A Critical Book Review and Discussion of Popular Culture: Culture Jam

Waiting for a Leader

Kalle Lasn, cultural critic and author of Culture Jam, is on a mission to ensure that everyone knows how completely controlled and manipulated we are by the media and corporations that run it, leaving us alienated and detached from each other and the natural world. As he writes in Culture Jam, we are under this deep spell due to this imbalance of power that corporations hold over us as individuals and until aware of the full impact of this catastrophe we will be unable to awaken from this spell and fight back, freeing ourselves from its paralyzing grip. Lasn traces back the root of this current condition to a fateful day in history over a hundred years ago when a decision was made to give corporations the same rights as people. Since that time the power has changed hands from a nation that was run by the people for the people to a nation that is now run by companies for companies, with human beings reduced to a mere commodity. This corporate culture resulting in what Lasn refers to as brand imprinting, has been with us from the day of our birth, and as invisible as the air we breathe, permeates our daily lives and informs every choice we make. Lasn believes that as a people the time has come for us to now rise up and begin to reverse this imbalance of power by following a series of actions,which he calls culture jamming, that disrupt the common dream that companies have for us and in doing so to start living an authentic life of our own design.

Kalle Lasn doesn’t hide the fact that he is angry, in fact he capitalizes on it, and believes you should be too. He believes that if we truly were to get present to the many injustices in our world we would easily be angry too, but because we have a hard time knowing exactly who to get mad at, we are left feeling depressed by our ineffectualism. Many of the injustices are inherent within the system we are a part of, and how do you get angry at a system? Lashing out at the teller at a bank only makes you feel like a worse human being. So what do you do? Do you stuff it down, put on a smile and practice gratitude like Oprah says? Not according to Lasn, who claims “There’s an anger, a rage-driven defiance that is healthy, ethical and empowering.” He wants you tap into that rage to fuel a revolution. And if you don’t have enough rage, don’t worry he has plenty to spare. But it is not his rage in and of itself that seems to be the problem here, for as he aptly puts it “Rage drives revolutions” (139). No, the problem is that his rage is poured into so many issues it diffuses the potential of that revolutionary power. By failing to focus on a central core message and a clear solution Lasn overwhelms even the sincerest among his potential audience, leaving them more depressed than angry, more cynical that inspired, and ultimately less unsure than ever how to truly make a difference.

Throughout the book Culture Jam we are repeatedly hit over the head with everything that is wrong with our society, and I do mean everything. From television to the internet, from fast food to fashion and automobiles and everywhere in between, no topic is left uncovered and unblamed. Understandably Lasn must do this to a certain extent to make a point, but by diverting so much of his energy and time on this long and meandering narrative spanning over two-thirds of the book, you cannot help but feel browbeaten and demoralized by the time he gets around to his somewhat confusing lists of improbable solutions, leaving you uninspired and not the least bit hopeful for its success or your ability to contribute to it. In addition he fails to paint a compelling picture for us of the world as it would look in this utopian society. How can we create what we can’t imagine? Nancy Duarte, a woman passionate about communication and its ability to change the world, analyzes great speeches throughout history and says within the structure of any effective and inspiring presentation there is a pattern of contrast repeatedly between “what is” and “what could be”, where you visually show the audience “here’s the problem, here’s the problem removed”(6:40). In this way you paint a picture for your audience to imagine life without that problem or obstacle, and when people can visualize something clearly and vividly, they are more likely to achieve it. Culture Jam, although admittedly not a speech, continually and repeatedly hits us over the head with, “here’s the way it is, here’s the way it is, here’s the way it is”: problem after problem after problem without ever showing us the way it could be with the problem removed, and in doing so Lasn really misses the mark, failing to inspire his audience to action.

It is no wonder that the Occupy movement that Kalle Lasn founded failed for ultimately the same reason as his book fails- an inability to focus on one core issue with more focus on the problem than the solution. Doug Mataconis, in his article with the telling title One Year Later the Failure of Occupy Wall Street is Apparent, writes“while they had plenty of grievances, aimed mainly at the ‘oppressive’ power of corporations, the occupy protestors never got beyond their own slogans”. Everyone can remember the protest signs proclaiming “we are the 99%”, the camping on the streets, and the outbursts of random vandalism, but ask around and no one can seem to recall what exactly they were fighting for, and that’s because it was never clearly stated. Occupy seemed to attract all the angry and disenfranchised citizens with their own agendas together in one place, but the protestors, lacking a strong common core, could never agree on what they were really fighting for. Nothing captures the essence of this confusion like a sign from the protest, hanging in the window of a building that simply says Occupy Everything. Within a strong movement a slogan, or simply worded statement, can capture the energy of the protest and symbolize its power for all the world. However the Occupy Everything slogan only serves to further emphasize the fact that this movement, with so much anger diffused in so many directions had no common goal they could agree on.

occupy-everything

Every protest that’s ever been successful has had a clear goal in sight, otherwise how does it know it’s successful? By “Occupying Everything,” they accomplished nothing, and due to an inability to focus on one core issue, people stopped taking the Occupy movement seriously and the movement quickly fell apart.

And just where was Kalle Lasn, the so called founder of the Occupy movement, while his group was falling apart? Ask him and he will deny ever being the movement’s leader, something he has gone on record saying countless times. Instead he says vague things like he provided the spark, but that it is a leaderless movement. But what do you call someone who names a movement, designs and distributes advertisements for that movement, sets up a website for said movement and picks a date for said movement to begin? What would you call someone who sends out a messages to set up “camps and kitchens in the streets of Manhattan” (Whitney) and then later sends a tactical briefing to the protestors warning them of a middle of the night raid? What do you call someone that continues to offer suggestions to protestors on strategy, organization, communication and inspiration? Yes, it is Kalle Lasn that has done and continues to do all these things and more, and yet repeatedly he denies being their leader. How is that possible? Lasn explains it this way in an interview with Jake Whitney of Guernica magazine, “There’s a disconnect with older people who expect a movement to be vertical, like they’d seen in the past, with recognized leaders and demands and manifestos. Reporters want to be able to walk into an occupation and say, ‘Take me to your leader,’ ask ‘What’s this about?’ and write a story. But this movement is different. It’s been launched horizontally by people raised on the Internet. They don’t really like leaders. They’re egalitarian and don’t like having clearly articulated demands. But they have powerful, horizontal ways of communicating through social media”. Lasn goes on at great length for eight pages on just this one interview alone to speak for this group of protestors, describing exactly what the people of the Occupy movement are like, how they feel and what they want and don’t want. Excuse me for pointing out the obvious, but if it looks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, it is a duck. Its you, Kalle Lasn who is the leader of the Occupy movement, no matter how loudly you proclaim you aren’t.

Its clear to most that the Occupy movement, a quickly fading memory, failed to accomplish any lasting change. What could have been possible if Lasn had instead accepted responsibility for directing the movement that he created? What could he have done differently? Well for one he could have focused his and the groups’ energy on one particular demand, and I for one have a suggestion. For as far as I can tell most of the complaints and grievances in his book easily point to one underlying flaw in our current system: the power imbalance that resides between corporations and people. Why not focus on removing that power? That would require working within the existing political system which Lasn, a former hippie who admits he prefers to shock, would like to avoid. So it’s not surprising to find this commentary on the Occupy agenda again from Doug Mataconis,“that agenda was largely incoherent, the movement simply didn’t do anything to try to get advance its ideas in mainstream American, or to push the political agenda in a direction that they wanted it to go. Indeed, the movement at times seemed to revel in the idea that it was anything but mainstream, engaging in some of the kind of “shock” tactics that the social movements of the late 60s did”. If you have read Culture Jam, you know that Lasn almost idolized the left wing student group the Situationists that thrived on shock so it is no surprise that he would want to emulate their tactics. The more telling part, almost eerie in its premonition-like quality, occurs in the closing pages of Culture Jam. Lasn, as if in a state of ecstatic bliss such is his palatable admiration, describes in exquisite detail the story of the 1968 Situationist-inspired riots of Paris ending with “for a few weeks, millions of people who had worked their whole lives in offices and factories broke from their daily routines and…lived” (213). Clearly this was what Lasn had in mind when he “lit the spark” of the Occupy movement. He wanted to relive this time period. With a clearly crest-fallen tone Lasn goes on to say that at the brink of “this brief hot happening,” the short-lived revolution fell apart, and “at the height of the uprisings, when they had the ear of the world, they did not know what to say beyond a few cryptic announcements”. Well the comparisons of this mini-revolution in Paris to the modern-day Occupy movement are staggering and undeniable. Lasn, too had the ear of the world as his Occupy movement gained momentum and world-wide attention, and in failing to take any significant action to direct the movement he created, it fell apart just as swiftly and surely as did his beloved movement of 1968. Only this time he was the one responsible, whether he admits it or not.

The real tragedy in all of this, other than the obvious unsolved problems still facing our culture, is that there are now more disenfranchised, angry, depressed and cynical people out there than ever before, whom Lasn cryptically refers to in his last words of his book as “a confused and deeply troubled population… pleading direct our cynicism, direct our rage” (214). For all the criticism heaped upon him, I actually believe Lasn is a genius in many ways, a visionary, inspired and creative. But when the people he stirred up responded to his call for action and were ready and willing to be led, he wasn’t there to direct their cynicism and rage that he himself stirred up. Will he get a second chance? If so will he learn from his mistake next time around? Or will a new leader emerge? Only time will tell. But for now, a disenfranchised nation remains in wait.

 

 

References:

The Secret Structure of Great Talks by Nancy Duarte (originally accesed on Ted.com link now broken)

Web. Accessed 3/23/13

 

One Year Later the Failure of Occupy Wall Street is Apparent by Doug Mataconis

http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/one-year-later-the-failure-of-occupy-wall-street-is-apparent/

Web. Accesed 3/24/13.

 

The Wizard of Occupy Wall Street: Jake Whitney Interviews Kalle Lasn

http://www.guernicamag.com/interviews/whitney_lazan_12_1_11/

Web. Accesed 3/23/13.

 

Occupy Everything Image

http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/collections/occupy

Web. Accesed 3/24/13.

 

Lasn, Kalle. Culture Jam. New York: Harper Collins, 2000. Print.

 

 

Reflections by author:

This was a big assignment to write for our final, summing up the whole book we have read all quarter long. I think the most challenging aspect of writing this piece was the fact that there were so many aspects of Culture Jam that I could have written about. He is a passionate writer and for all the times I shook my head no, irritated by his condescending and berating doomsday tone, there were at least that many times I nodded my head yes. The margins of my book are littered with stars, happy faces and even hearts. So much of what he has to say about our contemporary society is spot-on. He is filled with anger and pessimism yes, but there is plenty of passion too. However as soon as I read the last page I felt called to write this piece about his connection with the Occupy movement. There were simply too many glaring oversights and the more research I did the more I felt it needed to be brought to the surface.

As far as my writing, I feel like I have made huge strides in the organization and structure. I have always had a lot to say. I feel like it is part of my Libra nature to want to balance both sides of the commentary and my greatest downfall has been the scattered free-for-all brain storm that I have failed in the past to put the reins on. This piece, as I hope the instructor will agree, feels focused and clear. There was a lot more information on Lasn’s background that I could have included, as well as bits from the book and aspects of pop culture. But I exercised restraint, kept to my thesis and topic sentence for each paragraph and that is a big step for me. I am not a perfect writer by any means but I have learned so much in this class and feel that my writing has really improved.

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