Brian Holmes on 7 Feb 2001 17:41:50 -0000

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<nettime> review of Thomas Frank

Naomi Klein's review of _One Market Under God_ is excellent. I can add some

Thomas Frank is the only American cultural critic who has made an effort to
demonstrate, in detail, how popular fashions, modes of resistance and "ways
of doing" (as de Certeau would say) have been systematically absorbed by
the powerful political institutions of American society: the media and
consumer-product corporations; the universities; the stock market.

"We lack a serious history of cooptation, one that understands corporate
thought as something other than a cartoon," he wrote a few years ago in his
book _The Conquest of Cool_, which is a history of advertising in the
sixties. There he shows how specific firms and creatives used the great
bogeyman of the 50s - the graysuited "Organization Man" - as a foil which
allowed them to sell the whole range of alternative behaviors that the
consumer market needed to diversify its range of products. (The first
chapter of this book is particularly good, with excellent bibliography.)

Articles from _The Baffler_, which is the magazine Frank edits out of
Chicago, have been anthologized under the hilarious title _Commodify Your
Dissent_. To get to the heart of the matter, go straight to the mock
advertisement for the services of the ConDev corporation ("Consolidated
Deviation"). Or "Why Johnny Can't Dissent."

More recently, Frank has explicitly targeted cultural studies ("Cult Studs"
as he says), which, because of its initial concerns with popular,
working-class or minority-culture resistance to standardized consumerism,
has become the sacred campus cow of political correctness in the USA - even
though it focuses increasingly on the reception of consumer media and
products (Madonna vids, shopping malls, etc). Here too Frank's diagnosis
is, basically, populism. But sometimes you wish he'd be less drenchingly
sarcastic and dig deeper into the complex feedback loops, between
individual desire and market offer, that fuel this particular kind of
populism. Not only communications media and sophisticated market research
are important in shaping those loops, but also critiques and legitimating
ideologies. Despite its beginnings on the Marxist left in Britain, cultural
studies has become one of the legitimating ideologies of the new
interactive populism. Why?

Boltanski and Chiapello, in their book _ Le Nouvel Esprit du Capitalism_,
have shown how the slogans and ideologies of the late 60s/early 70s were
absorbed into business practice. The result was not only a new rhetoric of
flexibility, but also new, horizontally networked organizational
structures, whose openness to spontaneous expression and innovation
satisfied a good deal of the libertarian critique that had been levelled at
the earlier "spirit" of capitalism (i.e. hierarchically managed industry
with organization men on top and Taylorized gorillas on the shop floor). In
effect, Boltanski and Chiapello have produced a far-reaching history of
cooptation. Their book recounts the engineering of critical blindness: or
why so many intelligent people are willing to work for and even believe in
our lovely, networked, globalized system.

Frank has done an even better study of the rhetoric than they, and he makes
the same basic point: that workers, as such, have been brutally pushed off
the public stage by this integration of hip desire. By reading Frank's
books and articles, you can see that the preludes to the hoax of a
shareholder's democracy were "cult studs" and the "conquest of cool." But
he doesn't connect the cool, multi-culti rhetoric to the stronger critiques
that originally lay behind it, and he does not show how the social forms of
today emerged as partial and perverted responses to those critiques. In
other words, he doesn't show some of the crucial weak points in the
legitimacy of the new economic paradigm. Frank's work could benefit, in my
opinion, from the kind of systemic picture that Boltanski and Chiapello
have developed, drawing connections between the intertwining histories of
popular resistance, ideological legitimation, and organizational form.

Brian Holmes

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