Radical media, politics and culture.

Jason Adams, "Beyond Adbusters"

Beyond Adbusters
Jason Adams

Despite his comparative anonymity, it may actually turn out to be James Alex, the blogger/artist who kicked off the recent pepper-spray cop meme, who becomes the more important model for the future of Occupy Wall Street than Kalle Lasn, the now-famous head of Adbusters. Let me explain why, through my own encounter with each of them. In Summer 2002, fresh out of liberal arts school, I was, like many, disheartened by emergent post-9/11 culture and ready for new surroundings generally. So I moved from the U.S. Pacific Northwest to Vancouver, Canada, where I pursued a graduate degree in Political Science.

In the wake of what had up until then been a steadily growing antiglobalization movement, it wasn’t long before the thought occurred to me that the skills I’d honed in the design and technology niches within which I’d involved myself might be useful at the city’s most impactful alternative media institution: Adbusters. So, I called them up, proposed to share my work, and following an affirmative response, made my way down to the headquarters in West Vancouver.

What I experienced upon my arrival however, jarred my expectations considerably. Rather than being given the chance to apply my skills as I had discussed on the phone, I was told my work would not actually be looked at that day and would most likely not be considered any time soon. Instead, I was shown the mailroom and trained in the fine art of processing magazine subscriptions and other Adbusters commodity orders. I didn’t mind that per se, but it wasn’t long before I moved on to a more fulfilling outlet for my activism: Spartacus Books, the collectively-run, ideologically-pluralist, non-profit infoshop in East Vancouver. There at least, I knew that it was assumed from the beginning that I was an equal amongst equals and was therefore enabled to do whatever I put initiative into, in addition of course, to the necessary gruntwork.

This, I argue, is also how I, like many people, experienced the pepper spray cop meme: as something I was equal to, empowered and even encouraged to do my own version of, given a basic working knowledge of Photoshop and access to social media networks. Despite the current reality of its enframing, in the age of social media it is the infoshop sensibility, as the Alex case illustrates, and not that of the hierarchical, centralized non-profit, that is the medium’s most pressing potential. Of course, after the many successes of Occupy Wall Street (OWS), Adbusters has been brought into the spotlight as never before. Under the leadership of Lasn, they’ve been cited in a range of media outlets spanning from The Guardian to The New Yorker as constituting the movement’s central, primary source. And yet, while they are the ones who made the call, such appeals to single, unitary origins are misleading. Not only because events ranging from the French Events of May 1968 to the Arab Spring through the California/Wisconsin occupations provided additional, more fundamental conditions of possibility, but because an ever-increasingly rhizomatic network culture destabilizes assumed relationships between origins and outcomes.

One need look no further than the primary activity to which Adbusters has been dedicated since its founding several decades ago in order to grasp this. The Situationist-influenced practice of détournement, which the magazine’s creators renarrated as “subvertising” the critical re-working of corporate advertisements and other mass images, are no longer practices limited to design school graduates or bounded institutions. Along with the ubiquity of Photoshop and similar programs, the varied foci of Facebook pages like Occupy Lulz and Occupy Friendship, Tumblr blogs like Pepper Spraying Cop and We Are The 99%, as well as the countless, ad-hoc efforts of unidentified persons across multiple social media nodes, the necessary productive as well as distributive processes have been democratized. While not all can be classified as subvertising, all represent variants on détournement, “turning expressions of the capitalist system against itself.” Indeed, despite Adbusters’ initial impact on OWS, not to mention the constant claim of cultivating a “meme war”, their subvertisements rarely make the rounds in social media networks. More often than not, they remain locked within the hardcopy medium of the magazine itself.

Perhaps then, rather than the second decade of the 21st century constituting the high point of subvertising culture, it may actually be something quite different that we are witnessing: the decline of print-based subvertising and the rise of Internet-based “détournememes.” Détournememes, as I define them, are as irreducible to Adbusters’ by-now recuperated subvertisements as they are to their often nihilistic, purely lulz-oriented counterparts, found with regularity on Reddit or Know Your Meme. Rather, they constitute a consciously political take on the aesthetic choices that early 21st century slang refers to as “meta”, turning expressions of existing mass culture against itself to create an alternate mass culture: in this case, a critical or even radical one. The sprawling, variegated development of the OWS occupations are indicative of how this is playing out in the growing interweaving of Internet-based movements and street-based counterparts. Just as the former have been shown to contain an infinite plasticity, so too have the latter, in intimate, real ways.

After the proliferation and dissemination of détournememes throughout social media then, Adbusters’ loss of control of the very aesthetic practices it popularized cannot be separated from the publication’s inability to bring to a halt the street-based actions it helped mobilize worldwide this past fall. Despite Lasn’s “tactical briefing” on November 14th, calling for OWS to consider packing up for the winter and declaring “victory”, the continuing unfolding of the movement shows that true memes, because they are based upon more than a single origin, are unruly things, even if they need not be nihilistic ones. Just as the countless variations on the pepper-spray cop meme shared through Facebook and other online networks have proven susceptible to a host of further alterations, so too has the character of the occupation as a whole. Additonal captions, alternate mise-en-scènes and other elements were effortlessly added to widely-shared imagery just as breakaway groups opting to occupy vacant buildings, abandoned schools and other spaces themselves multiplied the content of OWS.

And, just as the original image utilized in a particular détournememe can be located through online image-matching technologies so that it can be remade differently, so too can origin stories of “the” movement be plasticized, so as to encourage currently emergent politics. If origins cannot be reduced to a single person, place or thing, this is necessarily also the case with the present as well as the future of OWS. In order for such approaches to be effective however, an open, creative engagement with the existing discourse and the increasingly normalized cast of actors and histories it has given rise to would be helpful. In the case of détournement, this means critically revisiting Lasn’s stated inspiration, the Situationists, particularly the iconic Guy Debord. While many attempts have been made to rethink his influential arguments, two responses in contemporary critical thought are particularly useful for today’s Internet-based media environment: Giorgio Agamben’s “Difference and Repetition: On the Films of Guy Debord” and Jacques Ranciere’s essay “The Emancipated Spectator” (which provided the title for a recent book).

I will not explicate the entire contents of these two pieces, but suffice it to say that, upon considering each of them, it is tempting, due to their divergent timeframes, to simply begin with the former and end with the latter. Agamben, writing over a decade ago, is well-known for his incisive ontological critique, which became popular in the U.S. under George W. Bush. However, the latter’s recent focus on aesthetics often seems both more timely and more nuanced. Ranciere’s emancipated spectators, for instance, would no doubt rail against illusory Situationist hostility to mediation, denouncing its philosophically hierarchical foundation as an unfortunate convergence of vulgar Feuerbachian materialism and antiquated Platonist idealism. Instead, they might posit an equality of intelligences, to counter the elitist condescension Situationism often gives rise to on the part of those who are thereby presupposed to “know”, over those who are presupposed to “not know.”In the process, they might then champion the democratization and pluralization of critique that social media has made possible, even if not yet deeply real.

From this perspective, one could proceed to invoke a range of observations influenced by Walter Benjamin’s détournements of Immanuel Kant, which among other things, influenced Ranciere. For instance, it might be noted that many of the OWS-related détournememe pages on Facebook often utilize the same Helvetica bold font employed by corporations like Staples, American Apparel, Target and Motorola, juxtaposing that resonant typographical form with the divergent content of red-and-black chromatics: anticapitalist colors that in their content, change the meaning of the form at the same time as they do the attendant mise-en-scènes. In doing so, it might be said, they interrupt the existing “distribution of the sensible”, making new politics visible, thinkable and doable. In short, a Rancierean engagement with OWS’ digitally-enframed Situationist traces might assert that while Wall Street-centered neoliberalism tends to aestheticize politics, movement-centered occupiers politicize aesthetics.

But while a Rancierean response to Debord can illuminate a broad range of relevant concerns, it may be Agamben who ultimately responds in the most interesting manner for those who want to understand détournememes. In his essay on Debord’s films, Agamben does not simply oppose them in order to promote his own conceptions. Rather, he thinks with and against his interlocutor. For instance, while Agamben acknowledges that the Situationist critique of mediation is suspect, he still affirms that the aesthetic practice of détournement might suggest a process through which the paradoxes of representation could be radicalized. Since one of Debord’s primary media was cinema, Agamben focuses on this dimension in order to think through the manner in which it mobilizes the relation of reality and possibility, countering the static facticity deployed by “the media”:

Cinema does the opposite of the media. What is always given in the media is the fact, what was, without its possibility, its power: we are given a fact before which we are powerless. The media prefer a citizen who is indignant, but powerless. That’s exactly the goal of the TV news. It’s the bad form of memory, the kind of memory that produces the man of ressentiment. By placing repetition at the center of his compositional technique, Debord makes what he shows us possible again, or rather he opens up a zone of undecidability between the real and the possible. When he shows an excerpt of a TV news broadcast, the force of the repetition is to cease being an accomplished fact and to become possible again, so to speak. You ask, ‘How was that possible?’- first reaction – but at the same time you understand that yes, everything is possible.

Agamben’s approach in other words, extracts particular forms of a medium such as cinema and, implicitly, specific examples of it such as Debord’s, from the conventional image of “the media” in order to assert that for all his critique of the spectacle, the most celebrated figure of Situationism used spectacular means to oppose it, and commendably so.

Rather than interpreting this practice as a contradiction, he affirms the zone of indistinction between reality and possibility that is détournement, “turning expressions of the capitalist system against itself.” Implicitly then, Agamben suggests that Debord himself understood the plasticity of meaning even in spectacular images, at least when exposed to critical perception, and potentially without the assistance of additional alteration techniques. That is why Agamben follows Benjamin in considering even “un-détourned” advertisements as laden with as-yet unrealized possibility. By loosening the hold of identity, they serve as the “unknowing midwives of the new body of humanity”.

What then, can we make of Adbusters and its subvertising culture? Is it cinema or is it “the media”? Lasn may have started as a filmmaker, but film is not necessarily cinema simply due to the medium. Cinema derives from the Greek word kinema, or movement. Thus it could be said that only that which refuses stagnation is cinematic in the deepest sense. Annual events like Buy Nothing Day, promoted as culminations of otherwise continuous efforts, have become increasingly predictable affairs, serving more often than not to chastise low-income and working class people for lack of access to the “choice”- based morality their accusers retain, thereby propping up the Feuerbachian/Platonist hierarchy critiqued by Ranciere. And while the magazine’s subvertising itself certainly did turn expressions of capitalism back against it over the last decades, they also restrained the process within a closed group bound more than anything by their chosen medium. What is different today is that the new meanings produced in subvertisements are nowhere near as easily contained within a single object. They have been plasticized, thereby enabling continuous alteration.

Indeed, from production to distribution to commentary to redeployment, it is clear that social media repetitions never cease. In the highest moments, even if they may be few at present, they are repeated not as the same, but as Agamben says, the different, and potentially, as the cinematic: the different ad infinitum. Ultimately, what is needed today is not a static, one-off détournement of “the media”, but the unending détournement of détournements, the resituating of Situationism’s traces so as to construct a multiplicity of new situations, the movement of the situation. In 2011, unlike a decade ago, one no longer need rely on print-based institutions like Adbusters to link reality and the possibility of production and distribution. Perhaps then, the remarkable virality and plasticity of the pepper-spray cop détournememe might serve as a harbinger of what today is in the offing. Just as with cinema in Debord’s time and the brick-and-mortar infoshops in recent times, social media constitute a medium within which the much maligned “spectators” might recognize the spectator-creators they always were, as they replasticize the dichtomy of reality and possibility.