Vol 2, Num 1 :: 2003.01.03 — 2003.01.16
When I was in college, I was eating dinner at a friend’s house and I went out on the back porch to get another burger. I was terrified by what I saw. The little grill had set the wooden boards of the porch on fire and the flames were working their way up the wall. I ran inside and called a warning to those eating at the table that the porch was on fire. Perhaps because I tended to be a bit of a joker in college, no one responded. I started carrying pans of water to the back porch and tried to put out the fire on my own while the others continued to eat as if nothing is wrong. I remember that most peculiar feeling of being the only one who had any idea what sort of danger we were in.
Reading Kalle Lasn’s Culture Jam gave me the same feeling. Lasn is screaming at his culture that the porch is on fire (or the ship has hit an iceberg, or the bridge is out up ahead—pick your favorite metaphor) and no one is listening. And no wonder—it is too loud to hear anything. Lasn explains that, “To meet the demand, media spectacles have colonized our mental environment, crowding out history and context. In their place, there is now only a flood of disconnected information: the market is soaring, the planet is warming, this fall’s hemlines are knee high, there’s a famine in east Africa.”
Lasn, the founder of Adbusters magazine, paints a bizarrely bleak picture of our world. We are living in a complicated lie in which we think we have freedom, but in fact, everything we watch, everything we eat, the way we live our lives, and even the things we think, feel, and believe are determined by the mass media culture we live in. We have abdicated our democratic rights to corporations who rule by proxy through politicians they put into power. We have given up freedom of speech to a monolithic news media that is more interested in ratings than truth. We are a culture joined together in a cult of materialism that we cannot escape. We are all dreaming the same dream, and it isn’t a dream we devised. As Lasn puts it: “Plenitude is American culture’s perverse burden. Most Americans have everything they could possibly want, and still they don’t think it is nearly enough.”
There are few aspects of the mass media message that Lasn doesn’t speak eloquently about. Consider Lasn commenting on how television has changed the way we think about sexuality: “TV Sexuality is a campaign of disinformation. The truth is stretched, the story is hyped. If you look like a TV star or a model, a desirable mate will be made available to you; if you don’t; it won’t. Try telling me that living with that message your whole life hasn’t changed the way you feel about yourself.”
There are echoes of Neil Postman’s seminal classic Amusing Ourselves to Death in Lasn’s work, but if Postman was a voice calling out in the wilderness, Lasn is screaming. The book is divided into four sections, each named after one of the seasons. We start with Autumn and Lasn describes a declining culture in which our moods are determined by pharmaceutical companies, advertising clutter and background noise have made it impossible to think clearly about anything, and we have philosophically bought in to a culture of increasing consumption. Winter deepens the despair. We live in a brand-name cult in which we ourselves are branded and our preferences bought and sold. We’ve traded in the authentic American dream for a cheap corporate version. And the lie we are living is due to run out soon as the earth’s resources fail to meet the ever-increasing demands.
The sections titled Spring and Summer are a call for a (usually) non-violent revolution. Lasn has been an activist for decades and reports on his attempts to take back the airwaves. He and others have created advertisements that pop the bubble of materialism, point out the folly of overconsumption, and identify our obsession with physical appearance. He has tried to pay for space on every major network in the world, and describes the reception he got. He also reports on some approaches others have taken. He describes a Toronto campaign to paint over the happy faces on billboards, replacing them with skulls. He describes “Buy Nothing Day,” a campaign in the US and Canada to increase awareness on how emotionally dependent we have become on buying things. He describes the roots of “TV Turnoff Week.” He suggests ways in which the average citizen can fight to take back an active, authentic life.
To my mind, his identification of the ills of our society seems on target, sometimes almost biblical. At one point he says, “American culture is no longer created by the people. Our stories, once passed from one generation to the next by parents, neighbors, and teachers, are now told by distant corporations with something to sell.” This sounds like he could be referring to the Jewish stories at Passover, or after-dinner devotions by Christians. Yet despite his excellent analysis of the problem, his call for revolution seems empty. Lasn seems uncertain of what the world, post-media revolution, would look like. He knows what he is against, but not what he is for exactly. Perhaps this is the point where Christians ought to be jumping in with some help. Of course, in order to do that, we need to hear his call, wake up, and see what is happening around us. This is the sort of book that Christians ought to be reading, if only to join in the debate of what steps to take next. I have been uncertain for some time about how Christians ought to transform the culture of mass media. Lasn wakes a convincing argument that attempts to change within the system are doomed to be co-opted by the corporate media. Perhaps it is time for a revolution. Perhaps it is time that Christians considered leading the way.