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2001.02.07. - Brian Holmes, review of Thomas Frank

Subject: review of Thomas Frank
From: Brian Holmes <106271.223@compuserve.com>
Date: Wed, 7 Feb 2001 08:00:40 -0500

Naomi Klein's review of _One Market Under God_ is excellent. I can add some background:

Thomas Frank is the only American cultural critic who has made an effort to demonstrate, in detail, how popular fashions, modes of resistance and "ways of doing" (as de Certeau would say) have been systematically absorbed by the powerful political institutions of American society: the media and consumer-product corporations; the universities; the stock market.

"We lack a serious history of cooptation, one that understands corporate thought as something other than a cartoon," he wrote a few years ago in his book _The Conquest of Cool_, which is a history of advertising in the sixties. There he shows how specific firms and creatives used the great bogeyman of the 50s - the graysuited "Organization Man" - as a foil which allowed them to sell the whole range of alternative behaviors that the consumer market needed to diversify its range of products. (The first chapter of this book is particularly good, with excellent bibliography.)

Articles from _The Baffler_, which is the magazine Frank edits out of Chicago, have been anthologized under the hilarious title _Commodify Your Dissent_. To get to the heart of the matter, go straight to the mock advertisement for the services of the ConDev corporation ("Consolidated Deviation"). Or "Why Johnny Can't Dissent."

More recently, Frank has explicitly targeted cultural studies ("Cult Studs" as he says), which, because of its initial concerns with popular, working-class or minority-culture resistance to standardized consumerism, has become the sacred campus cow of political correctness in the USA - even though it focuses increasingly on the reception of consumer media and products (Madonna vids, shopping malls, etc). Here too Frank's diagnosis is, basically, populism. But sometimes you wish he'd be less drenchingly sarcastic and dig deeper into the complex feedback loops, between individual desire and market offer, that fuel this particular kind of populism. Not only communications media and sophisticated market research are important in shaping those loops, but also critiques and legitimating ideologies. Despite its beginnings on the Marxist left in Britain, cultural studies has become one of the legitimating ideologies of the new interactive populism. Why?

Boltanski and Chiapello, in their book _ Le Nouvel Esprit du Capitalism_, have shown how the slogans and ideologies of the late 60s/early 70s were absorbed into business practice. The result was not only a new rhetoric of flexibility, but also new, horizontally networked organizational structures, whose openness to spontaneous expression and innovation satisfied a good deal of the libertarian critique that had been levelled at the earlier "spirit" of capitalism (i.e. hierarchically managed industry with organization men on top and Taylorized gorillas on the shop floor). In effect, Boltanski and Chiapello have produced a far-reaching history of cooptation. Their book recounts the engineering of critical blindness: or why so many intelligent people are willing to work for and even believe in our lovely, networked, globalized system.

Frank has done an even better study of the rhetoric than they, and he makes the same basic point: that workers, as such, have been brutally pushed off the public stage by this integration of hip desire. By reading Frank's books and articles, you can see that the preludes to the hoax of a shareholder's democracy were "cult studs" and the "conquest of cool." But he doesn't connect the cool, multi-culti rhetoric to the stronger critiques that originally lay behind it, and he does not show how the social forms of today emerged as partial and perverted responses to those critiques. In other words, he doesn't show some of the crucial weak points in the legitimacy of the new economic paradigm. Frank's work could benefit, in my opinion, from the kind of systemic picture that Boltanski and Chiapello have developed, drawing connections between the intertwining histories of popular resistance, ideological legitimation, and organizational form.

Brian Holmes