Suppose there were a certification programme for media that declared itself ‘independent’, parallel to organic certification in food. To be labelled ‘organic’, produce must be grown under certain rigorous conditions – no chemical pesticides or fertilizers should have been used for up to three years at the farm in question, for instance. It’s tough to get organic certification, because the conditions are so stringent. Let’s say our imagined ‘independent certification’ requires only that the media in question has been produced without the involvement of any organisation with a hundred or more employees. That condition would ensure that essentially nothing made in Europe, the US, Australasia etc. could be certified ‘independent’. There certainly could be no certified independent videogame, since no computer has ever been manufactured independently.
The Indie Ideology
The word ‘indie’ is oft used these days to valorise (often self-valorise) certain media. Short for ‘independent’, the term originated in the UK sometime during the rock and roll years but became cemented in music during the 1980s, when musicians (often those being played by offbeat DJ John Peel) began to appropriate indie as a branding to help sell their records to those teenagers and young adults eager to set themselves apart from the corporate-dominated mainstream. Since then, the term has gained currency in all forms of media – comics, movies, games and so forth will be identified as ‘indie’ whenever the creators want to draw a line between what they do and what the perceived commercial middle ground does. The label is heavily disputed, for a variety of reasons, but it is not usually doubted that there is something that warrants being called ‘indie’. The trouble is, little to nothing made in the cultures that use the word is genuinely produced without corporate involvement.
The defence of ‘indie’ as a meaningful term relies upon an aspect of contemporary mythology intimately connected with the desire to assert this form of imagined independence. It rests on our capacity to ignore tools as ‘neutral’, and thus focus solely upon the usage of those tools (irrespective of the circumstances of their manufacture). This perspective directly descends from the Enlightenment philosophy of Immanuel Kant, which also gives us the split into ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’. Because people are subjects and tools are ‘merely’ objects, we largely ignore them except when they come into clear focus for some reason. Heidegger gives us the classic example of a hammer, which only comes to mind when it breaks. Otherwise, it is just taken to be a seamless extension of the skills of the person wielding it, unnoticed in itself.
Rather than ‘independent’ media being produced quite apart from corporations – like organic food that sets itself quite apart from agribusinesses with their chemical and genetically-modified arsenal – the situation is much more intimate. We could use the iceberg, with only 10% of the frozen mass visible above the water, as a (familiar) illustrative metaphor. The indie is the tip of the iceberg, but sure enough the corporate ‘ice’ is still what they are firmly standing upon. Corporate media stands out because there is more ice above the sea to be seen – it looks far more monolithic at first glance. But under the waves, the vast slab of frozen water remains just as large in either case.
The Megacorp Mythology
A viable objection here is that we don’t care about corporate production of tools, we only care about the quality of the media produced. Purportedly ‘independent’ movies, games, comics, and music have certain aesthetic qualities that we value, and this is the reason for valorising independent media-production. In other words, it doesn't matter that corporations underpin indie media because its still ‘better’ than corporate media. (I could and may yet challenge this claim, but let's accept it now for the sake of argument).
Now the question arises whether we actually care about corporate power and influence when we valorise ‘indie’ media – because on the face of it, this is what independence is supposed to connote. Perhaps there are people for whom concerns about corporations are solely about the aesthetic effects they have on media – but I find this unlikely. A key part of my doubt here comes from the stories of the prevailing shared mythology today, namely science fiction. For positivists, it tends to be their main or only mythic system, whereas for Christians, Muslims, Hindus etc. it is a supplemental mythology. Either way it is the only widely shared imaginative system today, for all that individual instances can be wildly different.
Over the same period of time that ‘indie’ was gaining currency as a term, the cyberpunk movement (i.e. Bruce Sterling, William Gibson etc.) and its associated media (e.g. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Alien films) changed the focus of science fiction away from far future space opera and impending or recent apocalypse (although these never went away...) and towards a new kind of near-future paranoia about the growing power of the transnational corporation. Today, the evil future corporation is so familiar as to be passé, primarily because we all share these concerns about what corporations might become – or have already become.
My claim is that the evil corporation mythology could not have become a cliché unless the majority of us accepted its premise. This would mean that we all share concerns about the power and influence of big commercial organizations, although of course our actual concerns may be different. Some might be worried about wealth inequality, others about environmental impact, still others about political distortion caused by the concentration of influence corporations create. Different values create different perspectives on the nature of the problem – but few see no problem at all with the rise in both the power and the ubiquity of major corporate interests. If this is the case, then the Enlightenment philosophy of ethical subjects and neutral objects isn't going to be enough to render the so-called independents conceptually disjunct from the corporations whose tools and infrastructure they are undeniably reliant upon.
Despite what the mythological implications of 'indie' are supposed to entail, the people claiming this label are entirely dependent upon the giant commercial organisations they use as a contrast case to justify the claim to independence. And this isn't even a surprise, once we examine these issues, because no-one is independent from the corporate world, not when they live in the world of cars, computers, and telecommunication. I do not make this point to condemn indies but to provoke thought on an issue that is not honestly considered – especially by those who invoke the ‘indie’ label. To be sure, such creative groups are submitting to slightly less corporate involvement in their lives – but they are not truly independent, and could not be given their actual practices.
We are all wholly dependent upon corporations now. ‘Indies’ simply operate with a lesser degree of corporate dependency – perhaps we could more honestly call them ‘lessies’? If the concerns raised in science fiction are more than just anticipated risks, we had better begin discussing in earnest how we would like our relationships with corporate organisations to develop over the decades to come.
For more discussions such as this one, check out my latest book, Chaos Ethics, available 26th September 2014.