The case studies in the book also help us to map some other kinds of borders, as culture jamming rhetoric and practices are absorbed by Madison Avenue on the one hand and the art world on the other. The tendency is to read such examples primarily as a form of co-optation, but are there also ways that these border-crossing help to spread countercultural messages to new publics?
Definitely so, yes. Co-optation is certainly the buzz word here. The ad world makes use of culture jamming practices because they are rhetorically powerful. At the same time, some talented designers who work on Madison Avenue moonlight for organizations like Adbusters; so, if there ever existed a firm boundary between the subcultural domain of culture jamming and the media industry, it’s not there anymore. Yet this doesn’t necessarily need to be negative. Think of the Truth campaign by professional ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky. Michael Serazio’s chapter in our book describes how traditional anti-smoking campaigns often failed to move their target audiences, because they only strengthened the attraction of that which is forbidden. So CP+B took an alternative route by using the rebellious feeling of culture jamming tactics in its Truth campaign—for instance, by dumping a thousand body bags outside a tobacco company’s headquarters.
Moritz, your contribution here comes out of your larger project of providing a cultural-history context for thinking about The Simpsons. What does this particular example teach us about what happens as countercultural practices enter the commercial mainstream? Can The Simpsons still be subversive if it gets produced and marketed by Fox? Or is it another example of “the conquest of cool”?
You’re pointing to the old dilemma, Henry ;-) Can a cultural phenomenon as commercially successful as The Simpsons be at once a commodity, and thus subject to the logics of capitalism, and still be considered subversive? Well, in contrast to “the conquest of cool” argument which echoes the Frankfurt School’s cultural skepticism, I would argue it can. Subversion isn’t exclusive to productions operating below the radar of mainstream culture, especially at a time when we see how mainstream culture seeks to integrate virtually everything that connotes subcultural appeal. I’d say that what counts is the effect a certain cultural artifact has. So, yes, The Simpsons is definitely another example of neoliberalism’s cashing in on the cool, but, on the other hand, within its unusually long history, the show has had so many moments where it has torpedoed the dominant capitalist culture, albeit in the form of media representations. There is one episode where the show depicts a “Sprawl Mart” store to satirize the consumer culture and labor conditions disseminated by big box stores such as WalMart; in another instance, The Simpsons has humorously critiqued the plastering of public space with Starbucks coffee shops. The show’s viewers understand this as subversion and appreciate this element of the series. My favorite example here is when The Simpsons featured the social media platform Facebook on the series in 2010—at a time when the show became quite edgeless, Simpsons fan-critic Charlie Sweatpants complained about how uncritical this representation was. He found their show lacked in subversive intensity, a quality he and many other Simpsons fans previously found to be there.
Marilyn, one of your contributions was to interview or otherwise solicit responses from some of the artists and activists currently practicing in this space. How useful did these practitioners find the theory of culture jamming for explaining what they are doing through their work?
I sought out the interviews, work and commentary by these artists and activists to help flesh out and illustrate the concept of culture jamming, rather than the other way around. Most of the people I talked to have a long history of developing their artistic practices, and whether they explicitly conceived of themselves as “culture jammers” didn’t matter that much to me. Some saw themselves primarily as pranksters, others as artists, political activists, or alternative community builders. We believed that including the voices of artist-activists in our collection—in addition to those of academic theorists and critics—would offer valuable insights to our readers on the range of practices that we consider culture jamming.
Some critics have argued that culture jammers substitute a symbolic or semiotic polics for actual efforts to change the world. How valid do you think this criticism is? Are there examples where culture jamming has, in fact, led into more immediate forms of social action and political change? What might we learn from those examples?
Ascertaining the immediate effects of activism is a thorny affair. While there may be some value to the warnings abou semiotic play (including “clicktivism”) substituting for political action, several of our authors explore ways that participatory culture jamming can form a sort of on-ramp to other forms of activism. Furthermore, as Rebecca Solnit explains in this recent piece, we can’t know precisely what effects any kind of protest action or intervention will have on future movement work. Take, for instance, Occupy Wall Street, which was initially sparked by a call from Adbusters, but was then taken up by organizers in New York City and later around the world. Some argue that OWS failed, because it didn’t issue clear demands, or change laws, or elect any candidates. And yet, as Jack Bratich explains in his chapter, OWS was a powerful meme generator, and it left us with lasting terminology (“We are the 99%” and “Wall Street vs. Main Street”) that has informed public discourse in the US since. OWS also created or strengthened community ties that were later activated, such as the “Occupy Sandy” citizen relief efforts in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
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).