Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Kalle Lasn, "Culture Jam" (1999).

Generally I don't seek out book recommendations from 14-year olds. While they may be tuned in to some pretty cool things, I just assume that their appreciation for whatever cultural objects they prefer is relative to their stage in life. Still it's probably a bit limiting for me to take that viewpoint, so if I think a kid is especially evolved and I know that he/she enjoys other things that I like- then I figure it might be worth a try. That's how I ended up with a copy of Kalle Lasn's Culture Jam. It's basically a screed against the consumer culture of the United States, and a manifesto suggesting ways to undermine it. The title refers to any action which seeks to disrupt the prevalent mentality of the society.

Lasn was born in Estonia, and hopped around quite a bit before finding himself quartered in Vancouver, British Columbia. At that point in his life he was working as a documentary filmmaker. He became interested in forest management, and decided to make a short film about an advertising campaign that was being promoted by the lumber industry. After completing the work, Lasn discovered that Canadian television stations would never show his work. Apparently he had yet to realize the influence advertisers have over the media, because this rejection inspired him to start Adbusters Magazine. Lasn then undertook a series of ventures intended to fight against corporate power.

Culture Jam is divided into four sections, each corresponding to a season. Lasn's conceit is that the process of 'culture jamming' will inevitably lead to a nationwide revolution. But first he needs to make the case that a problem exists with the current paradigm. This should not be a difficult task, given the state of the country. The truth is that there have been so many books and films that have sought to outline the damage done by unscrupulous corporations. One would have to be daft not to recognize the power corporations wield throughout the United States and the world. Still, in the face of such overwhelming influence, what exactly does Lasn think "culture jammer" activists can do?

Lasn recommends that people take whatever steps they can to resist the corporate state. He tells the story of how he experienced an epiphany in a grocery store parking lot, and proceeded to jam the coin slot of a gate releasing shopping carts for customer use. Somehow he felt that he was making a difference with this small gesture. Lasn suggests that people ought to refuse to give in to company procedures and policies during phone conversations regarding problems with products and services. He even goes so far as to prod vandals to deface billboards, which encroach on our "mental environment". Other ideas Lasn presents require large sums of money. He encourages ordinary citizens to buy 30-second advertising spots on television, in order to air "anti-marketing" messages. If station managers refuse to air them, Lasn says that we should alert the press.

Unfortunately there is very little in Culture Jam that strikes me as particularly useful in a potential confrontation with corporate culture. He provides a general outline that traces the evolution of the concept of "corporations" from 17th Century England to the present day. It's a section that provides information that should be well known to anybody who has devoted even a minimum of time to the subject at hand. And he touches on the situationist philosophy of Guy Debord, which lends a historical sheen to his efforts. Yet Lasn ultimately fails to convince the reader that his anti-consumer movement has anything to offer other than generalities and enthusiasm. This book could certainly be of some use to an adolescent trying to re-envision his/her place within society, but I can't recommend it for anyone who has already identified the basic problems that we face.

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Anonymous marc said...

One of the faithful Adbusters buyers for many years (thanks Slacker), it seems my characteristic, habitual trend to regularly read it has slipped by the wayside as the years have progressed. I don't know if this eventuality/evolution had something to do with my "education", getting older, reading the same stories and subject material that, while supporting these ideas ideologically, also made me increasingly despondent because of my apparent inaction (for fear of jail time).
One thing that remains apparent to me, however, is that I'm glad to have gone through the adbusters mill, and that it is a contrary and valid voice for scrutiny and a reminder that a different social system for consumption is possible.
It is here that I divide with merge, because, to me, one of the best possible ways that we, as citizens, will redefine our proper hierarchy in the grand scheme of things, is by re-educating ourselves, believing that we, as the consumers, have a CHOICE about who and what we support with our $$s. everyone knows the power of the purchase (or lack thereof) and it's ability to make/break a company. This may be an idealistic notion, but so be it. It is through any small action that the potential to influence the world comes.
Perhaps he wasn't as successful about making it clear that "a problem exists with the current paradigm" in Culture Jam, but this is the whole POINT of Adbusters magazine. It is what Lasn has been doing for nearly 20 years. Lasn took his moment of clarity in the supermarket parking lot and not only did something about it, but influenced a generation. Sure, there is a plethora of material out there. But you know what? - A good bit of those folks have, at some point, known about, been inspired by, followed suit and furthered the ideas of: Kalle Lasn.

11:55 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


It's not like I'm taking away anything from Lasn. I'm sure 'Adbusters' is a compelling periodical (though I can't say for sure, as I've never read it), but this book isn't very interesting.

I agree that it is incumbent on modern day consumers to educate themselves. And I never said he DIDN'T make the case that a problem exists. In fact he took great pains to do so. But it's like preaching to the converted. I just wasn't very enamored with his suggestions about how to change things.

Either way, I'm glad he's been around to convince some people that there is a problem. Although I'm not sure that anyone who isn't open to that suggestion doesn't already realize it.

9:18 PM  

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