Why Harvard Needs The Culture Jam

Although by now it’s no longer accurate to hip-smugly call the culture jamming/Reclaim the Streets movement “underground” (Banksy was in the New York Times and the Yes Men were in the Washington Post for god’s sake), it’s critique, so nicely put together by Naomi Klein in her canonical No Logo, is still pretty terrifically viable despite coming together close to a decade ago and being severely rhetorically ripped a new one in Heath’s The Rebel Sell. In its broadest construction, the idea is pretty simple: we used to have a public space, which provided the positive room for discussion and creativity. But this got enclosed. We need to take it back.

Though it applies broadly to all sorts of situations, I think Harvard itself desperately needs active culture jamming, if not only because the space it creates is so symptomatic of this critique.


I think at a fundamental level, the biggest neurosis/paradox of Harvard is this: How can a community wielding so many material resources and so ostensibly liberal generate a space that is so restrictive and house so many deeply desperate people? (see generally Bored@Lamont — which, might I add, is still the most active Bored@ affiliate)

Why? I think there’s two contributing factors —

1) Harvard Has No Public Space

As a virtue (?) of the way the extracurricular system is set up, most available monies for groups are based in cosumables, rather than durables. That is, you receive money for an event or a printing cost for an issue of a publication. This tends to invest money into temporary projects, rather than long term tools. Even when money is spent in a big way, it isn’t on community building or “people expenses.” It tends to be along the same lines:to this or that temporary event. One thing, notably, that nearly never gets spent on is space development. That is, making existing public spaces better.

As for existing public spaces, none exist in a powerful way. As the CESSH spent the whole of last year pointing out, stuff is really just closed all around in terms of places to socialize. Harvard is unique it that it has a strong institution of room parties as a primary point of interaction. While fun, it’s interesting that even normal social interaction exists in such a highly insular way.

I think this tends to lead to a culture where people are limited by the slow rate of new social interactions. I think it tends to lead to social stagnation. There’s no place for people to mix or for communities to overlap one another. Instead, what you tend to see is numerous, tightly-bound “universes” of extracurriculars that incestuously share people. (The asian-american community on campus, for example).

This leads, perhaps worse, to a kind of mindspace stagnation that has all sorts of large aggregate issues for a university.

2) Harvard Culture Is Permission Culture By Selection and Administration — There’s two points to be made here. First, Harvard culture is permission culture by selection. That is, the admissions department select for a pool of children that are exceedingly good at playing by the rules. (or, playing out of the rules in a non-threatening way) This is why, of course, being an officer of HUPD is considered such a junket job — the kids just don’t do very much rule-breaking. When they do do things, it’s usually a high crime, or because they just hurt themselves. As a result, the aggregated mix of students doesn’t generate much volatility, and they’re largely reinforcing of a norm that asks authority for permission to do things.

But Harvard culture is also a permission culture in the way its space is administrated. Everything, even those spaces we refer to as ‘common rooms,’ is scheduled and under the control of some administrator. Even when an activity which would not otherwise take up wanted resources or exclude others from participation occurs (e.g. guerrilla dance parties), the administration is wont to crack down. Why? Because we haven’t asked permission.

This is no doubt at least to some extent the need to maintain the Harvard brand and symbology. The Yard, for example, is such a constructed and regulated environment that its practically an academic Disneyland. Not that this is inherently a bad thing — the Harvard Corporation is a business after all, and money needs to get made. But to the extent that it might make Harvard increasingly seem and behave like an anachronism, I don’t even think it makes sense on a dollars and cents level.

Furthermore, all these factors leave the pursuit of certain types of activity and principles in the dust. It’s impossible to be innovative, spontaneous, or even broadly social in a way that doesn’t involve dark sweaty rooms and half-hearted groping.

But the greatest obstacle to change so far is the relative unawareness of this problem. I think an active community of culture jamming is instrumental to at least prompting greater awareness, if nothing else. Something definitely worth pursuing as some kind of target next year. The G.Arm’s going to be a more active base for these sort of things.

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2 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Christina said,

    Spot on as usual, Tim.

    Perhaps a good thing to do would be to reclaim the Yard–host a large community-wide event there every Friday afternoon or something like that. We could make it a physical thing by getting lawn chairs or something to encourage people to just hang out in the Yard. The only problem, of course, is the weather….but maybe that’s when that tarp would come in handy? =P

  2. 2

    Tim said,

    Thanks, chum.

    I’m thinking the same, a huge blue tent in the middle of the winter might be lots of fun. Winter slip-n-slide = lots of awesome.

    Some kind of general hanging out/art making has to occur on a more regular basis, that’s for sure.


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