Tuesday, December 23, 2008

My subverts are better than your adverts

This is a story of capitalist recuperation. It begins with Saul William's song List of Demands.

Saul Williams is a spoken-word poet and hip hop activist. In List of Demands he attacks conspicuous consumption. Written in the voice of "the impoverished and oppressed," including the "factory worker," Williams said in an interview with Morphizm that the last thing the song reinforces is hyperconsumption. He wants his money back because he's drowning in McDonald's fatty burgers; he is compelled to stand; he has a better plan.

But it doesn't matter how you attack it, the commercial enterprise will figure out a way to recuperate its opposition and sell it back to you in a different package. It has perfected the art of recuperation.

a brief description of recuperation

The situationists - who were the first artists to notice what what most revolutionaries had yet to realize - articulated the importance of fighting the bourgeoisie on cultural, as well as economic and political fronts. They articulated recuperation, gave it definition, put it in context. During their heyday in the 50s and 60s the situationist-organized 'art strikes' had intensified class struggle and demoralized the capitalist spectacle to some extent.

What is the spectacle? It's everything - humor, advertising, television, and so forth - comprising today's "spectacular level of commodity consumption and hype," as Kalle Lasn wrote in Culture Jam. And to show how deep the spectacle's recuperation has penetrated social life, successors of situationist theory have been absorbed into the spectacle they fought against. Having become marketing experts, advertising consultants, and advanced campaign managers, many of the culture jammers are now the prizes and trophies of capitalist domination.

Not just an ancillary source for marketing gurus, radicalism and rebellion are the dialectical anti-thesis of capitalism and thus the perfect synthesis for "post-ideological", late capitalist domination. This Jack in the Box advertisement that I photographed is a perfect example.

(Someone I shared this ridiculous image with has since added their own recuperation to it. After vectorizing, it was underlined with pro-consumption slogans, "Submit, Conform, Consume", to emphasize the overtness of fastfood recuperation. To learn how this works download the zine How to Make Adverts Better.)

In the recent book Coming of Age at the End of History, an embittered Generation Y activist, Camille de Toledo, narrates the story of how commercial experts came to treat situationist texts themselves as troves of treasure and information which helped them understand cultural products and how to improve the commodification of counter-culture. Now 30-ish, de Toledo is unsurprisingly cynical toward this historical moment where we are all being continuously recuperated. "All that remains of the spirit of revolt are annoying slogans."

In a German film about aged-anarchists, Was tun, wenn's brent?, one of the characters is a former activist who runs an advertising agency that exploits anti-capitalist and radical iconography. It is not just radical imagery that can be recuperated, it's the radicals themselves. In this film the former radicals have to become radical again, in fact, in order to save their bourgeois social status. In so doing, they relive the experiences they had as radicals.

On Guy Debord's own account, the SI was already actually recuperated by 1972, when too many elements of its work had been co-opted against itself. McKenzie Wark details this phenomenon in 50 Years of Recuperation of the Situationist International, where she wrote, "Having invaded the spectacle,

... the spectacle invaded it in return. It was no longer a secret enemy of spectacular society, but a known one. Its theory became ideology, mere contemplation. Contemplation of the Situationist International is merely a supplemental alienation of alienated society."

back to the List of Demands...

...you know what had to happen. Given all that led up to this blog post, of course, it was bound to happen: it wasn't long before some corporation figured out a way to use Saul William's anti-capitalist art to reinforce capitalism itself. In this case, the shoe manufacturer Nike was quick to use the List of Demands song - a chart-topping single in 2007 - in an advertising campaign called "better than your better". Have a look:

After two successful commercials the advertising team added a third, using the List of Demands lyrics instead of the previous bullshit. List of Demands is now inseparable from the sporty image that Nike bestowed upon it through popular consumption.

I was curious so see what Saul Williams thought about this, whether he gave Nike permission, or whether they simply used it. So I searched and found that Nike obtained the rights to use it from the record label. Williams welcomed Nike's use of it. In the Morphizm interview he remarked that,

"My intention remains for these songs to be heard by as many as possible. They are the virus that I wish to spread. I’ve infected Nike and all within their reach with a song that raises awareness as well as fists. It is indeed written in the voice of the impoverished and oppressed, which includes the factory worker. They know its their song when they hear it. The last thing it does is make someone want to go buy sneakers, but it may encourage someone to hit their boss over the head with a tennis racket. So be it."

As a 'public pedagogy', using capitalism as a vehicle does not seem to have succeeded. Williams essentially claims that Nike's bold move to use his List of Demands to advertise the opposite of what he is demanding puts Nike at risk of being recuperated by radicalism. It risks détournement, which is when commercial iconography becomes subverted. Détournement as a way of "infecting" the world with his anti-capitalist message, he says, could work.

Through détournement, radicalism creates moments of what Julia Kristeva in Word, Dialogue and Novel called the "carnivalesque" enacted to fight against the spectacle of everyday life. The carnival, according to Mikhail Bakhtin in Rabeilas and His World, is created using folk humor positioned outside the officially sanctioned culture of those in power. According to Williams, his song is an entirely different order of détournement. But it is the same logic use to détourne the Jack in the Box advertisement.

This is the logic:

  1. It was positioned, from the beginning, outside the spectacle.
  2. Now it is inside because of recuperation.
  3. The song is so powerful that it will pull what is inside back outside with it.

This is hard to believe. Nike has framed the List of Demands so firmly in consumer iconography that it's impossible to imagine that this could be realistic.

Artists seem to think the commercialization of art is the best way to reach a wider audience. Anarchist punk band Anti-Flag aggravated fans by signing with major record label, Sony BMG, for example. The music giants have a new strategy. They want to maintain the "authenticity" of their recuperated artists by encouraging independent work. Meanwhile the innovations are used for commercial purposes. KRS-ONE explains in an interview with Digital Journal that,

Today, artists like myself or Chuck D or Talib Kweli hold a degree of credibility that’s attracting companies like Red Bull, Cadillac, or Nike. Executives at these companies are our fans. And they are really sick of the state of music. So what they’ve done is spend $250,000 of their own money, in the case of Nike, to create a song with Kanye West, Nas, Rakim, and KRS ONE. We don’t rap about the shoes because they don’t want us talking about that. They just want us to create a song they can play on their website. Authenticity is the new business model and these companies need a product that’s not destroyed by an artist's shady image.

There is something else that easily results from this business model too, which destroys radicalism from two directions at once. Corporations directly use recuperation in order to sell ordinary consumer products; they indirectly use recuperation to sell consumer products that imitate radical lifestyles, resulting in hipsterism.

I don't want to end on a depressing note because while recuperation can be a source of anxiety, others take it as an acknowledgment that radical creativity threatens bourgeois production. I'd like to know what other people think about this.

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