From The Archive
Thomas Frank
No. 12  March 1999

New Consensus for Old

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The prominent sociologist Herbert Gans had been writing about popular culture and its audiences for some twenty years when he published his 1974 book Popular Culture and High Culture, a 159-page summary of his thinking on the subject. The volume is now twenty-five years old, and it builds on arguments Gans had been making since the fifties, but if not for a number of wrong predictions and an antiquated jargon it could just as easily have been written yesterday, so reliably does it rehearse the basic scholarly prejudices that now inform the discipline known as “cultural studies.” For Gans, as for so many academic critics today, the debate over high culture and mass culture nearly always concealed a broader clash between elitism and populism, between the snobbish tastes of the educated and the functional democracy of popular culture. Gans began the book, as the followers of cultural studies continue to preface theirs, by rejecting the idea “that popular culture is simply imposed on the audience from above.” He describes the power of audiences to demand and receive, through the medium of the market, the culture of their choosing from the entertainment industry, and, in what has since become the trademark gesture of cultural studies, he hammers the critics of the entertainment industry as nabobs of “elitist” taste “unhappy with [recent] tendencies toward cultural democracy.” Dwight Macdonald is duly castigated for his disdain of popular intelligence, as is Herbert Marcuse, late of the famous “Frankfurt School” of Marxist social theory.

Up to this point Gans seems to have anticipated with uncanny accuracy the issues, the preconceptions, and even the enemies that would define academic literary and cultural criticism in our own time. But his streak of prescience ends abruptly when he predicts that the mass culture critique he identifies with Macdonald and Marcuse would stage a triumphant return in the very near future. Gans comes to this odd prediction by connecting the mass culture critique, as a theory that celebrates the transcendent worth of a canonical education and good taste, with the interests of intellectuals generally: When their “status” is under attack or in decline, they revert naturally to the old elitism, dreaming up all sorts of bushwa about art and culture in order to reinforce the hierarchies that support their exalted social position. But when respect for intellectuals is on the rise, they can lighten up, make peace with middle America, and watch TV along with the rest of us.

While the cult-studs have enshrined their curious brand of populism as the pedagogy of choice in recent years, neither Gans nor anyone else from the sociological school with which he is identified was invited to the victory party.

It’s certainly true that, as the humanities and social sciences have recently come under the fiercest attack they have endured in generations, the barriers separating them from the world beyond have risen to unprecedented heights: Think of the clotted, ciphered academic prose that seems to knot itself more egregiously still with each blustering right-wing tirade about “tenured radicals” or half-witted crusade against “political correctness.” What Gans got wrong is that the object of all this credential-flashing, sentence-mangling expertise has not been the sanctity of high culture, but exactly the opposite. The mass culture critique that Gans so abhorred has in recent years been neatly dispatched to that special oblivion reserved for intellectual anathema. Meanwhile, today’s most celebrated academic figures—the captains of cultural studies, or the “cult-studs,” as a star-struck reviewer once dubbed them—are, like Gans himself, unremittingly hostile to elitism, hierarchy, and cultural authority; they express reverence for the wisdom of audiences and for the “agency” of the consumer. British critic Jim McGuigan has described this central article of the cult-stud’s faith as a formulaic “populist reflex,” a moral calculus in which the thoughts, proposals, or texts in question are held up to this overarching standard of judgment: What does this imply about the power of the people? Accounts of popular culture in which audiences are tricked, manipulated, or otherwise made to act against their best interests are automatically “ ‘elitist,’ ” as the distinguished cult-stud Lawrence Grossberg once put it (in a line echoed in almost every cultural studies essay or book I have ever read), because they assume that audiences are “necessarily silent, passive, political and cultural dopes.” Cult-studs routinely characterize this “elitist” position by ascribing it to the same easy-to-hate Frankfurt School Marxists that so pissed off Herbert Gans, seeing in their work the specter of scholarly snobberies past. In reaction to the uptight squareness of the Frankfurters (one of whom, we are eternally reminded, disliked jazz), the cult-stud community wastes no opportunity to marvel at the myriad sites of “resistance” found in TV talk shows, rock videos, shopping malls, comic books, and the like. Cultural studies tracts describe the most innocent-looking forms of entertainment as hotly contested battlegrounds of social conflict, wrested from their producers by freedom-minded audiences. The populist reflex has proven irresistible to U.S. academics, ever anxious to establish their down-with-the-people bona fides. And as the cult-studs began to eclipse the honchos of historicism and the dudes of deconstruction in English and American Studies departments across the land, the populist reflex spawned an academic growth industry of vast proportions. In academic publishing the number of cult-stud titles has mushroomed so suddenly and so dramatically that, by some accounts, the works of competing disciplines (namely sociology) have been forced into relative decline. Journalists who have absorbed the populist reflex call on readers to rally around the communitarian teachings of the Teletubbies or wonder whether anyone even has the right to dislike the Spice Girls.

But while the cult-studs have enshrined their curious brand of populism as the pedagogy of choice in recent years, hounding the mass culture critique from the field and establishing their notions of agency and resistance as interpretative common sense, neither Gans nor anyone else from the sociological school with which he is identified was invited to the victory party. Gans’s 1974 book may have been a direct antecedent of the bumper crop of cult-stud monographs and anthologies published by Routledge in the last ten years, but you will search those books in vain for references to Gans and his colleagues. This is especially curious given the cult-studs’ near-compulsive reciting of influences and intellectual genealogy. Gans is not mentioned in either the vast bibliography or the index of the gigantic 1992 anthology Cultural Studies; he does not appear at all in Patrick Brantlinger’s 1990 history of cultural studies, in Lawrence Grossberg’s 1992 version of the history of cultural studies, in Stanley Aronowitz’s 1993 account of cultural studies’ history, in Simon During’s 1993 anthology on the history of cultural studies, in John Fiske’s 1993 book on cultural studies and history, in Angela McRobbie’s 1994 version of the history of cultural studies, in Jeffrey Williams’s 1995 anthology on the culture wars and cultural studies, or in Cary Nelson and Dilip Gaonkar’s 1996 anthology on academia and the history of cultural studies.

Andrew Ross, almost alone among leading cult-studs, admits not only that the present-day conflict between elitist dupe-theories and audience-agency notions has been going on in the United States since the fifties, but that the populist promontory he and his colleagues now hold is one they inherited from sociologists of that era like Gans and David Riesman.[*] But even those cult-studs who acknowledge the non-novelty of the populist reflex offer militant defenses of their discipline’s uniqueness. Not on the grounds of its methods or theories, which draw on a range of influences, but on the grounds of politics. Cult-stud potentate Simon During fired the first shot in Routledge’s 1993 offensive by distinguishing cultural studies from all other forms of academic criticism on grounds that it is “an engaged discipline,” a proudly committed leftist scholarship. Cultural studies has in fact produced a great number of powerful and enlightening works of scholarship, and many of the discipline’s adherents sincerely embrace left politics. At their worst, however, the cult-studs’ radical chest-thumping (of the type that seems to be a mandatory element in the long introductions to their treatises, which ring with claims to stand at the very vanguardiest of the van) tends only to draw attention to their actual distance from politics as it’s experienced outside the academy. In that outside world, of course, the nineties have been a disastrous decade for the left, a time of surrender and defeat on issues from deregulation to welfare to health care. But cultural studies has prospered extravagantly ever since that moment in 1990 when Stuart Hall, delivering the keynote address at one of the discipline’s founding conferences, thrilled the assembled cult-studs with talk of imminent “institutionalization.” Today it dominates the liberal arts as no pedagogy has since the height of the Cold War, its notions of audience agency and the omnipresence of resistance as emblematic of the nineties academy as Arthur Schlesinger’s “vital centrism” was of fifties scholarship. As such it begs to be evaluated critically in its own right.

We might begin by asking about the curious absence of Herbert Gans from the swinging, resistance-filled world of the cult-stud. One suspects the answer to this puzzle lies first of all in his politics: Although Gans has been a refreshing voice of common decency on the question of welfare “reform,” one senses that rallying to the defense of the welfare state is far too pedestrian an intervention for the new breed of radical. Certainly Gans is not overlooked because his books are out of print: On the contrary, many of them (most notably The Levittowners, his famous 1967 defense of suburbia) are still well known to encomiasts of middle America like Alan Wolfe and Joel Garreau. Perhaps it is this very appeal, and Gans’s consensus credentials generally, that explain his absence from the cult-stud stable. Gans came from an intellectual generation that (to simplify ruthlessly) tended, in the face of a terrifying Cold War enemy, to downplay social conflict in order to emphasize a vision of a healthy and well-functioning national whole. In books like Daniel Bell’s The End of Ideology and Richard Hofstadter’s The Age of Reform the consensus scholars (no studs they) portrayed dissent as disease; in public places like Partisan Review they more or less abandoned their adolescent leftism and enlisted in the American Century.

Today we can imagine nothing more reprehensible. The very idea of consensus is intellectual poison for us, dismissed in the modish reaches of academia as an article of Cold War propaganda and denounced as quasi-fascist in épater-by-numbers fare like the movie Pleasantville. In the works of the cult-studs the consensus era comes off as a time of scholarly practice so degraded it is scarcely worth remembering. By contrast, any proper cult-stud is out to develop, as Henry Giroux once put it, “a radical politics of difference,” to revel in cultural and identity fragmentation, to pose boldly on the ramparts of the culture wars, to provoke and savor the denunciations of half-witted fundamentalists.

Given such a gloriously transgressive, decentering present, it seems simply inconceivable that the cult-studs should have anything to do with Gans and his consensus crowd. No, they must have an intellectual lineage more in keeping with their status as the ne plus ultra in counterhegemony, and so when the occasion arises (as it does so very, very frequently) to track their pedigree, the cult-studs nearly always claim descent not from the plodding drayhorses of American sociology but from the purest-blooded of barricade-charging European stallions.[**]

Still, the ghost of consensus will not rest. We may hear how the cult-studs stand on the front lines of political confrontation; we may gape at the wounds inflicted by the reactionaries upon their noble corpus; but we cannot help noticing that the noise from the front sounds a lot like somebody shaking a big chunk of sheet metal just behind the curtain.

II.

While there is no denying that a number of very vocal right-wingers are driven to apoplectic fury by the cult-studs’ assaults on hierarchy—and that in this sense the champions of the popular do indeed “fight the power” as they like to believe—it is also worth pointing out that they share with their foes the same imagined bête noir. In February Moral Majoritarian Paul Weyrich fixed the blame for the demise of “Judeo-Christian civilization” on the same gang of sneaking German reds so demonized by the cult-studs (Weyrich singled out Herbert Marcuse in particular). But leaving aside the scattershot lunacy of the Christian right and comparing the populist reflex to the faction of the American right still in possession of something like sanity, one finds the cult-studs’ particular species of transgression trangresses a lot less than all their talk of “radical politics of difference” would imply.

To an undeniable degree, the official narratives of American business—expressed in advertising, in management theory, in pro-business political and journalistic circles—largely share the cult-studs’ oft-expressed desire to take on hierarchies, their tendency to find “elitism” lurking behind any criticism of mass culture, and their pious esteem for audience agency. Here, too, from the feverish epiphanies of Fast Company to Condé Nast’s breathless reverence for celebrity, a populist reflex dominates the landscape. Here, too, all agree that we inhabit an age of radical democratic transformation; that we can no longer afford slow, top-down organizational models, tyrannical bosses, or cringing subalterns; that no error, moral or intellectual, outranks elitism, the conviction of regulators, critics, and European bureaucrats that they know better than the market or the audience. Here, too, the language and imagery of production has been effaced by that of consumption; class by classism; democracy by interactivity, with the right of audiences to “talk back” to authors (usually via the Web but also through focus groups, polls, and the heteroglossia of brands) trumping all other imaginable rights and claims. It’s a world where “meta offices” are presided over by heroic “change agents” seeing to it that we are all “empowered.” Where the old-fashioned leftist suspicion of mass culture is used endlessly as evidence of a distasteful leftist “elitism” generally: a stereotype that has become increasingly commonplace as the arbiters of American culture fall in behind the idea of the market as a pure expression of the popular will. A recent New York Times article on the visiting prime minister of Italy, for example, highlights his “hauteur” and “disdain” for the tastes of common people (he has “a dim view of American popular culture”) as a way of explaining his otherwise unimaginable left politics.

It is a surprisingly short walk from the cult-studs’ active-audience theorizing to the most undiluted sort of free-market orthodoxy.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to discover what the cult-studs themselves think about the parallel world of corporate populism. Apart from a generalized hostility to business and frequent use of abstractions like “late capital,” cultural studies has failed almost entirely to produce close analyses of the daily life of business. McGuigan attributes this recurring problem to “a terror of economic reductionism,” a pervasive intellectual reflex that, out of their aversion to explaining people’s actions in terms of class, leads cult-studs to steer clear of the problem altogether. One wants to avoid reductionism, naturally, but why, wonders historian Eric Guthey, have “so many highly trained, intelligent and critical cultural scholars … chosen to overlook so completely the burgeoning corporatization of American culture?” At a time when corporations boast of being related to God and when Microsoft reminds millions of people every day of the meaning of domination, he asks, “isn’t this a bit like oceanographers refusing to acknowledge the existence of water?”

There still exist, of course, many species of cultural study that neither ignore the corporate world nor suffer from rampant reductionism. Erik Barnouw, for example, while doing close readings here and there, still managed to spend a very distinguished career evaluating the broadcasting industry as a business enterprise granted specific franchises by the government; Roland Marchand dissected advertising and public relations with insights that arose directly from those industries’ function in the world of business. In the works of the cult-stud captains, however, both are treated to the same helping of oblivion as Herbert Gans. The editors of the original Mass Culture anthology, published in 1957, arranged its articles according to industry and freely mixed analyses of culture as a business with studies of audience behavior. Routledge organized its massive Cultural Studies anthology of 1992 alphabetically by contributor’s name; the book monotonously pounds home the active-audience interpretation regardless of the subject being evaluated.

It is a surprisingly short walk from the cult-studs’ active-audience theorizing to the most undiluted sort of free-market orthodoxy. While the cult-studs may insist proudly on the inherent radicalism of their ideas concerning agency, resistance, and the horror of elitism, as these notions are diffused outside the academy their polarities are reversed; they come across not as daringly counterhegemonic but as a sort of apologetics for existing economic arrangements. Consider, for example, the extremely negative connotations of the word “regulate” as it is used in the cultural studies corpus: Almost with out variation it refers to the deplorable actions of an elite even more noxious than the Frankfurt School, a cabal of religious conservatives desperately seeking to suppress difference. And then consider the strikingly similar negative connotations of the word as it is used by the Wall Street Journal, where it also refers to the deplorable actions of an obnoxious elite, in this case liberals who assume arrogantly that they know better than the market. Both arise from a form of populism that celebrates critical audiences but that has zero tolerance for critics themselves.

Certain academics are capable of bringing the two populisms together with breathtaking ease. Economist Tyler Cowen, for example, takes advantage of the recent stature of cultural populism by translating the populist reflex into an extended pronunciamiento on the benevolence of markets. In his book In Praise of Commercial Culture, he flits here and there over the entire history of art, seeking always to prove that the market is the prime mover of all worthwhile cultural production. The market guarantees quality. The market guarantees diversity. And have you ever considered who pays the bills for all those artists? That’s right: the market. Cowen’s thesis is the kind of confirmed philistinism economists cultivate these days to tweak their colleagues in real disciplines. But dismissing it as such merely plays to his deployment of the populist reflex. As it turns out, the market maintains the strong record it does (over the centuries, according to Cowen’s accounting, batting real close to 1.000) because it is indistinguishable from the people. And “an audience,” he writes, “is more intelligent than the individuals who create their entertainment.” Those who recognize popular intelligence are “cultural optimists,” in whose camp Cowen puts himself, Gans, and a handful of leading cult-studs, all of whom wisely believe in letting the people and the market make their decisions with out interference. On the other side, meanwhile, stands a motley group of critics united only by their shared “elitism,” the conviction that they know best. From the Frankfurt School (who come in for severe chastisement) to the Christian right, they are all “cultural pessimists,” doubtful about the people’s capacity to decide for themselves, skeptical about popular tastes, contemptuous of progress itself. As even the Nazis can be made to fit under such a broad definition of “pessimism,” Cowen does so with alacrity, closing the matter decisively.

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Economist Stanley Lebergott extends this model of cultural-democracy-through-markets to the economy as a whole in a New York Times op-ed piece that appeared last year. Absurd as it might seem to portray the global economy as an expression of the general will, it gets stranger still when Lebergott uses the handy stereotype provided him by the cult-studs’ long fight against the Frankfurt School to bash critics of consumer culture generally. The specific target in this case is none other than Hillary Clinton, who made the mistake of publicly questioning our “consumer-driven culture” while at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, and who thus brought down on herself the severest charge that the vocabularies of free market and cult-stud can muster: Elitism! Lebergott strikes a cult-studly pose as he reduces her to a cartoon snob and then bravely defies the arrogance of the “best and … brightest,” who never hesitate to “pass judgment.” Against these eggheads he counterposes a virtuous “us,” the “270 million Americans” who create everything as we humbly “decide to buy.” The logic of agency, which Lebergott rephrases as rational consumer choice, is here taken to its logical conclusion: Since we are active consumers, not cultural dopes (the economist sagely notes how we don’t fall for every single ad), we endorse every movement of the market economy as surely as if we had voted on it. Lebergott nails the matter down by shifting his argument from the difficult stuff of economics to the now-universal populist reflex of the cult-studs, using the language of highbrow-baiting to apply the ultimate smear to those who criticize or seek to alter this global gloriosity. Asserting first that “conferences on the world economy” are only held in the resort towns of Switzerland because it is among “splendid hotels, high fashion shops, and millionaires” that left-leaning elitists feel at home, he insists that only those who shop at Wal-Mart possess the right to a critical opinion. Lebergott even busts a little postcolonialism on us, suggesting that future economic summits be held in “Calcutta or Lagos,” places inhabited by market-savvy real people whose distasteful presence would cause the “fine minds” to stay home.

“Everything is up for grabs, from who does the dishes to who frames the constitution.”

Outside the academy the translation of cultural studies into free-market ideology is more pronounced. Granted, newspaper stories on the cult-studs rarely manage to do much more than marvel at the spectacle of people with Ph.D’s writing about Barbie and The Simpsons, but the cult-studs’ trademark language of the rebel consumer has seeped down to earth nonetheless. As it descends, it mutates into the language of the culture industry, its fight against hierarchy changes into a convenient weapon to stigmatize industry critics as elitists; its war against highbrow taste slides into the hegemonic logic of demographics. And while many cult-studs only rarely participate in any kind of extra-scholarly discussion, still they do have a role to play.

A revealing glimpse of this transformation in action can be found in the November 1995 issue of Spin magazine, a special issue “guest edited” by Jaron Lanier, a figure renowned in computer circles from Palo Alto to Prague for having coined the term “virtual reality.” Over the years Lanier has become a sort of physical embodiment of the cyber-revolution’s liberating promise, mixing copiously dreadlocked, in-your-face attitude with long-winded exegeses on the industry as a vast boon for human freedom. And whether it’s the cover of Civilization magazine or a puffy profile in Fortune, Lanier’s dreads seem always to be the focus of gaping admiration (granted, they are unusually full and healthy-looking for a white person of his age), establishing a rock-solid hipster credibility without messy argument.[***] Among other things, he had the honor of being one of the first to outline the position on the Microsoft antitrust trial that has since become the rallying cry of the free-market right, declaring from the authoritative heights of the New York Times op-ed page in 1997 that it was fruitless to even consider applying those second-wave antitrust laws to such superadvanced organizations. Ordinarily, of course, Lanier’s dreads are sufficient to certify that such ideas are not those of some hated hierarch, but occasionally better credentialling is in order. In Spin, therefore, he is paired with none other than prominent cult-stud bell hooks, who evidently appears solely to legitimate Lanier. In a photo hooks gazes at his dreads, and in the accompanying text she gapes in terms only slightly different from those chosen by Fortune: “it strikes me how radically different you are, Jaron, from the prototypical image most people have of the nerdy white man behind the computers.”

It strikes other cult-studs as well. Andrew Ross, for example, finds in the transformation of the hacker “profile” from an “elitist” and “undersocialized college nerd” to a diploma-free hipster who “dresses streetwise” a veritable “counterculture.” Unfortunately, the same highly visible transformation has also powered years of cyber-industry propaganda, with the dreads and ’tude of its leading figures serving so thoroughly to establish the Web as a standing challenge to authority of any kind that even defenses of Microsoft these days are cast in anti-elitist terms. In showplaces like Wired and Fast Company the populist reflex—the fantasy of agency for everyone, of cultural democracy through electronic articulation—is very much an industry line, and the cult-studs have shown surprisingly little ability to distinguish between anti-elitism as publicity strategy and the genuine article. Emblematic of this confusion is the oddly universal reverence for cult-stud Donna Haraway, who is apotheosized with enthusiasm by both Ross and Wired (the latter quoting and name-checking her on a fairly regular basis). In her contribution to the landmark Routledge ur-anthology of 1992, Haraway declares herself a partisan of “socialism” but quickly distances herself from “the deadly point of view of productionism,” celebrating instead a curious techno-environmentalism that emphasizes not just human agency but that of animal “actants” as well. Haraway shows herself to be a discerning reader of eighties-style corporate culture, cleverly analyzing a number of dry computer and medical advertisements, but when it comes to the Web-based corporate fantasies of the nineties her critical edge disappears, as she declares “to ‘press enter’ is not a fatal error, but an inescapable possibility for changing maps of the world, for building new collectives out of … human and unhuman actors.” When it’s an “inappropriate/d other” at the keyboard (a guy with dreads or, in Haraway’s chosen example, a woman with a big cat perched on her head) everything is different. Haraway’s techno-optimism holds obvious appeal for the industry: Wired, for example, understands her work as proving that the advent of cybernetics is finally making democratic free will possible, leading the way to a place where “everything is up for grabs, from who does the dishes to who frames the constitution.”

The society-wide confusion of corporate-sponsored populism with liberation comes into high relief when we make a hard-right from the cyber-business press to the realm of high libertarian ideology. Reason magazine is formally dedicated to “free minds and free markets,” but its most remarkable editorial achievement lies in a curious journalistic stunt performed over and over again by a capable cast of writers: Our patriotic American belief in the intelligence of the common people, also known as consumers, is made to collide violently with the nose of whoever is besieging this month’s corporation-in-distress. Agency, that staple of the Routledge anthology, is transformed by Reason into the silver bullet of corporate defense. As it is used here, agency means we express ourselves perfectly well through the market, through consumer choice; it means that neither the government nor industry groups have any business protecting anybody from anything; best of all, it transforms those who criticize industry into the worst sort of (you guessed it) snobs and elitists, tacitly believing that the public are a collection of agency-deprived fools.

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Like the works of Herbert Gans, Reason seems never to come up in the monographs and anthologies of the cult-studs. And yet one feels that, if only to temper their endless bloody shirt-waving about the persecution they have endured at the hands of the book-burning right, cult-studs should somehow be required to take a peek beneath the publication’s easter-egg colored covers. They will find there a militantly pro-corporate right that, like consumer society itself, has no problem with difference, lifestyle, and pleasure; that urges the destruction of cultural hierarchy in language as fervid as anything to appear between the covers of Social Text. There are even fairly exact parallels to the cult-stud argument. A recent Reason feature story by anthropologist Grant McCracken, for example, celebrates the “plenitude” of endless lifestyle diversity as “the signature gesture of our culture.” After chewing out the usual right-wing culture warriors (Bennett, Buchanan, Robertson) and dropping the obligatory bomb on the Frankfurt School (Herbert Marcuse is also singled out for article-length punishment in the November 1998 issue), McCracken hails the rise of “difference, variety, and novelty” and counsels his colleagues on the right to forget about suppressing the Other and adjust themselves to the “inevitable.” Declaring a democratic interest in even the oddest cultural novelties, McCracken informs his conservative colleagues, in a passage astonishingly reminiscent of Andrew Ross at his Saturday night worst, that

Line dancing provides an interesting and dynamic site for the transformation of gender, class, outlook, and, yes, politics. It is on the dance floor that cultural categories and social rules are being reexamined and, sometimes, reinvented.

Of course, the only thing that makes sense out of this world of endless differentiation is “the great lingua franca” of “the marketplace.” It is capitalism that is breaking “the stranglehold of hierarchies and elites,” the “consumer culture” that “is a cause and a consequence of plenitude.”

The robots mock a lousy movie, ergo the government must leave Microsoft alone.

Other Reasoners cite the cult-studs explicitly when making the argument. Editor Nick Gillespie grounds his 1996 defense of the movie industry entirely in the populist reflex as an established principle of legitimate social science, citing prominent cult-stud Constance Penley (best known for her work on pornographic fanzines in which the Star Trek characters get it on) as the authority for this most hallowed of culturisms: “All viewers or consumers have ‘agency’: they process what they see or hear—they do not merely lap it up.” Gillespie makes the elusive-audience point again and again, bringing in cult-stud Henry Jenkins for extra legitimacy, before moving on to the inevitable flip side: The elitism of critics of the entertainment industry. These are figures who are said to believe that “viewers lack virtually any critical faculties or knowledge independent of what program producers feed them,” that “the idiot box … turns viewers into idiots,” that we are “robotic stooges,” “trained dogs,” “dumb receivers,” “unwitting dupes.” Not that they say any of this about us in public, mind you. These are simply implied, the obvious consequence of their “top-down conception of culture,” their focus on “authorial intentions”—and the equally obvious and far more loathsome corollary, that “they know best,” that “the viewer simply can’t be trusted,” that “regulation by the government” is in order.

Ah, but the market, the glorious, plenitude-permitting market, makes no such elitist presumptions. Not only does the market permit all the excellent examples of “resisting readers” that Gillespie finds so very dope (of course he cites Mystery Science Theater 3000), but in the land of pop culture, “as with all market-based exchanges, knowledge, value, and power … are dispersed.” The robots mock a lousy movie, ergo the government must leave Microsoft alone. Q.E.D.[****]

The Reason argument is remarkably flexible for all its simplicity. After looking through back issues I found it deployed on behalf of the advertising industry (we aren’t fooled 100 percent of the time, you know), the tobacco industry (people choose to smoke cigarettes, you know), the gun industry (not all kids murder their classmates, you know), Barnes & Noble (people choose to go there, you know), Microsoft (choice incarnate, you know), and Jesse Ventura, whose election as governor of Minnesota gives our Mr. Gillespie an opportunity to explain his populism in historical detail, complete with passages about the affection felt by the good people of Minnesota toward corporations and this towering whopper, which comes up as an explanation of, well, just about everything: “at the end of the twentieth century, ‘money power’—indeed, power in general—is far more concentrated in government hands than in corporate ones.”

The same logic is also commonplace much further to the right. While the luminous names of Haraway, hooks, Jenkins, Penley, and Ross (along with the joys of the dance floor) may be entirely unfamiliar to the fulminating Rush Limbaugh, their insistence on audience agency in the face of the culture conglomerates, as well as their faith in democracy through pop culture and in the essential elitism of those who criticize it are as friendly and familiar to him as the winning smile of Ollie North. Rush’s version of the populist reflex comes across with particular vigor in his 1993 collection of witticisms, See, I Told You So, in which he refers to his own rise as an object lesson in the fundamental justice of markets, as in this rousing invocation of decentered power and audience agency: “Nobody put me in that [dominant] position—no network, no government program, no producer. You in the audience who have voluntarily tuned the dial to my voice—you alone—have caused my success.” On the other side of the coin from the “magic of the marketplace,” of course, are the high-handed, top-down, know-it-all regulators who want “to use this country as their grand laboratory experiment” and we the people “as their guinea pigs.” But meddling liberals are just the tip of the hegemony iceberg: Even worse is the “sheer arrogance” of the elitists who believe that “people who listen to my show are just too stupid to tackle America’s complicated problems.” It’s not long before the Frankfurt School, this time in the person of Theodor Adorno, is wheeled in for its ritual thumping.

III.

For all the recent talk of cultural disintegration from one side, and of intolerance and persecution from the other, it is sometimes astonishing how much basic agreement lies beneath the stormy surface of the culture wars. However we may fight over appropriations for the NEA, educated people everywhere can agree on the perfidy of cultural elitism. And whether we simply ignore the world of business or actively extol the corporate order, we all agree that our newfound faith in active, intelligent audiences makes criticism of the market philosophically untenable. Taste has been annexed to politics in a manner that trivializes both, leaving us with an understanding of “democracy” that refers increasingly to matters of accurate demographic representation, to a certain republican humility before the wisdom of the people. That left and right have entered into a new consensus is further suggested by movies like Pleasantville, where a scarcely believable smugness about the liberated present arises phoenix-like from the ashes of the old, gray flannel smugness. It may be a consensus of masturbating moms rather than muffin-baking moms; of dreadlocked millionaires rather than horn-rimmed millionaires; of Kirk and Spock fisting rather than exploring new galaxies; of culture war rather than cold war, but it is as confident about the glories of life in these United States as any intellectual order has ever been.

If cultural studies has a unique intellectual virtue, it is a willingness to acknowledge its own failings, and in this essay I have made liberal use of the work of several of the discipline’s most prominent critics. But in many other ways this new discipline looks, reads, behaves, and legitimates just like its never-acknowledged consensus forebears. For all the cult-studs’ populist pretensions, the dominant tone of much of their writing is one of bombastic self-congratulation and vainglorious gasconade—sometimes self-pitying, sometimes pompous beyond belief. Even more indicative of the hardening of a new consensus is the cult-studs’ strange fantasy of encirclement by Marxists at once crude and snobbish, a transplanted Cold War chimera that is rehearsed in just about every one of the discipline’s texts, that leaps out from the jaunty Vaneigem quotes that fill the e-mail signature lines of the academically stylish.[*****] The point here isn’t merely that the right and the cult-studs use an identical target for bayonet practice, but simply that their target is a straw man, that the facts of American life are being ignored out of feigned anxiety over a cartoonish doctrine we imagine as both Teutonic and red, a horrifying cross between the nation’s historical enemies. Business publications are crowing these days that the production and export of culture are becoming the central element of the American economy; they see the millennium in the conquest of the world by Disney and Microsoft. But up on the heights from which critical fire might be brought to bear on the imperial parade, the self-proclaimed radicals are busy tying themselves in knots to avoid any taint of “master narratives.”

Most revealing of all, though, is the cult-studs’ marked complacency about their own role in the larger cultural economy. To be sure, this subject—the duties and responsibilities of intellectuals—is one they discuss frequently. Andrew Ross, for example, brilliantly dissects intellectuals’ power to “designate what is legitimate” and to identify “what can then be governed and policed as illegitimate or inadequate or even deviant.” But in Ross’s telling the cult-studs themselves appear only as a solution to this historical problem. He does not consider what might happen when the ideas of legitimacy fancied by the corporate world change, when businessmen cease to care about high culture and talk instead about the wisdom of the audience and the power of the free-range entrepreneur. After leading readers through a century of snobs and aristocratic Trotskyists, Ross concludes his story of intellectuals and popular culture by locating himself and his colleagues in a place where such behavior by academics is no longer possible. He misses entirely the fatal irony of an academic radicalism becoming indistinguishable from management theory at exactly the moment when capitalist managers decided it was time to start referring to themselves as “radicals,” to understand consumption itself as democracy.

In advertising agencies and market-research firms the gap between critical intellectuals and simple salesmanship shrinks and shrinks. With or without the assistance of the cult-studs, American audiences are growing more skeptical by the minute; fashion cycles that once required years now take months; heroes of the age like Bill Gates are despised in spite of the best efforts of his apotheosizers in the media. For business the intellectual task at hand is not so much legitimation as it is infiltration, and suddenly questions like the subversive potential of The Simpsons aren’t as academic as they once seemed. Given the industry’s new requirements, the active-audience faith of the cult-studs becomes less an article of radical belief and more a practical foundation for the reprioritized audience research being done by the new breed of corporate anthropologists, who move to the world of marketing directly from graduate school. One day they’re studying the counterhegemonic funeral wailing of the Warao people, the next they’re turning their attention on a nation of alienated 7-Eleven shoppers and hegemony-smashing mallwalkers. It’s one of the glories of the age: a down-to-earth intelligentsia, focusing for once on our everyday lives, speaking up for our agency, thoughtfully repositioning brands so as to help us defy confining social structures. Surely resistance is everywhere.

 


[*] Andrew Ross has followed Gans in other ways as well, reportedly moving to Disney’s planned suburb of Celebration, Florida much as Gans once moved to Levittown, New Jersey in order to study the unfairly maligned suburbanites who lived there.

[**] The willingness of those Europeans, especially the Birmingham School, to acknowledge American sociology is a different matter entirely. See Dick Hebdige, Subculture, pp. 75-79, and Ken Gelder and Sarah Thornton, eds., The Subcultures Reader (Routledge, 1997). Another factor in Gans’s disappearance is his well-known hostility to “postmodernists” in sociology who, as Gans recently put it in a letter to The Nation, insist on downgrading class as an analytic concept out of a curious revulsion against “long-gone vulgar and Stalinist Marxisms.”

[***] Fortune also adds Lanier’s skills with exotic instruments to the mix, commencing its story about him with an anecdote of how he played “nose flute” at “the Kitchen, the famous avant-garde nightclub in downtown Manhattan.”

[****] A more recent example is Senior Editor Charles Paul Freund’s June 1998 Reason essay in which the Frankfurters are dissed yet again and a “culture … indifferent to elites and divorced from taste hierarchies” is trumpeted one more time. Freund concludes by saluting the “Birmingham School” for having “at least gotten in the schoolhouse door. A little more homework, perhaps, and the scholars will arrive at the answer which the audience itself found long ago.” Meaning, of course, the virtues of “marketplace culture,” where people find “opportunities for the liberation and satisfaction of their senses and their intellect.”

[*****] “People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, with out understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraint, have corpses in their mouths.” Beginning in early 1997 this battle cry seemed to appear everywhere in cult-stud circles, even though Raoul Vaneigem evidently came up with its ringing cadences thirty years before. Its enthusiastic repeating across the cultural studies left betokens a weird belief that there are a great number of people in America who “talk about revolution and class struggle,” and that these people need desperately to be defied.

Thomas Frank is a political analyst, historian, journalist and columnist for Salon. He is a former columnist for the Wall Street Journal, authoring “The Tilting Yard” from 2008 to 2010, and a founding editor of The Baffler. He is the author of a number of books, most notably What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004). His newest book is Listen, Liberal.

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