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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Space invaders

New book: Kick out the culture-jamming

Posted By on Wed, Jul 25, 2007 at 12:00 AM

Pranksters, subvertisers, copyright daredevils, Naomi Klein, Gilles Deleuze — anti-corporate agitators of all stripes are united in Christine Harold's OurSpace: Resisting the Corporate Control of Culture (University of Minnesota Press, $24.95, hardcover, 232 pp.). Harold, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia, is overly ensconced in the world of academia, and she poisons her analysis with language better suited to a dissertation thesis — "I first discuss," "I offer," "I engage," "I will examine," "I argue," "I conclude," and other such unneeded promises. OurSpace is a handy how-to primer, with illustrations, on subversion tactics and culture-jamming that is a must-read for anyone with an anti-establishment itch to scratch, a sense of humor, and no clue what the etymology of the word "detournement" is.

Harold's main concern is the liberation of physical and mental real estate from corporate interests. From the late 1950s to the early '70s, the French anti-capitalist Situationist International battled the "Spectacle," its term for the gathering orgy-storm of consumerism. "In response, Guy Debord and the situationists promoted spontaneity, play, and fascination," Harold writes. To this end the organization advocated —among other norm-twisting tactics — detournements: unruly corruptions of the commonplace like comic strips, storefront signs, and political and commercial images. Harold lauds the situationists' spirit as an enduring influence but finds fault in a fundamental authoritarianism vis-à-vis the populace at large: "The role of the critic in relation to this public, then, is always one of the outside observer, the avant-garde scout who sees things as they really are and can therefore alert the masses to the truth."

Next stop: the contemporary age and the United States, where modern, de-centered high jinks and activism recall the situationists' spirit even as their targets loom larger and more litigation-happy. Adbusters lampoons ubiquitous brands while becoming a brand itself, even extending a down-with-Nike joke into an affordable, sweatshop-free sneaker named the Blackspot. A baldly fake rumor about preppy couture demigod Ralph Lauren spreads like wildfire, urging a Polo boycott in the wake of invented racist comments and eventually helping to cool red-hot urban sales. The Biotic Baking Brigade publicly pies the likes of Bill Gates and the late Milton Friedman, then waits around for the press to show; the Barbie Liberation Organization wishes kids nationwide a very Leary Christmas 1989 by buying up loads of talking G.I. Joe and Barbie dolls, switching the easily removable voice chips, then returning them to stores. The "Truth" multimedia campaign, which utilizes logic and absurdity to attack the tobacco industry, thrives on "spectacular" action and equips teen magazine readers with the tools to fashion their own detournements. Harold agrees with The Baffler's contentions regarding corporate co-opting of rebel signifiers but finds the periodical defeatist — a charge that could never be applied to OurSpace. Let's hope a follow-up focusing on the Internet is in the works.

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