Media Term Paper:
“Culture Jamming”: The Power of Satire
Abstract. One of the most actual problems today is the abusive influence of the Mass Media onto person’s inner world and actions. The counter movement against this trend is called “culture jamming”. This paper examines the problems which have risen with the origin of the consumerist culture and the growth of Mass Media, points out the peculiarities and the goals of “culture jamming”, and attempts to give a conclusion, whether the phenomenon of “culture jamming” is an effective act of resistance or another form of propaganda.
Artificial Life: Consumerist society and the Mass Media. In the twentieth century, the development of the human civilization and culture has undergone a number of abrupt changes. Human’s need for expansion has invaded into the economy, while as greed and desire to have more, produce more, sell and buy more caused the dramatic changes in the economy and culture. Mass production, industrialization, urbanization, development of the mass media, and thousands other trends in the economy have brought the society to what is called the consumerist culture: the culture, where everyone’s prior concern is to sell or buy, and where we are not what we are, what we buy.
Although, gaining and spending has been a key element of American culture since its beginning, the rise of mass production in the 20th century made the dreamscape of consumption available to greater numbers of Americans. The rise of big business increased the desire to sell. The only thing that was needed is to persuade someone that he or she needed/wanted/desired the products or services provided by the producer. The rapid development of the Mass Media presented such an opportunity. Now, through television, radio, internet, and other means, the industry had access to the brains of every single person. Values, norms, desires, and dreams became a subject of speculation and artificial initialization for the sake of increased sales. The information became source of propaganda. Person’s brains became a place for a struggle between different image and symbol producers, each claiming its uniqueness and superiority. The civilization turned into digital culture, where symbols, associations, images, and dreams replaced the experience of the actual reality. Timothy Leary pointed out that most of people’s values and desires are created artificially and later continuously stimulated by the whole swarm of “knowledgeable others”1, hired by the business advertising agencies. (Timothy Leary, “Neuropolitics”, 1977) Through the socialization, these stereotypes are projected on the children, who, in their turn, insist on the validity and absoluteness of the received installations after growing older.
“Everything we have been taught is dangerously wrong.
Everything printed in our newspapers is a selective fraud… Brainwashing is happening to all of us all the time.” (Leary, “Neuropolitics”) Marc Dery implies this problem specifically for the Television, as he writes that in the postmodern societies people’s lives “are intimately and inextricably bound up in the TV experience. Ninety-eight percent of all American households – more than have indoor plumbing – have at least one television, which is on seven hours a day, on the average.”(Cohen, “The Lost Book Generation”) The expansion of means of Mass Media where the person takes a passive role, escaping intellectual activity has given birth to the phenomenon of “aliteracy,” which is, as defined by Roger Cohen, “the rejection of books by children and young adults who know how to read but choose not to.”
Definition of Culture Jamming. These and other problems have initiated the movement of “culture jamming”. Culture Jamming to the high degree is a response to brand-advertising which flooded the everyday life. The Encyclopedic definition of “culture jamming is as following: “act of using existing mass media to comment on those very media themselves, using the original medium’s communication method. It is based on the idea that advertising is little more than propaganda for established interests, and that there is little escape from this propaganda in industrialized nations.” (Wikipedia, “culture jamming”) An expert in this topic, a film producer, writer and lecturer at Griffith University’s School of Film Media and Cultural Studies, David Cox, describes Culture Jamming in the following way: “Culture-jammer work looks ruefully around at the contemporary landscape and sees little other than visual and sonic evidence of a world made ugly, dull and boring by the all-pervasive influence of commerce. Ads and posters for products dominate the streets, company logos adorn every other piece of clothing, cars and buildings. Less and less can be done in a contemporary city without a healthy amount of money in your pocket, and of course, access to the facilities of electronic banking, point of sale purchasing, credit cards and so on.” (Cox, “Notes on Culture Jamming) According to another expert in the field of mass media and “culture jamming”, Marc Dery, “culture jamming” can be at best defined as “media hacking, information warfare, terror-art, and guerrilla semiotics, all in one. Billboard bandits, pirate TV and radio broadcasters, media hoaxers, and other vernacular media wrenchers who intrude on the intruders, investing ads, newscasts, and other media artifacts with subversive meanings are all culture jammers.” (Dery, …………).
The Culture-Jammers: Art of Intelligent Sabotage. While governmental regulation agencies and political activists have adapted structures to allow corporate propaganda and brainwashing, media activists have pioneered a new form to combat the informational abuse: “culture jamming”. “Culture jammers” use the same collage and design aesthetics as the advertisements and other means of mass media propaganda in order to convey their message to reverse the intended emotion. While governmental regulation agencies and political activists have adapted structures to allow corporate propaganda and brainwashing, media activists have pioneered a new form to combat the informational abuse: “culture jamming”. Like the pranksters who creatively deface billboards, culture jammers hack into the essence of a corporate media propaganda and turn it against itself. In his “Notes on Culture Jamming”, David Cox explains that for the culture-jammers, what they are doing is an entire way of life. “Its advocates generally reject the notion of the citizen as merely consumer, and the idea of society as merely marketplace.” (Cox, “Notes on Culture Jamming”) The culture-jammers and media activist view the life questions as the underlying social relations which provide guidance for the role of media in the consumerist culture. The methods Culture-jammers are strategies for self-empowerment and intelligent protest including self-publishing and self-broadcasting. Self made magazines (the so-called “fanzines”), cultural-guerrilla radio stations, techno music done by amateur teenagers, personal internet production, graffiti and bombing, hacking, billboard alteration and other forms of popular cultural sabotage and media resistance to the mainstream can belong to the broad movement of media activism and culture sabotage.
Culture Jammers find the materials for their work in mass media “trash cans” where the ruff works, unaccomplished copies, and unaccepted media material, etc. go. Other opportunities are the donated film cans, materials thrown out from secondary schools and colleges, mail order sources, as well as various libraries and archives. The material is closely examined and evaluated on such factors as its visual strength, narrative context, potential as a part in a mosaic, the degree to which the material is shocking or provoking, etc. The works of culture jammers are created from whatever material is at hand, while as the material itself provides inspiration and ideas, thus helping to direct the topic. The works (collages, films, etc.) make themselves from the availability and relevance of the material to the subject, while as the subject appears in correlation with types of footage and material available. The described two-way mutual dependency between the materials and the overall theme or worldview is the main basis of the culture jamming aesthetic. “Junk, funk, trash, and cast off stuff become transformed and alchemically its meanings are re-arranged. Media become the ventriloquist’s doll for the film-maker, saying what s/he wants it to say, doing what the film maker wants it to do.” (Cox, Notes on Culture Jamming)
Aims of Satire: Examples of Culture Jamming. Typically, there are two aims for the shots of culture jammers: business activity (advertising, PR, etc.) and politics. There is also the whole group of those that are focused of the relations between the big business and the government, especially critique of bribery and corporations’ control over the government. An example of an action opposing this trend was “Million Billionaire March”, which took place on the date of elections 2000 and took place in New York City, where a big group of talented volunteer designers, media producers, and veteran street theater activists was gathered. The artists began to put the pieces of the campaign in place. The jammers created a stylish logo by splicing together a donkey and elephant, and a “candidate” by using computer design to morph the pictures of presidential candidates G.W. Bush and Al Gore into a single eerie picture. There were stickers, posters, shields, buttons, all supported by the web site (www.billionairesforbushorgore.org) created. The material contained provoking and daring slogans devoted to the power abuse and corporate control, such as: “Free the Forbes 400”, “Corporations are people too”, “We’re paying for America’s free elections so you don’t have to”, “We don’t care who you vote for, we’ve already bought them”, etc. These were accompanied by a row of more content-rich materials, such as political platform, a full campaign speech, a candidate product comparison chart, as well as so-called “campaign-contribution-return-on-your-investment-analysis.” The Culture jammers went even further by starting various mock radio ads on about one hundred radio stations across the country. The artists did their best to make the content of the satire eloquent, compact, target-focused, and funny.
There are many other examples of culture jamming works attacking advertisement. Some of them can be already found in the Art Galleries, and others are available on the pirate Web Sites. An example of cigarette advertisement critique outlined by the culture jammers is observed in one of the works consisting of two posters: one poster shows Joe Camel, the symbol of Camel brand, looking cool; the second, a culture-jammed Camel, shows the reality of smoking – the old looking sick camel on the hospital bed. Another case of anti-cigarette jamming is, a Spring 1996 spread ad reading “Welcome to Marlboro Country”, while Marlboro logo is mimicked, but instead of a cowboy on a horse riding through the West, a crowd of employees huddle in the cold outside an office building amid a cloud of smoke. In the bottom right-hand corner of the poster there is a script: “Smoking causes hypothermia as well as premature death.” Some culture jamming works ridicule the trend of globalization, for example one which depicts the fact that world’s Americanization is often called McDonaldization: on that poster two MC Donalds employees stand in front of a huge MC Donalds Sign with their hands on the heart, just like citizens are expected to look when they listen to the national hymn. As it can be seen from the examples above, besides the actuality, or “sharpness” of the topic, another feature of a successful culture jamming work is the satiric contrast.
Effective Goodwill or Brick in the Wall? The information industry including media, advertisement, and culture jamming itself is such a dense complexity of networks that, as Garreth Branwyn pointed out, it operates as an ecosystem: “a huge self-organizing interpenetrating organism, a system so large and complex that it is, in a sense, wild and “out of control,” or at least can’t be programmed or controlled from any one point or by any one entity. Viewing the overall media body as an ecology can help activists switch focus from the hard boundaries of commercial vs. non-commercial, mainstream vs. sidestream, and top-down vs. bottom-up to a more fluid and nuanced model.” (Branwyn, “Jamming the Media: A Citizen’s Guide to Reclaiming the Tools of Communication”)
From all the discussed above a fair question comes up: Is culture jamming itself just another form of propaganda? The previous question is immediately followed by the next: If it is not, is it effective? Some culture jammers intent to make people more conscious of the influence of marketing and advertising – and then foster activism out of that growing awareness. The culture jammers that belong to this group either perform art for hearts sake, thus not aiming at mass acceptance and simply expressing the disparate mood of the consumerist generation; the second portion are the mass-oriented idea promoters, which either do it for the purpose of good will or for a certain purpose. To answer, the first question, culture jamming surely can be (although not obligatory) a certain kind of propaganda. Culture Jamming also bears a strong ideological load, a certain commitment of the temper of resistance-culture. Moreover, culture jamming intents to persuade. From this point of view, one can propose that culture jamming becomes a propaganda when it has an intensified character and does not reflect the reality which it comments on (i.e., its critique is based on invalid facts). However, we do not see the overflow of culture jamming in the Media. Therefore, it is not in the mainstream, but the countermovement providing critique on that mainstream. Culture jamming, predominately, is also the work of single artists or small groups of individuals, and is not empowered or sponsored by the “people and organizations at power”. That is why I would disagree that culture jamming is propaganda in the majority of cases. What concerns the effectiveness of the culture jamming, I would be less optimistic here. The culture jamming did not grow into a consequent and organized mass movement until now, which is able to bring some positive change. The problems it indicates are not solved, and some of them are even getting worse. Perhaps, the presence of the culture jammers that is, however, not strong enough to bring change is even beneficial for the corporations and people at power. The presence of critique indicates that there is freedom and democracy in this country and calms down the people, and the inability of critics to make change secures the position of the Media controllers. So, culture jamming is not very effective until now. Anyway, culture jamming provides alternative ideas, and is not it ideas that gradually change the world?