To think of subjectivity “in terms of the milieu” is not a matter of theory.
—Isabelle Stengers, “Experimenting with Refrains”
The milieu is the stage for a dance of individuation that seeds the conditions for both resistance and control. At each step, assemblages form. Their specific composition of heterogeneous elements is a formula to wield power. Never should one believe that connections and connectivity alone will save us. Silvio Berlusconi, a master connector, has much to teach us here (chapter 3). Who would have thought?
The movements that became visible in the 1990s, from Chiapas to Seattle, took on powerful configurations in Italy as they connected to local student struggles, the work of the social centers, and hacker scenes (chapter 4). If the free radios in the seventies had set a precedent for creative media activism (chapter 2), the nineties may be considered a golden era for technological innovation that gave momentum to political organizing, from informational guerrilla actions to Indymedia, from electronic disturbance theater to tactical media. It is during this period that forms of connective activism came to the surface. The fax machines of the occupied universities, the integration of the fax grid with the VAX computers from the science labs, the spread of bulletin board systems supported by the free radios, the development of open publishing online platforms—all of these are, in their own ways, examples of repurposed media for connecting people in novel ways. Through the lens of connective activism, organizing that involves the appropriation, design, or recombination of technology modules expands the field for thinking about social change and developing new practices of resistance (chapter 1). Telestreet gave more consistency to these practices, while insu^tv dedicated them to creating porosity among communities.
Repurposing as a practice has surfaced at different times and in different contexts from these pages: the reuse of discarded technology; the hacking of old and new technical objects like antennas, transmitters, and the internet. In Telestreet and insu^tv, television as a medium for entertainment is repurposed for activism; activist spaces are repurposed for studios; the airwaves are taken over as public space; inchiesta is repurposed for subjectification. Repurposing for connective activism best describes the work of insu^tv, and it is, I believe, the reason why insu^tv still exists today amid all the change (chapter 6). But repurposing would not be a particularly compelling, and useful, concept if it was limited to finding a different use for what is already available. I have been most interested in outlining the various ways in which repurposing can create the conditions for collective becoming and the formation of activist assemblages.
The ethico-political value of repurposing lies in its potential to tap into coproduction and commingling to give sociotechnical assemblages a new force for politics—a repurposing of the social that harnesses encounters and events to care for movements (chapter 7). In fact, if the subject is a necessary but not sufficient condition for politics (Toscano 2012), the repurposing of media sows a seed for the creation of more powerful, heterogeneous collective formations. Repurposing gives purpose to transindividuation—that is, it sets forth or directs certain kinds of becoming, ways of coexisting among groups at a time of fragmentation and polarization in the social fabric. Crucially, this potential is not containable in the agency of the individual or group but lies in the ability of human and technical individuals to come together through various forms of connective activism. Repurposing harbors political potential in its ability to foster recomposition—that is, to configure new relations among hacked media, activist practices, and collective needs.
Technology today plays a major role in shaping resistant formations and, in this sense, it has agency, to use an old-fashioned word. Technical individuals like Telestreet’s transmission apparatus individuate: their properties emerge when the potentialities of various technical components solidify and become grounded at the intersection of sociality, culture, geography, and the economy. Technical individuation is a process that is at the basis of the becoming of contemporary activist formations (chapter 5). Telestreet’s and insu^tv’s technical components are themselves conduits of individuations that transduce across electromagnetic waves and sensory stimuli. As these stimuli circulate, they trigger reactions that are folded into already stratified relations: social, cultural, and so on. New habits and ways of thinking come to life. For example, Telestreet’s proxy-vision model of collaborative video production engaged audience and producers alike in a process of sense making, which was couched in an alternative web of practices. The ensuing individuations involve a kind of connectedness that is simultaneously productive of new collectivities and of their subjectivities.
It takes a certain awareness to reveal the implications of technology for people and the social field (Simondon 2006, 251–53). This means that to foster stronger political formations it is necessary to inquire into the potential, the actual properties as well as the dangers of what comes into composition and connection. Insu^tv’s efforts to keep the activist field connected and porous are rooted in an understanding of how video technology and production practices tie the groups involved in media production and consumption with the different communities that are engaged in each project. The surplus energy that is generated in this process becomes itself a point of contagious relay. For instance, the connective force of Wasting Naples did not end with its release but intensified with it: the hundreds of events organized around the film reached past the Italian borders to the rest of Europe and North America. To all of them, nicol* was invited to speak about the struggle and the filmmaking but also to coproduce new projects.
In Naples, individuals and groups collaborated and co-individuated without having to position themselves according to rigid identities (chapter 8). This interaction forged long-lasting ties because, as autonomist researchers remind us (Alquati 1975; Borio, Pozzi, and Roggero 2002), the collaborative process of knowledge production is itself a mode of subjectivation and organization. In cases like this, the mediation of certain modes and objects of inquiry keeps material and discursive practices as close together as possible by focusing on the interaction and collaboration that each project triggers rather than on defining a position of the individuals involved on the social (identitarian) grid. Insu^tv’s work shows the impact of nurturing stronger collective actors from the co-individuation of the groups with a media-based model of social therapy. Despite the sadness of seeing an exciting project slow down, the story of insu^tv is not sung to the sad tune of violin music but is meant as a call for others to continue to experiment with alternative forms of social reproduction, rethinking media activism along, or beyond, these principles of connective activism that refuse to fetishize corporate, participatory platforms.
Energetics of Movements
“Telestreet was a TV for witnessing while we were a form of resistance—this is why we endured,” said Sandro of insu^tv in one of our interviews in 2015.1 As a form of resistance, insu^tv’s function was connective at a time of post-Genoa fragmentation; it dug its roots in the movements it came from while also broadening its reach among local cultural, environmental, and migrant organizations. With the ushering in of corporate social media, witnessing as a mode of media production has become more widespread. At the same time, activism that attends to social reproduction has invested more in rebuilding the social, educational, and economic infrastructure that austerity politics have destroyed. Activist assemblages are not stable: they are metastable; they are constantly reshaping as new components are added and the energy circulating through them changes. The decomposition of a certain kind of movement media assemblage and the emergence of new ones presents an opportunity to reframe how we study media in relation to cycles of struggle.
A study of media use from a perspective of movement energetics focuses on how media ecologies and social ecologies are entangled in complex ways, instead of taking for granted the adoption of specific technologies. The concretization of technical ensembles itself has less to do with readymade technologies and more with hacking, tinkering, and exchanges between bodies and technologies as they come together and transform each other. It is important to document the sources of energy (or passions, to paraphrase Anna Tsing [2005, 216]) that carry the seeds of assemblages.
Media scholars are starting to recognize the value of the less tangible components that make social movement media what it is. In his article on memes and Occupy Wall Street (OWS), Jack Bratich builds on the work of Guattari, Goddard, and Negri to think of OWS as an ecology of media and of practices for subjective production that involves the movement of desire and reasoning. For Bratich, all too often movements are treated as episodic eruptions that should be gauged by their measurable achievements and decomposition instead of elaborating “the mechanisms that persist across and connect them” (2014, 66). Citing Amador Fernandez-Savater’s ideas, he proposes to think about climates rather than movements to account for the milieus that can trigger the condensation of certain desires and ideas at specific periods in time: “a climate can facilitate an emergent body politic’s passage from social movement to social rest, and back again. What are the mediating mechanisms that operate in this moment of social rest?” Bratich asks (2014, 70).
An energetics of movements focuses on this capacity for transformation while overcoming representations of monolithic movements: to understand the capacity of media ecologies to constantly change, one must consider the energetic potential of the system, that is, one must think about (trans)individuation, also at the moment of decomposition, when groups cannot preserve their psychosocial stability—and traces of their presence scatter elsewhere. From Radio Alice and tactical media, through raves and bulletin board systems, to Telestreet and insu^tv, I have shown seeds that were crucial to understand how divergent energies came into communication. My threading and weaving of them attempted to pull together some of the many lines that condition political invention across cycles of struggle—across climates. I have also considered other parts of the infrastructure for activism (CSOAs, hacklabs, protests, networks, etc.) because they are part of a milieu where seeds germinate.
A focus on transformation can tell more about the value of activist projects than any assessment of their failures, especially if it brings with it concepts and tools that evolve elsewhere. The focus on energy—among people, groups, and technical objects—and transformation develops a way of discussing activist projects’ capacity (and perhaps need) to change rather than their efforts to remain the same. For this reason, this study of the de/re/composition of Telestreet and insu^tv does not give it a shape by imposing a specific narrative but rather reads its history and presence diffractively (Barad 2014), pointing to the value of connective activism as a tool and an ethics to engage the present. Ultimately, the focus on compositionality and connectivity of this book opens up the space to expand the role of co-research to inquiry into the potential of movements to change—in so doing it provides a different angle to study mediated practices of resistance.
Currently, a variety of movements are developing alternative governance models, supporting migrant rights and tackling economic crises, climate change, and social emergencies. Strong autonomous media infrastructure that bolsters the burgeoning movements are mostly absent.2 Make no mistake, networked media technologies are present and visible. Corporate social media in particular afford wide and immediate reach through the interlinking of different platforms and it would be careless not to recognize their important contribution to political organizing. Twitter allowed the residents of Ferguson, Missouri, to bypass the mainstream media to denounce police brutality and grow the Movement for Black Lives (Jackson and Welles 2016); #IdleNoMore started as hashtags and led to stronger alliances between indigenous peoples and settlers to protect the climate across two continents (Coates 2015); Facebook livestreams the killing of unarmed black men like Philando Castile. Corporate social media provide free and technically stable environments to circulate information without having to rely on independent coders and costly infrastructure (web hosting, data storage, video streaming, etc.).
How does contemporary mediated activism function in the larger activist field? What can media activism do today? What does the available technology afford or prevent? For researchers and activists alike, the challenge is to understand the current formations in dynamic interaction with the wider activist and nonactivist milieus, to discern what compositions engender new forms of agency, and to develop studies that relay this knowledge in a way that can also be mobilized back into movements. The new activist mediascape is heterogeneous, networked, and yet fragmented. It combines corporate and alternative in a variety of ways. It is therefore harder to grasp by looking at the use of the technologies that facilitate communication and information circulation because these only tell us a partial story, one of double binds with corporate media, or of futile resistance against the media giants with small and underappreciated autonomous tools. To keep exploring the relation between activism and technology, it is time to declare that there is no more alternative media; there are only alternative media assemblages in ongoing recomposition.
Finally, in terms of looking at the recomposition of movements, the inquiry into media (medium is also a translation for the French word milieu) that are part of an infrastructure of transindividuation poses the question of whether media need to be necessarily technical objects, with wires and chips. What can researchers contribute to the field of media studies by broadening the focus of the study of media for social change? Infrastructure is receiving much needed attention nowadays. Deborah Cowen discusses the value of social infrastructures that are built, material, and lasting. She invites scholars to look at this kind of infrastructure because it is future-oriented; “it is assembled in the service of worlds to come” (Cowen 2017). I add, it circulates energy. What kinds of media in their broadest sense function as activist infrastructure?
My approach to studying media and its practices diffractively brought together a variety of ideas—autonomist feminism and political thought; the philosophy of science of Gilbert Simondon, Karen Barad, Donna Haraway, and Isabelle Stengers; the work of French philosophers who influenced autonomist thinkers and activists alike. I read their insights through one another, looking for small differences that matter while retaining an awareness that the frameworks and apparatuses that I use to understand what I study co-determine what I can see and how I can describe it.3 I wrote with the political intent of showing the power of repurposing and connectivity. Guiding this intention is an understanding that ethics is about taking on responsibility and accountability for the lively relationalities of becoming, in which researcher and communities alike take part. To say it with Barad, ethics is about working through the entangled materializations of which we are part and recognizing that responsibility is about our ability to respond and take into account the response of the other who is entangled with what we call self (2007, 70). In my case, it is not just that this book would not have existed without my encounter and learning with Telestreet. It is that I would not be the person, activist, and scholar that I am if I had not gained so much from co-individuation with the compagni, from holding a camera and seeing the world through its lens. How one acknowledges this debt in research and gifts in return is a question that needs to be posed again and again with each new inquiry and context.
What my research showed me is also that this kind of inquiry cannot happen without a constant commitment to including collaborators in the production of knowledge, which requires patient translation of ideas, needs, and constraints in both directions, without taking on frontline work; holding space for other voices; and resisting the academic urge to speak on behalf of activist and community groups. Power relations in knowledge production are messy and cannot be ignored, even and especially in co-research environments. Leading the way in this approach are visionary feminist, queer, black, and decolonial thinkers who are reconnecting the practice of knowledge production to the purpose of engaging the world beyond prevailing strategies of control: extraction, mystification, generalization, objectivity and objectification, claims to universality and scientificity, among others (Harney and Moten 2013; Haraway 2016; Simpson 2016). During my research and the writing of this book, I have been fortunate enough to encounter people and situations that made me feel and imagine (Stengers 2008, 57), and held me accountable for my privileges.
History and patriarchy have made it hard, especially for female-identifying subjects, to make claims about feelings and imaginations without being discounted as knowledge producers. Nevertheless, insofar as there is a politics of knowledge, it is necessary to think about the production of subjectivity and the work of social reproduction that binds together, that entangles researchers and researched—a politics of knowledge that teaches us to feel, imagine, learn, and respond. With insu^tv, I learned to repurpose research as an ethical mode of being an activist and a scholar. In my fieldwork and media practice I often observed how research could help develop effective strategies of respectful and productive collaboration. Connective research forges ways of being together that, hopefully, do so with care because “no such event, no such production of subjectivity, is good per se” (Stengers 2008, 58). Like many other “participatory” processes that neoliberalism celebrates, co-research without an ethics of connection can be just another method of knowledge extraction.
Feeling and imagining certainly smack anathema for a “legitimate” approach to media studies and social movement studies, but I contend that the kind of psychosocial and ethicopolitical entanglements I have discussed can be an a/effective entry point into understanding the energetics of social and media ecologies. When mobilized, the research I performed here and encourage others to produce can generate new possibilities for relaying energy through the activist milieu. How we come to a good understanding of one another and how this understanding shapes our movements are, in my opinion, questions that are entangled. We can start answering them simultaneously by setting up a research process that foregrounds listening, collaboration, experimentation, and recomposition. Thus, inspired by the processual and circular approach of co-research, the body of knowledge I present can be rediscussed, verified, and enriched through future experiments that make it more useful (Borio, Pozzi, and Roggero 2002).
Following the initial step of posing the question of Telestreet/insu^tv in terms of learning and experimentation developed through co-research and immanent critique, we can continue to look for the conditions and potentials for organizing networks of solidarity between academics and activists that modulate (rather than isolate or oppose) and embolden a radical politics for social justice already taking place. In this sense, networking and connecting existing practices of resistance both builds upon and recontextualizes the work done so far while addressing new problems to be formulated collectively. Building connections among activists, organizations, and individuals is not simply a matter of naming a condition; nor is it a matter of creating a concept that might provide a point of theoretical connection: it is in the actual process of making, or embodying, these connections that new practices of sociability emerge.