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Monday, December 13, 2004
This Magazine publishes an essay by the authors of The Rebel Sell (book link). Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter re-visit today's 'counter-cultural classics' (American Beauty, Fight Club, No Logo, et al) to re-position them as 'Anti-consumerist' products that simply serve to exacerbate capitalism, rather than undermine it through confrontion or subversion - regardless of what their fans might think.

The authors identify 'competitive consumption' as the underlying theme that unites these three cultural artefacts (and many more), musing that 'most people who consider themselves "anti-consumerist" are extremely brand-conscious'. They conclude that that it 'is rebellion, not conformity, that generates the competitive structure that drives the wedge between consumption and happiness.' Another concept we hadn't come across before is that of 'positional goods', a term coined by Robert Frank at Cornell University. These are 'goods that one person can have only if many others do not. Examples include not only penthouse apartments, but also wilderness hikes and underground music'.

The Rebel Sell article also lays into Naomi Klein for her apparent snobbishness over the nature of 'authentic' loft living, suggesting that the 'real loft' is a classic example of a positional good, something that by its very definition - purchased by 'early adopters' who shun conventional modes of living and residential zoning - cannot be universally embraced. Sharon Zukin's 1982 book Loft Living was the first to describe the curious elitism of loft culture, first in New York's SoHo, and then spreading elsewhere around the world. Today, 'loft living' is a populist concept (and a very profitable one), so where next for the seeker of true authenticity? And what is authenticity anyway?

There's a useful, if long and heated, me-fi debate, which delves into one of our favourite subjects - 'what is a brand?' Is it a way of packaging different consumptive behaviors together into a (theoretically) mutually-reinforcing complex? A nice summary. But can a political party - or a terrorist organisation - be seen as a brand? Probably yes, and that's part of the problem, in that the word - or term, or concept, whatever you like - has become a catch-all, a contemporary means of perception which filters out most other ways of seeing. If you consider, say, the Tory Party to be a 'brand,' then scandals and policies don't get considered in isolation, but as contributing to the party's 'brand capital'. This capital can either be enhanced or devalued, but by perceptions and not quantifiable information. That this can work for objects too is beyond question: some will buy Sony or BMW regardless of actual quality, but for perceived quality.

Other references: The Baffler Magazine, edited by Thomas Frank (author of The Conquest of Cool and One Market Under God. See also the official site of The Rebel Sell. And Ikeaphobia and its discontents, an article by Adam Greenfield which laments that righteous ire is usually directed not 'at ADM, General Dynamics, Monsanto, but Nike and Ikea and Starbucks'.

Elsewhere. Word of Maw, rips into the Beelog, a rather naked attempt to drum up word of mouth for new products / the end of year lists are starting to come in. The New York Times sums up 2004 in the A-Z of Ideas, the Guardian on the year in music (see also the Insound's Top 100 and the Harvard Crimson's review), while Fortune brings you the 25 Best Products of the Year (a lot of which seem almost deliberately superfluous).

Strangely contradicting (or confirming?) the sentiments of our first paragraphs above, we started to speculate about future products; just what objects are being dreamt up in the world's R+D labs? I'd wager that somewhere, a printer manufacturer is working hard on a machine that 'cleans' paper as it prints, meaning you can load the paper tray with used paper. There was, many years ago, a Japanese 'de-photocopier' which did a similar thing (but naturally I can't find any links to it). Perhaps a home recycling unit is also in the works? A device, that might start out the size of a washing machine, but will swiftly shrink, that you load your recycled magazines and newspapers into and churns then out in reams of fresh (if slightly greyish) 80gsm paper. I'd also wager that a camera or film manufacturer - perhaps the troubled Polaroid - is developing a digital camera with a built-in micro printer. It will be the Land Camera of the 21st century.

Quick links. Censorship as protection from 'liberal libarians and trendy teachers' (via Making Light) / more on slum clearance in London at Brickfields.org.uk / the Georgian Index / The The Murtogh D. Guinness Collection, '700 historic mechanical musical instruments and automata' (via la petite claudine) / Swervedriver live / artadvent.co.uk is a nice idea, but needs doors to open.

Architects as saints or psychos? How the profession has been served by cinema / Online Music Myths at the Guardian (via largehearted boy) / the science of crowd control, from Agincourt to IKEA stampedes (via social fiction) / 'Abroad Again in Britain' is the new series by Jonathan Meades, architectural expert, author and Citroeniste.