Tom Frank: Hip for Sale?

In a conference room at the Miyako Hotel in San Francisco on March 1, close to 100 people were on hand for a first-of-its-kind panel discussion led by a group of activists who write about advertising and work to keep it from blanketing every surface of our lives. Before those gathered for the Institute for Alternative Journalism's Media & Democracy Congress was John C. Stauber, Marc Crispin Miller, Leslie Savan, Marianne Manilov, Tom Frank, and moderator Makani Themba.You've probably heard Marc Crispin Miller, perhaps on National Public Radio (he's a commentator for the NPR affiliate in Baltimore), or come across his books, The Culture of TV or Spectacle: Operation Desert Storm and the Triumph of Illusions. If you're a keen reader of the alternative press, you may recall John Stauber's name too. His exposŽ, written with Sheldon Rampton, "Toxic Sludge is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies, and the Public Relations Industry," shaves the PR. wool off the corporate wolves who'd rather solve an image problem than a real one. And you can't call yourself a media critic without regular doses of Leslie Savan, whose "Op-Ad" column in the Village Voice has twice made her a finalist for the Pulitzer prize in criticism. Chances are less that you know Marianne Manilov or Makani Themba. Manilo is an activist's activist who serves as co-director of UNPLUG, a national organization devoted to equal, commercial-free, community-controlled education. Themba sits on the board of We Interrupt this Message and, as associate director for media and policy analysis at the Marin Institute for the Prevention of Alcohol and Other Drug Problems, has opposed malt liquor advertising that features rap artists and shamelessly targets underage "consumers." Finally, there was Tom Frank. Frank's a 30-year-old, open-faced, tweed-clad, PhD-holding, bourbon-fancying journalist and part-time punk rock DJ. And if you can't place his name, well, that's OK -Ñ that's what this column is for. Though Frank's protests against the concentration of media ownership and the assimilation of dissident iconography by Madison Avenue are timely and necessary, he has, until recently, had to self-publish them in the journal he cofounded eight years ago called The Baffler. In fact, years from now, a biography of his career might refer to his appearance on the March 1st panel (unfortunately titled, "Commercialism: The Quest for Truth in a Material World") as a benchmark, a sign that Frank had, as they say, arrived. This much was certain: He was on a roll. Why are the hippest minds of my generation so puzzled when, dragging through the streets of Wicker Park, Chicago or North Beach, San Francisco or Greenwich Village, New York at dawn, searching for that angry fix, they invariably find themselves joined by ad executives, network presidents and bankers? Our problem is that we have a fixed idea of what power is, of how power works and of how power is to be resisted. It's an idea called "hip." It holds that the problem with capitalism is that it oppresses us through puritanism, homogeneity, and conformity, and that we resist by being ourselves, by pushing the envelope of uninhibition, by breaking all the rules in pursuit of the most apocalyptic orgasm of them all. It's an idea that hasn't changed at all in 40 years, even as capitalism has undergone revolution after revolution.Pick up any recent book of management theory: Today, hip is the orthodoxy of the Information Age capitalism. It's being your own dog, Reebok letting U.B.U., Finding Your Own Road in a Saab; it's Ginsberg shilling for the Gap and William Burroughs for Nike; it's business texts quoting Gurdjieff and Bob Dylan and bearing titles like Thriving on Chaos and The Age of Unreason. In a near-rabid froth, he went on, "Hip is false populism on a par with Pat Buchanan, the same bogus MTV individualism as that of business writers Charles Handy and James Champy. Hip is the faith of the marketplace, simultaneously the blank blue stare of TV passivity and the howl of unreflective consumerism -- The shiny capitalism of the Third Wave is turning out to be little more than ugly exploitative capitalism of a hundred years ago -Ñ available in stone-washed easy-fit, with an electric guitar soundtrack." The ovation that greeted Frank at the end of his speech interrupted the sleepy editors' panel next door. Afterwards, Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, asked for the text of the piece and has since run it as a cover story (see The Nation, April 1, 1996). Those who are thoughtful about mass media or who have read Frank are familiar with the circumstance he identifies: We live a paradox. Fewer and fewer conglomerates (Frank christens these conglomerates "The Culture Trust") own and control cultural production -Ñ TV shows, recorded music, books, video games, whathaveyou -Ñ but somehow we are supposed to believe these half-dozen media monopolies offer us more choice than ever -Ñ a veritable carnival of TV channels, movies, web sites, rock and rap bands, not to mention an array of denim (stone-wash, acid-wash, pre-shrunk, 501, 505, loose-fit, easy-fit, you name it.) In fact, they all offer us the same "choice": to patronize the same handful of businesses. The myth that we have more freedom even as our choices come from fewer and fewer sources, Frank's argument goes, has been made possible, in large measure, by two forces: the "creative revolution" in advertising that began in the 1960s (a trend in advertising that transmutes images of resistance and nonconformity into consumer "choice") and the gurus of business management, capitalists who long ago realized that to keep selling goods businesses must not only embrace but force change. And yet, when Frank writes, "It's time to acknowledge that new hairstyles aren't going to change the relations of power in America. Nor is buying soda X instead of soda Y, no matter how subversive you believe the decision to be," what's remarkable is not the originality of his thought. What issues from his mouth and leaps from the page is Frank's passion for his subject. Reading him, you'd think an advertisement for a PowerBook had run over his family dog. And it is for his zeal as much as his insight that I welcome his arrival: Here, I believe, is a guy who is using what The Riverfront Times (St. Louis) senior editor Richard Byrne calls "buzzing, hectoring blasts of invective" to make the life of the mind and Leftist critique vital again -Ñ almost (ahem) "hip."Frank founded The Baffler with his friend Keith White when they were both undergraduates at the University of Virginia. Their fledgling issues found readers through campus word-of-mouth and zine channels, like the zine directory Factsheet Five. The issues were powder blue and pink and yellow with an elegant typeface lifted from Smart Set, H. L. Mencken's magazine of ideas and vitriol that the staff of The Baffler clearly admires. The Baffler publishes from an office in Woodlawn, on Chicago's South Side. All who work on it have other jobs, as the magazine does not make money. And many of those who have come to staff it have come through the mail, like managing editor Matt Wieland, who, inspired by George Orwell's essays as an undergrad at Columbia University, had it in mind to do a similar publication, but found The Baffler had done him one better. Wieland, who works in New York as an editor for the not-for-profit New Press, jokes that he's pressuring Frank to adopt a more "legitimate palette" of colors.Small distributors were the first to take an interest, and remain The Baffler's most avid supporters, so even though their print run (15,000 for the latest issue) and sales (St. Mark's Books in New York orders and sells as many as 200 copies, City Lights in San Francisco, 50) have increased, they have remained with a dozen or so smaller distributors rather than jumping to a larger one. Searching for a strategy to support the journal in the future (they've made do with subscriptions, newsstand sales, the occasional advertiser, and have received a couple of grants from the Illinois Arts Council), Wieland says they might follow Mencken's example and do a porn mag on the side to underwrite their literary efforts. The Baffler first gained notoriety by embarrassing The New York Times. The Baffler tracked the Times's source on a grunge lexicon, and found, as they suspected, the Times had been hoaxed. The source had made up the grunge lingo on the spot. It was one of several articles in the The Baffler's "Twenty-Nothing" issue (#4). "We were really one of the first to puncture that myth," Frank says of the Gen X coverage in mass media in 1990-1992. "What a raft of bullshit all that was. And what was interesting is that a lot of people [in the media] didn't get our critique because they work for magazines and they'd come to see everyone as belonging to a demographic. I mean, that's their job. They work for magazines where the purpose is to deliver a demographic of readers to advertisers. And that's all the 20-something stuff was. [It] was an attempt to create a demographic identity." It is no small irony that much of what has been written about The Baffler has touched on how it fits into the lifestyles of those who read it -Ñ hence my line about it being "hip." A "Talk of the Town" piece in The New Yorker (March 6, 1995), for example, spoke of a Baffler party in Manhattan, of beer swilling and sophomoric political diatribes. And while they certainly enjoy their beer, Frank and Wieland and writer/editors "Diamonds" Dave Mulcahey, Keith White, and publisher Greg Lane have no lifestyle to promote, just a few thoughtful interventions.Three or four central topics have recurred in The Baffler's pages. There are variations on Frank's "commodification of dissent" argument, of course, essays based on his dissertation (he's presently searching for a better name than "Commodification of Dissent" for a book version of his doctorate work, to be published next year by the University of Chicago Press). There are also close readings of management texts. Issue #7 also saw The Baffler touch on trends in urban architecture in the Information Age: How, for the well-to-do, the city had become a "lifestyle playground." Now, with issue #8, comes the assertion that America is the "paradigmatic consequence-less society," best summarized by the book Eat More, Weigh Less. Underpinning all these essays is the conviction that the marketplace will not solve America's persistent social injustices nor its increasing economic stratification and that those who believe so are incredibly foolish. "There's this notion that there's nothing left to rebel against," says Frank. "Well, how about capitalism?" Since his essays often ask why Americans don't rail against the culture trust as they did the beef trust, sugar trust, the railroad barons, or Standard Oil Company, I asked Frank the same question Ñ- and whether he could suggest a new mode of dissent. "I don't know if I have a new model of dissent," he replied. "I try to point to directions I think are promising. I definitely think we are going to see a revitalized labor movement, to organize around the workplace. I mean, labor movements are a lot of why we had democratized wealth in this country in the first place. In the 1930s, labor movements and the New Deal were probably the two most important factors in democratizing wealth -Ñ that's why we had a middle class, why we had the [relatively prosperous] 1950s. The problem is labor movements, grassroots movements, require organizing, getting people together, and that's not as easy as consumer choice. It's incredibly difficult."After listening to my lament that the Left had become dowdy and inert compared with P.J. O'Rourke Republicanism, Frank said, "A friend of mine was pointing out that one of the problems on the Left is that many of us sit around and complain, 'Dan Rather didn't cover us.' See, this is how, as the culture becomes concentrated in a few hands, the model of how it works has changed. Instead of grassroots movements, of people talking to one another, they're relying on media, trying to reach one another through media. Real organizing isn't happening anymore. [Alexis] de Tocqueville said what was unique about Americans -Ñ they are joiners. Only now we are joined by what we watch on TV. We've reached this point where we don't invent popular culture, we consume it. Popular culture originally meant making your own culture, not consuming the same mass produced culture. But what's really amazing is that somehow the Right has hijacked pleasure. It's the strangest maneuver. They've made the Left look all humorless, PC, puritanical, elitist. They've made former hippies into The Man. [Laughs] I've got an essay on this in the new Baffler. I call it the 'Cultural Miracle.'" Alongside the management and advertising books on Frank's shelf sit Lewis Mumford, Christopher Lasch, and the two critics he admires most, Edmund Wilson and H. L. Mencken. "Richard Hofstader is a very interesting cultural historian," Frank says, thinking outloud, "He has a great way of framing the big picture, but I'm not sure about his politics. I like the Frankfurt School, too, but they made tons of errors." To date, The Baffler has yet to elicit a coherent critique and Frank says he doubts if it's even on the Right's radar yet. (When the Wall Street Journal ran a patronizing piece about the Media & Democracy Congress, it mentioned In These Times, where one of The Baffler's contributors works as an editor, but not The Baffler.) Writing in Lingua Franca, David Furtelle suggested The Baffler takes up many of the same themes pursued in the intellectual journals of the 1950s, like Crab Grass Frontier, but Wieland prefers to think of The Baffler as drawing on the preÐWorld War I efforts of Randolph Bourne and Mencken's work in Smart Set (1914Ð1923) and American Mercury (1924Ð1933) rather than the echo of it in the fifties. Mostly, Wieland says, The Baffler aspires to produce an integrated critique of American society, one that does not focus on one area and ignores the dynamics between, for example, popular culture and big business. And to this end, Frank has written critically of the Culture Studies crowd that champions postmodern, post-structuralist academic readings, modes of discourse that break everything down into such detail that they deny broader narratives or meaning. "Technically you can categorize what I do as Cultural Studies," Frank explains. "So I'm not throwing out the whole potato. But there is a certain celebrationist tendency to Cultural Studies -Ñ it's like they are saying 'Look at all this carnivalesque shit!' and they think that it is a response to capitalism because capitalism wants homogeneity and the carnivalesque is the dissent. But this is a fundamental misunderstanding. They don't realize that these critiques don't empower dissent, they play into capitalism. Capitalism thrives on the myth of eternal overthrow, of smashing rules, it's about the carnivalesque, it's a gluttonous rampage." Putting down the phone to go to a file box beside his desk and retrieve a photocopied essay, Frank says, "And then there's the quote of them all, from David Rieff: 'Capitalism is the bull in the china shop of human history.'"

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