The Power to Reshape the Status Quo in America Lies With Amateurs, Dreamers and Rebels

In her new book, Republic of Outsiders: The Power of Amateurs, Dreamers and Rebels, journalist Alissa Quart dives into American subculture, talking to vegans, trans-feminists, bipolar pride activists, amateurs, indie filmmakers, rebels, do-it-yourselfers, and various misfits. These are people failed by authority figures, and for whom traditional roles and paths don’t work. In her book, late-state capitalism is a place where, through the Internet and new technologies, outsiders can flourish and transform society. I caught up with Alissa to ask her about the triumphs of these outsiders, and some of the pitfalls they face in navigating the 21st century.

Lynn Stuart Parramore: What made you want to want to write about outsiders at this particular time?

Alissa Quart: I grew up around the edges of the counterculture in New York. My parents’ friends were activists, Marxist historians, things like that. We lived near the East Village. In a way my parents were connoisseurs of outsiders. We’d go to screenings of avant-garde films where the directors would be around. I’d yearn for some normalcy — I wanted pink sneakers and Atari, but instead I got difficult art and foreign films. I was reading esoteric books. I guess you could say I was primed to be a specialized kid, writing poetry from an early age. I was inculcated to become an appreciator of outsider artistic culture, if not political culture.

But Manhattan changed from a place of outsiders into a place of franchise stores and incredibly expensive apartments. It became a city of money. I was looking, I guess,  for Atlantis, that lost world of my childhood. I wanted to know what had happened to the counterculture.

Right now, we see structures failing us – banks, responses to Katrina, people falling through the cracks with healthcare and mental healthcare services. I became interested in how people were caring for themselves at a time when established figures were no longer there for them.

I was also a journalist who had studied and taught journalism. I’d written two books and I felt really encroached upon by bloggers and amateurs who were making my profession no longer economically feasible. There was a complicated set of issues for me.

So that’s it: I wanted to see where counterculture had gone, to look at positive stories of people coping—the dandelions in the cracks of our society—and also to make peace with what was happening in journalism.

LSP: How would you say normal is defined at this point in our American history? What does normal look like?

AQ: We’ve seen an exponential rise of diagnoses of mental conditions, and in a way you could say “normal” is people who are not being diagnosed. Normal would also mean people buying into branded goods, accepting labels that they’re being given, eagerly going home to eat their steaks.

The norms I feel uncomfortable with are the pressures to succeed in a rigged culture. To some extent, normal is being able to take care of yourself even though there’s so much systemic inequality. Normal is being able to work in groups, getting great metrics for your company, aspiring unquestioningly to status bearing and monetary goals.

LSP: Your discussion of autistic individuals who celebrate their differences reminds me of the culture of the deaf, where many do not necessarily wish to be cured. One austistic woman you interviewed was said to “shudder at the idea that money is being poured into a cure instead of being directed toward services for autistic people.” Does that make parents who are searching for ways to cure their autistic children wrong? Would it be better to just let their kids develop without interference?

AQ: My feeling is that many of the people I spoke to in the “neurodiverse” community believe that being autistic can be a benefit to some extent, and some would argue that yes, what we need is services, not cures. They say, look, we’re wired differently. We’re not useless. They would argue that we’re all on a continuum.

Someone like me who looks normal may have traits that are neurodiverse, like synesthesia, where people tend to see brighter colors. The people I spoke to are trying to reframe disabilities much like the deaf. How this boils down to actual advice? One person thought that framing her austism as neurodiverse—that she was good as certain things — was helpful to her. It allowed her employers to recognize that she had special value.

What I personally think about a cure I’m not sure is the point since I’m a journalist, but I think the reframing it useful. It helps us see the outsider within ourselves.

LSP: You write about bipolar people celebrating their condition together and in some cases rejecting treatment by experts, people who are “so ambitious about their own insanity that they claim the name Mad Pride.”

While many would agree that no one should be ashamed of having a challenging and debilitating condition, is there danger in equating a biological condition which can cause tremendous suffering (as well as flashes of genius) with having an enthusiasm for non-Hollywood films? You mention, for example, people within this movement who may refuse treatment and wind up incarcerated.

AQ: The Mad Pride group actually came to a reading I did last night. I let them speak a little, because I want to give these groups a voice that they may not have had before. The dangers you speak of do exist—people not being able to control their “dangerous gifts” and potentially doing danger to themselves or others. But there are 5 million Americans right now who say they don’t have the mental healthcare services they need, half because they can’t afford them. Isn’t it better for those people to have peer services, which is what the people I discuss in my book are trying to do? The ideal would be great medication, great healthcare and great peer services, but we don’t have that.  

LSP: You talk about John Dewey’s notion of “free intelligence” which you describe as “a kind of hive mind or crowdsourcing” that can produce knowledge and social change. Where do you see this happening most successfully?

The transformation of music has been really interesting. We’ve seen music labels gutted and sales of CDs dropping off. Tremendous faltering through the disintermediation of culture and ability of people to pirate. Labels have dissolved. In my research, I saw people coming together and creating collective culture like CD Baby [an online music store that sells CDs and music downloads from independent musicians to consumers]. The problem is that things are not adequately monetized. On the top end you still have huge sales and very professional musicians who are themselves using free downloads and crowdfunding like Kickstarter.

The animal rights movement has been incredibly effective at using technology to further its goals. If you go to YouTube, you can see countless vegetarian and animal rights videos. PETA has been incredibly sucessful using YouTube. In California, propositions have passed for cage-free eggs and the prevention of farm cruelty. That happened through YouTube, systematic campaigns, and, on the legal front, the proliferation of animal rights law. The Web has been the key to transmission. A law student might see a YouTube video and bring up the issue in class, and that ends up changing the culture.

LSP: The Republic of Outsiders, as you describe it, produces wonderful visionaries, artists and activists. But it can also produce dangerous gurus and hucksters. In this late state of capitalism, how guarded must we be against people who use outsider marketing in order to exploit us?

AQ:  There’s definitely a lot of “renegade” marketing going on, Doritos using amateur content, everybody taking advantage of craft culture. You have Urban Outfitters made to look crafty, amateur content used in ad campaigns, which appeals to people who see themselves as outsiders. When people are being appropriated in this way, when major recording stars offer audiences their songs to be remixed, promising to play them, are they giving a space to expression? Or something else?

I wrote about Amanda Palmer [performer and musician]—I think she’s cool, don’t get me wrong, but many people don't like that she raised a lot of money on Kickstarter by offering to play in people’s houses, etc. In return they’d send her money and she ended up making a huge amount from fans. She also encouraged fans to play with her on stage and didn’t pay them. The boundaries between star and fan and amateur and professional collapse — but that's a whole other subject.

Now we see that Spike Lee is using crowdfunding. Celebrities with huge followings are asking for millions of dollars. Is that renegade? Is that outsider culture? Or is is super-insiders manipulating us?  You also have people who are authentically raising money using outsider techniques maybe doing things that end up offending fans.

LSP: Your book hails the Internet as a means of getting past gatekeepers and allowing outsiders to come together. Given the revelations about surveillance, doesn’t it also have a great potential to make them targets?

AQ: It’s definitely an issue. I was planning to include people known as "self-quantifiers" in the book—these are people who measure their sleep, blood sugar, respiration, and other things about themselves. They might be measuring their weight or the quality of their marriage. They are putting the information on the cloud or on websites where the data could be mined. That’s the dark side, and people aren’t thinking enough about this. Or they think, who cares? I’m not doing anything wrong. But that’s not the point. An employer may see that you have a preexisting condition, for example, and that could cause problems.

Attempts are definitely made to collect information, and I saw it in my research. Companies are trying to get heath information and data for marketing purposes. From what I saw it was more for marketing rather than politicial or social.

Now everything is being mined. It would be interesting to talk to some of these people I interviewed for my book after the Snowden revelations have come out. But these people in my book are really out there, though. They’re not trying to hide their abnormality, so they would be less vulnerable to be surveillance.

LSP: What do you want to see coming out of this book?

AQ: I want people to be able to apply it to their own lives and think about what outsider and insider means today. It’s happening to me — last night at my book reading somebody came and talked about being anti-male circumcision and whether that was an outsider perspective or not.

We can see now that ideas that would have taken 50 years to encounter now take less than a year. They can also dissolve quickly because we have such a rapid and rapacious media culture right now. Endurance is the question rather than getting visibility. Visibility is much easier than in the past – these groups have mastered branding, naming and using interesting language to describe themselves. But then the worry is, will they just be flavor of the minute?

There were many people I spoke to for the book whose time had come and gone by the time I was ready to publish — in a way I was racing against the clock. So the question is: How do we keep these movements growing and keep them in the public eye?


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