Culture Jamming as Critical Pedagogy: A Case Study in Remix Media Studies

Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier
Vol 4 (1)
Allison de Fren
Occidental College

The challenge of teaching a course that combines theory and practice is not only finding the right balance between the two, but also their integration. I have experimented with a variety of approaches, including the introduction of a single production assignment to a previously existing theory-based course, but I have found the most success with classes that are developed and presented to students from the outset as hybrid courses, particularly those whose topics lend themselves to a dialectical relationship and dialogical interchange between theory and practice.

Remix Media and Culture Jamming is a 200-level class, which serves as a particularly good case study. It is an elective course in the Media Arts & Culture (MAC) Department, where I teach at Occidental College, whose integrated theory/practice curriculum offers two tracks: media production and critical media. In order to attract students from a range of disciplines, it has no prerequisites and is set up to accommodate students with varied levels of technical skill. The course explores the history of both remix media and culture jamming, with emphasis on the aesthetic, political, and social concerns of culture jammers and the reception (and even appropriation) of their work by the corporate media industry. Students put theory into practice via two culture jamming projects, each of which spans half the semester, and in addressing options for dissemination, we explore issues around copyright and fair use.

I make a distinction between remix media and culture jamming, although each could arguably be framed as a subset of the other, in order to underscore the specific concerns of the course. Remix media writ large is often as celebratory as it is critical of the media texts with which it engages, a fact that doesn’t negate its pedagogical value or transformative potential. Remix practices offer opportunities for creative expression, digital argument (see Kuhn), information sharing, and rhetorical interpretation. As Jenkins et. al. have noted, “sampling intelligently from the existing cultural reservoir requires a close analysis of the existing structures and uses of this material; remixing requires an appreciation of emerging structures and latent potential meanings” (2006). Culture jamming is, I would argue, a form of critical praxis, which employs remix as one of many tools for deconstructing and subverting the products of dominant culture, encouraging “student engagement with the normative practices and sociopolitical discourses of the everyday” (Darts 324).

The term “cultural jamming” was coined by the San Francisco audio collage band Negativland for cultural practices that were akin to radio “jamming,” the illegal practice of electronically interfering with broadcast signals. The term was shortened to “culture jamming” and theoretically elaborated by cultural critic Mark Dery (an alumnus of the college where I teach) in a 1990 New York Times article, which he later expanded in a 1993 self-published pamphlet, Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing, and Sniping in the Empire of the Signs. He introduced the term to Canadian media activist Kalle Lasn, whose Adbusters Magazine became over the next decade and beyond “the house organ of the Culture Jamming Movement” (Dery 1993). (Note that Dery’s description is somewhat ironic. Adbusters has been increasingly criticized for the anti-consumer swag it peddles on its magazine website and other practices that some jammers believe have led to the commodification of culture jamming.) For Dery, as for others, including Naomi Klein, who has described culture jamming as “writing theory in the streets,” the practice engages the “radical politics of visual literacy” through the use of “‘guerilla’ semiotics—analytical techniques not unlike those employed by scholars to decipher the signs and symbols that constitute a culture’s secret language” (Dery 1993). Although utilizing the full semiotic toolbox of digital media production, including images, sounds, and video, culture jammers draw inspiration and ideas from older forms of art and media activism, including Dadaist collage and assemblage, the Situationist International (SI) practice of détournement, the roadside subversions of the Billboard Liberation Front (BLF), and the tactical media interventions of Critical Art Ensemble (CAE). Culture jamming thus encourages a multi-disciplinary and multiperspectival approach to the practice of remix, offering points of entry for students interested in art, media, and/or activism.

The class meets twice a week, and I generally devote one weekly session to lectures, discussions, and screenings and the other to production workshops, labs, and critique (when time has been limited, I’ve asked students to view screenings on their own, as well as organizing a separate film series in conjunction with the course). The reason for arranging the course in this way is to reinforce the dual emphasis and foster a dialectical and progressive relationship between both modes of knowledge production, so that ideas raised by readings and class discussions inform student projects and vice versa.

During the first half of the semester, the course focuses on the history and theory of culture jamming broadly understood. While readings are varied, Naomi Klein’s No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (2002) serves as our core text, since it helps to situate contemporary culture jamming practices within the anti-globalization and anti-branding movements. Although the book was published before the advent of web 2.0, it provides a foundation for drawing parallels between the politics of the commons and the historical struggle against the corporate encroachment upon public space and the contemporary struggles within and over the digital commons and networked space. As we cover this material, students work in Photoshop on a series of subvertisements (a portmanteau of subvert and advertising), image parodies of corporate branding and marketing productions, including logos, tag lines, packaging, and advertising.

Subvertisements are considered a form of “meme hacking” and/or “meme warfare,” viral agents in the battle with corporate media for citizen mindshare. The term “meme” was first coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976) to refer to any form of culture that spreads from person to person via imitation. While students are often unaware of this history, they are generally knowledgeable about internet memes, particularly the image macro, a picture superimposed with text for humorous effect. The Subvertisement Assignment thus provides a form of social and political intervention within a vernacular culture in which they are already participating. As Jenkins has noted, “For a growing number of young Americans, images (or more precisely the combination of words and images) may represent as important a set of rhetorical resources as texts. Passing such images to a friend is not more and no less a political act than handing them a campaign brochure or a bumper sticker” (222). Despite this familiarity, however, I have learned not to overestimate students’ technical skills or visual literacy. I usually incorporate at least two workshops in each software program that we use in the course (Photoshop and Premiere), while also encouraging students to consult the many free videos available on-line (our workshops are conducted by our manager of digital production, a former Occidental student, who is versed in the latest updates of both programs). Moreover, before their final projects are submitted, students are asked to peer review one another’s work in multiple critique sessions. These sessions are opportunities for students not only to get feedback in order to refine their work, but also to share technical knowledge (it is not uncommon for students to ask their peers how particular techniques were accomplished), as well as to demonstrate their critical skills through formal and textual analysis.




A before-and-after example of a student subvertisement that underscores the relationship between alcohol and sexual violence.

A before-and-after example of a student subvertisement that underscores the relationship between alcohol and sexual violence.

During the second half of the semester, we examine different forms of remix video, including political remix videos (PRVs), fanvids/vidding, and machinima (the practice of hijacking the computer graphics engine from a video or computer game to create an animated film), as well as issues around fair use and copyright, while students work on a 1-5 minute Video Remix.

The following video, co-created by two former students, decodes the mixed messages embedded in an anti-drug commercial released by Foundation for a Drug-Free World, whose major supporters include William Morris and Anheuser-Busch.

Students keep a weekly journal over the course of the semester in any form they choose (I’ve received everything from blogs and tumblr feeds to notebooks and, once, a stack of papers rolled into a jam jar), which they hand in at both the mid-point and end of the semester. Students use the journal to draw connections between our historical, theoretical and practical work; to chart the conceptual and creative progression of their projects; and to provide post-assignment reflections. I don’t use a rubric for the journal, but I do tell students that they are being graded on their “level of engagement,” which may be demonstrated by drawing in and responding to ideas raised in readings, screenings, and class discussions; making connections between class materials and the larger cultural and political landscape; and an articulation of how their own work references, challenges, or reimagines prior culture jamming concepts and efforts.

Of particular note is the increasing use of the assignments in this course to engage with issues on campus. Like many schools around the country, Occidental has experienced an increase in student activism around sexual assault and racism within the academy, and students have used our culture jamming assignments to target, analyze, discuss, and respond to the larger social, political, and economic forces that contribute to these issues. (In creating a safe space for such work, it is important to give students control over its dissemination and to reassure them that, if they choose, what they produce will not leave the classroom.) In this way, culture jamming provides a unique opportunity not only for integrating media theory and practice, but also critical media and pedagogy.

Works Cited

David Darts. “Visual Culture Jam: Art, Pedagogy, and Creative Resistance” in Studies in An Education: A journal of Issues and Research 2004, 45(4), 313-327.

Mark Dery. “The Merry Pranksters and the Art of Hoax,” New York Times, 1990.

Mark Dery. Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing, Sniping in the Empire of Signs, (self-published 1993).

Henry Jenkins, Katie Clinton, Ravi Purushotma, Alice J. Robison, and Margaret Weigel. “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century,” MacArthur funded occasional paper on digital media and learning from the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT (2006).

Henry Jenkins. “Photoshop for Democracy” in Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: NYU Press, 2008).

Naomi Klein. No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (Toronto: Knopf Canada, 1999)

Virginia Kuhn. “The Rhetoric of Remix” in Transformative Works and Cultures, Volume 9, 2012.

Kalle Lasn. Culture Jam: The Uncooling of America (New York: William Morrow & Company, 1999)

Jennifer Verson. “Why we need cultural activism” in Trapeze Collective, Do It Yourself: A Handbook for Changing the World (London: Pluto Press, 2007).

Allison de Fren is a media maker/scholar and an Assistant Professor in the Media Arts & Culture (MAC) Department at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Her media research and practice focus on the visual and digital cultures around gendered technologies. She has taught a range of classes that integrate media history, theory, and practice including Remix Media and Culture Jamming, Autobiographical Documentary: The Theory and Practice of First-person Media and Exploring Virtual Reality: From Optical Illusions to Oculus Rift. Her documentary work has been screened at festivals including HotDocs, Doxa, Woodstock Film Festival, Cucalorus, New Orleans Film Festival, Fantasia, and SCI-FI London; her critical media work has been published in [In]Transition Journal of Videographic Film & Moving Image Studies and Fandor; and her scholarship published in Science Fiction Studies Journal and Vintage Visions: Essays on Early Science Fiction, edited by Arthur B. Evans (Wesleyan University Press, 2014).

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