Preconceptions – Begin at the beginning

04Sep08

What are my current understandings of social movements, before I started reading all the social movement literature?

My previous studies on social movements generally focused on several things that I am also interested in pursuing in this case. The things that I find most interesting about social movements are the personal motivations that people have for becoming involved, and the ways that people maintain their political beliefs in opposition to commonly held values. I am also incredibly interested in the way politics plays itself out in ART and LITERATURE, particularly in repressive regimes or hostile cultures. My Honours thesis looked at the way that politics emerges when there is no free expression. It looked at the way real politics comes out in literature when real politics is banned. Although the lives of the Czechs were highly politicised, and politics may even be said to have been compulsory, authentic (honest) politics was banned. Even those who honestly believed in socialism were punished and excluded. People dealt with this either by returning to private life (as in The Wonderful Years That Sucked) or by publishing Samizdat. I argued that these minor resistances were important, as they acted as a bridge between the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution, in which civil society asserted itself as a powerful force for change, in spite of the seeming completeness of “normalization”.

Debate and patterns of participation in internet communities seem to be a constantly shifting, mobile amorphous pattern. A forum may be the place to visit for several months, a new internet or community starts elsewhere and people start to cross over – following active threads, following links, going to the places that give them the most gratification, the most stimulation. Websites can, for a time, be the place to be, but this never lasts. For a period in the early 2000s Indymedia.org websites were the places where anti-globalisation and related activism was organised and reported on. It seemed like such a vibrant, crucial website to hit at the time. There was that impulse to hit refresh in case there was more news coming up!

The anti-globalization movement, however, has since the early 2000s seen a decline in large visible protest actions, and the core of people using such sites as Indymedia has begun to dwindle. If the blogosphere is anything to go by, however, public protest has given way to a private “opting out”. Blogs such as living small, and others, in which people document they way they live their private lives separated from big business and consumerist lifestyles. Through networks of weblogs and other online communities, people form critical cultures that span the globe.

The same is true of feminist blogs. These can’t be said to exist within the borders of Australia (or at least are not constrained by these borders) but there is a significant number of Australian feminist blogs that have formed a loose network together by commenting, linking to, or subscribing to each other.

But do online communities constitute a “centralized, ‘elite-sustained'” structure (Taylor 1989)? It’s very possible that the opposite could be argued. It seems like online communities would have less of a function in keeping a hard kernel of organised Australian feminist movement alive and more of a function in building on the discursive legacy of the Australian women’s movement. Perhaps this is something that the Australian feminist movement particularly needs right now rather than organisation – refer to Gisela Kaplan’s discussion in the very material focus of the Australian women’s movement at the expense of consciousness-raising. Perhaps online communities perform the function of building a discourse and raising the consciousness of a broad-based community of women.

I think that I differ from Taylor, from the little I understand about “abeyance theory” after 2 or 3 weeks of reading, in that while she tends to focus on organisations, I consider that although organisations are incredibly important for ACTION, as they were in the Czech case (Charter 77 and Civic Forum), they may not be as important as she states as abeyance structures. Perhaps abeyance structures can be (as Paul Bagguley [2002] also suggests) something as simple as social networks in which people share an identity and serve as an audience for each others’ ideas (as in the samizdat network). In the case of Australia, I am strongly interested in small press networks, website networks, and blogging communities. Traditional ideas of what internet communities are (i.e. Email lists or forums) may not be the end of this study! Loose blogging networks formed by linking, blogrolls, feeds and comments seem to be a where a lot of feminist activity in Australia takes place currently.

I remember something Slavoj Zizek said in Violence, however, that this can make people feel as though they are doing something when in fact they are doing nothing, but I can’t find the bit now (and anyway, he’s a secret technophobe – I am not convinced he understands the internet at all). Is there a time for doing nothing, though? Is abeyance structural (the lack of status vacancies) or is it cultural (the lack of motivation, gratitude, and the rest)? Can these things even be separated or is it the structure that determines the culture and vice versa? By saying that the internet only provides the semblance of action, a feeling-good-about-participation-which-has-no-meaning, you run the risk of possibly discrediting the most valuable resource that feminism has.

Something else I am interested in, although perhaps it’s just a personal yen, is the role of the internet in young women’s lives. My adolescence took place in the 1990s basically in time with the development of the internet, and it seemed, and probably was, crucial for me. It is difficult to imagine, in fact, the lives of young people growing up today, in which everything is already there for the taking. But perhaps it is the same for them. The internet represented, for me, a flowering of worlds and potential obsessions, new knowledge that couldn’t be found at the school library, in mainstream popular culture. And of course a different kind of social life. I wonder how common this experience is, I wonder what impact it has on the way you see the world, on the likelihood of becoming involved in different “underground” cultures. When young women stumble across sites that have a feminist focus, particularly when mainstream culture considers feminism “over” or “dead”, at least in its most explicit form, what is that like for them?

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