Alpine Anarchist meets Jonny Gordon-Farleigh

April 2012

As the internet seems unstoppable as an ever broader publishing forum, more and more innovative radical projects appear online. One of the latest is Stir, which describes itself as “a community-building online magazine”. Alpine Anarchist spoke to the editor Jonny Gordon-Farleigh about publishing between print and HTML tags and the future of it all.

Where did the idea for Stir Magazine come from?

One of the animating principles behind the creation of Stir was the realization that the reportage tradition of political journalism has generally failed. This is not to say that exposé journalism has achieved little or that the progress it made in people’s lives should go unappreciated. However, the prevailing belief that ‘so long as the general public is informed about governmental and corporate abuses, we will automatically act on it and this will eventually lead to a set of social and political reforms’ just hasn’t worked out. And, of course, when this doesn’t happen we get all of the predictable accusations of apathy from academics, and journalism becomes, at its worst, only a constant reminder of how we are being screwed over.

Starting from this analysis, we realised we don’t have to convince people we are in a mess — that’s like explaining exploitation to the exploited. Instead, Stir promotes the organisations that create new infrastructures for providing education, producing energy, growing food, managing resources, sharing creative works, and other things that have an impact on our lives because if politics, as Nathan Schneider wrote in The Nation, is not about “choosing from among what we are offered”, then it has to be about creating new options. To explain this, Alain Badiou’s response to the claim that political action begins in disappointment is very helpful: “I think that we can have negative feelings, negative experiences concerning injustice, the horrors of the world, terrible wars and so on. But all great movements in the political and historical field have been created, have been provoked not by that sort of negative feeling but always by a local victory. If we appreciate, for example, why we have during two years the great revolt of the slaves in the Roman Empire, under the leadership of Spartacus, it is not because slaves have the feeling of injustice...Because they always have that, it is their experience day after day. It is rather because in one small place, a small group of slaves finds new means, finally to create a victory.”

Stir is about promoting these “new means” and strategies in the hope that other communities will say, “if it works there, why can’t we do it here?”

Why did you decide to publish online?

To begin with, it was question of pure practicality — it would obviously be an understatement to say that publishing is a capital-intensive industry. Another attraction to online publishing is that it’s a return to the D.I.Y. ethic that meant that we could publish before we received lots of ‘yes’s’ from funders and directors.

We also publish under a Creative Commons license that means anyone can reproduce our content noncommercially and only if they give proper attribution to the magazine and its respective author. This idea specifically grew out of online publishing and the sharing of creative works and code (Linux), and it is something that most publishing houses are not traditionally friendly to (even though it is something they should take seriously).

Another great thing about having an online presence is that it opens a wide range of possibility for a more robust and interactive use of online infrastructures. The ability to bring together a wide-ranging and diverse group of people without the need for everyone to physically ‘be there’ is really exciting. We have plans to host webinars and set up online forums to debate ideas and build on the conversations happening around independent publishing, food, farming, and other community-building strategies.

The internet is also an incredibly useful organising tool. Whether organising a large group of people to converge on a certain day and time, or garnering a network of support for a campaign in action (like during the recent Occupy Wall Street where anyone from anywhere could order a pizza for the occupiers online!), organising has never been as immediate, effective and accessible.

Another great use of this tool is for fund raising, and specifically for crowdfunding campaigns to build support for social projects. Crowdfunding allows millions of people worldwide to become social investors without needing to be incredibly wealthy themselves. Online projects such as Avaaz are able to appeal to their millions of members to quickly fund political campaigns. Stir is presently in the process of creating a crowdfunding campaign of its own with the strategy group smartMeme.

Do you have any plans for print publishing with Stir?

While we are currently an online-only magazine, we also have a strong interest in printing. I am not quite sure how this will work at the moment — perhaps publishing monthly online and quarterly in print? Or maybe having a pre-paid subscriber-only print run that acts as a reader-owned co-op? However, we are open to offers from anyone with better ideas...

What kind of future do you see for print publications?

Well, there has already been a radical shift from the old model of warehousing books. One simple response to this has been print-on-demand such as the likes of Harvard’s Paige M. Gutenborg book robot. There has also been a big increase in self-publishing where authors publish online or even assume their own printing costs. There are also more and more cases of authors self-pirating their creations and also the evidence to show that ‘free access often means increased sales’.

One member of the Wu Ming Foundation, long-time advocates of Copyleft and Creative Common licenses, gives an illuminating example of this in the case of the revolutionary project initiated by sci-fi writer Eric Flint: “He (Eric) persuaded his publisher, Baen Books, to build a free-of-charge virtual library containing many novels from Baen's catalogue, all of them still on the market. People could log on and download dozens of novels in electronic form, each of them available in five formats. One might think it was going to be a suicide, for each downloaded text would correspond to one unsold copy of the book. That's what market analysts on the payroll of corporate record labels keep telling us every day. Well, any ‘ideological’ prejudice was swept away by an inconfutable proof: from the moment their books appeared on the shelves of Eric Flint’s virtual library, most authors have witnessed an increase in sales. One example above all: Mother of Demons, by Eric Flint himself, sold 9,694 copies from September 1997 to the end of 2000. In the following eighteen months, while the text was freely downloadable from the website, the book doubled its sales: 18,500 copies.”

Another thing that publishers have to consider, as Nik Gorecki talked about in the last issue of Stir, is turning the book into an art object. When I interviewed McKenzie Wark, who had just published The Beach Beneath the Streets, he told me that his new book was one of the top ‘illegal’ downloads. His publisher, Verso, have responded to this by attempting to close down aaaaarg (a major ‘illegal’ download website that is reincarnated as often as its closed down), but also, and more innovatively, by making the front cover of his book an unfolding map that showed the Situationists’ activities in Paris. This gave people more reasons to buy the book in its physical form than the simple text that can be easily and infinitely copied on that great copying machine: the Internet.

Another option available to authors and also an innovation that leads to increased collaboration with small publishers is a franchise. This model has been used, if not pioneered, by The Onion magazine. It works like this: The Onion produces its magazine content over which it retains all creative control. The small publisher assumes all of the printing and distribution costs, but is compensated by receiving all of the advertising revenue of which it can potentially receive more than it usually would because of the popularity of The Onion.

What are your hopes for Stir, in the context of politically conscious, community-building publishing overall?

The hope is for Stir is to be a relentlessly practical resource for those who have a desire to transform their communities. We quite consciously decided not to do ‘commentary’ for the reasons that I explained in the answer to the first question. So, if a contributor talks about a problem and its history — unjust food system, commercialization of sports, privatization of education, exploitation of resources — they also have to present the reader with the examples of communities and projects who are already creating new models and systems to replace the current ones. So, we want Stir to become a living archive of practical ideas for those who want to form community trusts for their football teams, take cooperative ownership of their local pub, establish self-directed educational centres, initiate community-supported agriculture, and all the other aspects which are essential to our lives.

Ultimately, we want to organise training sessions and workshops where people can learn practical skills such as designing successful outreach campaigns, community building, cooperative financing strategies, and other relevant skills which they can take back to the places they live and start their own initiatives. So what is implied by the articles can be applied in the world!