Monday, November 8, 2010

A short comment on Rob Latham's Consuming Youth

        Rob Latham’s Consuming Youth operates somewhere between the field of cultural studies and the forms of cultural critique that one would find in the Frankfurt school, particularly with Adorno.  It stands between the mode of cultural celebration that is traditionally associated with the American cultural studies moment (which he presents the work of John Fiske as a symptomatic figure) and the condemnation of popular culture as without redeeming value (Baudrillard’s paranoiac reading of ‘the code’ stands in here.)  In both cases, Latham argues that, “despite their various protestations of fidelity to marxist premises, neither side is sufficiently dialectical in its analysis of consumption; neither, in short, fully grasps the contradictory force of the vampire-cyborg, in which exploitation and empowerment function and develop together (Latham 37).  Latham then attempts to present another model to understand a set of fantastic and science fictional texts and films from the 1970’s to the 1990’s
            Reflecting this tension seems to be one of the most significant goals in Latham’s work.  He uses both Gramsci’s notion of hegemony, and the particular deployment of the Regulation school to capture this tension.  As he points out, “hegemony is neither automatic nor guaranteed, but must itself be reproduced.”  (Latham 11)  That hegemony is dependent on consent and is constantly at threat due to political and economic crisis.  This threat can easily be seen in the last days of the Fordist structure.  Although Latham doesn’t discuss it explicitly, this era is defined by political unrest in both the center and periphery.  Rather, Latham focuses on showing those tension precisely at a moment where consent seems much more assured, starting with the period of the late seventies and moving into the eighties and nineties, opening with the period of Gil-Scott Heron’s “Winter in America.”
            Latham does a good job of defining why the Fordist and post-Fordist periods are defined by their relationship to consumption, and how this relates to the figure of youth.  It becomes a “site of integration between the natural body and the newly mechanized labor process.”  He marks how this structure of youth and consumption has created crisis as well as consent.  “This is the dialectical paradox at the heart of Fordist consumer culture: its capacity to unleash the most powerful, exhilarating desires, and its inability finally to satisfy the epochal hungers it has itself invoked.” (Latham 41)  The structures of flexibility become a way to try to resolve these tensions, creating a process in which forms of subcultural resistance are captured and transformed into niche markets, that is, new possibilities for accumulation.  Latham marks how this has created mediation in the crisis, but it hasn’t resolved the profound tensions in the process.

            The transformation in the process is represented by the cyborg and the vampire.  These two figures “metaphorically embody the libidinal-political political dynamics of the consumerist ethos…  The vampire is literally an insatiable consumer driven by a hunger for perpetual youth, while the cyborg has incorporated the machineries of consumption into its juvenescent flesh.” (Latham 1).   Within this context, the figures both act as symptom, and simultaneously, allow for a critical exploration of the social formation that creates the symptom. This connection of the question of the libidinal-political is interesting and once again links up Latham’s work with that of Fredric Jameson.  Both take Deleuze and Guattari’s concepts of libidinal assemblages seriously.  Whether deliberately or not, this language takes up that conceptual language, and also takes seriously the idea of the critique of the repressive hypothesis.  At the same time, he holds onto the concept of the dialectic, which is explicitly rejected by Deleuze and Guattari, focusing on contradiction rather than lines of flight or apparatuses of capture.

            Interestingly enough, Latham takes the dialectical structure of argumentation much more seriously than Jameson does.  While Jameson constantly references this tension in his work, the emphasis is on the negative side of the equation. This emphasis is structured into the entire argument, as Latham begins by showing the utopian possibilities of consumption hidden in the figure of the vampire, and reverses this with his reading of the cyborg.  All the central arguments are defined by this tension, between dystopian reading that see a closed system and readings that offer an interpretation that emphasize possibilities for self creation.  As a good dialectician, Latham then shows how the dystopian readings already contain a utopian trace, and the readings emphasizing agency contain the fears contained in the former reading.

            While there is something relentless in the way that Latham returns to this trope, it accomplishes a couple things.  To begin, it constantly emphasizes the moments of incompleteness contained in the structures of consent of hegemony, through gaps, lacunae, and small moments of resistance.  He can point these out in even some of the most banal sources, the celebrations of video games and pulp novels.  The dialectic also stops this from becoming celebratory, recognizing that these text remain incorporated within the logic of capital.  At the same time, there is an emphasis on the active critical engagement of these texts that can’t be found in Jameson.  For Jameson, the text is most aptly read as symptom, primarily acting as an expression of economic forces.  In this sense, Jameson has a habit of falling into crude economic determinism, despite his sophisticated theoretical apparatus.  Latham certain reads texts symptomatically as well.  This is gestured towards in the way the texts read the ‘60’s, but Latham is willing to see these texts as having a critical awareness of world that they operate within.  For instance, Latham reads Romero’s Martin as a narrative that is engaging in some of the same problems that are taken on by the Birmingham school rather than using that work to read the film as symptom.  The same can be said of the work of Coupland, Rice, etc., which Latham critically reads for both their engagement with the logic of the commodity, and for the subversive moments contained within that often uncritical engagement.

            This occurs through Latham’s emphasis on the satirical elements and texts that operate through satire.  We are given several satires on the malls and given readings of texts normally read negatively with this satirical dimension in mind (I have the reading of The Hunger in mind).  Satire becomes a way of mapping a politics without a horizon, a criticism of a system that is simultaneously without alternative.  This breaks out of the utopia/dystopia binary that he reads in so many of the theorists that he approaches and makes a case that these texts are as constitutive as they are reflective, critical as they are reproductive.  It offers a critical symptomatic reading of the collapse of the 1968 revolution, and the counter-attack of capital, recognizing the shift in the relation of forces, while refusing a narrative of capitulation. 

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