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Capitalism and Freedom: “Control Through Desire”

In Activism!: Direct Action, Hacktivism and the Future of Society, author Tim Jordan refers to the phenomenon of cultural codes and how US capitalism and corporate structure are conducive to the pervasive development of such manipulative codes. The US, prides itself on freedom and praises freedom as one of, if not the most important value of the “American culture.” So too is America’s practice of capitalism an extoled and distinguished characteristic and value of the “American culture”. For centuries, politicians and capitalists alike have emphasized the importance of these two specific values/traits of freedom and capitalism in distinguishing America from other nations of the world. For in the perspective of these politicians and capitalists, freedom enables capitalism. Yet, what if capitalism subverts this very freedom? According to Tim Jordan, capitalism, the long exalted economic system of America, may in fact undermine individual and societal freedom in profound ways through its generation of “cultural codes.” According to Tim Jordan, the American does not truly exist as an independent individual freely forming his or her idiosyncratic desires and interests, but is rather subject to cultural manipulation by the corporations of the world. “Unlike the authoritarian state, globalized capitalism does not seek control of desire, but control through desire…”(Jordan, p. 112).

Thus, corporations and the state shape the desires of the individual American and the American society as a whole. Therefore, the active presence of “cultural jammers” who can disrupt this manipulation of the “American culture” of are the immense importance in ascertaining veritable freedom in the American society. Cultural jammers must somehow reveal the manipulative cultural codes created by the corporations of capitalist America. After having read Jordan’s Activism! Chapter 5, the importance Jordan places on Cultural Jammers in society’s ability to transcend and conquer the binding effects of cultural codes and ultimately the role and necessity of cultural jammers is clearly emphasized. However, more complex and difficult is how cultural jammers can successfully realize their roles of “contesting cultural codes”; for these cultural codes are so deeply pervasive and ingrained in the “American Culture.” Moreover, some codes may even be too entrenched and durable to effectively contest or perhaps even discern. According to Jordan, “the cultures that are foisted on us, coming not from communities or individuals or families, but from profit-seeking companies and their hired semioticians, can be turned inside out.”(Jordan, p. 102). However, how can such cultures be turned inside out if some are so profoundly and subconsciously ingrained to the point that we and even “cultural jammers” are unable to even detect them?

(1) Seduction in Signs

In Chapter 5, Tim Jordan discusses the idea of branding and its effects on our daily lives. He argues that nothing in our cultural lives has not been “produced by the professionals of desire” (Jordan 117). From Nike to McDonald’s, corporations have become adept at finding ways to “control [the] meaning” (Jordan 111) of various symbols and ideas. And they have been quite successful – golden arches immediately force audiences to think of fast comfort food. Swooshes push audiences to think of prestige and athleticism. By simply participating in our capitalist society, we are trained to connect words to products, slogans to lifestyles, and ideas to money. Activists now must find ways to use those innate connections against these corporations.

What makes Jordan’s connection of branding to activism! so interesting is its accessibility and effectiveness. It is amazing that a couple of San Francisco guys can place a pink bra on a billboard and reduce the masculinity of an entire cigarette brand (Jordan 105). Our current society has become democratized online – I would argue that one does not need to be in a formal activist group to turn a brand against itself.

To illustrate this, let us consider the recent presidential election – indeed, any discussion of contemporary activism should consider the recent presidential election. One can argue that Donald Trump is a true master of branding – with his tweets and incendiary rally rhetoric that enraptured the media, he was able to create “seduction in return for consumption” (Jordan 110) all for free. And of course, the consumption was the voters’ constant attention. Every American knows the power of the slogan “Make America Great Again”, and those blue caps have been engrained into our memory forever.

But with the power of social media, liberals turned the slogan against itself. “Make America Great Again” became “Make America Hate Again” and “Make America Gay Again”. Alas, the work was to no avail. However, the case study stands; branding and activism! are intertwined, and activists and regular citizens alike can create change by knowing how to manipulate symbols, slogans, and seductive signs.

Tit-For-Tat: Manipulating Cultural Codes

In Activism!: Direct Action, Hacktivism and the Future of Society, Tim Jordan discusses the omnipresence of cultural codes in society and the implications of the existence of these codes. Cultural codes are meant to “persuade … to buy something or be someone” and these codes are usually “controlled by corporations and states … whose ultimate goal[s] [are] a profitable bottom line and … to manage its citizens, [respectively],” effectively allowing a select few individuals with high positions in industries and governments to control the narrative of what society’s values are (Jordan 102). Naturally, society fought back with a technique known as cultural jamming, turning these cultural codes back on their heads. For instance, Jordan describes a political culture jam: a bumper sticker displayed the text “Employ Labour Now,” but after a clever rearrangement of letters, the bumper sticker displayed the text “No Labour Ploy,” a new cultural code with the exact opposite message as it had originally (Jordan 101). After reading that anecdote, I did a mental fist-pump as common people had wrested control of the cultural code from political parties.

Unfortunately, the powerful do not intend to give up their power of persuasion so easily. Later in the same chapter, Jordan outlines a Nike advertising campaign in which Nike attempted to impersonate a culture jam. Nike had just created a new sports footwear, and to promote the supposed superiority of their product, they utilized culture jamming as a novel advertising technique. Messages such as “What next, rocket packs?” and “Fair-Minded Footy Fans say Not Fair Mr Technology” overtly appeared to be populist culture jams, but in reality, Nike was taking advantage of these phrases to promote their own product – to promote their own interests. Nike had even paid off various parties to try and increase media coverage of their product for the sake of publicity (Jordan 112-114). It was disturbing to me that corporations would go to such lengths of deception in order to preserve their sales figures. In this particular case, society ultimately won the culture jamming battle, plastering a genuine message criticizing Nike’s use of slave labor. Not every story has a happy ending though. How many corporations and governments have gotten away with the manipulation of cultural codes for their own selfish purposes? It may never be known who is winning the endless tug-of-war between society and corrupt executives, but the existence of these shadow battles to control culture is frightening.

 

Manipulating the Anonymity of Activism

Tim Jordan, the author of Activism!: Direct Action, Hacktivism, and the Future of Society, writes about the history and development of activism through the information age. According to Jordan, activism is characterized by a group of people who hold a shared pursuit of transgression that must contradict existing social structures or ethics. However, he emphasizes the importance of time when he defines “activism!” as specifically “those movements that draw on the future to create the future” (26). Some activists utilize ingrained advertisement campaigns to draw attention to their ideas in what is coined “culture jamming”. According to Jordan, “It is this corporate production of symbolic codes, which attempts to structure our unconscious desires and needs, that is most deeply opposed by culture jammers” (109). Because the success of the branding depends on more deeply seated trends within society, the activists who pervert the original advertisement are able to speak to the social norms that they wish to alter. Thus, when a jammer uses the color scheme, font, and spacing of a commonly known campaign but alters the message, people are more likely to pay attention and perhaps question how the new message comments upon the well known brand.

With these questions arising, corporations and their advertising teams were able to respond in kind. Nike used culture jamming when one of its campaigns mistakenly used “offensive” in reference to offense in sports. In the advertisement, offensive negatively shadows the brand. By plastering over their original slogan, Nike made it appear as if a grass roots organization saw Nike shoes as too much of an advantage over other players to be considered “fair.” Cultural jammers responded by reinstating the original slogan with an addition of their own. However, the ability for corporations to control and fund the critique of their own actions is a terrifying concept in the way that a company can then manipulate how individuals perceive the common response to products. Ultimately, culture jamming must be considered with a rather cynical view as advertising movements have begun using culture jamming in campaigns. It is important as a conscious consumer of advertisements and information to be aware of the obscurity of the intentions of the people speaking and editing content.

Branding

I found this topic to be extremely interesting because it dealt with and culture jamming and the way society today focuses on symbolism and what it represents. For instance, Jordan states, “The Nike website for women is called NikeGoddess; if you buy Nike, you don’t get shoes, you get to be a goddess” (108). This type of imagery explains a lot about how society today functions; in particular, it shows how certain brands of today are associated with greater prestige and wealth.

The author also connects the idea that branding has become so integrated in our lives that many modern events are now seen through the eyes of cultural symbolism. For instance, he comments “the gulf war is often referred to as the nintendo war” (110) primarily because the war was around the time nintendo came out with a game, and the images of the game were similar to what was going on in the battlefield. This is particularly interesting to me because it shows that as a society, we have come to such levels in terms of being dependent and excessively following technology.

I feel that these points are extremely important when thinking about contemporary activism because slogans and branding are ways by which many important messages are disseminated today. For instance, “Black Lives Matter” is an important expression today that began its birth as the product of intelligent marketing. This expression has brought millions of new followers of the movement to restore justice for African-Americans. Another similar expression, “hands up, don’t shoot” is also very popular today primarily because the expression has become associated with police officers committing acts of brutality towards reportedly harmless and innocent African-American men. With the advent of social media, it is now easier than ever to have trending hashtags that highlight political awareness and standing up for a cause. The association of brands to new ideas and movements clearly has a compelling effect on audiences.

 

Failure of Activism

The Australian government describes multiculturalism as a “.. term which recognizes and celebrates Australia’s cultural diversity. It accepts  and respects the right of all Australians to express and share their individual cultural heritage…” (Jordan 142). This, however means that the government respects all opinions regardless of whether they are hurtful to the sentiments of any other race or community. Although this idea promotes social inclusion and acceptance of differences, it is highly politically influenced because it hides the fact that some ideas of different communities might inherently be wrong. According to Tim Jordan, author of Activism!: Direct Action, Hacktivism, and the Future of Society, this is the place where activism fails in a democracy, a form of government which promotes free flow of thought and opposition. According to Jordan, diversity of wealth is not a social difference, but rather a result of exploitation of the lower classes. A democracy accepts this social difference as a part of the society and seems to respect it undermining the activist movements which call out the exploitative nature of these wealthy groups.

It is really interesting to read such a fresh take on the relation between a democratic government and an activist group. Although a democracy might not be this liberal in accepting the differences that exist in a society, a lot of popular movements do seem to be discouraged by this acceptance by the government. But ultimately since movements as well as governing bodies are operated by the people of a community, if a certain opinion of a community is disrespectful to the another group in the same community, it would certainly be opposed by the people regardless of whether it is defined to be politically correct or not.

The Convoluted Game of Culture Jamming

“…I know you. And you know you. And I know that you know that I know that you know you” -Ben Stiller as White Goodman in the film Dodgeball: a True Underdog Story

The warring ideas of corporate branding and culture jam are today’s topic of discussion. For any unfamiliar, “culture jamming” is the deliberate subversion and repurposing of commonly accepted mainstream symbolism to spread a message in opposition to the symbol’s original meaning. The examples given in Tim Jordan’s Activism!: Direct Action, Hacktivism, and the Future of Society include altered billboards that emasculate virile cigarette models (Jordan, Activism! pg. 105) and spoof ads, such as the campaign that mocked Absolut Vodka with slogans such as “Absolut Impotence” (107).

What I find most interesting about modern culture jam is the corporate response. Instead of simply trying to prosecute the vandalism or ignore it altogether, certain firms have responded by leaning in to the counterculture. The example that most stuck with me in Activism! was the criticism of Nike’s branding that may have been circulated by Nike itself (112-114). Firms “jamming” their own marketing is probably one of the most brilliant mind games to undermine the effectiveness of cultural jammers. It creates the “I knew you knew I know” dynamic that quickly ramps up the hopeless moral complexity of symbolic protest. By engaging in the game, the companies take away the clear message culture jammers intend to spread. Viewers now need to ask: “is this message truly protesting a transgression? Or is it simply an ironic, possibly controversial marketing campaign designed to generate publicity?”

If effective culture jamming is to continue, it must either adapt to the game or abandon it altogether. Going one level deeper (maybe by pre-empting attempts to counter-jam by making fun of corporations trying to be controversial) could be a clever way to defeat the opposition while still leveraging pre-existing marketing symbolism, tapping straight into the consumer culture that is the backbone of most developed nations. Abandoning culture jam, on the other hand, is another attractive option. It may feel like a moral defeat, but perhaps an evolution is necessary. Jordan brings up an important point: “Does the use of corporate… cultural codes reinforce these codes, even when the overt message is to oppose them?” (114).