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adbusters and the “existential divide”

with 7 comments

(xposted to Long Sunday)


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?

Written by adswithoutproducts

March 7, 2007 at 12:05 am

7 Responses

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  1. Love it. This is a great little analysis picking out the dogmatic ascetic core of what seems to be cultural criticism.

    As a more general question. Is there any political value to sacrifice (the sacrifice of resources, which must also be the sacrifice of certain kinds of pleasure)? Or does it always serve the interest of an unsacrificing elite?


    March 7, 2007 at 1:06 pm

  2. Thanks, P.

    Well, perhaps there is. But of course it’s important to make sure that someone somehow receives the fruits of your sacrifice, right? Sacrifice for sacrifice’s sake doesn’t do much for anyone. And significantly, I think, gets the ends wrong.


    March 7, 2007 at 9:34 pm

  3. I too was an early subscriber to adbusters, and while the magazine still comes to my door, I rarely make it through a whole issue. I would like to make a pitch for its continued importance though.

    Despite its 15+ years of existence, I would agree that it is still driven by a somewhat inchoate ethical stance. Ascetic on the one hand and (paradoxically?) young/hip/punk/fun/rebellious on the other, I’d say that it does a good job of holding in a productive tension the dilemmas faced by urban activists today. We still want our shiny computers to work fast and we need to make money to buy those overpriced beers at the hip, yet rebellious local bar (not to mention our backpacking equipment and plane tickets to Brazil or Thailand), but at the same time we’re questioning the materialist priorities of previous generations and the mainstream.

    Is this a coherent ethical approach to the world? Maybe not.

    Is this possibly the beginning of a lifetime of questioning authority and becoming an agent of positive social change in the world? I would say yes.

    Adbusters in my mind has the function of a recruiting tool. Like the sexy subcultures of punk rock and hippiedom, Adbusters is a concrete example of something different. If you’re sick of your parents, your job, and your Time Magazine, Adbusters does a pretty good job of jumping off the shelf at you and giving you an up-to-the-month guide to a whole lot of stuff people in other parts of the world are trying to do to get out of the same cultural doldrums that you’ve found yourself in.

    At least that’s what happened to me when I plucked it off the shelf at my local bookstore in 11th grade, growing up in the culturally sterile and status-obsessed Silicon Valley.

    If it hadn’t been for adbusters, I might never have gotten so excited about becoming an activist or a social scientist or a documentarian or doing any of the other stuff I’m doing today.

    Maybe one key final point is that adbusters is a magazine that needs to stay fresh and seems to recycle a lot of its ideas potentially at the cost of losing readership from veterans like us, but standing to gain a lot by staying sexy, young, and continuing to jump off the shelves at its target audience.

    I don’t read Junior Scholastic or watch Reading Rainbow anymore, but if they still exist, I’m all for them!


    March 20, 2007 at 8:30 pm

  4. pansouth,

    Very well put. And you raise a very valid point. I am just increasingly worried about self-satisfied uselessness from the left. (In particular, in my case, the academic left.)

    And my critique of Adbusters, down deep, is likely a self-critique. Lots and lots of my mental energy is devoted to very nearly useless feel good activities. I am a fervent recycler. I am currently on a “get my books from the library, not amazon” kick. I like trains, not cars. But if I worried as much about thinking how I might actually make my work socially useful rather than my lifestyle vaguely socialist and clean and pretty in a simple way, I think I would do myself a great favor.

    In short, I am talking about myself in this piece as much as the magazine. (I’m going to try, eventually, to blow all of this up into a post in its own right…)

    But I do definitely know what you mean about recruitment and sexiness and the like. I just wish we could come up with a new sort of sexiness….


    March 20, 2007 at 10:56 pm

  5. Yeah, maybe we need a new adbusters targeted at more advanced-stage academic anomie. Did you ever come across the _Commodify Your Dissent_ book or the Baffler magazine/journal? Not sure how often they come out. I also just published a piece in New Delhi’s Sarai Reader, also a slightly more grown up place for adbusters-esque discourse to take place.

    Here’s the TOC of the last issue–my piece is entitled “Turbulence Before Takeoff.” Surely some of the other pieces are much better…

    Your reference to recycling and trains and library usage is very interesting as well. I was a vegan for 3 years and have done my fair share of recycling and wasting my time on buses and BART when a car was available to me… but yes, really, I found that those sort of moral palliatives could only take me so far.

    In other words, if the personal is political, why not extend your “moral compass” (to quote an Enron exec) to what you do with the bulk of your time.

    As a graduate student frequently interacting with more full-time “activists,” I often find myself pathetically resorting to classifying my graduate studies to “what I do to pay the rent” in a desperate effort to give some sort of functional relevance to the convoluted and footnote-pocked texts that I find myself driven to produce.

    But maybe it need not go that far. I do believe that Pierre Bourdieu has a lot to say about this, as do the American “public sociologists,” Craig Calhoun and Michael Burawoy. If I keep going down this academic track, I’m hoping to find a way to reconcile Marx’s 10th thesis on Feuerbach (don’t just think about the world–change it!) and the necessity of carving out a career in academia.

    Challenging to say the least…

    I’m interested to see the entry you craft out of this. Will go try to figure out who the hell you are now.


    March 21, 2007 at 2:58 pm

  6. “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?”

    I suspect by saying we live more promiscuously, he meant it in the broader sense…that we are able in the US to overfeed all of our wants and needs in a way the rest of the world is unable to….

    I agree with everything here (and I am part of the problem in the way that I live). I too see the reaction of the poor villager and the midwest farmer who are afraid of what they see as the excesses of modern life in America and increasingly the rest of the world, turning to fundamentalist religions for more solid bedrock.


    April 26, 2007 at 7:04 pm

  7. I suspect by saying we live more promiscuously, he meant it in the broader sense..

    Both the broader and the narrower sense, right? He says “flaunt our … sexuality” just below. Once that’s in the list, it’s hard retroactively to blot it out.


    April 26, 2007 at 10:33 pm

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