Recuperation: Culture Jamming and Hacktivism

Despite activists’ best efforts, even the most transgressive of actions can be co-opted by the very structures they attempt to oppose. In his 2002 book Activism!, University of Sussex professor Tim Jordan illustrates how the activist technique of “culture-jamming” can backfire. Using the “bloodless terror” of semiotic terrorism to undermine and question ubiquitous symbols, culture jamming seeks to dismantle the insidious codes built by corporations and states to generate unconscious desires (104). Common examples of these subversive, often highly irreverent culture jams include billboard defacement by the Billboard Liberation Front and Adbusters, in which they use the same language as the target corporation to “[make] explicit” the subtle codes that influence desire (Absolut Vodka becomes “Absolut Impotence” or “Absolut End”) (107).

However, just as how culture jammers can assimilate their opposition’s  language into their own for transgression, corporations and states can likewise co-opt culture-jamming techniques for their own benefit. Jordan claims that this phenomenon, “recuperation,” greatly undermines culture jamming because it is merely a reinforcement of codes (114). For example, the enormous amount of press generated when anti-Nike culture jammers had a “billboard war” with the company allowed Nike’s campaign to receive publicity “they could not have gotten from any ‘normal’ ad campaign” (113). Furthermore, Nike even commissioned authors to disseminate their supposed cultural critique, raising further doubts about the efficacy of culture jamming. Other corporations, such as Box Fresh in London, use the same “subversive” symbols and rhetoric as activists groups (Zapatista guerillas graffitied on walls with “We are you” slogans pasted underneath) to advertise their own products — and in the process, generate free publicity when the culture-jamming spacehijackers responded in outrage (115).

Culture jamming, unfortunately, isn’t the only activist technique being connaturalized by corporations and states. Hacktivism too, has been used by states to wage war against each other through delegitimization under the banner of free speech and email leaks. This occurred most recently in the 2016 American election, in which an FBI and Homeland security investigation revealed that Russian hackers posing as American hacktivists unleashed a torrent of private documents aimed at delegitimizing the Clinton campaign and sowing distrust amongst American voters through media (“Assessing Russian ACtivities and Intentions in Recent US Elections”). The two prominent web presences in this hacking effort, Guccifer 2.0 and DCLeaks, mimicked the style of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to pose as hacktivists; Guccifer 2.0 claimed to be a “freedom fighter” who would point journalists to anti-Democratic National Committee documents, while DCLeaks pretended to be “launched by American hacktivists who respect and appreciate freedom of speech.” 

This undermining of yet another technique used by many activists is terrifying, in that nobody can be quite sure of the intentions and backgrounds of their “fellow activists.” Doubt and mistrust is antithesis to solidarity and collective action, which is crucial to effective, transgressive “activism!”

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One thought on “Recuperation: Culture Jamming and Hacktivism”

  1. To connect back to the 2016 election once more, I am wondering if you see a parallel between Nike’s receiving publicity “they could not have gotten from any ‘normal’ ad campaign” (Jordan 113) and the way that media coverage of Trump’s scandals and hateful statements actually benefited him politically. The follow-up question would be whether this is a flaw in the way our system is set up. When we consume media about certain actors because we are appalled by their actions, does it end up benefiting them socially, politically, or economically, just as the negative attention given to Nike by culture jamming ended up being favorable for the company?

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