No counterculture

by Rob Horning

2 February 2006


In her eagerness to cut social programs and privatize various sectors of the economy, Margaret Thatcher once famously declared, “There is no such thing as society.” In their book Nation of Rebels Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter want to argue something similar, that there is no such thing as a counter-culture. Not only that, but there is no such thing as “the system” or “the culture” so you can’t pretend to escape it or defy it or achieve meaningful change by thwarting it. Another way of phrasing this is to say that there is no “outside” of the system from which one can judge what its aims are or the degree to which one is implicated in it. The “system” absorbs all social activity; if it is anything, it is the manner in which social behavior becomes legible, comprehensible—it is a grammar, not a specific command (a langue, not a parole, for all the semoticians out there). Heath and Potter’s venom seems to be reserved for those who wish to reduce politics to a lifestyle, who mistake individual taste decisions with political action; those who make a competition out of how well you can signal your commitment to rejecting mainstream culture and refuse to sully themselves with participation in existing power structures. It’s hard not to agree with them, but it often seems as though they are after straw men, mistaking consumer rebels portrayed in ads for the earnest and sincere people who want alternatives. It is not counter-cultural to fetishize individualism; that has been a “mainstream” position for years, that it is more convenient to avoid others than to cooperate with them, that community is a namby-pamby fiction best used to described for cub scout groups and PTA meetings. To share is conceived as weakness, as a de facto kind of theft, and corporations do what they can to foster a militant individualism, which generally ends in more people emulating a corporation’s single-minded pursuit of profit. When people try to “culture jam”, which Heath and Potter say is impossible, what they are often trying to do is undermine the assumptions built into that fetishized individualism and promote community; they are trying to undo the exclusionary categories that fashion, class distinction and its requisite signaling commodities thrive on. The problem is that whatever undoing they accomplish is rapidly reachieved by the logic of distinction itself—their anti-individualistic approach itself becomes fashionable, cliqueish. It gets appropriated by those with no particular political consciousness, the drones who wear Che shirts and unwittingly trivialize important symbols and nullify them for those who could use them to unite the kind of coalitions Heath and Potter call for to make real headway in the exisiting political systems. If those are the people they want to condemn, I am with them completely; but it seems as though they want to push it further and attack a target that more readers are probably happy to see attacked—intellectuals, those affronts to democracy who haven’t been shamed into properly masking their intelligence and conforming to accepted boundaries for public discourse.

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