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Thumb Drives and Oven Clocks

Issue 20: No Hope

I'd touch the grass but I don't know who owns it

Everyone’s reading Doppelganger by Naomi Klein. I’d not read her yet when that book came out, was only dimly aware of her previously, and while the new book does sound interesting, out of curiosity I took a look at what else she’s written, to get the sense of where she was coming from, and found her first book, published in 2000 or thereabouts, No Logo, “which,” as Wikipedia has it, “for many became a manifesto of the anti-globalization movement.“ Sounds fun! In a rare moment of actually doing the thing I not only bought a copy, I pretty quickly read it soon after it arrived. For being a chonky slab of investigative journalism, it made for a relatively brisk and effective evisceration of the 90s-era consumer capitalist hellscape that found root in the collision of brand-driven retail culture with a slave-labor global workforce. Which of course is a reductive summary; there’s a whole lot going on in those 450-odd pages, more to think about than I’m going to get into here.

Now, I’ve got this theory or maxim or theoretical maxim that there’s little worse than someone who has read exactly one book. Like, you know, if everything you think or do comes back to The Bible, because that’s your one book, you’re probably doing it wrong. I’ve never actually read A People’s History of the United States but I suspect that’s another one book for a certain set of folks. When Infinite Jest slides into chats like this I suspect it’s at least in part not because of anything actually in the book but because the book itself is being waved as a one book by some guys.

I’m sure there’s lots of other examples out there and if it’s not clear (I still love Infinite Jest but then I’ve also tried to read at least one book by a woman at least once in my life) a one book isn’t necessarily inherently bad but can become problematic when it is taken out the conversation and is used instead as a bullhorn or a blunt instrument. Many of these books I’m sure bring varying levels of value when integrated into a healthy, diverse reading diet, and of course there are others which just, uh, don’t, but they all likely get gotten from a place that eschews complexity in favor of holier-than-thou attitudes, however well or not-well intentioned.

I can say that as I was reading No Logo—which, again, I think is a good book, even today, decades after it was first published—it feels like it could be or could have been a one book for some folks. I mean, I felt it becoming that for me, figuratively; reading it, it made me feel smarter than I am, like I know more than I actually do, like I’m Good now for having read it. It made me want to go yell at some sheeple.

Luckily, for as much self-awareness as I imagine I lack, I’m at least cognizant enough to recognize this impulse just enough to check it. I mean, aside from the fact that I love complexity to a fault, I’m also hardly a revolutionary. While the sweatshirt I’m wearing right now is from American Giant, which I think isn’t a terrible company, the jeans I have on are from The Gap, which I think is probably a terrible company. I buy some music, but probably still stream more. I donate, but I don’t march. I know I’m not good enough.

This is the point in the draft when I’ve consistently gotten really pessimistic, painfully so for a newsletter I’m supposed to be doing for fun and because I like it, and yet here I am losing sight of the light, unsure how to swim back toward it, as I’m fundamentally starting to wrestle with my own complicity in systems of power that could not care less for my concerns. The best I can do is make a glib joke about how I never actually did learn how to swim, and then smash-cut to how, clearly, I read this 20-plus year old book largely as a history lesson, a polite rejoinder-slash-corrective to whatever leftover romantic notions of the 90s my fairly sheltered life as young guy of the 90s embedded in the fabric of my being, but that I also read it as much to try to figure out what it could tell me about today, about where we’ve gone right or wrong since. What does the theoretical 2023 version of this book look like? What does it tell us about what we can do today to combat the lingering injustices of yesterday? Is thinking about this stuff even fashionable anymore? Didn’t we solve the sweatshop problem already? Does any of this stuff matter anymore?

I don’t have answers. Of course I’m thinking about this stuff in my day to day life now but I’m not thinking hard enough about this stuff, and of course I know it would be unjust to those who are out there actually doing the important work. If nothing else, I have some newly appreciative tentative sense of how complex all this stuff is, that one guy’s ineffectual hand-wringing over the brand of shirt he’s wearing is about as useful to solving capitalism as one family’s composting is at solving global warming. I mean, I’m glad to do it, it’s better to do it than not, but.


But I suspect, I think, that even if somewhere in the doom and gloom there’s at least some signs of progress on the environmental front, the brand economy has probably only gotten worse since No Logo came out. I mean, I still don’t know how ethical most anything I use or buy really actually is, and I’m not exactly dousing that one Nike running shirt I own in gas so I can use it as a torch to burn the whole system to the ground. Beyond that it’s clear we live in a world where the optimism Klein posits for the young and burgeoning information age and its ability to open up new channels for activists and organizers has given way to the reality that, oh yeah, of course the bad guys were also going to get hold of the internet, too, and they were going to use it to make everything suck so much harder than it ever needed to. For being the theoretical bastion of an idealized public space, it’s become just another brand-billboard-lined town square. Except it was never an actual public space at all, was it? It was always owned. (This e-mail is brought to you by Substack, “a new economic engine for culture.”) The revolution has always been brought to you on someone else’s dime and now there’s like five websites, maybe, and they all have expensive logos on them, and oh yeah an anti-semite with a checkbook can come along and just buy all your content and run it into the ground, as if on a lark. What do you even do with that?

Which all brings me to my other thought, where I’m trying to build out a follow-up reading list for No Logo, at least for myself, to give myself some idea about what books I should read to help bridge the gap from then to now, who else has been thinking about this stuff in the years since and who has tracked it and written about it more intelligently than I ever will, both because I do find the topics abstractly interesting but also because I’m curious what books are going to help me fix some of these problems the same way the anti-racist reading lists helped us all fix racism. (Dot dot dot.) I haven’t fleshed that out yet but I can’t help but think that the end point of that through-line for me, in terms of my interests, is Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, specifically because of that way we’ve completely allowed the brands to pave over the public internet, to claim it, to brand and own the air we breathe. If once upon a time the answer was, and maybe still is, to hold companies accountable and to not buy into branding culture, maybe now the answer is just to turn away from it entirely, to resist by looking elsewhere, to be stones in the water, to simply prefer not to.

I love that Odell book, I wonder if it’s actually maybe my actual one book of the last few years, and I keep coming back to it in my head when I hem and haw over my online addictions, and yet I can’t help but feel like this line of thought is casting a particularly dark shade over that book, that withdrawing and refocusing attention is supposed to be a creative and triumphant way of moving forward, not of jabbing a stake in the ground out of some weird desperation. I know there’s more to it than that, and that it’s maybe that refocusing of attention that I’m missing, here in the shadow of the faces of global power structures over which I have and can have zero influence.