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Culture jamming refers to a tactical effort by a consumer activist or activists to counter or subvert pro-consumption messages delivered through mass media or other cultural institutions. Culture jammers use tactics such as creating anti-advertising promotions, graffiti and underground street art, billboard defacing and alteration, holding events such as spontaneous street parties or flash mobs, as well as social parody and satire to attempt to raise consciousness and criticism about important social issues surrounding consumption.
The term was coined by Negativland, a band, in 1984, relating these activities to the disruptive, subversive ”jamming” of pirated radio frequencies. American cultural critic Mark Dery (1990) influentially developed the term to refer to artists, musicians, and other social critics who sought to challenge the economy of consumption images. The critical Canadian magazine Adbusters began developing the idea and practice in the early 1990s. Lately, groups such as the Billboard Liberation Front and Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping have gained public attention. However, culture jamming is not a coherent movement, but more a series of common practices and overlapping anti-corporate activist stances. These practices are intellectually rooted in much earlier writing and works, such as critical theory, situation-ism, and surrealism.
Many of the consumer activists engaged in culture jamming are motivated to action by a common view that contemporary public space and discourse is distorted. They consider openness in public communication to have been eroded by corporate interests that intentionally affect everyday culture through their control of the mass media. Culture jammers view the media and corporate advertising as ideological propaganda that argues unceasingly for the logic of increasing consumption and what they do as an activist attempt to break through this wall of corporate controlled ideology.
The logic underlying culture jamming is grounded in the critical theory of the Frankfurt School. It also resembles Mikhail Bakhtin’s ideas of the carnivalesque, and Hakim Bey’s notions of poetic terrorism. Culture jammers resist the corporate engineering of culture by marketers who define behaviors and identities, inherently limiting human potential. This culture of consumption becomes reified, appearing natural, concrete, objective, and void of competing worldviews.
Culture jamming seeks to break through this oppressive ideology. First, culture jammers try to identify the contradictions beneath advertising and consumerist messages, thus undermining the way advertising naturalizes and utopianizes consumption. Culture jamming unveils consumption’s economic, social, and environmental dark side. The second step seeks reflexive resistance in the mind of the average consumer. This awareness raising sets the stage for the ultimate objective: emancipation from the trance of consumer culture. Once emancipated, consumers can envision and adopt alternatives to contemporary consumer culture.
The perspective underlying culture jamming has come under scrutiny and often been critiqued. It assumes that consumers are dupes that have been hoodwinked by clever advertisers. Similarly, it assumes that consumers need to be emancipated by enlightened activists – despite, even, their own protestations to the contrary. Cultural studies of consumers have found that individual consumers can, on their own, be aware of consumer culture’s contradictions. These consumers can see culture jamming itself as an attempt by yet another set of cultural elitists, in this case misguided and evangelical social activists, to control the social agenda.
- Dery, M. (1990) The merry pranksters and the art of the hoax. New York Times, December 23, H1, H36.
- Kozinets, R. V. & Handelman, J. M. (2004) Adversaries of consumption: consumer movements, activism, and ideology. Journal of Consumer Research 31:4.
- Rumbo, J. D. (2002) Consumer resistance in a world of advertising clutter: the case of adbuster. Psychology and Marketing 19 (2): 127-48.