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A Conversation with Tom Frank of The Baffler

For the largely over-educated and under-paid individuals who still resist the idea that mainstream media conglomerates know what's best for us, The Baffler is a beacon in the nation's cultural darkness.
Charlie Bertsch

Issue #46, December 1999

Fame is relative. Ask most Americans if they've heard of The Baffler and they'll greet you with a blank stare. But in some circles reading it is practically a requirement for membership. For the largely over-educated and under-paid individuals who still resist the idea that mainstream media conglomerates know what's best for us, The Baffler is a beacon in the nation's cultural darkness. And a lot of the wattage comes from its co-founder and present editor in chief Tom Frank, whose beautifully worded rants are an integral part of the magazine's identity. Because The Baffler first made its mark in the publishing world by critiquing alternative culture, the "No Alternative" issue of Bad Subjects provided the perfect opportunity to talk with Tom about his work. I spoke with him by phone at The Baffler's Chicago offices as he oversaw production of its thirteenth issue, which will be out later this year.

Bad Subjects: When I asked you to talk about "alternative culture," you expressed reluctance at having to "revisit the hated terrain." Why?

Tom Frank: As you can imagine, I'm personally tired of writing and talking on that subject. I wrote about it quite a bit. And, as much as the alternative wheels keep spinning and new forms of extremeness obsolete old forms of extremeness, the basic operation remains pretty much as I described it all those years ago and I'm just tired of cataloguing it for them.

BS: But when you talk about business culture, aren't you still doing it in a sense?

TF: Yes. I'm writing a book about the business culture of the last ten years. And "alternative" is obviously an important element of that. It's one of the ways that business people understand their place in the world. But I'm focusing more on the other operations of it. I'm still talking about culture, but I'm talking about it in all its different aspects, not just the way it presents itself as being radical.

BS: Your dissection of so-called "corporate radicalism" is familiar from your pieces in The Baffler, Harper's, Art Forum and elsewhere. But I'm curious to hear what else you focus on in the book.

TF: Corporate populism, which I've written about in the last two issues of The Baffler, but which I'm also writing about with regard to the stock market, management theory, and the world of advertising. I did this story in Harper's recently about advertising people and how they imagine themselves. It's quite remarkable. They talk about themselves as though they were diviners of the popular will, as though they had some kind of special insight.

BS: In Notes From Underground, his book on zine culture, Baffler contributor Stephen Duncombe writes that "the powers that be do not sustain their legitimacy by convincing people that the current system is The Answer. That fiction would be too difficult to sustain in the face of so much evidence to the contrary. What they must do, and what they have done very effectively, is convince the mass of people that there is no alternative."

TF: Duncombe puts his finger on a really interesting part of the big PR operation and that is, on the one hand, to talk about the infinite amount of choice under capitalism and also present obsolescence as this liberating thing. I don't know if you read much management theory, but the people who write it are all hot and bothered these days about Joseph Shumpeter. These people haven't read his book or anything, but there's this one quote from him that they all repeat -- they get it from each other -- and it's about "creative destruction." This is the big buzzword in capitalist theory circles nowadays, the idea being that products are evolving much faster than ever before and obsolescence is speeding up and that all this is very wonderful. But even the people who believe this recognize that it's only part of the story. A good example is Tom Friedman, the New York Times columnist, who talks about the wonders of everything speeding up, but at the same time says that our political choices are of necessity constrained. And it's not a surprise that both parties in the U.S. nominate candidates who say exactly the same things and that all the western countries, with a few exceptions, are moving to the American model because the market will tolerate no dissent in politics.

BS: No alternative to itself. But there are plenty of alternatives within that no alternative!

TF: [LAUGHS] Right. You can go snowboarding, you can go skiing, you can go roller-blading -- but you can't vote for a socialist.

BS: Returning to that quote from Notes From Underground, I'm curious whether you worry the forcefulness of your critique of "alternative culture" might blind your readers to the fact there is the potential for a meaningful alternative to the mainstream?

TF: I think that is possible. I certainly don't intend for that to happen. But then again, who cares about the author's intentionality, right? [LAUGHS].

BS: The Baffler's website describes your screeds as "jeremiads." And there does seem to be a bit of Jonathan Edwards in you, considering the intensity with which you denounce.

TF: And then people think "Where's the space for the happy goodness?"

BS: So where is it?

TF: [LAUGHS] Charlie, it's all around you man.

BS: We'll come back to the happy goodness later.

TF: It's not that questions like that bug me. But they have many different angles to them and one of them is always "Why don't you make policy recommendations?" And there's a real good reason why I don't. Why should I, when I am not and never will be invited to be in the kind of position where I get to make policy recommendations or advise people or anything like that on a regular basis? The only point would be to somehow put me on the spot in a pedagogical or debating sense.

bafflerBS: Obviously the existence of The Baffler and other subcultural commodities like it -- if you're following Duncombe's reading -- testifies to the potential for there to be a meaningful alternative. But in the case of your writings in The Baffler it's very much implicit as opposed to something that you state outright.

TF: That's definitely true. But one of the reasons that I write in the way that I do is because I think that we live in a time of monstrous public error and foolishness. I mean, there's so much out there to correct and to disagree with and to dissent from. I really think that's the main task at hand.

BS: I walk around saying things, although less eloquently, that you write. It's just that when I sit down to write, I tend to lose some of that intensity. That could be a failing on my part. But it is, to a certain extent, a product of my desire not to depress people to death.

TF: I have to tell you, one kind of writing that I look back to as an inspiration is the crusading, journalistic style of the Populists and the people right after them, the Muckrakers. The Muckrackers were pretty much straight-forward journalists, but always with this incredible outrage to their writing, like Lincoln Steffens going around looking at what was wrong with American cities.

BS: "Graft everywhere."

TF: [LAUGHS] He would present this unbelievable panorama of corruption. And he would for the most part keep his authorial voice under control, but occasionally break out in these expressions of anger which were very justified. The Populists tended to be a little bit more apocalyptic about it all. But both of those traditions were explicitly political and involved. They made this kind of critique as a prelude to political action. When you're criticizing and doing that kind of muckraking, obviously that's not when you're making specific policy proposals.

BS: At this point, The Baffler has become something of an institution in the post-1989 left. It's hard to remember that it wasn't always there, that it is itself a product of the "do-it-yourself" ethic. How did it get started?

TF: It started in 1988 -- even pre-89, what do you know about that! -- and at the time some guys and I at the University of Virginia thought we would start a literary magazine. I think every kid in college thinks at some point that he is somehow destined to found a great literary magazine. And we were among the deluded. We did one issue. It was nice -- nice cover, nice paper -- but I really can't say too much about the contents. Although there is one very funny thing in it, in the manner of the hoax Sokal pulled on Social Text. We were using some really over-the-top jargon and footnotes to analyze a comic strip. Have you ever seen Mark Trail? It's a really, really square comic strip. But as we wrote it, we got more and more interested in analyzing this comic strip and it actually wound up being kind of serious. [LAUGHS] Anyhow, that first issue wasn't much to speak of and the second issue wasn't either. It didn't come into its own until later. We were all really involved in the punk rock scene. And all the stuff that happened in 1991 and 1992 really started to make us think. There was this huge thing going on with all the "alternative" crap that was not what it said it was, that was just plain wrong. Somebody had to write about it, somebody had to point out that the emperor had no clothes. So we did.

BS: The "we" in that last sentence reminds me of something I noticed while looking through back issues of The Baffler. There was a time when you used the first-person plural a lot, particularly in reference to what you call the "culture trust." A good example is the conclusion to your piece "Alternative to What?" from issue #5, where you issue an "us" versus "them" call to arms for the independent music scene. "They seek fresh cultural fuel so that the machinery of stupidity may run incessantly; we cry out from under that machine's wheels. They manufacture lifestyle; we live lives." Another is the piece "Twenty Nothing" that you co-wrote with Keith White for issue #4. Even if your words have an ironic edge in these pieces, they are still imbued with the aura of the barricades. By contrast, in your more recent pieces you seem to have moved away from a "we" that is localized in a particular community. When you deploy the first-person plural now, it seems more rhetorical.

TF: "Twenty Nothing" was sort of a stab at a manifesto. That's why it was written like that. And we went way too far in that particular piece. We obviously don't write very much in that style anymore or use the first-person plural.

BS: Is there a sense that you had a community back then which is lacking now?

TF: I think about this a lot. One of the things that is not that frequently remarked about The Baffler is its regionalism. It has a very distinct and intentional regional flavor to it. We're all Midwesterners. We write about Chicago as though it were the most normal thing in the world to have a literary magazine coming out of Chicago, when in fact it's very, very strange. And I think that's one of the things that annoys certain critics of ours. There's definitely still a sense of localness. As for whether there's a sense of community, some group of people I'd have a reason to speak for, I have a lot more doubts about that. It's not something that I would feel confident about.

BS: I'm curious where publications like The Baffler fall in your analysis of contemporary culture? Was -- or is -- the "alternative" in "alternative press" different from the "alternative" in "alternative music?"

TF: It depends on what you're talking about. If you're talking about alternative newsweeklies, that's very much a serious industry. And it makes huge piles of money by playing ball with certain hip businesses in a given city. I just found out the other day that Gannett, of all people, in some city -- I forget which one -- is folding up their suburban papers and is going to try to do an alternative newsweekly. That's such a hoot. I can't wait to see what they come up with. But I think that in the case of alternative newsweeklies that the critique is so easy to understand that I don't need to elaborate on it much.

BS: Although living out here in the San Francisco Bay Area, the San Francisco Bay Guardian is practically our only source for lots of news.

TF: That's a great newspaper. I like it. I shouldn't dismiss them all. I used to write for The Chicago Reader and it's a paper I have a lot of respect for, as I do for the Bay Guardian.

BS: But you bracket alternative newsweeklies off from the rest of the alternative press?

TF: It's just that, aside from the weeklies, there just isn't a lot of money in alternative publishing, whereas alternative rock was obviously brought into the mainstream to solve a specific commercial problem.

BS: I wanted to ask you something about your critique of cultural studies, to which you devoted your piece "Rumble with the Cult Studs" from issue #12. It seems like you're trying to show some sort of convergence between right-wing populism and the work that people are doing in cultural studies. I'm thinking particularly of your comments on the rhetoric of anti-elitism.

TF: Right. One of the many things that annoys me about cultural studies is that its practitioners present their work as something "radical." I quoted some good examples in the article you mentioned, which is being rewritten for my new book. A lot of the "cult studs" sincerely believe themselves to be on the vanguard of leftist thought and practice. And what's astonishing to me is how little distance there is between their critique, their way of understanding culture, and the libertarian, free-market critique. Both speak in this populist vein, it's just that one openly embraces the market and the other has nothing to say about it. Now some cult studs -- I've been keeping track of this -- have been changing their tune and saying that the market can actually be a force of liberation. In which case I would say that they have to stop pretending to be leftists. It's kind of like the whole alternative problem.

BS: It's almost as if the ire you exhibited towards mainstream alternative culture has been displaced to a certain extent onto cultural studies.

TF: [LAUGHS] In a certain way. Everybody wants to be a radical. Hell, Dodge wants you to think its cars are radical. It's the weirdest damned thing. Everybody wants to be a radical and everybody comes out and says the same libertarian stuff. What most bugs me about it is that the cult studs won't acknowledge this similarity. They never talk about it. And I've gone through so many cultural studies books and articles, I've searched databases, looking for references to right-wing things, to libertarian things, and there's nothing. The only right-wingers the cult studs tangle with are Family Values types. It's a complete straw man. And, big surprise, the libertarians also take craps on these same people. Another shared enemy is the Frankfurt School, which even Rush Limbaugh slags these days. Everybody hates the Frankfurt School.

BS: It's funny. I cut my critical teeth on the Frankfurt School, particularly Theodor Adorno -- I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing right now if I hadn't read him -- but there was a time back in the early 1990s when it was important to me, as a student of popular culture, to distance myself from the Frankfurt School. And for a while there, I had the same reaction to your writing in The Baffler. It seemed too absolute to me. At one point I accused The Baffler of being too "Adornoan" in a conversation on Bad Subjects' electronic discussion list.

TF: Believe me, this happens all the time. And the ironic part is that I read some Adorno in graduate school and was not impressed.

BS: He does sound like a Baffler contributor!

bafflerTF: Maybe if he was writing nowadays. But you've heard the critiques and they are correct. His writing is very heavy-handed. He doesn't allow for a lot of distinctions. And he tends to just want to wash his hands of the United States.

BS: There are a few passages where he almost seems to be blaming fascism on the Americans.

TF: [LAUGHS] I like the United States! So it's not an exact match-up. But this comparison comes up in the strangest places. I was on a radio show once and a caller accused me of being a latter-day Frankfurt School disciple. The Frankfurt School, because it's so mysterious -- these guys with German names -- has sort of replaced talk about communist conspiracy that the right-wing used to use. You find the funniest references to the Frankfurt School now.

BS: It actually goes back a long ways. There's a Playboy interview with John Wayne where he explains how Herbert Marcuse is ruining America.

TF: Really? That must be where it comes from. I've always wondered what the source of it was. It's amazing how widespread the conspiracy theory has become. I recently saw something that blamed the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado on the Frankfurt School! [LAUGHS]

BS: Now that I have to see! It's interesting to compare your perspective on cultural studies to the one which informs Bad Subjects. We started the publication as a reaction to multiculturalism that embraces free-market values. But we also paid close attention to critiques of the academic left, to the extent that they focused on the problem of language. We recognized the truth in the argument that academic leftists were only talking to each other instead of making their points accessible to a broader audience. So in this respect, we self-consciously set out to distance ourselves from the sort of cultural studies writing that has been ridiculed in the mainstream press and, of course, The Baffler. At the same time, we were deeply influenced by cultural studies. I still consider what I do to be cultural studies.

TF: Of course, so do I.

BS: But I perceive the field of cultural studies to be a lot more differentiated than The Baffler makes it seem. I don't think of someone like Stuart Hall as being an apologist for consumer society.

TF: No, not at all.

BS: Nor would I say that about Michael Berube, whose heated exchange with Baffler contributor Chris Lehman is featured in issue #11.

TF: I don't mention either one of those guys in my critique. I think of them as being on a different level than the run-of-the-mill cult studs I talk about. It's not even about cultural studies per se. I'm interested in cultural studies because it exemplifies a populist impulse you find throughout academia, in sociology, in history, in all sorts of disciplines. And I think it's important to examine this impulse critically because, despite what some people like to think, the work that academics do matters. For all the shit that has been dumped on universities for the last thirty years, what goes on there has an incredibly important role to play in the country, in what we do, in how we think about ourselves.

Charlie Bertsch is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English at UC-Berkeley, completing his dissertation Bodies of Resistance: Post-WWII American Fiction as Political Theory. When he's not pursuing his lovely one-year-old daughter Skylar around the house, he also does freelance writing on popular music, politics, and literature. He invites you to contact him by e-mail.

Copyright © 1999 by Charlie Bertsch. All rights reserved.