Dispatches > The Buzz

The Buzz

Issue: "Focus on a family feud," Feb. 27, 1998

Rebellion Is Big Business

Nike tells us to just do it. Business consultants teach us to thrive on chaos. Big record companies sell digital rebellion. The editors at the Chicago litmag The Baffler see a contradiction. Instead of promoting traditional capitalist values, corporate marketing is on the side of the cultural revolution. Thomas Frank and Mark Weiland, in their reader called Commodify Your Dissent, look at '90s cultural landmarks like Wired magazine, DKNY, and Vans shoes with a dumfounded stare. They argue that the cultural elite has abandoned "the angry God of Jonathan Edwards" for the idol of the rebel consumer. Everything from Hugo Boss to Burger King pitches the idea that buying their product will let one break with convention and stand as a lone wolf in the postmodern wilderness. "Hip is their official ideology," they say. It isn't just that the cultural rebels have taken over big business; what really bothers them is that big business has taken over cultural rebellion, turning it into just another consumer product to buy. The authors in this compilation also take a dim view of the phony-baloney New Age pep talks pitched at big business. Somehow by studying Sitting Bull, Zen archery, and self-actualization, corporate executives can make profits go through the roof. For example, a fatuous meatpacking exec is pounded for saying things like, "Watching people grow is my No. 1 joy." Commodifying Dissent refreshingly thumbs its nose at much of the "'60s-style liberationist pap" on the American landscape. The counterculture has become the culture, and good luck creating an alternative to the official alternatives. Trouble is, the Baffler editors have no answers. They're a bunch of leftists who are mostly mad that big business has co-opted their revolution, turning their slogans into big-dollar globocult. People have been conned into throwing money at fads since the beginning of time. All the authors can offer instead is that everyone needs better job security and more labor history. Maybe they should read more Jonathan Edwards.

Science-run-amok as Hollywood formula

Future space travelers take note: When you find that alien craft and bring it back, don't be the guy who volunteers to go check it out. This is one of the top causes of death among science-fiction characters. The latest in this Alien-shaped mold is Sphere (Rated PG-13), yet another movie based on a bestselling novel by Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park, Congo, Andromeda Strain). Dustin Hoffman leads a crew beneath the sea to explore an alien ship that crashed to earth 300 years ago. The story is straight out of Mr. Crichton's formula of science-run-amok. Sharon Stone plays Mr. Hoffman's former love interest--and she survives. Samuel L. Jackson, who seemingly appears in every American movie made since 1994, plays a mathematician with a penchant for Jules Verne. Barry Levinson, Mr. Hoffman's Wag the Dog cohort, directed and co-produced. Recent Wheaton (Ill.) grad Stephen Hauser wrote the screenplay. Sphere bounces around between being Alien, The Abyss, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It's also a rare movie where all the plot points are explained at the end. But Sphere is all chill and no thrill.

Even on the internet, writing is still writing

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Cyberculture has been bubbling under mainstream society for several years. The world of cool sites, killer apps, and buddy lists wins more converts by the day, but it hasn't competed well with old-fashioned video and print. Meanwhile, a lost generation of writers is busy composing away against the backdrop of e-mail, Web sites, and unlimited access. Digerati Levi Asher and Christian Crumlish sample these notes from the underground in Coffeehouse: Writings from the Web (Manning Publications). They selected 46 notable pieces from the slush pile of cyberspace and put them in print. (Naturally, each author includes his e-mail address for those who want to read more.) Most of the pieces aren't about the Net. They're stories reflecting the world of the twentysomethings, the first generation to be inundated with the Internet. It all reads like what one would get if the local Village Voice clone ran fiction. With all this new technology comes a drive to find new things to say with the new technology. Trouble is, there's nothing new under the sun. While cyber stuff has brought new technologies and faster communication, writing is still writing. The Web doesn't really generate a new way of seeing; it just generates more writing. By making publication easily available to anyone, it lets everybody be an author. The editors of Coffeehouse wisely avoid the "Oh, wow, the Net is so cool" genre. Their book is interesting because of its grass-rootsiness, but one must wonder why the reader shouldn't just skip this book, go online, and find his own compilation for free.

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