For Jef: Deriving a Framework for Meddlings

Culture jamming:

[snip from

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.)

[End of snip]

Other places that talk abut culture jamming:

I also liked this piece on critiques of culture jamming:

[snip from

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.

[End of snip]

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”.

[snip from

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.

[end of snip]

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.


One response to “For Jef: Deriving a Framework for Meddlings

  1. An older source that presages cultural jamming (especially in architecture and urbanism)

    “Toward a Situationist International
    by Guy Debord, June 1957

    OUR CENTRAL IDEA is the construction of situations, that is to say, the concrete construction of momentary ambiances of life and their transformation into a superior passional quality. We must develop a systematic intervention based on the complex factors of two components in perpetual interaction: the material environment of life and the behaviors which it gives rise to and which radically transform it.
    Our perspectives of action on the environment ultimately lead us to the notion of unitary urbanism. Unitary urbanism is defined first of all as the use of all arts and techniques as means contributing to the composition of a unified milieu. Such an interrelated ensemble must be envisaged as incomparably more far-reaching than the old domination of architecture over the traditional arts, or than the present sporadic application to anarchic urbanism of specialized technology or of scientific investigations such as ecology. Unitary urbanism must, for example, determine the acoustic environment as well as the distribution of different varieties of food and drink. It must include both the creation of new forms and the détournement of previous forms of architecture, urbanism, poetry and cinema. Integral art, which has been talked about so much, can be realized only at the level of urbanism. But it can no longer correspond to any of the traditional aesthetic categories. In each of its experimental cities unitary urbanism will act by way of a certain number of force fields, which we can temporarily designate by the classic term “quarter.” Each quarter will tend toward a specific harmony distinct from neighboring harmonies; or else will play on a maximum breaking up of internal harmony.
    Secondly, unitary urbanism is dynamic, in that it is directly related to styles of behavior. The most elementary unit of unitary urbanism is not the house, but the architectural complex, which combines all the factors conditioning an ambiance, or a series of clashing ambiances, on the scale of the constructed situation. Spatial development must take into account the emotional effects that the experimental city is intended to produce. One of our comrades has advanced a theory of “states-of-mind” quarters, according to which each quarter of a city would be designed to provoke a specific basic sentiment to which people would knowingly expose themselves. It seems that such a project draws appropriate conclusions from the current tendency to depreciate randomly encountered primary sentiments, and that its realization could contribute to accelerating that depreciation. The comrades who call for a new, free architecture must understand that this new architecture will primarily be based not on free, poetic lines and forms — in the sense that today’s “lyrical abstract” painting uses those terms — but rather on the atmospheric effects of rooms, hallways, streets — atmospheres linked to the gestures they contain. Architecture must advance by taking emotionally moving situations, rather than emotionally moving forms, as the material it works with. And the experiments conducted with this material will lead to new, as yet unknown forms.
    Psychogeographical research, “the study of the exact laws and specific effects of geographical environments, whether consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals,” thus takes on a double meaning: active observation of present-day urban agglomerations and development of hypotheses on the structure of a situationist city. The progress of psychogeography depends to a great extent on the statistical extension of its methods of observation, but above all on experimentation by means of concrete interventions in urbanism. Before this stage is attained we cannot be certain of the objective truth of the initial psychogeographical findings. But even if these findings should turn out to be false, they would still be false solutions to what is nevertheless a real problem.
    Our action on behavior, linked with other desirable aspects of a revolution in mores, can be briefly defined as the invention of games of an essentially new type. The most general goal must be to expand the nonmediocre part of life, to reduce the empty moments of life as much as possible. One could thus speak of our enterprise as a project of quantitatively increasing human life, an enterprise more serious than the biological methods currently being investigated, and one that automatically implies a qualitative increase whose developments are unpredictable. The situationist game is distinguished from the classic notion of games by its radical negation of the element of competition and of separation from everyday life. On the other hand, it is not distinct from a moral choice, since it implies taking a stand in favor of what will bring about the future reign of freedom and play.
    This perspective is obviously linked to the continual and rapid increase of leisure time resulting from the level of productive forces our era has attained. It is also linked to the recognition of the fact that a battle of leisure is taking place before our eyes, a battle whose importance in the class struggle has not been sufficiently analyzed. So far, the ruling class has succeeded in using the leisure the revolutionary proletariat wrested from it by developing a vast industrial sector of leisure activities that is an incomparable instrument for stupefying the proletariat with by-products of mystifying ideology and bourgeois tastes. The abundance of televised imbecilities is probably one of the reasons for the American working class’s inability to develop any political consciousness. By obtaining through collective pressure a slight rise in the price of its labor above the minimum necessary for the production of that labor, the proletariat not only extends its power of struggle, it also extends the terrain of the struggle. New forms of this struggle then arise alongside directly economic and political conflicts. It can be said that up till now revolutionary propaganda has been constantly overcome within these new forms of struggle in all the countries where advanced industrial development has introduced them. That the necessary changing of the infrastructure can be delayed by errors and weaknesses at the level of superstructures has unfortunately been demonstrated by several experiences of the twentieth century. It is necessary to throw new forces into the battle of leisure. We will take our position there.
    A rough experimentation toward a new mode of behavior has already been made with what we have termed the dérive: the practice of a passional journey out of the ordinary through a rapid changing of ambiances, as well as a means of study of psychogeography and of situationist psychology. But the application of this will to playful creation must be extended to all known forms of human relationships, so as to influence, for example, the historical evolution of sentiments like friendship and love. Everything leads us to believe that the essential elements of our research lie in our hypothesis of constructions of situations.
    A person’s life is a succession of fortuitous situations, and even if none of them is exactly the same as another the immense majority of them are so undifferentiated and so dull that they give a perfect impression of sameness. As a result, the rare intensely engaging situations found in life only serve to strictly confine and limit that life. We must try to construct situations, that is to say, collective ambiances, ensembles of impressions determining the quality of a moment. If we take the simple example of a gathering of a group of individuals for a given time, it would be desirable, while taking into account the knowledge and material means we have at our disposal, to study what organization of the place, what selection of participants and what provocation of events are suitable for producing the desired ambiance. The powers of a situation will certainly expand considerably in both time and space with the realizations of unitary urbanism or the education of a situationist generation.
    The construction of situations begins beyond the ruins of the modern spectacle. It is easy to see how much the very principle of the spectacle — nonintervention — is linked to the alienation of the old world. Conversely, the most pertinent revolutionary experiments in culture have sought to break the spectators’ psychological identification with the hero so as to draw them into activity by provoking their capacities to revolutionize their own lives. The situation is thus designed to be lived by its constructors. The role played by a passive or merely bit-part playing “public” must constantly diminish, while that played by those who cannot be called actors, but rather, in a new sense of the term, “livers,” must steadily increase.
    We have to multiply poetic subjects and objects — which are now unfortunately so rare that the slightest ones take on an exaggerated emotional importance — and we have to organize games for these poetic subjects to play with these poetic objects. This is our entire program, which is essentially transitory. Our situations will be ephemeral, without a future. Passageways. Our only concern is real life; we care nothing about the permanence of art or of anything else. Eternity is the grossest idea a person can conceive of in connection with his acts.”


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