Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Review of Culture Jam by Kalle Lasn

Kalle Lasn is the Chief Editor of the magazine Adbusters, which I've read as regularly as any other over the past five years. Adbusters central tenet is that corporations manipulate us to consume via marketing, and that process is destroying us psychologically, socially and ecologically.

The book is no different. For much of it I felt I was reading the same ideas that have been recycled through Adbusters over the years, perhaps because Culture Jam was published in 2001. The exploration in the book is more linear and more fact-based, where the magazine tends to offer a more right-brain experience, but the ideas are largely the same. Where the book differs, and where I found real value in it, was in the exploration of what Lasn thinks ought to be done.

He begins with an overview of what's wrong. For those whose are in the know about these things already, what he describes is what's expected, though the statistics are often shocking. For example, “worldwide rates of major depression in every age group have risen steadily since the 1940s... [and] as Asian countries Americanize, their rates of depression increase accordingly.” The average hour of American prime-time TV contains five acts of violence (killings, gunshots assaults, car chases, rapes). “Ninety percent of news editors surveyed... said they'd experienced 'direct pressure' from advertisers trying to influence content.” “In 1997, Chrysler, one of the five largest advertisers in the U.S., sent letters to one hundred newspaper and magazine editors demanding to review their publications for stories that could prove damaging or controversial... According to a spokesperson at Chrysler, every single letter was signed in agreement and returned.” 77% of American adults are afflicted with a psychological ailment. And so on.

The second part of the book attempts to flesh out how we've gotten to where we are. Neoclassical economics, and the rise of corporations, and how we've been molded into a nation of “Manchurian consumers.” How brand loyalty and consumerism enter our consciousness as adolescents. How the global economy is basically a pyramid scheme, and that our children and theirs will be the dupes. The analysis isn't so much off, in my opinion, as it is superficial. But this isn't a dissertation, it is a manifesto more than anything else, and an instruction manual, and Lasn has more to get to.

The third part is the heart of the book, what Lasn sees as opportunities for those who have grown dissatisfied. He uses many pages describing the ebb and flow of the Situationist movement in the late-fifties and sixties, and uses that as a spring board to suggest that ours is a “society of spectacle,” and that what's need is a massive detournement, a jujitsu-like approach to art and revolution in which the elements of the consumer marketing and mainstream media are used to create a subversive message that wins the minds of the people and turns them away from consumption. He describes what he calls “meme wars,” which are essentially battles for the consciousness of the society, where a meme is basically a contagious idea. He goes into detail about the meme wars that were fought against the tobacco companies, starting with anti-smoking ads in 1969 and leading to the massive law suits against those companies in the '90s as an example of what can be possible. Then he details battles that he sees as needing to be fought, for example, developing an economics that tells the ecological truth and getting rid of the idea that corporations have an intrinsic, or legal, right to exist.

Finally, the book closes with some ideas of what could be possible: two minutes of every hour on public airwaves reserved for public announcements granted on a first-come, first-serve basis. Anti-corporate activists that stand up to corporations while on the line with 800-numbers. TV anti-ads that combat the idea that Calvin Kline's image of cool is cool. General strikes and such.

I think many of his ideas are good ones, I think some are less useful. I didn't like that they were presented as a prescription, as if the one true way and the one true group that would bring about the revolution had been revealed. Rarely is an author's arrogance so palpable in text. If our culture is to heal, it will take more than one group of people to do it. And since culture jamming is a movement that aims to decentralize power, to restore the generation of culture to a bottom-up enterprise, surely we the readers and potential culture jammers can be entrusted to “jam” as we see fit.

Nevertheless, I agree with Lasn's aims, and I like many of the ideas he puts forth to get there. There are plenty of useful statistics in the first half of the book, and many worthy actions in the second half. For those who are unfamiliar with the ideas Adbusters explores and put off by its aesthetic or lack of evidential support, Culture Jam could be a transformative book. For regular readers of Adbusters, unless you're looking for specific ideas for actions, there's probably not a whole lot of value in the book, inspiration aside.

7/10 stars.

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