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The Libidinal Tourist

“The postmodern world is a suitcase packed with lifestyles. Its history, a postcard from Vegas.”
—James Hatt, The John-Erik Hexxum Memorial Lectures

The East Bloc. The Iron Curtain. The Gulag. Long lines and empty shelves. The benighted totalitarian domain where nobly long-suffering peoples live out their meagre lives in “internal exile,” longing for liberation from their Godless masters. The land where an enterprising American tourist can sell his old Levis for princely sums.

This is how my generation came to think of our nation’s ideological enemy: a vast, expansionist empire, driven by resentment and envy, a drab, stunted society cursed with poverty and pathetic taste. In the mature years of the upward-sloping curve of postwar prosperity, what assured us young Americans of the privileged status of our republic was not so much our confidence in the particular virtues of American political culture, although many had vague convictions in that direction. It was, rather, the bedrock belief that given a choice, anyone would gladly choose the bliss of American-style consumer culture over any other possible form of social organization.

Times have indeed changed. What warmth we all felt during that extended television binge which started in the Fall of 1989, as we watched in disbelief as regime after regime fell to the picturesque masses before the cameras of CNN. What hope we thought the future must hold for those unburdended people. This was a remarkable historical watershed indeed; but what was perhaps more remarkable was that these events presaged the loss of a teleological certitude in American culture that we should be the beacon of freedom to the world. We are now told of a sort of generational anomie which has sapped the will- and spending-power of young American adults, the result, in the first instance of course, of a dysfunctional economy. But there now appear inklings also of a dysfunctional culture, a dissatisfaction with the tawdriness of the influence of “the market” in every facet of cultural production and social existence. Indeed, it now seems more appealing to project onto those same recently-Communist countries we once pitied the very innocence and virtue we so much long for. This has made for a new genre in American travel writing. As one might expect, while the reality of the recently opened East is something like newly conquered Indian territory, ripe for settlement by any paleface with capital and a covered wagon, popular accounts of the bonanza mostly evoke images of some sort of theme park where America’s eternal kids can relive in fantasy the historical stages of capital accumulation. “The Wild, Wild East,” as plugged-in journalist Henry Copeland calls Prague in a recent issue of Details. The real Eurodisney, with mercenary tourists.

We have now so refined the notion of “the way one lives” that it is an optional, commodity-focused choice that a well-heeled professional makes.

With their own land gripped by recession, a handful of enterprising Americans have glimpsed the green light of opportunity and are laboring to remake the East Bloc in our own postmodern image. They have brought the starved Gulag not only their lively selves, but they have taken with them the greatest cultural gift of American capitalism: our understanding of “lifestyle.” Coached in the consumer hothouses of suburban malls and urban bohemias, these glowing youngsters are transplanting in the original Bohemia our foremost contribution to civilization, the ability to think of “life” itself as a consumer decision. As the lives of the bourgeoisie in the West became, over the last hundred years, more and more bureaucratized and drained of immediate meaning, our mass media stepped into the void, offering us relevance and excitement by elaborating a whole array of interesting “lifestyles” we could fit into the gap. We have now so refined the notion of “the way one lives” that it is an optional, commodity-focused choice that a well-heeled professional makes, a package of looks and dress and appearance that he buys. For the American middle class “lifestyle” does not refer to difficult factors that a person may inherit: class, religion, race, ethnicity. With the enlightened luxury of non-fixed identities “lifestyle” has become for us over the last few decades a perpetual Halloween party, something fun, something adopted because it suits our fancy at a given time and place: the take-charge businessman, the artist, the rebel rocker. It has come to dominate our understanding of the world because the surfeit of “lifestyle” choices not only gives the bourgeoisie something to do, a historical/social/athletic fantasy in which to drown their boredom, but it also works as a spur to unending consumption as endless ensembles and accessories are purchased to round out a given look or affectation. Exporting this understanding to the East, that vacuum of a world, our lads are busily constructing a lifestyle playground without monitors or boundaries.

Naive for so long about how “the market works,” former Communist societies are now shedding their innocence, to borrow an image from Fitzgerald, like calories of heat. The cool, media-savvy West is warming itself on the radiance. We read with envy about canny young Yanks getting a piece of it while the going’s great, exploiting the laughable undervaluation of every possible good and service to be had, buying the assets of nations at rock-bottom prices. Here Copeland’s piece in Details is instructive. He writes from Prague—where, he confides, “everyone agrees Something is Happening”—about a group of recent graduates of American colleges who are publishing an English-language newspaper. Making his reportorial rounds, Copeland includes us in a succession of whiskeys and “hash-hazed parties” as the Scene unfolds before us. We are introduced to Kip, “Ichabod Crane on mushrooms,” the hard-drinking muse of the operation. We meet a former New York City magazine editor who “knows everybody” and even once took a piss with Vaclav Havel. We see the kids bribing government officials with liquor, rushing off to cover the war in Yugoslavia, brainstorming in a cold, crowded office that looks like “Valley Forge on acid.” These people are making history and they are stoked.

It seems that in Prague, such an enterprise entails either more hardship or a more extreme understanding of subjectivity than the average Czech is equipped to deal with. In fact, the only natives we meet are a crowd of anarchists shouting “Fuck You” and “No Future” at the cops. But our young heroes are Americans—in fact, as is hinted time and time again, they are our equivalent of the Lost Generation. Half-lost, one might say, in the sense that entry-level America has failed them. They are not at all lost in the sense that they have struck out into the world bearing that peculiar brand of American know-how: lifestyle dynamism. We see American ingenuity in all its luminescence. Mastering technological deficiencies. End-running bureaucratic pile-ups. Thriving on chaos. Making the scene. Doing what they have to do to get by but ultimately playing by their rules. By applying these typical American attributes with aplomb, this rag-tag bunch demonstrates again the efficacy of the free market and stakes a beachhead for that most American of ideals—individualism. As one of the group puts it, “In Prague, everything is so open you can reinvent yourself every day.” This, then, is the American Dream, circa 1992.

Prague of the 1990s, Paris of the 1920s—what is the difference for the editors of Details, a slick leisure magazine for the upscale professional man-about-town? Each scene has its historical content sucked out and its stylistic husk vacuum-packed and put on a shelf next to the Great White Hunter and the Rebel Without a Cause, as well as a multitude of other mythical evocations, where they sit waiting for Wall Street’s libidinal tourists to come browsing. Copeland’s imaginary Prague is, for twentysomething youngsters with ambitions that an ailing American economy cannot accommodate, a blank lifestyle slate, a place where they can act out whatever cultural fantasies fit their current tastes, where they can reinvent history and sport a different wardrobe, a novel identity, each and every day.

Sky fits heaven, so ride it.
Child fits mother, so hold your baby
Lips fit mouth, so kiss them
The jeans that fit like a glove, like
an old lover
Coming back for more.

These verses by Gap poet laureate Max Blagg, which he reads in recent television ads for the casual-wear outfitter, epitomize a trend among marketers of upper-middlebrow consumer goods to render the most mundane of objects into ready-made “classics” by means of picturesque but depthless evocations of aestheticity and historicity. As it turns out, in real life Max Blagg tends bar in Manhattan to make ends meet. And why not? Who better than a demiurgic barman understands the mysteries of carnality to which our Gap jeans will be witness? Max is a service industry employee with enthusiasm, enthusiasm for Life, for eternal verities, for carefully antiquated blue jeans that seem to have been cast in the very smithy of his soul. The advertising world’s domesticated “art,” charming but tinctured with self-mockery, is crucial to the production of ready-made classicity. It simultaneously pays compliments to the educated bourgeoisie for its taste and alleviates its anxiety about cultural sufficiency.

Anyone lucky enough to receive the catalogues put out by a number of mail-order houses, or to anyone who reads Esquire or Vanity Fair or the New York Times Magazine, knows that the upscale consumer faces a multiplicity of discrete historico-social wardrobe ensembles. He may choose not only the clothes of the gritty urban poet, but also those of the Waspish gilded youth, the cowboy, the leather clad outsider, the jaded lounge lizard, the trippy rave refugee, the outdoorsman, the imperialist adventurer, the Deadhead, the farm laborer/homeless person, any sort of athletic enthusiast, and even the grungy slacker.

Using a telephone and a credit card the consumer may avail himself of entry into virtually any subculture; he may don any of these outfits to suit mood or occasion, or he can signify his more deviant desire to resist classification by promiscuous bricolage of the parts. He is encouraged—challenged—to create his own personality using the tools our designers have put at his disposal. And if the wooing glances of Madison Avenue befuddle him in an embarras de richesse, he need only turn to the benevolent counsel of the modish faction of the mainstream media, with its what’s-hot lists and celebrity bios. In what seems to be the progressive homogenization of middlebrow journalism into hip and disengaged collegiate ‘tude, for example, Newsweek echoes Sassy in recommending Doc Martens boots as a fashion must. Here, in these slick and seductive arbiters of middle-class taste the upwardly mobile consumer can obtain information he can bank on.

The symbiotic relationship between the media and the fashion world bespeaks the growing marketability of lifestyle creation. Smooth turnover requires a well-oiled machine, and there is money to be made by everybody. The slavish publicity granted to newly invented styles is complemented by the sarcastic savaging of those that are out of date or patently out of place, like Ted or Heavy Metal. These are everybody’s straw man, and we at The Baffler have no interest in them as such. What intrigues us is the way in which the arts dovetail with fashion and advertising in the consumerist paradigm. Indeed, our own darling artists of the last thirty years have admitted with no compunction that there is no difference between art and fashion. It is no coincidence that they are very rich men.

Lifestyle can be thought of, as Bourdieu has pointed out, as something like taste, “a certain propensity or capacity, imparted through education, to appropriate a given set of classified, classifying objects.” Because this propensity is the product of education, one’s lifestyle is very much determined by one’s class. One sees this very clearly in the most class-stratified societies, like Britain. And yet the tyranny of official taste, particularly class-based taste, often spurs a rich assortment of what has been called “spectacular subcultures,” subcultures which through symbolic assaults on authority in clothing, language and behavior, attempt to disrupt the prevailing notions of class positions in society. The dearest example of this is is the profusion of subcultures in postwar Britain: teddy boys, mods, skinheads, punks. Common to all these, to gloss over the more or less important distinctions, is the concrete understanding of class position, an articulation of protest expressed through a peculiar mode of consumption of goods. But since it involved such a well-defined look, the alienated punk rockers’ gear was bound to be distilled into lifestyle accoutrements for suburban American teens. As obvious as this fact is, it strikes surprisingly few people as odd that the very grottiest emblems of working-class identification are being sold at overblown prices in hip boutiques to prosperous lifestyle refugees.

Since it involved such a well-defined look, the alienated punk rockers’ gear was bound to be distilled into lifestyle accoutrements for suburban American teens.

But then, subculture operates in the leisure sphere, and the development of the leisure industry has been the economic salvation for not a few regions in the late capitalist world. Lifestyle preference among Americans in the end reduces mostly to their spending power. European sociologists have done detailed studies demarcating the aesthetic preferences of the different social classes in their countries, aesthetic preferences varying widely primarily because of longstanding traditions of educating the classes differently. The same, to a far lesser degree, is true of the United States, Americans abhorring elitism as they do. But the greater class homogenization here serves merely to illustrate the absurdity of suburban American teens appropriating the subcultural practice of working class British or Jamaican youth.

It has been argued that by recontextualizing commodities, by subverting their conventional uses or inventing new ones, one escapes the determination originally intended in their production. However true, this is ultimately irrelevant. The creation and diffusion of new styles is inextricably bound up with the capitalist process of production and circulation. They are mediated by the fashion, music, and publishing industries. In other words, the law of lifestyle is, “Have capital, will travel.”

And lifestyle is traveling, with a vengeance, across borders and from continent to continent. In any monograph you read on the subject of postmodernism, and by 1995 even Bob Greene will have written one, a favorite theme is multiculturalism. Like most such buzz-phenomena, multiculturalism has more than one face. Technology and capital accumulation have mowed down most cultures and thrown the clippings to the wind, so that insular culture of any sort is well nigh impossible. Much of the multiculturalism we see in music, in cuisine, and in fashion is little more than the domestication of Otherness, a badge of sensitivity to wear on one’s sleeve. In short, it is a lifestyle ornament. The apologetics of multiculturalism is invariably self-congratulatory, promoting an irritating and self-righteous softheadedness. To embrace multiculturalism as a value is to risk becoming, like Susan Sontag’s cultural anthropologist, “psychologically, an amputee.”

Moreover, the very term multiculturalism is a misnomer. It is in fact MONOCULTURALISM: just another facet of the stylistic undulations of the international business culture. In any so-called multicultural manifestation, we are no more experiencing another culture than we are living the life a sharecropper when we wear fashionably oversized and weathered coveralls. Nor is it historically new for an empire to assimilate cultural practices and artifacts from subject peoples. Nonetheless, we are led to believe that such a fad as World Beat is somehow democratizing access to the lucre of pop stardom, when in fact it is filling the coffers of the ponytailed latter-day conquistadores of the recording industry.

We must begin to derive our cultural resistance from what we share, or else it will not be true. We are a society, soon to be a world, of consuming monads. We share a set of social relations based on the commodification of everything from labor to cultural production to the means of our very salvation. These relations are so pervasive that anything outside them is considered eccentric and unnatural. There are two worlds, that of those who live life and that of those who purchase lifestyle. Therefore we at The Baffler consider worthwhile only that art which understands these relations. To those artists we despise, we will not say, “Your painting is bad; your music is boring; your writing is trite.” We will say instead, “Your lifestyle sucks.”