At the DDRofR&B we spend a lot of time reading, and talking about what we’ve read. While we were going through, and polishing up, the tapes of At Ebbw Vale last week, Dai Nasty mentioned an essay by Steve Albini that appeared in The Baffler about 17 years ago. You probably know the one – where he employs the analogy of a trench full of shit and uses it to explain the whole ‘band meets A&R man, band gets signed, band records record, band gets dropped’ saga that happens to everyone who chooses the major label route to misfortune.
Anyway, I suddenly realised that the essay in question has been reprinted a million and one times, in a million and one places. So, though you’ll all doubtless have read it, you may not have read it in The Baffler. Indeed, you may not be aware of The Baffler. And you really do need to be aware of The Baffler.
The Baffler is probably the finest journal of our times. Under the stewardship of Thomas Frank, it explores the themes that Frank’s own work, both scholarly and popular, has always explored: that of the business of culture. Back in the early 80s people never understood why Thee Faction had no interest in being co-opted into the culture industry, despite the recording contracts, music press cover stories and concert promotions everyone assumed we would take ‘advantage’ of. An issue or two of The Baffler should help you understand why we steered well clear.
Between 1988 and now, The Baffler has been irregularly published, hard to get hold of – even from the leftest of left wing news stands – and under horrific financial pressures – not least when its offices mysteriously caught fire about 10 years ago. But every time you’ve been able to get a copy, you’ve been provided with an absolute treat. The culture industry, the culture of business, the business of culture – each has been picked apart by a posse of the finest minds the American left has to offer. And, in the tradition of Marx, they don’t just moan or mock – they look at how the world might be, and what we need to do to get there.
At the root of Frank’s work, and that of The Baffler, is a pretty simply premise: rebellious consumption is nigh on impossible. All that counter-cultural stuff that you buy into? It’s The Man’s idea. He’s planned it, promoted it, and now reaps the benefits of it. A flick through Thomas Frank’s The Conquest of Cool – a scholarly work, impeccably referenced, which rips apart the myth of the counter-culture – gives you a clear idea of what to expect. You can read Chapter One of it here. If you bought into punk, as brought to you by Virgin, CBS and McLaren, or grunge, as brought to you by Geffen and MTV, or if you have been buying into Wired’s high-tech utopia, you might not fancy delving too deeply into Frank and friends….you’re going to be pretty disappointed in yourself. But be brave. We were, thanks to a recommendation from Comrade “Doc” Fraser back in the early 90s, and since then we’ve redoubled our efforts in this war of position we find ourselves in.
Thee Faction have made no secret of their aim of building a genuinely counter-hegemonic movement – one that can’t be co-opted or bought by The Man. It’s possible. The contributors to The Baffler know it’s possible. But it’s very hard, and it requires us all to stay one step ahead of The Man at all times. Thomas Frank and his huge team of comrades help us do that, by giving us a much clearer understanding of how The Man works, and how to spot bogus counter-cultural activity from a mile away. It is essential reading for all of you, brothers and sisters.
It’s pretty difficult getting hold of copies of The Baffler. But you should be able to find yourself a copy of the first compendium of Baffler articles, from the first 9 years of the magazine (from 1988 to 1997). It’s called Commodify Your Dissent, is published by Norton in the UK, and is full of brilliant articles that make you simultaneously: hate yourself for caving in to The Man in your weakest moments, clutch your head at the sheer brilliance of what you are reading, and hurl the book down, pick up a pick axe handle, and staff a barricade.
For those of you who (wrongly) think reading the classical texts is a bit boring, or for those who (equally wrongly) feel that the old guard (Marx, Trotsky, Gramsci and co) are a bit outdated and don’t really address contemporary capitalism, this is the stuff you need to be reading. Seriously. Read it now. Cos this speaks to you, directly, about the era of capitalism we live in, now, and about the kind of future we should be planning for, tomorrow. And it does it in a funny, biting, satirical way, in exactly the language you and your friends dissect the state and civil society in around pub tables before a Thee Faction show.
You genuinely need to read as much of this stuff as you can. Now. The future depends on it.