By Kalle Lasn
Feb 16, 2011
The book you're holding carries a message that your first instinct will be to distrust. That message is, We can change the world. It's risky these days to make such a promise because it sounds like one of those meaningless "awaken the inner giant" - type bromides: If you can dream it, you can do it," "The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step," and so on.
But it's true. We're serious. We call ourselves culture jammers. We're a loose global network of media activists who see ourselves as the advance shock troops of the most significant social movement of the next twenty years. Our aim is to topple existing power structures and forge major adjustments to the way we will live in the twenty-first century. We believe culture jamming will become to our era what civil rights was to the 60s, what feminism was to the 70s, what environmental activism was to the 80s. It will alter the way we live and think. It will change the way information flows, the way institutions wield power, the way TV stations are run, the way the food, fashion, automobile, sports, music and culture industries set their agendas. Above all, it will change the way we interact with the mass media and the way in which meaning is produced in our society.
We are a very diverse tribe. Our people range from born-again Lefties to Green entrepreneurs to fundamentalist Christians who don't like what television is doing to their kids; from punk anarchists to communications professors to advertising executives searching for a new role in life. Many of us are longtime activists who in the midst of our best efforts suddenly felt spiritually winded. For us feminism had run out of steam, the environmental movement no longer excited, the fire no longer burned in the belly of the Left, and youth rebellion was looking more and more like an empty gesture inspired by Nike. We were losing.
Then we had an idea. Maybe if we banged together the heads of all these activists and reconfigured the fragmented forces of identity politics into a new, empowered movement, we could start winning again.
We weren't looking for it necessarily, but each one of us in our own way has had a political awakening; a series of very personal "moments of truth" about ourselves and how the world works. For some, these insights have come on like powerful, secular epiphanies. Sometimes they have been triggered by things we overheard or read or stumbled upon. Sometimes they have involved things we thought we knew but now, suddenly, felt. These truths have left us shaken; it's no exaggeration to say they have changed our lives. I'd like to share with you some of the insights that have occurred to me over the last decade or so.
America is no longer a country. It's a multitrillion-dollar brand.
America TM is essentially no different from McDonald's, Marlboro or General Motors. It's an image "sold" not only to the citizens of the U.S.A., but to consumers worldwide. The American brand is associated with catchwords such as "democracy," "opportunity" and "freedom." But like cigarettes that are sold as symbols of vitality and youthful rebellion, the American reality is very different from its brand image. America Tm has been subverted by corporate agendas. Its elected officials bow before corporate power as a condition of their survival in office. A collective sense of powerlessness and disillusionment has set in. A deeply felt sense of betrayal is brewing.
American culture is no longer created by the people.
Our stories, once passed from one generation to the next by parents, neighbors and teachers, are now told by distant corporations with "something to sell as well as to tell." Brands, products, fashions, celebrities, entertainments the spectacles that surround the production of culture-are our culture now. Our role is mostly to listen and watch - and then, based on what we have heard and seen, to buy.
A free, authentic life is no longer possible in America TM today.
We are being manipulated in the most insidious way. Our emotions, personalities and core values are under siege from media and cultural forces too complex to decode. A continuous product message has woven itself into the very fabric of our existence. Most North Americans now live designer lives - sleep, eat, sit in car, work, shop, watch TV, sleep again. I doubt there's more than a handful of free, spontaneous minutes anywhere in that cycle.
We ourselves have been branded.
The human spirit of prideful contrariness and fierce independence has been oddly tamed. We have evolved into a smile-button culture. We wear the trendiest fashions, drive the best cars industry can produce and project an image of incredible affluence-cool people living life to the hilt. But behind that happy mask is a face so ugly it invariably shocks the hell out of my friends from developing countries who come to visit, expecting the giddy Americana depicted on TV and finding instead a horror show of disconnection and anomie.
Our mass media dispense a kind of Huxleyan "Soma."
The most powerful narcotic in the world is the promise of belonging. And belonging is best achieved by conforming to the prescriptions of America TM . In this way a perverted sense of cool takes hold of the imaginations of our children. And thus a heavily manipulative corporate ethos drives our Culture. Cool is indispensable - and readily, endlessly dispensed. You can get it on every corner (for the right price), though it's highly addictive and its effects are short-lived. If you're here for cool today, you'll almost certainly be back for more tomorrow.
American cool is a global pandemic.
Communities, traditions, cultural heritages, sovereignties, whole histories are being replaced by a barren American monoculture. Living in Japan during its period of sharpest transition to a western way of life, I was astonished by the speed and force with which the American brand took hold. I saw a culture with thousands of years of tradition behind it vanquished in two generations. Suddenly, high school girls were selling themselves after class for $150 a trick so they'd have cash to buy American jeans and handbags.
The Earth can no longer support the lifestyle of the coolhunting American-style consumer. We have sought, bought, spewed and devoured too much, too fast, too brazenly, and now we're about to pay. Economic "progress" is killing the planet.
This did not fully hit home for me until 1989, when a spate of nightmarish environmental stories suddenly appeared on the news: acid rain, dying seals in the North Sea, medical waste washing up on New York beaches, garbage barges turned away from port after port, a growing hole in the ozone layer, and the discovery that the milk in American mothers' breasts had four times the amount of DDT permitted in cow's milk. In that year a critical mass of people saw the light and became "environmentalists." We were witnessing the spectre of a whole planet heading for ruin. To people like me for whom time had always seemed like a constant, eternally moving train which people got on and, seventy years later, got off, it was the end of innocence. The premonition of ecocide -planetary death- became real for the first time, and it terrified me. It still does.
Once you experience even a few of these "moments of truth," things can never be the same again. Your life veers off in strange new directions. It's very exciting and a little scary. Ideas blossom into obsessions. The imperative to live life differently keeps building until the day it breaks through the surface.
When it happened to me I was in my neighbourhood supermarket parking lot. I was plugging a coin into a shopping cart when it suddenly occurred to me just what a dope I was. Here I was putting in my quarter for the privilege of spending money in a store I come to every week but hate, a sterile chain store that rarely carries any locally grown produce and always makes me stand in line to pay. And when I was finished shopping I'd have to take this cart back to the exact place their efficiency experts have decreed, and slide it back in with all the other carts, rehook it and push the red button to get my damn quarter back.
A little internal fuse blew. I stopped moving. I glanced around to make sure no one was watching. Then I reached for that big bent coin I'd been carrying in my pocket and I rammed it as hard as I could into the coin slot. And then with the lucky Buddha charm on my keyring I banged that coin in tight until it jammed. I didn't stop to analyze whether this was ethical or not - I just let my anger flow. And then I walked away from that supermarket and headed for the little fruit and vegetable store down the road. I felt more alive than I had in months.
Much later I realized I had stumbled on one of the great secrets of modern urban existence: Honor your instincts. Let your anger out. When it wells up suddenly from deep in your gut, don't suppress it channel it, trust it, use it. Don't be so unthinkingly civil all the time. When the system is grinding you down, unplug the grinding wheel.
Once you start thinking and acting this way, once you realize that consumer capitalism is by its very nature unethical, and therefore it's not unethical to jam it; once you understand that civil disobedience has a long and honorable history that goes back to Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Henry David Thoreau; once you start trusting yourself and relating to the world as an empowered human being instead of a hapless consumer drone, something remarkable happens. Your cynicism dissolves.
If cool is the Huxleyan "soma" of our time, then cynicism is its poisonous, paralytic side effect. It is the dark side of cool. It's part of the reason we watch too much TV and don't bother to vote. It's why we get stuck year after year in tedious, meaningless jobs. It's why we're bored so much of the time and become compulsive shoppers. To find a way out of cynicism is to find a way out of the postmodern malaise. On the far side of cynicism lies freedom. And the pursuit of freedom is what revolutions - and this book-are all about.
The Situationists saw this revolution coming long ago. The French philosophical movement that inspired the 1968 Paris riots predicted what might happen to a society driven by consumer capitalism. The Situationists intuited how hard it would be to hang on to one's core self in a "society of spectacle," a world of manufactured desires and manipulated emotions. Guy Debord, the leader of the Situationist movement, said: "Revolution is not showing life to people, but making them live." This instinct to be free and unfettered is hard-wired into each one of us. It's a drive as strong as sex or hunger, an irresistible force that, once harnessed, is almost impossible to stop.
With that irresistible force on our side, we will strike.
We will strike by smashing the postmodern hall of mirrors and redefining what it means to be alive. We will reframe the battle in the grandest terms. The old political battles that have consumed humankind during most of the twentieth century-black versus white, Left versus Right, male versus female-will fade into the background. The only battle still worth fighting and winning, the only one that can set us free, is The People versus The Corporate Cool Machine.
We will strike by unswooshing America TM , by organizing resistance against the power trust that owns and manages that brand. Like Marlboro and Nike, America TM has splashed its logo everywhere. And now resistance to that brand is about to begin on an unprecedented scale. We will uncool its fashions and celebrities, its icons, signs and spectacles. We will jam its image factory until the day it comes to a sudden, shuddering halt. And then on the ruins of the old consumer culture, we will build a new one with a noncommercial heart and soul.
It will be an enormous culture jam, a protracted war of ideas, ideologies and visions of the future. It may take a generation or even more. But it will be done. This book is dedicated to explaining how.
If it does nothing else, I hope this book gives you pause. Wherever you are, whatever you're doing, I hope it serves as what the Situationists called a detournement - a perspective-jarring turnabout in your everyday life.
Excerpted from Culture Jam by Kalle Lasn, Copyright © 1999 by Kalle Lasn. Excerpted by permission of Eagle Brook, an imprint of William Morrow and Company, Inc. All rights reserved.