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Discourse 23.3 (2001) 107-129

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Language out of Language:
Excavating the Roots of Culture Jamming and Postmodern Activism from William S. Burroughs' Nova Trilogy

Todd Tietchen

How, then, precisely, are we to conceive of the thesis that logos is able to recover its own constitutive debt, or, even more pointedly, that it is only speech itself, the very tool of disintegration, that can heal the wound it incises in the Real . . . ?

—Slavoj Zizek, "A Hair of the Dog that Bit You" 1

On July 17, 1999, news of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s missing Piper Saratoga aircraft exploded into the American media like only news concerning the Kennedys can. JFK Jr.'s unexpected disappearance over Martha's Vineyard punched a sudden hole in a family narrative that the American media has been disseminating for years, rupturing a signifying chain which had been projecting (for quite some time) the younger Kennedy's eventual run for political office. In the hours immediately following the initial missing person's report, the American media vigorously attempted to fill the gaping hole his disappearance had forced in the nation's symbolic network. The major networks broadcast Kennedy coverage for most of the day, hoping to find that elusive scrap of evidence or floating piece of wing mass [End Page 107] that would allow them to narrativize the disappearance and stabilize Kennedy Jr.'s place in the American media nexus. It was then, as the media scrambled to fill the gaping hole in America's symbolic order with some sort of information on the plane's whereabouts, that something interesting happened.

At 11:19 am (EST), CBS News received a phone call from someone claiming to be a US Coast Guard Lieutenant possessing knowledge concerning the crash. The phone call was broadcast live, and the caller informed Dan Rather (and a substantial part of the American viewing audience) that pieces of Kennedy's aircraft had been discovered along the Massachusetts' coastline. Then, near the end of his call, the caller suddenly claimed that "Howard Stern and Baba Booey [a character in Stern's radio show]" were also passengers in Kennedy's plane. While the caller's claim that nationally-syndicated radio host Howard Stern was also aboard Kennedy's plane revealed his call as a prank, Rather responded by at first repeating (several times) that debris from Kennedy's plane had indeed been found, making the dubious caller's attempt at inserting false information into the media nexus a momentary success.

Upon realizing, a few minutes later, that he had been duped by a prankster, Rather reacted angrily, wondering out loud why a private citizen, in a time of "national crisis," would feed the media's hunger with an appetizer of false information. But perhaps Rather should have been questioning why both he and his network had bitten down so eagerly on the caller's offering, for their zealous response was key to the prank's effectiveness. While appearing to participate in constructing the story (by filling in the hole that Kennedy Jr.'s death had caused) the dubious phone call had in fact forced another rupture, and in that rupture, television viewers were provided with momentary insight into the sort of information and credentials (Lieutenant) that are used to piece together media narratives. The prankster had turned the station's own eagerness for information against itself, and for a few moments, representation of the event was guided into an inaccurate direction. In those moments, the caller demonstrated the "weakness" and holes within the American media edifice, along with how easily it can be manipulated via its own procedures and tools.

In regards to art and literature, the similar suggestion that politically radical gestures can be embedded within mass media channels is still met with a high degree of theoretical skepticism. This overwhelming skepticism can be traced to a theoretical syndrome which I would like to call Frankfurt School Anxiety. The roots of Frankfurt School Anxiety can be discovered in "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception...


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