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    TV, Movies, and Anonymous

    If you’re the kind who ventures out on foot after dark,
    you’ve almost certainly noticed a hypnotic blue glow flashing inside windows throughout
    the neighborhood. And when you see people held captive by a box of moving
    light, you can’t help but think that humans seem complicit in their own
    capture–even if you’re no stranger to a great episode of Planet Earth or Arrested
    yourself. Does it matter whether they’re watching American Idol, Mad Men, or Real Housewives?

    For decades, people have worried that television and movies
    would take away the public’s agency, the collective drive to do anything but
    work and buy things advertised on TV. It’s a justifiable fear. People do seem
    pretty entrenched in a lifestyle that revolves around working, eating, and
    watching TV.

    Of course, there’s also a history of resistance to this
    prescribed lifestyle, and not just among academics. Ray Bradbury wrote his 1953
    novel, Fahrenheit 451,to caution
    “the moronic influence of popular culture through local TV news and
    the proliferation of giant screens and the bombardment of factoids.” In 1967, Timothy
    Leary urged a gathering of 30,000 hippies to “turn on, tune in, drop out” (a
    phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan). Such messages urged audiences to avoid a
    lifestyle of shallow entertainment and consumption in favor of unmediated
    experience and action toward positive change.

    But money has a way of rendering its critics useless. Now
    the hippies’ peace sign is converted into profits at big box stores, where
    workers are underpaid and money
    is funneled to warmongering presidents
    . And the purchase of a tie-die
    rainbow dress from a popular bohemian concept shop might well further
    the career of a dogmatist politician
    . From hippie to hipster, attempts at
    cultural overhaul have been bought, sold, and used against those trying to
    change the system. What’s a rebel to do?

    Some have attempted to fight fire with fire. While punks,
    hip-hop kids, and culture jammers didn’t invent the art of the remix, they
    popularized it. On the surface, remixing seems pretty innocent. Take a sample
    of culture–an instrumental hook, an image, or word from a magazine–cut, paste, and
    make it your own. Most memes (and their variants) do this for a laugh, but it
    can be seen as an act of defiance. Those who remix refuse to passively consume.
    They insist on answering the nebulous assertions of mass media, however small
    their voices may be. It’s a fine line, though, between remix and copyright

    Enter Anonymous.
    The group has emerged as a leader in defense of democratic control of information  threatened by corporate copyright and money’s influence on Capitol Hill. Anonymous
    understands the value of open-source culture and has fought to protect it. In its own gesture of
    sampling, the group turned a mask worn by the fictional protagonist in V for Vendetta into a real-world icon of
    rebellion. The mask has a complex
    history of evolving meaning
    , explains Molly Sauter on HiLobrow, beginning with Guy Fawkes’ involvement in a

    failed plot
    to assassinate King James in 1605. Though Fawkes was killed, his legend lived
    on through folk tradition, a comic book series, and that series’ Hollywood film adaptation. The popularity of the Guy
    Fawkes mask sold in costume shops post-film was waning when an internet forum playfully
    revived it to serve as the face of Epic Fail Guy, “a stick figure who failed at
    everything,” writes Sauter. “It’s unclear whether this association had anything
    to do with the historical story of Guy Fawkes (whose Gunpowder Plot was, in fact,
    an EPIC FAIL), or whether it was due simply to the marketing blitz for V
    for Vendetta
    . Either way, the initial popularity of the mask within the
    Anonymous community was directly due to its association with Epic Fail Guy, and
    only indirectly (if at all) to political sympathy with either the historical
    Guy Fawkes or V for Vendetta.”

    When Anonymous began its sidewalk protest of the Church of Scientology, the mask was worn mockingly
    to expose the religion as an “epic fail,” suggests Sauter. However, as Anonymous’
    actions gained recognition, offline embrace of the mask caused its meaning to
    shift again:

    “The symbolism of the mask itself,
    adopted by anti-authoritarian protesters from [Occupy Wall Street] to the Arab Spring,
    seems to have reverted to more closely embody the meaning in the V for
    comics and film. Rather than overtly mocking those targeted by
    the protesters, the mask (an anarchic folk hero with a smile and curved
    mustache) serves as a political identifier. The wearer is identified as anti-authoritarian,
    a member of an online generation that values the freedom of communication and
    assembly that the internet has so powerfully enabled.”

    The meaning of the mask was influenced by many, but
    controlled by none. It became a sign, a word in the language of resistance. Far
    from simple imitation, this transformation seems to have happened almost by

    Though the mask signifies rebellion, it has not escaped the
    constructs of copyright and consumption. Nick Bilton of The New York Times points out that every time a mask is purchased, protesters
    strengthen one
    of the world’s largest media companies
    , Time Warner. There is no denying
    this claim, but Bilton misses the point. Rather than inventing a new icon of resistance,
    which would in time be packaged for the masses and sold à la peace signs, Che
    Guevara, and the Obey Giant,
    protesters have reclaimed an item that media companies had rendered all but
    meaningless. It’s a product, sure, but it gives dissidents something no advertisement sells: temporary anonymity. In freeing its wearers from identity,
    the mask also frees them from their individuality, allowing them to be
    subsumed, for a fearless moment, by a greater cause. It’s almost the reverse of
    Bilton’s argument–critics of corrupt capitalist practices have found a way to exploit
    the system, which distributes the face of their protest.

    The Guy Fawkes mask is not the only example of this leap from mass media to
    the streets. In an article for Guernica Rebecca Solnit wrote that a friend arrested at an Occupy protest had posted“Max
    gave me the Hunger Games salute in jail today. It was awesome,” in a status update on Facebook. “In
    this way,” writes Solnit, “do fiction and reality meld in misery and triumph
    […].” It seems people are expanding the vocabulary of the 99 percent, and symbols
    spread wide by mass media make for a convenient starting point.

    The messages contained within film, television, and books
    inevitably infiltrate public thought and discussion. The more aware we are of
    their influence, the more control we have over it. In the hands of engaged
    audiences, mass media have the potential to contribute to a broad language of
    protest. By using the internet and streets as a public forum, people create and
    change this language, and the gap between citizen and consumer narrows. Rebellion
    can be co-opted by consumerism, but the reverse might also be true.

    Images, top to bottom: “televisión lado A” by Ángel Raúl Ravelo Rodríguezlicensed under Creative Commons; Epic Fail Guy; Anonymous crop, from a 2008 photo with Graham Berry at the Hamburg conference on Scientology, licensed under Creative Commons.

    Published on Oct 23, 2012


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