Kalle Lasn has the right idea: He hates capitalism. And who doesn’t? Capitalism gives each one of us plenty of reasons to hate it, often on a daily basis.
Who likes waiting in long lines at the supermarket as two cashiers move 60 people through the checkout? Who needs the frustration of wandering through an enormous store, unable to find a helpful clerk? How about wasting hours of our precious lives each day commuting in our cars? We all get frustrated, fed up with how the world is organized. But Lasn’s Culture Jam goes further than most of us do, its anger and frustration distributed over the hundreds of ways that sensible human life is under attack by consumerism.
Such diffusion appears both as strength and as Achilles’ heel. Lasn’s rage against overconsumption morphs into anger with telemarketing, which in turn becomes frustration with corporate power over people. At first this feels like a bold and crazy roller-coaster ride. But as the tirade of juxtaposition becomes predictable, the energy required to sustain Lasn’s breathless exasperation finally repels the reader.
Ironically, this humanizes Lasn as exactly the type of screwball crank who lurks beneath the surface in all of us. Like his fellow anti-corporate populist, Jim Hightower, he does an excellent job at convincing us that his pet peeves aren’t that different from our own.
Lasn parts company with more traditional populism, however, in his attention to advertising and media culture — not surprising, since he’s also the founder of Adbusters magazine. His magazine’s strategy of resistance to the evil, corporate forces stealing America’s soul finally appears halfway through the book: Use the same marketing techniques that are destroying authentic human life against the products and corporations which threaten it.
The Adbusters attacks are knockdown impressive: professional quality media attacks on Camel cigarettes (Joe Chemo), disturbing public-service-style campaigns against TV and our identification with corporations, and, perhaps most inspired of all, a holiday — a holiday from purchasing, to be exact. For the past several years, Adbusters has proclaimed the busiest shopping day of the year — the day after Thanksgiving — Buy Nothing Day. And although it hasn’t had a monumental effect on that peculiar Friday’s sales receipts, scads of slackers, malcontents, downshifters and culture jammers across North America have taken heed. This year, it could be you.
Culture jamming, in short, takes the discontent that media culture produces and gives it a place to go, a target to attack. And since its enemies are mainly morally reprehensible — and the aims of culture jamming so profoundly human — it’s easy to identify with Lasn’s demarketing campaigns, whether they’re aimed against corporate logos or destructive consumer products. These subvertisements, or anti-ads, give us all of the joy that advertising culture promises but doesn’t deliver, even as they extend our belief in sustainable human values.
Lasn scores his most dramatic successes by making audiences feel that the gross national product really is gross. And while this may be a success in itself, it also demonstrates how deeply he’s trapped within the advertising-culture world he despises. That is, Lasn is so outraged at overconsumption and conspicuous displays of wealth that he forgets that this actually isn’t the rule, even in America. Despite the media-driven images of affluence and macroeconomic proclamations of success we’re familiar with, the economic truths are so massively out of whack from media culture that Lasn trips over the difference. Do you really think you can afford a nice NYC loft working in a coffeehouse, like that woman on “Friends”?
Near the beginning of Culture Jam, Lasn writes, “Plenitude is American culture’s perverse burden. Most Americans have everything they could possibly want, and they still don’t think it’s nearly enough.” This is a reaction to media-relayed perceptions, not hard economic fact. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that more and more Americans are taking on second jobs to make ends meet. News of this sort isn’t really that difficult to find and, frankly, it ain’t even news to most of us. But Lasn has fallen for the most manipulative media lie of all: the myth of universal American affluence.
Culture Jam is a wonderful jaunt through cultural rebellion, satisfying very real needs for pop culture to take destructive aim at itself, and occasionally giving us glimpses of sustainable cultural practices. But Lasn consistently rebels as a consumer, which is always an unequal, losing position.
Marc Christensen writes about books and music for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.