The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can't Be Jammed

by Joseph Heath, Andrew Potter
ISBN: 0002007908

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A Review of: The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture canĘt be Jammed
by Gordon Phinn

Finishing The Rebel Sell, possibly the most overwrought bit of cultural handwringing encountered this past decade, the perplexed reader looks about, in the stupefaction reserved for the suddenly contrite, for the raison d'etre, the joie de vivre, the lost tab of LSD, the memoirs of Timothy Leary, the original vinyl of Sergeant Pepper, the great poem your buddy wrote when he was really cooked, that lovely piece on Jimi Hendrix by Germaine Greer in The Mad Woman's Underclothes, Grace Slick singing "You, you are the crown of creation/and you've got no place to go," anything really, anything that will remind you that the Sixties really did lay siege to the death and authority worshipping culture, replacing its grey James Bond phallocentrism with a diffuse cacophony of colour, joysounds and aimless sensuality.
But since I'm fifty-two, and can remember both the Russian tanks rolling into Prague, Paris paralysed by riots, and the Beatles singing Hey Jude for the first time live on the BBC, I would be doubtlessly considered a prime example of the debilitating counterculture myth that inhibits all attempts at constructive change by Messrs Heath And Potter, whose sole mission in life seems to be to debunk every cultural theory other than their own, which after three hundred odd pages of piteous bleating, post-punk irascibility and bald assertion masquerading as argument, seems to amount to not much more than Three Cheers For Capitalism! Yippee!
These lads have done their homework, or about seventy-five percent of it; the rest they fake with that sniffy aplomb polished in the glare of anxious undergraduates, the kind of haircut philosophising that Mark Kingwell and Hal Niedzvieki figure they've got under wraps, where you emboss the magasine cliches of any topic under the sun with a smorgasbord of ideas pinched hither and thither. The Economist, Foreign Policy Review, McSweeneys-it matters little; spice it up with quotes from the canon, along the lines of Homer, Kant, Aristotle or Wittgenstein-just enough to get included in the supposed inner circle, dethrone the main players with some refurbished Freud and dish out another feast of prattle and pose.
You do have to wonder about chaps who'll readily admit to wearing trendy but useless and uncomfortable shoes for the duration of high school, all for the holy grail of being cool, and then insist that "everyone has a story of this type." I don't, and I've got plenty of friends who don't either. Maybe I should squeeze out a tome called The Myth of Peer Pressure. I'm sure if I look the right evidence will follow my lead.
I guess we must have been just stupid hippies who didn't know any better, playing frisbee in the sunshine and laughing. And for a few years it looked as though the joy of fun might replace the grinds of guilt and fear. But the self-inflicted genocide of Cambodia soon overtook the imperial slaughter of Vietnam just as efficiently as the enslavement of cocaine replaced the liberation of pot, and we were back at square one with our ideals in tatters. Then came Reagan, Thatcher and Mulroney, officiating at the funeral.
It's not as if the will to intelligence and the urge to research have not been put to some use in the positioning of opinions in Rebel Sell : leading thinkers in the field have been surveyed and absorbed, with more than a few of their conclusions carefully grafted on. But far too often an academically respectable section is followed by a contemptuous dismissal of some person or movement the authors find beyond the pale. Abbie Hoffman and John Perry Barlow in particular suffer this fate. While one might effectively argue that the anarchic clowning of Hoffman's Yippies was a more than appropriate response to the grim political deadlock of their day, and that Barlow's poetic, eloquent "Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace" will come to be lauded as a founding testament to the new era of personal sovereignty in cultural and political expression (the body politic pronouncing rather than merely reacting), Heath and Potter instead summarily dismiss both as little more than deviants "reeking of bongwater." In fact a virulent strain of anti-counterculturalism runs through the entire text, contaminating the project with a pugnacious vengefulness which sours even the few original conjectures in a welter of insights as cliched as yesterday's columnists.
So the counterculture promoted "self-discovery through the arduous search for the other," and though "we all want diversity, it is often our own consumer preferences that are driving homogenization," and "the cool job has become the holy grail of the modern economy." Guys, those beachheads have already been well established-lets move on. Here are a few things to do and not do: let's be finished with hacking away at Marx and Marcuse-that's so five minutes ago; let's not be satisfied with glib analysis, cribbed from a melange of contemporaries; let us see that chuckling at alternative medicine is not to be equated with its debunking; let us not slip in unsupported anecdote as verifiable fact; let us not invoke such inane standards as "What if everyone did that, would the world be a better place?" and sound like anyone's impossibly square parents; and let us please not put forward "the business trip" as the "only true authentic and non-exploitative form of travel." So the mainstream actually does not "co-opt the counterculture, it merely adapts," and corporations will actually sell anything to anyone once a profit is perceived? Well, no shit, but was it worth the 350 odd pages the book devoted to it? All that tortuous wrangling to say let's "plug the loopholes in the system, not abolish the system"?
"Cool has become the central ideology of consumer capitalism," Heath and Potter insist, reminding the reader of "the last time you bought something you couldn't quite afford." I balked at the first two items on their confessional list: a raincoat at $800, and a silk jacket at $500, but I could've gone on to the two leather chairs at $2,200 each or the Mini Cooper at $32,000. Ah, the ineluctable pleasures of tenure! If only I could afford the bicycles so bravely waved overhead by Heath and his chums at the Eaton Center during their annual "Buy Nothing!" fest. Most folks don't actually require the theatre of "Buy Nothing!" days because they've got plenty of them already, plenty of tense debate over new boots or groceries, the oil bill or the brake job. Hey lads, come down to Tim's sometime and I'll do the introductions.
But alas, I'm no Gen-Xer. I can't afford the price of admission. In my status anxiety-free cocoon I happily cruise their sea of cultural theories and contemplate the cascade of different ideas, while chomping at the bit for any sign of intelligence beyond the usual Douglas Coupland-with-a-college-diploma attitudinising. Sure, Heath and Potter can quote Guy Debord and Jean Baudrillard with ease, and throw in enough references to Mailer, Kerouac, Huxley and Watts to make you think they've actually digested them. Yet they keep coming up with such incredible clunkers-for instance, in reference to the film American Beauty, they ask, "Why would the American Government want to genetically engineer dope?"-that terminal naivete seems to be the only reasonable answer, for that statement alone encodes perhaps the most potent symbol of post-war political history: drug running to support covert operations, covert operations which ensure the continuation of corrupt oligarchies, repressed workers and hassle-free money laundering. The term "neo-con naivete" falls remarkably short of the mark.
I could go on and on: their analysis of Theodore Roszak's The Making Of A Counter Culture, Charles Reich's The Greening Of America or Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders; their approval or disapproval of Thorstein Veblen and a dozen other critics of various hues. But it's doubtful the picture would be complete; these guys are so clued out it's simply hard to believe. It's almost as if they never recovered from Kurt Cobain's suicide, freighting it with such absurd amounts of symbolism that it collapses under its own preposterousness. Lots of folks were upset when Rudolf Valentino died too. It's such a pivotal drama for Heath and Potter that they have to begin the book with it, concluding in a few lines that he was a victim of a false idea-the idea of a counterculture. That he had absorbed the anti-hippie ethic of his generation and saw himself becoming the sell-out he so despised. If he was merely the victim of a psychotic, money-grubbing girlfriend instead, as some suggest, that would be too bad, because it just wouldn't fit Heath and Potter's thesis. When you're torching idealism, dumb-ass junkie slaughter just doesn't make the grade.
What's really going on here is the guilt-tripping drama of two post-punk adolescents buying into the rage-against-the-machine ethos of their generation but finding their career-struck selves as well placed profs with money to burn on real estate and world travel and only their burnished intellects to separate them from the hoi-polloi who actually live out the trends they so peremptorily dismiss ("Ever notice that the masses have incredibly bad taste?"). Maybe what Heath and Potter really need to do is quit their jobs and get a life. Or, as Frank Zappa once so memorably sang, "Gonna move to Montana and raise me some dental floss." There, maybe they can find the time to discover what the rest of us old hippies know: the dream lives on, with a smile, in your heart, and not in the analysis of transactions.

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