This week’s readings all deal with the theme of subversion and resistance. The subversions described or attempted in the texts are all very mild forms of rebellion against the established structures of authority that do not result in an end to the system of oppression.
Mikhail Bakhtin, in the introduction to Rabelais and his world explains how Rabelais’ distinguishing quality was that he brought the culture of the carnivals into his books. Bakhtin explains that in the rigid social and religious order of the medieval Europe, carnivals were a place where the rigid hierarchy and moral strictures were temporarily abandoned. The atmosphere of the carnival was egalitarian and the rituals of the carnival made a mild ridicule of the rituals of the Church. The carnival thus functioned as an escape valve for the release of the ever mounting frustration and dissatisfaction of the lower classes against the existing order which allowed the wealthy land owners and the priestly class to exercise their power over them in an autocratic and exploitive manner. In a way, the mildly rebellious atmosphere of the carnival served, not as the basis for the overthrowing of the tyrannical social order but a means of perpetuating it.
The extract from James C. Scott’s Weapons of the Weak has a message that is ultimately pessimistic in its outlook but in many cases certainly rings true; It is not possible for the weak and the oppressed of the Earth to rise up and replace the system of oppression, all they can do is try to improve their lot through acts of mild rebellion and non-compliance. Scott says that peasant rebellions are put down in a brutal manner or if they are successful, often end with one autocratic regime replaced by a worse autocratic regime. This is certainly true of quite a few of the countries that replaced their monarchies with communist or socialist governments in the last century. Acts of petty resistance, on the other hand, allow the oppressed to improve their lot; by reducing the labor they perform while at the same time not provoking the authorities to the extent that they feel justified in deploying their tools of violence against the resistors.
The Wikipedia article on détournement demonstrates how détournement as a cultural activity, can easily be co-opted by the same exploitive power structures that the original act of détournement intended to oppose. The tools of subversion are subverted by the powerful to perpetuate their power and allow cogs in the machinery of the exploitive structure to engage in what is essentially an act of self-deception; pretending that they are rebels against the system while being complicit in its tyranny.
Debord & Wolman lay out some laws for détournement, the essence of which is that the product of détournement should be as subtle as possible in its alteration of the original artifact and as obscure as possible in its message. The author’s enthusiasm for détournement as a tool of subversion against capitalism seems entirely unfounded. The article was written in 1956, fifty years of détournement have not brought us the end of militarism, imperialism or exploitative capitalism.
Gloria Steinem’s essay “If Men Could Menstruate” attempts to show that whether something is viewed as an advantage or disadvantage depends more upon the ideological bias of the viewer that the actual facts or logical reasoning. The work may be viewed as a mild subversion of the patriarchal hierarchy through the use of humor. The premise behind the article is undoubtedly true in many cases, such as the European’s view of pale skin as an advantage, as cited in the first sentence. In case of menstruation however, the idea is less than convincing. Many women experience debilitating menstrual pains and cramps, it would be quite difficult for them and their loved ones to see these aches and pains in non-negative manner.
The Cultural Jamming archives is a collection of works of street art and détournement, some are quite clever, some are inane, but all of them are ineffective and ultimately useless acts of pranksterism