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Review of Culture Jam: the Uncooling of AmericaTM

CULTURE JAM: The Uncooling of AmericaTM

by Kalle Lasn

HarperCollins 2000

252 pages, $15.00 paperback

Those who suspect that Kalle Lasn, founder of Adbusters magazine, and his loose network of “culture jammers” are merely cynical adolescent pranksters will be taken aback by his book’s earnest opening lines: “The book you’re holding carries a message that your first instinct will be to distrust. That message is, We can change the world.”

Lasn’s description of his personal mini-epiphany, during which he lets his anger flow and jams a bent coin into a shopping cart dispenser, may be an apt metaphor for culture jamming. But it probably sounds a bit too much like vandalism for some. Lasn’s point is that when we’re feeling unjustly beat up on, it’s liberating to honor our instincts and push back. Or as Lasn says, “when the system is grinding you down, unplug the grinding wheel.” It is this empowerment that brings about change.

The culture jammers’ goal—to undo the domination of hollow consumerist corporate culture—is not new. It is their modus operandi that is fresh and intriguing. Culture jammers usurp the omnipotent persuasive power of mass-marketed media images by turning them inside out and lobbing them back at their source like so many live hand grenades. They “uncool the cool.”

Probably the best known example is the “Joe Chemo” cigarette ad parody, in which a cancerous cartoon camel is shown withering away in a hospital bed. The genius of this approach is that while corporations invest obscene amounts of time and money building their brand images, the jam costs next to nothing yet wields all the brand recognition–based energy and impact of the original. Also on the jammers’ side is the fickle nature of pop culture, the megamarketing machine’s Achilles heel: cool can become uncool in about the time it takes to write a new sketch for “Saturday Night Live.”

The ultimate mission of culture jamming is to uncool AmericaTM itself, which, Lasn quips, is no longer a country but a multitrillion-dollar brand being marketed to the world. The core of what Lasn’s crew aims to deconstruct is the mode of thought that has fueled the reckless surge of Western civilization for the past half- century, the divide-and-conquer mentality that has stripped the value from anything that can’t be bought and sold in the marketplace. A tall order, but one that is gaining credence. Lasn, for one, is optimistic that change will and must happen, and he’s preaching that culture jamming is a key tactic. Given the increasingly pervasive embrace of the mass media, culture jamming may soon be the only means of breaking the stranglehold.

 


Dan Bertolet is a freelance writer living in Seattle, Washington.

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