« "'Nomah' No More" | Iconoduel | "Three Fairs for Chicago" »

August 2, 2004

I Want to Jam it With You

In semi-response to Mark.

As much as I enjoy Adbusters and its ilk, I harbor some deep reservations regarding their 'program.' Sure, they've all got snazzy websites and pretty, glossy rags, but what are they in a position to accomplish beyond edgy design and refried logotypes? As the culture-jammers would have it, the fight begins and ends on the level of symbols. Advertising is the ultimate evil and images are the ultimate weapons. That just sounds too easy to me.

I'm not going to go into the iconophobia implicit in a number of these arguments, though it is something that concerns me a great deal. Perhaps another time. For the time being, I'll simply stick to some remarks on the Left's flight from reality.

* * *

On March 20th, 2003 I was arrested with around 800 other people at Chicago's massive anti-war protest and detained at 111th St for 35 hours [pointless note: this is the third time in two weeks that I've linked back to that same post]. Nine of those hours were spent standing in a 12x12 cell with 30+ other men. 17 hours were spent in a slightly smaller space with maybe eight others. Bottom line: we had plenty of time to chat.

After muttering something probably not so nice about "Seattle" at some point, I found myself in a brief conversation with an anarchist/anti-globo type. When I wondered what good smashing bank windows was doing, cathartic though it might be, I was fed some bit about "breaking the spell of Capital." [note, so as not to feed media-fed misconceptions: no windows were smashed during the anti-war protest]

Perhaps there's something to that, I thought. Perhaps, too, there are more effective means of effecting change (though they're probably all much more boring). At any rate, Capital has swallowed up bigger and badder window-smashers than you, my friend.

It struck me later that the theatrics of the anti-globalists have wound up an end in themselves—the practice of freedom (in a weak and limited field) rather than the pragmatic struggle for justice (anything truly practical being something that Leftist purism would forbid). It's a revolution in symbols rather than in substance, having its own brand and style where, unfortunately, it often ends.

Recalling this brings to mind, unfairly or not, this piece on fashionable protesters in Chicago by Ramsin Canon. Quoth Canon:

Tight Dickies pants and tighter vintage tee shirts meticulously unearthed and chosen for their ironical value have supplanted semi-military garb and blue jeans as the uniform of choice for young urban protesters. Pouring out of a Logan Square music venue they snatch up fliers from be-satcheled, scraggly haired vintage-record-collectors whose life ambition is to write the liner notes for a Material Issue anthology. Some of these fliers are promoting future shows at this very venue, but some of them urge one to attend some obscure protest, the small print urging one to bring noisemakers of some sort, the bold script announcing, for example, the end of McGlobalization, probably the most annoying buzzphrase of the last twenty years.
The protests range from the ridiculous to the ridiculously absurd. One, on the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago, demanded "Hands of Iraq!" and surprised this reporter by telling me that "Imperialism Ends Now!" Lenin said that you can’t make a revolution in white gloves, and I'm pretty sure you can't make a revolution wearing Vans footwear either. The protesters, all five of them, were passing out literature and barking marching orders through a megaphone. When the reporter asked how exactly Imperialism was going to end, their response was confident: "By spreading the Knowledge of Truth," a sentence that begs so many questions Ann Landers would be at a loss.
The first Real World protests were smaller affairs—I was at one of them—which were peaceful until a couple of idiots decided to mount a direct assault against the building, at which point the CPD took some of them away in cuffs. Then the Chicago Reader, in all their self-important brilliance, aggravated the situation by running a front page feature article on them, describing in detail just how the Real World filming in Wicker Park was going to aid in the gentrification of that area.
I heard that a lot. Well, sometimes I heard that it was a symbol of gentrification, and sometimes I heard that it was a catalyst for it. Whatever the case, I heard it from young white kids who moved to Chicago from places like Midlothian and Glenview. The whole charade of the protests, which got national coverage, accomplished nothing but embarrassing Chicago and Chicagoans. Yelling stuff at seven strangers picked to live in a house and start getting real is not going to strike a dagger into Viacom's heart. Its just going to make those seven strangers very sad and unhappy. The Reader story, which I should say was not completely favorable towards the protests, mentioned how some of the girls from the show were visibly distraught by the protests. When this I read that, my heart ached for these kids. Sure, they kind of set themselves up for it, but at the same time many of them were small-time folk with dreams of living in a big city and experiencing real culture for the first time, while, yeah, okay, also making a spectacle of themselves on television. But you don't see people hurling balloons filled with paint at former contestants of The Gong Show.
So the protesters really just wanted to get on MTV or at least onto local news broadcasts. Ostensibly however it was to stop "gentrification," another one of these buzzwords being thrown around by young white kids in the city. They don't see it as gentrification when they move into places like Humboldt Park or Wicker Park or Pilsen, only when slightly older, wealthier people do. Which is bullshit, of course, but which isn't even my main point of contention.
In May of 2001 a group of about twenty Hispanics, many of them mothers, went on a hunger strike in Chicago's Little Village centered on 31st St. on the near south-west side, to demand a new public high school be built, as the current one, Farragut on 24th Street, was chronically over-crowded. The story received very limited coverage and no fliers were passed out at the Logan Square venue or any other to urge kids to go and help them out. Why? Essentially because there is little cache in hanging out with middle aged Hispanic women in a rough neighborhood. I visited with them and chatted a little bit, but couldn't really stay the night since it probably would have made some of them uncomfortable—they were staying in tents. The Chicago Public Schools vacillated on whether they were going to build the school, and little action was taken until several months later. Yet those Northside hipsters, rolling their eyes at middle-aged men and women in Dolce and Gabbana, leafing through their out-of-print Cap'n Jazz records and downing cheap beers at the L&L (a chic "dive" in Lakeview), bang a few drums and holler obscenities and the Reader gives them the front page.

In other words, where were they when it really counted?

* * *

We're all too familiar such selfconsciously iconoclastic and iconocentric strategies in the realm of Art, where we are bombarded with self-satisfied wall text, statements and manifestos peppered with notions of "problematization" and "critique." I'm sure it was in the art world that it was first determined that bare appropriation is, in itself, critical.

"Problematizing." That word just provokes my ire. It all seems to operate, much like the idea of culture-jamming, on some tedious metaphor of 'short-circuiting' culture or (in a decidedly more industrialist vein) 'a wrench in the gears', as if by teasing out the warp and woof of society, the whole thing will simply unravel before us. Such is the magic of deconstruction as well. A testimonial on the back of Derrida's Of Grammatology offers the claim that the volume provides tools and techniques that are "as simple, and as destructive, as leaving a bomb in a brown paper bag outside (or inside) a pub." ...And thus Western Culture was brought to its knees.

It's all too romantic. Turning Marx on his head, far too much of the contemporary Left has abandoned any imperatives concerning the material conditions of oppression for a pure Revolution of the Mind. But, gosh, it's so much easier that way, isn't it: deface a logo, alter a billboard or deconstruct a press release and blow the minds of all those squares up at Corporate HQ.

Now I'm no Marxist, but I find this satisfaction with waging battle strictly on the level of symbol distressing, not in the least because its impossibility leads ultimately down the path of Baudrillardian resignation where we determine that authentic revolution is futile as its icons are co-opted from the first by the very target of its struggle. After all, Capitalism has proven mighty adept at appropriating opposing forms into the domain of exchange value (I seem to remember Walter Benjamin recognizing as much, though I may be wrong—I'm sure we could dig up some Chomsky here, too). Today, Capitalism doesn't so much crush oppositional imagery as it screenprints it on a t-shirt. Blow the minds of the bourgeoisie and they'll take it to the bank.

I've always felt that we could probably blame Debord and his fellow 68ers for sending us down this particular road, with their single-minded (and horribly iconophobic) focus on the danger of the Spectacle. When reading W. J. T. Mitchell's Iconology however, I was somewhat tangentially brought to an older pedigree for this tendency. In his final chapter discussing Marx's figure of the camera obscura, Mitchell mentions Marx's rejection of "the 'German' ideology of the Young Hegelians who thought that revolution could occur at the level of consciousness, ideas, and philosophy without a material revolution in social life."

As Mitchell explains, Marx mocks these Romantic idealists in the preface to The German Ideology:

Hitherto men have constantly made up for themselves false conceptions about themselves, about what they are and what they ought to be. They have arranged their relationships according to their ideas of God, of normal man, etc. The phantoms of their brains have got out of their hands. They, the creators, have bowed down before their creations. Let us liberate them from the chimeras, the ideas, dogmas, imaginary beings under the yoke of which they are pining away. Let us revolt against the rule of thoughts. Let us teach men, says one, to exchange these imaginations for thoughts which correspond to the essence of man; says the second, to take up a critical attitude to them; says the third, to knock them out of their heads; and—existing reality will collapse.
These innocent and childlike fancies are the kernel of the modern Young-Hegelian philosophy, which not only is received by the German public with horror and awe, but is announced by our philosophic heroes with the solemn consciousness of its cataclysmic dangerousness and criminal ruthlessness. The first volume of the present publication has the aim of uncloaking these sheep, who take themselves and are taken for wolves; of showing how their bleating merely imitates in a philosophic form the conceptions of the German middle class; how the boasting of these philosophic commentators only mirrors the wretchedness of the real conditions in Germany. It is its aim to debunk and discredit the philosophic struggle with the shadows of reality, which appeals to the dreamy and muddled German nation.
Once upon a time a valiant fellow had the idea that men were drowned in water only because they were possessed with the idea of gravity. If they were to knock this notion out of their heads, say by stating it to be a superstition, a religious concept, they would be sublimely proof against any danger from water. His whole life long he fought against the illusion of gravity, of whose harmful results all statistic brought him new and manifold evidence. This valiant fellow was the type of the new revolutionary philosophers in Germany.

And so there you have it: the perfect smack down, courtesy of the Man himself.

"I Want to Jam it With You"
Posted by Dan at 04:13 AM


But, gosh, it's so much easier that way, isn't it: deface a logo, alter a billboard or deconstruct a press release and blow the minds of all those squares up at Corporate HQ.

Best sentence ever! Right to the point of the matter. As I was trying to suggest (perhaps feebly) in my post, it's much harder to create a new visual form of discourse than to alter them with a little Photoshop magic. Protest signs, chants, etc. are generally so tired.

I assume, Dan, that you've seen the Richard Serra Stop Bush "logo" ripped from the front pages of the Abu Ghraib scandal. It's an interesting case of an image becoming logoized (as if the original image wasn't iconic enough). Of course, you are encouraged to download the image and iron transfer it onto a tee-shirt.

Of course, Adbusters loves it.

Posted by: mark on August 2, 2004 at 09:13 AM

it's much harder to create a new visual form of discourse than to alter them with a little Photoshop magic

Exactly. In fact it's probably impossible to create an entirely new visual discourse. Anything feasible would necessarily bear the taint of compromise by virtue of the necessity of relation to existing discourse, and would thus be anathema to the purist mind. Indeed, such 'capitulation to Capital' is often easily denounced as worse than the capitalist brand itself.

Posted by: Dan on August 2, 2004 at 10:27 AM

This is a great post.

The one thing I'd say is that I would have no problem at all with what is called "culture jamming" or the zillion equivalent versions of the term if it was firmly understood that such an activity were simply a creative response to and use of the cultural output of capitalist society. In other words, if everyone dropped the pretense that this was all transgressive and radical and oppositional and contesting and the billion other words being used.

Now some so-called "left conservatives" go from there to basically exult "real revolutionary" activity as distinguished from the culturalist stuff they hate, and I don't want to go there either--I have as much of a problem with that as "culture jamming". I'd be happy if everyone peddling the I-am-the-uber-hero-of-the-left more revolutionary than thou stuff would just put a sock in it. Frankly, I wish the entire idea of a cathartic, eschatological revolutionary project would have the decency to just go lie down in a grave and die.

But there's certain critique and radicalism and protest and progressivism and above all politics that matters. And "culture jamming" sometimes matters--but matters as entertainment, as art, as culture itself. As such, of course sometimes it has a political significance. But there's such an overwhelming unseemliness in the proclamation of left transgressiveness in it, such a certainty that smashing the state and breaking capital begins with a bit of Photoshopping. To this I can only recall that I and a lot of other kids in the 1970s bought a crapload of Wacky Packages and I don't think that any of us experienced a Brechtian moment of disconnect as a result.

Posted by: Timothy Burke on August 13, 2004 at 05:23 PM

Referenced in this post:

Che Guevara T-Shirts
Chicago: Howtown on the Make
Iconoduel: Some Quick and Random Notes
Jacques Derrida: Of Grammatology
Rarified Air: The Aesthetics of Antiglobalization
The Gentrification Myth: Or, How White People Play 'Pretend'
The German Ideology—Karl Marx: Preface
W. J. T. Mitchell: Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology