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[Nettime-bold] Re: <nettime> review of Thomas Frank/Cultural Studies
dan s wang on 9 Feb 2001 23:06:53 -0000


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[Nettime-bold] Re: <nettime> review of Thomas Frank/Cultural Studies


First off, if you don't feel like doin the whole conquest of cool or one 
market under god book, then check out The Baffler, the journal that Tom
Frank helped to start. It'll give you a good idea of his general project
(read the 'about' statement on the website). For this thread, check out
especially Rumble With the Cult Studs in issue #12. Their site is-
http://www.thebaffler.com/
The journal is not only provocative, but in many places entertaining as
well.

Second, I think it's important to keep in mind that Frank doesn't really
consider himself an intellectual of the academic variety. When asked, he
identifies himself as a journalist. Only now the target of muckraking
efforts aren't working conditions so much as the discourse with which big
business surrounds and valorizes itself. "Business-speak" is the juggernaut
at which Frank aims his pen. Being a journalist, Frank lets slide on the
theoretical concerns, and that imo remains a weakness of his work. For
example, I thought Rumble With the Cult Studs (actual title: New Consensus
for Old) was a decent enough critique of the cultural studies field except
its theoretical sophistication (and its snidely entertaining style) was just
this side of Tom Wolfe.

Frank has said in many places that any real change is gonna take political
action, not just the endless discussions we have about politics and culture.
As far as I know, he has neither outlined a course of action nor
demonstrated any viable working model for such, beyond founding the
journal-- but then again (one more time), he considers himself a journalist,
not an activist or organizer.

About cultural studies, then--

The argument for agency is fine. Consumer agency is what gives the focus
groups a reason to exist. No matter the market intelligence, here and there
segments of the population will continue to occasionally and regularly
surprise the marketers with their autonomously creative consumption
patterns. It happens with the most marginalized of groups, making signs out
of whatever at hand. Sometimes it's totally from out of left field--anyone
saying they knew Tims would hit the American inner cities big with hip hop
is telling a damn lie, and the shoe execs would be the first to admit it.

The marketers are always trying to get a handle on the trends, to stay right
there in the moment with it all. And there is a cutting edge consumer
population always willing to push lifestyles, appearances, and culture by
consuming that which the mainstream hasn't discovered yet. So it's difficult
to say that there is no agency on the part of the consumers. The
valorization of consumer agency, however, ends with the valorization of
resistance. Consumer resistance, whose extreme cases are exemplified by
"anti-consumerist" consumer campaigns like Buy Nothing Day and TV Free weeks
still only address consumption and consumer behavior, ie how we choose to
spend our (primarily) money and (secondarily) our time. These models don't
address the reasons why the products we consume are so bad, or, in the case
of TV, how television became such a wasteland in the first place. As a final
act of consumer resistance, not buying and not watching is fine on occasion,
but hardly a practical strategy for deep change in a world in which people
depend on stuff made, grown, and delivered by others. (I say this as one who
does not own a tv; I used to think it was a hugely political choice. I've
since found that not owning a tv is not the same as not watching
one--because, in the US, they are everywhere. The saturation is to the point
where not owning one has become a de-politicized lifestyle decision rather
than any automatically radical, critical gesture.)

All this is pretty obvious, not least to so many of the cult studs
themselves, according to the critics of cultural studies. The new academia
myth is of the Harvard cultural studies phd who gets her essay included in a
forthcoming Routledge volume and goes straight to work for ABC, putting on
those ultra-cynical ads that say "4-6 hours a day" above a little ABC logo.
Pre-emptive strikes against the TV Free campaigns, but hip and cheeky. . . .

That's an unfair caricature, I know, but it captures a bit of the
shamelessness that the cult studs have collectively demonstrated while
shaping and growing this new field in a period in which intellectuals aware
of race, gender, and cultural difference have experienced an overall
disfavor and attack from conservatives. And why shouldn't they take their
successes as well-deserved? After all, according to some of them, they're
just workers like all the rest of us, looking to be well-compensated. To
their critics that sounds something akin to professional atheletes making
their case for strikes, and it further blows a hole in the long-desired but
never-a-reality labor/intellectual solidarity (in US, at least). And to the
guy working on the Caterpillar line in Decatur, Illinois (the Decatur strike
was featured in Baffler #9, I think)? Well, after reading Frank's diss, I'd
imagine Andrew Ross telling him, yeah, your plant's relocating to Mexico but
now you can grow dreads--a white guy in Decatur with dreads! radical! But I
doubt it's that simple.

The main issue that Frank highlights is the convergence of cult stud and
right wing free market rhetorics in the of rekindled and redoubled consumer
populism of recent years. What I haven't yet seen is some exploration of
consumer agency as desperation--that there is very little room left for
individual autonomy in society, except in the realm of consumption, and
given that situation what would any particular consumer trend express?
Think-- Tims the gear of choice among a population shut out of the non-urban
outdoors. What does that mean, or just coincidence?

dan w.


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