Culture jamming, or sniggling, is the 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. Culture jamming’s intent differs from that of artistic appropriation (which is done for art’s sake) and vandalism (where destruction or defacement is the primary goal), although its results are not always so easily distinguishable.
The phrase “culture jamming” comes from the idea of radio jamming: that public frequencies can be pirated and subverted for independent communication, or to disrupt dominant frequencies. The Situationist International first made the comparison to radio jamming in 1968, when it proposed the use of guerrilla communication within mass media to sow confusion within the dominant culture. (Kalle Lasn, the founder of AdBusters magazine, wrote a book entitled Culture Jam, but the term predates his title.)
Culture jamming is a form of activism and a resistance movement to the perceived hegemony of popular culture, based on the ideas of “guerrilla communication” and the “detournement” of popular icons and ideas. It has roots in the German concept of spass guerilla and in the Situationist International. Forms of culture jamming include adbusting, performance art, graffiti, and hacktivism (such as cybersquatting.)
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Other places that talk abut culture jamming:
I also liked this piece on critiques of culture jamming:
Critique of Culture Jamming
Canadian authors Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter in 2004 released a book called The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can’t be Jammed, criticizing culture jamming as not only ineffective, but encouraging the very consumerism it seeks to quell. (The U.S. release of the book is called Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture). In a wider critique of the underlying theory of counterculture, Heath and Potter note that the capitalist system thrives not on conformity — as so many ‘culture jammers’ believe — but rather on individualism and a quest for distinction. Thus, culture jamming cannot bring down “the system” or “The Man,” because “the system” doesn’t care if you do things differently from others, and, in fact, is more than happy to accommodate you by selling you ‘non-conformist’ goods.
The book goes on to explain that consumerism comes largely from competitive consumption in an effort for distinction, and ‘rebellion’ is an excellent path to distinction. Since most goods depend on exclusivity for their value, especially goods which are said to decry mainstream life, a purchasing ‘arms race’ is created whenever others begin to follow the same tendencies: if you lag, you become mainstream. Not surprisingly, then, the image of rebelliousness or non-conformity has long been a selling point for many products, especially those that begin as ‘alternative’ products. Far from being ‘subversive,’ encouraging the purchase of such products (such as Adbusters’ line of running shoes) does nothing more than turn them into ‘mainstream’ ones. This tendency is very easy to observe in music, for example.
Critically, explain Heath and Potter, most of society’s problems (and rules) are traceable to collective action problems, not traits inherent in our culture as most culture jammers believe, a mistake which leads them to attempt to disrupt the existing social order with very few results. It also allows people to wrongly claim a political element to their lifestyle preferences, or glorify criminality as a form of dissent.
The book recommends a simple legislative solution to problems such as consumerism, for example, through eliminating tax deductions for advertising. The authors also point, however, to the counterculture’s tendency to reject so-called ‘institutional’ solutions, a mistake which merely invites the problem to remain.
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And I think the item below really expresses somethings of interest to our conversation.
This is an interesting way in which the use of the term “culture jamming” can be seen to sit on a continuum from small acts (denouements of which we talked today) to explicit activism. I liked this discussion as it picks up the work of Hebidge – I liked his book on Subcultures very much. I have asterisked the pieces I think may be of interest as a framework for positioning work like that Eric and friends do in what I have decided to call our “Framework for Meddlings”.
In the “Cultural Studies” model, “culture” is a field of conflicting and competing forces resulting from structured asymmetries in power, capital, and value.
Cultural Studies as an academic field has been accused of dematerializing or leveling media content in order to objectify ideological and political messages for analysis. The approach is often further characterized as an “effects” model of analysis that focuses on capitalist and corporate mechanisms of control and usually omits the agency and activity of individuals, groups, and subcultures who are the receivers and users of media.
Stuart Hall’s “cultural marxism” approach builds out a more complex model based on extending the theory of hegemony, the social-economic processes for “manufacturing consent” among the lower classes (the “have-nots” or “have-lesses”) to buy-in to the view promoted by ownership classes (“the haves”).
In this view of cultural studies, mass media and communications typically encode (implicitly presuppose as a context for meaning) a dominant ideology which finds mass acceptance. Media is thus ideologically encoded to maximize the willing consent of the consumer and “have-nots” to “keep with the program” and perpetuate the status quo of power and wealth distribution.
Hegemony of ideologies that protect the governing and ownership class is not a matter of force, coercion, or obvious deliberate manipulation. It functions so well because it relies on the willing consent of those with less power and wealth to accept a dominant ideology, to see the world and act according the view of those above.
Examples of mainstream ideologies that circulate in the media and protect hegemonic power:
* Free speech (as a belief, when few have power in what they voice)
* Individuality (great for marketing, since consumerism requires the simultaneous presentation of unique personal choices and identities and the need to look and buy like everyone else in an identity group)
* Freedom of choice (part of our individuality beliefs, also the main assumption in consumer culture and marketing: the ideology of the shopping mall)
In this view of hegemony and culture, social behavior is overdetermined by multiple identity factors like race, social class, sex and gender, and nationality, which are encoded in hierarchies of power, significance, and economic value.
But Hall and others like Dick Hebidge show that people have many strategies for dealing with media contents: ***operate in the dominant code, use a negotiable code (accepts but modifies the meaning based on the viewer’s and viewer communities position), or substitute an oppositional code (using critical awareness, demystification, irony, subversion, play, parody, like DJ sampling)***. In this way, many subcultures are formed around group uses of media, images, and music that create identities and differentiations from mainstream or dominant culture.
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A snippet on resistence and acceptance:
Gramsci used the term hegemony to denote the predominance of one social class over others (e.g. bourgeois hegemony). This represents not only political and economic control, but also the ability of the dominant class to project its own way of seeing the world so that those who are subordinated by it accept it as ‘common sense’ and ‘natural’. Commentators stress that this involves willing and active consent. Common sense, suggests Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, is ‘the way a subordinate class lives its subordination’ (cited in Alvarado & Boyd-Barrett 1992: 51).
However, unlike Althusser, Gramsci emphasizes struggle. He noted that ‘common sense is not something rigid and immobile, but is continually transforming itself’ (Gramsci, cited in Hall 1982: 73). As Fiske puts it, ‘Consent must be constantly won and rewon, for people’s material social experience constantly reminds them of the disadvantages of subordination and thus poses a threat to the dominant class… Hegemony… posits a constant contradiction between ideology and the social experience of the subordinate that makes this interface into an inevitable site of ideological struggle’ (Fiske 1992: 291). References to the mass media in terms of an ideological ‘site of struggle’ are recurrent in the commentaries of those influenced by this perspective. Gramsci’s stance involved a rejection of economism since it saw a struggle for ideological hegemony as a primary factor in radical change.