Book Review...THE NEW NORMAL

Republic of Outsiders: The Power of Amateurs, Dreamers, and Rebels

By Alissa Quart

The New Press, New York/London, 2013

The lexicon of the English language seems to include new terminology each week—locavore, selfie, bitcoin, hacker, hashtag, buzzworthy, and so on. Discover a collection of new terminology that is entering the language stream as literary journalist, Alissa Quart, takes the reader on a tour of various movements that have emerged in recent years. This growing “counter public” has found a voice and sense of belonging through special interest groups that have flourished through online communities. Strong alliances have evolved due to the explosion of blogging as a tool for self-expression and resistance. She weaves together her conversations, interviews, and research to paint a vivid picture of how the popularity of these movements re-frames ordinary life to include the entire range of all that resides between the edge and center of the mainstream. Once invisible outsiders, these individuals have found a place in our culture that is no longer beyond the fringe. 


The vision of a nomadic seeker who did not fit into society was the popular view of an outsider years ago. A character in Anne Rice’s “Exit to Eden” asks:

“What does all this mean finally, I kept asking like a college kid. Why does it make me want to cry? Maybe it’s that we are all outsiders, we are all making our own unusual way through a wilderness of normality that is just a myth.”

The now out-of-date term, subculture, originated during the 1930s when those seeking a different way of life under the radar simply accepted their minority status—the identities of hobo, drifter, and beatnik followed this model. By the late 1970s, the world had seen the radical, hippie, and punk. Those on the fringe were identified as having “subcultural style.” Unlike mainstream style, SS was readymade for public consumption, it was a creative fabrication—an act of self-expression. There was an underground of experience that was not easy to find out about–you just had to be there. Now, curiosity seekers can be a voyeur of blogs and vlogs without diving into the pool of experience–find their own level of belonging.The author investigates several counter-publics in chapters titled Beyond Sanity, Beyond Hollywood, Beyond Mass Market, and other beyonds.

The Icarus Project, Mindfreedom, and other groups that refer to themselves as Mad Priders refuse  to be defined by mental health diagnoses, such as Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder. These unlikely agitators claim that peer counseling is akin to the solar power of mental health. Their motto is “friends make the best medicine.” They aim to navigate the space between brilliance and madness. Greek mythology tells about a boy named Icarus flew to great heights (brilliance), but came too close to the sun and hurled to his death (madness). Given the rapid growth of mental health diagnoses among one in four American adults and an increase in antidepressant prescriptions by forty-eight percent between 1995 and 2002, these communities promote healthy skepticism and community instead of pharmaceutical solutions.

Quart’s chapter, Beyond Feminism, examines the activism around gender rights as gender-variant and gender-fluid individuals have gained attention on college campuses. Some insist upon being defined as gender-neutral. Transwomen have aligned themselves with the history of women’s rights as transfeminists.

The2013 edition of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” has altered the way Autism and Aspergers Syndrome are viewed. Once considered two distinctly different conditions, there is now Autism Spectrum Disorder, a continuum of symptoms that merges both. An Autism blogger explains: “I don’t have Autism, I am autistic in the same way as I do not have femaleness—I am a woman.” These so-called neurodiverse individuals have highly overwhelming sensory experiences. They are not ill or disabled. They prefer to be recognized as having useful qualities, despite any perceived weirdness. People with autistic qualities are found in geek career fields, such as engineering, mathematics, and computer programming. Often confused with artiness, shyness, and introversion—autistic qualities are often confused with compulsive and anxious behaviors–assessments do not properly capture the mind of the autistic individual. Although twenty-five percent of those diagnosed with Autism have no language ability, the author investigates how the other seventy-five percent of the autism community favor acceptance for being different over a push for any kind of cure.

Outside the mainstream of blockbuster filmmaking, the world of independent film includes “termite art,” a phrase coined by critic, Manny Farber. “Termite, tapeworm, fungus, and moss art goes always forward eating its own boundaries—it leaves nothing in its path other than signs of eager, industrious unkempt activity.” The crews on these projects have no top-down hierarchy.  They have disdain for auteurism and the idea of a single visionary working alone. They favor unconventional storytelling using new filmmaking software, cheap DSLR cameras, non-professional actors, video-sharing sites, and transmedia.  An example of this aesthetic is the movie, “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

Quart also examines more do-it-yourself movements throughout music, craft, and agriculture. A decade ago, Steve Jobs proposed to have every piece of music ever recorded available on Apple’s iTunes store. The abundance of recorded music now available for online streaming is good for the consumer, but less so for the artist. Many are protecting the integrity of their work by saying no to copyright and compensation infringement issues by embracing a DYI approach. Fans of the Grateful Dead once entered into a collective experience with the band. Deadhead fans spread the word about upcoming shows—they gifted one another mixed tapes, bootlegs, badges, and buttons in a grassroots form of sharing economy that has simply been upgraded through technology.

Today, singer Amanda Palmer symbolizes the new power of fans to fund an artist’s work using the quiet revolution occurring in the sharing economy of Kickstarter. There is no need to allow the lack of financing to stop you when friends, fans, and supportive others are willing to donate small amounts that can add up quickly. Palmer raised $1.2 million dollars to record an album. Folk rock artist, Jill Sobule raised $75,000 in just fifty-four days. “I’ve turned my stalkers into people who work for me,” she explains. Those who donate $5000 receive a concert performed in their living room. Givers of $500 are promised the mention of their name in a upcoming song.

Visual artists and crafters find independence within a capitalist model on sites like Etsy, where the producers of cool original handmade items are connected with consumers. Urban farmers, beekeepers, cheese makers, and all manner of the “agriculturati” are breaking down the borders between making and consuming to a place where it is all fun.

The urge to communicate has never been greater during this time of 24/7 forums available on the screen. There are no outsiders in Alissa Quart’s view of counter public of amateurs, rebels, or dreamers. Anyone with a particular agenda is invited to unite and gain strength within empowering groups that offer an elevated identity and place in the world.

November 2013

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