Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Reading Obama with Thomas Frank's glasses

David Seaton's News Links
For me, the most sinister thing about America is how it tames, absorbs, trivializes and somehow manages to package and market absolutely everything in true, Milo Minderbinder fashion. "Big Brother meets the cash nexus".

Every insight into the workings of the human mind that science stumbles onto is used to "optimize" the population, mold its thoughts and especially its choices, and most especially its spending "decisions". We and our minds are here to be processed as efficiently and as thoroughly as if we were battery chickens... Ever feather, every bone.

That is what I fled from, but it promises to follow me to the ends of the earth.

I think before we go on, you should read an excerpt from Thomas Frank's must-read classic, "Conquest of Cool". After reading this, I think you'll understand me and my Obamamania-phobia, and perhaps even understand your own self, a little better:

Regardless of the tastes of Republican leaders, rebel youth culture remains the cultural mode of the corporate moment, used to promote not only specific products but the general idea of life in the cyber-revolution. Commercial fantasies of rebellion, liberation, and outright "revolution" against the stultifying demands of mass society are commonplace almost to the point of invisibility in advertising, movies, and television programming. For some, Ken Kesey's parti-colored bus may be a hideous reminder of national unraveling, but for Coca-Cola it seemed a perfect promotional instrument for its "Fruitopia" line, and the company has proceeded to send replicas of the bus around the country to generate interest in the counterculturally themed beverage. Nike shoes are sold to the accompaniment of words delivered by William S. Burroughs and songs by The Beatles, Iggy Pop, and Gil Scott Heron ("the revolution will not be televised"); peace symbols decorate a line of cigarettes manufactured by R. J. Reynolds and the walls and windows of Starbucks coffee shops nationwide; the products of Apple, IBM, and Microsoft are touted as devices of liberation; and advertising across the product category sprectrum calls upon consumers to break rules and find themselves. The music industry continues to rejuvenate itself with the periodic discovery of new and evermore subversive youth movements and our televisual marketplace is a 24-hour carnival, a showplace of transgression and inversion of values, of humiliated patriarchs and shocked puritans, of screaming guitars and concupiscent youth, of fashions that are uniformly defiant, of cars that violate convention and shoes that let us be us.
What I am pointing out here, is that what was a historically unrepeatable, "before and after", period, one that truly brought "change" both good and bad, a period that was genuinely subversive, painful, destructive-creative, revolutionary, fresh, startling and real has been repackaged and recycled until now it is tame, stale and manageable.

Most of this has been done by my own generation (now 60+) who took over decades ago from bemused, older marketing executives who didn't understand "our" new culture. They don't want the same thing to happen to them so they have decided to freeze time and sterilize young people's minds by continually rewinding and replaying their own youth. We are living in a classic-decadent period.

So by now, decades later, what passes for America's perception of reality has been manipulated and packaged by elderly former hippies or wannabes and their apprentices. Sophisticated (hip) and cynical to the point of nihilism, they have been pimping their youth (and mine) ever since. Barack Obama is the first, chemically pure, slickly packaged, political expression of Thomas Frank's observations.

To compare Obama with Martin Luther King, the talk of "change" and "yes we can", is no deeper than Nike's slogan, "just do it!" I am saddened by how Obama's emptiness is taken for value. As if the voters were confusing Starbucks with Vienna's Café Sperl... But then, they already do that almost every day of their lives. DS


Anonymous said...

They're saying the same thing, David:

Anonymous said...

I think Jung called it enantiodromia.

marcyincny said...

I haven't read Frank but your post reminded me of a PBS Frontline piece, "Merchants of Cool", and how thoroughly depressed I was when I saw it. Personally I think we were all doomed once people were convinced to wear company logos and pay for the chance to do their advertising.

Jeff Blanks said...

I've read a bit of The Conquest of Cool (double entendre there?), but I just don't know. You can talk about old hippies freezing their youth in amber, but just about all I can see is post-punks and Wild And Crazy Conservatives. Thomas Frank, for his own part, appears to be a stalwart supporter of the post-punk hip consensus, and a basic precept of that consensus is that Classic Rock Rules All--even when they themselves are the current kings of the pop-culture hill. Everyone wants to be a rebel, and it's the easiest thing in the world to rebel against Them Damn Hippies.

But you know what? Don't worry about it--just do what you would've done, anyway, as if it hadn't happened. People reacting over and over as if what they love now has cooties because Those Awful Marketers got their hands on it is a BIG part of the problem.

RC said...

Hey Dave, I escaped too and for similar reasons 30 years ago. The coolness stupidity does emanate and attempt to track one down but I am immune. When North Americans I deal with launch into one of their explications of cool I tell them I am allergic to that shit and the ultimate cool will be when they are having their blood replaced with formaldehyde and are laying on that very very cool slab in the morgue.
It doesn't get any cooler than that.
I am usually about 20 years ahead of the rest of the mass and for at least 20 years I have assiduously avoided all things cool, turned off and turned away from all advertising, refused to buy into any type of commercial or philosophical massmind and in short, have been living and interacting in the quasi-modern world {I live in a pretend first world country} while not allowing it to rub off on me.
Since about 2006 I notice a slow but inexorable movement in the states {I read blogs} toward anti-consumerism and the coming reality of lack of capital there will speed this. So, it is probably time for me to move on to some other mode that the herd will latch onto about the year 2028.
I'm keeping mum for now, but take heart Dave, we are actually now witnessing the Death of the Cool, with apologies to Miles.

David Seaton's Newslinks said...

Guru jai, jai, guru maharaj!

lubin said...

Thanks for the intro to Thomas Frank, much appreciated.

Hope you don’t mind, but you got me thinking…

Interesting to read these comments from your link to the excerpt:

"...the best minds of a generation raised in unprecedented prosperity but well versed in the existential subversions of the Beats and Mad magazine."

"Nike shoes are sold to the accompaniment of words delivered by William S. Burroughs and songs by The Beatles, Iggy Pop, and Gil Scott Heron ("the revolution will not be televised")..."

"Commercial fantasies of rebellion, liberation, and outright "revolution" against the stultifying demands of mass society are commonplace almost to the point of invisibility in advertising, movies, and television programming."

"A host of self-designated "corporate revolutionaries," outlining the accelerated new
capitalist order in magazines like Wired and Fast Company, gravitate naturally to the imagery of rebel youth culture to dramatize their own insurgent vision. This version of the countercultural myth is so pervasive that it appears even in the very places where the historical counterculture is being maligned."

Yet, as the LA Times reports on Feb 27th:

"More teenagers ignoring CDs - 48% of teenagers bought no CDs at all in 2007",0,4432240.story

Are these the same “young people’s minds” you so authoritatively state are being “manipulated and packaged by elderly former hippies or wannabes and their apprentices.”

I’d say it looks more the Beats, William S. Burroughs, Iggy Pop, and Gil Scott Heron and their like are winning out over The Beatles, Ken Kesey and other Hollywood-corporate-manipulated best-sellers…

Although relatively commercially-ignored in their time, Burroughs, Iggy and GSH are more representative than ever of the values of a youth generation growing up in an internet dominated media-rich culture.

As a result of the digital transition and the vast range of information resources being digitally created, young people, the `Google generation’, are searching for and researching content in new ways… and far from the values promoted by the “Pepsi generation” (that you & I are part of…).

This is not living out Steal This Book by Abbie Hoffman, where, as Hoffman is quoted:

“It's embarrassing when you try to overthrow the government and you wind up on the Best Seller's List."

This is, significantly, more like Proudhon, who said "anarchy is order" as much as his oft-quoted "property is theft." (Read into it: from Google to YouTube).

A generation with no inkling of what was a "historically unrepeatable, "before and after", period," perhaps, but they move very quickly (as quick as a mouse – that clicks) with almost no one able to corral them and “mold its thoughts and especially its choices.”

Be careful when you say “emptiness” when describing Obama.

For the Google Generation, Martin Luther King is only a ‘search’ away…

… and whether it’s Barak Hussein Obama or Barak Fitzgerald Obama who gets them researching the significance of electing the first Black president of the USA…

When it finally happens it will truly bring "change" (both good and bad).

- Ciao

RC said...

I'm no guru Dave, I just have no tolerance for groupthink and act that way. I am definitely seeking no followers or devotees, that is a sick desire, and God help those who might model themselves after me. Also, I have a very low threshold for boredom and need to change the routine drastically after a time.
My comment was tongue in cheek, -- well at least somewhat.
Your commenter Lubin has perhaps not realized that the music business is no longer about CDs, but about downloads and concerts.
Lubin, take note!

Pat Newcomb said...

I just picked up this link from a comment in myDD today (4/12/08) using this article as part of the "conversation" over Sen Obama's remarks about Pennsylvania voters. Thought you'd like to know where your thoughts have travelled.