TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT January 1998

books

The Baffler

READING THE BAFFLER—a decade-old journal of vitriolic cultural criticism published out of Chicago—for the first time, I felt the experience was as close as I would ever get to samizdat literature. The comparison is overstated, of course, but captures my enthusiasm exactly. At a time when left-wing cultural critique seemed caught between the undertheorized multiculturalism of the academy and the irrelevant whimperings of “mainstream” left journalism, The Baffler raged with unreconstructed fervor against the pieties of what it called “Information Age capitalism” and against the careful embrace of the rhetoric of rebellion by management theorists and glossy magazines whose very existences depended on the perpetuation of the status quo. I carried that first issue—it was Baffler 6, “Dark Age”—around with me for days. Its anger felt like a gift.

Three years later, The Baffler is still just as angry, but it’d be hard to think of it as samizdat literature anymore. Thomas Frank, the journal’s editor and most authoritative voice, has been featured on Newsweek’s list of the 100 people to watch in the next century and profiled in Details, while Norton has just anthologized essays from The Baffler in a collection titled, fittingly enough, Commodify Your Dissent. Simultaneously, the University of Chicago Press has published Frank’s The Conquest of Cool, a dazzling history of the discourse of “hip” in the advertising and menswear industries of the ’60s. Apparently, there’s even a market for critiques of the market.

The Baffler has gained the greatest attention for its relentless polemics against those who have converted cultural rebellion—in the form of dress, music, or management style—into a marketing tool, making magazines like Details and Wired the journal’s most obvious nemeses. More striking than its hatred of corporate rebels, though, is The Baffler’s utter rejection of the riches offered by consumer society. Emerging out of what might be called the American “producerist” tradition, a tradition that exalted work over leisure and that found in working-class (which is to say job-based) solidarity an ideal of civic virtue, The Baffler has consistently scorned the idea that consumer choice can represent a meaningful expression of personal identity—or, for that matter, that choice is meaningful at all. The essays in Commodify Your Dissent insist that “the consumer has become more passive than ever” and that “the corporations have decided [what] we will watch and read and listen to.” And what they have decided we will watch and read and listen to is almost unremittingly bleak; the authors decry the “absolute banality and horrible meaninglessness of the World According to Sony” and see virtually every entertainment as “the finely contrived end product of an agency meeting.” There’s no room in Commodify Your Dissent for the blunt pleasures of a Bruce Willis film or an Oasis song.

To be sure, this makes the project as a whole a rather grim one, but, hey, it’s hard not to be grim if you spend most of your time theorizing the disappearance of resistance to capitalism’s hegemony. For all the grimness, it’s easy to forget just how funny The Baffler can be, as evidenced most clearly by the Consolidated Deviance investment report, in which Frank and Dave Mulcahey analyze an imaginary company whose business is the marketing of deviant subcultures, and by Keith White’s now-legendary destruction of Wired’s claims to represent the avatar of digital revolution (both essays are reprinted in Commodify Your Dissent). And the fact that the journal’s attacks are never short of savage—you’ll never read the phrase “on the other hand” in The Baffler—makes them all the more compelling.

On the other hand, while the journal’s satires are pitch-perfect, The Baffler is less successful when it tries to extend its critique of the media and of the culture industry to American capitalism as a whole. In part, that’s because the journal confuses—perhaps deliberately—the American economy’s real substance with its public face. When Frank writes, for example, that the “primary business of business is . . . manufacturing culture,” he overstates the economic importance of such production. This can be seen most blatantly in the repeated references to “The Culture Trust” or the assertion that “mass entertainment has become [America’s] economic dynamo.” At a time when the movie and record industries see no growth in sales from year to year, when the book industry is actually shrinking in size, and when the major networks have a third fewer viewers today than they did a decade ago, it’s hard to see where the dynamism is. And in terms of size, well, the combined annual sales of the major media companies in America add up to something less than three-fourths of General Motors’ annual sales alone. The Culture Trust may exist, but it’s hardly “at the heart of American enterprise.”

This confusion obviously doesn’t vitiate The Baffler’s critique of the commodification of dissent and the more general debasement of American public discourse brought about by the application of market values in every imaginable realm. What it does illuminate, though, are the limits of that critique as an interpretation of the crisis of left-wing politics in America. Details, Wired, The Gap, the advertised life, and faux bohemia undoubtedly have a lot to tell us about the way some Americans live now, but they don’t, as The Baffler suggests, have very much to tell us about why the American left seems in perpetual disarray. These artifacts aren’t powerful enough to perform the cultural work—the work of naturalizing the system, of making a particular form of market society appear inevitable—that The Baffler wants them to do. As annoying as Wired can be, if you want to understand why capital rules you’re probably better off looking first at the failure of socialist economies worldwide, the persistence of racial divisions in the US working class, and the sheer productivity of capitalism both at home and abroad. Then read Wired.

In that respect, the most recent issue of The Baffler, which focused almost exclusively on labor struggles, was a hopeful sign that the editors had turned their attention toward the more fundamental underpinnings of capitalism. Similarly, The Conquest of Cool is striking in the way it refrains from grand claims about the power of advertising and in its refusal to leap from conclusions about American business in the ’60s to conclusions about the failure of American radicalism in the ’90s. Frank’s new book tells the story of the transformation of the advertising and men’s clothing industries in the ’60s as the embrace of a countercultural attitude and style by ad execs, corporate managers, and fashion designers, an embrace that in some cases trailed after the hippies but in other instances anticipated them. In both cases, though, Frank goes to considerable pains to avoid a crude co-optation thesis. Instead of suggesting, as many before him have, that capitalism appropriated the discourse of rebellion—“The Man Can’t Bust Our Music,” in the words of Columbia Records’ 1968 print campaign—to defuse it, Frank shows how that discourse became central to certain sectors of corporate America even as it did the same to middle-class youth everywhere. The people making Pepsi ads didn’t have to steal from the counterculture to sell soda, because they were working in a profession that privileged hipness and rebellion over all else. Similarly, the Peacock Revolution in men’s fashion—exaggerated Edwardian coats, Nehru jackets, beads, etc.—had less to do with jumping on the Haight-Ashbury bandwagon than it did with an industry geared to obsolescence, an industry in which being on the cutting edge required perpetual change. The Dodge Rebellion campaign, the ironically knowing Volkswagen ads that mocked the pretensions of Detroit-style American capitalism, every ad George Lois, cofounder of the PKL and Lois Holland Callaway firms, ever made: these only make sense in a world in which hip was, as Frank suggests, the everyday vernacular of American advertising and fashion.

The Conquest of Cool is the best thing Frank has ever written. It’s a model of the kind of business history we find only rarely, combining a convincing and detailed portrait of specific industries with an acute awareness of the cultural and economic contexts in which those industries operated. The book fleshes out our understanding of the ’60s, particularly in its implicit suggestion that the counterculture was less a reaction against capitalism than one against a particular Fordist, Taylorized notion of society “and” business. And it does so while remaining attuned to the complexities of the dance between consumers and advertisers and while recognizing what real dissent looked like. (In this case, it looks like Abbie Hoffman). The Conquest of Cool is more nuanced than Commodify Your Dissent, which is all to the good. By understanding advertising as something that emerges from the world and not something simply imposed on it, Frank makes clear how tortuous the process of disentangling business and culture will be. What remains inspiring is that it’s a process he still believes to be necessary.

James Surowiecki writes for Motley Fool and Slate.

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Commodify Your Dissent: Salvos from The Baffler, edited by Thomas Frank and Matt Weiland (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997), 287 pages.

Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 287 pages.