Breaking the Culture Trust

In a new anthology, The Baffler continues its siege on the infotainment state. Now can they champion labor with the same sincerity?

Hard as it is to believe, there are some things that money can't buy. From the good gray pages of the Wall Street Journal, that coxswain of American capital, comes this tale of the Yuletide marketplace. Major television networks, the Journal reports, have declined to air a spot by activists advocating a "Buy Nothing Day" to counter Christmas materialism. According to CBS, the advertisement is, at its core, "in opposition to the current economic policy in the United States." So let the network carolers string the Stalinists up from a sturdy blue spruce with a garland of popcorn. Damn free speech and bring on the figgy pudding!

To feign outrage would be disingenuous, though; these days, what is good for CBS is good for the country. Instead the anecdote serves to illustrate a seemingly minor point: While the culture industry can shapeshift into any form, chew through any cosmetic carapace of resistance, swallow, and then spit it back up with a price tag attached, there remains the odd notion that will not go down. And within that phenomenon may lie the history of The Baffler, a somewhat irregular periodical published by a handful of smart, young folks out of Chicago, Illinois, and recently anthologized in a collection titled Commodify Your Dissent.

Taken in whole, issues four ("Twenty-Nothing"), five ("Alternative to What?"), and six ("The Dark Age") spell out the first part of the above equation: that practically no strain of cultural dissent is too virulent for the body entertainment to absorb. Issues seven and up might be seen as a search for what may then kill the giant, with his electronic arms cabled around our necks and his hands affixed to the AmEx in our pockets. Be that the vital metropolis in "Twentieth Century Lite," or the vital labor movement in issue number nine, "An Injury to All." What has remained constant in The Baffler throughout is its force and concision on the page, the prescience of its polemics, and its will--make that ambition--to correct the cruel folly of the "current economic policy in the United States."

"There are few spectacles corporate America enjoys more than a good counterculture," editor Tom Frank wrote in 1993, beneath the headline "It's Not Your Father's Youth Movement." This was the opening salvo to "Alternative To What?" and it raised skepticism of the alt-decade to a kind of sustaining, almost affirming, mordancy. The anger was broad and it was deep. Co-editor Keith White attacked the wear-your-rebellion posturings of the then-ascendant Details magazine. And the always-jocular record producer Steve Albini scabrously compared the travails of band-signings to a fecal luge run some 60-yards long.

Meanwhile, "pop-culture" academics conjured anti-authoritarianism out of the vapor of their new Madonna; they fabricated an exercise of "agency" in her public reception, then gilded their careers with the fool's gold of such turgid theorems put to print. (For the record, both Frank and current senior editor Dave Mulcahey were then enrolled in the history grad program at the University of Chicago; only Frank would finish though, and his expanded dissertation, The Conquest of Cool, was published last month.) And in a rather blunt parody of the new breed of poseur, The Baffler mocked poetry slams, vapid zines, and all the other trappings of insurgency-through-lifestyle. "If you want to understand 'culture,'" Frank inveighed, "get out of the coffee house and buy yourself a subscription to Advertising Age."

In the next issue, over a year later, The Baffler proved that it had heeded this injunction. Keith White uncovered the system error in Wired magazine's "killer-app." Where money and machine meet, he argued, we find the latest stomping grounds of the "radical" consumer. And Bill Boisvert offered a comprehensive (if also, in parts, undercooked) survey of the mind-set of the manager following the Taylorization of industry. In his scheme, professional anxiety has given birth to the conflicted reactionary/anarchic impulses of the latter-day business writers and their droll gospels of empowerment. Management by chaos. Management by Zen. Hun-worship in the form of Tom Peters's "celebrat[ion of] modern-day entrepreneurs, singing arias to their barbarian manliness and camaraderie as they gallop through burning villages, ponies laden with swag, lords of a 'chaotic' economy where bandit companies ride down the dispirited weaklings who crave order and security." (And if such prose weren't sufficiently pointed, Boisvert subheaded this section with the second of three Nietzsche titles: "Thus Spake Peters.")

In summary, The Man had claimed his copyright on the language of the counterculture; there was no dissenting left to do with a righteous guitar and a screaming tube amp.

Taken in one sitting, Commodify Your Dissent can feel like a diluted dose of some potent stuff. Beyond the even-handed incisiveness of the prose, the foresight of its editorial vision can invite a kind of atemporal reading--though some were authored five years ago, the time for these essays is now. (Informative, too, is what has been omitted from the collection: the poetry section, which feels obligatory as often as not; and fiction, which gets insultingly short shrift from issue to issue, and does little to distinguish itself anyway.)

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