Culture Jamming
March 17, 2010 2:40 PM   Subscribe

Culture Jam: Hijacking Corporate Culture [39m CBC Short Cuts version on Google Video] is an overview of "culture jamming".

Perhaps better known through the actions of Adbusters, The Yes Men, and Improv Everwhere, culture jamming actually finds its roots in 1950s Europe via Guy Debord and The Situationists. [YouTube documentary "On The Passage of a few People through a Rather Brief Moment In Time: The Situationist International 1956-1972, Parts 2, 3]. 1993's Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing and Sniping in the Empire of Signs is considered a manifesto and concise summary of the philosophy behind culture jamming. Many cities have their anonymous culture jammers. Still, some remain entirely tone-deaf to the concept.

Bonus reading and links: Center for Communication & Civic Engagement's Culture Jamming page, The Culture Jammers Encyclopedia
posted by hippybear (24 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
This years Academy Award for best animated short, viewable online and posted here on MeFi, went to a culture jam. I think it could be defined as such, a slick professional version of one which is mainstream accepted.
posted by stbalbach at 2:58 PM on March 17, 2010

Can't recommend Rebel Sell enough.
posted by everichon at 3:06 PM on March 17, 2010

- The culture sir. It appears to be... JAMMED.
- Raspberry. There's only one man who would dare give me the raspberry. LONE STARR!
posted by nathancaswell at 3:11 PM on March 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Back in my day, we called this 'Stickin' it to The Man'

And then we became The Man, and I wept.
Now, off my lawn.

posted by eclectist at 3:18 PM on March 17, 2010

don't we need more nuanced descriptors of "culture jamming"? Some methods perpetuate the status quo by attacking the status quo, such as Adbusters or even Glenn Beck. But some manage to transform it, don't they? Perhaps we should reserve the term "jamming" for when the culture is actually being interfered with rather than merely churned more in the direction is it already churning, no?
posted by zwaro at 3:47 PM on March 17, 2010

This is a very interesting post, but I'm left wondering about something...

Does anyone remember the group from the '90s that was supposed to be "culture jamming" but were really just con-artists and free loaders? IIRC, they had a bitchen manifesto and actually produced some great art. Mostly though, they were scammers.

Great post!

zwaro, yea, I usually think of it as hacking, because they're acting to infiltrate, change and/or manipulate things.
posted by snsranch at 3:58 PM on March 17, 2010

Does anyone remember the group from the '90s that was supposed to be "culture jamming" but were really just con-artists and free loaders? IIRC, they had a bitchen manifesto and actually produced some great art. Mostly though, they were scammers.

Are you talking about Milli Vanilli? Not sure about their manifesto. Other than "positive energy."
posted by Slap Factory at 4:00 PM on March 17, 2010 [4 favorites]

I'm skimming, but this stuff sounds very cool.

Where can I buy a culture jamming t-shirt? Urban Outfitters or Cafe Press?
posted by sebastienbailard at 4:16 PM on March 17, 2010

Ha, Milli Vanilli would fit the bill alright, if it weren't for the great art part.
posted by snsranch at 4:19 PM on March 17, 2010

Recession Survival Tip: Call yourself an artist. Starving might seem more romantic.

From the wooster collective.
posted by snsranch at 4:37 PM on March 17, 2010

Maybe I'm misreading Rebel Sell, but I think it's mostly bunk. One problem is they don't try to define anything. What is consumerism? Definitions vary, from "the theory that an increasing consumption of goods is economically beneficial" to "a movement advocating greater protection of the interests of consumers." Let's pretend it's only the first, and go from there.

First, those AdBusters Blackspot shoes and "Unswoosher" are marketed as anti-corporate, based on "[t]he reality is that most of us have to buy shoes on a regular basis," and given that, the thoughtful shopper would prefer to buy something "socially and environmentally responsible." The No Sweat Apparel shop (aligned with Mother Jones) is a similar concept, offering union-made apparel, whereas the John Lennon "Peace" high-top (with a snippet of "Imagine" on the toe of the shoe) is just a rebranded sweatshop shoe, no different from the other sweatshop shoes made to appeal to the "rebel consumer," like the Kurt Cobain inspired Converse shoes. Yes, AdBusters is selling a product (just like they're selling their magazine), but the shoes are an attempt to show that sneakers don't have to be made in a sweatshop to be relatively affordable.

It's the same as buying local, organic produce. The idea is not that you're buying a status item, you're buying something that (ideally) did not involve the use of pesticides, didn't travel half way around the world, and hasn't been sitting on a shelf for another two weeks. All goods are not created equally, and not everything is done to be a "rebel consumer" based on looks alone. Once a small, local shop gets popular enough to expand or actually sell their product to another corporation, they haven't sold out until they change their methods for producing goods (see: Doc Martens and Converse).

My favorite quip in that article is the one about indoor plumbing being for the rich:
This is why, according to Hersch, economic growth in our society, rather than reducing the frustrations of the middle classes has tended rather to exacerbate it. Only industrialization, in Hersch’s view, created unrealistic expectations because it permitted the population at large to enjoy many of the privileges that had once been reserved for the wealthy alone, like indoor plumbing, central heating, things like that. So people got this idea that oh, as we get richer, I’m someday going to be able to have all the things that wealthy people have today.
Wait, did you just equate indoor plumbing and central heating with luxury? I thought the world was advanced enough that people could poop inside, and then wash their hands with running water, but apparently I've been suckling too long on the teet of luxury.

And then to say that there's nothing consumers can do, because it's too big, and it would require government intervention. But doesn't the whole system run on individual consumers? (But government control of ads does sound interesting.)

The problem is that the line between being a Consumer and not means buying things or not, in the most plain view. Buy Nothing Day, DIY, live off the grid, trade goods and services. Industrialization isn't a demon, it's given many people the freedom to do more than basic tasks to survive day-to-day. The way I see it, it's more the fact that there's disparity between standards from country to country. The reason that so many things are made in China by non-union workers then shipped back is because it's still cheaper than complying with prevailing wages, safety requirements, insurance and benefits that are required in other countries. A realistic response is conscious consumption, "voting with your wallet" and all that jazz.

Then again, these guys are selling a book on why people are buying things in droves, yet aren't happy with their lives, and how that system cannot be overthrown. Fighting straw men is easy, and you can do it for fun and profit, just like them!

don't we need more nuanced descriptors of "culture jamming"?

This is a decent run-down of "culture jamming", at least in the ways I understand it:
Many culture Jams are simply aimed at exposing questionable political assumptions behind commercial culture so that people can momentarily consider the branded environment in which they live. Culture jams refigure logos, fashion statements, and product images to challenge the idea of "what's cool," along with assumptions about the personal freedoms of consumption.
See Danger Mouse and Banksy's doctored Paris Hilton CD, Billboard Liberation Front, and the links in the FPP.
posted by filthy light thief at 5:00 PM on March 17, 2010 [6 favorites]

It's quite telling that the most innovative and interesting link is the "Still, some remain entirely tone-deaf to the concept" one.
posted by signal at 6:02 PM on March 17, 2010

I agree with Rebel Sell's point that it's a bad idea to replace political and social action with loft goals of reforming consciousness, or by simply dropping out of the system, but like filthy light thief says, these seems like somewhat of a straw man.

Their presentation of the Critique of Mass Society is interesting, but I think the whole conformist/superiority dichotomy is misleading. Yes, we all want to differentiate ourselves, but we have to do it in the right way. AKA we have to conform. E.g. I can listen to underground rock music and be cool but not underground ragtime.

I think a lot of the talk of 'unplugging' from society is borne of the realization that counter-culture has simply become another niche market.

Somebody here, ages ago, recommended Captains of Consciousness. The author addresses the co-option of counter-culture in his preface.
posted by ropeladder at 6:02 PM on March 17, 2010

And then to say that there's nothing consumers can do, because it's too big, and it would require government intervention. But doesn't the whole system run on individual consumers?

I think its deeply significant that your defense of culture jamming is virtually indistinguishable from free-market ideology. The idea behind conscious consumption/conscious capitalism is that we don't need government regulation, we as individual consumers can shop our way to solving the world's problems. The issues of capitalism become psychologized--there's nothing really wrong with the system, corporations are just trying to make a profit any way they can. Can they really help it if consumers give them money? What do you expect them to do, not take money!? It's money!

So it's unsurprising that John Mackey, libertarian and CEO of Whole Foods fully endorses your point of view. The problem should be fairly obvious: conscious consumption just creates new market segments. Corporations love that, they can take their old products, make a few tweaks and repackage and rebrand it for the new segment. Nothing really changes.

What if anti-slavery activists in the 1800s decided they weren't going to try to address slavery through the legal system, but instead try to popularize conscious consumption? They could create a "non-slave labor" campaign, so that individual consumers could make informed decisions based on their values. The problem is that owning people is wrong, and no-one should be allowed to choose between slave or non-slave made products. By making it about consumer choice, you are effectively saying it's not a real moral issue, it's just a question of taste. Conscious consumption will never work because it relies on people having the right taste, or convincing them to have the right taste; but in the West we have a very long tradition of "each to his/her own" on matters of taste. Those are areas of life where no-one has the right to tell anyone else how to live. But when it comes to moral issues like slavery, or capitalism, or exploitation, guess what? We should be telling other people how to live. It used to be that people fought and died for what they believed in; today, the left wants to shop.

not everything is done to be a "rebel consumer" based on looks alone

I agree with you here, and that is one of the problems I see in their thesis, that they rely excessively on what Colin Campbell in The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism calls the Veblenesque account of consumerism, after Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class. Campbell offers some fairly convincing reasons why consumption motivated by status doesn't adequately explain the phenomenon we see today, and the book is his alternate explanation. He describes consumerism as "modern autonomous imaginative hedonism"; effectively, we consume primarily to fantasize, to imagine we're transported into another, more satisfying and exciting fictional reality.

Under this account, we buy subversive running shoes so that we can imagine ourselves as subversives, behaving like set decorators, so we can imaginatively enjoy watching ourselves in a movie that we direct. But movie rebellion is not actual rebellion, and it's easy to see how we'd become unconsciously invested in the system that sustains our fantasy, even though the fantasy itself is staged as trying to overthrow it. Instead of fighting a war against slavery, we went to the South and filmed a movie about the struggle. In the movie, we're bravely facing down the Confederate army, but when the film isn't rolling, we're cooperating with the Confederates to get access to locations, coordinating the logistics of making the film, etc.

And of course, the Romantic ethic is also what animated the original Bohemians, on whom much of contemporary counter-culture is modeled. So in at least these two ways, Campbell's account of consumerism links it even more strongly to counter-culture, while at the same time avoids the claim that counter-cultural consumption (or any type of consumption for that matter) is only for show, and therefore inauthentic or somehow not genuinely felt to be meaningful by those who choose a particular lifestyle.

The big, big problem I have is with Rebel Sell's final conclusion (the article, I haven't read the book). This idea that counter-cultural activists are offering deep, radical alternatives to the system, they should be practical and support some of these institutional reforms. This is already conceding way to much, that the counter-culture really is offering any kind of radical solution at all. The real problem is opposite one, their supposedly radical alternatives are false, they offer no genuine change and even secretly adopt the most radical capitalist ideology, like so-called conscious capitalism.

Radicalism is precisely what is we need today and this what is most strongly resisted by these pseudo-revolutionaries. If there is something that we should resurrect from the old, traditional Left, it is the idea of large scale collective action, oriented towards some radical socialist ideal of universal emancipation. I have no idea what that ideal could be and anyone who says they do is probably an idiot, but nonetheless that is what we should be working towards. Though I agree with the Rebel Sell guys in one respect, that the Left should be in the political arena of institutions and economy, not the depoliticized field of individual lifestyle changes, psychologizing problems and raising consciousness that the counter-culture loves so much.
posted by AlsoMike at 7:13 PM on March 17, 2010 [4 favorites]

Yes, AdBusters is selling a product (just like they're selling their magazine), but the shoes are an attempt to show that sneakers don't have to be made in a sweatshop to be relatively affordable.

It's the same as buying local, organic produce.

Yes. People buy it because it's better. And to demonstrate their status and discernment as those-who-know-it's-better.
posted by sebastienbailard at 11:09 PM on March 17, 2010

Yes. People buy it because it's better. And to demonstrate their status and discernment as those-who-know-it's-better.

But if people can't tell the difference between your leather jacket that was made in the USA of a cow that died of natural causes and an imported jacked from a cow killed in it's prime, what do you have? Perhaps some feeling of superiority, or maybe you don't feel so bad about the jacket that you really wanted.

I think the same can be said for farmers markets. Sure, you can walk around with your Made in the USA reusable hemp bag and feel better than the poor saps shopping at the chain grocery store, or you can just enjoy your food tasting a lot better. Do you like carrots? Have you had a really fresh carrot? If not, try one that hasn't been out of the ground for weeks, because they're surprisingly moist and flavorful. Now you can gloat that you know how good carrots can be, or you can just enjoy that carrot, and maybe share with folks around you.

Also, yuppies and the blight of gentrification isn't only about market forces, but about affordability for everyone. The wealthy moving back into city cores and making the run-down areas more pleasant means those who worked and lived downtown might have to travel farther, stressing their already meager budgets with the added cost of travel.

AlsoMike - good points. My idea was that you don't have to wait for government to fix things. This glorious information age (semi-hamburger) provides people the opportunity to find out more about what they purchase. People need to buy things, because most folks can't make everything they need. Grow all your food? Great. But are you really spinning your own thread to make your clothes? Or trading your veggies with the clothesmaker down the street? So learn more, and buy the good stuff.

The government has stepped into some of the emerging "green" markets, with certified organic materials. But it's a grand dream to think that the government can force companies to keep their work and supplies where they sell them. So it comes back to labeling, and knowing more. Maybe more detailed "made in" stickers, because raw products might come from a country with minimal environmental protection, allowing the source material to create vast amounts of pollution in the process, while a significant amount of "value-added" work could take place in your home country, and end up being labeled "made next door!"
posted by filthy light thief at 11:55 PM on March 17, 2010

filthy light thief: Access to fresh foods is a luxury that you take for granted because of your privilege. It is impossible to get fresh carrots to even a fraction of the US population and always will be.

The United States produced 3 billion pounds of carrots in 2008. Well over half were grown in California. (Along with, incidentally, over half of all fruits and vegetables grown in the US). Now I look at your profile and you're from California. Quelle surprise. If you like, I could do the research and lay out the half dozen major reasons why your dream of fresh organic food for everyone is dumb. For now, you might want to look into limited growing seasons as gentle introduction.
posted by Ictus at 12:57 AM on March 18, 2010

I have so many mixed feelings about culture jamming. I keep coming back to this post and trying to digest more of it, but I just can''s like staring at the sun. My mind swims with all of the things going on here. I can't help's a visceral sense of panic I feel, and I think it has to do with how culture jammers are subtly (but in a very complex and obfuscating way) screwing with the message (meaning, the idea of the message). They are taking on the voices of others and subverting them. Their designs are meant to blend; to be confusing and provide just enough cognitive dissonance that we question what is going on and who is really speaking. I believe that, at a very important and imperceptible level, this chips away at the trust in the social contract. It messes with our intuitions and expectations. When everything must be scrutinized, every layer peeled back for nuance and truth, we become somewhat paralyzed by the amount of energy required to take in even the simplest of stimuli.

On the one hand, it's really good to be shown what's under the corporate mask of consumerism and profit-driven advertising, as well as to be inspired and prompted to think; to even feel disturbed from time to time. Especially by creative humans with good intentions. On the other, the last thing I need is another veiled message to unpack. It's not a straightforward grab for my attention (and given the context, therefore feels dishonest and inauthentic...which is probably part of the point. And too clever for me).

There's also something interesting going on here with re-appropriation and ownership and boundaries...I haven't been able to wrap my head around that yet. The accessibility of the meanings of the re-appropriations invariably creates an inside-baseball style social hierarchy that I'm just not terribly comfortable with. It's too cool for school, leaving out those that have interest in the topics at hand, but not the time or social chops to join the club.

Please forgive me if my ramblings here were addressed in the subsequent links of the I said, i keep coming back and nibbling away at more of this post. My mind boggles and I must take a break.
posted by iamkimiam at 7:31 AM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

iamkimiam: I think that the paralysis of which you speak may be contained in one of the possible meanings of "jam", that would be "stuck and not moving forward".

In an environment in which the endless barrage of advertising has turned into background white noise, easily ignored yet always present, it seems to me that any move which causes one to suddenly have the noise snap into focus and cause thought about exactly that thing which one has been programmed to accept placidly (by one's self or by one's environmental immersion) means that the goal has been achieved.

I think it's interesting that you phrase this in context of being an attack on "the social contract". The fact that our public spaces (and increasingly the private ones, too) are completely inundated by direct and indirect advertising ploys isn't part of a contract that some find amenable. Yet, there is no choice but to swim in that pond. Surely the correct form of social contract is one in which you can be assured of basic human rights, freedom from casual attack by others in your urban area, perhaps expecting things like sidewalks and roads to be maintained, etc. Why should corporate advertising and its freedom to remain unsullied be part of that social contract? That is exactly what the culture jammers ask, and instead of just shrugging, they attempt to move those things out of said contract and, as you have pointed out, into the sphere of uncertainty.

I, personally, think this is a good thing. However, I seem to have a more humorous stance on the whole thing. Part of what I love about wandering around urban areas when I visit them is that a lot of what I see makes me laugh. And few things make me laugh more, usually in delight and joy, than seeing a clever, or even a stupid, culture jamming moment. They tickle me, instead of leaving me feel uneasy. But that's just me, and I can certainly see where you're coming from.
posted by hippybear at 9:44 AM on March 18, 2010

Why should corporate advertising and its freedom to remain unsullied be part of that social contract? That is exactly what the culture jammers ask, and instead of just shrugging, they attempt to move those things out of said contract

Wikipedia offers Rousseau's definition of the social contract: "Each of us places his person and authority under the supreme direction of the general will, and the group receives each individual as an indivisible part of the whole." Culture jamming has a close connection with anarchism, and would surely argue that the idea of a social contract is somehow oppressive, or totalitarian.

If they really were attempting to modify the social contract, the place to do that would be through an organized institutional process: lobbying the government, running for office, organizing a political party, etc. But the fact is that culture jamming doesn't organize, it disorganizes, it sees itself as replacing the organized workings of power with disruptive, liberating chaos.

The basic gesture of culture jamming is to take some sanitized McDonald's ad or something, and replace the images so that it says something disgusting or obscene.It attempts to embody Mikhail Bakhtin's notion of Carnival: it "subverts and liberates the assumptions of the dominant style or atmosphere through humor and chaos."

But Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek says something very interesting about this notion:
Carnival is a very ambiguous term, more often than not used by reactionaries. My God, if you need a carnival, today’s capitalism is a carnival. A KKK lynching is a carnival. A cultural critic, a friend of mine, Boris Groys, told me that he did some research on Bakhtin and that it became clear that when Bakhtin was producing his theory of carnival in the 1930s, it was the Stalinist purges that were his model: today you are on the Central Committee, tomorrow . . . With the dynamics of contemporary capitalism, the opposition between rigid State control and carnivalesque liberation is no longer functional. Here I agree with what Badiou said in the recent interview with you published in Il Manifesto: "those who have nothing have only their discipline." This is why I like to mockingly designate myself "Left-fascist" or whatever! Today, the language of transgression is the ruling ideology. We have to reappropriate the language of discipline, of mass discipline, even the "spirit of sacrifice," and so on. We have to do away with the liberal fear of "discipline," which they characterize—without knowing what they’re talking about—as "proto-fascist."
Doesn't Adbuster's subversive running shoe also fit into this grotesque capitalist carnival where up is down, left is right? The rebels really are helping to run the system.

This point, that the language of transgression is the ruling ideology, is exactly why in the article (which has apparently been deleted, here it is again), Potter and Heath are absolutely correct to say that Adbusters didn't "sell out", it's not that they were transgressive and have since been neutered. No, it is in the original, authentic mode of carnivalesque transgression that they participate in the system.
posted by AlsoMike at 12:39 PM on March 18, 2010

Access to fresh foods is a luxury that you take for granted because of your privilege.

Good point, and one I often overlook. But this is a luxury of location, not specifically a boon to those with the finances when you're talking about living in a particular state. Maybe it is because the people I see at local farmers markets don't seem to have overly bloated self-worth because they're buying local produce. But it is a luxury of time, because most farmers markets are only once a week for a few hours, sometimes in the middle of the day.

Now that I re-read the Rebel Sell presentation, their gripe is that organic food is expensive. Local or organic, the goods are supposed to be better for the environment, locally or globally, and not just a replacement for a $1 hamburger. Broken analogies: you need to eat, but you can eat food that came to you with less environmental/social damage in the production.

Note: anazgnos's Rebel Sell link is borked, but the article got re-posted with yesterday's date, and the whole thing is copied from Good Reads.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:53 PM on March 18, 2010

We're in this movie, not me personally, it was shot just before I joined. Boy I'm sick of being asked to do a QA everytime this movie pops up in the Bay Area.
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 4:57 PM on March 18, 2010

Also as an 'official member' of culture jamming class...cliq..whatevers, I'd like to say fuck you to, Ad Buster. They've become the brand they've railed against and their magazine layout is pure designer wank.
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 5:00 PM on March 18, 2010

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