Friday, July 15, 2005

Why the Culture Can't be Jammed...

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 (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) 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 largely inspired by the writing of Thomas Frank, 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 cultures 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.