Reconstruction 10.3 (2010)
Return to Contents»From Slacker to Revolutionary: Generation X and the Rise of the American Global Justice Movement / Benjamin Balthaser
Movements are not sprung from hope but its absence.
Hey, Kool Thing, come here, sit down beside me
there's something I gotta ask you.
I just wanna know, what are you gonna do for me?
I mean, are you gonna liberate us girls
from male white corporate oppression?
-Kim Gordon, "Kool Thing," Sonic Youth
<1> Over a year now since Barack Obama ascended the stage with a politics of sincerity, many progressives are beginning to suspect that our motivational speaker-in-chief may have awakened the wrong giant within. Plagued with mobs from the UFO-wing of the Ayran Nation, Obama's genial retreat from principle has occasioned a great deal of hand-wringing, but little historical introspection regarding the movements of the previous decade. Part of this absence is a problem of definition. "Generation X" by its very name marks a non-event, something without a self-generative name. To make matters worse, if Generation X were ever useful as a cultural definition, it's undoubtedly now reduced to the status of cliche. Its heroes are dead by their own hands – David Foster Wallace and Kurt Cobain – or have lapsed into obscurity like Richard Linklater and Douglas Coupland. Its central premise that disaffection can be funky has been co-opted by advertisers who would make you believe that cars can be ironic or Pepsi can be a voice of culture critique. Even now, the captains of the culture industries abandoned this mode of salesmanship: hope is primary marker of both presidents and soft drinks alike .
<2> Yet the same decade that witnessed "whatever" as the neologism of a generation, also witnessed the largest, organized uprising against capitalism in the U.S. since the rise of SDS or if you prefer, the CIO. The same decade that was marked by a youth culture of hip consumerism was also marked by an investigation of what lay behind the commodity form in a renewed interest in sweatshop labor as well as a return to labor unions as a site cultural and political importance. Rather than understand these two moments as merely different bookends of an uninspiring decade, I would argue that what we witnessed was a decade-long structure of feeling that culminated a social movement the latent effects of which are still evident in the political scene. These two Seattle moments -- the dark implosion of grunge and the vibrant explosion of the Global Justice Movement -- are not so much mirrored inversions but cultural and political expressions of a unique social formation, one that found its voice in the twin conjecture of post-modern disavowal and the hard contours of a neo-liberal state.
<3> Generational markers often conceal as much as they tell us. Despite the facile dismissal of Generation X as mere Oedipal reaction to the grand narratives of the Boomers or a marketing strategy born on Madison Avenue, the early nineties witnessed two crucial historical conjectures. The fall of the Soviet Union constituted a real crisis in world Marxism as much for the failure of Gorbechev's policies to redeem the project as for the fall of the system itself. The simultaneous failure of anti-colonial movements to secure real independence from Western powers as well as the failure of European social democracy to present a third alternative to capitalism and communism led neo-Hegelians like Francis Fukayama to proclaim 'the end of history' and neo-conservative Pentagon planners to project a new era of U.S. imperial power. Yet this new era of U.S. triumph over the spatial and temporal coordinates of the globe also coincided with the most severe recession in U.S. history since the downtown of the early seventies. Rather than the end of the Cold War experienced as a triumph of U.S. democracy, it was experienced by an entire generation of young Americans as the puncturing of the final Reagan-era myth, that unregulated markets and laissez-faire economic policies bring prosperity for average Americans. The lack utopian futuricity felt by the end of projects of Enlightenment social engineering took on a grim literality as college graduates faced what seemed to be an uncertain future. The first generation of affluent college graduates to not be able to own homes coincides with the end of any notion of collective ownership. Fukayama's "lack of futuricity" took on an unpleasant echo of the punk slogan from the late 1970s: no future.
<4> In Phillip Wegner's encyclopedic work on the culture of the 1990s, Life Between Two Deaths he locates the 1990s as a kind of "empty space of history," between the twin collapses of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the World Trade Center in 2001. Looking at Hollywood films like The Matrix, Titanic, Independence Day, and Fight Club, Wegner articulates the way the dystopian impulse of the "long 1990s" also held out space for radical possibility as in The Matrix or as more likely, fascist violence and traumatized patriotism as in Independence Day or Fight Club. While Wegner correctly sees the 1990s as a moment of political possibility, reading the teleological uncertainty of a world without a War on Terror or a Cold War as one in which "history might move in a number of different directions," the book fails to account for the way mass culture and social movements are mutually constitutive . Beyond a few references to the utopian possibility of the Global Justice Movement and its obvious pop culture references in films like The Matrix, the book doesn't ask the more deeply structural question: did the political culture of the 1990s produce a unique sensibility, what Michael Denning refers to as a "cultural alignment" among political activists and cultural workers . At first glance, it would seem that the culture of irony and disaffection in works like Generation X and films like Clerks would be a separate phenomenon from radical global justice activists hitting the streets in Seattle: it's not as though black-clad anarchists hit the street with Douglas Coupland novels under their hoodies. Yet, as I will argue, it is precisely this culture of disaffection, marked by skepticism, irony, cynicism, and outsider status that formed a structural homology to the many dissident movements that came together from 1998-2000.
<5> For a good part of the decade, the prime touchstone of student activism and counter-culture was labor. Not since the 1930s had any movement of cultural workers, young people, and hipsters set its sights on the labor movement as the sin-qua-non of real politics. From student organizations such as United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), Students for Economic Justice (SEJ), to Global Action and Direct Action Networks (GANs and DANs), the sweatshop was to the 1990s what the segregated lunch counter was to the early 1960s. There are many ways to analyze why labor exploitation became the site of political energy in the 1990s. Of course, the 1991-3 recession, the meltdown of the so-called era of Reagan prosperity, and fiscal austerity measures resulting in higher student fees and privatized public services inform the economic backdrop of the "drop-out" culture of Generation X. Even Time magazine recognized that the new trend in vintage clothing and alternative medicine also recognized the needs of an economic demographic that could no longer afford name brand clothes or drugs.
<6> Yet I would argue that movements are never purely explicable by historical conditions alone. More than material condition, a glance through major works through the decade reveals a twin obsession with both a critique of the commodity and a concern for the way the commodity undermines or compromises individual authenticity. In films from Fight Club to Clerks. from Office Space to Ghost Dog; in critical works from Thomas Frank's Commodify Your Dissent to Naomi Klein's No Logo; in fiction from Doug Coupland's Generation X to Don DeLillo's White Noise, the commodity form and its promotion in advertisement and branding is a sign of the social order's artificiality as well as an entry point for a broader critique of capitalism. Tyler Durden's line in Fight Club "you are not your fucking khakis" could be the summary of both the political content as well as the sensibility for left movements. Yet if Gap advertising campaigns are considered emblems of "fake" identities and empty "lifestyle choices," such a critique begs the natural follow-up question: what then, is reality? In moves that are more metaphoric than literal, the turn from computer programmer to construction worker in Office Space or the location of Durden's house near abandoned factories is suggestive of what Klein's work does explicitly – the turn away from the commodity form is investigation into who makes the commodity. In a sense one could say, the rejection of the post-modern "surface" of commodity relations is a return to its source: labor became "the real."
<7> In one of the few attempts to pose of the question of the relationship among pop culture, irony and politics, David Foster Wallace's essay "E Unibus Pluram" suggests that irony is no longer the domain of hipsters and literatti, but the voice of pop culture itself . Contemporary sit-coms are ironic, ads are ironic, TV is the voice of the lone ironic outsider speaking cynicism to power. Indeed, Wallace argues, irony has become "institutionalized" as it marks the "tone" of the present moment as different from the past: the new sit-com, whether Married with Children or Alf presents itself as the constant deflation of meaning. The danger for Wallace is that of course, institutions like sit-coms by definition can't be ironic; they are the very cultural authority they would seek to undermine. He then further despairs that even high literary writers have joined the game, and in its flat deadpan satire, highbrow writers have become "televisual" as well. Wallace ends the essay by calling for "anti-rebels" who "eschew hip fatigue" and embrace "accusations of....overcredulity....of a willingness to be suckered ." In his desire to ever be outside the mainstream and continue to voice critique, Wallace embraces a radical earnestness. Let's call it an anti-institutional sincerity.
<8> Yet Wallace doesn't seem to want to take his own adivce. I would argue that in his attempt to break with current of 1990s culture, Wallace's essay is an example of its basic narrative structure. Wallace fears that irony has become an "agent of despair," a substitution of passive cynicism for active engagement. Yet, the essay is structured as something of a confession. Wallace continually reminds us that he too, is a watcher of television. That it's too late for him. That he is inside its aura. And then there are the self-reflexive disclaimers. Sections of the essay are titled "i do have a thesis" in all lower-case and "guilty fictions" of which pleasures he takes part. Wallace is also cautions that sincerity is often the memory lane of the far-right: a sweet nostalgia for a time in which women and minorities knew their place. As a call to arms it's a strange one, unless one takes the very process of critique – the performance of the very irony he wants to escape from - as the political message.
<9> It's this gesture rather than Wallace's own prescriptions that mark the cultural alignment of the fin-de-siécle: an ironic travel from irony to commitment that is schizophrenically suspicious of both. The late 90s anti-globalization protest, with its nodal model of spokes and affinity groups marks the political form of this sensibility: the protest itself building the new movement out of what appears as total disruption. Think of Fight Club's journey from alienation to commitment told as a narrative of psychic breakdown and frustrated desire. Or perhaps The Baffler's insistence on an avant-garde style – margin cartoons, fusions of high and low culture, hyper-stylized -- is the elite version of The Matrix's Neo who performs his role as the "one" only by believing that such a category is neither possible, nor made for him. Even the Hollywood blockbuster Independence Day features a kind of right-wing version of the same narrative, as it is idiosyncratic outsiders who must save the world from both aliens and an incompetent government. Consider: the world saved by a black stripper, a Jewish intellectual, and a drunk Vietnam veteran with PTSD. The gap between official messages by incompetent officials is healed by the inclusion of skeptical misfits into the new social order.
<10> If the nineties could be said to be anything, it is wrapped in this paradox of an army of smooth hipsters challenging capitalism and trying to find common ground with militant workers. In this sense, it's probably not all that surprising many of these texts are ones constantly in process – the details of what happens after the union is formed or the revolution won or the sincere adoption of a new politics is rarely considered. In the same way Coupland's Generation X begins in Palm Springs, they are texts writing from a political ground zero. Even if 1990s intellectuals and activists showed a renewed interest in labor, it was hardly a return to the AFL-CIO or any other easily recognizable road to left politics laid by a previous generation. As with Naomi Klein's essay about the new (now old) movements after Seattle, most of her attention is paid to the shape of the protests themselves, as much as their content. In the same way much of the literature showed consciousness as a process as disentanglement from "fake" corporate life, so the movement is one built on the processes of expression themselves. In this way, 1990s culture is strikingly retro, as it mimics less the French New Wave or the neo-noir that defined cool culture a generation before. Rather, they are post-modern reaches back to the 1930s tale of commitment, only without a Communist Party, CIO, or faith in revolution to form the teleological ending.
Irony and Culture: Fight Club and the Seattle Moment
<11> In a 2001 address to a roomful of activists and academics at UCLA, Naomi Klein posed the question: "Was Seattle a movement or a collective hallucination ?" It's a telling metaphor, as so many of the films of the late 1990s pose this very question to the viewer, asking if breaking with the political status quo may indeed be a break with reality itself. Consider The Matrix's Neo who realizes his life was little more than a virtual reality sequence, or Fight Club's Jack who suffers Dissociative Identity Disorder as a way to radically dissociate himself from consumer capitalism. Klein suggests that while Seattle may be marked for the activists in the room the same way Flint, Michigan or Birmingham, Alabama may be marked for the labor and civil rights movements, it's something of a solipsistic notion of history: for most Americans, Seattle is associated more with "frothy coffee, Asian-fusion cuisine, e-commerce, billionaires and sappy Meg Ryan movies..." Yet rather than leave this observation as just another grim fact of post-modern fragmentation , she suggests something more radical -- that it is precisely through these degraded forms of consumer culture and capitalist production that the new movement finds its own form. In this sense, the Seattle movement was a kind of hallucinatory defamiliarization, as new meanings sprung out of seemingly mundane objects: the commodity, the internet, the street, and civil society organization transformed into a politically charged clash that appeared as suddenly as a genie let from a bottle.
<12> Fredric Jameson reminds us that utopian thinking often performs a negative function . Rather than imagine utopia as a kind of happy stasis, or aphanatic finality of all desire, utopian desires are structured from their opposites, in the grasp of dystopian present. In Archaeologies of the Future he suggests we find in Wal-Mart's global power a kind of utopian possibility, that their power to suppress wages and labor standards by their purchasing power could also be the scale needed to do the opposite, enact a global New Deal . As Klein and others have noted, the spectacular protests in Seattle and Washington, D.C. resemble nothing so much as the world-wide-web. Conceived as nodes and spokes, the acts of civil disobedience in Seattle and DC gathered around primary hubs or "spokescouncils" designed to coordinate the day's actions among the dozens or even hundreds of affinity groups that volunteered to block intersections around the city. Imagine a web-page with thousands of links, or a chat room in which anonymous individuals and groups could wander in and out. In contrast to traditional movements based on a pyramid structure, with the leadership at the top and the masses at the bottom, the protests organized themselves horizontally, often without spokespeople, press conferences, or other markings of political campaigns that would render the event legible to the media. Even the apparent center – the spokescouncil – was merely an momentary collective of affinity groups, the 10-15 member "squad" of friends and comrades that would often act independently and without communication to the larger group. Embracing what was often referred to as a "diversity of tactics," this would mean that while a consensus vote could be taken on the shape of the day's actions, one affinity group could peacefully lock arms, while another – to take an instance I witnessed – could knock police officers from their motorcycles, and make barricades from construction site detritus, and light it on fire.
<13> The goal of the protests was often straightforward enough – to prevent the world trade and financial institutions from meeting. And if nothing else, we should be reminded that the protests were successful in placing the previously meaningless acronyms IMF and WTO into public discourse. Yet there was a significance beyond the practical goal of preventing business as usual from taking place. For institutions the chief purpose of which was to privatize public resources from land use to telephone companies to water rights, claiming the public thoroughfares with the chant "who's streets?/our streets!" meant more than just a challenge to authority. Naomi Klein's formulation of "reclaiming the commons" is correct, but what she doesn't mention is that the protests themselves were perhaps the ultimate form and forum for this claim. They were more than a declaration of common rights to common goods – they were the seizure of public space for a radical democracy rather than profit. In this sense, the protests resembled a precise reversal of the degraded forms of political culture of the U.S. in the fin-de-siecle: instead of corrupt politicians who passed NAFTA with "bipartisan" support, a radical direct democracy of the people would collectively decide how to best oppose it; against a WTO and IMF that undid local labor and environmental laws, the spokescouncils were models of self-governance; rather than alienated sub-cultural identities based on consumer trends, the spokescouncils and affinity groups would employ the same logic of individualism and difference to create effective and crucially unpredictable protests; rather than corporate spectacles based on branding or nostalgia (Lollapollooza or Woodstock II), these were spectacles of anti-capitalism.
<14> I would argue that late 1990s film needs to be read in this cultural and political context: a new movement created as much to oppose particular policies as to transform the privatized forms of capitalism through a kind of utopian negation. Take Fight Club's Tyler Durden. As an independent soap maker, he manufactures soap in his kitchen using liposuction fat recovered from dumpsters. As much of Durden's actions, they are ironic jokes tailored to expose the absurdity of late capitalism. "Selling rich women's fat asses back to them" as expensive soap is a coarse commentary on the culture of luxury over-consumption on which the post-Reagan economy depends. Rather than general prosperity, the 1980s and 1990s witnessed what Mike Davis calls a "split level economy" in which the falling wages of once-unionized households is replaced by the hyperconsumption of the wealthy to stimulate growth: over-eaters cannibalizing their own excess . His job as a projectionist splicing pornographic film stills into family movies is disturbing for the precise reason it's possible, as it reveals the extent to which culturally divided forms such as "family" and "porn" are part of the same industry and even employ the same people. Or defacing an EPA billboard with the caption "you can use old motor oil to fertilize your lawn" suggests how lawns and cars are the poisonous outgrowth of the suburban development pattern, even if they register analytically as something "green" and something mechanical. Indeed, Project Mayhem derives its name diegetically from "Project Hope," what the police commissioner details as a solution for urban poverty: more police in poor neighborhoods.
<15> The actions of Project Mayhem aren't chosen randomly. While cultural critic Henry Giroux derides the group as a series of privatized terrorist acts, his critique ignores the not only the presence but the integration of such acts of "culture jamming" in the global justice movement. Project Mayhem resembles no group more than the performance duo the "Yes Men" who climbed to notoriety just shortly before Fight Club was released, by giving false interviews during the WTO protest. and going on to impersonate representatives of Dow Chemicals and the WTO, promising compensation for Bhopal victims or ironically advocating neo-slavery as better for profits. Indeed, one of the "Yes Men's" first stunts was to splice images of men kissing into the computer game SimCopter. closing resembling the spliced images inserted into family films by Durden. Thus the vandalism undertaken by Project Mayhem, the affinity style group born out of the fight clubs, is produced out of a kind of counter-logic, that the very impersonality and anonymity of late capitalism can be used to subvert it – a kind of "dead souls" in reverse. Consider for instance, the way the Yes Men get invited to speak, often by creating fake websites and waiting for calls. Within these pranks is a kind of revolutionary premise – by exposing the standardization or "false universalism" of capitalism, jokes like theses suggest utopian spirit underneath. In Fight Club, the ultimate "joke" of course is the final transformation: from soap to dynamite, from commodity to weapon. It is the act that finalizes the transformation of a "men's group" into a revolutionary anarchist militia, and also marks the final transition of the film, from irony and pranks to political action.
<16> The development of Project Mayhem parallels the development of Jack from Tyler Durden, or rather the disentanglement of one from the other. In a film that has generated everything from real fight clubs to a whole cottage industry of criticism, the figure of Durden has garnered more discussion than anything else in the film. In the strongest and first serious critique, Giroux labels Durden a "fascist" and argues Durden "represents the magnetism of the isolated, dauntless anti-hero whose public appeal is based on the attractions of the cult-personality rather than on the strengths of an articulated, democratic notion of political reform ." Another gender critique positions the split between Durden and Jack as the split in the masculine liberal subject between desire and discipline, the excess of which is projected onto the figure of the feminine – thus Marla and the femininized consumer is the "root of the problem" for men . I would argue that both of these perspectives on the film are accurate, only that the problematic nature of Durden is the point. One of the paradoxes of the film is that Tyler is both necessary for the Project Mayhem to begin, and yet he is also what must be destroyed if it is going to continue into something more than mindless violence and self-destruction. Like the anxiety about the twin Seattle movements of grunge and WTO protests -- that they are "fads" and nothing more -- so Tyler Durden appears as something of a rock star to Jack who is initially taken more by his charisma than his politics. As Giroux himself mentions, there is an apparent contradiction between Tyler's anti-capitalist message and the fact that Durden is played by the Hollywood super star Brad Pitt. Rather than see this as a contradiction, I would argue that it is the precisely the contradiction the film wishes to explore. At one point Jack/Durden addresses the fight club that "we've all been raised on TV to believe one day we'll all be millionaires, and movie gods and rock stars but we won't and we're slowly learning that fact." Of course, the irony is this line is spoken by a movie star and a millionaire who acts exactly how a movie star should look and act like: only it is Jack,. not the audience, who is slowly "learning that fact."
<17> Durden explains the reasons Jack has engaged in this particular hallucination: "All the ways you wish you could be, that's me. I look like you wanna look, I fuck like you wanna fuck, I am smart, capable, and most importantly, I am free in all the ways that you are not." While much has been said about how Durden performs an idealized masculinity, little has been mentioned that Jack's relationship with Durden is much like the relationship of a consumer to a media personality. Rather than "come home" to his "IKEA nesting instinct," Jack relied on coming home to Durden, an equally fantastic relationship broken by Jack/Durden's relationship with Marla. In order to be released from one consumer nightmare, Jack dreams up another. Yet Jack's alternate fantasy from IKEA to movie star is also the catalyst for change. Creator-destroyer; self-other; discipline-desire; reality-fantasy, much of the role of Durden serves is as a metonym for the consumer's role with the media. Rather than an audience model of passive viewers, the film suggests that viewers have a unique relationship with media personalities, only it is one based on a kind of infantilized need rather than equality. In the same way Marx argued the universality of capitalism creates its opposite, the universal revolution, so the immediately recognizable "universal" star Brad Pitt creates an anti-consumer revolt. Thus one can see Durden as the final act of culture jamming, impersonating a Hollywood "rebel" in order to deliver a needed message to otherwise tuned-out citizens.
<18> It's thus significant that Marla bears the truth about Durden to Jack. As Susan Faludi notes in her Newsweek review, Jack's final gesture to take Marla's hand represents a rejection of the adolescent violence of a "men's media" that Durden inspired . Yet while Marla gestures towards a new kind of political maturity for Jack, it's worthwhile to note what exactly Jack overcomes. Marla's sin in Jack's eyes is that she exposes him as a phony, someone who joins support groups without actually having the disease in question. Jack had gone to these support groups to experience "real pain" rather than the insomnia inspired by its opposite, the endless reproduction of signs without referent - the "copy of a copy of a copy of a copy" Jack not only embodies but produces as he narrates his life over a copy machine. Jack's "production of the real" through support groups fails when Marla appears, forcing him to invent Tyler Durden as final psychic escape from his alienated life as a "slave with a white collar." Marla's function throughout the film therefore is to not so much to reveal "the truth" but the truth of reality's constructedness – she is a participant in the spectacle of the real just like Jack is. By recognizing his affinity with Marla and thus their shared artificiality, Jack abandons his last escape from political responsibilty and last refuge of "the real" -- gender.
<19> Rather that represent revolutionary struggle transparently – as workers organizing al la Ken Loach or John Sayles – Fight Club embraces oppositional identity as a fundamental question of irony. The film very obviously makes fun of the cult-like members of Project Mayhem, as perhaps believing a little too strongly in the cause that Jack/Durden spend the film urging them to take. As Terry Eagleton reminds us about Marxism, oppositional identities like class (and one could say the same of gender and race as well) are essentially ironic -- they are a form of alienation that one must embrace in order to abolish . I would argue that Fight Club makes the same argument about consumer identity. And not in the glib sense that one must indulge in shopping to overcome shopping, but rather the way our dreams and even our fantasies of revolution are shaped and misshaped by a culture that privileges the most adolescent and privatized forms of masculine power. Indeed, like class or gender, they are forms of alienation that one must go through in order to come out the other side. To make a broad analogy, the giant demonstrations in Seattle and Washington DC and Genoa were also media spectacles -- and the smarter organizers of these protests understood that grabbing media attention was a necessary, if dangerous opportunity. For consumer culture shapes all that it touches, including radicals who form the very protests against it. Like the Wallace essay, irony is not just the flip-side of commitment, but the precondition of it. The chant "This is What Democracy Looks Like" was serious, and yet Fight Club reminds us, democracy might also need to appear to us in the form of Brad Pitt.
<20> If the Coupland novel Generation X is remembered today, it's for chronicling as a kind of tongue-in-cheek documentary the "drop-out" culture of the early 1990s. Yet it's worth considering that Dag – one of the trio who relocated to Palm Springs to live as a semi itinerate bohemian -- left a middle-class job "enslaving the Third World" as a marketing professional, because he confronted his boss over the toxicity of his workplace. With a number of employees complaining of "Sick Building Syndrome," Dag calls the building inspector and in the course of being chewed out by his boss, quits – but only after asking rhetorically "...do you really think we enjoy hearing about your brand new million-dollar home when we can barely afford to eat Kraft Dinner sandwiches in our grimy little shoe boxes and we're pushing thirty ?" Or one can consider that way a critique of white collar and service work is central to the narrative of numerous Hollywood and independent films of the decade: Clerks, Office Space, Office Killer, Fight Club, Ghost Dog, Bread and Roses. Even The Funeral is a classic mob film in which an idealistic mobster believes the mafia supports the labor union that pays it protection. Yet with the exception of Bread and Roses, as labor films, they would appear a far cry from the radical filmmaking of Salt of the Earth or even Norma Rae. Generation X and Fight Club are both about college educated, former professionals; Ghost Dog is a parody of professional life in post-industrial America. While one could dismiss the films as merely hipper versions of the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit in which executives decry the loss of their manhood on comfortable leather couches, I would argue that the films reveal a much deeper anxiety about declining prosperity, stagnating wages, and the contradictions of middle-class hegemony over cultural life. They are also importantly films about outsiders, workers who feel they have no representation or hope for a better future within the existing structure. While it would seem Loach's film Bread and Roses breaks with this trend, the film features a union dissident who organizes office janitors despite the union's indifference to the campaign. While Loach's film may appear more ostensibly "political" than Clerks or Office Space, I would suggest that they are both expressions of the twin themes of labor and alienation that struggled to find form in the global justice movement.
<21> Clerks is the first in a series of films about dissatisfied service workers, and may be clearest about the contradictions it sets to work out. Filmed in black-and-white, it evokes a kind of homage by satire to Italian neo-realist style, replacing the stark urban landscape with post-urban stripmalls and intimate portraits of the working class with sarcastic small-time drug dealers and over-educated store clerks. Focusing on a single day of a convenience store clerk appropriately named Dante Hicks – a kind of provincial descent into hell - the film rambles through a number of ironic exchanges between Dante and his best friend Randal while Dante sorts out his feelings between his current and ex-girlfriend. Hanging outside the store are two dealers, Silent Bob and Jay, who both steal from the convenience store as well as heckle Dante while he works. Culturally middle class, Dante refuses the company of Silent Bob and Jay, and often seems to be earnestly concerned with the fate of the store, hand-painting signs for the window, defending the store from anti-smoking advocates, clearing away vandalized locks, and granting permission gravely about whether or not patrons can use the bathroom. In many ways, the convenience store functions as a parody of the male-centered office space of a previous generation. Dante's girlfriend brings him a home-baked lunch, while Dante organizes a sports team of other clerks to play hockey on the roof – a kind of improvised lunch hour at the squash court. Mimicing the lunch-break tryst that goes badly, Dante skips work for an hour to attend the funeral of an ex-girlfriend and accidentally knocks over the casket. Yet as misfortune continues to pile up on Dante – the hockey game is terminated by an irate customer, his girlfriend leaves him when she learns he was planning a date with another (and living) ex- - his refrain is to invoke bad luck: that he was called in to cover for a sick co-worker and wasn't "supposed to be here today."
<22> Criticizing Dante's explanation for his misfortunes, fellow-service employee
Randal Graves gives Dante a speech towards the end of the film:
You sound like an asshole!....you overcompensate for having what's basically a monkey's job. You push fucking buttons. Anybody can waltz in here and do our jobs. You-You're so obsessed with making it seem so much more epic, so much more important than it really is. Christ, you work in a convenience store, Dante! And badly, I might add! I work in a shitty video store, badly as well. You know, that guy Jay's got it right, man. He has no delusions about what he does. Us, we like to make ourselves seem so much more important than the people that come in here to buy a paper, or, god forbid, cigarettes. We look down on them as if we're so advanced. Well, if we're so fucking advanced, what are we doing working here?
In criticizing Dante's "epic" sense of importance, the film recalls another epic Randal critiques for its labor politics. Discussing Star Wars III in the video store where he works, Randal asks Dante a series of rhetorical questions about the final rebel victory. Noting that the death star was unfinished, Randal asks Dante to imagine whether or not "independent contractors" were "working on that thing: plumbers, aluminum siders, roofers." If they were killed when the death star was blown up, then wouldn't, Randal concludes, the rebels be murdering innocent workers? Perhaps the most famous "epic" of modern film history, Star Wars can be read of celebration of U.S. democracy and the triumph of both capitalism and the Cold War. And yet such a triumph of U.S. democracy, Randal implies, is predicated on the invisibility of the workers who are sacrificed for "the greater good": "All those innocent contractors hired to do a job were killed - casualties of a war they had nothing to do with." While it's at once a brilliant critique of the absence of labor in popular culture and the way Cold War narratives leave out their own victims, it's also a critique about Dante's way of seeing. Dante, who separates himself from the irresponsible Randal and the petty criminality of Jay and Silent Bob, has made his own labor invisible to himself through the "epic gaze" of his white collar, white male, identification with the meaning of his work.
<23> Unable to grasp that he has a "monkey's job" for which he is completely replaceable, the film grafts the story of Dante's inability to see his own class-position with his inability to see the value in the woman who loves him. His ex-, with whom he's still in love, can't tell Dante from a dead man in the bathroom. In this way, she mimics his own employer who keeps Dante – like his poet-namesake - in a state of animated death, there to fulfill a function and no more. Dante's faith in his "epic" status as a masculine worker is mirrored in the "epic" masculinity that feels threatened by his girlfriend's sexual past. Obsessed with the number of "dicks" his current girlfriend "has sucked" in the past, he can't see that she not only bakes lasagna for Dante's lunch, but defends him in the store from a violent anti-smoking advocate by spraying an angry mob with fire-retardant. Tellingly, it is Silent Bob who has "no delusions" about "what he does" as a dealer who gives the one moral homily of the entire film in his only spoken line: "You know, there's a million fine looking women in the world, dude. But they don't all bring you lasagna at work. Most of 'em just cheat on you." The film turns on its head categories of "honesty" and "truth" – Silent Bob who makes an "honest living" because he doesn't lie to himself about his masculinity or his occupation, and Dante who is a scrupulous worker yet completely delusional about his own position in the world. The film's search for authenticity is staged against a background of post-industrial sprawl in New Jersey in which it appears the two options are service work or the informal economy. Thus Dante's pretenses are exposed as a symptom of a larger social problem, the inability to see the wreck of the social fabric around them.
<24> Like Clerks and Fight Club, Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog is set in empty urban space, in which little seems to take place – the mafia that at one time would have engaged in illegal prostitution, gambling, labor union fraud, and other forms of organized crime around an industrial base, lacks the funds to even pay for their own meeting space. And yet, as Wegner suggests, we can read Ghost Dog less as an off-beat gangster film, as a commentary on the "self-fashioning" that professionals engage in to survive in a neo-liberal flexible economy . "Ghost Dog" who creates a fantasy identity for himself out of kitsch samurai films fused with the romantic mobster genre, is a "sub-contracted" hit-man for an old-style mafia that is as run-down as the rust-belt section of Jersey City in which the film is located.. Ghost Dog's loyalty to his "master" is rewarded only by his own death, and in this way, exposes the emptiness of his self-fashioned life in which even "professional" workers can be cast away when they are no longer needed. Like Clerks and Fight Club the attempt to manufacture an "epic" identity is rendered as an act of self-destruction – one that unlike Jack, Ghost Dog finds no release from. A critique of post-modern "self-fashioning" these films chronicle a return to a grim if fantastic realism in which the individuality and interiority of the characters is circumscribed if not determined by material condition. Contrary to the Hollywood romantic mythos, finding the "self" is precisely the act of stripping away pretenses of individuality and seeing structural forces that determine the narrator or hero's fate.
<25> In this way, these films chronicle the increasingly contradictory position of the middle-class in the post-Fordist era of flexible employment in the U.S. While rates of college attendance have skyrocketed and fewer and fewer Americans define themselves by class markers, white-collar employment became increasingly marked by casualization, downsizing, and subcontracting -- elements that one would usually associate with least skilled sectors of the economy. Generation X aestheticizes the economic prospects of college graduates by rendering them drop-out new bohemians and Ghost Dog narrates these trends through a post-modern gangster film, yet they render in clear and unsentimental terms the growing psychic and material divide between cultural markers of middle-class and the structural forces that render the characters, for lack of a better word, as new proletarians. These representative acts are remarkable considering that "class" was supposed to be the unspoken word in American politics and culture. As Mike Davis argues in Prisoners of the American Dream, going into the 1990s labor unions exercised less power culturally and politically than they had since the late 19th century. And as philosopher Jurgen Habermas suggests, movements no longer revolve around class, rather issues of identity, national belonging, and the environment. While Germany built windmills under the Red-Green alliance, they worked with Christian Democrats to undo the German welfare state; while Bill Clinton argued for gays in the military, he signed NAFTA into law. This betrayal by parties aligned historically with working class movements coincides culturally with what Fredric Jameson remarks as a defining feature of post-modern late capitalism, the universality of bourgeois culture. And so more remarkable than arguments about "poverty" is the fact that these films define class within a Marxian framework, as labor increasingly removed from control over the means of production, and thus from autonomy and security.
<26> The presence of labor within film coincides with a growing interest in labor within student movements and – for a time – a growing openness within the AFL-CIO to try new and democratic approaches to labor organizing. Organizations like United Students Against Sweatshops and Students for Economic Justice were just a few that forged links with labor unions both on and off campus. Like the Harvard Living Wage campaign, Janitors in the University of California system won health care due to a series of sit-ins students led during the union's contract negotiations. Students walked picket lines with Teamsters on strike against Supremo Foods in Chicago and educated consumers about labor abuses New York's New Era hat factory. The involvement of students allowed labor to "play outside the normal rules" of union behavior as the president of UNITE! put it, since students couldn't be brought under the same discipline workers face in the U.S. while organizing. Strategies of sit-downs, engaging with consumers about the products they consume, and targeting contractors with threats of boycotts are tactics that haven't been seen in the labor movement for decades. The student movement coincided with AFL-CIO president Sweeney's insurgent "New Voices" campaign that seemed fueled by h a successful nationwide United Parcel Service strike and more importantly, the Justice for Janitors campaign that mobilized entire communities to target the building owners who determined wage rates rather than the cleaning contractors. Yet students didn't only see themselves as supporting labor. Throughout the 1990s, graduate and professional students were joining labor unions in unprecedented numbers. As they saw their own status erode with the neo-liberalism of education, they increasingly began to understand their own status as tied to other workers. Tens of thousands of graduate students at the University of Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, the UC system, UMass system, and NYU joined labor unions within the space of a decade. This meant that a large swath of the educated and professional workforce understood their position as "intellectual workers" rather than as "professionals" joining trade or colleague "associations."
<27> The metonym of the "office" became a way to explore both the changing consciousness of professional workers as well as the changing nature of exploitative labor in 1990s. In films like The Matrix, Fight Club, and Office Killer, the office becomes visually what the narrator in Generation X describes as "veal-fattening pens," sites in which the white-collar worker is consumed as a living commodity (20). In Mike Judge's 1999 Office Space, the exploitative conditions are linked to the place itself, making the office to Generation X what the factory floor was to the naturalist novel of the 19th century. Simultaneously absent of anything that would appear to be productive labor, it is also a site of spatial control, in which the illusion of professional autonomy is revealed as interlocked spaces of alienated labor. Office Space performs an act of symbolic recovery when the office is burnt down by a kind of post-modern Bartelby, who no longer receives paychecks but nonetheless refuses to leave. Rather than state his non-compliance with authority and his right to a social wage enacted by an individualistic gesture of refusal – Bartelby's "I prefer not to" -- Milton Waddams develops an attachment for the office supplies, suggesting a radical solipsism that ironically reflects his own identity as commodity, an office tool. Yet Waddams' act of sabotage – and theft of the money to live on a resort island in the Caribbean – does not, like Fight Club, inform the act of the closure in the film. Waddams becomes a "pinche gringo" on his Caribbean island, suggesting that the logic of sabotage and theft merely reproduces the social theft of labor represented by the computer firm, Initech. Rather, programmer Peter Gibbon's new identity as a manual worker, clearing away the debris of the office he once worked, effects an identification with the working class as "a way out" of the spatial prison of the office. The imaginary of physical labor as redemptive – framed as outdoor exercise and associated with other outdoor pleasures like fishing – effects a sentimentalization of working class labor, yet it also marks the film as part of radical lineage of novels and films that see manual work as socially and morally superior to white collar occupations. Given the renewed interest in 1930s cultural production – from the recording of Woody Guthrie's songs by Billy Bragg and Wilco to Michael Denning's The Cultural Front – such a return performs an important historical gesture of marking intellectual solidarity with the labor movement.
<28> Ken Loach's 2000 film Bread and Roses makes literal what is performed in Office Space as merely a partial act of signification. Rather than a mere symbolic referent to the working class, Sam Shapiro plays a white, educated labor organizer trying to organize workers in a downtown LA office building. Like other rebels of 1990s film, Shapiro is represented as an outsider. He's critical of his union that sees workers merely as "target campaigns" and "strategic goals," searching for "easy wins" rather than organizing those who most need it. Not only is Shapiro disciplined for the money it costs to bail him out of his illegal actions, he retorts the union "pisses away millions" to the Democratic Party rather than organize workers. Yet as much as Shapiro is an outsider to the labor hierarchy and to the liberal political establishment, he is also seen as an outsider to the workers he hopes to represent. To Maya's sister's, Shapiro is "white boy college kid" and she tells him there can be no recognition or solidarity between a white college-educated organizer, his "fat union," and the needs of a working class woman of color. While the campaign is successful in winning the union, Shapiro's love-interest – Maya – is deported, and Shapiro must face the victory alone. The question of "what do you risk" posed to him by both Maya and Rosa is never answered. Compared to Maya's deportation, the answer is clearly – very little. Unable to speak Spanish, Shapiro is a successful organizer, yet one who remains continually outside the frames of emotional or communal social life.
<29> The figure of Shapiro is I would suggest, the culmination of two gestures of irony and commitment that mark 1990's alternative culture. His book-cluttered apartment and sense of missionary zeal stakes him as a representative of the many idealistic students who entered the labor movement in the 1990s, responding to student-led campaigns and to the scores of hip publications like The Baffler, Adbusters, and Slingshot that presented labor as the new site of political challenge. And likewise, it's clear in Bread and Roses that Shapiro does not see himself immune from the economic changes taking place in the U.S. Yet the cultural contradictions faced by middle-class, college educated youth are still cultural realities. Shapiro is distrusted by many of the cleaners, and he is never able to fully bridge the racial and cultural divide between them. Yet his very status as an educated outsider becomes a needed asset for the union. His education allows him to have a fluency with corporate and elite culture – recognizing the points of political leverage in the city, and being able to explain them in practical and theoretical terms. His middle-class and racial status also allows him to infiltrate a corporate dinner as well as a corporate party to deliver speeches to the owners and tenants of the building. And perhaps most importantly, his disaffection – marked by his cool hair and inflected speech patterns – may place him outside both his union management and his constituency, it also allows him critical space to defy union directives and exercise loyalty to the workers he's organizing. The aesthetic dimension to his personality is underscored by the line he utters in his final speech– we want bread, but we want roses too – suggests an important turn on the 1912 Lawrence strike. Shapiro may want bread, but he also wants vintage clothing, too.
The Irony of Hope
<30> In many ways, it may seem academic to bring up a cultural moment that has since vanished from the public scene. Yet I would argue, Barack Obama's campaign displays some of the best and some of the worst impulses of 1990s culture. Anxious that we're the "middle children of history" as Tyler Durden puts it, Obama delivers to aging Gen-Xers a sense of historical mission that was lacking through the decade – the election of the first African-American president, and the embrace of the Democratic Party as the vehicle of choice for progressive causes. Yet this embrace of historical mission has also come at the cost of moving the left from the position it held in the late 1990s – as outsiders. As much as Marxist theorists like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri prophesied that globalization rendered the entire world "inside" the logic of capitalism, the Seattle moment was always one of those left out of its boardrooms and high-priced cosmopolitan condominiums: union dissidents frustrated by the bureaucracy of their unions, liberals frustrated with the countless sell-outs of the Democratic Party to business, wage-earners frustrated at their declining incomes, and citizens frustrated by the way they've been shut out from the public life of the state. If Obama marks the return to sincerity, he also marks the return to a real affective relationship with the forces in power. This is not to suggest that the Global Justice Movement was anti-government, far from it – many wanted more government intervention into markets. Yet they also understood that the government would never be forced to act from the inside.
<31> Thus irony and disaffection were crucial markers of a movement that could not afford to give up on a radical skepticism. While one could ask what the culture of disaffection accomplished, especially as the WTO protest and those like them vanished in a whiff tear-gas -- or into the smoke of the burning World Trade Center -- I would argue that the new era of hope and sincerity is far more dangerous. The emotional investment in Obama, while perhaps understandable given the civil rights struggle that has dominated the political life of America from its inception, has also rendered the left far more docile than in any moment in memorable history. While many activists speculated that the post- 9/11 return to a culture of seriousness may also ennoble the political debate, it appears irony is far better at constructing an insurgent left and fueling the essential sense of freedom that any movement will need. Far from being apathetic, Americans seem far too invested in institutions of capitalism and bourgeois democracy to break from them.
1 I would like to thank Josh Mason for his help in formulating my ideas for this essay and Laura Tanenbaum for her editorial suggestions.
2 Philip Wegner, Life Between Two Deaths, 1989-2001: U.S. Culture in the Long Nineties (Durham, Duke University Press, 2009), 9.
3 Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of U.S. Culture (London, Verso, 1997), 58-61. Denning borrows "cultural alignment" from Raymond Williams as a way to suggest generational shifts in political sensibility that avoid either Romantic notions of "commitment" or purely sociological studies of poll data or membership in particular organizations. I would also argue that The Cultural Front, while about the 1930s, is very much a book of its moment. Perhaps one of the most important academic books to emerge of the decade (and most widely read), it argues that the "margins" of the socialist movement "were the center." This focus on grass roots, peripheral figures within the broader movement speaks not only to the 1990s commitment to labor, but to the anti-institutional spirit of the decade.
4 David Foster Wallace, "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction," A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (New York, Little Brown & Co, 1997), 21-82
5 Ibid., 81.
6 Noami Klein, "Reclaiming the Commons," New Left Review, issue 9, May-June 2000, 81-9.
7 Fredric Jameson, "Politics of Utopia," New Left Review, issue 25, Jan-Feb 2004, 35-57.
8 Fredric Jameson, Archeologies of the Future (London, Verso, 2005).
9 Mike Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream (London, Verso, 1986), 211.
10 Henry Giroux, "Private Satisfactions and Public Disorders: Fight Club, Patriarchy, and the Politics of Masculine Violence" Henry A. Giroux, Global Television Network Chair in Communication Studies, 2000, <http://www.henryagiroux.com/online_articles/
11 Lynn Ta, "Hurt so Good: Fight Club, Masculine Violence, and the Crisis of Capitalism," Journal of American Culture, 29(3) September 2006, 265-278.
12 Susan Faludi, "It's Thelma and Louise for Guys," Newsweek Oct 25, 1999 <http://www.newsweek.com/Print This>
13 Terry Eagleton, "Irony and Commitment," Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1990), 23.
14 Douglas Coupland, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture (New York, St. Martin's Press, 1991), 19-21.
15 Wegner, Life Between Two Deaths, 134.
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