The Conquest of Cool I

When is dissent hip? This is the subject of the following discussion hosted by the excellent Your Call Radio. Participants include Douglas Haddow of Adbusters, whose article, ‘Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization‘, generated one of the longest running debates in the magazines history (the article presently records more than four thousand responses on the Adbusters website). Also participating are  Dan Sinker of Punk Planet, and journalist and hip-hop historian Davey D. They discuss: What is the relationship today between pop-culture, counterculture and dissent? What is the counterculture that sells media now? And can activists reclaim the counterculture that now permeates the mainstream?

The discussion is also joined later by Ishmael Reed and Thomas Frank, author of the splendid work The Conquest of Cool. In the book Frank (who also authored the classic What’s the Matter with Kansas? and edits The Baffler) shows that the advertising industry did not just co-opt the ’60s counterculture movement, in many respects it anticipated, indeed created, it. The instant-gratification individualism and the perpetual pursuit of uniqueness were the perfect compliments to capitalism’s manufacturing of needs to fuel the consumption on which it thrives. If capitalism had built planned obsolescence into its products,  the counterculture’s very idea of rebellion was premised on  ‘standing apart’. As soon as a new product was in the hands of more than one, it had lost its uniqueness, pushing the rebel to search for a new ticket to cool. Rebellion which seeks expression in merchandise manufactures its own needs, and the engines of capital obligingly hum along. Franks gives the example of the Volkswagen Beetle ads, which were all designed as a critique of mass culture. To own a Beetle, then, was to stand apart.  And the process continues as I’ll show in this series of three posts.

Author: Idrees Ahmad

I am a Lecturer in Digital Journalism at the University of Stirling and a former research fellow at the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies. I am the author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War (Edinburgh University Press, 2014). I write for The Observer, The Nation, The Daily Beast, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Al Jazeera, Dissent, The National, VICE News, Huffington Post, In These Times, Le Monde Diplomatique, Die Tageszeitung (TAZ), Adbusters, Guernica, London Review of Books (Blog), The New Arab, Bella Caledonia, Asia Times, IPS News, Medium, Political Insight, The Drouth, Canadian Dimension, Tanqeed, Variant, etc. I have appeared as an on-air analyst on Al Jazeera, the BBC, TRT World, RAI TV, Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon, Alternative Radio with David Barsamian and several Pacifica Radio channels.

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