Abstract: Alternative media may be characterised by the degree to which they are de-professionalised, de-institutionalised and de-capitalised. Using these characteristics as a starting point, the presence of the mundane in the production of alternative media is explored. Common features that are suggestive of a mundane approach include: the incorporation of media production into the routines of everyday life; the site of production in a domestic setting; and the depiction of everyday activities in the content of the media itself. Examples are provided from fanzines, perzines and new social movement media. The personal home page is presented as an exemplar of these ‘mundane media’ that draws on the resources of capitalism in both its communication form and its content. It is argued that, whilst the home page might lack the infractory dimension found in the popular production explored by John Fiske, its analysis offers insights into the development of identity and sociality through popular production by the ‘silent majority.’
In his 1934 essay ‘The Author as Producer’ Walter Benjamin (1934/1982) argued that in order for political propaganda to be effective, it was not enough to merely reproduce the radical or revolutionary content of an argument in a publication. The medium itself required transformation: the position of the work in relation to the means of production had to be critically re-aligned. This requires not only the radicalising of methods of production but a re-thinking of what it means to be a media producer. What we now term ‘alternative media’ can be thought of as being organised along similar lines to Benjamin’s desideratum. They are about offering the means for democratic communication to people who are normally excluded from media production. They typically go beyond simply providing a platform for radical or alternative points of view: they emphasise the organisation of media to enable wider social participation in their creation, production and dissemination than is possible in the mass media. Raymond Williams (1980) highlighted three aspects of communication as foci for this re-alignment: ‘skills, capitalization and controls’ (p. 54). In an explicit echo of Williams, James Hamilton (forthcoming) has recently argued that to distinguish alternative media from the mass media the former must be de-professionalised, de-capitalised and de-institutionalised. In short, they must be available to ordinary people without the necessity of professional training, without excessive capital outlay and they must take place in settings other than media institutions or similar systems. Such media will then have the potential to more closely reflect the everyday practices of de-centralized, directly democratic, self-managed and reflexive networks of ‘everyday-life solidarity’ that Alberto Melucci (1996) finds at the heart of social movement activity: what he terms ‘networks in the everyday’ (p. 113). It is at this level–the level of the mundane–that I wish to examine the creative and production practices of alternative media. I want to go further than those media that deal with social change to consider the ‘personal mundane’ as well as the ‘social movement mundane.’
This paper traces an increasingly ‘intimate’ trajectory. I begin by examining the fanzine, a medium that deals with the fan’s relationship with the celebrity, where the fan attempts to bridge the gulf between their two worlds through discrimination and productivity (Fiske, 1989/1991). I then turn to social movement media that attempt to personalise arguments and protests against global injustices (such as environmental destruction and human rights abuses) by locating them amongst the everyday activities of the activists. Through this process they are also made relevant at a productive level, encouraging and enabling activists and readers to participate in the creation of the media themselves. Finally I turn to the perzine and the personal web site where the consumption of mass media products is internalised to such a degree that we seem to see only the personal world of the author, where the external world appears only as a faint stimulus.
I will argue that these movements away from (and, in some cases, the absence of) professionalism, capitalisation and institutionalisation in alternative media practices are highly suggestive of a ‘banal media’ that, lacking three significant ‘markers’ of mainstream media, are likely to be unregarded, at least in terms of their productive capacities, if not in terms of their content. In short, they are ‘uninteresting’ media (Brekhus, 1998). To claim alternative media as uninteresting is to go against the grain of the critical histories of alternative media studies where such media are most often seen as extraordinary, whether as engines for radical or revolutionary social change, as the vehicles for remarkable rebels to proclaim their philosophies, or as vanguards of a new politics (Hamilton and Atton, forthcoming). I do not want to argue, as much cultural studies work does (following a position popularised by John Fiske), that all popular consumption is evidence of resistance and that the fanzine writer and the personal web page owner are as transgressive as the political activist. Instead I want to argue that in the case of the personal web page mundanity is often all there is and that this itself is worthy of examination. Far from being a trivial observation this is a significant one–it provides insights into the power and significance of mundane tastes, opinions and experiences without the need for construing them as extraordinary or resistive. It also encourages us to consider electronic communication as instances of everyday sociality, again shorn of any resistive power that might occlude their analysis. These are arguments that to my knowledge have not been presented before in the field of alternative media studies.
What happens when ‘ordinary’ people produce their own media? I want to explore some aspects of ‘popular’ media production and its intersection with everyday life. To do so will be to reveal congruencies with the everyday cultural production that takes place through mass-production (as explored by variously by such as Michel de Certeau (1984), John Fiske (1989/1991), Paul Willis (1978) and others) as well as to take the notion of ‘everyday production’ and its place in identity-formation to a different place: to that of the originating producer within everyday life. Popular media production might then be considered a primary form of everyday cultural production.
In his classic account of British subcultures, Dick Hebdige (1978) briefly applies his method to punk fanzines, finding in their graphics and typology homologies of ‘punk’s subterranean and anarchic style’ (p. 112). He does not make this explicit, but we may read from this the extension of the everyday tactics of bricolage from the music and dress of punk (that is, from its dominant signifying practices) to the production of ‘an alternative critical space media within the subculture itself’ (p. 111). Teal Triggs (1995) further emphasises the homological and expressive values of fanzines in her survey of British fan production. She also offers purchase to an understanding of the significance of the mundane in fanzine production, where she reminds us that from the earliest days fanzine producers made use of available materials, improvising their publications from what was around them. Fanzines might be hand-written, duplicated with carbon paper. As simple and accessible office technologies became available, fanzine editors would employ the hectograph, the mimeograph, the photocopy. Surplus machinery would be bought cheaply and repaired at home; the photocopy shop would become the venue of necessity during a lunch hour. If possible, production would be surreptitiously slotted into the gaps in the working day (if the editor was in work).
As a former fanzine editor myself, I well remember my own clandestine fanzine production in various work places: agitatedly printing off and collating as many copies as I could without detection on the office photocopier, print runs dependent on my freedom from surveillance that week. At other times the fanzine becomes interwoven into the domestic routine. The editorial office is in reality the spare bedroom, the collation taking place on the dining-room table or the living-room floor. There can be something of the ludic, even the festive in these activities. Where it involves more than one person, fanzine production is often the site for social gatherings, such as those that take place during the final stages of production: the ‘mail-out party’ might bring together editor and writers to collate, fold and staple copies of the publication, as well as to address and stamp envelopes. Fanzines offer the possibility for creativity within a social setting and of production that is structured not as a separate occupational duty (and certainly not as a professional activity) but as part of the activities of everyday life. (Whilst strictly outside the scope of this paper, it is worth noting that there is a further level of mundanity often present in the fanzine. Rather than presenting celebrities’ lives as remarkable or extraordinary, many fanzines are at pains to point out the banality of their professional lives. This is particularly notable in music fanzines where the life of the touring musician is often pictured as unglamorous and tedious, where the live performance is a site for error and fatigue rather than for perfection and energy; Atton, 2001.)
We should also consider how under such mundane conditions formal and professional methods of organisation, production, editing and writing are transformed. As such activities become de-professionalised, formal training becomes unnecessary. While some skills may be learned (such as how to operate a photocopy or a DTP software package), in other cases ‘skill’ may be scorned or minimised, as in the case of the deliberately cut-up and disruptive collage-texts that remain a feature of many punk fanzines (though such practices may come to constitute a skill of sorts, to be admired or emulated according to their own expressive criteria). Capital outlay becomes contingent: the production and distribution of the publication becomes dependent on the available resources. Self-exploited labour, petty theft from workplaces (whether of paper or copying facilities) defrays costs. No fanzine is immune from economic stringency, but it is one of the few forms of publishing (pamphlets and home cassette copying are other examples) where the dominant laws of the marketplace–supply and demand, economies of scale, break-even points–hardly apply. Production is emphatically de-institutionalised: it not only takes place outside a formal organisational structure, its reliance on improvisation keeps the process of production mobile, moving between work and home, different parts of the home, inserting itself between everyday routines–even becoming everyday routines.
Social Movement Media
Other alternative media share these features, even those that enjoy stability and longevity (most fanzines remain relatively short-lived and erratic in frequency of appearance). The direct-action newsletter SchNEWS (http://www.schnews.org.uk) appears every week across the UK and has remained a fixture within the grass-roots environmental protest movement since its first appearance in 1994. SchNEWS disparagingly–yet celebratorily–calls itself a ‘disorganisation’, publishing weekly out of apparent chaos, out of that ‘hectic mayhem called, ominously, “the office”‘ (‘SchNEWS – as it is’, SchNEWS Reader, 1996, unpaginated). We should be wary of reading too much into what is surely meant (at least partly) ironically. After all, the publication, for all its brevity (it is only two sides of A4) does appear regularly every week. Though its distribution is occasionally haphazard (subscribers have complained that at times no issue appears, then the last three appear in one envelope), the concerted effort required to produce such a publication should not be ignored. However fluid the processes, however casual the editors seem to be, however random their methods might appear from their own descriptions, the work gets done. I believe that their deliberate self-effacement springs from a desire not to be seen as autocratic decision-makers, nor to be considered a clique. Whilst their methods of working might well be chaotic at times, this emphasis on amateurism and disorganisation seems to seek out readers (and activists) to participate who might otherwise be put off by a more ‘professional’ approach. If the content of SchNEWS is about changing lives and defending the environment in order to better enjoy life, and its form a model for enabling others to participate in it or even produce similar media, then it is appropriate that the publication itself should be an inextricable part of living, not something to bracketed off in ‘the office.’ For all the talk of ‘disorganisation’, there is a work schedule of sorts, though this takes its place as a part of wider schedule of domestic work, activism and play, described in a leaflet produced by the ‘Justice?’ collective responsible for SchNEWS and summarised by George McKay (1996: 177) thus:
Monday is for gardening at the Justice? allotment; Tuesday is a day off; Wednesday is for weekly meetings ending up in the pub; Thursday is for putting SchNEWS together; Friday is printing and distribution day, followed by the pub; Saturday there’s a street stall; Sunday is for chilling out. Actions and parties are fitted around these regular events.
The regular members of the collective
rely on people coming in [to the SchNEWS ‘office’], ringing up, writing stories, passing us bits of paper in the pub, taking bits from the paper [i.e., the mainstream press], [and from] the underground press. Someone starts a story, someone else adds a bit, someone else has their say–means you can’t have an ego or say ‘that’s my story’. Sit around on Thursday evening–people shouting out headlines. (Interview with Warren, a member of the editorial collective)
Here we see alternative media production taking its place amongst the everyday routines of subsistence and leisure. For its producers SchNEWS appears as important as their more mundane activities. By preserving the production of the paper as an unprofessionalised and de-institutionalised activity its producers weave it into the quotidian fabric of their lives. We know from Althusser and Foucault that professional and institutional ideologies are also woven into our daily lives and therefore it is not simply the processes of de-professionalisation and de-institutionalisation that enable productive power to emerge in the everyday. There is though a distinction to be made: whether we are concerned with the Foucauldian microphysics of power or Althusser’s ideological state apparatuses their processes are, as Althusser has emphasised, deeply unconscious, indirectly transmitted through structures that reproduce ideologies rather than through the ‘consciousness’ of institutions and value systems. By contrast SchNEWS’s de-institutionalising impulses are deliberate and admitted–they operate consciously and reproduce explicitly.
In his exploration of what it means to speak of a culture of everyday life, John Fiske refers to the
weaving of one’s own richly textured life within the constraints of economic deprivation and experience, … of controlling some of the conditions of social existence [and] of constructing, and therefore exerting some control over, social identities and social relations. (Fiske, 1992: 160)
Fiske is interested not in people who through their actions and activities proclaim themselves to be part of a subculture–nor, as in the case of SchNEWS, a counter-culture–but in people whose activities are not necessarily directed towards explicit social change. Their activities, while they might be culturally political, are not radically political. Fiske’s cultural consumers become producers through the process of selecting, collocating and critically incorporating media texts into their own lives. In his claims for these consumer-producers he stresses the infractory, political nature of their activities of identity-building and sociality. The appropriation of capitalist resources as elements of everyday culture is considered as resistance, as the activity of ‘guerrillas … evading hegemonic capture’ (Fiske, 1989/1991: 137). He is careful, though, to talk of such cultural activity as ‘progressive’: for Fiske, the implication of such activity in capitalism prevents it from ever being radical. As with most studies that examine the deployment of mass-produced media and cultural resources in everyday life, Fiske’s interest in production focuses on how people ‘make do’ or ‘improvise’ cultural formations for and through themselves according to an everyday logic of bricolage. This making-do is concerned with ‘ways of using the products imposed by a dominant economic order’ (de Certeau, 1984: xiii; emphasis in original).
The Perzine and the Personal Web Page
I want to explore some aspects of this process by focusing now on the personal rather than the collective, the interior and reflective, rather than the outward and impulsive. In alternative media terms, a suitable candidate for this type of ‘everyday theorizing’ is the perzine. The perzine can be thought of as a fanzine whose subject is the editor of the publication, that is, it deals with the editor’s everyday life: their tastes, experiences, sense of humour, fads–if the fanzine offers a critical space for the amateur to write about their consuming passions (a phrase we may profitably read in the two senses Judith Williamson (1985) has encouraged), the perzine functions like a public journal of that person’s life. A classic example is the American perzine Cometbus, each issue of which is filled with short, first-person narratives of the picaresque doings of one ‘Aaron Cometbus’ as he makes his way around the cultural underbelly of the United States (an example of his stories can be found at http://www.glpbooks.com/oyb/cometbus.html). Perzines can be considered as instances of popular production rooted in the specificities of everyday life. Their authors represent their own quotidian experiences, producing their own lives as a work (Lefebvre, 1947/1991). Through this they produce difference and through that difference (as Stuart Hall, 1990 reminds us) comes social identity and social relations. Production and sociation are together wrought from everyday experience through what Fiske (1992: 165) calls the ‘bottom-up production of difference,’ created by the popular producer from the available technological resources of the dominant order. The perzine (along with other types of zine) is thus able to liberate its producer(s) from the controls and limits set by the dominant order by redeploying its resources in infractory ways. In de Certeau’s (1984) terms, the place that is the political economy and the site of production of the mass media becomes inhabited by those people normally outside it. As they practice media production within this place they establish their own spaces: the space that is the perzine might be considered as an instance of de Certeau’s ‘practiced place’, an exemplar of alternative media production as a set of practices embedded in everyday life.
My last example takes us further into the mundane to where it becomes the raw material for cultural production by an ‘ordinary person’ to a significantly greater extent than even the personal stories of Aaron Cometbus (which, in the end, have a literary flair). For this reason I make no apology for examining it in some detail. What I now focus on is a personal web site that gives full flight to the banal as its subject matter. The Big DumpTruck! (http://www.bigdumptruck.com, subtitled ‘Throwing Little Thought Pebbles at Your Windshield’) is produced by Jody LaFerriere, a suburban office worker, mother and resident of Massachusetts. The following give some indication of the type and style of content found on Jody’s site:
1. ‘My Favorite Xmas Music’: this includes albums by The Carpenters, John Denver and The Muppets, Johnny Mathis and ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ (‘These are the ones I listen to year after year.’). She encourages visitors to her site to ‘have fun with Amazon. Enter “Christmas” as your search term and see what you get!’ (from http://www.bigdumptruck.com/xmas.htm at 1 November 2000).
2. Jody’s list of ‘Famous People Who Have a First Name for a Last Name’ which at 1 November 2000 comprised around 400 entries, including Woody Allen, Klaus Barbie (!), Eric Carmen, Joseph Conrad, Martin Denny, Philip K. Dick, Dean Martin, Diana Ross and Mary Shelley (from http://www.bigdumptruck.com/lists).
3. More lists (Jody likes lists a great deal). Others have included: ‘What We’re Giving Trick-or-Treaters This Year: Charleston Chews, 100 Grands, Baby Ruths, Twizzlers’ (from http://www.bigdumptruck.com/ at 1 November 2000) and ‘Favorite Words that Begin with the Letter “P”: Peanut, Pumpkin, Planetary, Pithy, Perhaps’ (from http://www.bigdumptruck.com/archive/oct112000.htm)
4. ‘Pick of the Dump’ which at 29 Oct 2000 was the DVD of Toy Story 2. ‘Ever since we bought this it’s been playing in the DVD player. As the mom of an almost 3 year old, I can say that Toy Story 2 is less “scary” than the first one. And the animation is better (of course)’ (at http://www.bigdumptruck.com).
5. An account of her brief meeting with American TV Food Network chef Emeril Lagasse at a book signing: ‘He made the spinach salad with potatoes, onions and bacon from the Christmas book. I wish I had been able to taste it, because it smelled unbelievable. He didn’t really pass it around to anyone, and by the time he was done he went to sign books so I didn’t really see what happened to it.’ (from http://www.bigdumptruck.com/emeril/)
6. Jody’s Open Letters to, amongst others, the ice cream man (‘I pray that you will fly by before I give in to the temptation and find my wallet or raid the change jar’); Massachusetts Highway Department (‘I am so tired of the Route 2 commute getting worse every year’); and the US Mint (‘I just wanted to drop you a note to let you know that you can ease up on the pennies. I’ve got way too many of them.’). All from http://www.bigdumptruck.com/letters/index.htm.
Jody uses the products of capitalism to create both her own mundane cultural forms and her means of communication–the de-capitalisation in the hand-written or photocopied fanzine is not to be found here; personal Internet connectivity, as we know, remains largely the province of the affluent, white middle-class. In both her choice of cultural products and her choice of medium Jody is resolutely suburban. Doubly then, her activities will tend to be overlooked by academics who insist on or look for resistance and infraction in everyday cultural production (as does Fiske) or who regard popular (civic) use of the Internet narrowly as a tool for political empowerment within marginalised communities (such as Mele, 1999). Yet, following de Certeau, may we not argue that ‘marginality is becoming universal’ (1984: xvii), at least in the sense that there is a majority of non-producers of culture? Jody is surely part of that silent majority hidden from most studies of everyday cultural production by slipping through what we might think of as the standard ‘grids of disempowerment’ formed by the intersection of such essentialising categories as gender, age, class and race.
In part these might be because Jody’s activities represent an uncomfortable accommodation with capitalism. Her consumption tends to the spectacular (her site contains many images of the products she adores: CD sleeves, Emeril Lagasse book covers), she unashamedly (and for her unproblematically) advertises amazon.com on her site (‘Please support The Big DumpTruck! by using this link when you purchase books, videos and popular music from amazon.com). Her site has been designed by a Massachusetts company, Aeropub Communications, which shares the copyright in the site and to whom requests to advertise on Jody’s site must be addressed. Not only do we find the deployment of professional skills and reliance on an institution (in the employment of a web consultancy firm), capitalisation is sought, too. Much zine culture treats advertising with suspicion and scepticism, believing it a mechanism for the compromise, dilution and ‘recuperation’ of the radical. Jody has even had Big DumpTruck! mugs and mouse mats designed. Her activities force us to reassess the claims made by Jay Hamilton regarding de-professionalisation, de-capitalisation and de-institutionalisation as imperatives of alternative media. Such practices as Jody’s alert us to the problem of ‘purity’ in alternative media practices (Atton, 2000). Whilst these three features may be eroded, there remains much in Jody’s web site that might be considered alternative: at the very least, that she is giving public voice to her own cultural expression through a publishing medium over which she, and not an elite group, has control.
To see this practices of ‘mundanization’ we need very different concecptual tools from those used in the valorisation of popular (productive) consumption. The latter seek the extraordinary within the everyday, finding there resistance, infraction and the refusal to accommodate with dominant cultural forces–that is, radical critical activity within mundane activities. Instead we require a model that encourages us to re-signify both the everyday and what we construe as ‘significant.’ Andrew J. Weigert (1981: 36) has described the everyday as ‘a taken-for-granted reality which provides the unquestioned background of meaning for each person’s life.’ In Jody’s case it is the very everyday nature of her web site that we must question–for that is all there is. It is not a background against which extraordinary actions are played out; it is the background that is itself of interest. We must not render this background as foreground since that would once again find the extraordinary in the mundane. Weigert’s formulation offers us the possibility of examining the everyday (the background) as the substantive content of Jody’s media production whilst it remains unmarked, significant but not extraordinary.
If popular culture produced by consumers has any political progressiveness, however liminal, it is surely not to be found here. Jody’s producerly, cultural activities are concerned with the commonplace, the trite, even the dull. She creates her own texts through far more subdued means than the cultural ‘guerrillas’ that Fiske champions: ‘evading hegemonic capture’ could not be further from her agenda. Jody is ‘breaking out’ very differently from fanzine or perzine editors–taking with her the desires and pleasures of the mainstream, of the unabashedly popular, simply hoping to embrace them in the virtual company of like-minded others. This is hardly radical, there is nothing infractory or antagonistic here. She enacts a selection of texts rather than an interpretation of them–her choices are closer to ‘top tens’, there is little evidence of their being transformed into a new cultural form. What they do become, though, is communicated–and they themselves are the vehicles for communication. Jody does not just want to share her tastes with others, she wants others to use them to communicate with her–to embellish them, to embroider the mundane with more mundanity (how long does a list of people with a last name for a first name have to be? Answer: as long as Jody wants it to be). What do the texts she selects signify? Do they not stand as tokens for sociality? They do not simply proclaim Jody’s tastes, they reach out to seek others who share her tastes and who will valorise them by contributing similarly to her web site. What is at stake here is the power of these texts as socially-centred signs for intersubjective communication–Jody’s tastes are perhaps marginal after all, at least marginal in her neighbourhood. So she looks more widely for a community. The texts then become socially relevant (regardless of any qualitative value they may have to either Jody or her virtual community), suggesting what Janice Radway (1999) has called ‘the possibility of the social.’ Are Jody’s activities perhaps a ‘therapeutics for deteriorating social relations’ in suburban life (deCerteau, 1984: xxiv)?
Need this absence of interpretative significance in the site worry us? In the case of her favourite Christmas music Jody’s texts are not there for appreciation, criticism or discussion–they are there as symbols of her taste. Unlike a fanzine, we are not taken into Jody’s musical experience, what such experiences mean to her, how they explicitly contribute to her identity. What she does tell us, though, is how to purchase them–she links each item to its stock record at amazon.com. These are strong recommendations: we are urged to trust her and to buy them. Jody’s version of ‘networks in the everyday’ constitutes readers and contributors but also reaches out to the commercial world–the immediacy and proximity that the practice of hyperlinking enables compresses these two networks further. While the space produced by Jody is reappropriated from the dominant value system, her choices of texts are largely untransformed–the societal space she produces is organized to a significant degree according to the dominant value system. Yet it is through such practices that her valorisation of the everyday perhaps exceeds even that found in perzines such as Cometbus. Jody’s interests are in classification, in the ordering of the mundane. Her activities tend to the repetitious. Her self-publishing is far from radical in content, but in re-presenting her massified tastes and quotidian humour as particular to her, she is producing herself differently, constructing her everyday experience as her identity.
The fanzine and the perzine in their productive contexts have the capacity to reduce cultural distance–the everyday conditions of production and the everyday experiences from which they are created break down the classic aesthetic barriers we see erected in high-art value systems between cultural activity and everyday life (Bourdieu, 1984). High cultural capital and educational capital, along with economic capital, are not required. Further, the perzine requires the elision of cultural activity and everyday life: the stuff of the latter becomes the content and informs the processes of the former. Anyone can produce a zine, anyone can read one, goes the philosophy of the zinester: there are few barriers to participation at any level. With a personal web site such as The Big DumpTruck!, the cultural distance between the reader and the publication (and its author) is reduced further through the erasure of the physical object. Jody is perhaps erasing the vestiges of cultural distinction that even accrue to zine publishing by producing her own zine-like publication in ignorance of zine-cultural history. She encounters not an already-existent subculture but a dominant, technologised culture that suggests ways of self-valorisation not open to her previously. By diminishing social and cultural distance such media practices are able to access the specificities of the everyday lives–their meanings, practices and values–of individuals sociated in ‘occasional communities.’
The Mundane is not the Trivial
Meaghan Morris (1988/1996) has criticised two tendencies towards the banal in cultural studies, one that employs ‘the term “banality” to frame a theory of media’ (p. 147) (and represented by Baudrillard), the other which seeks to find subversion in every banal instance of popular culture (she cites Fiske). For Morris banality is an ‘irritant’ (as is its cognate, triviality) that is harmful when employed as a ‘framing concept to discuss mass media’ and popular culture (p. 165). Her argument rests in large part on tracing the etymological development of the term in its emerging cultural contexts through Old English and German. She highlights two related meanings: the first related to the issuing of a summons, the second to ‘proclaim[ing] under orders’, obediently cheering the conquering hero. Together they offer an exegesis of ‘banality’ as ‘a figure inscribing power in an act of enunciation’ (p. 165, emphasis in original). Morris argues that academics working in popular culture or mass media will themselves become subjects of banality through their celebration of that banality, formulating edicts about how the banal must be understood at the same time as slavishly mimicking the banal in their work. Is my work culpable of this twin sin? As Morris herself is aware, a later meaning gives ‘banal’ in mediaeval French to mean ‘communal use’. Might we not recover that notion as well for our objects of study, to refer positively to the productive use of the ‘common’ people? It is perhaps not too far-fetched to suggest reviving this remaining dimension of the obsolete complex of meanings around ‘banal’ to refer to the productivity through which the texts created by Jody signify not the worthless and the worn (the ‘trivial’) but what we might call the ‘significant everyday’. This is not, as I have stressed, to find in Jody’s web site a resistive, Fiskean power of what we might call ‘progressive consumption.’ Instead we have the expression of the everyday as Weigert’s ‘taken-for-granted reality.’ From this expression proceeds her desire to share her everyday annoyances (ice cream vans, commuting) and the foci of her preferred popular culture (the Carpenters, Emeril Lagasse) with whomsoever her mundane tastes, opinions and experiences resonate.
The mundane choices and quotidian accounts and images that Jody offers us suggest two consequences for the study of mundane behaviour. First, by becoming foregrounded they remind us of the power and significance such beliefs, choices and decisions have for ordinary people. Second, they encourage us to look at web-based communication not simply in terms of the (now overworked) ‘empowering’ and rhizomatic models of networked, democratic opportunity (that is, as an engine for social change), nor simply as additional opportunities for commerce and industry, but as instances of everyday sociality–and to look at research into such communication practices as ethnomethodological, as the study of ‘people’s methods for doing everyday life’ (Weigert, 1981: 38). Jody herself encourages us to do this–after all, she has already chosen these mundane aspects of her life to foreground on her site.
John Corner has spoken of access TV as presenting the ‘accessed ordinary’ (1996: 173). Access TV, though, however marginal its audience might be in comparison to news output, quiz shows and soap operas, is able to take advantage of the high profile publicity a national broadcasting service brings. It also deals only with those ‘ordinary people’ ‘who had been judged [by TV producers] as having something interesting and/or important to say on national television’ (p. 167). In a more direct manner we can consider Jody’s activities as a species of the ‘accessed ordinary’, direct to the extent that she does not need to rely on the agreement of a professionalised other to legitimate the content and style of her communication. Her self-representation is bounded largely by her consumption, yet it is conspicuously productive in its methods. Not for her the modalities of the productive cultural activity found by John Fiske; hers is resolutely banal–her ludic activities have little place for the oppositional. These activities are worthy of attention precisely because the production of these ‘banal media’ are becoming so widespread. Even where popular culture is valorised and the binarism of high/low culture seems ousted once and for all, it is possible that a site such as Jody’s might evade our attentions or, worse, be deemed not worthy of our attention at all. The personal web page is perhaps outrunning the self-declared zine in terms of its focus on the quotidian details of its owners’ lives. Though it appears to have little of the socially transformative value we might expect from other alternative or radical forms of media, compared with the increasingly professionally-mediated products and processes of media culture it contains within it an ‘awkwardness’ that we must not ignore. It is of that ‘sheer awkwardness, of communication by “fairly ordinary people”’ (Corner, 1996: 174, emphasis in original) that we must take note in the exploration of the mundane in our media.
[Editor’s Note: Jody LaFerriere has informed JMB that Aeropub Communications is a company “owned by my husband, and that the only reason it is listed at ALL is because if people do want to advertise on my site that I designed, Aeropub will process the checks and handle tax issues.] back
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Author: Chris Atton is Lecturer in Information and Media in the School of Communication Arts at Napier University, Edinburgh, Scotland. He is the author of Alternative Literature (Gower, 1996) and numerous articles on alternative and radical media. He is particularly interested in the use of such media by new social movements and in the development of fanzines and zines under new technology. In 1998 he was awarded the American Library Association’s prestigious Eubanks Award ‘in recognition of his outstanding achievements in promoting alternative media.’ His second book, Media at the Margins?, a sociocultural study of alternative and radical media, will be published by Sage later this year.