Count your culture before it hatches: Book Review Friday

24 February 2012: DC Exile Day 31

Book Review

[All book reviews include title of work, author(s), publisher and publication date.]

Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture

Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter

HarperBusiness, 2004

What is meaningful political action? From the Boston Tea Party, to marches on the nation’s Capitol, sit-ins to the recent Occupy Movement, organizers must ask this perpetual question. In a society in which hate crimes, domestic violence and various forms of discrimination exist, what can we do to make our country a better place for all citizens?

In Nation of Rebels, Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter focus on one group that has tried to provide an answer to the question of political efficacy: the counterculture.

It is clear early on in the book that the authors disagree strongly with the counterculture. Most of the book focuses on the mostly superficial actions of the counterculture (especially hippies and hipsters).  They claim, “[T]he hipster, cooling his heels in a jazz club, comes to be seen as a more profound critic of modern society than the civil rights activist working to enlist voters or the feminist politicians campaigning for a constitutional amendment.” (p. 32)

Heath and Potter take great pains to deconstruct the history of the US counterculture (which includes antiglobalization activists, environmentalists, hippies, hipsters, punks, social deviants, feminists and other “rebels”). They criticize the view that all repression (internal and external) is aggressive, coercive conformity. They take issue with Marx, The Matrix, Norman Mailer and all pieces of culture and cultural critics believing in a systemic theory of oppression:

We argue that decades of countercultural rebellion have failed to change anything because the theory of society on which the countercultural idea rests is false. We do not live in the Matrix, nor do we live in the spectacle. The world that we live in is in fact much more prosaic. It consists of billions of human beings, each pursuing some more or less plausible conception of the good, trying to cooperate with one another, and doing so with varying degrees of success. (p. 8)

They believe this mistaken view of oppression leads to a misguided approach to rectifying our country—an approach that not only fails to alleviate the problem, but also feeds directly into the system it claims to challenge:

Countercultural politics…has been one of the primary forces driving consumer capitalism for the past forty years…But ‘fair trade’ and ‘ethical marketing’ are hardly revolutionary ideas, and they certainly represent no threat to the capitalist system. If consumers are willing to pay more for shoes made by happy workers—or for eggs laid by happy chickens—then there is money to be made in bringing these goods to market. (p. 2)

The book ultimately contends that countercultural politics feeds into capitalism and is a feckless and purely superficial approach to politics. As the authors remind us, “[R]ebellion against aesthetic and sartorial norms is not actually subversive.” (p. 150) Heath and Potter believe the countercultural desire to overthrow the system and take down “the Man” by listening to abstruse music, practicing yoga, becoming Buddhist, buying organic goods and becoming a “rebel consumer” is a remarkable waste of time and energy. Although it takes a while to get to it, the authors present a seemingly simple solution to societal oppression and inequality: “[W]e need more government, not less.” (p. 334)

While I found most arguments against the counterculture and the rebel consumer convincing, I had two big issues in reading the book. First, the authors’ tone seems overly antagonistic at times. Their utter frustration with the counterculture comes through clearly. Although I ultimately agreed with many of their premises, I was nearly unconvinced by the way they mocked other theories and theorists.

My second difficulty with the book is the basis of the solution the authors posit. I agree that more government regulation of business (mandated childcare, mandated insurance and healthcare coverage, mandated living wage, mandated 35-hour work weeks, etc.) is welcome and necessary to prevent businesses from escalating a competitive “arms race” that leads to a no-win situation for companies, workers and consumers. However, the argument seems to elide the fact that many current US Congressional officials are conservative lawmakers hell bent on rejecting any sort of regulation, instead focusing almost exclusively on removing regulations of businesses and corporations. Even uttering the word “regulation” with the hint of positive connotation seems anathema to most right-leaning leaders in the US.

My issue with the political imprecision of the book may stem from the fact that the critique is eight years old. An updated version with a new focus on the Occupy Movement and the 2010 Republican takeover in Congress and state houses across the country would build usefully on this sharp piece of cultural criticism. Ultimately, I believe this book can help us begin to resolve the countercultural view’s greatest dilemma: “The goal of improving conditions in society at large, or of promoting social justice, receded from view [for the counterculture]. In this way, the concern for social justice became redirected and absorbed into an increasingly narcissistic preoccupation with personal spiritual growth and well-being.” (p. 57)

-Joseph Patrick Richards, @mentalmacguyver

Under review

22 February 2012: DC Exile Day 29

Regular and irregular readers of this blog will soon discover a new, recurring feature. Beginning this Friday, 24 February, I will launch a review section. In this section, I will review books, movies, music and more. Some of the reviews will be of current items, some will not. I do promise to do my best and offer productive and useful reviews. If I absolutely hate something, I will try to find a bit of positive and not rely upon overly clever put-downs.

When I lived in Salt Lake City a couple of years ago, I had a brief stint as a reviewer at Salt Lake Underground Magazine, SLUG. (The editor eventually fired me from this volunteer position when I refused to provide my mobile phone number even though they already had my home phone number. Consequently, the last several reviews I wrote never saw the light of day.) A friend suggested I apply for the position, so I did. I took a break from my day job to go down to the SLUG offices and interview with the staff. As I was going to the interview from work, I was formally dressed. I immediately felt out of place entering the high-ceilinged hip haven. The staff sported several tattoos and piercings and a superior air as to their role as arbiters of cool in a state that, for all intents and purposes, is extremely uncool.

Following the interview, I was to submit a couple of sample reviews so the SLUG higher-ups could judge my skill. I reviewed Let It Die by Feist and Masquerade by Fort Collins, CO band, Slow Crash. Somehow, I got the gig.

In my time with SLUG, I reviewed books, live shows, compact discs and DVDs. The biggest problem with my reviews? They absolutely suck.

My reviews were the worst kind of reviewing: clever (in my opinion at the time), vitriolic misuses of power. The best reviews point out the good and bad and take the art in question on its own terms, not necessarily as one dreadful consequence of dismal hipster culture. Unfortunately, my reviews reflected my desire to be clever in print and to denigrate perfectly good artists because I was overly disgusted with the “alternative” culture in Salt Lake City. So, I took out my anger in the magazine and tried to be cool by tearing down the work of others.

[But don’t take my word for it. For you, oh lovely reader of this blog, I offer up my published reviews for you to judge. Eventually, I may get around to posting the reviews I wrote that went unpublished when the editor fired me.]

I do not apologize, nor do I seek to vindicate my previous style. However, it is time for me to try again and see if I can’t learn a bit while I am at it. Cringingly Personal’s first review will appear this Friday and will cover the book Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture.  

Well-read Lobster

10 September 2011

Good evening lovers and interlopers,

I am hungry for art.

In a fit of hunger, I recently purchased several books and compact discs:


  • Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter
  • god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens
  • Supergods: What Masked  Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, And a Sun God From Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human by Grant Morrison
  • Improvise: Scene from The Inside Out by Mick Napier
Compact Discs
  • Scott by Scott Walker
  • Scott 2 by Scott Walker
  • Scott 3 by Scott Walker
  • Scott 4 by Scott Walker
  • Take Offs And Landings by Rilo Kiley
  • The Monitor by Titus Andronicus
I shall begin reading the books and listening to the cds (or possibly vice versa) and report back when ready.
In the meantime, hear and see the epic tale of two people starved for seafood.
GF and I wanted seafood a couple of weeks ago. We went to Baltimore to cure the craving, but came away having eaten no crab legs.
But, we still wanted crab legs.
One afternoon, after watching a commercial for Red Lobster’s Crab Fest, GF says, “I want a crab fest. I want a pound of crab. Bring it on.” I agreed.
Thus, we sought and found a Red Lobster in Alexandria, VA. Below is our journey in pictures.

GF waits for the Zipcar

I wait for the Zipcar

We made it! (Well, someone else made it, but we arrived.)

How do I feel about my dish?

This is how I feel.

Crab-ohydrates and more

Cancerian cadavers

Oh snap

Foot in mouth? Try a leg.