Joseph Heath & Andrew Potter, The Rebel Sell

There's the usual hype on the cover, with the (in Canada) predictably cantankerous blurb from Rex Murphy on the front -- "intellectual martyrs fighting the good fight." This predictability is what kept it unread on my shelf for so long, even though -- confession time -- as a TA I marked a whole set of essays dealing with Heath and Potter's book. (TA's don't always read all the material? - ed.)

But you know, this turned out to be one of the most intellectually engaging books I've read in a long time. The Rebel Sell: Why The Culture Can't Be Jammed is provocative, thoroughly researched, and intensely argued. I've already begun recommending it to reflexively countercultural students, the ones working toward the same kind of angst I went through myself at different points in my life.

Heath and Potter are strongest on consumerism, but their lessons go much further than that. In brief, they argue that the standard argument about consumerism is entirely misguided. Rather than representing a tendency toward sameness -- herd behaviour -- consumerism is instead driven by exceptionalism. We all want to be cool enough, and that requires constant change so that we can stay close to the truly cool. For their part, the truly cool -- the countercultural -- have to remain different from the rest of us. The increasingly self-conscious nature of the countercultural means that they're changing faster and faster, but the rest of us just keep on keeping up.

In other words, the consumer fashion cycle is driven by those who mock consumer fashion and think of themselves as outside the loop.

The clearest example is destination tourism. The cool used to go to Australia, but now everyone goes there; next came Thailand, but now there are too many tourists; now it's ... where? It doesn't matter, really, because the point of cool travel is to be the only one there. Once one person goes there, though, someone else goes, and the destination gets less cool, and it's off to the next place. Heath and Potter put the problem this way:
[A]s the tourist wave passes through a previously untouched area, the local economy is completely reshaped in anticipation of the visitors to come. The very antimaterialist attitude that leads people to seek out exotic places in the first places draws more and more regions into the global economy. (277)
In other words, the commercialism of formerly cool travel destinations is caused inevitably by the arrival of the cool, NOT by the subsequent arrival of the masses. Naming something as cool leads inevitably to its uncooling, which occurs through domestication, increased consumability, and so on. I can't find the line, but at some point they describe the cool as the "shock troops of mass consumerism."

Incidentally, Heath and Potter wind up recommending business travel as the only legitimate form of travel, because it represents contact between two entities (people, cultures, etc) with the same goal in mind and already sharing enough of the same perspectives to represent something other than invasion. Fascinating stuff.

Plus, now I get to think of my deep uncoolness as a politically progressive stance. That's what I call cool.


Art said…
Such a good book. I wish more people would read it but they are afraid of losing their story about reality. It's funny that rebellion actually pushes the consumer society to grow while claiming to rally against it.

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