Brian Holmes on 8 Feb 2001 14:36:20 -0000

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<nettime> review of Thomas Frank

answers to Ben:

1. Cultural Studies.
It'd be nice if the worst part of cultural studies were on the decline. But
as far as I can tell it's still on the rise (that's what I heard from the
mega-conference in Birmingham last summer). I think it fills the demand for
a weak interdisciplinarity that can glorify the multiformatted, remixed
cultural production of the global-market era. I also think its reading of
cultural difference through studies of the reception of media products was
a watered-down equivalent to/escape from the more radical identity-politics
tradition that had developed in the US universities since the civil rights
movement, and had came under attack by the far right in the '80s. Late,
consumer-oriented cultural studies was easier to digest. You've been
hearing about cult studs for 10 years because it took its current form
almost exactly 10 yrs ago, with the publication of a huge anthology in the
US. That form of cult studs has spread through the world (Latin America,
Australia, now Europe is getting it).

2. Frank's book.
Well, you do have to read the book to know if it's interesting, no? I've
read the parts Frank sent me for a publication here in France. There are
lots of rants and not always enough theory, but it has a precise history of
the rhetoric behind a major change in American society (49 % stockholders
is NEW) and Frank has had the great merit, for years, of being the only
academic on the left to attack the sacred cows and show how they fit into
the general trend of the country to hip, cynical, know-it-all, Wall Street
conformism. (For vague nostalgia about unions, see no. 4.)

3. Cooptation.
The point of Boltanski and Chiapello's book is to say (following Weber)
that capitalism must be legitimated, i.e. it must coopt critique, or people
won't believe in it enough to work for it. However there can be various
results, depending on what is coopted and how. Neoliberalism is partially
the result of the cooptation of certain aspects of late 60s/early 70s
critique (see no. 4 for the "partial cooptation" theory). The idea now, I
think, is to identify the results, and submit them to a renewed critique,
deepening the best of the former one and adapting it to the new conditions
(with the likely result that we will just get more, but hopefully better,
cooptation). Why bother? Because transnational capitalism is, imo, a
fucking murderous system, driven by finance, the military and the media,
that makes people stupidly egoistic when it doesn't kill, exploit, or
starve them. OK, to have that viewpoint you have to read a lot of books and
travel around a little.

4. Workers.
I reckon the workers are those who work, without owning their means of
production. The way they work has transformed radically for some, less for
others. Some have gained a lot of room for initiative, and higher income.
More (the freelancers or networkers) have gained just the room for
initiative (and the right to pay for part of the means of production, i.e.
the computer). More still have just gained the right to work when the boss
wants, where the boss wants. Very significant numbers have been left on the
wayside (long-term unemployment, in 1st and 3rd worlds). Industrial work
has been fragmented into smaller sequences ('cause it's harder to organize
in small shops) and largely pushed out of the central countries, where the
unions retain a strong legal position but dwindling numbers of potential
members. What is produced (the kind of widget) has also changed (I guess
you can read Jeremy Rifkin's latest book on information products for that).
All those changes are deliberate responses to the effective critique of
industrial workers in the postwar period. Rather than coopting *that*
critique, industrial capital changed the location, organization and modes
of production, in order to sidestep it. At the same time it absorbed
another kind of critique, what you could call "cultural" critique, or the
critique of alienation (cult studs, etc), so as to defuse it and to
separate it from workers' demands. With the result that the cultural
critics have become very complacent and workers, as such, have had no voice
in politics for 20 years (instead we're told the stockholder has voice -
and the academics, infoworkers, etc., are encouraged to become
stockholders, to appear publicly as *owners* not workers.) What's happening
now is that the new kinds of labor exploitation are being identified and
located geographically, even as the effects of the transnational
institutions that regulate contemporary capitalism (including the stock
markets) are being identified and targeted for critique. And certain
cultural critics (like Frank, or myself for that matter) no longer accept
feeling happy and content in the best of all possible worlds.

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