Weaponizing Culture

Curator and art activist Nato Thompson argues that culture is not just contested terrain, it is a tool used for asserting and maintaining power.

Culture as Weapon: The Art of Influence in Everyday Life
Nato Thompson
Melville House
Mar 2018

There’s a line, usually misquoted and often erroneously attributed to either Hermann Goring, Henrich Himmler, or Joeseph Goebbels, that goes: ‘When I hear the word “culture”, I reach for my gun.’ (The actual line, from the 1933 play Schlageter by the equally reprehensible Nazi playwright Hanns Johst, translates to: ‘When I hear “Culture”… I release the safety catch on my Browning!’) The role of culture in waging ideological warfare is the motivation for curator and art activist Nato Thompson‘s book Culture as Weapon: The Art of Influence in Everyday Life, now out in paperback. Thompson asserts that culture is not just contested terrain, it is a tool used by elites to assert and maintain power.

Culture as Weapon is a follow-up to Thompson’s 2015 Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the 21st Century, which surveys the ways in which contemporary artists and activists are confronting power, using a range of tactical interventions and strategic alternatives, such as culture jamming, indy media, and socially engaged art practice. In Seeing Power, Thompson references advertising, public relations, and other forms of communication in ‘the production of affect’, a media-theory concept that describes how emotions are mobilized to influence human behavior, from what to buy at the grocery store to the most deeply held beliefs.

Culture as Weapon offers a history of the development of the techniques of affect production and gives examples of their use in the present day, mapping the landscape within which the tactics and strategies of artists and activists described in Seeing Power are deployed. (Thompson presented some of these tactics in an exhibition he curated at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art titled ‘The Interventionists‘ and showcased strategies in the Creative Time project he organized under the title ‘Living as Form‘. Both are documented in books with those respective titles published by MIT Press.)

Thompson begins his dissection of the production of affect with a brief history of its development in modern American culture. Fundamental to the story is the work of Ivy Lee, generally credited with being the founder in the late 1800s of modern public relations, whose first major client was the railroad industry with the assignment to promote the interests of management against the burgeoning union movement. Another key figure is George Creel, a former investigative journalist tapped by Woodrow Wilson to head up the Committee on Public Information as part of the effort to muster support for American participation in World War I and vilify its detractors.

Arguably the most notable character in the early history of public mind-control is Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, who parlayed his relationship to the father of psychoanalysis into a lucrative career manipulating the collective psyche. His clients included Big Tobacco and the nefarious United Fruit Company. Bernays also wrote the 1928 book Propaganda, which married social psychology and early media theory to develop techniques of ‘persuasive’ communications. (Highly influential at the time of its publication, Propaganda slipped into relative obscurity with the rise of fascism, which cast the term if not the practice into serious disrepute.)

A more overt affect-producing factory is advertising. Here Thompson starts with the culture industry critique by the dour German Marxists Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno. Written during the closing years of the Second World War when the two highbrow academics sought asylum in Los Angeles, the collection of essays published under the title Dialectic of Enlightenment expressed their view of the utter degradation of culture under capitalism. For Horkheimer and Adorno, the damnable thing about capitalism is its ability to turn any and all expressions of ‘pure’ culture into marketable products to be peddled to the unsuspecting masses. The critique was picked up in more virulent form in the ’50s by the Situationist International in France, which distrusted mainstream culture in all of its forms as the tools of a society in which even the most intimate social relations are mediated by spectacles of consumerism and false consciousness. (Ironically, the SI is held in many quarters to be a major influence on punk, an ostensibly anti-establishment social and cultural movement that quickly turned into a highly marketable commodity.)

Thompson calls upon the usual suspects in the form of Mad Men David Ogilvy, Leo Burnett, and Bill Bernbach who led the so-called ‘creative revolution’ in the ad biz in the ’60s by rejecting the previous regime’s methods of ‘scientific’ advertising based on the repetitive exposure of ‘unique sales points’ to stimulate behavior modification. Instead, these Svengalis of the creative revolution tapped into consumer desire in part by creating iconic campaigns—The Man in the Hathaway Shirt, The Marlboro Man, the Volkswagen Beetle—that are well known to anyone familiar with advertising history or practice.

In the postmodern age, the production of affect has moved from inside the consumer’s head into the environment she inhabits. Contemporary consumerism doesn’t reside simply in products any more but in experiences, as well. In this regard, Thompson presents case studies of the retail environments of IKEA, the Apple Store, and Starbucks, spaces where social interaction is completely stage-managed to inculcate a mindset ripe for the harvesting of profit.

The production of affect has implications that are broader than marketplace manipulation; it has invaded the public sphere in every way. The result, as Thompson argues in Seeing Power, is a profound distrust of everything, an alienation so deep as to render mass paranoia the default orientation of being in the world. Pervasive distrust now governs the political process to the detriment of democracy itself.

However, as Thompson notes: ‘We must learn from power even if we do not agree with it.’ A crucial point Thompson makes is that there ultimately is no escape from ‘the system’. Rather, the point, as Karl Marx proclaims in the 11th Thesis on Feuerbach, ‘is to change it’. In both Seeing Power and Culture as Weapon, Thompson offers examples of resistance in art and activism that not only imagine other worlds, but seek to put their ideas into practice. If culture is a weapon of power, then power can be gained in the production of alternative culture. It is the time-honored function of the artistic and activist vanguards. It is a battle that, quite frankly, never ends.

RATING 7 / 10