I wasn't quite a charter subscriber to Adbusters, but fairly close to it. Maybe issue 10 or so, if memory serves. I cancelled about a year ago. While it has a certain connection to some of my perennial interests (see the name of my personal blog), I just started to feel increasingly out of touch with, what was it, the tone, the tonal politics, and the plain old politics of the magazine.
Here's part of a post salvaged from my old site, just about when I wrote Adbusters to cancel out:
I've always been unsettled - in the wrong way - by the approach to politics embraced by Adbusters and the like. Seems to me to be an infinitely foreseeable adaptation of left politics to the self-help, self-fulfillment culture that marks the current tidal mark of the American experiment. Marie Antoinette-ism... What the magazine prescribes for its readership is something other than politics, I think. At base, it's a strange sort of "lifestyle" magazine. It is full of stuff like this, from the current issue...
Here in rural Telemark, Norway, my husband and I have an ancient, 100-acre farm without a road, without electricity, without running water, without a computer or mobile telephone or washing machine or CD player or remote-control carrot-dicer... without corporate products, including Barbie dolls or Nike sneakers. We have a fjord-horse to do most of the heavy farm work (and so on...)
And a subscription to Adbusters, it would seem...
Anyway, they sell the magazine at the snazzy co-op where I buy my food, and the other day I bought a copy to see if anything has changed, either about the magazine or about me or both.
Right from the first pages - which feature a "visual essay" by Kalle Lasn, the founder and editor - I found some material that I can only classify as disturbing, symptomatic, symptomatically disturbing. Here are a few snips:
a passionate struggle for freedom is deeply embedded in the history of the western world. it still inspires us today. and it still inspires oppressed people everywhere. freedom is our great meta-meme, the crowning jewel of our civilization... but lately in our own back yard, freedom has taken a perverse, hyper-individualistic turn.
The start is not promising - that's basically a version of the "From the dawn of time, man has loved art/literature/freedom/money/sex" that I prohibit my students from using as an opening move in their essays for my classes... And the thing is, it's not just a style issue. The universal sweep of the intro (in my students' papers) tends to give on to overly-broad, unspecific, and often erroneous arguments. Here, Lasn's probably a bit too vague to be "erroneous," though the "inspires oppressed people everywhere" jive is a bit scary. In the end, though, it's the "perverse, hyper-individualistic" part that's going to cause the most problems. I'll continue:
we now drink more, do more drugs, live more promiscuously, spend more money, use up more resources, create more waste, and deliberately flaunt our wealth, power, and sexuality more than any other culture on earth.
when a modest, pious man living in a poor village a world away looks at us, what does he see?
OK. So much to say here. The first issue is obvious. "live more promiscuously?" Are you serious? Before we get to the sexual panic, we might think that Lasn is worried about our drinking and drugging because they are bad reactions to a bad situation - we are self-medicating because we are trapped in desiccating system or whatever. But the anxiety about "promiscuity" shed as a different light, retroactively, on what's come before. Pleasure-seeking itself - even pleasure-seeking that it not easily or ambiguously folded under the rubric of exploitation - is his target.
The point is confused. There just is not the connection between the two strands of his argument confuse both. There is no easy connection between drinking, sex, and the like and the despoliation of the earth, the wasting of resources. If the latter is what he is really after, then he should have chosen different examples. But that's not what he's really after. The pleasure itself is the issue.
I am far more worried about what the "modest, pious man... a world away" eats, where and how much he works, the chances for his children to thrive, and the possibility of his being shredded into bits by cluster-bombs than what the west looks like to him. Lasn's call directs us inward instead of outward in our attention - the pious guy becomes a mirror that we use to establish an ultimately aesthetic rather than political or economic vision of ourselves. This is the problem.
For lack of a better word, the argument seems painfully Christian to me. And like Christianity itself, it is characterized by a collection of a few good ideas (and some very bad ones), but a collection structured by a completely perverse hierarchy of values. It pays lip service to actual pressing issues and effects, but urges us, in the end, toward a new wardrobe, a new look, new lifestyle choices, a new and reinvigorating asceticism.
Rather than clean water for those who lack it, the most likely and immediate effect of this sort of rhetoric is to turn us from bottled to tap, and finally for once to truly taste and savor the tap water. To thank Christ or Kalle for re-enchanting our lives, purging the limpidity, and rendering the personal forcefully political.
we kill ourselves slowly, by eating too much or too little, becoming fat, or anorexic, or diabetic. physically and psychologically we whither away in our culture of collective self-absorption and material sloth. and our boundless, insatiable greed now threatens to drag the entire planet down with us.
meanwhile, in our eyes, the islamist suicide bomber has come to epitomize "the terrorist", a modern savage, a psychopathic degenerate utterly disconnected from any redeeming social or moral values. yet, in fact, this "other" is a man whose life revolves around the mosque, daily prayer, restrained dress, modest fasting, a tight-knit family and community. When pushed to the limit, a committed muslim may decide to sacrifice his own life, his own body for what he sees as a greater social and spiritual good. which one of us in the west will do this now.
this is the existential divide.
In between the previous passage and this one, there is an utterly baffling clipping from a newspaper (I guess) piece decrying the "decline in Australian male culture" and the rise of "metrosexuality." In light of the last passage, what Lasn thinks he's doing with this snippet is beyond me. Fight Club, anyone? Seriously?
I'm not really sure I need to do the close reading of this comparison between fat "us" and "moral" them, in light of what I've said above. But do you see the way a sociopolitical system and distinction gets blurred into moral evaluation? The pressing divide, in other words, isn't existential (whatever he wants that to mean) so much as material and political. And where it's an "existential" issue, or a religious one, I'm afraid you can count me out.
Whatever my politics are, they most distinctly do not involve nostalgia for a church or mosque centered existence, for smothering family relations, or, um, restrained dress. (See how it keeps sneaking in here, the What Not to Wear fixation...) And further, I really don't begrudge people - the rich or the poor - their pleasures, even those of the most material varieties. Pleasure, even or especially the pleasure of consumption, is not the problem - it's the unequal distribution of resources that afford pleasure, or before that, sustenance, comfort. I am not sure, in other words, that the fine people in their lonely farm in Telemark, for all their pride and excitement, are really doing anything to benefit anyone other than themselves. Which is fine, but it is important not to delude ourselves that we are acting effectively when we really aren't.
Adbusters is probably, in many ways, an important influence on certain aspects of how I think about culture and politics today. And while I'm not quite a "no enemies on the left" sort of guy, I would in general rather spend my time working on something other than the unsympathetic critique of radical journals. Our culture kills them off easily enough without my help. But this magazine, which is in many ways so promising, seems locked into a strain of political perversity that renders it either something between useless and dangerous. Unhelpful at least. Frightening at the most.
What do you think?