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Commodify Your Dissent: Salvos from "The Baffler"

By Tom Scocca

NOVEMBER 3, 1997: 

COMMODIFY YOUR DISSENT: SALVOS FROM THE BAFFLER, edited by Thomas Frank and Matt Weiland. W.W. Norton, 287 pages, $15 paper.

One day, a year or two ago, near the corner of Cathedral and Franklin Streets in Baltimore, my attention was caught by what seemed to be an ordinary city bus. I watched its blue-and-white flank creep past me for several long seconds before I figured out what was odd about it: there were no ads. Nobody was telling me, in eye-level full color, about the 10 o'clock news or a new ATM card or the state lottery. The only image the bus conjured was, well, bus. It was as if a continual and annoying noise had abruptly ceased.

The moment would probably have passed unnoticed, but for the fact that a little while earlier I'd been reading, in an issue of the Baffler, an essay arguing that advertising in public space was tantamount to vandalism, and was therefore the first step in urban rot. That particular piece from the acerbic Chicago-based culture-criticism journal didn't make it into Commodify Your Dissent, a collection of writings from the magazine's past five years. But the book offers plenty in the same spirit: today's advertising, writes Baffler associate editor Tom Vanderbilt in "The Advertised Life," "penetrates the cognitive process, invading consciousness to such a point that one expects and looks for advertising, learns to lead life as an ad, to think like an advertiser, and even to anticipate and insert oneself into successful strategies of marketing."

This invasion, the Baffler argues, takes place as much in academia as at the shopping mall. "Postmodernism is the cultural logic of late capitalism," writes the Baffler's staff, paraphrasing Marxist theorist Fredric Jameson, in the book's introduction. Scholars in the past decade believed that consumption was a form of free self-expression, they argue, "that the noble consumer used the dross with which he or she was bombarded to fashion little talismans of rebellion and subversion." The underlying assumption -- that the fundamental purpose of society is to let people buy and sell stuff -- goes unchallenged.

The observation that artificial rebellion helps shore up capitalism is hardly a new one. But the Baffler's gift is for exposing the way the parts of the process fit together, and for underscoring -- in an age when the hot commodities are information and ideas -- the stakes and consequences of it all. Another touchstone piece in the book, "Why Johnny Can't Dissent," by Baffler cofounder Tom Frank, relates familiar examples of corporate-sponsored "subversive" imagery (such as William Burroughs's commercials for Nike) to excerpts from business-management texts urging people to "hail defiance of the rules," then brings in the bootstrapping, all-American message of punk superstar Henry Rollins to tie it into one ideological bundle: "The countercultural idea . . . is more the official doctrine of corporate America than it is a program of resistance. What we understand as 'dissent' does not subvert, does not challenge, does not even question the cultural faiths of Western business . . . . Hip is their official ideology."

Against such hipness, the Baffler wields a combative and agressively erudite style (not only does the word chiliastic appear in the book, but it's used figuratively). It is not a humble publication. At times, the writers belabor easy points ("bands like Pearl Jam are almost universally recognized to suck . . . [they are] watery, derivative, and strictly second rate"); at others, they let an interesting argument slide by as an offhand put-down. An entire essay could be built from Bill Boisvert's passing assertion that the small-business owner -- for whom Congress is always cutting taxes -- is "the least productive member of the least productive sector of the economy.

By and large, though, the Baffler's contributors are inquisitive and thoughtful, whether they're analyzing the corporate use of Franklin Planner personal organizers ("quintessentially American -- simultaneously wholesome and insane") or the liberal vision of urban life ("a nonstop alternative-lifestyle carnival"). Everything is ripe for reconsideration, even such favorites of the educated classes as the old Spy magazine ("offering helpful consumer hints in the guise of snobbish put-downs").

If that seems an unattainable level of ideological purity, well, it is. The Baffler is haunted by the unspoken knowledge that its intelligent, clued-in writers and readers have the very sensibilities that pay off in the dread culture industry. Thus, noise-rock pioneer Steve Albini, who contributes a piece on "The Problem with Music," has applied his matchless skills as a recording engineer to the most recent album by the million-selling Bush, who are castigated elsewhere in Commodify Your Dissent for being a mediocre bunch of phonies.

But the Baffler sets a valuable standard nonetheless. Some of the topics in the new book may seem outdated -- whatever happened to Pearl Jam or Details, anyway? -- but the machinery that made them churns onward. Advertising has taken over the Internet faster and more thoroughly than even the Baffler imagined; people who were formerly being sorted into market niches are now, thanks to services such as Firefly, being dissolved entirely into a field of consumer probabilities. Business culture, Frank writes in a downcast closing essay, "is putting itself beyond our power of imagining because it has become our imagination." The power of Commodify Your Dissent is that it imagines something else.

Tom Scocca is a staff writer for the Boston Phoenix.

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