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