“Should be required reading in every classroom.”Judith Malina, founder of Living Theater
Altering the meaning of a target’s messaging or brand; packaging critical messages as highly contagious media viruses.
Urban living involves a daily onslaught of advertisements, corporate art, and mass-mediated popular culture see THEORY: Society of the spectacle. As oppressive and alienating as this spectacle may be, its very ubiquity offers plentiful opportunities for semiotic jiu-jitsu and creative disruption. Subversive and marginalized ideas can spread contagiously by reappropriating artifacts drawn from popular media and injecting them with radical connotations.
This technique is known as détournement. Popularized by Guy Debord and the Situationists, the term is borrowed from French and roughly translates to “overturning” or “derailment.” Détournement appropriates and alters an existing media artifact, one that the intended audience is already familiar with, in order to give it a new, subversive meaning.
In many cases, the intent is to criticize the appropriated artifact. For instance, the neo-Situationist magazine Adbusters has created American flags bearing corporate logos in place of stars. The traditional flag, which is often used to quash dissent by equating America with liberty and progress see THEORY: Floating signifier, is made to communicate its own critique: corporations, not the people, rule America. Similarly, an Adbusters “subvertisement” for Camel cigarettes, perfectly rendered in the style and lettering of real Camel advertisements, depicts a bald Joe Chemo in a hospital bed.
Détournement works because humans are creatures of habit who think in images, feel our way through life, and often rely on familiarity and comfort as the final arbiters of truth see PRINCIPLE: Think narratively. Rational arguments and earnest appeals to morality may prove less effective than a carefully planned détournement that bypasses the audience’s mental filters by mimicking familiar cultural symbols, then disrupting them.
For instance, UC Davis police officer Lt. John Pike began to pop up in some unexpected places after he was captured on film casually pepper spraying students during a peaceful protest. One image depicted Lt. Pike walking through John Trumbull’s classic painting The Declaration of Independence and pepper spraying America’s founding document, while another depicted him in Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, pepper spraying a woman lounging in the grass. These images, and other détournements of “pepper spray cop,” are some of the most visible critiques of police brutality in recent American history.
In addition to its instrumental, critical function, détournement has an important humanistic function. Détournement can be used to disrupt the flow of the media spectacle and, ultimately, to rob it of its power. Advertisements start to feel less like battering rams of consumerism and more like the raw materials for art and critical reflection. Advertising firms may still generate much of culture’s raw content, but through détournement and related culture jamming tactics, we can reclaim a bit of autonomy from the mass-mediated hall of mirrors that we live in, and find artful ways to talk back to the spectacle and use its artifacts to amplify our own voices.
As an act of semiotic sabotage, détournement requires the user to have fluency in the signs and symbols of contemporary culture. The better you know a culture, the easier it is to shift, repurpose, or disrupt it. To be successful, the media artifact chosen for détournement must be recognizable to its intended audience. Further, the saboteur must be familiar with the subtleties of the artifact’s original meaning in order to effectively create a new, critical meaning.
Détournement is just a tactic, and like any tactic, it needs to be integrated into a larger strategy to be effective see PRINCIPLE: Choose tactics that support your strategy. While détournement can be a highly effective political tool, when divorced from a larger strategy, it can slide into a tool of complacency or complicity in the guise of resistance. There’s nothing wrong with taking savage pleasure in subverting grossly offensive media images, but take care to avoid using détournement as merely a palliative or a substitute for organizing.