Christine Harold, OurSpace: Resisting the Corporate Control of Culture

Review by Sheana Director

Christine Harold. OurSpace: Resisting the Corporate Control of Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007. 232pp.

[1] When I was first offered the opportunity to write a review of OurSpace, I expected – as I'm sure some others will in first considering the book – an extensive analysis of the community website MySpace. While Christine Harold does briefly touch on MySpace, her book is more far-reaching in scope. In OurSpace, Harold explores the phenomenon of "culture jamming" through a sophisticated synthesis of counter-cultural productions and interventions with theorists from Michel Foucault to Gilles Deleuze and others. Tracing the practice of culture jamming from 1950's protests of Charlie Chaplin through the emergence of the Creative Commons project in the 2000's, Harold outlines the various ways in which activists have intervened in (and often, collaborated with) corporate cultures to challenge ideas about ownership, anti-corporate activism, and "consuming" publics.

[2] In the Introduction to the text, Harold offers a robust review of scholarship on counter-corporate resistance. She gives a brief discussion of Rupert Murdoch's purchase of MySpace and the ensuing backlash from the site's members, revealing how contemporary corporations are increasingly focused on infiltrating the "indie," and even anti-corporate scene. Following this review, she highlights various theorists who have contributed to the scholarship on consumerism and culture jamming, transitioning smoothly from Dery's germinal work on the latter to Michel Foucault's and Gilles Deleuze's work on disciplinarity and control (xxv-xxviii). The author does an excellent job of making complex concepts and terminology accessible, and she sets up a solid framework by incorporating both theory that supports her claims, and acknowledging those in disagreement with her, such as Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter's ideas about the ultimate effects of "counter-cultural 'rebellion'" (xx).

[3] Chapter 1, "Detours and Drifts: Situationist International and the Art of Resistance," gives a history of the Situationist movement, focusing on the evolution of their resistance and the theoretical framework through which such resistances were enacted. These "grumpy French anarchists," as Harold notes one academic has described them, were the origins of detournement and derive, two ways of challenging the (mass-)mediated and corporate cultures of the period (3). She gives substantial attention to the French theorist Guy Debord, who led the Situationist International from the late 1950's to the early 1970's. Debord wrote extensively on the concepts of "detournement" – "a detouring of preexisting Spectacular messages and images in an effort to subvert and reclaim them"; and "drift" – "an attempt to make strange one's position in the Spectacle of commercial propaganda" (15). While SI may have seemed peculiar to the period in which they were active, Harold successfully demonstrates that their ideas took hold in ensuing activism and theorizing on media, culture and publics, and that contemporary anti-corporate activists like Adbusters can trace their philosophical roots to Debord and the Situationists. Although Harold says the Situationists lapsed into relative obscurity during the decades following their work, she notes that in recent academic circles their activism and theories have seen renewed interest - including, of course, Harold's own scholarship through the rest of the book.

[4] In "Anti-Logos: Sabotaging the Brand through Parody," Harold discusses the group "Adbusters," who describe themselves as the "political heirs to the Situationists" (28). Harold discusses the employment of parody by Adbusters and similar groups, who use it in an effort to "jam the pop-culture marketers and bring their image factory to a sudden, shuddering halt" (51-52). Here the text might benefit from a more extensive critical analysis of the effectiveness of Adbusters; for example, what makes the sneaker they market – the "Blackspot" – less of a corporate brand than Nike (and their "Nike swoosh")? Why do self-proclaimed "progressive" consumers find greater comfort in buying an "indie"-labeled product than a corporate product? Some further complication by Harold here would be welcome.

[5] In the final two chapters ("Pirates and Hijackers: Creative Publics and the Politics of 'Owned Culture'" and "Inventing Publics: Kairos and Intellectual Property Law"), Harold takes up discussion of the emerging open source/Creative Commons movement. She highlights the ways that corporations have attempted to limit the use of copyrighted material, as well as a series of provocative counter-corporate protests of restrictive copyright policies. One compelling example highlighted by Harold describes an artist who successfully received the copyright on the phrase "Freedom of Speech," and then began a series of lawsuits against those who had "infringed" upon the trademarked concept. While Harold offers an interesting analysis of the theoretical implications of counter-corporate resistance and new ways of thinking about intellectual property, the text here would benefit from more substantive discussion of the practical ramifications of such movements; for example, how many in-roads have creative commons really made? If, as Harold seems to suggest, Creative Commons truly offers a revolutionary way of rethinking "ownership" and intellectual freedom, then why isn't this very volume published under such a license? Perhaps she sees academic publishing as a different beast altogether, or perhaps this is an example of the "rhetorical jujitsu" she discusses – except here, instead of redirecting the aims of corporate culture into subversive activism, she's actually working within the frame of that copyright to subvert the system itself. If she's playing with these concepts, I'd like to see more of it – and if not, some frank discussion of why (and when) copyright should be preserved is needed.

[6] Harold's text elegantly synthesizes theory, history and popular culture to shed light on the complex and shifting ways that "consuming publics" are understood. She suggests that, rather than abstain entirely from consumer culture, that modes of resistance engage said culture, co-opting what is already available for possibly revolutionary purposes. She offers a refreshing, thorough and even-handed treatment of some of the major theories on corporate culture, copyright and the potentially groundbreaking ramifications of new frameworks for addressing intellectual property. Ultimately, the text poses several thought-provoking questions, asking us to challenge the way we think about publics. If, as Harris suggests, we are at least in part defined by that which we consume, OurSpace may serve as a guide to navigate the relationship between corporate and counter-corporate, copyright and open source, and ultimately as a jumping-off point from which we can rethink ourselves, not as opposed to, but as participating in a give-and-take of meaning-making with consumer culture. This volume would be a welcome addition to courses in culture studies, communications, philosophy and new media, and is written in such a way that it would be a pleasurable read to those interested in the topics outside of the academy. I thoroughly enjoyed OurSpace and even managed to overcome the very small disappointment that was the relative lack of discussion about Myspace and social networking – I'll hope to see those make a bigger appearance in future editions (OurSpace 2.0, perhaps?).