The term, Culture Jamming, has been around for several decades now, decades of dramatic change in the media environment and in the political sphere. Does the term still have use value in an era of podcasts, blogs, viral media, memes, and social networking sites? Does the term mean what it once did now that the goal is no longer simply to block the flow of dominant media, but rather to reshape the flow, as grassroots media producers command more influence and attention than ever before?
This is the question which motivated Moritz Fink and Marilyn DeLaure as they set out to produce a new anthology, Culture Jamming: Activism and the Art of Cultural Resistance. What they came back with is pretty compelling -- a collection of essays by some of today's top thinkers about media politics and social change, a series of case studies and interviews with activists and artists who are reshaping the media environment with their disruptive tactics and compelling visions of alternative social orders.
Full disclosure: I contributed an essay for the book about the "Not in Harry's Name" campaign and the Harry Potter Alliance more generally.
The topic could not be better timed, it turns out, as we are all looking for new forms of resistance to oppressive and reactionary governments around the world. I have already made this book assigned reading in my seminar on Participatory Politics and the Civic Imagination this spring, and I suspect others will want to consider it as they are making plans for teaching next semester. To help you commit to such an assignment, I am going to be running a two part interview with its editors which explores many of the book's key themes and debates. Enjoy!
Mark Dery’s “Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing and Sniping in the Empire of Signs”, which you reprint at the start of your collection, was first published in 1993 in a very different context, both in terms of the political moment and the media landscape. What led you to believe that now was a good time to reconsider and, arguably, reclaim the culture jamming concept?
The concept of culture jamming emerged in the late 1980s as a reaction against what felt at the time like an overwhelming flow of media imagery turning us into passive consumers. This notion, of course, recalls the alarmist voices of the Frankfurt School, whose thinkers stressed the manipulative power of what they called the “culture industries”—mass media as an instrument of capitalism that must be resisted. With the digital revolution, more and more people became aware how multilayered and heterogeneous the media landscape really was, which has bolstered emphasis on the democratic potential of the media, old and new. Yet, at the same time, it is a truism that we are bombarded with media messages, day by day, hour by hour, second by second, even though we increasingly find ourselves to be players (some more active, some less) in the media spheres in which we are situated.
So, to come back to your question, why now? While the term “culture jamming” may have largely fallen into disuse since the late 1990s, the practices have certainly persisted and evolved with the rise of new communication technologies and the ever-growing impact of media content. Furthermore, as several examples in our book demonstrate—the case of Shepard Fairey’s HOPE poster promoting Barack Obama, or Pussy Riot’s protest performances against Putin—culture jamming has now broadened its scope beyond parody ads and altered billboards. Culture jamming tactics are being used not only to contest consumer culture, but also to intervene in politics and social movements. As Naomi Klein argues in her recent book No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, Donald Trump represents the apotheosis of branding merged with politics. So in that respect, we need culture jamming now more than ever.
Should we understand culture jamming as a vocabulary of tactics or as an underlying theory of media power and social change? How might we think about the relationship between the two?
We see culture jamming as a collection of tactics, as well as a critical attitude and participatory, creative form of activism. Some of these tactics are associated with practices of cultural resistance, such as textual poaching or semiotic appropriation and resignification. In addition, culture jamming provides more specific terminology suggestive of the concept’s distinct artful as well as bellicose impetus: “détournement,” a French term which evokes the act of turning culture back upon itself, through the appropriation and creative reworking of signs; “subvertisement” which refers to the artistic subversion of advertisements; “semiotic guerilla,” “semiotic jujutsu,” and “meme warfare,” all of which underline the David-versus-Goliath mentality inherent to the concept. Another important element of culture jamming is humor: aping, mocking, parodying, satirizing … in George Orwell’s words, “every joke is a tiny revolution.” Culture jamming is protest art informed by various artistic traditions like Dada, modernist pop art, graffiti, punk rock; there is a performative dimension of culture jamming, too, apparent in forms like pranking, hoaxing, street theater, or flash mobs.
As you know, I have expressed some skepticism that the underlying assumptions of the culture jamming concept, which stresses people standing outside the operations of mass media and seeking to disrupt its operations, clog the works, block the signs, jam the channels, etc., makes sense given the greater access many have today to the means of cultural production and circulation. How might the introduction of social media force us to at minimal reassess what we mean by culture jamming?
When I (Moritz) began the project several years ago, I seemed to misunderstand culture jamming as a form of playing with culture. Interestingly enough, as I moved forward, I not only came to learn the term’s original critical meaning, but also discovered that I shared this “misunderstanding” with several other scholars. My initial understanding of culture jamming as akin to musical jamming, or “playing with”—which Mark Levine’s chapter echoes—offers a necessary supplement to the negative blocking view. In the book, we make the argument that, while culture jamming is an expression of resisting the dominant culture, it is also playful and participatory, as many jammers blur the lines of authorship, and thus invite imitation and participation.
So, yes, citizens are no longer outside the sites of cultural production—social media situates us to be producers as well as consumers of media content. On the other hand, though, social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter demand to be constantly fed. So, jamming today might not always involve clogging or blocking media channels, in the classic sense of throwing a wrench into the machine, but may instead manifest as a creative coopting and subversive remaking of media content. For example, in our book’s Introduction, we highlight an example of “brandjacking,” where an activist group launched the fake PR initiative #AskChevron to draw attention to the environmental damage the Chevron corporation has done in Ecuador. The feedback was enormous, and people (intentionally or not) participated in the jam, posting tweets like “Are you the devil?” or “Can you tell me which country I should bribe & dump my toxins in?”
What relationship do you see between "memes" as the term is currently understood as a new media practice and the concept of culture jamming? Do "memes" offer us new opportunities to "highjack signs" and increase the visibility of alternative messages? Or has meme-making become such a mundane part of our social media landscape that it no longer has a disruptive or subversive impact?
Memes themselves—as spreadable bits of mediated culture—are neither inherently subversive nor inherently mundane. We have innumerable LOLcats, but also PepperSprayCop, NotABugSplat, ICan’tBreathe, and TinyTrump. To us, “meme” signals a certain form: an image, word, or idea that is easily altered and repurposed and spread. Yes, memes can achieve high levels of visibility and rapid, widespread reach … but as for their potential to disrupt or subvert, that depends on the specific content and context.
Dery described culture jamming as an “elastic category,” but as with many such broad terms, the more examples we attach to this term, the harder it becomes to define. Do we have a sense of what these various examples of culture jamming have in common? Is it possible to define what isn’t culture jamming?
In our book’s Introduction, we define the modus operandi of culture jamming, in effect explaining what culture jamming is by mapping what it does. We name eight key characteristics that define culture jamming: it appropriates, operates serially, and is artful, playful, (often) anonymous, participatory, political, and transgressive.
Of course it’s possible to find things that are NOT culture jamming: objects and texts and practices that reproduce dominant power structures and fuel consumer capitalism, that discourage participation and foreclose critique. But definition is an interpretive act, and so context matters greatly in each particular instance.
One of the more impressive dimensions of your collection is the attempt to expand the concept of culture jamming into other national contexts, including, for example, the international Occupy movement or the Arab Spring movements. As we do so, these questions of context would seem to matter all the more, though, as we shift from contexts where free market capitalism reigns to situations where what is being resisted are various forms of state power. Can we use the same conceptual models to talk about both situations?
Interestingly, we have found that forms of culture jamming emerge in tandem with the expansion of communication technologies and spread of global capital. Think of the Arab Spring, which would not have unfolded the way it did without Facebook and mobile phones. Or the protest actions of the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot, which reached a broad audience through YouTube. Of course, we have forms of state power here that are different from what we would define as Western democracy, but as people around the world are increasingly sharing the same media culture, concepts of media theory become applicable, at least in part, to various national or political contexts.
Moritz Fink is a freelance media scholar and author. He holds a doctoral degree in American Studies from the University of Munich, and has published on contemporary media culture, popular satire, and representations of the grotesque. His most recent book is the co-edited volume Culture Jamming: Activism and the Art of Cultural Resistance (NYU Press, 2017).
Marilyn DeLaure is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at the University of San Francisco. She has published essays on dance, civil rights rhetoric, and environmental activism, and is co-editor of Culture Jamming: Activism and the Art of Cultural Resistance (NYU Press, 2017).