Avant-PoPoMo Now

Ronald Sukenick

I'm sitting here with the Sunday New York Times Magazine, cynosure of the elite establishment, reading a quote from the zine buyer for Tower Records and Tower Books: "Barnes & Noble is now selling zines with bar codes." So there it is in a few bytes. What once-upon-a-time used to be called "selling out" is, here in Cyberville, just a matter of selling.

Or is it?

A bit later in the article a zine publisher, described as "bursting to sell out," is quoted as saying, "Capitalism is weird. I'm celebrating all the stuff we can purchase, but I'm extremely suspicious of it too."

Caveat hacker! The relations between cyberzinia and the so-called mainstream in Post-postmodern culture are a lot more complicated than they look, and especially than they used to look previous to the Sixties, when "sell" was a four letter word.

Capitalism is weird. In our hypercapitalist society money is like gravity - everything is pulled toward it. Add to that the disappearance of the outside. One of the symptoms of Post-post- modern culture is that there are no outsiders any more because there is no outside. Therefore no counter-culture, no avant-garde, no underground. Forget it. What used to be outside has been incorporated into the body informatique. Even the excluded are pulled into the Popomo dialogue, or should I say polylogue. The very exclusion of the poor, the homeless, the ethnically alienated is one of the hottest topics in the body informatique, affecting if not defining our sense of them and inevitably their sense of themselves. Nor is the status of ignored ignored in the Popomo polylogue - it's simply a category continuous with various degrees of not-ignored that cycle in and out of attention. There's no place to hide, no dropping out, whatever your situation, it's part of the convoluted incorporations, the "fold-ins," of corporate culture. Paradoxically, we inhabit an inside with no outside. There is no counterforce to the gravity of money that can sustain an exterior.

It hasn't always been so. Among traditional counterforces you could at one time count Marxism, idealism, Existentialism, religion, the New Deal/Great Society, culture, the counter-culture, Freudianism, art, etc. All imploded now into the black hole of hypercapitalism with its irresistible cash flow, accelerated by the cyclotron of information technology. The outside has been pulled inside and the result is that everything is inside out.

For a time it looked like the intello-chic known as deconstruction could at least track the culture drain. The tweedy vantage of academe provided a view somewhat apart from the vicious whirlpool all of us are caught in. Not only did deconstruction come with scholarly authority, it had the added advantage of being certified by the prestige of French culture, well known for its independence from, if not contempt for, the US as the crass center of blackholia. Younger American academics were delighted with a new perspective reenforcing a tweedy bossiness long frayed by apparent irrelevance. But the impression of critical distance projected by Boss Tweed was undermined by the very success of the movement. Lo, and furthermore, behold, it turned out that Boss Tweed was no more immune to fame and fortune than the rest of us. The academic stars from abroad flocked to America for their fifteen minutes, not to mention lucrative lecture fees and text book sales. Their domestic avatars were soon bragging about high salaries that put them in the income bracket of minor CEOs. Academics of a marxist persuasion were quick to jump on the Brinks truck. After all, they knew how to play the realpolitic game. Professors of oppressed minorities versed in the new terminology also proved excellent practitioners of Brinksmanship. Excluded women academics who talked the talk were among the first at the trough. The canon exploded - what was in was out and what was out was in. Students were reading books undeservedly ignored and were undeservedly ignorant of books formerly prominent. Did it make any difference? Sure it did - to those who got seats on the gravy train. Once again the gravitational pull of what Fug Ed Sanders calls "the mon" proved irresistible.

Capitalism is weird but hypercapitalism is weirder. Hypercapitalism is capitalism inside out. "Hollywood is looking to strip mine comics and zines," it says here. Hypercapitalism loves what isn't it. Why? Because it knows what isn't it is what's authentic, since it isn't. It isn't because it's based purely and simply on the mon. The authentic is by definition what's undercapitalized and unexploited. So it becomes crucial to pull what's outside in. But what happens to the outside when the outside gets pulled in? Right.

So that's the problem. And the problem is aggravated by the vocabulary applied. "Outsider." "Underground." "Avant-garde." "Experimental." "Quality." And last but most, "selling out."

There is no avant-garde in this country, and it's not clear that there ever was. The avant-garde is a European conception, and it doesn't fit in with the American sociopolitical set-up. We do not have the requisite militant ideological alternative needed to back a cultural avant-garde. Nor do we have a culture elite in a position to snub the presumed vulgarity of the middle class. It's even a question these days whether we'll have a middle class much longer. Finally, we don't have a self-confident intellectual class that sees itself as apart from the commercial culture. So, no avant-garde and so much the better, because what an avant-garde really represents is the cutting edge of the bourgeoisie without whose money, as Clement Greenberg long ago observed, it could not persevere. Our closest approximations are phenomena like the corporate bankrolled and tamely institutionalized BAM, the success hungry Beats, or the rather genteel Paris Review crowd. In terms of production, what we do have is quality - as opposed to commercial - culture, as in "quality fiction." But quality lit, or TV of the Masterpiece Theatre variety, are as formulaic as the sitcom or genre novel with a little snob appeal thrown in for those with pretensions to Kulchur. Anything more adventurous is termed "experimental," which basically means "won't sell."

While the outsider option has evaporated, we do still have something like an underground, except that the label is a misnomer. The underground is not underground any more, it's a network that exists at all levels of the socioeconomic scheme, and may be found, for example, on campuses or in corporation niches as well as in bohemia. A better label for it might be the resistance and its weapons tend to be electronic, as in fax, photocopy, PC and internet. As opposed to the traditional and marginalized print and performance venues of an underground, these are avenues organically integrated in the body of the society and make possible a new diffusion of resistance culture to a widely dispersed audience. It doesn't matter where resistance comes from, what matters is that it gets out there.

Let's be reasonable about selling out. Money is good. I like it, don't you? Money is democratic. It levels out hierarchies. It promotes social mobility. Like poetry it's metaphorical, but it's a metaphor with clout. It not only describes value, it purchases it. Let's talk about celebrity, for example. Celebrity is the only measure of worth we have that can rival the mon. But celebrity is inseparable from money. Celebrity and money are never in conflict. On the contrary, celebrity is valued because it's a negotiable commodity, easily turned into the hard currency of dollars. Even if the transaction is not actually consummated, celebrity always has the aura of money about it. That's why we talk about fame AND fortune - the two go together.

A few years ago I was contacted by a reporter for the Wall Street Journal who had read my book on the history of recent Subterrenea, Down and In. Didn't I think, as compared to the good old days, that writers and artists were now willing and eager to sell out? This guy wouldn't take no for an answer, kept asking the same question in different ways. Come on. Do we really think it's reasonable to go to an artist who's making it and tell her/im not to take any money for their work? Or even to take less rather than more? Or to refuse celebrity which will in turn help gain further note for their creations? There are individual artists who refuse these things, yes, but we're not talking temperament here. People react to such blandishments in their personal ways, but can we seriously say it's wrong to take them when offered?

Readers of the Wall Street Journal want their artists pure and poor - after all, somebody around here's got to have some integrity untouched by the mon. The wealthy want their artists starving in garrets, priests of poverty, on call for incorporation into the corporate culture when it needs a purity fix. So it can claim to recognize purity when it sees it. So it can be virtuous in that recognition. Purity, in this phase, equals no money. But hypercapitalism is a process, not a stasis. Once purity is recognized and incorporated into the money culture, the pure are duly rewarded with the mon. At that phase, artistic importance is indexed by profit, just like any other commodity. How much does it sell for? Does this story sound familiar, Mr. van Gogh?

When there was an outside, before the Sixties turned everything inside out, it made a certain sense to play the starving artist game. You could exist in fertile enclaves of like minded people resisting the system, and there flourish. Such enclaves had their own criteria in opposition to the mainstream. More, in contempt of the mainstream. But the Sixties made fame and fortune available to outsiders. The terms of chic were suddenly reversed. You couldn't get into certain glamorous venues if you wore a jacket and a tie. There was an ambiguous premium on rebellion because it became a marketable product. Once success in mainstream terms was available, voluntary poverty became self-defeating.

So is selling out a non-issue these days? Not if you have something worth selling. Where did the idea come from that selling is a sin? Besides, in the inside out world of hypercapitalism everything is a commodity. People are commodities, that's what People magazine is all about. The question of selling out boils down to what you do when you become a commodity. And you become a commodity as soon as you start trying to sell your work, which is known in the publishing industry, for example, as "product." If you're an artist of any sort the product becomes your trademark, and you become its brand name. In other words, it's you in your market identity, your "image," image being our casually idolatrous way of reifying what's vendable about personality. Since you're doomed to commodification you might as well start paying attention to the way you're sold. Paradoxically, the more strenuously you've avoided commodification, the more attentively you have to pursue it. You have to be "suspicious." You have to beware that your trademark artifact is not eclipsed by your brand name image, or that celebrity does not adulterate product.

Suspicion about success is an ambivalent leftover from the old days of artist as outsider. On one hand, you have to be skeptical about the marketing process and its way of strip mining talent. On the other, you want to get your work out to an audience. It's very hard these days to sit back and say the business of art is none of your business. You can't get outside the marketing system. Even a non-image, like Salinger's or Pynchon's is going to be a marketable commodity, and can be a powerful one at that. Under the circumstances, it's conceivably better to have an audience of a thousand people and maintain control of your image than to be represented as another supplier of homogenized "content" for the millions. There's nothing more likely to make you a one shot wonder than that kind of misrepresentation. It may be better to have an audience of a hundred and maintain quality control of your product. Or of ten. But this is only true if you have that kind of product. If you're producing pablum for the polloi, then go for the millions right away. Only make sure you control the quality of the pablum.

Since you can't get out of the marketing system there are only two options: deal with it or ignore it. If you deal with it succesfully, why not turn it to account? "Success" for artists in a hypercapitalist culture is problematic because it's going to be on business terms, not on artistic terms. Nevertheless, as we all know, success is a wonderful thing - it's how people often deal with it that stinks. You don't have to desert your old values and associations, though it may take some effort not to do so. You don't have to be a sonofabitch and refuse to return calls from old friends who helped you climb. You can use your power to further causes you believe in. You might remember not to burn your bridges, in case you should need them. You can help promote others whose work you respect. You might try to bend the corporate culture system a bit in small, subversive ways. You might even try to turn it inside out and, paradoxically, the system might not be totally averse to getting things right side up now and then. It needs its loss leaders, and from the customers' point of view, every little bit of increased choice creates good will. In any case, you might try, thereby, to remain part of the network of resistance. There are a lot of useful things you can do with success, more things than you can do with failure.

Image is very plastic in the sense that it's both synthetic and constructed. As brand name it can be considered an extension of the work of art, just as Mustang is to Ford. In the body informatique, product equals image plus artifact. Marketing is no longer separable from art, but a continuation and denouement. Together they comprise the Work, implying work also as a verb. Art is a process that at certain phases includes the information context around it. A painting doesn't "stop" when the painter puts down the brush any more than a book "stops" when the last word is written or even when it is printed. It doesn't stop until its career in the market stops which if you're lucky is never. The Work continues. It can be hard work and dirty work. Sometimes it can be fun. But I don't see how you can avoid it any more as a legitimate part of the job.

Hypercapitalism is weird. But it's our world and we have to function in it. And it's not necessarily a worse world than the phase of capitalism that spawned, say, World War II. Did I say that any of this was bad? It's just the new situation. And you don't need to pay attention to it if you don't want to. No one is obliged to try to dope it out, much less respond to it. No artist is obliged to do the marketing process. You can let it be done to you, possibly wiping you out. You can trust to luck. You can let others do it for you, determining for their own purposes the nature and fate of your product, your image. Which is to say, your reputation.


Co-publisher of American Book Review, Publisher of Black Ice Magazine, Co-director of FC2/Black Ice Books; Ronald Sukenick has recently released a new edition of 98.6, in print for 20 years; recent titles include: Doggy Bag & Endless Short Story. sukenick@spot.colorado.edu



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