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Breaking the Spell: A History of Anarchist Filmmakers, Videotape Guerrillas, and Digital Ninjas


Breaking the Spell offers the first full-length study that charts the historical trajectory of anarchist-inflected video activism from the late 1960s to the present by Chris Robé

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Breaking the Spell offers the first full-length study that charts the historical trajectory of anarchist-inflected video activism from the late 1960s to the present. Two predominant trends emerge from this social movement-based video activism: 1) anarchist-inflected processes increasingly structure its production, distribution, and exhibition practices; and 2) video does not simply represent collective actions and events, but also serves as a form of activist practice in and of itself from the moment of recording to its later distribution and exhibition. Video plays an increasingly important role among activists in the growing global resistance against neoliberal capitalism. As various radical theorists have pointed out, subjectivity itself becomes a key terrain of struggle as capitalism increasingly structures and mines it through social media sites, cell phone technology, and new “flexible” work and living patterns. As a result, alternative media production becomes a central location where new collective forms of subjectivity can be created to challenge aspects of neoliberalism.

Chris Robé’s book fills in historical gaps by bringing to light unexplored video activist groups like the Cascadia Forest Defenders, eco-video activists from Eugene, Oregon; Mobile Voices, Latino day laborers harnessing cell phone technology to combat racism and police harassment in Los Angeles; and Outta Your Backpack Media, indigenous youth from the Southwest who use video to celebrate their culture and fight against marginalization. This groundbreaking study also deepens our understanding of more well-researched movements like AIDS video activism, Paper Tiger Television, and Indymedia by situating them within a longer history and wider context of radical video activism.


“Christopher Robé’s meticulously researched Breaking the Spell traces the roots of contemporary, anarchist-inflected video and Internet activism and clearly demonstrates the affinities between the anti-authoritarian ethos and aesthetic of collectives from the ‘60s and ‘70s—such as Newsreel and the Videofreex—and their contemporary descendants. Robé’s nuanced perspective enables him to both celebrate and critique anarchist forays into guerrilla media. Breaking the Spell is an invaluable guide to the contemporary anarchist media landscape that will prove useful for activists as well as scholars.” 
—Richard Porton, author of Film and the Anarchist Imagination

Breaking the Spell is a highly readable history of U.S. activism against neoliberal capitalism from the perspective of “Anarchist Filmmakers, Videotape Guerrillas, and Digital Ninjas,” the subtitle of the book. Based on ninety interviews, careful readings of hundreds of videos, and his own participant observation, Robé links the development of better-known video makers such as Video Freex, Paper Tiger Television, ActUp and Indymedia with activist media-makers among key protest movements, such as the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit, Oregon’s Cascadia Forest Defenders, the day workers of Voces Mobiles/Mobile Voices in Los Angeles, and the indigenous youth in Out of Your Backpack Media. Underscored by significant tensions of class, race/ethnicity, and gender among the groups and the videos discussed, Robé traces the continuing concerns with radical horizontalism in the making of media and of collective organizing against the state and capitalist institutions. Drawing on autonomist Marxist theory, the profiles clearly demonstrate how media making has become integral to all forms of anti-capitalist mobilizing, as well as to the formation of new collective subjectivities and cultures.” 
—Dorothy Kidd. Professor and Chair, Department of Media Studies, University of San Francisco

“Christopher Robé’s Breaking the Spell takes off where John Downing’s Radical Media leaves us: continuing a history of North American movement-based media to include today’s internet, memes, and other forms of radically accessible digital media. In the process, he fills in many critical blanks through a unique method that incorporates ethnographic research with activist media makers, generous close readings of a range of videos, a writer’s fine words detailing history, and a political theorist’s command of anarchist and anarchist-inflected movements since the 1960s. Ever attentive to the contradictions within Left organizations, particularly those built within the network logics of neoliberalism, Robé carefully details both the repetitive exclusions of women, people of color, queers, working people, and people of the global South from many of these otherwise worthy activist traditions, while as carefully pointing to movement-inspired solutions. He demonstrates how messy media activism creates powerful video work where process rules over product, where subjectivity and collectivity are nurtured and developed, and where production and reception are themselves a form of prefigurative politics where video does not merely represent but is activism. A great read for scholars, activists, and media makers alike, Breaking the Spell attends closely to the hard questions of media activism: the role of violence, aesthetics, media literacy, and access within social justice movements and their media.” 
—Alexandra Juhasz, media activist and author of AIDS TV: Identity, Community and Alternative Video

About the Author:

Chris Robé is an associate professor in Film and Media Studies at Florida Atlantic University. He has published essays on radical media in journals like Jump CutRethinking Marxism, and Journal of Film and Video and written a monograph titled Left of Hollywood: Cinema, Modernism, and the Emergence of U.S. Radical Film Culture. He is also a frequent contributor to the online journal PopMatters.

Product Details:

Author: Chris Robé 
Publisher: PM Press
ISBN: 978-1-62963-233-9
Published: 04/2017
Format: Paperback
Size: 9×6
Page count: 480
Subjects: Political Activism/Media Studies

Additional information

Weight 0.545000 kg