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The American Nonconformist, by Thomas Frank
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The American Nonconformist in the Age of the Commercialization of DissentThomas Frank | The Baffler | Winter/Spring 1992 | 12 minutes (2,897 words)
This week's Longreads Member pick is "The American Nonconformist in the Age of the Commercialization of Dissent," a 1992 essay by Thomas Frank from The Baffler
, the magazine he co-founded with Keith White in 1988.
"In republishing this bit of juvenilia from 1992—my very first exploration of an idea that I reworked and reconsidered a number of times over the years that followed—it is worth remembering some of the context. This was before the web, for the most part; it was right about when 'alternative' was beginning to hit the culture, and a lot of the stuff I describe here was new and surprising at the time. Today, of course, most of it seems utterly unremarkable, so far has what I used to call the commercialization of dissent advanced. It's not something I really even think about anymore, except for the most outrageous iterations—like the ski helmet I bought last week, a model called 'Mutiny' by 'R.E.D.' And even then I'm too exhausted to bother belaboring the ironic contrast of this bragging rebelliousness with the millionairiest sport there is. I'm off to even more ironic fields. See you there."
, now edited by John Summers, was featured in our Top 10 Longreads of 2012
, and if you like these pieces, you can subscribe to The Baffler here
We saw this trend approaching a million consumer-miles away. It was inevitable: the Protest Generation comes of age as the Generation of Super-Consumers.
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-Faith Popcorn, 1991
Thirty-five years ago, Norman Mailer first gave voice to the idea that the "hipster," the young art-appreciating free-spirit alienated from an increasingly repressive society, was the existential hero of the day. In an America terrified by the bomb, grown stagnant from over-organization, cowed into homogeneity and conformity by red scares and the depersonalization of the computer age, the "hipster" was supposed to represent liberty and the affirmation of life. "The only life-giving answer" to the deathly drag of American civilization, Mailer wrote, was to tear oneself from the security of physical and spiritual certainty, to embrace rebellion, particularly rebellion associated with the subculture of jazz and drugs. The distinction between those who resisted mass society and those who collaborated was a clear and obvious one, Mailer insisted: "one is Hip or one is Square..., one is a rebel or one conforms…trapped in the totalitarian tissues of American society, doomed willy-nilly to conform if one is to succeed."
Today the opposite is true. In advertising, television, and all the other organs of official culture, the hipster is now a figure to be revered. He has become a central symbol of the technocratic system he is supposed to be subverting: a model consumer, a good citizen in a society which demands moral indifference and a perpetual patronage of the new in order to keep its gigantic wheels turning. Rather than resisting the enormous cultural machinery of mediocrity, impoverishment, and stupidity, in 1992 the hipster is its star player.
Spike Lee has made his reputation as a film innovator by posturing as a free-floating radical, as a spokesman without portfolio for the nation's outsiders and oppressed, as a fulminator against convention and bourgeois morality. He is also a spokesman for the Nike Corporation, and you can regularly see this daring and revolutionary young filmmaker on prime-time TV, selling an extraordinarily expensive athletic shoe.
On another channel the Burger King Corporation confides that "Sometimes You Gotta Break the Rules." A brand of perfume named "Tribe" calls upon consumers to "Join the Uprising." A new variety of chewing gum is cast as the embodiment of hip teen resistance to the puritanical, anti-fun ways of police and old people. Rock radio stations routinely promote themselves as rule-breakers of the most defiant sort while Mazda introduces us to their new models by ridiculing "Mom" and "apple pie" images and telling us that if "You're not John Doe, why drive his car?"
Bizarre and cynical anomalies? On the contrary, these incidents are perfectly representative of our contemporary consumer culture, which for some time now has utilized images of rebellion to encourage a mindset of endless dissatisfaction with the old and a never-ending compulsion to buy, buy, buy. In 1992 the transformation of rebellion into money is the fundamental operation of our pop-cultural machinery. The commercialization of deviance is fast becoming the universal theme of American culture, the preeminent motif of the age.
And not simply because of its value in reaching the kids. The simulation of dissent we see all around us has become the preeminent image of mass culture because it reinforces an ideology focused on the eternal new and the identification of individuality with product choice. The beautiful hipsters we see in ads, movies, and malls are always celebrating their liberation, their difference, their emancipation precisely because these aspects of rebellion, American-style, make them model consumers. They have embraced a worldview of bourgeois antinomianism, an automatic scorn for anything even vaguely established, permanent, or conventional (except, of course, their own incomes), because this is the attitude they must adopt to do their part in keeping the great machine racing at fever pitch. Our young pseudo-radicals buy, eat, and discard freely and unrestrainedly, unencumbered by the repressive moral baggage of their square, tightwad elders, who didn't buy a lot of things they didn't need, who saved money and didn't purchase on credit, whose dull, unliberated lives centered on producing goods rather than consuming them.
From The Baffler, Winter/Spring 1992. For more, subscribe to The Baffler.