Book report: Social change and creative activism in the 21st century


The Yes Men, one of the dozens of examples of creative activism mentioned in the book (source: Shadow Distribution)

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In this book, Silas Harrebye explores the field of creative activism today by studying its definition; characterizing the roles played by creative activists; discussing the ways social movement theory has accounted for it; and ultimately proposing a theoretical framework that distinguishes creative activism from other creative endeavors outside activism, and from other forms of activism that don’t rely on creative tactics.

He tentatively defines creative activism as “civic, project-driven, and nonviolent forms of democratic participation where critical perspectives on a societal issue or a political system are communicated when, where, and in ways that no one else can or will. They do so in creative ways through temporal interventions such as strategic happenings, transformative events, and manufactured spectacles characterized by a cynical approach, an ironic attitude and/or [a utopian] quest in order to provoke reflection in the individual spectator and the public sphere at large.” This definition encompasses the dimensions he explores throughout the book: critique, cynicism, irony, utopia and participation.

He starts out by tracing the relationship between activism and creativity by appealing to the idea of the political theater, the performance; he expands on the definition by listing practices that serve as examples:
– pranks and protests
– happenings,
– street art,
– tactical media,
– social utopian experiments,
– viral campaigns,
– flash mobs,
– subvertisement,
the-emperor-has-no-clothes disruptions,
invisible theater,
minor additions or twists to the already known traditional repertoire of demonstrations, sit-ins, strikes, barricades, lobbyism, information campaigns, boycotts, mass petitions, the urban insurrection, etc.

He also defines 21st century creative activism in terms of the old vs the new. Creative work in organizing is not new; what is new, he argues, are “the changed conditions for the immanent and potentially emancipatory critique at the heart of this type of engagement”. These new conditions imply the crisis of representative democracy, the rise of inequality; in terms of media, they imply “new forms of cognitive capitalism”.

He argues that the roles played by creative activists too can shed light on the question. He poses them as facilitators, people who “make it easier for a group of people to do what they want to do together”, a practice rooted in deliberative democracy; he also poses them as mediators/translators “in the cacophony of critical voices”.

Before proposing his own framework, Harrebye provides an overview of the theories of social movements that have in accounted for different aspects of creative activism: questions on formal membership, brief or sustained engagement, Rochon’s ‘critical communities’, specific vs global theories, repertoires, causes, dialectic dynamics, identity formation and framing and dynamics of contention.

To understand creative activism and its role in promoting critique and democratic participation, Harrebye proposes an analytical framework that relies on three core elements: cynicism, irony and utopia.

– Critical preaching, scandalous behavior, and provocative dialogue, the three qualities of praxis associated with cynical philosophers, can be used to understand some of today’s creative activism. In quoting Andy Bichlbaum from The Yes Men, “We are not just making fun of people. We are laughing with a purpose.”

– Irony “is critically directed towards those who cannot see and share this existential insight”, and political action is enabled by humor that can take a critical stance and “speak truth to power” in ways that other discourse can’t.

– Utopia addresses the widespread political demand for alternatives as a price to pay for criticism. “But to a number of [creative] critics, being taken seriously is not seen as a goal nor a quality in and by itself – quite the opposite, it sometimes seems”. The critical exercise may aim to revitalize our political imagination, above all, by rethinking the world we want.

This last feature of creative activism points at the idea of mirroring, the practice of creating alternative reflections as a way to carry critique. “Instead of having a clear idea about what the good life is and let that form the basis of a critique, which eventually might lead to reflection, the logic is reversed in more experimental practices”, argues Harrebye.

“Critique does not only become ironic, cynical, and question utopian attitudes and strategies, it becomes a reflexive act when it is negotiated with and within the system that it is an inherent part of”; this system is capitalism, and Harrebye aims to circumvent it by building on Nancy Fraser’s theory of framing for social justice (redistribution – economics, recognition – culture, and representation – politics) that responds to the seeming inescapability of the framings of capitalism.

What, then, are the pragmatic consequences if we take this theoretical framework of creative activism at heart? Harrebye addresses future dilemmas and impact evaluation. He focuses on dilemmas around the limits of participation, innovation and implications of different funding models for creative activism; the evaluation culture and considerations around causality and cultural change; and makes recommendations on experimental design for impact assessment.

Finally, he explores the implications this all has in our theories of change: “We must renounce the wish for an administrative politics of ‘truth’ and ‘necessity’, and foster forms of action that dare to celebrate the vacuum it leaves and the possibilities that follow in relation to how we conduct ourselves as political subjects – in praise of an elusive but valuable revolutionary ethics of political imagination”


Silas Harrebye is an Assistant Professor at the Institute for Society and Globalisation, Roskilde University, and serves as a board member for the Centre for Artistic Activism. His background is in international studies and philosophy, and he describes his methodological approach as interdisciplinary, using academic literature reviews, interviews and an impressive collection of examples from the field, as well as quantitative data from European Union sources.


Harrebye, Silas F. Social Change and Creative Activism in the 21St Century : The Mirror Effect. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire : Palgrave Macmillan, 2016., 2016. EBSCOhost,


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