commodify your dissent

For some thoughts and resources on the
kind of cultural theory
Tom Frank hates
and we love, check out the site.

by craig willse

I recently read a really interesting book called Commodify Your Dissent, edited by Thomas Frank and Matt Weiland. The essays in the book inspired me to think a lot about the commodification of culture, as well as the commodification of cultural critique. It made me think about what happens when only official "academics" get to talk about the production of culture, and also what it means when we only think of radical change in terms of things we can buy—underground music, lefty books, bumper stickers—with money that ultimately ends up in the hands of, like, David Geffen or Michael Eisner. I also thought the book had a lot of problems that, while not necessarily undermining the good work it does do, needed to be addressed.

This book, published in 1997, is a collection of essays from a journal based in Chicago called The Baffler. To me, one of the great things about The Baffler is how it hijacks cultural criticism from the few rarefied voices that the academy has granted the authority to speak. It aims to function as an outlaw voice of dissent and criticism. Taken together, the essays in the book provide a mode of bringing ecomonimc/class analysis back into cultural studies—the writers urge us to remember the real, material effects of capitalism, to think about how trading culture in the marketplace affirms and strengthens the market.

The writers offer some compelling and challenging critiques of how, in the academic publishing world, "cultural studies" ironically serves, not undermines, the marketplace. With its tendency to concentrate on subversive readings of pop-cultural texts (like tv shows, movies, advertisements, music videos, etc.), much cultural writing neglects a critical perspective on the systems of capitalism in which those texts are produced. The basic point of The Baffler is: the stuff that academics say we read subversively is produced by a market which wants us to find its products subversive, so we will buy more shit and renew our magazine subscriptions. While I found this suggestion really exciting, and have often myself been frustrated by how capitalism is taken as a given by much writing I respect, I think that the writers in Commodify Your Dissent (particularly editor Tom Frank) are not considering the complexity of the situation. For example, in one essay Frank rails against so-called "Madonna studies," which are analytical essays written by critics about the pop singer. Somec critics have written positively of how in her performance and videos, Madonna plays with gender and sexuality, bending the rules of normative heterosexuality. Frank accuses the critics of overlooking how Madonna generates millions of dollars of revenue for multi-national record companies. He also offers a salient argument that Madonna's subversiveness is exactly what makes her marketable—her rebel image functions as a part of a marketing scheme that packages and sells rebellion.

However, Frank writes of these critics as if they are generic scholarly bodies, and he ignores the fact that they are in particular working in feminism and queer theory. By ignoring this, he does not have to grapple with the fact that most feminists and queers are terribly starved for subversive images which betray the structures of gender and sex that we all collide with every day. Rather than simply dismissing this critical writing, it is perhaps more useful to ask: how might queer/feminist people produce radical versions of gender and sex that also challenge the capitalist marketplace? How do we make change when sometimes it feels like our only hope for revolution is, in fact, the television?

Frank's hostile refusal to address the agendas of queer and feminist scholars sits alongside several other lapses in this collection. For one, the editors offer only a few slots to women writers. Furthermore, while he and other writers critique the music industry, they seem to feel that in local DIY punk scenes we can find true salvation. They don't, however, question the racial terms of punk scenes, and don't look towards how various local populations of people of color/immigrants define and produce culture that is neither simply a function of the market, nor obscure white punk rock. (In New York, the Bhangra scene among South Asians would be one example of such a local culture.) In Frank's analysis, that which challenges his status quo, should do so for everyone, regardless of uneven ethnic, national and racial positions.

Unfortunately, as is often the disappointing case, while The Baffler's writers make strong, powerful challenges to capitalist, market-friendly ways of being in the world, in this collection they do not in turn make critical race or gender or sex analyses. I think that many feminists, queers, and people of color are often turned off by exactly this in much "left" discourse and organizing.

Nonetheless, I am inspired by the general point made by The Baffler, that anyone can be (in fact, we all are) a cultural critic. They insist that officially sanctioned mediums for trading thoughts are not the only option. The do-it-yourself approach to critical writing represented in this work reminds us that how we say things is as important as what we say.

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