Return to Syllabus   Dr. Andrew Wood
Office: HGH 210; phone: (408) 924-5378

Harold, C. (2004). Pranking rhetoric: "culture jamming" as media activism. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 21(3), 189-211.

Note: These comments are not designed to "summarize" the reading. Rather, they are available to highlight key ideas that will emerge in our classroom discussion. As always, it's best to read the original text to gain full value from the course.

In her essay, Harold explores the phenomenon known as pranking, which serves as a counterpoint to culture jamming. According to Herold, culture jamming "seeks to undermine the marketing rhetoric of multinational corporations, specifically through such practices as media hoaxing, corporate sabotage, billboard 'liberation,' and trademark infringement" (p. 190). Here, she argues that despite the undeniable attention garnered by some culture jammers this tactic is often subsumed under the larger strategies of contemporary marketing, "a mode of power that is quite happy to oblige subversive rhetoric and shocking imagery" (p. 191). In contrast, pranking - reasonably viewed as a subset of culture jamming - works in a different way. According to Harold, the prankster "resists less through negating and opposing dominant rhetorics than by playfully and provocatively folding existing cultural forms in on themselves" (p. 191). At this point, Harold provides some historical and theoretical context for her research.

She places culture jammers within the context of Guy Debord's Situationists. These activists rebuked the spectacle of "fulfillment through entertainment and consumption" through détournement: reworking a media text against its original intent (p. 192). However, as Harold has noted, many culture jammers who use parody manage only to mock the status quo without imagining an alternative to it. Moreover, these jammers face an evolving structure of capitalism that has evolved from disciplinarity to control. Here, the author draws from the works of Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze who define a disciplinary society as one marked by the efficiency and standardization of an industrial economy. However, the U.S. “marketplace” is now more accurately defined as a control society marked, oddly enough, "through the opening up of technologies and the hybridization of institutions [through which businesses can] increasingly modulate every aspect of life" (pp. 193-194). Into this control environment, Harold argues that pranksters shift away from sabotage (which is employed against a discipline economy) and, instead, employ the tactics of appropriation. Thus, "[r]ather than approach jamming as simply a monkey-wrenching or opposition to marketing rhetoric . . . [prankers] approach it as well-trained musicians do music - as a familiar field on which to improvise, interpret, and experiment" (p. 196). Thereafter, Harold provides several examples of pranksters.

Some common themes about pranksters such The Barbie Liberation Organization, The Biotic Baking Brigade are their willingness to "hijack" the public screen, or even the government sanctioned INFKT Truth campaign. "They know that the image of a famous politician or captain of industry getting a pie in the face is so striking, the image-hungry media cannot help but cover it" (p. 201). More importantly, this kind of pranking enacts the jujitsu discussed by Harold: These groups join together dissonant images "a sober public speaker and a pie in the face" to transform the authorized spectacle into an unauthorized one (p. 202). The author then concludes with a proposal that pranking offers a means to rethink rhetoric from the study of message content to message patterns that are often divorced from singular authors.

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