counterculture criticism continued March 3rd, 2008
for context on this post, read “allow me to disagree…” from March 2. much of this post has been inspired by the book mentioned in that post, “Nation of Rebels”, by Heath and Potter.
i’m writing this post from a unique place, not emotionally- geographically. we’re on vacation just outside of Vail, Colorado. it’s a really beautiful place. we are staying at this nice house that belongs to the family of some friends of ours.
my criticism of “counterculture” continues today with a critique of the anti-corporate ad “guerilla tactics” promoted by Adbusters and other organizations.
First, let me be clear- I HATE MOST ADVERTISING. it’s ugly, annoying, demeaning, and frustrating. it represents a mentality that is beyond unhealthy, the basis of which is “keep buying stuff to stay happy”. it’s a bit ironic for me to be writing about this, as i don’t exactly corner the market on happiness either, but i have addressed that in other posts.
the points are as follows:
1. most advertising sucks- this i agree with Adbusters on.
2. it feels good to tear down ads, to “culture jam“, and it may even change a few minds to do these acts of rebellion against corporo-pop culture.
3. culture jamming is not the most effective way to bring change to this sphere
4. as with the examples mentioned in my previous post, direct action can be fun, but real change happens when people pursue legal means within the system rather than outside of it. this is NOT always the case, but in this one it is.
would we be better off with less advertising? yeah. is it “mental pollution”? yeah. if i put anti-coke stickers on a vending machine is that going to change anything? probably not.
but what if i begin networking with people who want to see ad culture shrink, and we use the courts for leverage, as Heath and Potter suggest? the authors suggest that if corporations were only allowed tax breaks on half of their advertising budget, instead of 100%, then they would spend less money on advertising. less incentive, less spending, less ads.
this strikes me as a real, practical solution (or at least an avenue worth pursuing). has anybody tried this? or do we just have too much fun blocking traffic, spray painting over billboards and silkscreening our own un-brand T shirts? Don’t get me wrong!!! i love that stuff. i’ve done it, and may continue to do so. i just don’t think that it’s really going to change anything, and if i want to really see change in this area i need to pursue legal action.
IMPORTANT: i don’t believe that any problem can be “settled in the courts”. for example, the civil rights movement, before and after victories in the courts had to take that fight to the streets. Perhaps i will write more on the differences between the two, but i don’t think i will do that at this time- i have a headache.
the short version of the reasoning of the culture jammers is, “you cant use a broken system to fix a broken system- we need to overthrow everything”. that is the basic root of disagreement that i have with counterculture.
more on that in a future post.
allow me to disagree with much of “counterculture” March 2nd, 2008
i think (this is not a promise) i will spend a few posts examining the ideas promoted within a book i’m about to finish. it’s called Nation of Rebels by Heath and Potter.
this is in no way a “perfect book”, a “textbook” or a loaded-gun manifesto. it’s just a couple of guys who are trying to explain to “normal people” that much of the ideals of counterculture (from hot topic kids to Marxists) are actively promoting the system that they are trying to subvert. The authors do overstate/simplify some of the opposition’s arguments and positions, but their thinking still cuts through the smokescreen for me, and that’s why i’m taking some time to write about the ideas in this book.
a few of the examples which were particularly poignant for me were critiques of Adbusters/Culture Jammers and Critical Mass, as i had been a strong supporter of both up until fairly recently (just before starting to read this book, actually).
for some conext, here is the wiki on Kalle Lasn the guy who started Adbusters. the following is an excerpt from Nation of Rebels, discussing Lasn’s marketing of his “black spot sneaker“. The arrival of the black spot sneaker was when i started questioning Lasn, adbusters, and culture jamming in general.
Lasn describes the sneaker project as “a ground-breaking marketing scheme to uncool Nike. If it succeeds, it will set a precedent that will revolutionize capitalism.” Yet how exactly is it supposed to revolutionize capitalism? Reebok, Adidas, Puma, Vans and a half-dozen other companies have been trying to “uncool” Nike for decades. That’s called marketplace competition. It is, in fact, the whole point of capitalism.Lasn defends the sneaker project against critics, pointing out that his shoes, unlike those of his rivals, will not be manufactured in “sweatshops”- although they will still be imported Asia. [my note: presently, the shoes are made in Portugal] This is nice. But “fair trade” and “ethical marketing” are hardly revolutionary ideas, and they certainly represent no threwat to the capitlaist system. If consumers are willing to pay more for the shoes made by happy workers- or for eggs laid by happy chickens- then there is money to be made in bringing these goods to market. It’s a business model that has already been exploited to great effect by The Body Shop and Starbucks, among others.
The hope of adbusters (and the shoe) is to create a new type of “grassroots capitalism” where goods are made well, small businesses are producing/selling them locally, and, generally speaking, giant corporations die a burly death at the feet of the enlightened, empowered consumer. only i don’t think they like the word “consumer”, so…
Heath and Potter are pointing out that a reorganization of some of capitalism’s ways is not revolutionary, rather it’s just “capitalism”. if this doesn’t make sense, keep reading- maybe my critical mass example will help.
so- critical mass in Seattle- exciting, fun, empowering- especially on a tall bike! for the uninitiated- a bunch of people gather downtown, and for a few hours, ride bikes thru Friday’s rush hour traffic all over downtown. it’s supposed to be for some good reason, like to get drivers to see bikes as legitimate transportation, or for safety, etc.. at some point i started to recognize that it’s not really accomplishing much, other than making me (and other riders) feel empowered and rebellious by screwing with drivers for an evening. the result of this, i think, is that people who don’t bike feel more afraid and alienated from these “strange people” who ride to work in the rain. i guess having drivers feel afraid of bikers might make things safer, but i doubt it. i think what it does is create more enmity between the two than is already there. how is this helpful? we don’t really know. we don’t really care. we just feel “alive” because we’re screwing with traffic and nobody can stop us because there are between 100 and 500 of us, and some of us will bash in your windshield if you try to fuck with us.
that’s why i don’t ride critical mass any more. hype, anarchy, rebellion and “counterculture” don’t necessarily equal change. good feelings? yes. lasting movement forward? no.
so what does real, effective bike activism look like? it looks more like the Cascade Bicycle Club petitioning for (and winning) a bike lane on Stone Way to me. of course, some “massers” helped win that bike lane too, but i think their time could be much better spent by shifting to actual effective, legal action like this than riding critical mass. if 500 people lobbied for a more bike friendly Seattle, i think the changes would be quick, relevant, and save lives. on the other hand, lobbying and signature gathering is WAY less fun than riding around downtown kicking SUV asses and yelling (oh yeah, and also making things worse for ourselves).
get my drift?
this is a large complex topic, and i plan to continue writing on it for a while. i think i will talk about advertising in my next post. thanks for reading. i’d love to hear your thoughts…