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Gary Shaul, long-time organizer

Know your cultural terrain

Contributed by

“What the world’s governments should really fear is an expert in communication technologies.”

Subcomandante Marcos
In Sum

The first rule of guerrilla warfare is to know your terrain and use it to your advantage. This holds true whether you are fighting in an actual jungle or in the metaphoric wasteland of mass culture.

Those of us engaged in creative activism need to be able to navigate the broader cultural landscape in which we wage our campaigns, and use it to our advantage. In the twenty-first century, this terrain includes viral video sensations, Twitter hashtags, guerrilla advertising, celebrity gossip, sports spectacles, religious iconography, and other cultural detritus.

But how is an activist supposed to survive, much less thrive, in a cultural environment created expressly for the purposes of commodifying everything of value or fostering obedience to authority?

All cultural artifacts contain contradictions. Marketing campaigns, for instance, are developed to exploit emotion in order to sell product, but to do this they need to tap into the deep-seated dreams and nightmares of large numbers of people. Sometimes these desires are scary and reactionary (brush with Pepsodent or you will die a spinster), but they also tap into positive, often Utopian dreams (drink this beer and you will be surrounded by a beloved, albeit tipsy, community).

Or consider religion: progressive activists often think of religion as an institution designed to enforce the status quo. There’s certainly much to condemn in religion, but it’s also a system of ethics and a code of behavior that can be used to critique the norms and ideals of consumer capitalism. The world’s great religions extol such virtues as love, community and responsibility for others — surely good material for an astute organizer to work with. Moses was a spectacular leader, Mohammed a master poet, and Jesus, chasing the money-changers out of the Temple and spinning engaging parables, was a crackerjack creative activist.

In 1906, the great philosopher, psychologist and pacifist William James told a group of American students that if they wanted to reach a wider public with their pacifist message, they needed to understand that war, no matter how bloody and barbaric, also tapped into worthy sentiments like honor and sacrifice, and that these values needed to first be recognized and then redirected. Instead of rejecting war outright, he concluded, the activists needed to articulate a “moral equivalent of war” to take its place in the culture’s value system. The trick, according to James’ insight, is to tap into what’s potentially positive in the surrounding culture and then redirect those dreams, desires, images and impulses into more progressive and creative social ends.

Today’s cultural terrain is multilayered and extremely varied. Unlike the guerrilla in the jungle, who pretty much only needs to know his own local terrain, we twenty-first century cultural guerrillas need to range far and wide. You may not like or be familiar with Nascar, professional sports, reality TV and superheroes, but they are all fertile arenas of culture to work with. It may take an open mind and a bit of personal courage, but it behooves us to immerse ourselves in, learn about and respect the world of the cultural “Other” — which, for many of us counter-culture types, ironically, is mass culture.

Potential Pitfalls

The mass culture we seek to appropriate and repurpose is often rooted in deeply regressive ideas and ideologies. Use it carefully and creatively, or its original purpose might prevail.


Stephen Duncombe teaches the history and politics of media at New York University. He is the author or editor of six books, including Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy and the Cultural Resistance Reader. Duncombe is a life-long political activist, co-founding a community based advocacy group in the Lower East Side of Manhattan and working as an organizer for the NYC chapter of the international direct action group, Reclaim the Streets. He co-created the School for Creative Activism in 2011 and is presently co-director of the Center for Artistic Activism www.artisticactivism.org.


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