Culture jamming

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Culture jamming: the information war of the 90s

Recently, magazines like Jack Ruby Slippers and Adbusters have begun to
promote the concept of "culture jamming." What does it mean? And what are
its roots? According to important culture jammers such as Mark Dery, it is
an attempt to "jam" the transmissions of our corporate-controlled,
media-consumer-industrial complex. Dery suggests that we consider our
mental environment - the realms of signification we encounter every day,
especially in omnipresent advertising - and that we take direct political
action so as to protect that environment just as fiercely as the 'natural'
or physical one.

The origins of culture jamming probably lie with the Situationist
International in France, and its practice of detournement or inversion. The
roots of detournement itself probably lie in the Feast of Fools and other
medieval ceremonies where the social order was inverted and the authorities
paraded around in fools' costume, revealing their "natural" or "divine"
authority to be socially created and maintained. Situationist Guy deBord
suggested in the 60s that we were living in a "society of the spectacle" -
where real leisure and real living had been replaced by pre-packaged
experiences and media-created events. Other Situationists practiced
detournement as a response: most would take images from advertising, the
mass media, or popular culture, and change the dialogue subtly so as to
reveal the ideologies masked in everyday media experience.

Writing in the Situationist vein, the French philosopher Baudrillard calls
our postmodern existence "hyperreality." Real experiences and things have
been replaced with simulacra - copies without an original. Due to the power
of mass media advertising, our relationship to the signifier has changed.
Now it hides the absence of a signified: conceals the inability to deliver
real satisfaction by cleverly simulating it. Part of our hyperreal lives is
the fact that our simulations are more real than real. Given a better
imitation, people choose it over the real thing; hence Disney's Matterhorn
enjoys more visitors than the real one in Switzerland. More insidiously,
through various obfuscations, people come to think the simulacrum is the
real McCoy, and forget about the historical and physical reality it
represents.

Modern advertising critics like Mark Crispin Miller often note the hidden
messages concealed within the cool graphics and media saturation of Madison
Avenue and MTV. Originally, they suggest, advertising often connected the
product being sold with some sort of self-image or way of life (pastoral,
pleasant, family-oriented.) Often, it was conveyed that the product would
somehow confer various advantages - popularity, sexiness, fame, success,
power, even individuality. Today, ads are filled with a strange sort of
rugged selfishness, misanthropy, and mean-spiritedness ("touch my doritos
and die.") A person is told sternly to buy as much as they can of the
product but never to share with friends. "Get your own," they're told.
While various moral crusaders seek to combat the various sexual innuendos
of TV programming, they rarely challenge the more subtle but socially
disruptive images found in commercials and other advertising.

The product, no longer able to offer satisfaction on its own ground ("a
potato chip is a chip is a chip"), instead offers the consumer a chance to
be part of a certain 'crowd' or 'scene.' They belong to a cool "product
tribe," revelling in the image and sensibility that the product somehow
mystically confers - the fetishism of commodities, hyperaccelerated for
Generation X. Analysts of postindustrial America suggest this is the secret
hidden within these advertising campaigns - that more and more people are
being sold style, image, and celebrity, since there is no substance or
material satisfaction to the product-in-itself. Concealed within the
jump-cut flash of postmodern advertising is a simple code: consumption is a
mode of transcendence, a way to take part in something larger than
yourself, "the Pepsi Generation."

Corporations utilize various techniques to carve Americans into various
market profiles - not based on what products they use, but on what media
messages they respond to. In other words, they are to be sold on the images
they want to project to themselves and others, and not on the intrinsic
usefulness of consumer items. Whatever values they supposedly respond to,
are translated into clever pitches, suggesting that the product somehow
represents or embodies those values. Subliminal seduction has never been
that important in advertising, despite the hype, but the use of semiotic
strategies certainly has. Products are often "pitched" to specific ethnic
groups, minorities, or subcultures, often using the Marcusian co-optation
strategy of appealing to their own sense of difference or deviance. ("Wear
our clothes, and then you'll be a real rebel.")

Is there a way out of hyperreality and the society of the spectacle? Yes.
You can take charge of your mental environment, and become a culture
jammer. Culture jamming means semiotic jujitsu - using media power against
itself. The Adbusters' Media Foundation does this all the time with famous
spoofs of the Absolut Vodka ads ("Absolut death," etc.) Other culture
jammers often take commercials or TV programs and replace the dialogue and
soundtrack with something subversive. Yet others take to billboards or road
signs and cleverly rearrange the letters to say something different. As one
activist suggests, "where critique is no longer a possibility, parody is
always an alternative response."

In our global media village of multinational media conglomerates and
sattelite TV, culture jamming is necessarily a global enterprise. As the
Western consumerist message increasingly spreads to the masses of the Third
World/Periphery, it is the task of culture jammers to go there too and jam
the signal. Surely, some have remarked, we must be living in hyperreality
when Taco Bell opens in Mexico City and Pizza Hut opens in Rome. Or when
more schoolchildren know Joe Camel better than they can recognize the
current president. Slowly, the lines between information and entertainment
are being blurred, producing a fuzzy sort of "infotainment" in which real
facts are irrelevant but audience ratings are key.

Culture jamming is more than just a clever game. In an era in which
conspicuous consumption is slowly eating up the entire planet, it may just
be the key to survival itself. We may not be able to stop the signal at its
source, but at least we can jam its reception. The point is to awaken
people to their media-controlled life, to stop and notice the signal and
noise that is their mental environment. Like "Rowdy" Roddy Piper in They
Live we may suddenly notice a host of things we previously ignored.
Messages from all around us telling is to sleep, procreate, consume, but
not to question. Culture jamming shows these hidden Barthian 'mythologies'
- through satire, it forces people to confront that which seems most
'natural' to them. Today, more than ever, culture jamming is the key weapon
in the 90s information 'war,' the outcome of which could well determine our
collective fate.

Steve Mizrach (aka Seeker1)


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