utopia. And with a platform designed by the folks at the Institute for the Future of the Book called “Social Book,” visitors to Open Utopia can annotate and comment upon what More – or I – have written, and then share their comments with others. The idea here is to help people to imagine their own Utopias and share them with others, and not be content with an “authorized” Utopia, be it More’s or anyone else’s.
In what [other] ways does the internet honor the primary precept of Utopia — that is, that all property is common property?
I’ve always thought that it was ironic that a book about the abolition of private property was locked up in copyright. So in my mission to open up Utopia, I’ve created the only complete Creative Commons licenced English language edition of Utopia. Most of the text I’ve taken from old translations that have passed into the public domain, but some of the letters I had newly translated from the original Latin into English specifically so I could enter them into the public domain.
Do you have any plans of giving another book the same treatment?
I don’t think so. One of the great luxuries of my job as a tenured professor is I get to study and experiment…and then move on to study and experiment something else. But I do think some of the features of the Open Utopia — the rich media, the ability for readers to become writers, the shared annotations, the lack of a restrictive copyright — are going to be part of any and all books that we all “write” and “read” in this coming century.
With funding from the Open Societies Foundations, you co-created the School for Creative Activism in 2011, and you are presently Co-Director of the Center for Artistic Activism. What are some of the projects you’ve been working on?
When I’m not mired deep in a historical text about Utopia, I’m trying to figure out ways in the present to create an alternative society for the future. The work we do at the Center for Artistic Activism and the School for Creative Activism is very much a part of this. We think activism is, or rather its should be, an art: it should be creative and it should be inspirational. So we work with grass-roots organizers to bring an artistic eye and a creative hand to their tactics, their strategies and their goal setting. We think you need to do this to be an effective activist in the 21st century. The first rule of guerrilla warfare is to know your terrain and use it to your advantage. Today’s political topography includes signs and symbols, stories ans spectacle, and an activist needs the creative weapons to fight on this terrain. But creativity in activism is also important for another reason: we have to be able to imagine a better world if we want to have any hope of changing this one.
Lisa Chau has been involved with Web 2.0 since graduate school at Dartmouth College, where she completed an independent study on blogging. She was subsequently highlighted as a woman blogger in Wellesley Magazine, published by her alma mater. Since 2009, Lisa has worked as an Assistant Director at the Tuck School of Business. In 2012, she launched GothamGreen212 to pursue social media strategy projects. You can follow her on twitter.