dan s wang on 10 Feb 2001 02:03:00 -0000

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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

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

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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