January 1999
s m u g
back issues
by Joshua Allen



That spasmodic twitch in your eye is probably due to the chilling vacuum at the heart of this column that your reptilian mind senses is here even before you read a word. What we have here is commentary upon commentary, meta-criticism, an observer watching an observer. This would all be well and good if the observed observer was actually looking at something interesting enough to generate a noteworthy reaction, but that's rarely the case since we're dealing with a Tootsie Pop with the eponymous candy center curiously missing.

See, even my introduction is rampant with vagueness and metaphor! Cultural criticism has a way of bringing that on - blurring specifics until they're out of the picture entirely. The Baffler, a Chicago-based zine masquerading as an academic journal, or vice-versa, succumbs to that on a regular basis, but in a spectacular fashion. Around since 1988, it's helmed by one Thomas Frank, and his voice is felt throughout the magazine, despite a fairly wide variety of writers. The consensus amongst the essays, reviews, and stories seems to be: Nothing in our culture (which is, in this case, American [esp. popular and business] culture) is simple, guileless, or fertile. The subtext here is that anything can be insidious and miserable if you look at it closely enough.

This sort of drain-the-fun-via-excessive-analysis doesn't mean that The Baffler is a boring read - quite the opposite - but it can be aggravating at times. And while Frank's essay about the current state of the media (dizziness and nausea due to me writing about someone writing about the way the media reports on others is normal and encouraged) is the centerpiece of issue #11, there are many other offerings that wander away from that more didactic path. There are two of the most insightful and innovative reviews I've read recently, one about the film The Third Man and one about a prescient Vietnam novel written in 1966 (note the not-so-current subject matter, which is consistent with the distantly insistent notion that everything has always sucked but some stuff from the past sucked not quite so hard). But the real goal of The Baffler is to expose the ugly little creatures that control our culture, to explain what's really going on behind even the most trite pop phenomena, illuminating the complex web of backscratching and psychographics and idiocy and greed that makes up pretty much everything we consume.

This is perfectly OK, but The Baffler's methods leave me feeling a tad empty. They apply the form and language of literary theory, in all its airy and vapid and hermetically sealed glory, to cultural theory, so we end up with something cold and distant. This seems inappropriate, considering that they tend to focus on subjects that are cheap and loud and everyday, like television commercials, and not densely layered philosophic tropes from Lyotard or the like.

And anyway, isn't it just way too late in the century to be outraged at this sort of stuff? Indignance over corporate co-opting, the diluting effect that money has on just about everything, manipulation by the media, incompetence in all of our major industries - that's all common knowledge these days. Yeah, it's disheartening and depressing to say, "Well, buddy, that's just the way things are," but it's the truth and preaching to the converted, no matter how erudite, well-written, and dead-on the sermons are, is not going to change anything.

What's more interesting to me is what we do now that we've all agreed that our culture is blatantly bankrupt. This is where The Baffler sort of peters out, withdrawing right before things start to get really hot and heavy (the fact that a magazine got me to that level of horniness, though, is saying something - none of the other periodicals I've talked about here ever got the gears working as quickly and thoroughly, including Entertainment Weekly!). I'd like some discussion of what the next step is. It seems like most popular thing to do, once you've acknowledged that Everything Stinks, is to say "whatever" and go about your business, only taking note of the degradation of our society when it starts to personally affect your quality of life. This works for a lot of people, it works for me most of the time. It was curious to see that a common explanation for "the people's" relative apathy toward the impeachment proceedings was that we were nearing the holidays and everyone was too busy fighting for the last Robot Dildo or whatever at Toys R Us.

Most people (and note that this information comes from televised news programs, which, as we all know, and as The Baffler certainly knows, are infamous for using dubious "experts" and "statistics" and "polls" to defend their biased information, fueled by the ill-gotten funds of multinational conglomerates, etc.) believed that the impeachment of the president would not significantly change the day-to-day workings of their lives, and viewed it as more of an ideological crisis than anything else. It was a serious event, sure, it was worth close attention, but when you get down to it, did it really matter to you, personally?

This is not necessarily an obscene or ignorant way to live. But it is unfortunate, and leads to a sort of general malaise, a deadening of a culture. This is what The Baffler is trying to remedy, by bringing intelligent, critical thinking back out into the open and applying it even to such pop fare as advertising, music, fashion, et al. And this is where the magazine succeeds, when it chooses a specific, relevant topic, like the music industry. This is something that many people can understand, relate to - we all buy albums at one point or another - and it's interesting to think about all of the various machinations and manipulations that go on behind the scenes. You can see through the lies, avoid being duped, be a wide-awake member of society.

But so what?

I mean, it's a noble enough pursuit to re-introduce us to critical thinking, but what's so great about critical thinking? In the world of The Baffler, it only seems to bring about bitterness and disillusionment, a world where pleasure can only be found in guilty parties crumbling under your crushing, razor-keen analysis. Their ad for themselves reads, in part: "You're convinced that when you enjoy yourself, you're not just having fun, you're sticking it to the man. Well, we at The Baffler disagree. And that's why we've constructed a magazine that goes out of its way to neutralize all those things that give you such joy." Sure, this shows a healthy sense of humor about how they're perceived, which was comforting at first, but it now reads like a pre-emptive strike against nay-sayers (my gosh, they're co-opting potential dissent, just like those dastardly soft drink companies!), like: "Yeah, haha, we ARE actually neutralizing those things you like but since we joked about it earlier the whole thing's in good fun, right? Right?" I don't know. Being smart and rebellious never sounded so dull and desperate.

I'm not saying we should all give up and wander around like the blind/mute slave pod people in The Dark Crystal, but it'd be nice if The Baffler and its ilk would offer some additional pointers toward the future. OK, now that we have this information, this knowledge about how our commercial world works, what do we do with it? How can we use it to make our lives better - not "the world" or "society" but our own personal selfish interests?

This is what concerns me, and if it's not getting addressed by The Baffler, then I'm not sure where to find it. But it seems like the next logical topic to tackle, and the only optimistic one. So our culture consists of nothing but money-motivated knock-offs, fine then, let's do something to change that. Let's make something new with the knowledge that the critics in The Baffler have given us, instead of just stewing in our own bitterness. Work the system for our own ends, piece together a new artform from the debris of fallen genres, define entirely new societal rules and structures for ourselves, play morons like tokens in a game of checkers. But just sitting around and commenting upon the wretchedness of our culture, while serving a purpose up to a point, seems increasingly like the intellectual version of a middle manager. And don't even get me started on people who comment upon the commentators. They're the worst!




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