I met Laurie Penny once. She came along to Climate Camp and interviewed me for one of her articles. She seemed nice! Reading the interview now I sound like I might be a bit of an idiot. But then, I was talking about my own privilege, which always makes people sound a bit idiotic. Also, she interviewed me just after I did some poems in the entertainment tent, which meant I’d just been performing my activism for an audience. Part of the interview is even quotes from one of the poems – and poems are a place where heightened, aestheticised versions of opinions and actions appear. Those can sound quite idiotic too.
And also because, as every interviewer and every journalist does, she quoted just certain bits of the interview – the bits where I said what she needed me to say. Where what I said fitted the overall narrative of her article. Good journalists shape their reporting around the information they gather as it presents itself. That’s a statement filled with all sorts of assumptions about objectivity and truth, and I don’t really want to go into that too deeply – what’s important is the idea that good journalists write the story they encounter, not the story they wanted to encounter. Laurie Penny is pretty much a gonzo journalist, which means she’s mostly present in her own stories, foreground or background, and the story she encounters is partly her own. Her writing is about her encountering herself.
The results are sometimes brilliant. I think her reporting of the Millbank riot was powerful and important. It gave thousands of readers a direct insight into what was happening, into what the young people there were thinking and feeling and doing, into why we thought it all happened. The results are also sometimes pretty awful. She recently had a public scrap with David Starkey at an education conference, and chose to write about it in her Independent column. Though she tries to relate the argument to wider political issues, it’s really just a personal attack piece, an extension of the argument in an even more public space. There’s nothing in there that’s particularly interesting for a wider readership: it’s a performance purely of her own actions and opinions.
And yet I am interested. I’m enthralled. I’ve been following the Penny/Starkey debate avidly. I waited eagerly for the videos to appear so that I could see what happened. I oohd and aahd at the Twitter exchange with the verminous Harry Cole and Guido Fawkes. I followed it like a soap opera. And I hate soap operas! So why?
Here’s what I think is going on: Laurie Penny has become, partly by accident and partly by her own design, an avatar of young leftist activism. (Avatar: n. an embodiment or personification, as of a principle, attitude, or view of life.) She is one of our most prominent public voices, so she is how we are portrayed and performed and perceived in public. What people say of us, they say of her, and vice versa. When organisers need someone to represent the face of radical youth, they go to her. And she herself has to invest in that, however messily or partially or relunctantly, because that’s how she’ll make a living
Partly, I care about what happens to her because it influences how I’ll be perceived. When she writes a poor article or does something daft or self-aggrandising in public, I wince, because I know some of the negative attention will rub off on the movement. Because I need her to be better than that. But that’s only part of why I care: the bigger part is that what she’s going through, I’ve been through, or will go through. She has been very publicly performing her own journey through activism.
Lots of young activists, especially activists from a middle class background, go through some of the same things. When we first get the chance, we embrace activism as the solution to our lives and pour all of our time and energy into it. With our newfound enthusiasm and privilege and communication skills, we’ll often become organisers and spokespeople: public representatives of the movements. We’ll write really bad articles for the New Statesman. (I did this, and to my chagrin it still appears in the search results for my name, if you fancy a laugh.) If we’re artists or journalists, our activism will infuse our work, and our work will infuse our activism. Then, when we realise we can’t fix the world by ourselves, we start to crash, or burn out. Some of us never go back to activism. Some of us decide the solution is in trying to transcend the category of activist. Some of us will focus on our art, or our journalism, feeling we can serve the movement that way. Some lucky few are superheroes who never burn out and make the rest of us feel a bit awkward.
Laurie Penny isn’t just going through some of this, she’s also publicly performing her journey – in her articles, and especially on Twitter. Today, she tweeted “Tired of all this. It’s an exhausting way to live and not conducive to writing. Not going to jump to decisions, but something has to change.” There, in under 140 characters, is her anxiety over her public status as a spokesperson, over her use of social media as a means of (self-)reportage, over the distinction between journalism and activism, over her struggle to cope with criticism, and over much more besides. I really felt that suffering when I saw that tweet, and not just because I’ve followed every twist and turn of her emotional journey. Because, in some way, what she goes through is what I go through – but the performed, showbiz version.
Let’s unpack this “performance” thing a little. (Though I won’t do it as well as pal Jesse Darling in this Mute Magazine interview on self-compression in social media and modern life.) “Performance” is the marked opposite of “lived experience” – it’s the difference between doing something and writing about it, between feeling it and faking it. Like all binaries, it seems commonplace, and it also seems problematic. Nowhere, and I do mean nowhere, is that more obvious than on Twitter. On Twitter, we talk about our daily lives, our lived experience, but we’re doing it in a performative way. We selectively report what we want the audience to hear. We’re submitting ourselves to the Gaze of the public. We’re being ourselves performing ourselves being ourselves. Twitter reaches levels of complexity in self-performance that conventional performance art can only dream of.
So Laurie Penny’s journey through activism is happening in this performatively non-performative way, this weird social media version of life and reality. And, on top of that, and it’s happening in a showbiz way, because she’s doing it also through mass media, because she’s become the mass media go to person for youth activism. Blend that toxic mixture and Laurie Penny’s life and her reporting of herlife has become this heavy, heightened, hyperreal version of our young leftist activism. She has become our avatar. (Avatar: n. the descent of a deity to the earth in an incarnate form or some manifest shape; the incarnation of a god.)
What she does, I do. What happens to her, happens to me. God help her. God help us all.
What answers are there to these problems? How can activists do media differently, so that we don’t end up becoming these problematic public figures? (I’d certainly never want to be one.) How can we serve the media without being served up by it?
I’m certainly not saying that we should never perform our activism, never talk about it or show it off. Daily life is a performance, after all. But there are different stages, and different audiences. Mainstream mass media is a huge, glittery stage with blinding lights and blaring sound. Perform your activism on it and it will inevitably become strange to you, alienated – become something other than what you meant. Newspaper and broadcast journalism (and even to some extent social media) are held up as the stages we should aspire to, but I wonder if they’re not the stages we should most avoid.
I don’t think activism does well in the mainstream mass media. I don’t think it’s healthy for us, and I don’t think it helps us to achieve our goals. I think that courting the mainstream media will inevitably lead to misrepresentation, co-optation, rightward drift and the kind of public woes Laurie Penny is encountering. I think that we should focus more on sharing our stories with our own communities, through radical independent media, and on supporting the voices of those who aren’t usually heard in mainstream media, and on facilitating a broader, more inclusive activism, which will gather the people it needs far more effectively than any press release ever could. I may enjoy or at least be enthralled by the soap opera of Laurie Penny’s activism, just as I may occasionally enjoy trashy TV, but I’d much rather do without it and have a revolution now, please.
Finally, some clarifying notes.
- First, there’s the risk that some of this might come off as patronising: it’s really not meant to; the thoughts come from a sense of identification and not of superiority.
- Second, there’s the risk that it might sound too critical of Laurie Penny: I hope it doesn’t, because I think she does good and important work quite apart from these philosphical speculations, and she doesn’t deserve to be turned into a symbol for an essay. Also, I’m quite sure she’s a complete human being and not just a symbol, so this is all unfair in that way too.
- Third, I’d like to say that I think she gets treated like crap by the scum of the right-wing internet far more than any level of privilege or performativity or occasional weak writing or occasional self-aggrandisement can possibly deserve. I’ve seen leftists be nasty trolls, but have seen it far worse and far more often from rightists. Part of the reason I identify with Laurie Penny, apart from age and class background and commitment, is that I’ve had that myself when doing Twitter reporting for Climate Camp, and it’s a horrendous experience. So I hope she’s OK.
- Lastly, if by some chance you read this, Laurie, as after all we do have friends in common and Twitter circle overlap, then I’m sorry if any of it offended you, and I hope whatever decisions you make about the things you do help you to do them better and stronger.