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.

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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.)

Yet what transpired in issues six and after might be termed a shift in narrative perspective. Gone, for the most part, was the anti-generational generational manifesto laid out in "Twenty-Nothing" with its (overeager?) second-person rhetorical flourish: "Your best and brightest want nothing to do with you. We were too cynical too young about your motives, your TV, your bad rock 'n' roll." By the end of the cities issue (number seven), and Kim Phillips's acute dissection of the Illinois lottery, The Baffler's primary opposition was one of class, not age. (For those keeping score at home: Gender remains the dark continent for the publication, with roughly one piece in five authored by a woman; race is almost off the map.)

Tom Frank's titular essay in issue eight, "The Cultural Miracle," brings us back to the Wall Street Journal and the unassailability of the unfettered marketplace. As Frank puts it, Vox Mercatus, Vox Dei. "The market is eternal," he writes, "the market is unchanging, the market is all-solving, the market is all-seeing, the market is everywhere." Unless, of course, CBS (or any other put-out transnational corporation) tinkers with the market by refusing an advertisement that questions its infallibility. For, in Frank's words, "the market is a fantastically jealous god, deeply offended by the puny efforts of mere mortals to improve on its creations with governments, tariffs, unions, or culture."

Were that the story ended there. Instead, we jump forward to a Sunday-night meeting a few weeks ago in a bar in Northeast Minneapolis for the ninth stop on The Baffler's "Business and the American Mind" speaking tour, and a dialogue that ranged from the disappointing to the disillusioning--the recounting of which I have found myself postponing and deferring and postponing some more, but is now offered in brief for whatever small value it might have.

To cut through the tortured syntax: I have met The Baffler and wish that I had not.

But then, what can I really say about The Baffler, Live!--editor in chief Tom Frank, publisher Greg Lane, managing editor Matt Weiland, and senior editor Dave Mulcahey? Should I recall how Lane demonstrated a mastery of middle-school French by seizing on a menu item that offered a roast beef sandwich "with au jus"--and derisively pointed out the extra preposition to the late-shift waitress? Is it important that Frank, as the center of attention, will regale a group with a long, slurred account of his honeymoon on the battlefields of Verdun--but in smaller company would rather withdraw to watch Xena, Warrior Princess? Does it matter that over the course of two evenings, this clannish crew proved themselves temperamentally incapable of being even moderately pleasant to a waitress?

Maybe not. But I must here concede that this sour encounter made it difficult to listen to Tom Frank champion his solidarity with the working people of Decatur, Illinois. "You can't have a bowling league, or a little-league team," Frank said of the workers' life-depleting 12-hour rotating shifts--though he sounded wooden, as if reciting a PTA party line.

Questions about the demographics of their readership were answered first with hostility, then evasion: The Baffler, you see, does not do market research, and any perception that its readership looked...well, something like its staff--young, college-educated, white--was a simple matter of "distribution." Raising the topic, in fact, became their example of my own disregard for the intellect of the proletariat. And The Baffler, I heard, will soon reach these people four times a year in increasing print runs, and it will speak to their concerns.

"Give me a million dollars," Frank said in a rare animated moment, "and I'll pull a William Randolph Hearst on you."

And as memory of The Baffler boys begins to fade into the sum of their bylines, I find myself hoping, wishing, that Frank succeeds.

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