There is a tendency among scholars interested in media and social activism to focus on how social movements make instrumental use of mass media to enhance organization profile, to change public policy, to foster a sense of collective identity, or a combination of some or all of these things. Yet, before today’s media savvy activists were holding news conferences, the most accessible and fundamental mode of radical expression was public speech, and oftentimes ironic and satirical speech.
Few activists are as effective in blending the spirit and practice of satire and radical rhetoric as the Yes Men, a group of pranksters who have successfully impersonated and thus “corrected” the identities of the rich and powerful. Posing as ExxonMobil and National Petroleum Council (NPC) representatives, Yes Men activists delivered an outrageous keynote speech to 300 oil barons at GO-EXPO, Canada’s largest oil conference, held at Stampede Park in Calgary, in June 2007. In November 2004, taking on the persona of a Dow Chemical executive, Yes Men pranksters conducted a live video interview with BBC News announcing that at long last the company was admitting its negligence in the 1984 Bhopal disaster that immediately claimed the lives of 3,000 people and contributed to the deaths of at least 15,000 more.
After a year of quiet, the Yes Men have struck again, and this time at the heart of the American media machine. New Yorkers awoke this morning to news that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq war had ended, that the U.S. government had established national public health care and education, abolished corporate lobbying and placed a cap on CEO salaries. The Yes Men arranged to have 1.6 million fake copies of The New York Times printed and delivered to several key locations across the Big Apple, where volunteers recruited through the prankster’s website were on hand to distribute the news.
The Yes Men’s pranks are a prime example of culture jamming, a form of radical speech which involves efforts to disrupt existing transmissions of information. Using a combination of hoax and banditry, the Yes Men endeavour to trip up, jam or block what they see as the overwhelming power structures that govern and control what we think and how we feel. In contrast to other media activists who wish to deny and denounce with a view of negating the cultural influence of mainstream media, pranksters like the Yes Men prefer to play with and subvert the hegemonic power of conventional thought. As Christine Harold puts it in her excellent paper on culture jamming, pranking is more about the “artful proliferation of messages, a rhetorical process of intervention and invention, which challenges the ability of corporate discourses to make meaning in predictable ways.”
While culture jamming is often celebrated as a postmodern phenomenon rooted in the Situationist Movement of the late 1960s, there is something quite medieval about the Yes Men’s use of irreverent laughter. In his notoriously grotesque novel Gargantua and Pantagruel, published in the 16th century, Francois Rabelais reproduced and valorized the speech of the village marketplace, a language quite remote from the purities of the literary intelligentsia, clergy and courts of the time. With mockery and humour, Rabelais celebrated those moments when the solemnities of religion and authority were ritually inverted by the common folk. Writing about Rabelais and his world, Mikhail Bakhtin said of laughter that it “clarified man’s consciousness and gave him a new outlook on life. This truth was ephemeral; it was followed by the fears and oppressions of everyday life, but from these brief moments another unofficial truth emerged, truth about the world.”