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Brother From Another Planet | The Nation

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Brother From Another Planet

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If you missed the 1995 CUNY "Question of Identity" conference, the issue of October magazine devoted to it, the "remarkable" essay on the same subject in Diacritics or--even worse--you are unaware you have missed these, don't despair. Help is on the way. Eric Lott, who teaches English and American studies at the University of Virginia, will bring you up to speed. His book The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual is to stay-at-home tenured radicals what the television remote is to couch potatoes. Without parking hassles or library bottlenecks, you get the latest on unforgettable conferences and pathbreaking journal articles. Did you know, for instance, that Gene Wise's "famous" essay "Paradigm Dramas in American Studies" was "intriguingly revised" in Pease and Wiegman's anthology The Future of American Studies? No? For only twenty-six bucks, you can find out about this and more.

About the Author

Russell Jacoby
Russell Jacoby, a professor of history at UCLA, is the author of The Last Intellectuals, Dialectic of Defeat and other...

Also by the Author

"I encourage you all to go shopping more," advised President Bush at a press conference last winter. Shop and prime the pump, goes the idea. Spring for a plasma television set and spur more production and employment. The newly employed go to the mall to pick up more goodies and widen the circle of production and employment. At least Wall Street is following orders. Its million-dollar end-of-the-year bonuses caused a flurry of shopping. Young hedge fund analysts were "scooping" up $2 million to $3 million "starter" apartments. Things were tougher in Connecticut, where a car dealer lamented a waiting list of fifty for $250,000 Ferraris.

Of course, there are always naysayers, unconvinced that shopping will lead to universal prosperity. These included the cleaning staff at the London branch of Goldman Sachs, where the bonuses were highest. While the financial house handed out gifts that averaged $600,000--and often reached millions--its custodians contemplated going on strike. With their hourly wage they would attain the average bonus in twenty-two years. Of course, at the end of twenty-two years, they would have spent that amount on life and its necessities.

The idea that individual consumption drives the economy has a long pedigree. It seems intuitively obvious. Without people wanting and buying iPods, there will be no iPod assembly workers, ergo, no economy. One fellow, now forgotten--a freelancer who wrote for the defunct New York Daily Tribune--challenged this. Karl Marx focused on production, not consumption. Insofar as capitalism sought to minimize the amount of labor it needed, Marx noted, it proved to be extraordinarily productive; fewer workers produced more goods. Yet it also proved vulnerable to crises of overproduction. As the industrial apparatus becomes more efficient and requires fewer workers, it undercuts itself. After all, the workers themselves are part of the market. If they are unemployed, they buy little or nothing and the commodities go unsold. The specter of overproduction haunts the modern economy, which responds in several ways: by selling goods to new consumers (say, baby formula to breast feeders); by selling more goods to existing consumers (say, bigger television sets to television set owners); and by selling more goods to the government (say, aircraft carriers and Hummers to the military).

Advertising addresses the first two markets and insures that no one escapes the imperative of consumption. Even the exits lead to the checkout counter. Advertising cannot put money into the pockets of shoppers, but it can create a need to consume out of unformed insecurities and desires. Sales of Listerine mouthwash skyrocketed in the 1920s when its manufacturer promoted the term "halitosis" and encouraged all to think they suffered from chronic bad breath: "Even your closest friends won't tell you." At least they did not tell tragic "Edna," who remained unmarried at 30, the victim of bad breath. "Often a bridesmaid but never a bride," ran the famous advert for the mouthwash. Not only Edna benefited from Listerine but so, presumably, did the workers who produced and packaged it.

Benjamin Barber, a political theorist and author of Jihad vs. McWorld, wades into the debate on shopping and advertising in Consumed. His is an ambitious book that seeks to define a period as well as to outline forms of resistance, which include a new type of global citizenship. A century ago German sociologist Max Weber attributed the rise of capitalism to a new religious spirit, a Protestant ethos of saving and hard work. That argument has yielded a small library of elaborations and refutations. Barber, who is not exactly a shrinking violet, seeks to revise Weber with an idea equally "provocative and controversial"--the notion of an "infantilist ethos." Once upon a time capitalism, driven by a Protestant spirit, "shaped a culture conducive to work and investment," serving nations and citizens, but today a consumerist capitalism, driven by an "infantilist ethos," "shapes a culture conducive to laxity, shopping, and spending," turning us into hapless shoppers and in the process gutting democracy. Not only have children and teens become a vast consuming market but adults no longer grow up: "Aging adults remain youth consumers throughout their lives."

But what exactly is the "infantilist ethos" that Barber offers as his contribution to the vast literature on consumption? "Infantilization aims at inducing puerility in adults and preserving what is childish in children trying to grow up." Unfortunately, this does not take us very far. Barber offers a series of what he calls dyads that "capture infantilization": easy over hard, simple over complex and fast over slow. "Easy versus hard acts as a template for much of what distinguishes the childish from the adult." We have "easy listening" and "shopping made easy," which "promote commercial products" attuned to the attention span and tastes of the young. Yet Barber's heart is not in this. He prefers maundering on about political thinkers, not psyching out infantilization. One paragraph after announcing the "easy over hard" dyad, he informs us that "the preference for easy plays off of modern utilitarian ideas," which allows Barber to discourse on Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. How could this be? Are modern capitalists reading Bentham and Mill? Are children?

Barber's dyads seem questionable. "The preference for the simple over the complex is evident in domains dominated by simpler tastes--fast food and moronic movies, revved-up spectator sports and dumbed-down video games." Yet is this infantilization? It seems more plausible to argue the opposite. Nothing is especially "simple" about fast food and action movies; they are constructed by adults with the most advanced know-how. Nor is "simple" something to be censured. On the contrary. Classic childhood games--hopscotch, hide and seek--were simple and required nothing except vigor and imagination. Simple food is often excellent. Compare a meal based on garlic sizzling in olive oil, cheese and pasta with a meal from a trip to a Subway sandwich franchise, with a choice of seven breads (all the same) and fifteen varieties of subs, each of which allows numerous options in condiments and toppings. That's complicated.

The genius of capitalism turns the simple and easy--meals, relationships, joy--into things complicated and hard; it commodifies all of life. With a click of the mouse and a credit card number it also offers instant pleasures. What once could be done outside the market--for instance, games and sports--now requires money and purchases. "Infantilization" may actually signal the demise of the infant. Adult fashion and sexuality now encompass children and preteens. This suggests not the triumph of the infant but the triumph of adult marketing.

Infantilization, for Barber, is a catch-phrase that he does not really analyze. Rather, he turns to what he calls "affiliated ideologies" of privatization, branding and total marketing, which promote hyperconsumerism. Here, where Barber feels more at home, he ranges far and wide; he reviews the fetish of everything private--housing, roads, schools, security--and the suspicion of everything public. He surveys the omnipresence of brands and "lifestyle" advertising in American life. He outlines the supremacy of the market. But while Barber is a thoughtful guide, he is not an especially incisive one, and often the drone of the political science professor takes over: "There are five forms of market domination that constitute the substance of my argument... I will argue that the consumer market is ubiquitous (it is everywhere); that it is omnipresent (it is 'all the time')...it is addictive (it creates its own forms of reinforcement)...it is self-replicating (it spreads virally); and it is omnilegitimate (it engages in active self-rationalization and self-justification)." Pssst! What time is class over?

In the last section of the book Barber sketches out "a moderate and democratic way" to resist consumer capitalism. He wants to restore capitalism to "its primary role" as an efficient producer and to uphold the "democratic public" as the regulator of "our plural life worlds." But the weakness of his ideas shows through his PowerPoint presentations. He locates three types of consumer resistance and subversion: "I will discuss them under the rubrics cultural creolization, cultural carnivalization and cultural jamming." By creolization, he means the effort to turn market brands against the market, where commodification serves heretical groups or movements, like Hasidic rock, in which ultra-orthodox Gad Elbaz sets pious lyrics to throbbing rhythms. By "jamming" Barber means tactics derived mainly from Kalle Lasn, founder of Adbusters magazine. In Lasn's words, the jammers paint their "own bike lanes, reclaim streets, 'skull' Calvin Klein ads, and paste GREASE stickers on tables and trays at McDonald's restaurants."

The last Leninists may scoff at such stuff: What does this have to do with overcoming capitalism? This would be unfair. In an airless political universe, any sparks should be appreciated. However, it wouldn't be unfair to wonder at the sharp limits of this cultural subversion, about which Barber is well aware. As soon as he introduces his forms of cultural resistance, he notes how easily they get incorporated into the market. A coffee chain in India that challenges Starbucks--to Barber, inexplicably, an example of creolization--looks very much like an Indian Starbucks. The Adbuster jammers have launched their own brand of athletic sneakers, which takes on Nike. The "Unswoosher" not only is union-made and "earthly friendly" but comes with a red "sweet spot" on the toe "for kicking corporate ass." Nice, but isn't this just another hip brand, as subversive as Ben and Jerry's or Whole Foods?

In addition to his three forms of cultural resistance Barber comes up with other, more disparate, perhaps desperate, efforts to rein in the market--such as consumer activism (dolphin-safe tuna), creative video games (SimCity) and especially George Clooney movies (Good Night, and Good Luck and Syriana). Barber is only the latest progressive to go gaga over Hollywood. He dreams its milquetoast offerings are revolutionary provocations. Movies like Bulworth, with Warren Beatty, and American Dreamz, with Hugh Grant, demonstrate Hollywood's "own dialectical capacity to generate rebellion and subversion." It is more likely that they demonstrate Barber's capacity for wishful thinking. The ravages of the market in the impoverished Third World also catch Barber's attention--at least for ten pages. Here too he finds counter-movements or partial remedies like Doctors Without Borders's 500-calorie Plumpy Nut bar, which is "a miracle cure for the starving," and Nobel Prize-winning economist Muhammad Yunus's idea of microcredits for the very poor.

No one can fault Barber's earnestness, humanism or goodwill, but his book is spongy--soft in its prose, edges and center. He only half believes and half pursues his thesis on infantilization. Weber's notion of the Protestant ethic remains safe; and for an analysis of what drives consumption, the New York Daily Tribune freelancer is a better bet. The acts of consumer resistance that Barber highlights, however salutary, amount to little; and his reflections on the global market, its disasters and imperfect antidotes, like the Plumpy Nut, lack conviction.

Barber refers more than once to a "fiendishly simple method of trapping monkeys in Africa" as a metaphor for consumer capitalism. In this trap a nut can be accessed through a single small hole in a closed and secure box. The hole is too small to allow the monkey's fist to withdraw and the monkey will not release the treat. Hunters come by "hours or even days later, because the monkey--driven by desire--will not relinquish the nut. It will die first (and often does)." For Barber "consumers are capitalism's one-trick monkeys.... With the infantilist ethos stroking their desires, inside the infantilist monkey trap they find themselves unable to let go."

In its clunky prose this is pure Barber, but there is another problem. The "infantilist" monkey trap is itself a myth. Monkeys do not die in these traps, and they flee when hunters approach; consumers may be equally wise. Perhaps this does not matter, but it may illustrate something of Barber's less-than-rigorous approach. His indubitably well-intentioned book represents not hard-hitting social commentary but soft-core liberalism.

He concludes by calling for "a transnational citizenry" in which citizens reassert their control over the global market. This would entail putting "the trump card back into the hand of the public." As usual, Barber's language turns flabby. The new citizenship, he explains, "relies on innovative forms of traditional commons, including new information rooted in new technologies." The problem is not the weak prose but the anemic ideas. Barber believes he is offering a bold "utopian dream." But where is the utopia? His goal of "democratizing globalization" and restoring "the balance between citizens and consumers" suggests tinkering, not transformation. At his best, Barber gives us decaf liberalism brewed with fair-trade coffee.

HELEN THOMAS, HELEN THOMAS

To be sure, Lott seeks more than to guide would-be tenured radicals; he has a mission and an animus. He wants to carve out a space for radicals to the left of detestable "boomer liberals," who have seized the limelight and distorted politics. They constitute "one of the chief obstacles" to a revitalized politics. In fact, Lott's title misleads, and either of his earlier working titles, Boomer Liberalism or The Lost Intellectuals, might have been more accurate. These boomers are the opposite of "disappearing" liberals. They are omnipresent. Who are they? Lott names "a few of the most celebrated of these thinkers": Todd Gitlin, Michael Lind, Joe Klein, Martha Nussbaum, Paul Berman, Stanley Crouch, Greil Marcus, Sean Wilentz and Henry Louis Gates Jr.

For Lott this "new liberal front" oozes with a "piecemeal, reformist self-satisfaction." The new reformers represent a "bone headed degeneration of the radical spirit." They have "created the political fog that obscured the left from view" and buried the "liberal alternative to hawkish conservatism." These liberals pander to state power and American nationalism. They yearn for the "old-boys' left" that was largely white and that claimed to be universal. Their work is "anti-corporate" rather than anticapitalist. (Disclosure alert: Along with Mark Crispin Miller and Thomas Frank, I am listed as suffering from this particular ailment.) They turn politics into adjuncts of the John Kerry presidential bid. They are a "secret sharer of neoconservative ideology," and they legitimate the Bush White House and its politics. They constitute an intellectual and political "disaster."

Lott, on the other hand, writes from a "radical egalitarian perspective" that celebrates "upsurge from below." Instead of liberal wishy-washiness about class and economic inequality, he squarely calls for a "full engagement with working-class hopes" that "necessarily involves a long march through the history of African-American liberation movements, radical women's uprisings, and other insurrectionary energies." The boomer liberals do not understand how "successful activist movements" of "blacks, Latinos, women, queers, and others have transformed" politics. With a self-professed "irony" and polemical zeal, Lott blasts old New Leftists in order to invigorate a new radical politics.

In an era of pallid Democrats and furtive leftists, Lott comes out shouting his revolutionary loyalties. He marches with real working people. So far, so good. Unfortunately, he marches only from the podium to the speaker's table. Sometimes he gets to the library or logs on to hiptheory.com to check out what Etienne Balibar, a French post-Marxist, has written. His radical commitments amount to promoting leftist colleagues in American studies departments and a few European Marxists. Moreover, he wildly inflates the impact of the "liberal front" he is supposedly challenging. With Lott as your guide, you'd think Todd Gitlin and Paul Berman sabotaged the left and ushered in Bush. Were it so simple.

Throughout this tract Lott charges boomer liberals with reformist politics and theoretical simplicity. Even if one grants these points, what does he offer to replace them? He claims the high political ground, but he cannot formulate a single coherent sentence about politics as seen from there. He tosses off phrases about "intersectionality" and "the praxis potential of antinormativity," but politics hardly enters this political book. One might suppose that in the midst of the war in Iraq Lott would take on its liberal supporters, such as Berman, but he never raises the issue. He feels more comfortable flaying Berman for dismissing the Black Panthers and for pining for a '60s before the women and gay "insurgencies challenged the white male hegemony of the baby-boom left." He prefers gabbing about how soft leftists have misinterpreted Clinton or African-American music to explaining how tough-as-nails radicals like him see the world today.

African-American life and culture are actually specialties of Lott; in these areas he deserves an honorary degree in one-upmanship. No one quite gets black culture like Lott. Not only do white boomers like Gitlin and Berman unacceptably depreciate the black movement; so do some black writers. White-guy Lott admonishes Cornel West for "his low estimation of black cultural life." West cannot fathom the genius of ex-Geto Boy Willie D.'s rap single "Fuck Rodney King." West hears nihilism, but Lott registers "rigorous" political thinking and an aesthetic "worthy" of Rimbaud, an aesthetic, he gratuitously adds, "so superbly analyzed in Kristin Ross's The Emergence of Social Space." It gets worse. West is losing touch with black youth. "West can't mention black kids," Brother Lott tells us from the grassy 'hood at the University of Virginia, "without disclosing his sense of distance from them."

There is nothing wrong--indeed, there is everything right--with English professors like Lott appraising, criticizing and savaging the work of other professors and writers, but there is everything wrong about doing it in the name of a righteous revolution that consists of unreadable articles in New Literary History. Lott serves trays of holier-than-thou academic leftism with extra helpings of causes and clotted language. To revive an old label, Lott's work smacks of "infantile leftism," but when Lenin used the term he was referring to new political parties, not professorial posturing.

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