Jim McGuigan was our guest this week in the virtual classrooms of the postgraduate course on Art, Culture and Innovation. A Professor of Cultural Analysis in the Department of Social Sciences at Loughborough University, his critique of contemporary social theory also serves as a warning for society at large.
He writes on the dangers of cultural populism and its latest, most disconcerting manifestation: Cool Capitalism. Being “cool” has been incorporated into capitalism itself, argues McGuigan, allowing it to be surreptitiously used as a strategy for political disempowerment.
McGuigan’s argument departs from a simple observation: the desire to be cool is ubiquitous and is frequently pursued (especially by young people) through the consumption of popular culture (wearing different fashion labels, listening to various kinds of music, watching movies, playing video games, etc.). In the forum with the students of the UOC, Professor McGuigan wrote:
The thing about coolness is that it carries connotations of rebellion but also has always been associated with a cynical, indeed, nihilistic withdrawal from contestation. It seems to me that the attitude is perfectly summed up by the way many young people today, in my experience, say it’s all shit but there is nothing you can do about it. That is very disarming and depoliticising…. a kind of knowing cynicism.
Or, as the singer John Mayer puts it, while he coolly claims to speak for his generation: “It’s not that we don’t care. We just know that the fight ain’t fair. So we keep on waiting.” (“Waiting in line to buy concert tickets,” we might hear Steve Dallas from Bloom County sarcastically murmur.) This aloof indifference is the core of the danger for McGuigan. While many young people claim to support a liberal agenda and the public good, their dispassionate “cool” (which is passionately dedicated to consumption) in fact supports neo-conservative economics and, in the end, serves only private interests (McGuigan 1989: 171).
The problem lies in what Professor McGuigan calls cultural populism.
Cultural populism is the intellectual assumption… that the symbolic experiences and practices of ordinary people are more important analytically and politically than Culture with a Capital C. (Professor McGuigan. Personalised video address to the UOC students.)
There are two interwoven arguments here. The first is that populism opposes Culture with a capital C. The second is the emphasis in cultural studies today upon “symbolic experiences and practices.” The first allows for the second. Because culture is no longer the privileged domain of a few, there is no limit to where one may find great cultural inspiration.
Culture with a capital C is everything associated with “high culture,” officially ratified institutional culture, such as the fine arts, classical music or painting. The anti-establishment movements of the 1960s, for example, were concerned with dismantling the opposition between high and low culture, permitting the proliferation of an aesthetic sensibility that permeated throughout all domains of cultural activity.
Take the example of Eros and Civilization (originally written in 1955 but re-released with an explosive political preface in 1966) by Herbert Marcuse, known as the father of the New Left. Reading his work, one sees that, at the time, the refusal of normative Culture had the same theoretical foundation as the refusal to fight in Vietnam. “This Great Refusal is the protest against unnecessary repression, the struggle for the ultimate form of freedom'” (149-50). According to Marcuse, culture with a capital C is repressive because it restricts aesthetic enjoyment to the solemn halls of the museum. Art also had to be freed from oppression. Gaining freedom meant overthrowing these conceptual shackles and becoming a Nietzschean superman, finding art everywhere and in everything, “with the good conscience to make life an end-in-itself” (xiv). In this way, “the opposition between man and nature, subject and object, is overcome” (165). Herbert Marcuse before a crowd (1972)
Once one has embraced the philosophy of life-as-art, wrote Marcuse, aesthetic pleasure is unleashed from its conceptual bonds. Then every moment can be an artistic event. Every cultural activity can become an act of artistic production.
McGuigan notes how this idea has been passed on to and magnified in contemporary cultural studies. He wryly cites John Fiske’s analysis of Madonna which hailed her as an icon empowering female youth. Fiske interpreted Madonna as “a site of semiotic struggle between the forces of patriarchal control and feminine resistance, of capitalism and the subordinate, of the adult and the young” because “popular forces transform [any] cultural commodity into a cultural resource, [they] pluralize the meanings and pleasures it offers” (Fiske, J. 1989. Understanding Popular Culture).
Cultural populism, then, is both the rejecting of Culture with a capital C and the embracing of any and all cultural activity as productivity. It is the intellectual position that allows cultural analysts like Fiske to call something as passive and banal as television-watching “producerly,” meaning that it is not only a productive activity but also a site for possible “subversion of the dominant culture” (Fiske 1989; McGuigan 1989: 169). For Fiske, one can be a rebel while staying home and watching MTV.
from Bloom County Babylon by Berke Breathed (compilation published 1986)
Unlike during the counter-cultural movement of the 1960s, cultural studies today are no longer opposed by an oppressive capital-C Culture. But over time, this led into a trap. With an openness to everything-as-art, the issue of politics was replaced by that of pop culture. And the lure into the trap was consumerism.
The subject of action discussed in cultural studies was no longer the multidimensional subject of action known as the citizen (who dealt with real societal and political questions). Instead, the discussion was reduced to the one-dimensionsal subject known as the consumer.
a construction of an all-rational , calculating subject, forever seeking to maximize marginal utility in consumption choices. Rational consumer decisions, aggregated as demand, are said to trigger supply, or rather, result in success or failure on the supply side of the free market. (McGuigan1989: 172).
This fiction is unwarranted, not least of all because people are not as described. They are not rational calculators (they are vulnerable to advertising); they do not have free and total access to complete market information; nor do all consumers have equal economic power or market access. Nonetheless, the fiction is pivotal to the neoliberal argument – despite the fact that it goes largely unacknowledged by its proponents.
Combining (1) a Nietzschean enthusiasm for pop culture with (2) a theoretical reduction of the subject to consumer (3) transformed the project of the 1960s and 1970s into a full-blown “market and marketing phenomenon during the 1980s, so that everything became ‘culture’ under the equivalence of exchange value” (McGuigan 1989: 174). In just two decades, 1960s counter-cultural rebellion was incorporated into and absorbed by market capitalism. This irony has been explored in detail in Joseph Heath’s and Andrew Potter’s The Rebel Sell: How the Counterculture became Consumer Culture (Harper Collins, 2005). “In the countercultural analysis, simply having fun comes to be seen as the ultimate subversive act. Hedonism is transformed into a revolutionary doctrine. Is it any wonder then that this sort of countercultural rebellion has reinvigorated consumer capitalism?” (Heath and Potter 11)
The result has been a “theoretical convergence of an exclusively consumptionist cultural populism with right-wing political economy” (McGuigan 1989: 171). Advertising now lures the subject to realize him or herself through commodity exchange, baiting him or her with the promise of becoming a cool consumer. “A more complex game of status competition came to prevail…It is not the goods one possesses that count, but rather the enactment of consumption sensibility or taste as carried out through them… To play the game it is necessary to appear all-knowing about the practices of promotion, to seem to be disinterested in goods and impervious to social rivalry – in short, to be cool.” (William Leiss and Jackie Botterill. 2005. Social Communication in Advertising. 564-6)
But while neoliberals have been busy buying into cool, the neoconservative economic policy has been quietly implemented and expanded. The result
has been to erode the welfare state, cut back the public sector and further marketwise all social practice. What we are experiencing is a crisis IN neoliberalism and not yet OF neoliberalism. At the same time, no doubt, there are cultural studies scholars debating whether or not Lady Gaga is radical. (McGuigan, comment posted this week in the UOC discussion forums)
Perhaps the most alarming example of the dangers of Cool Culture is the one mentioned this week by Professor McGuigan. That is “the celebrification of politics.” Amongst many things, this means that political candidates are ever-increasingly expected to appear on variety talk shows and comedy programs to show their lighter side, put up with taunting and, above all, keep their cool. It was Al Gore – in what was, to that date, the most expensive political campaign of all time – who broke ground and appeared on David Letterman‘s talk show in 2000 to give his own Top Ten reasons why he should be elected over his opponent. Infamously, his number one reason was “I’ll be twice as cool as that president guy on The West Wing.” By 2010, even the President himself – AFTER having won the election – felt obliged to show off his cool in front a television audience, presenting himself on a kitsch neon stage like he had won American Idol (cf. image above: President Obama on The Daily Show, Oct. 27, 2010).
Recently, in the United States, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations have the right to free speech and therefore cannot have the amount of money they spend on political campaigns restricted. To date, at least one American business has taken the decision to its logical extreme and decided to run for political office. McGuigan himself does not make the connection, but the insidious conceptual role of the sovereign consumer can be seen here. If the subject of action is no more than a consumer, then the subject of politics – not merely the citizen but the politician as well – will be abstracted from his or her lived reality to become an artificial concept, one that implicitly serves the ends of an ever-accelerating consumer economy.
We would like to thank Professor Jim McGuigan for sharing his time and insightful comments with us this week.