Books: Culture Jam

A third of the way through Culture Jam: How to Reverse America’s Suicidal Consumer Binge — And Why We Must (a book only slightly longer than its title) I was ready to write it off. Which came as a surprise, since the author, Kalle Lasn , also founded Adbusters, which I quite like. But the first 100 pages of Culture Jam suffered from something I used to call Everyone Outside Of This Room Is Stupid Syndrome.

Later I discovered that this ugly bit of sociological hoohaw has an official name: Groupthink. But when I was in college, “Everyone Outside Of This Room Is Stupid Syndrome” seemed the perfect moniker for the phenomenon. It would start with someone wondering aloud about the cause of a social ill, and end with the entire class denouncing “Them” for their boneheadedness. “The reason television programming is so bad is because the American public just swallows whatever crap they dish out!” would be announced, to a chorus of head-nodding. Or “We can build all the bicycle lanes we want, but the masses are too dependant on their cars to ever use them!” Or “We understand the value of the old growth forests, but society at large is more interested in cheap burger and unlimited napkins!” The Public, Society, Americans, They — everyone not sitting here and participating in this very discussion is responsible for whatever problem we currently face. If only the People Outside Of This Room weren’t so darned Stupid, everything would get better.

That’s an apt summary of the first half of Culture Jam. Worse, Lasn writes most of it in second-person, so it’s really more like: “Everyone Outside Of This Room Is As Stupid As You”.

A Day In Your Life:

8:00 AM: You are biting into a hash brown patty at McDonalds. The grease shines on your chin like baby oil. You are reminded of your childhood …

9:30 AM: You are pushing a cart down the aisle of your neighborhood supermarket, past pyramids of shiny apples and peppers .. what you don’t know: these vegetables were pumped full of chemicals to enable them to grow in poor soil and survive the voyage to market …

6:00 PM: The frozen dinner you’re about to heat up in the microwave looks virtually the same as the meal you had on the airplane last night

It goes on and on like this. You, the reader, are a mindless drone. God alone knows how you wound up reading this book — presumable a bookcase fell on you, and, as you lay trapped beneath its weight, you are skimming the pages of a volume that lies open before you.

This whole section is filled with so many contradictions that it’s almost self-negating. People will always be hopelessly enslaved to advertising, and yet we should work to help them think for themselves. People who eat whatever they want are rampant consumers and should be condemned, but those who watch their weight have been suckered by the Ideal Body-Size Myth. People who spend their days in front of a computer are losing touch with reality, and if you want to learn more about the problem you can visit us online at www dot adbusters dot — you see the problem?

The truth is that Lasn has about 100 pages worth of stuff to say in this book, and the first half ain’t it. In fact, the first ten chapters (each of which clocks in at about 6 pages) are essentially the same essay, each with a different wording but all driving home a point (unchecked consumerism = bad) that anyone who is voluntarily reading the book already knows. Worse, he offers no remedies for the problems he lists, content to just sadly shake his head at the state of America. It’s like listening to your grandpappy go on and on about how much better things were in his day.

Fortunately, Lasn does offer some hope in the latter half of the book, where he outlines some concrete steps that the reader can take to wean themselves off the corporate culture. But even here he has a lot less to say than he has pages to say it in. Don’t be so concerned about being “cool”. That’s good advice, if so-broad-to-the-point-of-being-useless. Ride a bicycle to work. Okay, yeah, that’s fine. Circulate an online petition. Uhhh, hmm. Liberate some billboards. What the – Liberate some billboards?! What about credit cards? Don’t you think one of the first steps in counteracting a consumer culture is to teach people the true costs of a life lived on debt? Lasn apparently doesn’t – credit cards are never once mentioned. What about donating to public television and public radio, or using public transportation? Where’s the practical advice about how to stop junk mail and end phone solicitation? Sadly, Culture Jam mentions none of this. But it does give you the ad rates for CNN in case you want to produce an anti-consumer commercial and put it on the air. All the tips tell you how you can go directly from being part of the problem to being one of those intolerable people who self-righteously boast about knowing the solution.

I can’t believe I’m panning Culture Jam, actually, because I honestly agree with 93% of what Lasn says. And I think he’s a great guy – Adbusters has done more good that I ever will. But this book is not the anti-consumer guide that it purports to be. It’s more as if, instead of really wanting to solve the problem, Lasn just wants to invite you into the room to join the others for grousing and self-congratulation.