Stanford-Berkeley Conference

Tomorrow’s the Stanford-Berkeley Conference, an annual get-together of Stanford and Berkeley grad students to present their work in a, hm, safe and nurturing environment. I’m whipping up , right this moment, what may be my first official piece of writing for my dissertation. It is also a piece that I want to use, in a refined form, for the 2006 MLA conference if the panel I proposed is accepted. Here’s the abstract for my talk:

The Cooptation Problem: Postirony in Alex Shakar’s The Savage Girl

According to the standard historical narrative, the counterculture staged a hip rebellion against the stultifying mass culture of the 1950s, compelling young Americans to reject gray flannel suits in favor of oppositional Beat, hippie, punk, New Wave, and eventually grunge styles. From within these countercultures, the gravest threat to a particular oppositional style’s authenticity came from the mainstream absorption and reproduction of the cultural codes by which the hip distinguish themselves from the masses. Thus, the historical progression of countercultures explains its stylistic mutations by means of a cooptation thesis: this thesis asserts that crass commercial interests systematically neutralize the revolutionary power of hip countercultural styles by turning them into commodities. The cooptation thesis found its ultimate expression in the early 1990s when some young critics began to claim that even irony, that ultimate weapon of the countercultural sensibility, had lost its oppositional power. Corporations now strategically deployed irony to sell their products. Mainstream culture embraced irony as its official style. Young authors began to advise their peers abandon irony in favor of a rebellious return to sincerity. David Foster Wallace’s renunciation of hip irony (associated for him with his postmodernist forefathers) is perhaps the most famous declarations of this sort.

Inspired by Thomas Frank’s revised look at the counterculture, my talk (i) questions the explanatory power of the cooptation thesis and (ii) challenges those assumptions about irony’s oppositional power that artists offer to justify their postironic practice in the first place. I make my case through a reading of Alex Shakar’s The Savage Girl (2001), which presents a coolhunter as its protagonist. For Shakar, the coolhunter—who detects, describes, and translates emerging trends into commodity form—becomes a figure that stands at a critical nodal point in postmodernism’s cultural ecology (what I will call the subculture industry). The Savage Girl explicitly imagines itself as a kind of coda to Frank’s argument in The Conquest of Cool (1996). Shakar’s novel speculates on how the trend of “postirony” might come to replace hipness as the official emotional style of capitalism, blurring “the boundaries between irony and earnestness in ways… traditional ironists can barely understand.” Ultimately, with reference to Bourdieu’s notion of cultural capital, my paper offers a modified theory of ironic cooptation that both highlights its limitations as an oppositional politics and affirms its reality as a variable in a subcultural identity politics that takes distinction as its ultimate good.

My talk isn’t actually going to cover all these bases, sadly, but it’s coming together pretty well. I’ve actually changed the title, too. It’s now called “‘Is selling out the new keeping it real?’: Co-optation and Postirony in Alex Shakar’s The Savage Girl“; the quote is from a recent NYT review of a movie about graffiti artists in the Mission. Too funny.