Friday, January 25, 2008

Behind the Orange Curtain

Now that I've finished Geert Lovink's Zero Comments (a multi-part review will begin after this post), I've had a chance to reflect on the often uneasy relationship between tactical media activism and Web 2.0 corporate opportunism, which Lovink describes as frequently playing out in computer-mediated communication environments.

Certainly, conservative Orange County -- where I work -- is usually not an easy place to be an activist, even though there are certainly many wrongs to be righted in the immediate area: preserving the coastal environment, protecting the rights of disenfranchised members of an increasingly multicultural population, and defending principles of secular public education and academic freedom that are frequently under threat in the region.

Yet longtime friends Virtualpolitik friends Lisa Alvarez and Andrew Tonkovich have made a home there and have used tactical media approaches for many years in ways that have brought attention to local causes. They've dressed up in costumes for photo ops, arranged readings of banned books, staged Lysistra performances to protest the war, wrote hilariously sarcastic editorials about immigration policies in free weeklies, and put out samizdat publications of their own.

I met Alvarez many years ago in grad school, where we both had creative writing fellowships, and then her partner Tonkovich. I was actually surprised that our paths hadn't crossed before, because we had both worked as educators in the social service sector in the same progressive community and had even taught some of the same clients doing interventions with the juvenile justice system. In addition to her professorial duties in the Irvine Valley College English Department, Alvarez also co-directs the fiction writing workshops at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers.

For over a decade, sometimes sporadically in classic blog fashion, she has written for DISSENT the BLOG and now has a newer project promoting book culture in the O.C. at The Mark on the Wall. Tonkovich has a blog of his own at Bibliocracy Radio to promote his new transmedia venture, a radio show that features guests who often highlight the politics of authorship. (UCI colleague historian Jon Wiener is also a radio host on the same channel.)

Skeptics might point out that the Tonkovich/Alvarez blogs use software owned and operated by search and social computing giant Google and that the book events that they promote support the niche marketing efforts of huge media conglomerates who thrive on the culture of literary celebrity being sold to the public. I think it's hard to generalize about complex media and political ecologies and the social networks between activists that sustain them.

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