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Commodify your dissent pt2

By Benga, Oct 10, 2008 | |
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  1. Benga
    Other legendary exponents of the countercultural idea have been more fortunate—William S. Burroughs, for example, who appears in a television spot for the Nike corporation. But so openly does the commercial flaunt the confluence of capital and counterculture that it has brought considerable criticism down on the head of the aging beat. Writing in the Village Voice, Leslie Savan marvels at the contradiction between Burroughs’ writings and the faceless corporate entity for which he is now pushing product. “Now the realization that nothing threatens the system has freed advertising to exploit even the most marginal elements of society,” Savan observes. “In fact, being hip is no longer quite enough—better the pitchman be `underground.’” Meanwhile Burroughs’ manager insists, as all future Cultural Studies treatments of the ad will no doubt also insist, that Burroughs’ presence actually makes the commercial “deeply subversive“—”;I hate to repeat the usual mantra, but you know, homosexual drug addict, manslaughter, accidental homicide.” But Savan wonders whether, in fact, it is Burroughs who has been assimilated by corporate America. “The problem comes,” she writes, “in how easily any idea, deed, or image can become part of the sponsored world.”

    The most startling revelation to emerge from the Burroughs/Nike partnership is not that corporate America has overwhelmed its cultural foes or that Burroughs can somehow remain “subversive” through it all, but the complete lack of dissonance between the two sides. Of course Burroughs is not “subversive,” but neither has he “sold out”: His ravings are no longer appreciably different from the official folklore of American capitalism. What’s changed is not Burroughs, but business itself. As expertly as Burroughs once bayoneted American proprieties, as stridently as he once proclaimed himself beyond the laws of man and God, he is today a respected ideologue of the Information Age, occupying roughly the position in the pantheon of corporate-cultural thought once reserved strictly for Notre Dame football coaches and positive-thinking Methodist ministers. His inspirational writings are boardroom favorites, his dark nihilistic burpings the happy homilies of the new corporate faith.

    For with the assumption of power by Drucker’s and Reich’s new class has come an entirely new ideology of business, a way of justifying and exercising power that has little to do with the “conformity” and the “establishment” so vilified by the countercultural idea. The management theorists and “leadership” charlatans of the Information Age don’t waste their time prattling about hierarchy and regulation, but about disorder, chaos, and the meaninglessness of convention. With its reorganization around information, capitalism has developed a new mythology, a sort of corporate antinomianism according to which the breaking of rules and the elimination of rigid corporate structure have become the central article of faith for millions of aspiring executives.

    Dropping Naked Lunch and picking up Thriving on Chaos, the groundbreaking 1987 management text by Tom Peters, the most popular business writer of the past decade, one finds more philosophical similarities than one would expect from two manifestos of, respectively, dissident culture and business culture. If anything, Peters’ celebration of disorder is, by virtue of its hard statistics, bleaker and more nightmarish than Burroughs’. For this popular lecturer on such once-blithe topics as competitiveness and pop psychology there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that is certain. His world is one in which the corporate wisdom of the past is meaningless, established customs are ridiculous, and “rules” are some sort of curse, a remnant of the foolish fifties that exist to be defied, not obeyed. We live in what Peters calls “A World Turned Upside Down,” in which whirl is king and, in order to survive, businesses must eventually embrace Peters’ universal solution: “Revolution!” “To meet the demands of the fast-changing competitive scene,” he counsels, “we must simply learn to love change as much as we have hated it in the past.” He advises businessmen to become Robespierres of routine, to demand of their underlings, “`What have you changed lately?’ `How fast are you changing?’ and `Are you pursuing bold enough change goals?’” “Revolution,” of course, means for Peters the same thing it did to Burroughs and Ginsberg, Presley and the Stones in their heyday: breaking rules, pissing off the suits, shocking the bean-counters: “Actively and publicly hail defiance of the rules, many of which you doubtless labored mightily to construct in the first place.” Peters even suggests that his readers implement this hostility to logocentrism in a carnivalesque celebration, drinking beer out in “the woods” and destroying “all the forms and rules and discontinued reports” and, “if you’ve got real nerve,” a photocopier as well.

    Today corporate antinomianism is the emphatic message of nearly every new business text, continually escalating the corporate insurrection begun by Peters. Capitalism, at least as it is envisioned by the best-selling management handbooks, is no longer about enforcing Order, but destroying it. “Revolution,” once the totemic catchphrase of the counterculture, has become the totemic catchphrase of boomer-as-capitalist. The Information Age businessman holds inherited ideas and traditional practices not in reverence, but in high suspicion. Even reason itself is now found to be an enemy of true competitiveness, an out-of-date faculty to be scrupulously avoided by conscientious managers. A 1990 book by Charles Handy entitled The Age of Unreason agrees with Peters that we inhabit a time in which “there can be no certainty” and suggests that readers engage in full-fledged epistemological revolution: “Thinking Upside Down,” using new ways of “learning which can ... be seen as disrespectful if not downright rebellious,” methods of approaching problems that have “never been popular with the upholders of continuity and of the status quo.” Three years later the authors of Reengineering the Corporation (“A Manifesto for Business Revolution,” as its subtitle declares) are ready to push this doctrine even farther. Not only should we be suspicious of traditional practices, but we should cast out virtually everything learned over the past two centuries!

    Business reengineering means putting aside much of the received wisdom of two hundred years of industrial management. It means forgetting how work was done in the age of the mass market and deciding how it can best be done now. In business reengineering, old job titles and old organizational arrangements—departments, divisions, groups, and so on—cease to matter. They are artifacts of another age.

    As countercultural rebellion becomes corporate ideology, even the beloved Buddhism of the Beats wins a place on the executive bookshelf. In The Leader as Martial Artist (1993), Arnold Mindell advises men of commerce in the ways of the Tao, mastery of which he likens, of course, to surfing. For Mindell’s Zen businessman, as for the followers of Tom Peters, the world is a wildly chaotic place of opportunity, navigable only to an enlightened “leader” who can discern the “timespirits” at work behind the scenes. In terms Peters himself might use were he a more more meditative sort of inspiration professional, Mindell explains that “the wise facilitator” doesn’t seek to prevent the inevitable and random clashes between “conflicting field spirits,” but to anticipate such bouts of disorder and profit thereby.

    Contemporary corporate fantasy imagines a world of ceaseless, turbulent change, of centers that ecstatically fail to hold, of joyous extinction for the craven gray-flannel creature of the past. Businessmen today decorate the walls of their offices not with portraits of President Eisenhower and emblems of suburban order, but with images of extreme athletic daring, with sayings about “diversity” and “empowerment” and “thinking outside the box.” They theorize their world not in the bar car of the commuter train, but in weepy corporate retreats at which they beat their tom-toms and envision themselves as part of the great avant-garde tradition of edge-livers, risk-takers, and ass-kickers. Their world is a place not of sublimation and conformity, but of “leadership” and bold talk about defying the herd. And there is nothing this new enlightened species of businessman despises more than “rules” and “reason.” The prominent culture-warriors of the right may believe that the counterculture was capitalism’s undoing, but the antinomian businessmen know better. “One of the t-shirt slogans of the sixties read, `Question authority,’” the authors of Reengineering the Corporation write. “Process owners might buy their reengineering team members the nineties version: `Question assumptions.’”

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