Design Anarchy (Lasn, 2006) – Review

This is the unedited version of a review I wrote of Kalle Lasn’s new book Design Anarchy (ORO Editions, 2006) for Eye magazine.

He’s a West-coast sneaker marketer with one of the coolest brands around. He’s ironic and media-savvy, and he understands his target audience. He has a singular appreciation of the power of graphic design and advertising, and has a deep-seated suspicion of political movements.

The person I’m referring to is, of course, Kalle Lasn, editor of Adbusters. (You get half a point if your answer was Phil Knight, Chairman of Nike.) Lasn is the author of a new book called Design Anarchy which, if size matters, is clearly very important: weighing in at over 6 1/2 lbs and 416 pages, Lasn’s new tome is a veritable door-stopper. It’s the second monograph created by the co-founder of the Media Foundation and editor of its magazine Adbusters: Journal of the Mental Environment. His first book was Culture Jam: The Uncooling of America™, published in 1999. Predictably, the book with ‘design’ in its title is also the one with pictures where the words usually go.

Design Anarchy (ORO Editions, 2006) is chock-full of very disturbing eye candy, the voyeuristic gore-porn of the Internet age: an appalling world of degradation, deprivation, and devastation. Unfortunately it’s also rather familiar territory for anyone who reads Adbusters. Here, as in the magazine, Lasn reminds us yet again that graphic designers – yes, graphic designers – are the new political avant-garde; that it is we who will bring capitalism to its knees by, well, designing stuff in a really anarchic way. (One can only wonder what the Chinese folk who printed the book made of all this.) Lasn leads the charge over the barricades by rejecting grids, ditching the list of contents, working without page numbers, and recycling whole chunks of material from back issues of his magazine.

Let me be clear: I am entirely sympathetic to Lasn’s vision of a radically broadened political role for graphic design, distinct from its rather more routine subjugation to the commercial imperatives of capitalism. However, what I continue to find singularly depressing about Lasn’s political stance is that, in repeatedly writing off half-a-century of progressive movements – which between them created massive social change – he is unnecessarily hobbling what could actually be an exciting new development: a significant re-imagining of design practice.

And what is Lasn’s political stance? The most coherent articulation of his position appeared in the revised First Things First Manifesto in 1999. Since then we’ve been treated to an endless reworking of the same old graphic tricks: the juxtaposition of consumer excess alongside abhorrent images of war; advertisements modified, defaced or satirized; snippets of corporate hubris hung out to dry alongside pearls of literary or poetic wisdom; all of it (re)touched and (re)edited by an invisible hand clutching a muddy black pencil. Is this how far ‘design anarchy’ goes – messing with the conventions of magazine and book design as an act of dissent?

Perhaps this is graphic design’s very own, hyper-articulate language, unfolding before our weary eyes. Perhaps Design Anarchy is the storyboard for an imminent revolution, like the prescient graphic novel in the TV show Heroes. We’re left wondering, however. While Lasn has clearly picked up a lot of graphic tricks from Chris Dixon, the old art director of Adbusters who gave the magazine its most significant makeover, the results are in many ways as superficial as the lustrous veneer of the advertised life that he continually attempts to puncture. Granted, it’s a difficult trick to pull off, but even the most pedestrian of the familiar old adbusting ads we associate with Adbusters (‘Joe Chemo’; ‘Absolut Impotence’) achieved more clarity of thought than entire chapters of Design Anarchy.

At one point in Design Anarchy Lasn breathlessly tells us how he discovered that culture is important. Is this a new claim? Hardly. Even the US military is now getting hip to culture, according to a recent article in the New Yorker. And – so what if culture’s important? What can you do with this insight? Because of his own political phobias, Lasn ends up writing and art directing in a vacuum. To address culture on its own terms, where it’s at right now, would mean tossing aside the tired stereotypes that are his stock-in-trade. As long as Lasn sees ‘consumers’ (I’m guessing that means everyone who isn’t a culture jammer) as two-dimensional characters out of a stock photo album, he’s never going to convince those same ‘masses’ that they’re being misled. But then his primary audience is designers. And we’re different, right? In short, Lasn’s analysis would be vastly improved if he took other people’s thinking about culture more seriously.

Elsewhere, Lasn says (or quotes someone as saying, it’s not clear which): “What does design look like after all the commercial/ego pretensions have been stripped away?” I’m not sure I know, but ‘design anarchy’ sure isn’t the answer, either, at least not yet. I’ve met Lasn, interviewed him, even volunteered for him many years ago; in person, he’s a jovial, seasoned soul. So why does Design Anarchy feel like it was put together by a young male design student who’s really, really angry with the world (and his parents) but doesn’t quite know why; someone who’s ventriloquizing through some heady cocktail of first year media studies lecture notes, lots of ripped up fashion ads, and some seriously unpleasant photojournalism?

It’s a troubling editorial approach because the victims of famine or war or poverty are once more hauled out and exploited in service of someone else’s agenda; they cannot speak, they cannot protest their inclusion in this sumptuous, US$65 coffee-table book (sorry, this “revolutionary design manual”). It’s tragic because Lasn doesn’t – won’t – draw on a history of debates about anarchy or syndicalism to illuminate what he means by the title of the book; he won’t tap into the arguments over culture and identity that have been raging for years all around him. In effect, he excludes himself a priori from all kinds of existing debates for fear of… what, exactly? Losing his franchise on culture jamming (a term he himself borrowed from Negativland)? Having his singular vision sullied by the legacy of the movements and moments that make a book like Design Anarchy possible? (Sure, he likes to reproduce their most recognizable protest graphics, but what about their politics, their ideas, their people?)

It’s a very masculinist, sexist, even misogynistic thing, this ‘design anarchy’. For now, at least, it’s the cutting, tearing, slashing, and burning of images of mutilation, suffocation, humiliation, torture, massacre, genocide. The men we see are fighters, soldiers, rioters, protesters, street fighters, body builders, generals, presidents. The women we encounter are overwhelmingly victims, corpses, bimbos, anorexics, zombies, pin-ups, sex objects, beauty queens. Sure, Lasn is showing us the world as it is, at least according to the media. But instead of repeating and reinforcing this parade of sick stereotypes, wouldn’t it be more anarchic to show us a bunch of photos of women and girls (hey! how about photos taken by women and girls!) challenging all those received ideas? No? Why not?
Part of the problem here is that because we all (more or less) live inside consumer culture, anyone who criticizes it can be labeled a hypocrite. This is a point made with glee by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter in their book The Rebel Sell: Why the culture can’t be jammed (2004), a sometimes smug critique of the culture jamming movement, at least as it is promoted by Lasn, and Naomi Klein, author of No Logo. Klein gets hers for writing her bestselling book from the safety of a yuppie loft conversion; Lasn gets his for being the capitalist entrepreneur who gave the world the Black Spot sneaker. This kind of critique is easy (as I demonstrated in my smug first paragraph) but it’s also disingenuous. Clearly, Lasn’s and Klein’s arguments resonate for many people, which begs further investigation. It’s that thing called ‘culture’ again.

I agree with Heath and Potter when they suggest that Lasn’s view of consumers is unrealistic and unhelpful. Indeed, it’s hard to look at Adbusters or Design Anarchy without concluding that the consumer, as a sociological category, is little more than an undifferentiated mass of zombie shoppers whose best chance of salvation is to be shocked out of their collective stupor with a strong dose of wittily subversive ad jams. Alas, the evidence is all around us that advertisers long ago caught up to the idea that consumers are cynical, detached, and ironic, which might have something to do with why their advertising is often cynical, detached and ironic.

On a fresh note, perhaps, Lasn has just started flagging Adbusters’ masthead with the legend ‘Blueprint for a New Left’. As Lasn says on his editorial page in issue #70 (March/April 2007): “After years of taking a trouncing in many parts of the world, we on the progressive left now seem poised for a major comeback.” Excuse me? Does this mean that the feminists, environmentalists, sundry lefties, and communications professors (hi mum!) he spent much of the 1990s blaming for the state of the world have been forgiven? I can almost feel the waves of relief spreading through the ranks.

There’s more: Apparently “our” problem has been “timidity.” “While the neocons have any number of fired-up ‘thrashers’ who delight in mocking and lambasting us, we don’t seem to be able to muster a single spokesperson (maybe down the road, Obama or Spitzer?) with the assurance and intellectual clarity to take on a Negroponte, Wolfowitz or Perle. Where is our ability to kick ass?” Where is Lasn’s political compass? It might be uplifting to imagine supporting an Obama or a Spitzer, but they’re hardly champions of the Left, new or old (or old-new, or new-new, or Adbusters Lite).

During this, the long, appalling reign of George W. Bush, I have often found some comfort in the actions and antics of folks like Michael Moore, Steven Colbert, Amy Goodman, Jonathan Adelstein, Jon Stewart, Seymour Hersh, Barney Frank, Al Gore, Al Franken, Naomi Klein – hell, even Billy Bragg. They may not be anointed Republicans or Democrats, but they give us hope. The pattern is clear, however: If Lasn can’t see it, it doesn’t exist; if it’s not in Adbusters or Design Anarchy it’s not culture jamming; and, in Lasn’s world you’re either for culture jamming or you’re for the military-industrial-advertising complex. Narrow grounds indeed to launch something as ambitious as ‘design anarchy’.