Culture Jamming: Using the Master’s Tools to Tear Down the Master’s House?

The concept I found most intriguing in this week’s readings was that articulated in the ending section, “Is There an Outside to the Empire of Signs?”, of author Tim Jordan’s chapter on “Culture Jamming”.  Having established the role activists – or, as Jordan refers to them, “semiotic terrorists” – play in opposing the advertisements and cultures produced by powerful corporations and the state, as well as the ways in which corporations and the state find ways to hijack the culture jamming efforts of these activists, Jordan closes with a discussion on the merits of the activists culture jamming efforts. In order for culture jamming to be rejected, Jordan argues, “there must be the possibility that a language can exist not dependent on or engaged with dominant cultural codes” (Jordan 116).

 The response of culture jammers, Jordan goes on to inform us, is clear; “there are no areas of life that the state or corporations (or both) do not touch” (Jordan 116). Because of the inescapable influence of the state and corporations, culture jammers cannot hope “that something pure exists in a media-saturated world. Rather, [they] hope that needs different to those that are currently dominant can be generated from our current world.”In essence, by sabotaging and subverting the language of corporations and the state, and revealing the nefarious motives underneath, culture jammers seek to create a new “language” of sorts, one that is purer and allows for focus on authentic human needs and desires rather than the manipulation of those needs and desires for power, control, or profit. However, because culture jammers must work from “inside the system”, so to speak, Jordan warns that “it will always remain an open question whether [culture jamming’s] attempt to work with the tools of its enemy fundamentally compromises it as a political tactic.” (Jordan 117).

While I found the entire chapter very interesting, this concept in particular stood out to me because it reminded me of a quote by 20th-century feminist and civil rights activist Audre Lorde: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. This quote stemmed partly from her experience as a lesbian African-American woman in the feminist movement as she dealt with the strong heterosexual white bias in feminist academia. Although the feminist movement had many important aims, it still, consciously or unconsciously, carried some of the same principles that imposed oppression upon portions of its members, especially those such as Lorde with multiply marginalized identities. As Lorde explained, “the tools of racist patriarchy” cannot be used to “examine the fruits of that same patriarchy”.  While the context of culture jammers and Lorde’s actions are very different, her emphasis on the importance of not using the tools of the oppressors in seeking to fight oppression echoes the warning Jordan provides on whether or not culture jamming compromises itself by working, as he says, “with the tools of the enemy”.

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