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What Is Culture Jamming Good For?
Jeremy Faludi, 8 Aug 05


I love culture jamming. I've even done my fair share of it. But I've never believed that it, or protests (the original and non-subtle, non-ironic culture jamming), are effective for solving problems.

Of course, this begs the question of what "solving problems" means. Culture jamming must be good for something other than making activists feel all clever and hip for their satires on the dominant paradigm, right? I'd say there are multiple things it's useful for.

Culture jamming is useful to the extent that it catalyzes outreach and solidarity. These are necessary (though not sufficient) ingredients for a successful movement.

It can help outreach by functioning as normal advertising does, influencing viewers to change their ideas and behaviors, or reinforce the attitudes of those who already agree. (As a result, it can even be somewhat useful for making change directly for issues the public has scant awareness of.) Advertising is a numbers game, where repetition wins the day, and culture jammers don't have the budget to saturate society with their images like commercial advertisers do. Small cheap ads (like bumper stickers) can be rolled out fairly ubiquitously without too much expense, and the Internet has helped to level the playing field somewhat, but in the end jammers will never approach the scale of commercial advertising.

Culture jamming can help solidarity both by functioning as normal advertising for the viewers (helping those who already agree with the message to feel like an "in" crowd), and also by functioning as a group project for the creators (helping build community and a sense of involvement). Group projects are underestimated as a way of building social capital in a community, and it often doesn't matter what the project is, as long as it gets people together on a regular basis. Robert Putnam's books Bowling Aloneand Better Together describe the value of group activities in building civic involvement, tighter social fabric, and even better personal health.

On a more subtle level, culture jamming sometimes helps build counter-culture, which is necessary for change on the large-scale society level: as Einstein said, "Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them", so people need to step out of the dominant culture in order to solve our problems. But stepping out of an entire worldview doesn't last very long unless you have another worldview to step into. The book The Cultural Creatives argues that most of the people who are part of alternative culture got there because something in their lives caused their dominant-paradigm worldview to break, and culture jamming is a constant effort to chip away at that dominant zeitgeist so that it crumbles more easily. But the book also argues that "While Cultural Creatives are a subculture, they lack one critical ingredient in their lives: awareness of themselves as a whole people." They also argue that this lack of self-awareness as a culture is the reason for the American left's political impotence. They've seen that there is no socially-recognized worldview for people to land in when they have stepped out of the dominant one. That's one of the reasons we at Worldchanging work to show people the positive actions being taken all over the world: we think that a sane new culture of ecological and humanitarian values exists already. (Hence the phrase "another world isn't just possible, another world is here.")

Some culture jamming helps create new culture, though most of it only attacks the old culture. And new culture is only as effective as its actions. It doesn't matter how edgy you are, it matters what you get done, and generally speaking, the largest-scale, longest-term changes happen when people wield the tools of money and law.

Using money as a tool means not just pollution markets and trans-commercial enterprises and all that fancy stuff. It mostly means the simple age-old tool of spending choice: buy things you want to encourage, avoid buying what you want to discourage. This is where societies use money as a tool. As the book The Rebel Sell points out, "the critique of mass society has been one of the most powerful forces driving consumerism for more than 40 years." The authors argue that in modern counterculture's race to escape consumerist society, it has made itself more brand-conscious and instilled more social status in bought objects than any culture in history. To some extent this self-contradiction is probably why the subculture has failed to gel, but to some extent this is a very positive development: it means that people have learned to use money as a tool on a culture-wide level.

Money is not the right tool for all jobs, though. Legislation and lawsuits are the other big tools for long-term large-scale change. Suing pollution offenders and pressing legislators to reform tax laws aren't as much fun as taking over a billboard, but they get results. This is why one of culture jamming's most important functions is to create solidarity--effective lobbying requires large numbers of people and a lot of persistence. But in the end, jamming is only one of many elements of successful legal campaigns, as John Emerson's Examples of Effective [internet] Action illustrates well.

So keep on adbusting, folks, but do it with some awareness of what it can and can't accomplish, so you can do it better.

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Actually, it doesn't beg any question at all. It might raise a question or two, but it doesn't beg at all.

Posted by: Jimbo on 8 Aug 05

While bringing solidarity between like-minded people, protests and other forms of culture-jamming can have the effect of distancing those who do not appear to disagree.

To solidify a group identity that is distinct from the mainsteam is good for the group, but it removes the issue from the mainstream. Few will fight for a cause if they believe that cause is primarily the property of people who seem strange and foreign.

It would be better for many grassroots campaigns to not appear to be the movement of the few, the proud, and the 18-29 year old.

Posted by: Danger Stevens on 8 Aug 05


It is NOT necessarily the case that few people will fight for a cause if they believe that they believe is the property of people that are strange and foreign . There are a *lot* of people out there (it's a rather safe wager) that are tired of the same tedious mass culture , entropic junk and noise of the Media saturated rat race paradigm and would likely find some of the strangeness (NOT weirdness ---but edifying strangeness) darn refreshing . Even if they didn't cultivate themselves the more outre habits of the strange people that support that cause , they might still pitch in and support the cause regardless , being that they find the ugly noise of the trendy, cultural status quo FAR MORE offputting than any beatniks and hipsters !

Posted by: Jason Leary on 12 Aug 05



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