Monday Book: Selling the rebellious soul


Pat Kane
Sunday 20 September 1998 23:02

THERE'S ONLY one problem in reviewing a book about how the culture of late capitalism swallows up all opposition, turns subversion into a sales strategy and shrivels the rebel soul. The problem is that when you lift your nose from its pages, the reality seems even worse.

A few days ago, I slumped over a Heathrow chair, and watched the most brutal television montage I have ever seen - babies bashing their heads on coffee tables, adults nearly being gored by bulls, teenagers almost snapping their spines in gymnasiums. The show was, of course, ITV's You've Been Framed, when the nation uses its video-cams to turn domestic vulnerability into big laughs. But the soundtrack to this nightmare of banality was Chumbawumba's `Tub-Thumping': a call to political activism by Leeds anarchists, here used as a boisterous soundtrack to images of bruised children.

The Chicago cynics who edit The Baffler, and who have put together a compilation from this most aggressive of American small magazines, would simply snort and shake their heads. What do you expect the Culture Trust to do? Listen to the lyrics? Yet the "commodification of dissent" they talk about goes beyond indifference to what radical artists say or do - so long as they can be used as muzak or wallpaper.

No, what the Bafflers are targeting is one of the most powerful motors of info-capitalism. Preaching revolution has become a cultural norm, rather than an exception. Once people believe a product is "hip", they'll buy anything.

So we should wear this season's Gap khakis because Hemingway, Dean and Ginsberg wore them. We should punch away at an Apple Mac, rather than a personal computer, because the former allows us to "Think Different" - just like Gandhi, Miles Davis and Picasso? A pair of sweatshop-fashioned trainers can turn sportsmen into moody existentialists, drifting through a surreal landscape, rather than cash-greedy mercenaries twitching for their next totty.

From a largely mid-1990s perch, the Bafflers also pour scorn on such fads as Generation X, the New Beats, the MTV Generation - all marketing phenomena that reached out to the marginal and the dissident, killed them through stylising them, and then sold the pallid remains. So it comes as no surprise that most of the writers here are unregenerate old punks. They reserve their bitterest contempt for alternative artists-turned-lifestyle products - such as Henry Rollins, Pearl Jam or Marilyn Manson - and their corporately-promoted weirdness.

Strip away the well-wrought disdain of their prose, and you have something of a marketplace battle here: the small cultural entrepreneur, selling real rebellion, versus the huge ones, selling fake rebellion. Realise that, and the whole thesis of the "commodification of dissent" starts to crumble in a cold wind of bad faith. Isn't all dissent a kind of performance in search of an audience? How can showbiz stay out of radicalism, in this irreversibly mediated world?

Where the Bafflers think they are at their most acerbic, they reveal themselves utterly. Much of the book is taken up with sneers at contemporary management-speak: at the gurus who preach "chaos" and "liberation" and "creativity" to organisations. Compared to the rather defeated (yet massively popular) cynicism about corporate life that you find in the Dilbert cartoons, at least the Bafflers come from a creakily recognisable leftist politics.

They are alive to the bullshit that calls more work for less pay a "productivity miracle". But that's the problem with the Baffler world. Most of us don't operate at their level: ruthless semioticians on the one hand, steely revolutionaries on the other. That we don't leads their editor to close with a despair worthy of the Frankfurt School pessimists of the 1940s: "no myth but the business myth ... no rebellion but the pre-programmed search for new kicks".

But could it be that capitalist culture is much more of a battleground than a vast and fiendish manipulation? When does the hip consumer become the ethical consumer, for example? And does snickering at "change-managers" really help us understand why business culture engages hearts and minds? The Bafflers are the punks who like to say "No", when the issue is surely why we say "Yes" to cultural capitalism in a million different ways.

The presenter on You've Been Framed quipped at the end of that sadistic segment: "I really love that song". So do we all. But if you want to explore the complexity of how an anarchist chant can go prime-time - rather than just piddle elegantly over the sell-out - then don't come here. They're baffled more than they know.

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