Whenever I become downcast or agitated by a particularly bizarre ritual in our contemporary universities, I pull out a small card from my purse. On it, I have a series of words to salve moments of existential disquiet:
Confusion ? Clarity.
Ignorance ? Investigation.
Consciousness ? Change.
For me, the movement between these words offers cycles of thought, reflection and transformation in our teaching and writing lives.
I have always been drawn to – and inspired by – stroppy students, teachers, writers, librarians, journalists and researchers who face down the powerful. These courageous men and women are inflamed by inequality and injustice. Their words bite and hook and pierce the tongue of spin, ridicule and conformity. It is so easy to fit in, to be silent. It is pleasantly self-indulgent to titter about Fern Britton’s gastric band, giggle through Heat magazine, believe in the anti-ageing properties of Boots No. 7 beauty serum or buy Fairtrade coffee at Sainsbury’s. It is much harder – on a daily basis – to work against compliance and conformity, to speak out and intervene in “business as usual”.
In Australia – particularly in response to sport – one phrase is meant to spring the lazy, unmotivated, boring, disorganised or uncommitted into action. As a child, I remember watching Australian Rules football and cricket with my father and hearing – and sometimes participating in – the desperate and frustrated growl from the stands. Cutting through the thick air of sporting disappointment would be the guttural wail, “Havago, yer mug.” This simple phrase was an impulsive cry for action. Doing anything is better than doing nothing. Havago.
The problem for those of us who write and teach is that there are few spaces to havago. After validation events, revalidation events and post-revalidation events, our words and actions are sucked into a loop of “mapping learning outcomes against assessment criteria”, “diagnosing assessment philosophies” and “appraising quality assurance procedures”. Energy, passion, excitement, transgression and risk leak from such audit cultures.
To remind myself that there is life beyond these rituals of quality assurance, I have always sought out small books that can fit in a bag to offer an emergency transfusion of bright ideas. Pocket Penguins and the Great Ideas series have been companions on trains and planes, and in waiting rooms and “stairwell moments” of frustration and disbelief, where the hopelessness of a situation threatens to squeeze the life out of learning and the learning out of life.
For more than a decade, augmenting my Penguins have been titles from the Open Media Series, which was first published by Seven Stories Press in the 1990s, before it moved to City Lights Publishers in San Francisco in the mid-2000s. The Open Media books are almost better than the Penguins because not only do they cover unpopular and confrontational topics, they come in varied sizes and lengths to suit the situation and time available to read on a particular day.
The series was founded by Greg Ruggiero, who has moved between the roles of activist and publisher. He was senior editor at Seven Stories when Elaine Katzenberger approached him to join City Lights Publishers with his Open Media Series, providing an opportunity to extend its non-fiction publishing list.
This success with publishers masks Ruggiero’s start as an old-fashioned pamphleteer. Outraged by the first Gulf War, he independently published Noam Chomsky’s lecture attacking Operation Desert Shield in 1991, selling on the streets before independent bookshops distributed his work. He described how those first pamphlets were formed: “In 1990 neither the internet nor cellphones were available to the average person. But with an Apple computer and a photocopier you could really do something. And we did. David Barsamian sent us a transcript of an incredibly powerful, well-argued speech that Noam Chomsky had recently delivered in opposition to our country’s build-up to war. We typed the speech into our trusty Mac, designed it so that we – and others – could easily photocopy it, and ran off a few hundred copies in a way that made it easy to fold and staple into a pamphlet.”
By 1997, he brought the series to Seven Stories. Some extraordinary bestsellers emerged from this partnership, including Chomsky’s 9/11, and fine writers, scholars, speakers and activists have joined his project, among them Alice Walker, Ralph Nader, Allen Ginsberg, the Dalai Lama, Angela Davis and Howard Zinn.
Ruggiero described his goal as “providing a reliable counter-narrative to the mainstream news… It’s challenged in mainstream media, but it’s understood by the public. We’re entering into the fray in order to practise democracy.” In Seattle at the World Trade Organisation battles in 1999, he worked in what was to become the first Independent Media Centre.
Moving to City Lights Publishers, these compact books continued to find an audience. City Lights has its own rich heritage in challenging complacency. It was founded in 1953 by Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and sociologist Peter D. Martin. While Martin returned to New York to create New Yorker Bookstore, controversy enfolded City Lights after his departure and propelled it to fame. Ferlinghetti published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems in 1956.
The publishing arm at City Lights became known through the Pocket Poets series, and it has now gained its non-fiction equivalent through the Open Media Series. More significantly, the business has a project to create what it terms “deep literacy” – “not only the ability to read and write but fluency in the knowledge and skills that enable us to consciously shape our lives and the life of our community”.
Four books have currently been published in City Lights’ manifestation of the Open Media series. Chomsky’s Interventions is the “above-the-title” name, but the Cindy Sheehan open letter Dear President Bush speaks most clearly to the cry “Research. Communicate. Resist.” She writes clearly and passionately, a fine lesson for students in connecting their lived experience to a wider history and language of possibility.
The Open Media Series has returned the essay to public view and found an audience that wants blade-sharp critiques of the powerful, confident and compliant. But its commitment to international audiences and diverse languages through translation means that it has brought us books that were often refused a publisher on political grounds. What Semiotexte did for French theory, the Open Media Series created for dissenting readers and writers.
To provide a flavour of the series, Seven Stories offers Pratap Chatterjee’s Iraq, Inc and the extraordinary Arundhati Roy’s Public Power in the Age of Empire. There are guidebooks to the contemporary media landscape including the Project Censored Guide to Alternative Media and Activism and Robert McChesney and John Nichols’s Our Media, Not Theirs. Their voices and views on a post-terrorism age include Alice Walker, the late Edward Said and Ruggiero’s fascinating study of Microradio & Democracy: (Low) Power to the People.
We may not always agree with the arguments posed in these books. Sometimes, the optimistic belief that “the people” will finally remove the shackles of their oppressors and “organise” to build a better world is a bit too May 1968 for my tastes. But these days I support anyone who believes in more than the importance of buying another handbag and is excited by more than the next meal.
These pamphlets and small books embody Socrates’ maxim in Plato’s Dialogues that “an unexamined life is not worth living”. Whatever we may think about consumerism, the media, writing, teaching, war and politics, the calibre of our ideas is improved through considering alternatives and options. Agreeing with the words of others – or even being convinced by arguments – is not the point of education. Knowing why we disagree – beyond personal jealousies, envy, resentment or a desire to break the spirit of the different and defiant – is the starting block of imagination and scholarship.
Not surprisingly, teachers have used these innovative short books in profound ways. Stephen Duncombe, in rewriting his New York University curriculum in response to Ewen & Ewen’s Open Media book Typecasting: On the Arts & Sciences of Human Inequality, offered a familiar narrative for many of us working in the humanities. “In my undergraduate course on the politics of media there comes a time, each semester, when we turn our attention toward stereotypes. It’s not a good time. Despite my best intentions and strident interventions, even my most sophisticated students slip into simplistic analysis. It goes something like this: Stereotypes are bad, their use by ‘the media’ oppresses people, and if ‘they would stop using stereotypes then people wouldn’t be so oppressed’. A veritable stereotype of stereotyping. Next semester will be different: I’ll be armed with Elizabeth and Stuart Ewen’s Typecasting.”
Through tabloidisation and the wikipedification of research, it is difficult to find – even in The Guardian, The Independent and The Observer – a suck-breath-back-through-the-teeth mantra of dangerous ideas. Most daily newspapers spend more column inches on dieting than war, poverty and racism. But the extended essay, favoured by George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Emma Goldman, never aimed to be definitive, but to ride a wave of relevance, engagement and passion. Like an intellectual photograph, essays grasp a problem and shake us to reconsider our position. It is very easy to wave a flag. It is harder to ask why it is being waved.
Perhaps the most inspiring of the Open Media series to commence this process of questioning is Nancy Snow’s Information War: American Propaganda, Free Speech, and Opinion Control since 9/11. It conveys her journey as a teacher and writer. She reveals that, “After 9/11, I chose to rededicate myself to university teaching and working more closely with communication and journalism students.” Snow is an inspiration. It is easy to complain about the reduced value of A levels and honours degrees. It is positive and powerful to continue to reaffirm a commitment to teaching and writing the best curriculum that is worthy of these students who deserve so much more than the culture of audits, complaints and grievance that we have assembled for them.
The relationship between academics and activism requires constant renewal. The trouble is that our professional lives will always fill the available space. Students always require one more session on referencing. Colleagues need someone to read that difficult article that cannot find a place in a journal. That committee with a long agenda has an even longer list of actionable items. But we need to find the time and space to think and write about ideas and issues that are troubling, global and vital. In his introduction to Cindy Sheehan’s book, Ruggiero states: “This book is dangerous. It’s a spark that can start prairie fires. Please use it.”
Some of us teach. Some of us write. Some of us live lives of Thoreau’s imagining, of “quiet desperation”. But books – the smallest pamphlet – can be dangerous. They challenge the most dangerous thought of all: education means very little until it is used.
Tara Brabazon is professor of media studies at the University of Brighton.