I. Wealth Against Commonwealth Revisited
It was, indeed, the Age of Information, but information was not the precursor to knowledge; it was the tool of salesmen.
—Earl Shorris, A Nation of Salesmen
In the United States, where political “change” means further enriching the already wealthy, and where political “dialogue” is an elaborate charade that excludes dangerous and difficult topics from public consideration, one must look to the literature of business to find serious talk about national affairs. Here, in publications like the Wall Street Journal, Advertising Age, and the steady stream of millennial tracts about the latest leadership practices, is where one hears the undisguised voice of the nation’s ruling class grappling with the weighty affairs of state, raised in anguish over foreign competition, strategizing against its foes, proselytizing passionately for the latest management faiths, intoxicated with the golden promise of radical new marketing techniques. The jowly platitudes about “bipartisanship,” “consensus,” or “the center” that make up political commentary are thankfully absent: here all is philosophical realpolitik, the open recognition that the world belongs to the ruthless, the radical, the destroyer of all that has gone before.
The great earth-stopping subject these days in business literature is the fantastic growth of the culture industry. The nation is advancing from the clunking tailfin-and-ranch-house economy of the 1950s into a golden new hyper-consumerism, where ever-accelerating style and attitude fuel ever-more rapidly churning cycles of obsolescence; where the mall has long since replaced the office or the factory at the center of American life; where citizens are referred to as consumers; and where buying things is now believed to provide the sort of existential satisfaction that things like, say, going to church once did. And culture, once the bane of the philistine man of commerce, stands at the heart of this vital new America. No longer can any serious executive regard TV, movies, magazines, and radio as simple “entertainment,” as frivolous leisure-time fun: writing, music, and art are no longer conceivable as free expressions arising from the daily experience of a people. These are the economic dynamos of the new age, the economically crucial tools by which the public is informed of the latest offerings, enchanted by packaged bliss, instructed in the arcane pleasures of the new, taught to be good citizens, and brought warmly into the consuming fold. Every leader of business now knows that the nation’s health is measured not by production of cars and corn but by the strength of its culture industry. Nightly business programs routinely discuss the latest box-office receipts with the utmost gravity; France is threatened with trade war over its protectionist cinema policy; the Wall Street Journal publishes long special reports on what used to be naively called “the entertainment industry.”
The shift has been a gigantic one, altering even the way we appreciate the world around us. Those things we used to read about in the quaintly eccentric books of post-structuralist theory have become facts of everyday life, the triumph of “the image” over “reality” promoted from “fascinating abstraction” to a simple matter of “profit and loss.” We have entered what the trade papers joyfully call the “Information Age,” in which culture is the proper province of responsible executives, the minutiae that were once pondered by professors and garret-bound poets having become as closely scrutinized as daily stock prices.
The great earth-stopping subject these days in business literature is the fantastic growth of the culture industry.
Guided as ever by that all-knowing invisible hand, the business “community” has reacted to the new state of affairs in an entirely predictable manner, rapidly erecting a Culture Trust of four or five companies (This just in! Spielberg and Geffen have started their own studio! That makes six!) whose assorted vice-presidents now supervise almost every aspect of American public expression. Business ideologists speculate wildly about the potential for “synergy” when “content providers” join forces with “delivery systems.” Time-Warner unites the nation’s foremost mass-cultural institutions under one corporate roof; Sony now produces the movies and recordings you need to make your Sony appliances go; a host of conglomerates battle over Paramount, then over CBS; Disney casts about for its own TV network; Rupert Murdoch acquires an international publishing and broadcasting empire bringing him cultural power undreamed of by bush-leaguers like William Randolph Hearst. Culture can now be delivered cleanly and efficiently from creator to consumer, without the static or potential for interference posed by such vestiges of antiquity as bolshevik authors, strange-minded artists, local accents, or stubborn anomalies like that crotchety old editor in the MCI “Gramercy Press” commercials who doesn’t know how to work his voice-mail. The entire process of cultural production is being modernized overnight, brought at long last out of the nineteenth century and placed in the hands of dutiful business interests.
With the consolidation of the Information Age has come a new class of executives, a consumerist elite who deal not in production and triplicate forms, but in images. Management theorist and pseudo-historian Peter Drucker calls them “Knowledge Workers,” Secretary of Labor Robert Reich has dubbed them “symbolic analysts,” but the term applied to them by the nation’s highest-ranking ass-kisser, Vanity Fair, in its recent “Special Report” on the handful of luminous fabulosities who head up the Culture Trust, seems more appropriate: “The New Establishment.” Learn to revere them, the magazine wetly counsels its readers, for they are the new Captains of Industry, the Titans of the future, “a buccaneering breed of entrepreneurs and visionaries, men and women from the entertainment, communications, and computer industries, whose ambitions and influence have made America the one true superpower of the Information Age.” As Americans were once taught to regard the colossal plunderings of Rockefellers and Carnegies with patriotic pride, we are now told to be thankful for this “New Establishment”: it is, after all, due to figures like Murdoch, Geffen, Eisner, and Turner (memorize these names, kids) that the nation has been rescued from the dead end of “military-industrial supremacy” and restored to the path of righteousness, “emerging as an information-and-entertainment superpower.” These great men have struggled their way to the top, not just to corner the wheat market, buy up all the railroads between here and New York, or bribe the odd state legislature, but to fabricate the materials with which the world thinks.
As its products steadily become the nation’s chief export, the Culture Trust further rationalizes its operations through vertical integration, ensuring its access to the eternal new that drives the machine by invading the sanctum of every possible avant-garde. Responsible business newspapers print feature stories on the nation’s hippest neighborhoods, how to navigate them and what treasures might be found there. Sober TV programs air segments on the colorful world of “zines”; ad agencies hire young scenesters to penetrate and report back on the latest “underground” doings. Starry-eyed college students are signed up as unpaid representatives of record conglomerates, eager to push product, make connections, and gain valuable experience on the lower rungs of the corporate ladder; while music talent scouts, rare creatures once, are seen everywhere prospecting for the cultural fuel that only straight-off-the-street ’tude can provide. Believing blithely in the fabled democracy of the marketplace, the objects of this cultural speculation are only too happy to cooperate, never quite realizing that the only reliable path to wealth in the “entertainment” business starts with a Harvard MBA.
And as every aspect of American cultural production is brought safely into the fold, business texts crow proudly of the new technologies which promise to complete the circle of corporate domination. The delivery of such eagerly-awaited gloriosities as “interactive media” and “virtual reality,” it is hoped, will open vast uncharted regions of private life to business colonization, will reorganize human relations generally around an indispensable corporate intermediary. Business writers understand that the great promise of the Information Age is not that average consumers will soon wake up to the splendor of 100 high-res channels, but that every imaginable type of human relationship can now be reduced to digital and incorporated into the glowing televisual nexus—brought to you by Pepsico, of course. What reformed adman Earl Shorris has written of the early promise of TV may finally be accomplished in the near future: “Reality did not cease to exist, of course, but much of what people understood as reality, including virtually all of the commercial world, was mediated by television. It was as if a salesman had been placed between Americans and life.” TV is no longer merely “entertainment,” it is on the verge of becoming the ineluctable center of human consciousness, the site of every sort of exchange. As the Information Revolution proceeds the myths, assumptions, and folklores of business become the common language of humanity; business culture becomes human culture. Working and consuming from our houses, wired happily into what Harper’s magazine has called the “electronic hive,” we will each be corporate subjects—consumers and providers of “content”—as surely as were the hapless industrial proletarians of the last century.
Granted, few things in recent memory have been as over-promoted as “synergy” and the “information superhighway.” But for all the hollow boosterism, for all the anglo-tincted squealings of that child on TV who equates MCI with God, the changes are real and they are vast, unimaginable. As Richard Turner wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal, “Don’t let all the blather fool you, because this much is clear: A sea change is coming in communications, information and entertainment. And in some measure, it’s already here.”
The most intriguing aspect of these developments is not the unprecedented magnitude of cultural power being amassed by American business, but the singular imbalance between the size of the change and the comparative silence of protesting voices. Certainly the putatively “conservative” politics of the nation’s powerful Right does not include suspicion of vast cultural upheavals like this one, provided that responsible business interests are safely in charge (one can imagine their outrage were the government to assume comparable powers). From mainstream journals that dare to allow themselves an opinion, the only view one is likely to hear is the ecstatic proclamation that the rise of the Culture Trust heralds, perversely, a newfound cultural democracy. Not only are the guys who are taking charge of the American cultural economy a bunch of existential individualists—what with their jet airplanes, fabulous homes, virtual offices, and muscular celebrity friends—but the system they’re setting up will allow each one of us to be exotic, VR game-playing rebels as well. With computers we’ll be able to talk to people who are far away! And with the miracle of “interactive,” it is believed, we will at last be able to talk back to those big media guys. “Consumers will be constructing what they’re getting,” chirps Vanity Fair. “Yesterday, we changed the channel; today we hit the remote; tomorrow, we’ll reprogram our agents/filters,” sings Wired magazine, in between the latest cyber-advertising and little editorial epiphanies about the most expensive new consumer goods. “We’ll interact with advertising where once we only watched; we’ll seek out advertising where once we avoided it.” Since letters to the editor can now be electronic, it seems, the obvious and unavoidable dangers that come with rearranging human life around the cultural needs of business are, well, insignificant. Since “democracy” means having more consumer choices, and information technology will vastly increase the power of our channel changers, hey presto! More democracy!
The Baffler humbly asks anyone who believes this argument—that business is building as costly a system as “interactive” in order to reduce its power over viewers—to contrast the hastiness with which the Culture Trust is bringing this particular technology to market with the strange (and strangely unremarked) unavailability of consumer CD-recording technology (which is available to “professional” radio engineers and such-like), devices which, if accessible to everyone, would forever ground the soaring prices of Microsoft shares as well as David Geffen’s much-admired private jet.
But still one is surprised by the quiet. Years ago Americans viewed similar instances of such rapid and complete concentration of economic power into so few hands with alarm. Democratic sensibilities were offended by the prospect of an entire region’s or class’s impoverishment for the benefit of a small ring of companies. Corporate arrogance invariably bred the outraged (and varied) political responses of Populism, Progressivism, Anarcho-Syndicalism, and the New Deal.
Today, of course, the situation is very different, and very strange. No social group is more audibly or visibly “radical” than artists, musicians, and writers, and with the rise of the Culture Trust capitalism seems to have elevated these malcontents to positions of power and responsibility. And just think of the results: now we are sold cars by an army of earringed, dreadlocked, goateed, tattooed, and guitar-bearing rebels rather than the lab-coated authority figures of the past. But even while we live in times in which ostentatious displays of rebellion are celebrated and admired as much as the building of grandiose imitations of Versailles and the burning of hundred-dollar-bills were once, we are constantly reminded of their meaninglessness, their irrelevance to questions of actual power. For all our radical soda pops, our alternative lifestyles, and the uninhibited howls of our hamburger stands, we seem to have no problem with the fact of business control over every aspect of public expression. Even as we proclaim ourselves a nation of credit-limit rebels, prepared to drive our Saabs “in the face of convention,” we are incapable of raising even the feeblest material challenge to business’s assumption of near-absolute cultural power. We are left, glassy-eyed and numb, to choose between the various corporate accounts of media takeovers.
This is not to imply that no one has noticed the dangers of the Information Revolution or that direct assaults on the aesthetic and economic basis of the Culture Trust have not taken place. It is to point out, simply, that the dominant intellectual tendency of our time—in a strange complement to the prevalence of ersatz rebellion everywhere on TV—is to confront not the power of the media but those who dare to criticize it.
In academia, where proclamations of “cultural radicalism” are routine, we observe the consolidation of “Cultural Studies,” a pedagogy that seems tailor-made for the intellectual needs of the Culture Trust. Beginning with the inoffensive observation that an audience’s reception of a given culture-product is important and unpredictable, Cultural Studies proceeds to assert that the facts of corporate cultural production are therefore utterly irrelevant, that David Geffen and Madonna are exactly as cool as Vanity Fair says they are (but for different reasons, dude), and to devise new ways to apply the label “elitist” to people who don’t like TV. Its rise to prominence, as Herbert Schiller noted a while ago, coincides perfectly with the Information Revolution, both temporally and ideologically:
The power of the Western cultural industries is more concentrated and formidable than ever; their outputs are more voluminous and widely circulated; and the transnational corporate system is totally dependent upon information flows. Yet the prevailing interpretation sees media power as highly overrated and its international impact minimal…. Its usefulness to existing power is obvious.
Rock music is a case in point: though Cultural Studies is overwhelmingly concerned with what is called “The Popular,” a thorough reading of its leading books, journals, and anthologies turns up few references to independent rock music (“punk rock,” by the way, is understood to have been a curious phenomenon of the late ’70s that vanished soon afterwards) or non-corporate publications like, say, Forced Exposure or Maximum Rocknroll. Although these are “popular” works in the true sense of the word, they tend to take far too hostile a view of the Culture Trust—the only “reading,” apparently, that “the people” aren’t supposed to undertake. Therefore, they might as well not exist. Only corporate culture deserves to be considered, lauded over and over again for the ways in which this sitcom empowers that subaltern, this rock video questions that hierarchy. This blindness towards anything but the products of the Culture Trust makes the prognosis of one of its academic opponents more apt:
Globalisation … means that (high added-value) cultural production is increasingly important to advanced economies so that an increased proportion of jobs are found in the cultural sector. Cultural studies prepares students for these jobs. It also prepares them to become good consumers of increasingly sophisticated cultural industries.
To judge TV programs from the top down by some rigid, pre-existing standard, Cultural Studies argues, is a serious intellectual offense. But just a mention of the more critical media theories of, for example, the Frankfurt School, is enough to send these self-proclaimed avatars of popular resistance into a fury of denunciation. Suddenly a different system of values seems to apply. Here one finds no finenesses of “negotiated readings,” no hints of that liberating potential just beneath the text’s surface: that particular reading is not okay; those who denounce the offerings of the Culture Trust are just plain wrong.
II. Serious Attitude Adjustment: The Rise of Corporate Antinomianism
The public be damned! I work for my stockholders.
—William H. Vanderbilt, 1879
Break the rules. Stand apart. Keep your head. Go with your heart.
—TV commercial for Vanderbilt perfume, 1994
The American economy may be undergoing the most dramatic shifts in this century, but for the past thirty years people in music, art, and culture generally have had a fixed, precise notion of what’s wrong with American life and the ways in which the responsible powers are to be confronted. It is a preconception shared by almost every magazine, newspaper, TV host, and rock star across the “alternative” spectrum. And it is the obsolescence and exhaustion of this idea of cultural dissent that accounts for our singular inability to confront the mind-boggling dangers of the Information Age.
The patron saints of the countercultural idea, which for convenience is what we’ll call this now-standard way of understanding power and resistance, are, of course, the Beats, whose frenzied style and merry alienation still maintain a powerful grip on the American imagination. Even forty years after the publication of On The Road, the works of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs remain the sine qua non of dissidence, the model for aspiring poets, rock stars, or indeed anyone who feels vaguely artistic or alienated—in other words, for everyone. That frenzied sensibility of pure experience, life on the edge, immediate gratification, and total freedom from moral restraint which the Beats first propounded back in those heady days when suddenly everyone could have their own TV and powerful V-8, has stuck with us through all the intervening years and become something of a permanent American aesthetic, an official style of the consumer society. Go to any poetry reading in New York or Chicago and you can see a string of junior Kerouacs go through the routine, “upsetting cultural hierarchies” by pushing themselves to the limit, straining for that beautiful gasp as the nonexistent bourgeoisie recoils in shock, struggling to recapture that gorgeous moment of original vice when Allen Ginsberg first read “Howl” in 1955. The Gap may have since claimed Ginsberg and USA Today may run feature stories about the brilliance of Kerouac, but here the rebel race continues, with ever-heightening shit-references calculated to scare Jesse Helms, talk about sex and smack that is supposed to bring the electricity of real life, and ever-more determined defiance of the repressive rules and mores of the American 1950s—rules and mores which by now we know only from movies.
The verdict of the Beats is the centerpiece of the countercultural idea to which we still ascribe such revolutionary potential: the paramount ailment of our society is conformity, a malady that has variously been described as over-organization, bureaucracy, homogeneity, hierarchy, logocentrism, technocracy, the Combine, the Apollonian. We all know what it is and what it does. It transforms humanity into “organization man,” into “the man in the gray flannel suit.” It is “Moloch whose mind is pure machinery,” the “incomprehensible prison” that consumes “brains and imagination.” It is artifice, starched shirts, tailfins, carefully mowed lawns and always, always the consciousness of impending nuclear destruction. It is a stiff, militaristic order that seeks to suppress instinct, to forbid sex and pleasure, to deny basic human impulses and individuality, to enforce through a rigid uniformity a meaningless plastic consumerism.
The Establishment demands homogeneity; we revolt by embracing diverse, individual lifestyles.
As this half of the countercultural idea originated during the 1950s, it is appropriate that the evils of conformity are most conveniently summarized with images of 1950s suburban correctness. You know, that land of church-goers, tailfins, red-scares, smiling white people, lines of commuters, sedate music, sexual repression. An America of uptight patriarchs, friendly cops, buttoned-down collars, B-47s, and deference to authority—the America of such backward-looking creatures as Jerry Falwell. Constantly appearing as a symbol of arch-evil in advertising and movies, it is an image we find easy to evoke. Picking up at random a recent Utne Reader, for example, one finds an article which seeks to question the alternativeness of coffee by reminding the reader of its popularity during that cursed decade: “According to history—or sitcom reruns—” the author writes, “the ’50s were when Dad tanked up first thing in the morning with a pot of java, which set him on his jaunty way to a job that siphoned away his lifeblood in exchange for lifelong employment, a two-car garage, and Mom’s charge card.” The correct response: What a nightmare! I’ll be sure to get my coffee at a hip place like Starbucks.
The ways in which this system are to be resisted are equally well understood and agreed-upon. The Establishment demands homogeneity; we revolt by embracing diverse, individual lifestyles. It demands self-denial and rigid adherence to convention; we revolt through immediate gratification, instinct uninhibited, and liberation of the libido and the appetites. Few have put it more bluntly than Jerry Rubin did in 1970, “Amerika says: Don’t! The yippies say: Do It!” The countercultural idea is hostile to any law and every establishment. “Whenever we see a rule, we must break it,” Rubin continued. “Only by breaking rules do we discover who we are.” Above all rebellion consists of a sort of Nietzschean antinomianism, an automatic questioning of rules, a rejection of whatever social prescriptions we’ve happened to inherit. Do Your Own Thing is the whole of the law.
But one hardly has to go to a poetry reading to see the countercultural idea acted out, for its frenzied ecstasies have long since become the official aesthetic of consumer society, the monotheme of mass culture as well as adversarial culture. Turn on the TV and there it is instantly: the unending drama of Consumer Unbound and in search of an ever-heightened good time, the inescapable rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack, dreadlocks and ponytails bounding into Taco Bells, a drunken, camera-swinging epiphany of tennis shoes, outlaw soda pops, and mind-bending dandruff shampoos. For corporate America no longer speaks in the voice of oppressive order that it did when Ginsberg moaned in 1956 that Time magazine was
always telling me about responsibility. Business-
men are serious. Movie producers are serious.
Everybody’s serious but me.
Today nobody wants to appear serious. Fox, Disney, and Time/Warner, the nation’s economic standard-bearers, are also now the ultimate leaders of the Ginsbergian search for kicks upon kicks. Corporate America is not an oppressor but a sponsor of fun, provider of lifestyle accoutrements, facilitator of carnival, trusted ally of the people, our slang-speaking partner in the search for that ever-more apocalyptic orgasm. The countercultural idea has become capitalist orthodoxy, its hunger for transgression upon transgression, change for the sake of change, now perfectly suited to an economic-cultural regime that runs on ever-faster cyclings of the new; its taste for self-fulfillment and its intolerance for the confines of tradition now permitting vast latitude in consuming practices and lifestyle experimentation.
For consumerism is no longer about “conformity” but about “difference.” Advertising teaches us not in the ways of puritanical self-denial (a bizarre notion on the face of it), but in orgiastic, never-ending self-fulfillment. It counsels not rigid adherence to the tastes of the herd but vigilant and constantly-updated individualism. We consume not to fit in, but to prove, on the surface at least, that we are rock ‘n’ roll rebels, each one of us as rule-breaking and hierarchy-defying as our heroes of the sixties, who now pitch cars, shoes, and beer. This imperative of endless difference, not that dread “conformity,” is the genius at the heart of American capitalism, the eternal fleeing from “sameness” that gives us a thirst for the New and satiates it with such achievements of civilization as the infinite brands of identical cola, the myriad colors and irrepressible variety of the cigarette rack at 7-11.
Capitalism has changed dramatically since the 1950s, but our understanding of how it is to be resisted hasn’t budged. As existential rebellion has become the more or less official style of Information Age capitalism, so has the countercultural notion of a static, repressive Establishment grown hopelessly obsolete. However the basic impulses of the countercultural idea may (and that’s a big “may”) have disturbed a nation lost in Cold War darkness, they are today in fundamental agreement with the basic tenets of Information Age business theory. So close are they, in fact, that it has become impossible to understand the countercultural idea as anything more than the self-justifying ideology of the new dominant class that has arisen since the 1960s, the cultural means by which this group has proven itself ever so much better skilled than its slow-moving, security-minded forebears at adapting to the accelerated, always-changing consumerism of today. The anointed cultural opponents of capitalism are now capitalism’s ideologues.
Burroughs’s writings are boardroom favorites, his dark nihilistic burpings the happy homilies of the new corporate faith.
The two come together in perfect synchronization in a figure like Camille Paglia whose annoying ravings are grounded in the absolutely non-controversial ideas of the golden Sixties. According to Paglia, American business is still exactly what it was believed to have been in that beloved decade, that is, “puritanical and desensualized.” Its great opponents are, of course, liberated figures like “the beatniks,” Bob Dylan, and the Beatles (needless to say, while Paglia proclaims herself a great fan of rock music, bands like Shellac, Slant 6, and the Subhumans never appear as recipients of her praise). Culture is, quite simply, a binary battle between the repressive Apollonian order of capitalism and the Dionysian impulses of the counterculture. Paglia thus validates the central official myth of the “Information Age,” for rebellion makes no sense without repression; we must remain forever convinced of capitalism’s fundamental hostility to pleasure in order to consume capitalism’s rebel products as avidly as we do. It comes as little surprise when, after criticizing the “Apollonian capitalist machine” in her new book, Paglia applauds American mass culture (in that same random issue of Utne Reader), the pre-eminent product of that “capitalist machine,” as a “third great eruption” of a Dionysian “paganism.” For her, as for most other designated dissidents, there is no contradiction between replaying the standard critique of capitalist conformity and repressiveness and then endorsing its rebel products—for Paglia the car culture and Madonna—as the obvious solution: the Culture Trust offers both Establishment and Resistance in one convenient package. The only question that remains is why Paglia has not yet landed an endorsement contract from a soda pop or automobile manufacturer.
Other legendary exponents of the countercultural idea have been more fortunate. William S. Burroughs, for example, appears in a television spot for the Nike corporation. But so openly does the commercial flaunt the confluence of capital and counterculture that it has aroused considerable criticism. Writing in the Village Voice, Leslie Savan wonders what it means when a Beat goes Bad. The contradiction between Burroughs’s writings and the faceless corporate entity for which he is now pushing product is so vast, she believes, that one can do little more than marvel at the digestive powers of capital. “Now the realization that nothing threatens the system has freed advertising to exploit even the most marginal elements of society,” Savan observes. “In fact, being hip is no longer quite enough—better the pitchman be ‘underground.’” While Burroughs’s manager insists, as all future Cultural Studies treatments of the ad will also insist, that Burroughs’s presence makes the commercial “deeply subversive”—“I hate to repeat the usual mantra, but you know, homosexual drug addict, manslaughter, accidental homicide”—Savan wonders whether, in fact, it is Burroughs who has been assimilated by corporate America. “The problem comes,” she writes, “in how easily any idea, deed, or image can become part of the sponsored world.”
The most startling revelation to emerge from the Burroughs/Nike partnership is not that corporate America has overwhelmed its cultural foes or that Burroughs can somehow remain “subversive” through it all, but the complete lack of dissonance between the two sides. Of course Burroughs is not “subversive,” but neither has he “sold out”: his ravings are no longer appreciably different from the official folklore of American business. As expertly as he once bayoneted American proprieties, as stridently as he once proclaimed himself beyond the laws of man and God, Burroughs is today a respected ideologue of the Information Age. His writings are boardroom favorites, his dark nihilistic burpings the happy homilies of the new corporate faith.
For with the assumption of power by Drucker’s and Reich’s new class has come an entirely new ideology of business, a way of justifying and exercising power that has absolutely nothing to do with the “conformity” and the “establishment” so vilified by the countercultural idea. The management theorists and “leadership” charlatans of the Information Age don’t waste their time prattling about hierarchy and regulation, but about disorder, chaos, and the meaninglessness of inherited rules. With its reorganization around Information, capitalism has developed a new mythology, a sort of corporate antinomianism according to which the breaking of rules and the elimination of rigid corporate structure have become the central article of faith for millions of aspiring executives. As the members of new class are, after all, children of the 1960s, it is a faith that is almost indistinguishable from the countercultural idea. The wisdom of the Grateful Dead seems as natural a business philosophy to them as did the orthodoxies of the past to their gray-flannelled predecessors.
Dropping Naked Lunch and picking up Thriving on Chaos, a best-selling management text written in 1987 by Tom Peters, the most popular business writer of the past decade, one finds more philosophical similarities than one would expect from two manifestos of, respectively, dissident culture and business culture. If anything, Peters’s proclamation of disorder is, by virtue of its hard statistics, bleaker and more nightmarish than Burroughs’s. For this popular lecturer such once-blithe topics as competitiveness and pop psychology there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that is certain. His world is one in which the corporate wisdom of the past is meaningless, established customs are ridiculous, and “rules” are some sort of curse, a remnant of the foolish fifties that exist to be defied, not obeyed. The book’s oft-repeated catch-phrase is “A World Turned Upside Down,” and at one point Peters launches into an liturgy of doubt that would have made T. S. Eliot proud:
So we don’t know from day to day the price of energy or money. We don’t know whether protection and default will close borders, making a mess of global sourcing and trade alike, or whether global financing will open things up further. We don’t know whether merging or de-merging makes more sense, and we have no idea who will be partners with whom tomorrow or next week, let alone next month.
Peters’s answer is summed up in what may be the book’s most overused term, “Revolution!” “To meet the demands of the fast-changing competitive scene,” he counsels, “we must simply learn to love change as much as we have hated it in the past.” He advises businessmen to become Robespierres of routine, to demand of their underlings, “‘What have you changed lately?,’ ‘How fast are you changing?,’ and ‘Are you pursuing bold enough change goals?’” “Revolution,” of course, means for Peters the same thing it did to Burroughs and Ginsberg, Presley and the Stones in their heyday: breaking rules, pissing off the suits, shocking the bean-counters: “Actively and publicly hail defiance of the rules, many of which you doubtless labored mightily to construct in the first place.” Peters even suggests that his readers implement this hostility to logocentrism in a carnivalesque celebration, drinking beer out in “the woods” and destroying “all the forms and rules and discontinued reports” and, “if you’ve got real nerve,” a photocopier as well. He omits reading aloud from a volume of Burroughs or Kerouac, blasting the music of Presley or the Stones, but that’s obvious.
This corporate antinomianism has become more emphatic in business texts since the appearance of Thriving on Chaos. Capitalism, at least as it is envisioned by the best-selling management handbooks, is no longer about enforcing Order, but destroying it. “Revolution,” once the totemic catchphrase of the counterculture, has become the totemic catchphrase of boomer-as-capitalist. The back cover of Thriving on Chaos may have been emblazoned with the slogan, “RX: Revolution!”, but this year’s favorite business text, Reengineering the Corporation, is even more blunt, bearing the subtitle, “A Manifesto for Business Revolution.” The Information Age businessman holds inherited ideas and traditional practices not in reverence, but in high suspicion. Even reason itself is now found to be an enemy of true competitiveness, an out-of-date faculty to be scrupulously avoided by conscientious managers. A 1990 book by Charles Handy entitled The Age of Unreason agrees with Peters that we inhabit a time in which “there can be no certainty” and suggests that readers engage in full-fledged epistemological revolution: “Thinking Upside Down,” using new ways of “learning which can … be seen as disrespectful if not downright rebellious,” methods of approaching problems that have “never been popular with the upholders of continuity and of the status quo.” Three years later the authors of Reengineering the Corporation are ready to push this doctrine even farther. Not only should we be suspicious of traditional practices, but we should cast out virtually everything learned over the past two centuries!
Business reengineering means putting aside much of the received wisdom of two hundred years of industrial management. It means forgetting how work was done in the age of the mass market and deciding how it can best be done now. In business reengineering, old job titles and old organizational arrangements—departments, divisions, groups, and so on—cease to matter. They are artifacts of another age.
In advertising, where the new has always been pursued as a sort of holy grail, these calls to break rules and smash idols are made even more stridently. George Lois, one of the industry’s brightest stars since the early 1960s (responsible, among other things, for the “I Want My MTV” campaign), explained his selling strategy in 1991 in terms of ever-escalating outrage and defiance. He describes himself reacting instinctively against established authority, challenging the conventional in every aspect of his professional life. “To push for a new solution,” one of his book’s sections is entitled, “start by saying no to conventional rules, traditions, and trends.” Advertising, being “the art of breaking rules,” follows a similar rebel path. Good ads are “inventive, irreverent, audacious”; they strive for what Lois calls “the seemingly outrageous.” Good advertising should “stun” the consumer, as modern art was supposed to shock, by presenting her with an idea that upends her conventions of understanding. When Lois presents his work to clients, he expects it to “cause my listener to rock back in semi-shock.” In an almost Futurist passage, Lois likens good advertising to “poison gas”: “It should unhinge your nervous system. It should knock you out!” On the other hand, advertising that is created according to standard textbook rules is automatically bad: “Safe, conventional work is a ticket to oblivion,” Lois observes. “Talented work is, ipso facto, unconventional.”
As countercultural rebellion becomes corporate ideology, even the beloved Buddhism of the Beats has a place on the executive bookshelf. In The Leader as Martial Artist (1993) Arnold Mindell, “Ph.D.,” advises men of commerce in the wise ways of the Tao, which he compares to “surfing the edge of a turbulent wave.” For the Zen businessman the world is the same wildly chaotic place of opportunity that it is for the followers of Tom Peters, although an enlightened “leader” knows how to discern the “timespirits” at work behind the scenes:
Change is … an incomprehensible, complex phenomenon; we have no way of knowing what creates change or when it is to occur…. Albert Einstein would cite the principle of nonlocality…; C. G. Jung would speak of synchronicity, and Rupert Sheldrake of morphogenic resonance. We could just as easily call it chance, the Tao, or a miracle.
In terms Peters himself might use were he a more meditative sort of inspiration professional, Mindell explains that “the wise facilitator” doesn’t seek to prevent the inevitable and random clashes between “conflicting field spirits,” but to anticipate such bouts of disorder and profit thereby. “Since agreement and antagonism are inevitable, the leadership position in a group should plan on being opposed or attacked,” he writes. “Even a harmonious and balanced system must have a dynamic fluctuation between equilibrium and chaos if it is to grow.” So c’mon, everybody! Angst and grow rich!
The American businessman is hardly the craven gray-flannel creature he is believed to have been back in the 1950s. He hasn’t been for a long time. Today he decorates the walls of his office not with portraits of President Eisenhower and emblems of suburban order, but with images of extreme athletic daring, with sayings about “diversity” and “empowerment.” He and his peers theorize their world not at the golf course, but in weepful corporate retreats at which he beats his tom-tom and envisions himself part of the great tradition of edge-livers, risk-takers, and ass-kickers. His world is powered not by sublimation and conformity, but by notions of “leadership” and defying the herd. And there is nothing this new enlightened species of businessman despises more than “rules” and “reason.” This is a business philosophy, as the authors of Reengineering the Corporation note, that is directly descended from the antinomianism of the counterculture. “One of the t-shirt slogans of the sixties read, ‘Question authority,’” they write. “Process owners might buy their reengineering team members the nineties version: ‘Question assumptions.’”
In television commercials, perpetual revolution and the gospel of rule-breaking are the orthodoxy of the day.
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 by vanguard capitalists like the head of the CD-ROM pioneer Voyager, a former activist whose admiration of the Shining Path, as the New York Times notes, seems somehow appropriate amidst the current “information revolution.” He speaks to his comrades through commercials like the recent 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 journals like Advertising Age, which illustrates the varied nature of contemporary “marketing” with a two-page array of such revolutionary items as “White guys with dreadlocks,” “Tattoos,” “Entertainers who only use a glyph,” and “Crooners who sing with rockers.” 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—maybe they’ll sue each other!)
In most, the commercial message is driven home with the now-standard iconography of the rebel: screaming guitars, whirling cameras, and startled old timers who, The Baffler predicts, 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!
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 the reason it has proven so hopelessly susceptible to such assaults is the same as the 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 and how to achieve it on a late-night infomercial.
Our businessmen imagine themselves rebels, and our rebels sound more and more like ideologists of business. Nothing better demonstrates the impoverishment and terminal irrelevance of our inherited notions of cultural dissent than the doings of former punk rocker Henry Rollins. Maker of loutish, overbearing music and writer of high-school variety poetry, Rollins considers himself a bearer of the Beat tradition and no doubt imagines himself some sort of postmodern Ayn Rand, introducing us to the dark, hard side of life and the wild, chaotic underpinnings of American culture. Rollins strikes all the standard alienated poses of early twentieth-century American literature: he rails against over-civilization and yearns to “disconnect.” His writings and lyrics veer back and forth between vague threats towards “weak” people who “bring me down” and blustery declarations of his weightlifting ability and physical prowess. As a reward he is celebrated as a rebel without peer by such arbiters of dissident culture as the New York Times Magazine and MTV. Most telling of all is Rollins’s status as pre-eminent darling of Details magazine, a sort of periodical handbook for the young executive on the rise where rebellion has achieved a perfect synthesis with corporate ideology. In 1992 Details elevated Rollins to the status of “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.” Early 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.
For Rollins the punk rock decade was but a lengthy seminar on leadership skills, thriving on chaos, and total quality management.
The message of the Details profiles is simple. Rollins is a role model for the struggling young businessman not only because of his music-product, but because of his excellent “self-styled identity,” which he has cleverly derived from the same impeccable source that has made Japan the world-wide leader in the quality revolution: “The traditional samurai code,” which “espouses the virtue of living in discipline and honor,” and which has allowed both managers and consumers to “liberate … themselves from mundane consternations that inhibit a free and fearless lifestyle.” Rollins’s philosophy is described by Details in terms normally reserved for the breast-beating and soul-searching variety of motivational seminars: “Rather than lapse into anger, which isolates everyone, or retreat into ironic detachment—the easiest way for the incomplete to feel whole,” the magazine dribbles, “—he triumphs over both, and the fruits of his triumph are the ability to engage the world without denying his needs.” Although he derives it from the ascetic wisdom of the East rather than the unfashionable doctrines of Calvin, Rollins’s 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’s 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 (rather than a less hated figure like, say, Greg Sage) who has been chosen 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’s much-celebrated anger is 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 Rollins tale, 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 desire to study or understand. For 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 Philip Rieff wrote of the revolutionary pretentions 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 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.
And if you really feel that rebel urge, if you really want to “break the rules,” get yourself down to Decatur, Illinois, where the idea of social democracy is slowly being done to death. But be prepared to not see yourself on any TV, no matter how “interactive” it is.
III. Zomething Apocalyptic: The Culture of Forgetting
“Temporal bandwidth” is the width of your present, your now. It is the familiar “Δt” considered as a dependent variable. The more you dwell in the past and in the future, the thicker your bandwidth, the more solid your persona. But the narrower your sense of Now, the more tenuous you are. It may get to where you’re having trouble remembering what you were doing five minutes ago, or even—as Slothrop now—what you’re doing here, at the base of this colossal curved embankment….
—Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow
Even in the shallowest public forums American cultural commentators now seem to realize that we are living through what may be the most dislocating period in a hundred years. Everyone recognizes, if only dimly, that the old comfortable world is yielding to a new order, an Information Age in which our thoughts (brand loyalties) and dreams (brand aspirations) are as economically important as our labor once was. The rise of the Culture Trust is just its most objectionable public feature; on a different level it signals a shift that is at once cataclysmic and unnoticeable, an economic change that deletes our ability to understand economic change. The cultural victory of business is more than a simple matter of biased news broadcasts, an easily-made case of factual misrepresentation: with the consolidation of the Information Age culture itself—the fables and myths and ideas built up over the centuries through a million varieties of experience, suffering, and struggle—has become the province of business. As Neil Postman observes, “Twenty years ago, the question, Does television shape culture or merely reflect it? held considerable interest for many scholars and social critics. The question has largely disappeared as television has gradually become our culture.” And through the miraculous intercession of the glowing box, business culture has become human culture; brand identity and the ravings of thinkers like Tom Peters have effaced in a brilliant electronic flash the labor of thousands of years. While they might carp sadly at its fringes, few critics have begun—or desire—to comprehend the full magnitude of this change or to explore the vast implications of this transfer of cultural power.
Only the most unabashed partisans of business supremacy are willing to boast openly about the deed they have done, to speak the name of the great foe whose vanquishing now permits Western consumerism to stride the globe unchecked. Francis Fukuyama, the right’s favorite pre-Limbaugh “intellectual,” put it most plainly in a famous 1989 essay: business has ended history. Not just in the Hegelian sense, the simple victory dance over the corpse of the Soviet Union which was the essay’s primary purpose, but in a philosophical way as well. While America’s arms expenditures triumphed over the Red Menace, its comfortable consumer banalities triumphed everywhere over local and inherited culture, language, and ideas, literally ended people’s ability to think historically. Alleluia! (as Senator Danforth would say) The visibility of Western consumer goods throughout the world signals the success of what Fukuyama hails as the combined Western effort “to create a truly universal consumer culture that has become both a symbol and an underpinning of the universal homogenous state.” “Universal homogenous!” Glorious thing! And while Fukuyama readily admits that “The End of History” does not mean that all economic and social conflict has been resolved, that universal capitalism means universal happiness, he gloats that without the faculty of cultural memory our unhappiness, however grinding, just doesn’t matter: people can no longer think about their social position in a manner that might lead to conflict, that might threaten Western business interests.
For American business, suspicion of history is a longstanding article of faith.
Americans have always been somewhat hostile to history. Visiting the new country in the mid-nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville was deeply moved by its wilful rejection of the class rankings and tastes of the European past, by the settlers’ tendency to forget the Old World and to abandon the ways of the countless generations before them. Casting off the dead weight of the ages has always been a favorite conceit of American writers less frightened by democracy than was the aristocratic de Tocqueville: deracination has in many ways been the centerpiece of the nation’s self-understanding. The golden fable of opportunity—of an empty land where anyone could, like Jay Gatsby, remake himself unhindered by the artificial constraints of civilization—is, after all, the basic theme in the great American stories of immigration and western expansion. Even our atrocities obeyed this primal cultural impulse, this imperative to forget: slavery demanded a cultural uprooting of those who did not come to the New World willingly. But by and large our literature praises the power of the melting pot, celebrates the democracy of the frontier, sings the glories of getting out of the Old and into the Cold.
For American business, this suspicion of history is a longstanding article of faith. In the frequent denunciations of The Past voiced by the great Captains of Industry one finds not mere assimilationist longings, but profound disdain for any entangling traditions that could interfere with efficiency and restrict the absolute freedom of every individual to pillage every other individual. Henry Ford’s famous outburst, “history is bunk,” was a statement of fundamental business ideology, not merely a response to an immediate annoyance. According to the great capitalists’ “practical” worldview, as Richard Hofstadter has noted, “The past was seen as despicably impractical and uninventive, simply and solely as something to be surmounted.” In its quest for efficiency, the pre-Information business “community” set itself against the peculiar and backward-looking ways of tradition and human particularity in almost every way it could. Its hated time-motion studies aimed to suppress factory workers’ humanity, transforming them into efficiency-maximized robots like the hapless line worker in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. Its glass-and-steel office towers were soulless machines for the paper-shuffling labor of its Organization Men, stripped of any concessions to human tastes and comfort; its suburbs and tenements sterile boxes for the propagation of obedient underlings.
Alongside the hyper-rational, hyper-efficient Organization envisioned by America’s premier managers there also developed an emotional and religious conception of business practice, a cult of Positive Thinking that was even more hostile to cultural memory than was the dominant cult of Efficiency. In the writing of the Positive Thinkers anti-historicism reached a new plateau of sophistication: the annoyances of history and cultural particularity were not just to be over-paved, but levelled, reduced to a convenient flatness where every epoch was exactly like the present as far back as the eye could see. The economic struggle of daily life was and had always been a matter of individual men and God, a question of just how positively each up-and-coming entrepreneur could think, just how blindly he could pursue success. The cold statistics of the bureaucrats were ultimately insignificant, nor did social class or local economic conditions really matter: all you needed to succeed was a salesman’s disposition and an open-faced readiness to work. All human history—and especially the doings of its big figures, favorites like Lincoln, Charlemagne, and Joan of Arc—could be understood as parables for the struggling executive of the twentieth century. The best known tract in this tradition, adman Bruce Barton’s 1925 book The Man Nobody Knows, examined the life of Jesus and distilled it down to a series of lessons in leadership, sociability, and the wisdom of teams. “They call it the ‘spirit of modern business’; they suppose … that it is something very new,” Barton wrote. “Jesus preached it more than nineteen hundred years ago.” Theories of Efficiency may have wilfully ignored history, but Positive Thinking went them one better: for its believers the past was fundamentally identical to the now. Capitalism is the immutable way of God and nature, the unchanging condition of mankind. To wonder how things ever got to the sorry state they were in was to engage in idle and even counter-productive conjecture (the social utility of such a doctrine becomes obvious when the economic facts of its heyday—the ugly depression of the 1930s—are taken into consideration): society never developed or changed, it simply produced a series of interesting executives and leaders from whose exploits we might learn a thing or two.
With the coming of the Age of Information this antihistoricism reaches its logical end, the simple credo of the Positive Thinkers having blossomed into a full-blown secular philosophy of economic antinomianism. Cause and effect is a meaningless illusion, the new business thinkers argue, for the Information Age is an “Age of Unreason,” of instant, world-wide change and constant flux. Management theorists like Tom Peters insist that the world is mad, spinning chaotically out of control, and to remain profitable businessmen must become mad themselves, immersed totally in the present and intentionally ignorant of whatever developments have put us where we are. Never have a ruling class attacked the faculty of cultural memory as fiercely as in the theoretical handbooks of the Information Age: “How people and companies did things yesterday doesn’t matter to the business reengineer,” write the authors of 1994’s ubiquitous management text, Reengineering the Corporation. The hero of the Information Age, according to its authors, is the businessman who is able to violate most violently, to separate himself most completely from both his own and his company’s past—to forget. The virtue of forgetting is the book’s essential message: its dust jacket carries this enticing legend: “Forget what you know about how business should work—most of it is wrong!” With total seriousness its authors recommend that businessmen adopt an epistemology of constant forgetting, of positive militancy against cultural memory. “At the heart of business reengineering,” they write, “lies the notion of discontinuous thinking—identifying and abandoning the outdated rules and fundamental assumptions that underlie current business operations.”
Unlike his Organization predecessors, who merely wanted to destroy annoying obstacles to efficiency like city blocks and the sleeping habits of laborers, the antinomian Information businessman dreams of what Russell Jacoby once called “social amnesia,” a collective inability to recall who did what yesterday, never mind last year or last century. Overflying in glorious slow-mo a hundred ancient cultures in a day, travelling always in classic rock sound-tracked “Executive Class” lugzhury, the Information businessman—bold knight of unreason—seems to have attained that exalted state which postmodern theorists used to imagine themselves inhabiting alone. Freed from the gravitational pull of worldly history he floats deliriously on a rushing stream of detached signifiers, the flotsam and jetsam of centuries of civilization become just so many shiny trinkets floating meaninglessly by, so many treats placed randomly on his tray table before he stows it safely away in upright and locked position.
In advertising, the flower of the Information Age, social amnesia is the pitch of the century, the great cultural dynamo of the new, the always-handy device by which even the most senseless products can be made to seem desirable and by which that gorgeously automatic disdain for the products of the past can be instantly summoned. But scoffing at the old just isn’t enough anymore: reasoning itself, Madison Avenue now instructs us, is a stupid and backward thing, the pastime of oldsters who wear their trousers up around their armpits. The stuff for us is rule-breaking, perpetual rebellion against any attitude that might keep you from Crossing the Border, that might problematize your enjoyment of the undulating and seamless drama of defiant cars and tie-dye fruit drinks, that might keep you from changing lifestyles just as soon as you get tired of your current one. “Why ask why,” we are advised. “Just do it.” (Hey! That’s so mindlessly cool, it could be the motto for our twenty-something fakezine!) But the big prize for social amnesia has to go to the disgusting campaign for something called “OK Soda,” with its idiot “coincidences” and pre-fab Gen-X cynico-cred: “Don’t be fooled into thinking there has to be a reason for everything,” reads the legend on cans of the loathsome liquid. For OK Soda, as for virtually every other product around which we make our lives, there is obviously no “reason” other than the glittering logic of the marketplace. The constant flux that supports us all, consumerism’s endless piling of new upon new, can be bound by no tradition, reason, language, or order other than the simple mandates of ceaseless, directionless rebellion and change.
Turn from the business and “lifestyle” pages of your newspaper—all starstruck and dewy-eyed about the glorious one hundred-channel lifestyles of the future—to the think section, and you can watch the cultural progress of the Information Age: puzzled journalists note the appearance of an “anxious class,” unemployed workers from a number of different industries made redundant by the latest developments in international finance. However obvious the causes of their predicament may be to the observer—in this case, Louis Uchitelle of the New York Times—this new disenfranchised class steadfastly refuses to acknowledge them. “While Americans are increasingly angry about their economic insecurity,” Uchitelle writes, “neither business nor the forces that make companies so hard on workers are the targets of this anger. It is directed instead at government, immigrants and the poor, among others.” This is class consciousness for a new century, human subjectivity tailor-made for the needs of business. The system’s economic casualties cannot for the life of them figure out how they have been done, or by whom. Capital smugly enjoys the cultural proceeds, getting it both ways now: workers have truly become “human resources,” fully disposable and yet ready and willing to turn their anger to the great project of making business even more powerful than it already is. You fire them, and they turn around and vote for your chosen politicians, who make it easier for you to fire even more of them.
Among media decision-makers themselves the curtailment of our historical attention span is assumed quite matter-of-factly, with what one imagines is a fair amount of pride, to be an accomplished fact. Thus the convention on “objective” news programs of discussing events of last week or a few months ago as though they were dim memories of the distant, unenlightened past: mentions of Iraq must be prefaced by the reminder that the US was at war with that nation a few years ago; news from Somalia must begin by informing us that, quite recently, this country was occupied by American soldiers. Otherwise, it is understood, we just wouldn’t remember: naturally we’re too caught up in whatever the current patriotic frenzy is to recall those of the recent past. If we’re lucky the logistical problems associated with this need to constantly remind viewers of what was once common knowledge may one day expand to the point where TV news becomes impossible altogether, with almost all of the forty-five minute program devoted to telling us what country we live in, that other cities and nations exist, who our elected officials are, and so on. The only thing that will never require explaining, of course, is the glowing box itself, the central position it occupies in our dwellings, and the reasons why we come back to stare at it, day after day.
No effective challenge to the rule of business can be mounted without solid grounding in precisely the sort of cultural memory that Information Capitalism, with its supersonic yuppie pan-nationalism and its worship of the instantaneous, has set itself out to destroy. Without memory we can scarcely understand our present—what strange forces in the dim past caused this agglomeration of seven million unhappy persons to be deposited here in the middle of a vast continent, clinging to the shores of this mysteriously polluted lake?—much less begin to confront the systematic depredations of the system that has made our lives so miserable. In contrast to American business’s insistent denial of pastness, Richard Hofstadter continues,
In Europe there has always existed a strong counter-tradition, both romantic and moralistic, against the ugliness of industrialism—a tradition carried on by figures as diverse as Goethe and Blake, Morris and Carlyle, Hugo and Chateaubriand, Ruskin and Scott. Such men counterposed to the machine a passion for language and locality, for antiquities and monuments, for natural beauty; they sustained a tradition of resistance to capitalist industrialism, of skepticism about the human consequences of industrial progress, of moral, esthetic, and humane revolt.
Without an understanding of particularity, of the economic constructedness of our lives, this kind of critical consciousness becomes impossible. All we can know is our own individual discomfort, our vague hankering for something else—an ‘else’ that can be easily defined away as a different product choice, a new lifestyle, a can of Sprite anti-soda, or a little rule-breaking at Burger King.
This century’s technological advances are often described as victories over the primal facts of nature: hunger, cold, disease, distance, and time. But the wiring of every individual into the warm embrace of the multinational entertainment oligopoly is a conquest of a different sort, the crowning triumph of the market—place over humanity’s unruly consciousness. The fact that the struggle has been a particularly long one—“timeless,” even, is how it’s referred to on dust jackets immemorial—does not alter the fact that business authorities seem to be on the verge of a spectacular and final victory. It is fitting that, as this century of horrors draws to a close, our masters rush to perfect the cultural equivalent of the atom bomb, to destroy once and for all our ability to appreciate horror. With no leader but the “invisible hand,” with no elite but the mild and platitudinous Babbittry of the American hinterland, Western capitalism will soon accomplish what the century’s more murderous tyrants, with all their poisonous calculation, could only dream of doing: effacing the cultural memory of entire nations. For there is no tradition, religion, or language to which business owes any allegiance greater than momentary convenience; nor does any tradition, religion, or language remain that can muster a serious challenge to its cultural authority. As Philip Rieff demonstrated so presciently last year, it is capitalism, not angry workers, unhappy youth, or impoverished colonial peoples, that is “the bull in the china shop of human history. The market economy, now global in scale, is by its nature corrosive of all established hierarchies and certainties….”
When the twentieth century opened business was only one power among many, economically and culturally speaking, a dangerously expansive but more or less contained participant in a larger social framework. While it might mistreat workers, break unions, bribe editors, and buy congressmen, its larger claims and authority were limited by an array of countervailing powers. It does not require a rosy sentimental view of any past period to recognize that today there are no such countervailing forces. Not only is labor a toothless ghost, seemingly capable only of slowing its own demise, but there is no cultural power on earth—save maybe the quixotic imagination of each isolated “reader” of the corporate text[*]—that can stand independent from or intrude upon the smooth operation of capital. With its advanced poststructuralist powertrain, its six-barrel rock ‘n’ roll assimilator, and its turbo-charged fiber-optic speed, multinational capital is able to run cultural circles around our ponderous old notions of democracy, leaving us no imaginable means through which the culture of business might be resisted, no vantage point from which “the public” might be addressed, no possible permutation of written English that might have an effect on the way people live, not even any way to address the subject without lapsing into cliché. It’s night in America, and we can feel ourselves slipping into a sleep from which we can’t imagine ever waking.
Our archetypes and ideas and visions and memories, the accumulation of centuries, are yielding easily to corporate re-engineering.
Meanwhile the last twenty years have brought a palpable undoing of the American fabric, a physical and social decay so unspeakably vast, so enormously obscene that we can no longer gauge the destruction with words. We all know this: there it is every night on TV, there it is as you drive through the South Side on your way to work (thank God for the virtual office!). And yet it matters nothing, because we don’t live in that America anymore: our home, as Jean Baudrillard snickered years ago, is literally the TV, the interactive wonder, the simulation that is so much more exciting, fulfilling, and convenient than any possible permutation of physical reality. We can do nothing but watch the world crumble because, our collective imagination being as much a construct of business necessity as the government’s various trade agreements, we cannot imagine it being any other way. La Follette? Debs? IWW? That’s a different world. When we say “Third Party,” we mean a third business party.
Out here in the great flyover, ground zero of the Information Revolution, you can feel the world dissolving, everything from the hard verities of the industrial past to the urban geography beginning to melt away in the pale blue CRT fog. Our archetypes and ideas and visions and memories, the accumulation of centuries, are yielding as easily to corporate re-engineering as has our landscape, built and torn down and renamed and reshuffled, everything forgotten instantly and relegated overnight to the quaint land of sepia-tint. This year we’ll live in beautiful Passiondale, just down the road from Cambry estates. Next year the noise and mud aren’t so charming; wreck it down and move to a new box in a better fortified enclave: meaningless upon meaningless, stretching out across the infinitely malleable Illinois prairie, idiot fantasy after idiot fantasy tracing a senseless diagram of human gullibility and iron corporate will.
Even while we are happily dazed by the mall’s panoply of choice, exhorted to indulge our taste for breaking rules, and deluged with all manner of useful “information,” our collective mental universe is being radically circumscribed, enclosed within the tightest parameters of all time. In the third millennium there is to be no myth but the business myth, no individuality but the thirty or so professionally-accepted psychographic market niches, no diversity but the happy heteroglossia of the sitcom, no rebellion but the pre-programmed search for new kicks. Denunciation is becoming impossible: we will be able to achieve no distance from business culture since we will no longer have a life, a history, a consciousness apart from it. It is making itself unspeakable, too big, too obvious, too vast, too horrifying, too much of a cliché to even begin addressing. A matter-of-fact disaster, like Rwanda, as natural as the supermarket, as resist-able as air. It is putting itself beyond our power of imagining because it has become our imagination, it has become our power to envision, and describe, and theorize, and resist.
[*] Fukuyama’s dismissal of Cultural Studies’ basic argument about reception of Western culture products is significant: “For our purposes, it matters very little what strange thoughts occur to people in Albania or Burkina Faso…” Not being “embodied in important social or political forces and movements,” they just aren’t “part of world history.”