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Book Review

Challenging the mental stranglehold of American consumer culture

Yusuf Progler

CULTURE JAM: THE UNCOOLING OF AMERICA by Kalle Lasn. New York: Eagle Brook and William Morrow, 1999. Pp. Xvii & 251. Hbk. US$25.

America is no longer a country, it’s a multitrillion-dollar brand-name, according Kalle Lasn’s new book Culture Jam. Lasn, founding editor of Adbusters magazine (www.adbusters.org), believes that the USA is "essentially no different from McDonald’s, Marlboro or General Motors," and that it is "an image ‘sold’ not only to the citizens of the USA, but to consumers worldwide." Although still associated with "catch-words" such as "freedom" and "democracy", America has been co-opted by the agendas of large and powerful corporations.

The corporate take-over of America has resulted in several pathological tendencies and cultural trends, which Lasn lists: 1) a free and authentic life is no longer possible in America, and Americans have been "branded" and tamed; 2) American culture is no longer created by its people, and is provided instead by advertising; 3) the American mass media act as a kind of sleep-inducing drug, which results in conformity and mental colonization; 4) the American sense of "cool" is a "global pandemic," which is fast replacing local cultures worldwide; and 5) American-style consumer culture is putting an unprecedented strain on habitats and natural systems, leading the planet toward ruin.

Lasn asks readers to seek out and experience these "moments of truth," and then reconsider their own lifestyles and complicities. Having worked in advertising himself for many years, he is uniquely situated to diagnose the way in which advertising and consumer culture spread like a virus, bringing the disease of consumerism wherever they take hold. The cure for this malady is what Lasn terms "culture jamming," an activists’ strategy that he believes will result in "the uncooling of America" and allow people to get back to living their lives.

Drawing upon the tactics of the French Situationists of the 1960s — especially their leader, Guy Dubord, author of The Society of the Spectacle — Lasn calls for a new type of anti-consumption activism that is militant, subversive and decentralized: "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."

Culture jammers can strike at the American brand-name by "organizing resistance against the power trust that owns and manages that brand." Culture jammers will "uncool its fashions and celebrities, its icons, signs and spectacles" and "jam its image factory until the day it comes to a sudden, shuddering halt." Upon the ruins of the wrecked consumer culture, newly liberated citizen-consumers will build a new culture with "a non-commercial heart and soul." Lasn understands the enormity of this undertaking, and suggests that it might take a "generation or more," but he believes that it is a struggle worth pursuing, and Culture Jam is a sort of how-to manual for the new revolution.

Organizing Culture Jam into four parts, Autumn, Winter, Spring, and Summer, Lasn begins by outlining the "current damages" of corporate rule and consumer culture, asking the key question "What does it mean when our lives and culture are no longer shaped by nature, but by an electronic mass media environment of our own creation?" After surveying this dismal present, Lasn looks at possibilities for change, and asks "Can spontaneity and authenticity be restored?" He proceeds to explore possibilities for cultural renewal by asking whether Americans can "launch another revolution," and then concludes by offering "a glimpse of what could happen if the American revolutionary impulse reignites."

In a chapter entitled "The Unofficial History of America," Lasn outlines the corporate takeover of America, offering a version of history utterly different from the story-book version taught to schoolchildren. But Lasn’s retelling is not made up of obscure characters and wild-eyed fanatics. Americans might find it surprising to know that Abraham Lincoln, their 16th president, was aware of the dangers of corporate colonization, which had begun in the early 19th century, and saw it as potentially destructive in the wake of the Civil War. Shortly before his assassination, Lincoln warned that "Corporations have been enthroned ... An era of corruption in high places will follow and the money power will endeavor to prolong its reign by working on the prejudices of the people ... until wealth is aggregated in a few hands ... and the republic is destroyed."

Lasn is iconoclastic in every sense of the word, and he constantly seeks to find ways of thinking and acting outside habitual patterns of analysis and resistance. For this reason, he is often attacked by people on both the traditional Right and Left, but his message is finding a sympathetic ear among the disillusioned youth of North America and Europe. Loosely organized culture jammers have engaged in all sorts of direct actions, including protests, street theatre, lawsuits and media campaigns. They have promoted new anti-consumer "holidays," such as "Buy Nothing Day" (the last Friday of November) and "TV-Turnoff Week" (the last week of April), and they have taken TV networks to court over censorship issues because "un-commercials" were refused air-time on national programmes.

"Rage is good" and "rage drives revolutions," declares Lasn. Lamenting the loss of a sense of rage about large and small injustices, Lasn blames "the system" for decentralizing power and obscuring the movers and shakers in the corporate take-over, thus diffusing rage and dissent. He wants to know why Americans have become so docile and obedient in the face of corporate rule, and why some people explode into counter-productive "psycho-rage," instead of finding and channeling authentic rage into meaningful forms of dissent.

Culture Jam concludes with pointers for "an assertiveness training workshop for culture jammers," which outlines several tactics and strategies for a new revolutionary consciousness. When faced with corporate incompetence, culture jammers can "drop" their "facade of politeness" and demand their "own procedures" for solving problems. When faced with intrusive advertising and marketing tactics, culture jammers can "learn to detourne," a reference to the Situationist tactic of creating a "perspective-jarring turnabout" in one’s everyday life. Culture jammers can "clear a path for others" by not capitulating to corporations, and by finding a level of commitment that will build into a resistance movement. Culture jammers can "learn to confront" corporate colonization of their lives by making principled choices as consumers. Culture jammers can figure out the issues and "reframe debates," and so they can "maintain their sovereignty" as engaged consumers, citizens and individuals.

Contrary to the slogan of the 1960s, "the revolution" may not "be televised," because the enemy owns all the television networks. But it will be visible in various ways as culture jammers gain ground and mount offensives, building their anti-corporate consumer movement and its radical vision of a de-marketed future with a sustainable lifestyle and humane, dignified culture.

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