Salvos From The Baffler
edited by Thomas Frank and Matt Weiland
W. W. Norton ($15)
by Christopher Sorrentino
Throughout its run, The Baffler has been a consistently engrossing and frequently persuasive journal of cultural criticism, loaded with a kind of edgy intelligence, far from the soi-disant “irreverence” of the day, that barely contains its anger. Its insistence that something is very wrong in post-Reagan America is striking in the midst of these Pollyanna times when criticism per se is equated with mean-spiritedness—particularly now that the language of dissent has been co-opted by that admixture of commercial interests The Baffler calls the “Culture Trust,” and now that the latest slew of manufactured heart's-desires are marketed not simply as shiny new additions to your collection of status counters but as gateways to liberation. The Baffler coheres around the broader sense of this co-optation as it relates to American life and its components, including the farcical Lifestyle Debates engendered by the “alternative” and “Gen X” fiascoes, management theory and business culture, the funny money stock market, the rotting slum/theme park duality of the contemporary city, and the labor movement—none of which, according to The Baffler, can be discussed before acknowledging the might of a culture business that buries everything except its own toxic iridescence beneath the soft snow of its droppings. As its editors write in their introduction to Commodify Your Dissent, an anthology drawing from past issues of The Baffler, “contemporary capitalism has marshaled the forces of culture . . . to ensconce itself in power and to insulate itself from criticism to an almost entirely unprecedented extent.” The Baffler penetrates this insularity and abrades what's beneath, attempting a genuine critique while furiously shadowboxing with the static and interference created by the Culture Trust's stylemakers.
So why is Commodify Your Dissent a disappointing anthology? Maybe it's unfair to judge such a compilation against the virtues of its source—it's a truism that the anthology reviewer is faced only with what's included—but the source should at least serve as a standard, and Commodify Your Dissent falls a little short. Space must have been an issue, and I suspect that editors Tom Frank and Matt Weiland forfeited the variety offered in the magazine in a bid to present a unanimous vision in the anthology—in fact, eight of the twenty-three pieces collected here were authored or co authored by Frank, and nine of the others also are by Baffler editors (a staff-to-outsider ratio far greater than is typical of the magazine). Too bad—the anthology suffers from its lack of outside contributors, and although the editors write of their determination to confront power “in the most direct manner,” part of The Baffler's strength lies in its willingness to be indirect at times; its inclusion of subtly allusive commentaries that balance the frontal assault. And it's as a frontal assault that this anthology is submitted, from “Opening Salvo” to “Closing Blast.” While The Baffler is perhaps most rousing when it's as immediate as these martial metaphors suggest, the results of a hot-off-the-griddle approach sometimes age poorly, and the inclusion of certain essays—e.g., Keith White and Frank's supremely overheated “Twenty-Nothing” (1992)—is questionable. Commodify Your Dissent usually hits home when it drops the cultural combat stance and takes an oblique approach to concentrate on a specific subject, as with Jennifer Brostrom's “The Time Management Gospel,” Stephen Duncombe's “I've Seen the Future—and It's A Sony!”, Dave Mulcahey's “Leadership and You,” and Steve Albini's delightfully tart “The Problem with Music.” Commodify Your Dissent also has the unintended effect of underscoring some of The Baffler's dopier biases, muted enough over the course of a few issues but distinct here. Swipes at fatigued bogeymen like “Academia,” “Postmodernism,” and “Theory” appear frequently, lacking in nearly every instance an exact definition of what's being denounced. And when the early Beats are treated to not one but two special shellackings, each conflating their work with the media's continued infatuation with them, you begin to suspect that Commodify Your Dissent is peering under the bed for what it calls “lifestyle liberals.”
Funny, infuriating, fresh, dogmatic, startling, perceptive: Commodify Your Dissent is each of these things. But I still think that the best Baffler collection is any given issue of the magazine (which I recommend without hesitation): I gradually realized that I was reading an anthology that, for whatever reason, rarely probes issues of race, class, and poverty, of the epidemic inequity of the world. Though there are exceptions to this (notably Kim Phillips's striking “Lotteryville, USA” and Frank's convincingly bleak closer, “Dark Age”), the critique that emerges from a volume that's at its most scathing when it's kvetching about Pearl Jam and Madonna is a narrow one indeed. The editors acknowledge that there's a boundary to that critique, and it would belabor the obvious to do more than suggest that this boundary is perhaps most plainly demarcated by the fact of the anthology's publication by a trade house, even as it speaks of “corroding the machine, filing down the teeth of the gears.” Of course, like the famous cigar, sometimes a trade edition is only a trade edition, and as the editors write, “we suspect that political change is going to require actual politics.” So do I.
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Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol. 2 No. 4, Winter (#8) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1997