The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   31

Commodify Your Dissent

Salvos from The Baffler

edited by Thomas Frank and Matt Weiland

W. W. Norton, 1997

The Birth and (Hoped-For) Death of the Rebel Consumer Hero, or, Between Mencken and the Cultural Front

These are depressing times for leftists in America, seeing as how we're politically impotent, and someone professing to be a Marxist is far more apt to uncover transgressed hierarchies in rock songs than contribute to a strike fund. On the other hand, these are splendid times for satire and jeremiad: there's been nothing approaching today's combination of stupidity, pomposity, pretension and hypocrisy since the Gilded Age, if then. We in the Goddess's Own Country live in such times as Mencken or Twain would have given limbs to chronicle.

Failing them, we have The Baffler, the self-described "journal that blunts the cutting edge." It is, to begin with, one of the most intelligent magazines being published, in a league with the New York Review of Books or The Economist. Second, its writers are all leftists of a sensibly old-fashioned sort, not above noticing things like poverty and the lock-out in Decatur. Third, they have no patience with cant, and in fact tremendously enjoy puncturing reputations and pretense and fooling the all-too-gullible. This puts them in a bit of quandry, since the circumstances which let them make use of their considerable talents --- and we have not seen their like since the glory days of the Partisan Review --- are the ones which set at naught all their political hopes, and tempt them to writing apocalypses. The compromise --- an uneasy one at best, to whose difficulties we shall return --- is to attack the business of culture, the Culture Trust.

One must be grossly, even willfully ill-informed --- say, an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal --- not to realize that there is such a thing as the Culture Trust, that huge amounts of capital are sunk into the production and distribution of culture, and that that capital is concentrating in a way which would warm Marx's heart. Fortunately, vast numbers of us are. This allows for a remarkable performance: the systematic marketing of deviance as a means of escaping the system. "There are few spectacles corporate America enjoys more than a good counter-culture, complete with hairdos of defiance, dark complaints about the stifling `mainstream,' and expensive accessories of all kinds." This, as might be guessed, is the central theme of Commodify Your Dissent, about which all the essays circle, from time to time pouncing on it and clawing at its jugular.

The key myth, endlessly repeated, is that of the Rebel Consumer, whose lifestyle choices are too extreme to be accepted by stuffy old losers, and who demonstrates his noncomformity and antinomianism by his purchasing habits. The calling; persecution; conflict with repressive, ancient powers; the bringing of a life-giving boon --- it takes considerable skill to compress all the elements of Joseph Campbell's monomyth into a thirty second spot flogging sneakers or speakers or a sort of carbonated horse-piss, but the prospect of getting rich concentrates the mind and attracts talent wonderfully, as the Medici could attest. Thus is conspicuous offense merged with conspicuous consumption.

It is only in their senescence that myths become toys for skeptical artists and writers; in their youthful vigor, those who spread them believe, and it is no different with our current singers of tales --- or rather those who orchestrate them. To complement the Rebel Consumer, we have the Rebel Executive. This strange figure defies all known culture-hero myths by being celebrated for bringing chaos out of excessive order, sometimes, indeed, for destroying old orders just because they were old:

Contemporary corporate fantasy imagines a world of ceaseless, turbulent change, of centers that ecstatically fail to hold, of joyous extinction for the craven gray-flannel creatures of the past. Businessmen today decorate the walls of their offices not with portraits of President Eisenhower and emblems of suburban order, but with images of extreme athletic daring, with sayings about "diversity" and "empowerment" and "thinking outside the box." They theorize their world not in the bar car of the commuter train, but in weepy corporate retreats at which they beat their tom-toms and envision themselves as part of the great avant-garde tradition of edge-livers, risk-takers, and ass-kickers. Their world is a place not of sublimation and conformity, but of "leadership" and bold talk about defying the herd. And there is nothing this new enlightened species of businessman despises more than "rules" and "reason." The prominent culture-warriors of the right may believe that the counterculture was capitalism's undoing, but the antinomian businessmen know better.
Strange days indeed, when business schools turn out Brethren of the Free Spirit, and the latest management witch-doctor is indistinguishable from a tract from '68...

Between Rebel Consumers and Rebel Executives, we are all antinomians now; antinomians with day-planners, Nietzscheans taken beyond good and evil by Visa. This is stuff that deserves to be savaged, and the Bafflers duly savage it. The mock investment research report on Consolidated Deviance, Inc. ("unarguably the nation's leader, if not the sole force, in the fabrication, consultancy, licensing and merchandising of deviant subcultural practice") is a thing of joy; I take my hat of to a demolition of Wired so greatly superior to my own poor effort; and the Beats are quite exploded, as well they should be.

"But still," I can hear a PR flack at Consolidated Deviance saying, "what are you complaining about? Isn't this a wonderful, almost utopian condition, when dissent is actually encouraged by the Powers That Be? Sure, money is made, but really, how snobbish to object to that." No, that's not the problem; there is no problem, unless your antinomia extends to the nomoi of property, or your transvaluation touches on the value of "the free market," of private affluence and public squalor, of government by board meeting and bond market.

Here we run up against the fact that The Baffler is not the American Mercury, and is not content merely to mock. It feels compelled to ask, in a fine old leftist tradition, What Is to Be Done? And the answer is --- for once, remarkably muddled. At times the Bafflers are contemptuous of the whole idea of lifestyle-dissidence. At others, they seem to think the problem is that, once ConDev gets hold of a lifestyle, it can't be deviant enough, but that their combination of music and attitude is extreme and savvy enough to escape co-optation, that the Rebel Consumer might really rebel, if only he stays in punk-inspired local music scenes. (There don't seem to be any essays in this vein from after 1993, but the obsession with music continues unabated.) Sometimes, instead of pining for punk, they pine for the Popular Front and Clifford Odets and the early Dos Passos. This seems more promising, but not by much.

Now I am, frankly, of a conservative temper, and much impressed by the argument that a state and a society erected by our ancestors with much struggle and toil should not be wantonly wrecked by radicals more concerned with abstract theories of society than the welfare of concrete human beings. In our time, the society being wrecked is the democratic welfare state, the noblest, justest and freest form of collective life yet enjoyed by humanity, and the wreckers are a bizarre coalition of would-be theocrats and free-market ideologues toadying to oligopolistic corporations. Someone with my political views --- a Left Popperian, to coin a phrase --- can get away with preservation and piecemeal reform, and not need a Grand Vision of society. But there is still too much of the Beat and the '68er in the Bafflers, and they see even the welfare state as being totally corrupt. For them, the whole edifice must go --- but I'd like to know, before helping place the dynamite, what will go up in its place. And: in the meanwhile, does it matter if I buy my copy of The Baffler at Borders? Evidently it's OK to publish a book with W. W. Norton, so just how large does a publisher have to be before it becomes part of the Culture Trust?

Answer comes there none. They're in a bind, really. If there should ever come a day when they have to take "The Baffler can be unusually difficult to find in stores" off their subscription envelopes, if, that is, lots of people read them and they became influential, then the Bafflers would lose their credentials as being the truly dissident dissidents, their --- dare I say it? --- air of authenticity. But if they realize that their obscurity, like a Victorian maiden's virtue, is their greatest treasure, they can scarcely hope to bring about any of the political changes they desire.

No wonder some of the latter essays in Commodify Your Dissent contain passages it would be easy to make sound paranoid ---

Denunciation is becoming impossible: We will be able to achieve no distance from business culture since we will no longer have a life, a history, a consciousness apart from it. It is making itself unspeakable, too big, too obvious, too vast, too horrifying, too much of a cliché to even begin addressing. A matter-of-fact disaster, as natural as the supermarket, as resistible as air. It is putting itself beyond our power of imagining because it has become our imagination, it has become our power to envision, and describe, and theorize, and resist.
---- paranoid, or, what comes to much the same thing, like vintage Frankfurt School critical theory, with an exhortation to be "adversarial" in place of praise of "negative thinking." One suspects that this marks the point where attacking the Culture Trust ceases to let them appease both their satirical and their political needs; in the ensuing (stylistic) struggle for power, I rather expect that the disciplined and self-righteous forces of politics will take command.

Heroes come to bad ends, many of them: perhaps because of something profound in the psyche, perhaps because it was a poor rhapsode indeed who ended his story with an anti-climax when the local thug-in-chief was deciding whether or not to have him sing the next night as well. One hopes for something horrid to happen to the Rebel Consumer and the Rebel Executive both, and swiftly --- it would be terribly fitting if they were to do each other in --- but for the moment at least there's no sign of this, and the Lawless Twins seem fit to continue their reign indefinitely.

In part, of course, we've been this way before. Leftists have brought forth screeds against the Culture Industry in a steady stream since the '40s, since that self-same Frankfurt School, and even in 1968 Hans Magnus Enzensberger saw that the "consciousness industry" was perfectly capable of absorbing and exploiting deviance. Alfred Bester's great science fiction novels of the '50s, The Stars My Destination and (especially) The Demolished Man are full of the advertised life and commodified deviance --- but then, Bester had a day-job as an ad exec. The Baffler is not original in noting the existence of the Culture Trust, nor does it tell us much about where it came from, or how it came to pass that it not only marketed deviance but embraced it, but it's probably unfair to expect people whose mode of thought is hortative and anecdotal, rather than causal and statistical --- who get their ideas of electronics from The Crying of Lot 49 instead of from Horowitz and Hill --- to explain major social and cultural shifts. More troubling is the possibility that The Baffler may believe too much of Consolidated Deviance's own self-promotion: that, for instance, all those ridiculous ads work, that Bill Burroughs really does up Nike's sales, and so on. If we really are all non-comformists now, one does rather wonder where all that money and all those votes behind the Christian Coalition comes from. The closest Commodify Your Dissent comes to addressing this is a throw-away line about "affected outrage acted out by sputtering right-wingers," which is hardly adequate to fact that the United States is the only industrialized country where religious fundamentalism is an organized political force of the first magnitude (in fact, no other industrialized country even comes close to being as religious as we are). One can imagine ConDev assimilating some of the Cretins for Christ --- think of, say, Christian rock --- but could it operate in a country where family values and all the other shibboleths really were legally, that is, coercively, imposed? One rather doubts it; doubts, too, that either ConDev or the Cretins for Christ are ignorant of this.

Be that as it may, I see great things ahead for the writers of The Baffler. That there exists a market for dissent is proved, if by nothing else, then by their own success; they are assured of a future providing content to those lesser lights of the Culture Industry which supply that market, such as Norton, Harper's Magazine and the University of Chicago Press. Doubtless, as they age, those who do not become terminally embittered will find academic appointments and respectability, perhaps even punditry, awaiting them, followed, in the let us hope long delayed end, by biographers and literary historians and critics. We may even have figured out what to do about the Culture Trust by then.

287 pp. index of persons and titles.
Cultural Criticism / The Information Society / North America /1 Politics and Political Thought / Popular Culture / Sociology
In print as a hardback, ISBN 0-393-04621-4, US$25, and as a paperback, ISBN 0-393-31673-4, US$15.
2--3 March 1998
Many thanks to Jon Fetter for advice.