Digital Detournement: Jamming (With) the Simpsons-Banksy Intro, Jonnystyle

The politics and poetics of remix culture remains an ongoing interest of this blog. It’s no secret that my own interests in this issue goes back to my early work about fan culture in Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (some twenty plus years ago) or that I regard meaningful and ethical appropriation to be one of the core media literacies of the 21st century. I recently had a chance to sit down with Moritz Fink, a German-based researcher who has been doing some provocative work looking at The Simpsons in relation to the larger history of cultural jamming politics, a project which seeks to rethink culture jamming not simply as a disruption or interruption of mass media feeds but also as having the potential to “jam with” popular culture, creating something new out of the raw materials provided us by mass media producers.

Anyone who has thought about The Simpsons and especially its relationship with Rupert Murdock’s Fox Network recognize that there’s something curious going on here: The Simpsons both embodies a highly successful commercial franchise, one which extends across conglomerate media, and at the same time, it often models subversive and resistant relationships to corporate culture, going back to its roots in alternative comics. Early on, Matt Groening embraced the grassroots entrepreneurialism represented by the “Black Bart” T-shirts which transformed the Simpsons into a vehicle for Afro-Centric critique of white culture.

As we were talking, Fink shared with me a really compelling and more recent example of how The Simpsons sought to incorporate a street art aesthetic (by employing Banksy to design a special credit sequence) and then how this incorporation was taken up and critiqued by another remix artist (Jonnystyle). This seemed like a very “teachable moment,” i.e. a rich example which many of us might draw into our classes as we seek to explain cultural politics with our students, so I asked if he would be willing to write up and share his analysis through this blog. I am very proud to be passing his piece along to you today.

Digital Detournement: Jamming (With) the Simpsons-Banksy Intro, Jonnystyle

by Moritz Fink

How many culture jammers does it take to change a light bulb? The answer is four: one to hold the camera, one to call the news, and another two to install a huge neon sign that reads turn the lights off day.

No, I don’t mean to make fun of culture jammers. In fact, I’m with former Dead Kennedys singer and culture jammer Jello Biafra’s notion: “A prank a day keeps the dog leash away.”[1] Especially in world saturated by media images and corporate-sponsored messages, culture jamming appears to be the most compelling form of rhetoric to make a voice of dissent heard. What I find irritating, however, is the common identification of culture jamming with a cliché of cultural pessimists and sticks-in-the-mud.

Initial to the theorization of culture jamming was Mark Dery’s groundbreaking 1993 essay, Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing, and Sniping in the Empire of Signs. For Dery, culture jammers answer Umberto Eco’s call for “communication guerillas”: “Intruding on the intruders,” he writes, “[culture jammers] invest ads, newscasts, and other media artifacts with subversive meanings; simultaneously, they decrypt them, rendering their seductions impotent.” Dery’s portrayal of anti-corporate or anti-consumerist activists such as the Billboard Liberation Front and Adbusters magazine under the catchy label culture jamming went viral. It just worked — both as an umbrella term and popular buzzword.

But differentiating between a culture industry in the tradition of the Frankfurt School and the consumers, who get “seduced” by it, gets increasingly difficult. The end of network television and the rise of the Internet as a new participatory medium are but the two most evident developments that indicate how profoundly the cultural infrastructure has changed during the 1990s. Thus, if we still cling to the notion of culture jamming as a practice of would-be revolutionaries who perceive the (mass) media as a monolithic entity and one-way communication tool, we’re rendering the term obsolete instead of updating it for the 21st century.

I would like, therefore, to argue against a definition of culture jamming that privileges the countercultural (though it is undoubtedly part of the concept). Culture jamming has never just referred to a jamming of culture (as negation); it always included a jamming with culture (as artful appropriation). Adbusters, for instance, has never been only a form of cultural criticism and disruption; it has always been a form of cultural production, too. Although Adbusters represents an anti-corporate stance, it is an active part of the media landscape as we see it today. Vice-versa, the culture industries — despite their capitalist raison d’être — do not necessarily reinforce a capitalist ideology; some of their products involve anticorporate or anticonsumerist messages, for example, in forms of satire.

The year the Adbusters Media Foundation was born, 1989, also saw the debut of the television series The Simpsons, one of the most popular forms of satire today. A double-coded text, The Simpsons isn’t only a mainstream product and brand that brings millions of dollars to its producers as well as its mother network, the Murdoch-owned Twentieth Century Fox. At the same time, it’s a text that appropriates other artifacts of popular culture and satirically comments on their cultural meanings and contradictions (including parodying itself and its own context of commercial television).

In one of The Simpsons’ annual Halloween episodes, for instance, the people of Springfield face an armada of gigantic turned-to-life billboards and corporate mascots that literally intrude into their lives, rampaging through the town and destroying their homes. Finally, it is Lisa who successfully turns off the invaders (ironically by performing an anti-ad jingle together with the singer Paul Anka — what Planet Simpson author Chris Turner compares to the tactics used by culture jammers). Lisa is “intruding on the intruders,” if you will; she beats the corporate monsters at their own game. In the final scene we see Springfield’s news reporter Kent Brockman talking into the camera (and thus implicitly addressing the viewers of The Simpsons): “Even as I speak, this scourge of advertising could be heading towards your town. Lock your doors! Bar your widows! Because the next advertisement you see could destroy your house and eat your family.” Then Homer appears in the image’s frame and adds the televisual commonplace, “We’ll be right back,” and The Simpsons cuts to commercials.

Of course, it’s not that The Simpsons invokes its audience to turn off their TV sets (you don’t want to bite the hand that feeds you, right?). But the popular show has successfully redefined the boundaries of what can be said and done on and with television by offering trenchant social satire and sophisticated media parody. On the air for more than two decades now, The Simpsons has inspired several generations of what Alvin Toffler, back in the 1980s, envisioned as “prosumers” (a neologism coined of the words “producer” and “consumer” that has become reality at least with the development of Web 2.0).

If prosumers create texts that evoke a level of critique or challenge towards the corporate media, we can discuss these texts as forms of culture jamming. To illustrate this point, I will show you a video clip that I found on YouTube during my research on the cultural meanings of The Simpsons. It is a mashup of the special Simpsons opening sequence created by the show’s writers in collaboration with British street artist Banksy for the 22nd-season episode “MoneyBART” (2010). But before we start, here’s the original…

 

 

…and here’s what became out of it: The creator of the mashup clip, who goes by the name of Jonnystyle, took the original intro sequence with all the self-ironic, postmodern shticks it sported in typical Simpsons-style, and transformed it into a critical response on both The Simpsons and Banksy.

 

 

Mmm… Subversion

To be sure, the original title sequence is interesting in its own regard. It starts like every Simpsons intro — the opening credits, the show’s theme, snapshots of life in Springfield. For those who watch The Simpsons now and then, however, it is already clear that this is not going to be an ordinary day in Springfield, not a normal Simpsons episode (no, I’m not referring to the new HD opening here — it was already introduced one year before, during season 20.) If they hadn’t known before from the Internet or TV Guide, viewers may first note the visuals through which Banksy’s pseudonymous signature was added to the Simpsons text. We see a billboard with a “Banksy” tag on it; or Bart writing repetitively “I must not write over the walls” in what is known to Simpsons fans as the “chalkboard gag” (after all, Bart is writing all over the walls). While these visual jokes are supposed to conjure up the anarchic spirit inherent to street art, Banksy’s political voice becomes especially explicit as the Simpson family gathers around the couch. With a sinister tune, we are shown what is underneath the happy cartoon show. In a dungeon-like, premodern setting, a battery of workers, apparently Asian children, produce Simpsons material: animation cells, Bart Simpson dolls and other merchandise articles, Simpsons DVDs, and so forth. Clearly, in a highly satiric fashion, Banksy’s grim portrayal references the show’s outsourcing to South Korean sweatshops.[2]

So far, so good. But what to make of this media fragment? Of course, a mere one-minute, forty-four second farce may seem negligible in contrast to the show’s economic status as cash cow for Twentieth Century Fox, a subsidiary of the massive conglomerate News Corporation.[3] After all, it’s only with Rupert Murdoch’s blessing that The Simpsons is able to broadcast such a trenchant form of satire. Although The Simpsons is provided with more creative freedom than virtually any other program in mainstream TV, it is still filtered by Fox’s executives.[4] And yet, what could be more indicative of The Simpsons’ meaning as pop cultural institution and avant-gardist than inviting of one of today’s most popular culture jammers and enabling him to criticize the show’s own exploitative practices. Postmodern chic? Perhaps. But certainly, a win-win-situation for both The Simpsons and Banksy.

We don’t know much about the production of the Simpsons-Banksy intro. It is pretty obvious, though, that Banksy only contributed to the storyboard of the sequence but wasn’t very much involved in the visuals of it. It is all Simpsons, nothing really Banksy-esque about it. Everything is shaped in the smooth, iconic Simpsons look.

 

Banksy’s Exit Through the Simpsons Gift Shop

What the original sequence lacks — or, perhaps, what it is not able to provide given Fox’s restrictive policies — is, however, achieved by Jonnystlye. On an animation cell we see the Simpson family sitting on the couch, and Jonnystyle writes himself into the Simpsons text. Homer transforms into a Simpsonized version of Jonnystyle’s recurring character, a big-headed cartoon with a moustache (in fact, at this point, it still could be an actual Simpsons “couch gag”). We see a hooded cartoon character (apparently Banksy), tagging a billboard with the slogan “Banksy” (still, perfectly realized in Simpsons iconography). Then appears Jonnystyle’s alter-ego and starts to chase the masked stranger. As both characters literally jump out of the frame, they morph into animated sketches on a scratchpad. Jonnystyle pulls down the black cloak of the Banksy avatar to reveal Mr. Burns, whom he smacks back into virtual space of the original Banksy-Simpsons title sequence.

Then comes my favorite part. While in the original intro sequence we see a machine that incessantly produces Bart Simpson dolls, in the Johnnystyle version the same machine vomits a hooded Mr. Burns figure. In the next scene, we see an array of these action figures in a supermarket shelf, completely arranged in Simpsons design and packaging that features the name “Banksy.”[1] As the camera zooms out, it shows the Fox logo, modified to read “20th Century Fox — Gift Shop” along with the brand logos of Ebay and Toys “R” Us as well as Polygone (which refers to a mall in Montpellier, the French city where Jonnystyle is from). To great effect, the shot parodies the original ending of the Banksy-Simpsons intro in which the Fox logo is depicted as huge monolith in the midst of a prison camp secured by barbed wire fence, watching towers, and searchlights. Also in mockery of the original, in the very last scene of the Jonnytstyle video, we see — as usually at the end of The Simpsons’ intros — an animated TV set with the credits (actually it reads “Copyright of Matt Groening” in the Jonnystyle clip) blended in, as well as a sledge hammer on top of it. As The Simpsons intro theme ends, the credits on the television screen read “Diverted by Jonnystyle.” We hear birds singing peacefully as the lower part of a real-life figure (Jonnystyle?) enters the scene, grabs the hammer, and with a loud BANG smashes the tube. At the point the screen bursts, we realize it actually was a real-life TV which just has been battered to pieces. Awesome.

So, what does the Jonnystyle video clip tell us? On one level, it illustrates many aspects of participatory culture in the Web 2.0 age. Not only is the clip circulated via YouTube, it also jams with The Simpsons with the same creative wit and pop cultural sensibility that The Simpsons has tapped into and taught its audience since the show’s inception, and especially before it became little less than a global institution of popular culture. In short, Jonnystyle embraces the series’ genuine aesthetics in order to write his own voice into the Simpsons text.

On another level, Jonnystyle revises the original sequence in that he provides us with several layers of critique. This aspect of culture jamming built into the remix clip is what I find particularly interesting. First of all, it is pretty obvious that Jonnystyle confirms Banksy’s original criticism of The Simpsons as a corporate brand in the age of globalization with everything that this entails. In addition to that, however, his video foregrounds Banksy’s own hypocrisy in this respect. Isn’t, after all, Banksy himself a brand?, the video implicitly asks. In this regard, it is no coincidence that Jonnystyle demasks Banksy as being Mr. Burns (read: the embodiment of capital and big business on The Simpsons). In linking Banksy with big business, Jonnystlye echoes the common accusation among street artists of Banksy being a sellout.

The sellout debate suggests another parallel to The Simpsons. In fact, a lot of Simpsons fans decried the series’ selling out as it went mainstream during the early 1990s. This parallel, then, is also present in Jonnystyle’s depiction of the Fox logo that comes along with the affix “Gift Shop.” Perhaps this allusion to Banksy’s 2010 pseudo-documentary film Exit Through the Gift Shop was unintended, but regardless, it captures well the overall tone of the Jonnystyle video.

 

Digital Detournement

According to Jonnystlye, his work is a sort of “détournement,” and I think this label helps us to understand what the video is doing. Originally, the term détournement refers to subversive aesthetic practices executed by the Situationist International, a French art collective of the 1950s and early 1960s. One of the leading figures in the Situationist circle was the Marxist intellectual artist Guy Debord. Mostly known as author of Society of the Spectacle, which is widely considered to be one of the central texts of the student revolts in France in 1968, Debord also wrote a number of political essays. In co-authorship with fellow artist Gil J. Wolman, Debord elaborated on the concept of détournement in a 1956 piece titled “A User’s Guide to Détournement.” Typical of left intellectuals at that time, Debord and Wolman bathe in philosophical — especially Hegelian and Marxian — language to describe their vision of a dialectical form of appropriative art which approaches a so-called “parodic-serious stage.”[5] In other words, their concept calls for subcultural appropriation that negates the ideology of the dominant (capitalist) culture.

Détournement, according to Debord translator Ken Knabb, means “deflection, diversion, rerouting, distortion, misuse, misappropriation, hijacking, or otherwise turning something aside from its normal course or purpose.” At this point, I do neither want to go into detail of Debord and Wolman’s original conception of détournement as a revolutionary practice (e.g., what they refer to as “literary communism”), nor do I want to suggest that the Jonnystyle video operates according to the Situationists’ and Debord’s vision of détournement. For Debord and Wolman, the film medium was a powerful vehicle for détournement, and Debord’s own films, like his 1961 Critique de la séperation (“Critique of Seperation”), suggest what he understands as a filmic form of détournement. In fact, the usage of clippings and images from other films or newsreels and the aspiration for Brechtian distanciation effects as we see it on Debord’s films creates an avant-garde aesthetic that is very different from Jonnystyle’s entertaining riff.

Nonetheless, there are two factors that strike me in this regard. First, Jonnystyle (like Debord, a French native-speaker, albeit unaware of the historic background of the term) refers to his video as a form of “détournement,” by which he means subversive content disguised as a piece of “official” culture.[6] Second, Jonnystyle’s reformulation of the term is situated in a media environment that differs significantly from what Debord calls a spectacular society back in the 1960s. As Henry Jenkins points out, we live in a media culture where contexts converge, “where old and new media collide, where grassroots and corporate media intersect, where the power of the media producer and the power of the media consumer interact in unpredictable ways.”[7] Hence, mediated détournement in the age of Web 2.0, what I propose to call digital detournement (the removal of the accent should imply the updated account of the term), does not so much come out of the motivation to negate the media per se, but rather to challenge the culture industries that distribute and sell the media content. Forms of digital detournement aren’t meant to disrupt communication channels; rather they understand these channels as their infrastructure and use the possibilities provided by the digital media age, such as YouTube, to circulate their subversive comments on the corporate media.

The Jonnystyle video is illustrating many aspects of this new media generation. Rather than taking snippets almost randomly from the realm of media, Jonnystyle deliberately appropriates one specific and also very popular media fragment to write his own narrative into it, and circulate the product in DIY fashion on YouTube and Vimeo. His ways of modifying the original, as well as circulating his mashup, then, are not acts of cultural pessimism. As I mentioned before, Jonnystyle embraces The Simpsons to create a new work that is sophisticated both in its aesthetics and critique vis-à-vis The Simpsons and Banksy. And, at another level, Jonnystyle’s critical voice — represented by the virtual unmasking and butt-kicking of Banksy and the demolition of the tube (read: The Simpsons) at the very end — emerges through gestures of culture jamming.

These different levels tell us a lot about the understanding of pop culture today as it is illustrated by the work of Banksy and, probably even more significantly, by The Simpsons. Jonnystyle does not “hate” the culture he criticizes — rather, he is an insider. Jonnystyle adopts the materials and even the style of the culture he toys with. Yet all this reworking isn’t done with a bitterness; it is executed in a affectionately playful way and with an eye for the detail.

 

Conclusion

The Simpsons exemplifies one of the major contradictions of mass culture today — that is, how mainstream can a product become, and yet still considered “oppositional”? Perhaps The Simpsons’ writers saw a connection there when they asked Banksy to do something for the show (indeed, Banksy’s rise from underground artist to major pop phenomenon is somewhat similar to The Simpsons’ cultural history). Or, was it because they were fans of Banksy? Of course, it would be just as plausible to suggest that Matt Groening & Co. figured it would be cool (let alone would pay off) to have a really famous guest star and hip cultural phenomenon for the show.

All this brings us back to Jonnystyle’s digital detournement. Jonnystyle appropriates the text, not only to artfully jam with it, but also to add a critical perspective to it — to jam the capitalist culture that is behind it, so to speak. In creative ways, he demonstrates his individual counter-reading of the original text. What Jonnystyle does is to implement a perspective of correction. His work articulates contradictions the Simpsons text necessarily entails. That Banksy considers himself a culture jammer is certainly just one of the paradoxes Jonnystyle reveals about the original intro. At the end of the Jonnystyle clip, the television screen — surely one of the major foci of the Simpsons series — gets smashed with a sledgehammer, an option the consumer-critical Simpsons by nature cannot and will never suggest.

 



[1] From my interview with Jonnystyle, I learned that he had taken original Mr. Burns action figures from The Simpsons to remake–and thus repurpose–them in that fashion.



[1] Qtd. in Mark Dery, “Culture Jamming.” http://markdery.com/?page_id=154.

[2] Banksy and The Simpsons’ writers were criticized for their morbid and degrading representation of Korean animations studios as sweatshops. http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2027768,00.html.

[3] See Linda Holmes. “‘The Simpsons’ Tries To Get Its Edge Back With A (Kind Of) Daring Opening.” http://www.npr.org/blogs/monkeysee/2010/10/12/130509380/-the-simpsons-tries-to-get-its-edge-back-with-a-kind-of-daring-opening.

[4] This is also true for the Banksy-intro, even so, as Simpsons executive producer Al Jean mentioned in an interview with The New York Times, about 95 percent of Banksy’s original storyboard made it into the final version. http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/10/11/the-simpsons-explains-its-button-pushing-banksy-opening/.

[5] Guy Debord. “A User’s Guide to Détournement.” Trans. Ken Knabb.  Bureau of Public Secrets. http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/detourn.htm>

[6] Interview with Jonnytsyle conducted via email in June 2012.

[7] Henry Jenkins. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: NYU P, 2006, p. 2.

 

Moritz Fink is a doctoral candidate in American Literature and Cultural History at the University of Munich. His dissertation project explores the cultural meaning of the television series The Simpsons in relation to cultural convergence and culture jamming. His areas of interest are media and television studies, cultural studies, disability studies, visual culture, political humor, and satire. Outside of his academic career, he’s a passionate musician and graphic designer.

Comments

  1. Thank you, Mortiz, for this very interesting and useful analysis!
    Another dimension I think would be worth exploring is how the Banksy/Simpsons collaboration fits into the context of the decline of The Simpsons franchise from its status as an unique cutting-edge show and gold standard of Hollywood creative humour of its first 8-10 seasons to its current much less charismatic version – see e.g. the book “Zombie Simpsons: How the Best Show Ever Became the Broadcasting Undead” available on Kindle or in free blog form here: http://deadhomersociety.com/zombiesimpsons/

    • Moritz Fink says:

      Absolutely, yes, there’s definitely a parallel going on here, I guess. Thanks also for pointing me to the blog by Charlie Sweatpants, Zhan Li. I’ve read some of Charlie’s posts a while ago and found them pretty intriguing, but I haven’t known the ebook so far. Well, now I do. Cool. Thanks so much!

  2. Great write up Henry, thanks for another captivating article

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