A couple of days ago American clothing designer Kenneth Cole posted a tweet to promote his spring line that read:

Kenneth Cole Twitter

Note that the tweet is signed “-KC,” which means that it was either penned or approved by the designer himself. After widespread outrage and several parodies on Twitter, Cole deleted the post and apologized on Facebook. While the apology was met with sarcasm and skepticism, somebody decided to take it one step further and reposted or rather re-pasted the tweet in the form of a slick decal on a KC store window in San Francisco:

Kenneth Cole Storefront SF

In the1980s-1990s culture jammers attacked billboards and TV ads to denounce the “infoxication” of our urban and media environment. By turning Joe Camel in Joe Chemo and the “Hit” of the “New Exxon” in the “Shit” of the Exxon Valdez disaster they were also exposing the kind of information corporations spend so much money on to greenwash. Contemporary culture jammers can limit themselves to return this information where it belongs.

In my work, I use the term “disowning-function” to describe the decoupling of property and propriety, matters of ownership and matters of reputation. As Mark Rose has shown, modern bourgeois authorship was able to conflate property and propriety by suggesting that authors should be economically rewarded for what society (identified here with the marketplace) considers appropriate. If today such a conception has been naturalized, Rose notes how until the early modern period the author was considered a disinterested gentleman whose writings, knowledge and scientific findings were considered honorable precisely because un tainted by personal interest. With the introduction of modern copyright law, the opposite becomes true as ownership and reputation, royalties and fame, are conflated and tend to find their identity in the marketplace. (Simply put, by market standards best-selling authors enjoy a higher reputation than non-best-selling authors).

My argument is that the disowning-function is a crack in the author-function that becomes visible when what is proper appears as inappropriate and vice versa. For instance, Hollywood film directors have shared the pseudonym Allen Smithee (or Alan Smithee) for over three decades to disown films re-cut by a film production against their will. In this way, Alan Smithee allowed directors to formally honor their contract while working outside of their reputation. More recently, the Catalan art-activist collective YoMango! has shown that shoplifting from corporate chain stores can be a creative, edgy, controversial, and therefore reputable activity (at least within the language-game of the contemporary art world).

In the case of the KC intervention, re-pasting a tweet on a store window is a simple gesture of returning what has been quickly disowned to its legitimate source and referent. No matter how hard Cole tries to disown his (trademarked) speech, Twitter’s persistence creates a record that is available to millions of users, who can appropriate it, without even having the need of altering it. Through a simple recontextualization, the ready-made decal reminds the designer himself that what he said really belongs to him as any other tweet, any other marketing campaign. On the other hand, it reminds us that there is a limit to the more or less calculated cynicism of marketing campaigns, the obliteration of the actual suffering and courage of millions of people, the endless play of simulacra. In other words, this cynical game is not only proper to a Kenneth Cole but reveals a culture–namely, how far brands can go in order to grab more eyeballs. Obviously, KC’s apology bespeaks how worried he must be for the negative impact this PR Waterloo may have on his brand. And yet this incident is also one of those powerful moments of truth in which the conflation of property and propriety, trademarked speech and the viral societal penetration of this speech, creates a backlash through which it is possible to glimpse at an effective cultural politics–a culture jamming that is native to the new information environment in which it operates.

5 Responses to “KC, Egypt, and Culture Jamming in the Age of Social Media”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Rob Myers, Gabriella Coleman, Michael, kteatime, Neto Brandon and others. Neto Brandon said: RT @BiellaColeman: good analysis of the Kenneth Cole tweet debacle, Egypt, and culture jamming response http://bit.ly/eMwedX ccp @sofia_sfs [...]

  2. Marsha Bradfield says:


    No doubt my questions will reveal that I’ve just started reading this blog. I hope you can bring me up to speed. It’s a provocative post…

    A couple of points of clarification: I’m afraid I don’t understand how the disowning-function transcends the author function (I’m assuming this is a reference to Foucault?). Doesn’t it ultimately re-inscribe it by itself being a well-established function — witness attributions to AS? Perhaps I’m missing something?

    Also, there seems to be a tension — at least if we think the ideas expressed in the post via the attention economy — around the idea that best-selling authors receive a greater piece of the pie (which you seem to be intimating is a bad thing?) and that social network economies massage “hot” messages through multiple iterations that score them attention/cred…even if it happens inside out, as in the case of the KC reference. Both depend on market share…it’s Social Darwinism through and through.

    So my question is: What’s the alternative to the existing authorial system and how does it attend to flesh-and-blood authors? There’s no doubt that media plays a huge role in how “stuff” is disseminated and received. But someone has to do the work… How might a post-humanist approach to authorship accommodate this “reality”?

    Hope this makes sense? Thoughts?


  3. snafu says:

    Hi Marsha,

    yes it is a reference to Foucault, and obviously a “hack” of the author-function. The disowning-function has obviously no pretense of being systematic, it is more of a lens, a heuristic device than something that should be seen in dialectical contrast to the author-function.

    It is important to note that even though Foucault addresses bourgeois authorship he never really discusses the relationship between authors and publishers, the contract, and the political economy of the signature. What matters for him is that the name of the author serves to stabilize the otherwise uncontrollable proliferation of discourse by creating some unities that help literary critics (as well as the government) to tame the text, trace it to someone, find a grounding origin. In actual fact, the need of attributing a text or a statement to a person is not much a cultural need (it never was until the eighteenth century) but a need of the modern publishing industry. This industry has to rely on the alibi of protecting an author’s rights in order to create artificial scarcities around a product (the book) whose marginal costs tend in fact to zero.

    Now, to answer your question. For me the alternative to the current authorial system is a post-capitalist (more than post-humanist) system, one in which the production of knowledge (as well as any other form of production) is decoupled from exchange value and the money-form. I do not write because I need to get paid but because I like it and because it contributes to a pool of common knowledge from which I constantly draw. (This may apply also to non-strictly cognitive activities). From this angle, whether what I contribute is read by 10 or 1 million people is absolutely irrelevant as everything contributes to the commons, which needs to be protected from private appropriation. Michel Bauwens talks about the importance of protecting the commons of “produsing communities” in this post http://www.re-public.gr/en/?p=261. Hope this helps answering at least some of your questions.


  4. [...] 2. Kenneth Cole Twitter Disaster [...]

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