Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Book Review: The Rebel Sell

Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can’t Be Jammed (Harper Collins, 2004)

The Rebel Sell authors set themselves the task of attacking an idea of counter culture they see at the heart of social movements, so is that why the cover has a summit protester in gun sight?

Potter and Heath are right that counter cultural rebellion can sometimes suck energy away from making "concrete improvements in people's lives," providing excuses for not engaging mass society but their counter cultural imagination is limited to MTV, Adbusters, a host of mainstream Hollywood movies, the authors' own dashed ex-punk background, Kurt Cobain 's suicide notes and anything mall rat in between.

Despite their stated central preoccupation they ignore well articulated differences between “sub cultures” and “counter cultures.” You see sub cultures hang under the mainstream's belly, dependent on it and lacking a real critique. Counter cultures at least try to foster alternative values and ways of being to replace a dominant culture - so one contains at least some revolutionary purpose, the other doesn't. This failure to distinguish gives the authors an easy job of ripping into a series of piss poor straw men.

There is no discussion of the very real and needed role of counter cultural forms in political movements. How could they have overlooked the IWW's folk song tradition, the working man's clubs of the UK and Ireland or the foot ball leagues and community groups of pre-Nazi German social democracy - were these too just "pseudo rebellions" to be ignored?

Alongside historic blind sight, they completely skip the well trod over subjective reasons for engagement in counter cultures. Still note how an awful lot of school yard bullying stopped once they and their nerdy friends went punk. Counter cultures can be a very ordinary thing, a form of self defence or demarcation of space. Think of struggles around silly work uniform rules or piss ant fussy supervisors having their authority eroded by a shop floor black humor.

Really the book does contain some great pop culture writing, but the attempt to weave it into a general theory of counter culture falls a little flat even if their reason for writing it comes from a decent impulse: movements that define themselves by being on the margins of society, will stay there.

Much of the weight of their book is just a re-hash of Thomas Frank's quip that "ever since the 1960's hip has been the native tongue of advertising." The authors claim to "shatter central myths" turns out to be just restating the obvious with much weaker conclusions. They themselves do not want to "eliminate the game, but level the playing field" and so call for traditional social democratic measures to over come market failures. They even suggest bans on cosmetic surgery, ignoring how thwarted society really is by contemporary forms of alienation in their call for a rewind to the '50's.

Face it anything that opens with the claim that Adbusters selling Blackspot sneakers was a “turning point for western civilization” is bound to piss you off along the way. With sky scrapers of argumentation erected on foundations of sand, the Rebel Sell smacks of a pair of grad student academic enfant terribles - the perfect stuff for drunken conversations, mindlessly frustrating yet deeply challenging to your own steadfast opinion.

Adam Curtis’ documentary The Century of the Self (on google video..) which looks at the harnessing of new lifestyles created in the 1960’s to brands that sell dreams over products and Thomas Frank’s book The Conquest of Cool, the original political economy of hip.

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