'Republic of Outsiders': The self makes known its power
Republic of Outsiders
The Power of Amateurs, Dreamers, and Rebels
By Alissa Quart
Reviewed by Helen W. Mallon
We have met the revolution, and it is us. In Republic of Outsiders: The Power of Amateurs, Dreamers, and Rebels, journalist Alissa Quart's groundbreaking study of the increasing influence of cultural outsiders, we meet "proud amateurs who are doing for themselves and others what only experts and professionals once did."
Quart profiles three groups that are taking charge of their own fate.
The crazy: Several years ago, bipolar and other mentally ill "Mad Pride" activist bloggers instigated a class-action lawsuit against Eli Lilly & Co. for the diabetes-causing side-effects of the antipsychotic drug Zyprexa. Informal, nonhierarchical "Mad" support groups of people who had been ill-served by the mental health system started forming about 2000. They "challenge authority on the basis . . . of their superior knowledge of how they . . . have reacted to diagnosis and treatment."
The geeks: Some autistic activists
believe that this is nothing less than the age of autism: For them, everything from peer-to-peer downloads to video games to social networking reflects the rise of an autistic sensibility. Anything that thrives on the . . . superrational thought that characterizes autism or Asperger's - computer programming or . . . obsessive collecting . . . fits into the autism culture narrative.
"If you want to cure us, you want to eradicate us," says Richard Grinker, a professor at George Washington University and the father of a young woman with autism. For activists who shun eye contact, the Internet age is a golden one.
The queer: These gender renegades "dwell in the gray areas of identity." Quart describes one trans-man activist (born female) who "got so comfortable with editing and reediting his gender that he stopped taking testosterone . . . he painted his toenails and lived with his female partner, a lawyer he has been with since attending the women's college Smith." Transfeminism is the new feminism, "a movement to 'assist anyone who fails to conform to the gender binary.' "
Quart acknowledges that "these entrepreneurs of self" tread on volatile ground. If the schizophrenic is to be fully accepted, conventional notions of acceptable behavior will be challenged. "There is . . . a risk that those in this community will hurt others or themselves." Beyond this, the very notion that "the self" ought to be redesigned is threatening, as any trans-person who has been beaten up can attest.
Then there's capitalism, with which some of these groups have an uneasy relationship. The book's latter sections examine people who create saleable products, from music to film to artificial meat. The indie singer who successfully crowd-funds a career may find herself cast in the role of exploiter; the current iteration of the artificial hamburger is astronomically expensive (and not very tasty).
Quart nimbly investigates the ramifications of the "attention economy," in which anyone with ambition and a decent computer can vie for fame. In the chapters "Beyond Hollywood" and "Beyond Top 40," Quart ties these cultural and market changes firmly to a new economy in which middlemen are squeezed out and the line is blurred between fans and performers. Again, not without risk. While an obscure film collective can rocket to fame with an "outsize hit" created in "total chaos," such as Beasts of the Southern Wild, inspiring amateur filmmakers worldwide, so the "film outsider . . . can wield dreadful power." When "amateur propagandists posted on YouTube excerpts from the anti-Islamic film Innocence of Muslims," they provoked riots across the Middle East and perhaps contributed to the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans.
The title of the book's third section, "The Center Cannot Hold," is taken from a postapocalyptic World War I poem of William Butler Yeats, which declares that "mere anarchy is loosed upon the world." Yet this section profiles a gentle revolution: vegan scientists attempting to create synthetic but genuine-tasting meat. In "Beyond Mass Markets," Quart profiles urban farmers who reclaim areas of failed cities such as Detroit. She also interviews crafting zealots, "nouveau Shakers in a world of mass-market franchising" who hand-create everything from bobbin lace to custom-tinted lipstick. " 'Our consumption plagues our quiet lives,' " writes one craft blogger, yet this "quietly subversive" movement is still in the business of selling its wares.
Indeed, everyone Quart interviewed is selling something, whether a new vision of identity or handmade socks. In success lie the risks of selling out or co-optation by corporate interests quick to make use of the latest trend.
The center may not hold, but anarchy regroups very quickly. Despite this, Quart reminds us, change happens. As she writes in "Beyond Meat," when the ASPCA was established in the 19th century, the very idea of "cruelty to animals" was revolutionary. It became "normal" only in the eyes of the next generation.
Helen W. Mallon's short stories can be downloaded from http://bit.ly/HWMStories.