Commodify your dissent pt3

By Benga · Oct 10, 2008 ·
  1. Benga
    The new businessman quite naturally gravitates to the slogans and sensibility of the rebel sixties to express his understanding of the new Information World. He is led in what one magazine calls “the business revolution” by the office-park subversives it hails as “business activists,” “change agents,” and “corporate radicals.” He speaks to his comrades through commercials like the one for “Warp,” a type of IBM computer operating system, in which an electric guitar soundtrack and psychedelic video effects surround hip executives with earrings and hairdos who are visibly stunned by the product’s gnarly ‘tude (It’s a “totally cool way to run your computer,” read the product’s print ads). He understands the world through Fast Company, a successful new magazine whose editors take their inspiration from Hunter S. Thompson and whose stories describe such things as a “dis-organization” that inhabits an “anti-office” where “all vestiges of hierarchy have disappeared” or a computer scientist who is also “a rabble rouser, an agent provocateur, a product of the 1960s who never lost his activist fire or democratic values.” He is what sociologists Paul Leinberger and Bruce Tucker have called “The New Individualist,” the new and improved manager whose arty worldview and creative hip derive directly from his formative sixties days. The one thing this new executive is definitely not is Organization Man, the hyper-rational counter of beans, attender of church, and wearer of stiff hats. In television commercials, through which the new American businessman presents his visions and self-understanding to the public, perpetual revolution and the gospel of rule-breaking are the orthodoxy of the day. You only need to watch for a few minutes before you see one of these slogans and understand the grip of antinomianism over the corporate mind:

    Sometimes You Gotta Break the Rules --Burger King
    If You Don’t Like the Rules, Change Them --WXRT-FM
    The Rules Have Changed --Dodge
    The Art of Changing --Swatch
    There’s no one way to do it. --Levi’s
    This is different. Different is good. --Arby’s
    Just Different From the Rest --Special Export beer
    The Line Has Been Crossed: The Revolutionary New Supra --Toyota
    Resist the Usual --the slogan of both Clash Clear Malt and Young & Rubicam
    Innovate Don’t Imitate --Hugo Boss
    Chart Your Own Course --Navigator Cologne
    It separates you from the crowd --Vision Cologne

    In most, the commercial message is driven home with the vanguard iconography of the rebel: screaming guitars, whirling cameras, and startled old timers who, we predict, will become an increasingly indispensable prop as consumers require ever-greater assurances that, Yes! You are a rebel! Just look at how offended they are!

    Our businessmen imagine themselves rebels, and our rebels sound more and more like ideologists of business. Henry Rollins, for example, the maker of loutish, overbearing music and composer of high-school-grade poetry, straddles both worlds unproblematically. Rollins’ writing and lyrics strike all the standard alienated literary poses: He rails against overcivilization and yearns to “disconnect.” He veers back and forth between vague threats toward “weak” people who “bring me down” and blustery declarations of his weightlifting ability and physical prowess. As a result he ruled for several years as the preeminent darling of Details magazine, a periodical handbook for the young executive on the rise, where rebellion has achieved a perfect synthesis with corporate ideology. In 1992 Details named Rollins a “rock `n’ roll samurai,” an “emblem ... of a new masculinity” whose “enlightened honesty” is “a way of being that seems to flesh out many of the ideas expressed in contemporary culture and fashion.” In 1994 the magazine consummated its relationship with Rollins by naming him “Man of the Year,” printing a fawning story about his muscular worldview and decorating its cover with a photo in which Rollins displays his tattoos and rubs his chin in a thoughtful manner.

    Details found Rollins to be such an appropriate role model for the struggling young businessman not only because of his music-product, but because of his excellent “self-styled identity,” which the magazine describes in terms normally reserved for the breast-beating and soul-searching variety of motivational seminars. Although he derives it from the quality-maximizing wisdom of the East rather than the unfashionable doctrines of Calvin, Rollins’ rebel posture is identical to that fabled ethic of the small capitalist whose regimen of positive thinking and hard work will one day pay off. Details describes one of Rollins’ songs, quite seriously, as “a self-motivational superforce, an anthem of empowerment,” teaching lessons that any aspiring middle-manager must internalize. Elsewhere, Iggy Pop, that great chronicler of the ambitionless life, praises Rollins as a “high achiever” who “wants to go somewhere.” Rollins himself even seems to invite such an interpretation. His recent spoken-word account of touring with Black Flag, delivered in an unrelenting two-hour drill-instructor staccato, begins with the timeless bourgeois story of opportunity taken, of young Henry leaving the security of a “straight job,” enlisting with a group of visionaries who were “the hardest working people I have ever seen,” and learning “what hard work is all about.” In the liner notes he speaks proudly of his Deming-esque dedication to quality, of how his bandmates “Delivered under pressure at incredible odds.” When describing his relationship with his parents for the readers of Details, Rollins quickly cuts to the critical matter, the results that such dedication has brought: “Mom, Dad, I outgross both of you put together,” a happy observation he repeats in his interview with the New York Times Magazine.

    Despite the extreme hostility of punk rockers with which Rollins had to contend all through the 1980s, it is he who has been chosen by the commercial media as the godfather of rock `n’ roll revolt. It is not difficult to see why. For Rollins the punk rock decade was but a lengthy seminar on leadership skills, thriving on chaos, and total quality management. Rollins’ much-celebrated anger is indistinguishable from the anger of the frustrated junior executive who finds obstacles on the way to the top. His discipline and determination are the automatic catechism of any small entrepreneur who’s just finished brainwashing himself with the latest leadership and positive-thinking tracts; his poetry is the inspired verse of 21 Days to Unlimited Power or Let’s Get Results, Not Excuses. Henry Rollins is no more a threat to established power in America than was Dale Carnegie. And yet Rollins as king of the rebels—peerless and ultimate—is the message hammered home wherever photos of his growling visage appears. If you’re unhappy with your lot, the Culture Trust tells us with each new tale of Rollins, if you feel you must rebel, take your cue from the most disgruntled guy of all: Lift weights! Work hard! Meditate in your back yard! Root out the weaknesses deep down inside yourself! But whatever you do, don’t think about who controls power or how it is wielded.

    * * *

    The structure and thinking of American business have changed enormously in the years since our popular conceptions of its problems and abuses were formulated. In the meantime the mad frothings and jolly apolitical revolt of Beat, despite their vast popularity and insurgent air, have become powerless against a new regime that, one suspects, few of Beat’s present-day admirers and practitioners feel any need to study or understand. Today that beautiful countercultural idea, endorsed now by everyone from the surviving Beats to shampoo manufacturers, is more the official doctrine of corporate America than it is a program of resistance. What we understand as “dissent” does not subvert, does not challenge, does not even question the cultural faiths of Western business. What David Rieff wrote of the revolutionary pretensions of multiculturalism is equally true of the countercultural idea: “The more one reads in academic multiculturalist journals and in business publications, and the more one contrasts the speeches of CEOs and the speeches of noted multiculturalist academics, the more one is struck by the similarities in the way they view the world.” What’s happened is not co-optation or appropriation, but a simple and direct confluence of interest.

    The problem with cultural dissent in America isn’t that it’s been co-opted, absorbed, or ripped-off. Of course it’s been all of these things. But it has proven so hopelessly susceptible to such assaults for the same reason it has become so harmless in the first place, so toothless even before Mr. Geffen’s boys discover it angsting away in some bar in Lawrence, Kansas: It is no longer any different from the official culture it’s supposed to be subverting. The basic impulses of the countercultural idea, as descended from the holy Beats, are about as threatening to the new breed of antinomian businessmen as Anthony Robbins, selling success & how to achieve it on a late-night infomercial.

    The people who staff the Combine aren’t like Nurse Ratched. They aren’t Frank Burns, they aren’t the Church Lady, they aren’t Dean Wormer from Animal House, they aren’t those repressed old folks in the commercials who want to ban Tropicana Fruit Twisters. They’re hipper than you can ever hope to be because hip is their official ideology, and they’re always going to be there at the poetry reading to encourage your “rebellion” with a hearty “right on, man!” before you even know they’re in the auditorium. You can’t outrun them, or even stay ahead of them for very long: it’s their racetrack, and that’s them waiting at the finish line to congratulate you on how outrageous your new style is, on how you shocked those stuffy prudes out in the heartland.

    (C) 1997 The Baffler Literary Magazine, Inc. . ISBN: 0-393-31673-4

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