Economics

Rebel Without Applause

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Culture Jam: The Uncooling of America™, by Kalle Lasn, New York: Eagle Brook/Morrow, 247 pages, $25.00

In the introduction to Culture Jam, Kalle Lasn, publisher of the super-hip anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters, describes an epiphany he had in the parking lot of a grocery store. He was about to drop a quarter into the slot on a shopping cart, thereby freeing it from the line of carts locked together outside the store. Suddenly, he realized that he hated this supermarket, "a sterile chain store that rarely carries any locally grown produce and always makes me stand in line to pay." To add insult to injury, the store's management expected him to obediently return the cart after he was done shopping and collect his quarter. Filled with rage, Lasn jammed a "big bent coin" into the slot and stalked off to "the little fruit and vegetable store down the road."

Lasn is not embarrassed by this petulant act of sabotage. Far from it. "I felt more alive than I had in months," he reports. If you don't understand why, perhaps you need to read this book. Then you will see that Lasn was not simply vandalizing the store's property and inconveniencing other shoppers. He was breaking "the media-consumer trance," protesting "our mediated, consumption-driven culture," and boldly showing the way out of "the stupefyingly comfortable patterns we've fallen into." He was also, in his own small way, saving the planet.

If you still don't get it, that's probably because you've been brainwashed by the corporations that thrive on "our rampant, oblivious consumption." As Lasn explains, "A long time ago, without even realizing it, just about all of us were recruited into a cult." The cult programmed us to buy, promising that we could achieve happiness through consumption. Lasn, a former market researcher and documentary filmmaker who was born in Estonia, grew up in Australia, and eventually settled in Canada, wants to deprogram us. Now in his 50s, he runs the Vancouver-based Adbusters Media Foundation, which aims to subvert corporate brainwashing through satire and "social marketing campaigns" such as "Buy Nothing Day" and "TV Turnoff Week."

Lasn describes his mission as "culture jamming," which involves "demarketing" or "unselling" the products that the corporations want us to buy, revealing the hollowness of the cool images they condition us to pursue. Our lives are so saturated by such conditioning, he believes, that "America is no longer a country. It's a multitrillion-dollar brand." Hence the book's oh-so-sly subtitle, "The Uncooling of America™."

The appeal of Lasn's message goes beyond the sort of guilty yuppies who join Greenpeace and subscribe to the Utne Reader. His organization's publicity stunts attract mainstream press coverage, he is widely quoted as an expert on advertising, and his book has received glowing reviews from publications that are not known for their revolutionary sympathies. Despite Lasn's consistently overheated prose, Esquire called Culture Jam "one very cool book," while Kirkus described it as "an eloquent manifesto of anti-commercialism worthy of predecessors like Thoreau and Huxley."

To some extent, Lasn's appeal is understandable. No one likes to be manipulated, and everyone is annoyed by some of the ways in which businesses try to sell their products. Anyone who has ever been interrupted by a telemarketer, deluged by junk mail or spam, distracted by an obtrusive product placement in a movie, or jarred by a particularly obnoxious commercial can identify with parts of what Lasn has to say. And surely it's true that people are sometimes disappointed with their acquisitions, especially when they try to substitute shopping for more meaningful pursuits. But Lasn goes beyond validating our complaints to argue that we should be complaining even when we're not inclined to. You may think you're a happy consumer, but Lasn knows better. "Plenitude is America's perverse burden," he declares. "When everything is at hand, nothing is hard-won, nothing really satisfies. Without satisfaction, our lives become shallow and meaningless." And "consumer capitalism" is destroying more than our souls; it is also "killing the planet."

If you don't already accept these claims, this book will not persuade you. Lasn's arguments consist mainly of sweeping assertions, rarely backed up by anything more than his personal impressions. "Many people…seem to be experiencing higher highs and lower lows these days," he writes. "We soar the skies one moment, then feel slack and depressed the next." Lasn attributes these mood swings to alienation from real life: "We watch nature shows instead of venturing into nature. We laugh at sitcom jokes but not at our spouse's. We spend more evenings enjoying video sex than making love ourselves."

Lasn seems to be extrapolating from a very small sample. "My natural instinct for spontaneity, camaraderie and trust has been blunted," he writes, lapsing into the first-person singular. "I used to pick up hitchhikers; now I hardly ever do. I rarely speak to strangers anymore." Based on such data, Lasn claims to see into all of our souls. "Are we happy? Not really," he says. "No one really feels they belong. No one feels any sense of purpose."

Oddly, Lasn looks back fondly on the 1950s, a period that the counterculture he admires derided as stultifyingly conformist, hardly characterized by the "spontaneity" and "authenticity" for which he yearns. Indeed, this was the decade in which social critics such as Vance Packard and John Kenneth Galbraith began warning the public about corporate manipulation of consumer desire, the role Lasn and his fellow culture jammers have now taken on. Yet Lasn insists that "in postwar America things really were pretty good," and "people really were fairly happy." He's a bit hazy on when and how things went wrong, "but somewhere along the line, the dream soured," and now "our world seems an almost cartoonish distortion of the world we once knew."

Lasn's treatment of environmental issues, which he links to a way of life that generates pollution and depletes resources through excessive production and consumption, is similarly impressionistic. He offers a litany of concerns, from global warming to genetically modified crops, without pausing to consider how serious a threat each represents. He is so eager to paint the darkest possible picture that he outdoes himself. "In country after country," he asserts on page 61, "studies reveal that men's sperm counts are falling. Nobody quite knows why." Yet 54 pages later, he has convinced himself that "sperm counts are falling, due to chemical pollution of our air, water and food."

Lasn's position on violent entertainment also evolves during the course of the book. "We still haven't answered the most basic questions," he says on page 12, "such as how media violence affects children." By page 188, however, he is referring to "the incontrovertible link between TV violence and real-world crime," "a clear cause-and-effect relationship." In case you were wondering, he also takes a dim view of fictional sex. "I think the constant flow of commercially scripted pseudosex, rape and pornography makes us more voyeuristic, insatiable and aggressive," he says, "even though I can't prove it with hard facts."

Along with intuitive toxicology and fact-free sociology, Lasn advocates "ecological economics," which holds that "the world is already 'full' and further expansion will lead us into an ecological nightmare, a prolonged and possibly permanent 'age of despair.'" Since Lasn's brand of economics also holds that it's more efficient to grow your own vegetables than to buy them in a supermarket, he could be wrong about the end of the world too. He concedes that economists almost universally reject the view that humans are bumping up against "limits to growth," but he asks that we "assume for the moment that our survival is indeed threatened." In that case, "The solution is nothing short of a cultural revolution."

That's the sort of phrase a critic of capitalism probably should avoid. But it's of a piece with Lasn's grand ambitions. "On the ruins of the old consumer culture," he writes, "we will build a new one with a noncommercial heart and soul." Among other things, he calls for "new consumption patterns and new lifestyles," "a global across-the-board pricing system that tells the ecological truth," and "new cities designed chiefly with pedestrians, bicycles and public transport in mind." It is hard to reconcile such goals with Lasn's avowed rejection of central planning.

Nor does Lasn's lip service to free speech sit well with his attempt to delegitimize anyone who might disagree with him. People who have a good word to say about Nikes, Big Macs, or TV ("North America's number one mental health problem") are under the sway of "market-structured consciousness." People who express skepticism about global warming or defend the car ("arguably the most destructive product we humans have ever produced") are spreading "infotoxins." People who create commercials, TV shows, or movies that offend Lasn are dumping "mental pollutants" into our "collective unconscious." Lasn manages to exclude all of these people from the debate even while insisting on the importance of "information diversity."

Doublespeak is not the only habit that Lasn shares with the propagandists he condemns. "We are constantly being hyped, suckered, and lied to," he complains. Later, as if to prove his point, he insists that "everything we do has global implications. Crisis is never far away….The fate of the planet hangs in the balance." Likewise, Lasn says advertising "is 'antilanguage' that, whenever it runs into truth and meaning, annihilates it"--a pretty apt description of the clever-seeming pronouncements that litter this book. "You have moved so far into the consumer maze that you can smell the cheese," Lasn warns. But isn't the cheese the reason you crawled into the maze in the first place? And is Lasn saying that you will eventually get the cheese (as rats tend to do) but still not be satisfied? Or is he implying that the cheese, representing true happiness, is forever out of reach? Already you, a lowly rodent, have given this metaphor more thought than he did.

When it comes to the question of who is running this experiment, Lasn implies a conspiracy so pervasive that no one can escape its influence. "A free, authentic life is no longer possible in America today," he writes. "We are being manipulated in the most insidious way. Our emotions, personalities and core values are under siege from media and cultural forces too complex to decode." Somehow, though, Lasn and his friends have managed to decode them. What's more, they've found the keys in plain sight, incorporated into the culture that supposedly tells us to shut up and keep buying stuff.

Thus, Lasn cites The Manchurian Candidate, A Clockwork Orange, Network, and The Truman Show as movies with subversive messages about the dangers of propaganda and the importance of thinking for oneself. All were critically acclaimed and have attracted big audiences, and many more examples could be added to the list. Why would corporations that depend on a servile population of unthinking consumers undermine themselves by producing and distributing such films? Perhaps they are simply making their brainwashing more effective by creating the illusion of dissent. But then what are we to make of Lasn's book, which was published by an imprint of HarperCollins, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch's media conglomerate? Is Lasn himself a pawn of the corporations?

Assuming he is not, he may need to rethink his portrait of a monolithic culture that has only one thing to say about the virtues of consumption. But Lasn seems oblivious to the clues that there is something wrong with this picture. He claims mainstream media outlets have shut out his point of view because they're afraid of offending advertisers. "In the former Soviet Union you weren't allowed to speak out against the government," he says. "In North America today you cannot speak out against the sponsors." Yet he advises would-be culture jammers looking for publicity that "the media are always willing to expose a dirty little secret."

There is a similar contradiction in Lasn's description of the relationship between consumers and the businesses that cater to them. The corporations "are very attentive" to our desires, he concedes. Yet somehow "we get zero control." Later it becomes clear that Lasn cannot really believe this. "You learn to reward the good with your dollars and time, and punish the bad by refusing to buy in," he writes, urging his readers to use their power as consumers to change the culture. "You never let the corporation forget who is serving whom." This is not a rebellion against capitalism; this is how capitalism works.

From time to time, Lasn implicitly acknowledges that consumers have learned to be critical of what they see and hear. They have become "jaded and media-savvy"; they flip from channel to channel, looking for better options. These do not sound like the mindless drones on which Lasn's critique of "consumer capitalism" depends.

Try as he might to equate consumers with slaves and persuasion with coercion, the truth is that every manifestation of the market that Lasn deplores is a product of individual choices. People like fast food, zippy cars, and violent movies. Lasn does not merely argue against these choices; he insists they are not really choices at all. His book is suffused with contempt for the mesmerized masses who drink Coke, eat Snickers bars, wear Gap jeans, and aspire to drive BMWs or SUVs.

They may think they're cool, says Lasn, but they're not. "Legitimately cool people instinctively understand that the psychology of subservience--getting corporately seduced--is a chicken-ass way to live," he writes. "It's cool to rebel. But a lot of people who think they're rebelling, aren't." True rebels, in Lasn's view, do un-chicken-ass things like "jamming a coin into a monopoly newspaper box" and "liberating a billboard in the middle of the night." When they're not busy throwing tantrums at the supermarket.