Day 4: Stickin’ it to the Man

school-of-rock.jpg 

Today’s post has been inspired by Jana’s (s’anaJ) latest comment and some commercials I just saw made me feel like this should be explored further.

First: the School of Rock example. That’s very funny. Whenever I teach the section on Adorno’s “Culture Industry” and Debord’s _Society of the Spectacle_ I use the same example: School of Rock. I have also heard that other people have used this before. How hegemonic has Jack Black become in our collective processes of imagining contained revolution? Also, isn’t each and every Adam Sandler movie about class conflict and about sympathizing with the lower classes and common people, always construing the upper class as evil? Isn’t opposition to class division one of the central narratives of US ideology? Then why the complete inability to represent this narrative culturally outside of relatively unsophisticated, punch-in-the-crotch-humor comedies?

As a side note: I also like using the website badassbargains.com in my courses whose motto is “stickin’ it to the man one deal at a time.” If that is not a perfect example of revolutionary chic serving the purpose of surplus production, I don’t know what is.

Also, I would like to draw people’s attention to this great website that tells you how you can personally really stick it to the man (including “stick it to the man” buddy icons for your AOL Instant Messenger, of course). My favorite thing about this is that the right side of the page is illegible, as it is partially covered by a large amazon.com ad (one of the larges financial donors to the Republican National Convention, by the way). So, visit: http://stickingittotheman.com/howto/manspeak.html

Now: the first commercial I just saw (actually a rather old one) is for a US cell phone company that features an old white man clearly marked as a CEO of some company who is all giddy about how cheap his new phone service is. The reason this fills him with joy, he proclaims, is that he can consequently stick it to the man. Upon his assistant answering, “but your ARE the man” he simply answers: “yeah, whatever.”
Also, there is a series of commercials by a bank called Washington Mutual that shows the fat cat owners and stock holders of the bank (all fat, old and white–the stereotype of the capitalist) in agony about the bank’s new policy of sticking it to the man and being nice to the simple man by removing some kind of checking fee and offering free ATM withdrawals.  Yes, it is in fact a Marxist-revolutionary bank the way it is shown in the commercials and I assume what they say there is true.

So, yes, I agree with anaJ that it is quite hard seperating actual politics from a form of opposition to capitalism as a cultural standard.

The one thing that still makes me hope for some difference here arises out of the comparison between the ways in which anti-capitalism and anti-racism are integrated into the neoliberal ideological system. Both are political positions articulated in opposition to well-known social injustices and systems of marginalizing and materially exploiting people. Yet, anti-racism has managed to become a social standard (all of us clearly agree that being an anti-racist is fundamental and being a racist, discriminating based upon race, is clearly very wrong–which, of course, is a good thing), while anti-capitalism still has a very different status (anti-capitalism is still stigmatized negatively, its ideology is largely not accepted and being a capitalist, discriminating based upon class and perpetuating the segregation of society based upon that principle, is still not considered to be a bad thing).
While I surely do not want to slip back into the dated and frankly not very productive debates surrounding race and class that try to determine which one trumps the other one, how race can be/is being reduced to class, etc. the comparison between the functional integration of the two ideological positions definitely tells us one thing: that there must be at least a systemic disjoint somewhere between the anti-capitalism advertised as revolutionary chic by the culture industry and the anti-capitalism that is still violently rejected as a general social norm. Is this the disjoint where progressive politics can be located? Is it this disjoint that theoretically needs to be explored, as it presents an ideological contradiction of consumer capitalism and the ways in which it articulates itself ontologically?

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17 Comments

  1. Thanks for the barrel of ideas! I taught my first “Reading Popular Culture” this term, and should I ever teach it again (provided my contract is extended, provided I manage to survive in the West of Austria) I might consider turning to the School of Rock. Haven’t read the whole of your posts yet, will probably comment again later.

  2. A great question. I think this disjoint is important, but am skeptical about locating progressive politics in it.

    I guess I’m thinking that most of the people who are attracted to this disjoint (and who aren’t progressive, politically) tend towards libertarianism, which is pretty anti-progressive, I think. They’ll “fight the power” or “stick it to the man” whether “the power” or “the man” are in favor of global warming or racism or conformity or NAFTA, or whatever. It’s rebelliousness akin to the Marlon Brando character in “The Wild Ones,” who says, when asked what he is rebelling against: “What do you got?”

    Thanks for adding me to your blogroll (I’m assuming it was not an accident). I will certainly add you to mine. Cool new blog, excellent header image. A fun read.

  3. First off: I don’t think that there is a wide agreement that capitalism is ‘bad’, whereas it has at least become politically incorrect to admit that one is racist. I lived in South Africa for a while, a country which undertook a great nation-building project, and what openly remained of racism among intellectuals was the tendency to refer to the current state of racism as the “new South Africa” – a term which in three letters expressed the bigotry of it all, meaning “we aren’t supposed to be racist any longer, and we know that we’ll watch our steps”.

    Second: Capitalism is much stronger than racism, it is a formula describing the exchange of goods, thoughts, bodies, anything in our world. Being against capitalism is actually impossible (at least I have since long stopped to believe that socialism or marxism have anything to offer to oppose it). Racism excludes individuals – capitalism prescribes our mode of existence. We cannot not consume (unless, again, we decided to become hermits). This takes me to the systematic disjoint you mentioned: Our existence within capitalism is deeply ironic – good old Adorno, es gibt kein richtiges Leben im falschen (or at least for the intellectuals, it is ironic. The systematic disjoint between

    “anti-capitalism advertised as revolutionary chic by the culture industry and the anti-capitalism that is still violently rejected as a general social norm”

    seems to be quite apparent to me (but maybe I am simplifying things). The former is actually nothing more but an open invite to consume even more (yay! lower phone rates!). Regarding the other anti-capitalism, the one that is violently rejected: Does anybody know what it is? I doubt it – I think that it, if anything, can only be the unwillingness to consume. But to most, it just seems unthinkable to be against capitalism – and each day of our lives proves that they are right. That’s why is suppose that this fear is a “horror vacui”, actually.

    Btw, in Germany/Austria, there is no immediate corresponding campaign, i.e. none that uses the “Stick it to the man” formula explicitly, but there was the Geiz ist Geil campaign which is believed to have caused a lot of harm to the economy, but received with rejoice by consumers. I think that both ideas are essentially about the same. They show us that all that is left of anti-capitalist response is to buy more for less.

    In other words: there is no escape.

    http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geiz_ist_geil

  4. Thanks a lot! I appreciate your response and agree with your evaluation of the trend toward libertarianism. One could here for example look at the interesting convergences between the now so retro-fashionable writings of the Italian Autonomia movement (and their present fusions with Deleuzian thought) and contemporary economic thought surrounding “free-market anarchy.” This is exactly where things get interesting to me–not just in the ways in which resistance and contradiction is increasingly included in cultural production, but the ways in which the traditional logic of articulating resistance is now increasingly a part of the systemic logic of socioeconomic deregulation (that is, if you are not a neocon but actually run a profitable global corporation). This is what, at least for me, makes locating the political not only difficult but VERY interesting.

  5. Speaking about the inevitability of capitalism: As a child, almost teenager the thought made me furious that there was NO PLACE ON THIS EARTH where I wouldn’t have to be a member of a nation (triggered by the unfair German taxing system where a single mother of two – like my mom- pays more taxes, relatively speaking, than a married couple without kids – and I didn’t see what the state was doing for us, so I wanted to move somewhere where I wouldn’t have to pay taxes). In a similar way, it makes me furious that there is no way to escape capitalism – unless you are really bold enough to pitch your tent somewhere and live from the crops of nature. But then you wouldn’t have internet… :-)

  6. Thanks so much for this long response!
    I agree that it is precisely the effect of consumer capitalism that imagining a way outside becomes increasingly difficult. Especially in connection with the credit system it masks social contradictions that were more obvious in previous stages of accumulation. The inherent class distinction between high and low, in other words, becomes less and less dramatic if I can take out lots of loans and buy stuff on credit so that material possessions as one element of class distinction become less of a marker of inequality. Hence, the logic of this system of accumulation, the fact that it needs to be based on inequality and to a certain extent on elements such as unemployment to drive competition, disappears from the clear surface of things. So while people do agree that diversity and innovation as the hallmarks of consumption can hardly be replaced, or as forces upheld, outside of capitalism (which is in itself a debatable ideological position), this now masks previously imagined primary battlefields such as taxation, income disparity, access to education and privatized welfare, as well as the persisting utilization of race as a mediating factor in surplus production. It is thus interesting that, as you remark, opposition to capitalism is always thought in reference to consumption, less in reference to production or the material existence of the subject (despite the fact that, as you say, capitalism determines our mode of existence). Some elements that clearly mark capitalism as harboring inherent tendencies to social injustice on the other hand are debated quite openly here. This year’s Democratic response to Bush’s State of the Union address, for example, included a scathing critique of precisely the inequality between CEO wages and those of the worker in the factory–an argument based on a logic of social injustice and inequality. This argument, lots of people seem to share, but yet they seem to be unwilling to make the step toward a broader systemic critique that, simply by considering the wage debate, seems to be not that far away.
    So, I guess all this is to say is that, well, I don’t know where the emergency exit is either. =)
    But one thing I do have to remark is that I do not share Adorno’s and to that end Jameson’s rather bleak evaluation of cultural production’s relation to capitalism–there is still some really interesting stuff going on (in art) that makes me doubt the utter hegemony of consumer capitalism, but this argument will have to wait a little. I first need to fulfill my daily quota of necessary academic writing (but I will definitely get back to this).

  7. Yep. See, I have been talking to some friends about buying land and starting an alternative university system. What a nice, unrealistic thought. =)
    Doesn’t this prove your point about nostalgia and escapism again? Ha, Ha.
    I agree–sometimes the line between radical activism/alternative lifestyles and utter escapism can be a very fine one that avoids actual engagements with the present complexity of the system.
    But I do love my trees.

  8. Lots of interesting thoughts in today’s post.

    Part of the systemic disjoint between rev-chic and genuine anti-capitalist struggles is that rev-chic always already comes de-fanged. Since capitalism has become nature, and as consumers/viewers, we’re all in on the joke. Rev-chic is quite safe, but its products possibly retain the aura of what were (and in some cases are) earnest and desperate struggles–and this is what makes those products “sexy”.

    I’d not thought of this in terms, similarly, of race. Race is no longer a threat when it becomes something you consume, especially when it takes the frequently portrayed happy form of everyone living in close proximity (in front of the television together, for example–or at the office) which entirely obviates the ongoing inequality of a mode of production that, as we know, values certain subjects more than others and keeps them both safely on TV and “across the tracks.”

    Related, perhaps, I regularly hear people delight in how “not-politically correct” they are–as if this means no one has duped them into respecting other people enough to restrain their urge to belittle them–which of course is what the non-PC person recognizes as her “freedom.”

    Freedom to consume, freedom to belittle.

    These are a few of the limits of individual freedom. What would collective freedom look like?

    Populism is not revolutionary, but I wonder if it too lives somewhere in the disjoint you locate?

  9. @harvey: yep, a while ago, I even noticed myself how I began making supposedly highly intellectual jokes which were essentially belittling others (as a group) – of course it was meant to be highly ironic, but just think of the Mohammed caricature and then you’ll see what happens if irony is not understood by the random recipient. And anybody could be a recipient in our global world. I’ve therefor made a vow to abstain.

  10. Interesting comment about the CEO-floor-worker wage gap. But even for Marx, I think, this wouldn’t have led to thoughts of anti-capitalism, because CEO and worker are both, theoretically, wage earners. They are of the same class. And for most real-world issues there is no “bourgoisie.” Even the CEO earns a wage, plus chunks of theoretical ownership like options and stocks. Most people have difficulty even stepping away from the commonplace usage of the word “class,” which for most Americans translates as “income bracket.”

  11. @anaj:

    i’m reminded of thomas mann, somewhere in the magic mountain, warning about what happens once you let irony out of the bag…

    don’t have the text with me, but in short, irony has no end. it claims everything.

    quite dangerous, but also useful?

  12. @cerebral jetsam: you need to start using wordpress’s tags to sort your posts – just saw that “uncategorized” (=default) is your only category at the moment.

    I probably should read Marx (I never did) in order to understand at which point exactly everything went wrong with capitalism… although it is very unlikely that it is going to be one unique aspect that one can pinpoint exactly… For now, I am simply assuming that it is the human propensity to accumulate (wealth, power, status) that is to blame – and I somehow NEVER thought of the problem of the credit system “slaps her forehead*

    I am glad that I come from a poor family background – I’ve never been in debt in my whole life, simply beacuse I stop spending when I have now money, and rent always came first. Neither have my mother or grandparents or greatgrandparents ever been in debts (and that’s where my knowledge ends).

    My assumption, taking up the thought of the credit system, is that my family is rooted in a rural environment dating back to the war of 30 years (30-jähriger Krieg), where all peasants were born in debt – the feudal lords could take from them what ever and when ever they wanted. Freedom and being debt-free are therefore clearly linked… a link that is masked by the credit system.

    What’s the English marketing claim of Visa?

    German: VISA, die Freiheit nehm ich mir (sic! sic! sic!)

    Regarding the critique of increasing wage disparity (CEO vs worker): I always thought if this as of minor importance, ein Nebenschauplatz, that is consciously employed by political parties to fuel their election ralleys. Knowing how big corporations work (I worked for one for 1.5 years and then got a burnout), there can be no doubt for me that no politician is ever going to be able to right this wrong – and speaking of capitalism, isn’t this just one of the eye-catching atrocities, but not the actual problem? Would capitalism be brighter if CEOs earned only 10% of what they earn now?

    I doubt it – where is the original sin of capitalism?

    I have to read Marx, I suppose.

  13. @anaj:

    i hope it’s not obnoxious to make a suggestion, but i’ve found that a useful place to start with marx is robert c. tucker’s “the marx-engels reader” which hits many of the high points and gives you a solid feel for the territory in a manageable format with introductions.

  14. @Harvey: thank you, it’s highly appreciated! I might check whether there’s a German translation first – many theoretical texts written in German benefit from a translation though, so reading an introduction by an Engilsh-speaking scholar is probably a good idea!

    @Cerebral Jetsam: Adorno – yes, his critique of the culture industries can certainly not be applied to each and every bit of cultural production, not even of what’s been produced for/by mass media – yet I find his insistence on the total fucked-up-ness of the system highly refreshing. But if you’re looking for a way out, you should definitely turn to someone else.

  15. Hi there–what do “tags” do? How do I get them? How much do they cost? Are they fluffy? Can I spread Nutella on them?
    No, seriously: I noticed that but have not yet devoted any time to finding out how to do it.
    And just to add quickly to the general discussion: I guess social justice does not mean the abolition of wages, or even the introduction of the same wage for everyone, but rather the introduction of an actually just measure of wage distribution (granting that a totally “just” measure will be hard to implement, but I assume one could at least try to do better). This in connection with other measures really gets at the heart of the problems I am primarily interested in, such as the unequal access to education (especially in the US) hidden by narratives such as “the American Dream,” or “upward mobility,” etc. In these cases it becomes quite apparent how there is within all wage earners a huge differential between owners/managers and workers (those who, according to the logic of surplus production, always need to get out less than their labor actually accumulates in order to secure the idea of profit and disposable capital). Again, I do believe there should be a move toward a just measure, which may for the moment, for all I care, leave intact the whole consumption thing but will, as becomes clear when looking at uneven development and the consequent uneven access to education, at least make sure that we are not squandering huge amounts of intellectual ability, creativity, innovation etc. that we direly need these days. I think Marx said something to that extent in his critique of the Gotha-Programme (“from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs”).
    I need coffee now.
    Anyone?

  16. @anaj:

    yes, and isn’t Adorno just an absolutely beautiful read? Especially when one is in the middle of once again being all depressed about the state of the world? Gotta love it.
    For a way out (one that is not a Hardt and Negri global fantasy), purely in relation to cultural production, I always teach (paired with/opposed to Adorno) Hebdige’s “The Function of Subculture,” but, quite honestly, I have never really formed an opinion on the opposition that lasted more than 5 minutes. I even have students write papers on the debate (last one was on the Boondocks) and am still not sure where I really want to locate the potential of subcultures, or of political art produced for mass consumption. I do agree with Adorno, but then the political, according to much contemporary pomo theory, is firmly located in the popular.
    I am, much like Natalie Imbruglia anno dazumal, torn. (and still sans coffee)

  17. I guess I should have been more clear that I was only bringing in Marx because the discussion seemed to be about capitalism, which, to Marx, was a system of production in which one class, the Bourgoisie, who owned the means of production, exploited another class, the proletariat, who owned only their own labor power. It was a simpler way of looking at the world. But even though Marx’s theory was complicated and extended by Adorno, Baran and Sweezey, and others, is vastly less complicated than our current system.

    I applaud your efforts to find a disjoint in which to stick a screwdriver. I wonder sometimes whether we need some other word than capitalism to describe the way our economy is organized. I usually do this just before I despair of any solutions at all.

    To echo one of the comments above, you might find that more people read you stuff if you tag your posts (add tags like cultural hegemony or economics or whatever). There is a little box on the upper right part of your screen as you compose your post, you can add tags and then later click them. Once you do this, people like me who surf particular tags will be able to see that you have a new post, or they will be able to find your posts more easily through standard search engines (because they are properly meta-tagged by WordPress for you).

    Even so, judging by the comments, you already have several intelligent readers. But the more the merrier, I suppose.


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