U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Baffler Round Table, Entry #3: Keith Woodhouse

[Editor’s Note: This is entry number 3 of 4 total in our round table covering The Baffler, No. 19 (March 2012). Today’s piece comes from Keith Woodhouse, Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Southern California. Monday’s entry came from Eric Brandom, and Tuesday’s from Adam Parsons. A response to all three will follow from John Summers, The Baffler‘s new editor-in-chief. – TL]
Before Occupy Wall Street, before the WTO protests in Seattle, before No Logo and Adbusters, there was The Baffler, taking on a corporate ethos slowly insinuating itself into American popular culture. The magazine first appeared in 1988 to fill what its founders viewed as an empty space in cultural criticism on the Left, a space opened up by the retreat of academics further into their particular niches and schools of thought. It ran intermittently from 1988 to 2001, and then even less frequently (fewer than one issue a year) through 2007. There was a brief revival in 2010. Now The Baffler has returned with the institutional backing of the MIT Press. The first new issue is out and is numbered 19, suggesting continuity rather than a fresh start.
Reviewing a magazine is an odd practice because while all magazines strive for coherence within articles, far fewer attempt coherence between them. The Baffler is different, as the new editor-in-chief, John Summers, makes clear in his introduction to the issue. “Our mission” Summers writes, “is to debunk the dogmas that discourage the intuitions of experience from fully forming in a critical intelligence” (p.8). In the case of issue 19 that debunking is aimed generally toward technology, the high-tech industry, and what the geographer Richard Florida likes to call “the creative class.” The notion that the twenty-first century is a time of unprecedented and accelerating technological breakthroughs is, according to Summers, a bunch of crap. Placing all those supposed breakthroughs in historical perspective, he says, leads to the sneaking suspicion that the tech industry has succeeded “mainly at producing dazzling new ways to package and distribute consumer products…that have been kicking around history for quite some time” (p.8). It is, it turns out, an era of low expectations, or of moderate expectations cheaply satisfied.
The centerpiece of the issue – the longest article, and the inspiration for the cover art – is David Graeber’s “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit.” Graeber starts with a simple question: Why haven’t we gotten all the cool stuff promised to us by mid-to-late-twentieth-century depictions of the future, stuff like invisible force fields, hoverboards, interplanetary travel, and flying cars? He offers a rich and complicated answer, reaching back decades and involving a constellation of influences.
Graeber starts with a central irony: despite the serious claims of many 1960s intellectuals that fully mechanized factories would liberate human beings from menial work, it was not technology but outsourcing that freed many Europeans and North Americans from the assembly line. By the 1980s consumer products were increasingly made not at home in high-tech factories by robots but rather abroad in low-tech factories by displaced rural workers. If Marx was right that profits can be extracted only from human labor, Graeber notes, then there are powerful incentives in place to avoid at all costs the 1960s fantasy of automated production.
Market imperatives mixed with political ones determined the nature of technological innovation in the United States. The moonshot was probably largely responsible for unreasonable expectations about commercial space travel and vacationing on Mars, and for Graeber it was little more than a public relations effort to prove that capitalism could out-innovate communism. Once the United States had established its mastery of outer space, it was free to funnel the vast majority of its technological development funding into military research to insure its mastery of the planet’s surface as well. The story that the big-government scientific projects of the 1960s gave way to the entrepreneurs-in-a-garage breakthroughs of the 1980s, Graeber explains, is inaccurate. The government continued to spend many of the nation’s research dollars, but in an effort to create military and surveillance hardware that could project American power and undermine working-class politics. Government research bore our missiles aloft but left drivers on the ground.    
Still, as long as research is being done, for whatever reason, shouldn’t there be a slow parade of inventions and discoveries? Yes, probably, Graeber says, but the problem is that we have shifted from “poetic technologies” to “bureaucratic technologies”; instead of thinking freely in order to create whatever people dream about, researchers think within the confines of what can be easily proven to work and defended from criticism, and that’s only when they are not buried by paperwork. This hyper-bureaucratic state of affairs is a consequence of partnerships between government, academia, and private business, partnerships suffused with corporate thought. It is a mistake to assume, Graeber suggests, that bureaucratic inefficiency is a product of government; it is equally a product of market-based business practices that eschew free-range, curiosity-driven work in favor of immediate applicability.
On this point, Will Boisvert agrees fully with Graeber. His contribution, “Future Schlock: Creating the Crap of Tomorrow at the MIT Media Lab,” is a sharp case-study in bureaucratic technologies. The much-ballyhooed MIT Media Lab is supposed to be an incubator for innovations in consumer products, at least according to its many journalistic boosters. According to Boisvert it is in fact a junkyard of trivial and ephemeral doodads. A toothpaste that signals the temperature and weather through its taste. An alarm clock that runs away from its perch in order to force its owner out of bed. A remote-controlled teddy bear. Interactive wallpaper. Guitar Hero.
The real innovation, Boisvert tells us, is the lab’s business structure. Corporations fund the lab but cannot direct its work, and receive only non-exclusive rights to whatever eureka moments occur. That way the lab at least seems independent while it accepts private cash, although companies can fund individual graduate students, can use faculty members as “consultants,” and can place their own people on research teams. Corporations have funded specific university research for decades. But the result of the Media Lab’s generalized corporate funding is an even greater drive to demonstrate the marketability of the lab’s work, if only to build a track record. And the Media Lab is not an anomaly; similar institutions exist at several universities, including Carnegie Mellon and the University of Southern California.
Graeber and Boisvert both look at the contemporary technological landscape and see a desert. It’s a desert filled with gizmos, but a desert nonetheless since so many of those gizmos are little more than distractions or novelties. Graeber has an explanation for this: defenders of capitalism are trapped between two competing impulses. On the one hand, they want to suppress the idea of any sort of liberatory technology (or, really, just differenttechnology) that could re-order the economic hierarchy, and so they want to limit the notion of technological possibility. On the other hand, they want to reinforce the belief that capitalism brings technological innovation, and so they want to encourage the understanding that innovation is happening all the time. The tricky balance between these impulses is to stir up excitement around minor products with negligible features, like phones that play video games and televisions that play two channels at once.
But despite their disdain for just about everything sold by the average electronics retailer, Graeber and Boisvert are not Luddites, and neither is The Baffler. The magazine is not criticizing technology but the ideas and systems behind the technology we find today. There is even a longing for a more heroic technology that murmurs in the background of issue 19. Graeber laments the decline of poetic technologies with ambition and substance. Capitalism cannot hold them back forever, he says. “Breakthroughs will happen; inconvenient discoveries cannot be permanently suppressed” (p.84). New, important technologies will arise despite the fact that “The greatest and most powerful nation that has ever existed has spent the last decades telling its citizens they can no longer contemplate fantastic collective enterprises, even if – as the environmental crisis demands – the fate of the earth depends on it” (p.82).
The idea of massive technological enterprises as solutions to environmental crisis was once anathema to environmentalists, but the scale of global warming is so great that environmentalists may become the greatest advocates of large-scale technological change. They might, as Boisvert does, think nostalgically of a time when technology was big and bold and beneficial. “Back then,” he remembers, “we did not expect machines to be us; they were bigger and stronger and faster than us, and we revered them as they remade the world in ways we had never imagined” (p.98). Given the right motives, that remaking could be for the common good.
Or, maybe, environmentalists would agree more with G. Beato, who writes about Synthetic, L.L.C., the maker of Hipstamatic, in “Disposable Hip.” Beato likes Synthetic not only because the company is the rare tech-firm that makes a profit by selling its product rather than charming venture capitalists, but because of its newest invention, Hipstamatic D-Series. While the original Hipstamatic app imitated the pictures taken by Kodak Instamatic cameras, the D-Series will imitate the entire experience, by including only twenty-four exposures in a “camera” and preventing the camera’s users (the cameras can be shared online) from actually viewing the pictures until the roll is done. Rather than offering consumers unlimited use and total convenience, Hipstamatic D-Series will sell them the idea of limits. “What Hipstamatic D-Series makes clear is that scarcity can once again be ours,” Beato writes (p.110). It is a technology that makes a virtue of less rather than more.
One of the few articles in issue 19 of The Baffler that reads as thoroughly critical of technological fetishism of any kind is Robert S. Eshelman’s “Revolt of the Gadgets.” Eshelman takes on the popular narrative that the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street protests were victories for Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and cell phones. That sort of lazy, class-unconscious reporting, he says, robs the people who were doing the protesting of agency and simplifies or ignores the economic and social issues behind the protests. No doubt he’s right. But while Eshelman is appropriately upset with all the attention paid to websites and telephones during the protests, I imagine he would be willing to admit that technology can play an important supporting role, at least, in social uprisings.
Eshelman might agree, in other words, with Graeber and Boisvert and Beato that the problem is less technology itself than its production and reception. He might even agree with Kim Stanley Robinson, by far the most techno-optimistic of The Baffler’s contributors. In an excerpt from his novel 2312 Robinson describes a future in which the solar system is colonized with “ terrariums” that replicate Earth’s basic environmental conditions and allow people to live on other planets. In Robinson’s imagining, colonists leave behind them not only Earth but the planet’s capitalist economy as well. The rest of the solar system becomes an opportunity to set up a non-market economy, regulated by a single computer program run on a quantum computer that determines precisely how much should be produced and where it should be distributed. A revolution on Mars helps establish the new economy system-wide, and capitalism retreats into a largely unregulated “marginal economy” that exists mainly for recreational purposes. This is as heroic and as poetic as technology gets.
The Baffler #19 is a magazine critical of the technology industry but hopeful for technology. It is also a magazine concerned with the technological present and future but oriented primarily toward the past. Despite the last line of John Summers’s introduction – “We have seen the future, and it doesn’t work” – The Baffler looks mostly over its shoulder. Some articles, like Graeber’s and Boisvert’s, are about the present but look wistfully back to a more hopeful technological era, to what Boisvert calls the “heroic Machine Age,” when flying cars were still just over the horizon. Other articles are more explicitly about recent or not-so-recent history. Rick Perlstein considers the rise of Ronald Reagan and concludes that his success was less a matter of social and economic policies than of his unrelenting optimism. Chris Lehmann reviews the early-twentieth-century work of novelist Ernest Poole, and finds that the current recession and Occupy Wall Street’s response echo Poole’s own proletarian stories. Jim Newell looks to his own past in a funny remembrance of his experience parroting monetary theory in front of Ben Bernanke in the final round of the Fed Challenge – a sort of Model U.N. for economics geeks – several years before Bernanke’s own, real-world Fed challenge.
A historical sensibility frames the whole issue. Early on there is an excerpt from a memo written by the economist James Galbraith in the summer of 2008 and sent to the Obama campaign, warning of the potential economic calamity to come. The memo went unanswered. Near the end of the issue is an excerpt from an article by James Agee depicting the lives of Alabama tenant farmers during the Great Depression – the article that would eventually become the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men – sent to Fortune Magazine in 1936. The article went unprinted. The inclusion of Agee’s piece not only gestures toward the past and another example of boom-and-bust capitalism, but also portrays a much more technologically innocent – or impoverished – time. After reading about websites and iphone apps and consumer gadgets, it is all the more moving to read Agee’s spare and matter-of-fact descriptions of horse-drawn wagons, roadside picnics, and picking and storing cotton. On the weekends the three farming families that Agee follows might go by wagon to Moundville, a city of 500, where once in a long while the local school would show a movie, something few members of these families had ever witnessed.
The historical orientation of The Baffler#19 may be in part the influence of John Summers, the new editor-in-chief, himself a historian. But I think it is something more than that, and points to one of the few shortcomings of an otherwise great issue. The Baffler hasn’t found its sweet spot: it doesn’t seem quite sure of what it is doing. It knows what is wrong: the “wreck of dogmas, bound in shallows and miseries,” in Summers’s words, that got us here, and to which we risk returning when the recovery comes. “The Market is understood not as a fallible mechanism…” Summers writes, “but as metaphysical truth incarnate” (p.6). That critique, though, is well established by now. Occupy Wall Street has furthered it, as have some labor unions. Left-leaning journals have said it repeatedly. Even the president has made vague suggestions in that direction, if only for rhetorical purposes.
The original run of The Baffler worried – rightly – that in a time of relative peace and relative prosperity the Left was easily seduced by corporate cool, and the appearance of a sleek, trouble-free post-industrial society. Because The Baffler started at a time of Left-Wing complacency it had an especially pointed critique. Corporate values had infiltrated liberal culture and The Baffler took it upon itself to point this out.
The new Baffler has a more difficult task. At a time when the Left is energized, or at least paying attention, and when everyone has a blog to stand on and shout from, it’s not clear what street corner The Baffler is laying claim to. It’s worth pointing out, for instance, the disappointment behind both Silicon Valley’s successes and the glamour of the creative class, and The Baffler does this as well as anyone. But fables of techno-utopia are not nearly as hegemonic as were the fantasies of post-industrial society in the 1990s. For every celebration of the latest dot-com there is another weary sigh that the internet, in the end, is just a massive waste of time.
All the looking back that The Baffler #19 does, then, is probably a matter of taking stock. “How did we get here?” is the question of the moment. Even Thomas Frank, one of the magazine’s founders, seems somewhat perplexed. In a piece on the unburstable bubble of Washington, D.C. consensus called “Too Smart To Fail: Notes on an Age of Folly,” Frank usefully runs down the several examples of common wisdom in the capital that proved totally wrong over the past decade and for which there was no fallout whatsoever. Surely, he suggests, this sort of fatuousness can’t go on much longer, before admitting that of course it can, and wondering “what kind of blunder it will take to shatter this city’s epic complacency, its dazzling confidence in its own stupidity” (p.16).
The next step for The Baffler is probably to get past the “How did we get here?” question to mapping the terrain of “here.” This is especially crucial at a time when liberals are wandering through a dark political woods with little sense of direction. It’s what the old Baffler did so well, and the new one undoubtedly will too. John Summers and the magazine’s staff clearly know what they’re doing – the first issue of the third time around is packed with good writing and packaged well. We’ve seen The Baffler’s future, and it works.