Timothy the Grouch

I’m going to be a bit of a grumpus about The Ministry of Reshelving. There’s a simple reason to object to this strategy.

The simple reason is that some folks on the left simply don’t seem to grasp that any tactic in the culture war is now highly symmetrical in its potential application. Once upon a time, only a Yippie would nominate a pig for President because the right identified itself as establishment and above that kind of thing. Now the cultural or populist right is perfectly content to mirror any and all tactics employed by the left in the cultural arena. Boycotts, marches, sit-ins, agit-prop films, giant puppets and subversive stunts: you name it, the populist right can do it too, and sometimes with considerable success. You do your theater of the absurd, they do their affirmative action bake sales.

So you don’t want to start something like this because if people actually start doing it, it’s extremely likely to spawn a mirroring imitation on the right. Michael Moore off to the fiction section, etcetera etcetera. And this is likely to be a feedback loop: we’ve already seen similar things happen. They send one of yours to the hospital, you send one of theirs to the morgue. As a one-off gesture, I don’t think this is actually all that much of a hassle for anyone, including bookstore employees. You get all the mileage you need out of just suggesting it, tongue-in-cheek. Trying to actually encourage people to go out and do it is a sign that there’s a lot of people out there who need to make themselves feel better more than they want to think about what actually accomplishes anything politically in the wider world.

But the actual danger here, as everywhere in culture war, that it won’t be a one-off. I don’t particularly want to go into a bookstore and have to spend an hour figuring out where some right-wing sod decided to hide a book I want that he disapproves of. I don’t particularly think bookstores want to have to devote increasing numbers of hours to finding those books.

I actually like subversion and mockery as political tactics, but I think they’re most effective (and amusing) as one-off statements or performances. (And also if they’re uniquely creative). I enjoy teaching in my consumerism class about the “Barbie Liberation Front’s” infamous hacking of Barbie dolls, but if every Christmas, there were three or four thousand people reverse-shoplifting crudely altered Barbie and GI Joe dolls into stores, I think you’d lose any value from the single stunt and merely garner a lot of antagonism from annoyed kids and parents. I think this is what bugs me so much about cultural warriors: they don’t seem to have a model of consequences. Either of the consequences of action in the sense of “what is this likely to do to positively affect the conscience of people who we hope to persuade” and equally, “what if this gesture starts to become a pattern or pervasive tactic”? Because I still think that the left, broadly speaking, benefits more from a free and informed society than the right does. Why would we want to bring chaos and disorder to the circulation of information and political discourse? I’m sure that’s an overreaction on my part, but you have to think about what happens if “reshelving” becomes a political fad or even a standardized political gesture among both left and right, and it’s hardly inconceivable that it would if enough people head down to their local Borders and move the Orwell–or even if enough people chortle on blogs about how they plan to do so.

This entry was posted in Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Timothy the Grouch

  1. Dr. Adam L. Gruen says:

    Wait a minute. People model consequences?

  2. But it makes them feel better. How dare you criticize them for practicing their impotent symbolic politics! What should they be doing? Stalking the streets as a member of a faux-living-dead mob?

  3. Joey Headset says:

    I totally agree with you in regard to the specifics of this reshelving business. It’s adolescent, and will only cause grief for a handful of bookstore employees.

    However, if you are questioning the usefulness of Culture Jamming in general, particularly when you say:

    Because I still think that the left, broadly speaking, benefits more from a free and informed society than the right does. Why would we want to bring chaos and disorder to the circulation of information and political discourse?

    I would say, yes: the left would benefit from a free and informed society more than the right. However, we don’t really have much of that right now. Free, perhaps, but informed… not even close. Bringing chaos and disorder to the circulation of information, specifically those channels of circulation that are controlled by the right, is perhaps the best way to cause people to start questioning the information that is pressented to them. Should the right start mirroring this, I still think the left comes out ahead for two reasons:

    1. The number of people who get their information from the information sources controlled by the right vastly out number the people who get their information from lefty sources. So if both sides sabotage the other sides info-source with equal vigor, the left gains more than the right.

    2. I believe that the left, broadly speaking, benefits more from a society that is continuously forced to question those that provide them with information than the right.

    Of course, the sort of tactics that I think are worthwhile are more in line with The Yes Men, people who infiltrate the broadcast media, and expose them forwhat they are. Screwing around with books at the local bookstore isn’t going to get the job done.

  4. joeo says:

    Millions of people went to the streets before the Iraq war. They were right. Even the ANSWER guys were right. The people who made fun of them were wrong. Sqeamishness about protesting is something people need to get over. Sometimes that shit actually works .

    Those guys weren’t the first to invent bookstore shenanigans. In the early nineties a shelf of this bookstore had a handwritten sign “Please do not throw the Edward Said books on the floor.” As far as I know, this did not lead to retaliatory Richard Perle book tossing.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    I wouldn’t have made fun of the ANSWER guys. I just wouldn’t get near anything they were involved with if I could possibly help it. Some people on the left are tolerant of that kind of appropriation of big-tent campaigns by small fringe groups that support repellant ideologies, but I’m not one of them: that repeated pattern been very destructive over the long history of progressive and radical activism. There are plenty of movements and campaigns that have been swallowed by their fringes because they ignored them or worse yet, accomodated them in the spirit of coalition-building.

    Many people were right to oppose the war before it started. Whether “going to the streets” was what they were right about is a completely different question. They went to the streets, as you observe: and what did that accomplish? Please don’t do the “it would have accomplished more if other people who opposed the war hadn’t been squeamish about protests” line, either: that’s just the left-wing version of the “stab in the back” theory that the pro-war people are now preparing the ground for. Sometimes mass activism or even culture jamming “works” in the sense of producing positive political action that would otherwise not have happened, but often it does not. More importantly, this is not 1964 or 1968 or even 1975: the right has learned a great deal about the kinds of mass action that were once relative monopolies of the left.

    Not every single act of culture jamming is met with right-wing symmetry, but I would say that the left or progressives continue to regard culture jamming as a proprietary political tactic and the fundamental fact is that it is not. For the most part, I’d say culture jamming is largely about the aesthetic satisfaction of the jammer him/herself, and done as such, actually, I think it’s often pretty cool, when the jammer doesn’t take themselves too seriously and doesn’t have a one-note, simple-minded political ideology that they’re flogging. I’ve always liked Joey Skaggs, for example: what he does ultimately tells us some interesting things about the nature of the media (and I don’t think what it tells is a simple, shopworn story about conservative hegemony over media, but something deeper and less political about how information propagates), but I think mostly he’s refreshing because it’s about art, about wry observation of American culture. If he was constantly doing off-the-shelf Gramscian diatribes, I think he’d be a lot less fun and a lot more self-indulgent.

    The Ministry of Reshelving people have that side to them, with their ideas about public space and games, but basically the agit-prop content of this particular thing is kind of crude. As an artistic prank, it’s sort of blah, and as politics, it’s just narcissistic as well as fraught with hidden consequences.

  6. joe o says:

    >They went to the streets, as you observe: and what did that accomplish?

    I sat on my ass: what did that accomplish?

    I don’t think there is as strong a symmetry as you suggest. A lot of conservatives will go to anti-abortion rallys, because a lot conservatives care about abortion. But that doesn’t mean they will go to any protest Karl Rove wants them to. Supporters of Bush did try to have pro-war rallys but they were pretty sad.

    Here are some conservative culture jammers from rush limbaugh’s site. Not very impressive.

    America is torturing people. It is OK if a few books get moved around.

  7. Joey Headset says:

    Yeah, if moving books around had even the slightest chance of bringing about change, I guess it would be OK. But I’m not sure how annoying some $8-an-hour Barnes and Noble stock jockey helps anyone. Even if some meaningful number of people notice these “provocatively shelved” books while browsing, there’s no reason to believe that they will interpret it as some form of protest. Most likely, they will just figure that the B&N employees are sniffing glue in the back room. Which, most likely, they are.

    So this reshelving stops prisoner abuse how…?

  8. DougLathrop says:

    Allow me to join you at the Grumpus Table, Tim. There are a handful of culture-jamming antics that I’ve found amusing, but in general the whole movement–especially the Adbusters people–strikes me as too taken with its own cleverness and often just as contemptuous of ordinary people as the marketers and corporations targeting them. How reshelving a few books in Berkeley or Eugene, Oregon, is going to stop people from being tortured in Iraq is a mystery to me.

    My thoughts on mass protests are more mixed. The demonstrations at the onset of the Iraq War were ineffective partly because the public is numb to them. And why shouldn’t they be? Since the Vietnam era mass demos have basically turned into boring set-pieces that inspire little more than a yawn and an, “Oh look, the hippies are trying to levitate the Pentagon again,” from most people. Contrast that with the Cindy Sheehan vigil, which doesn’t conform to the usual model and is having an impact. I think the jury is still out on its longterm effect; right now it’s benefiting from the fact that it’s the middle of summer and the White House press corps is stuck in Crawford with nothing else to report on. But even so, it’s tapped into growing public unease over the war, the professional activists have wisely remained in the background, and Sheehan herself has withstood all the personal attacks from the right without lowering herself to her attackers’ level (and in doing so making them look even more unhinged than usual). I just hope Michael Moore stays the hell away from it a little while longer.

  9. David Salmanson says:

    I’ve been on my own little reshelving project for a while. I take all the white shaman books out of the Native American section and put them in the religion section or New Age section if the store has one. I would like to point out that the bookstores that choose to put stuff posing as Native American knowledge in the N.A. section aids a bunch of rip off poseurs and contributes to ongoing misunderstanding of Native American culture with real consequences for N.As and Euros. Whereas moving 1984 around is merely a clever comment on tje state of society. It just really pisses me off that Borders and B and N think they are carrying a lot of material by and about NA when they are not. I move the books to more appropriate sections (and complaining endlessly to managers about the dearth of decent N.A. studies books). Is it working? Not yet. Am I gonna stop? Probably not.

  10. Gary Farber says:

    I’ve kept forgetting to ask if you read the post I linked to here?

  11. Timothy Burke says:

    What David’s talking about is cool with me, I should note. Back when Borders was a smallish chain of extremely large stores that much more consciously catered to bibliophiles and academics, I actually went out of my way to talk to the store manager down near Washington (that’s the one we’d go down to from Baltimore) about some of their category decisions. And yeah, there are some now which annoy me too.

    Hadn’t read that one, Gary. A bit, er, strong…interesting that it drew a reply from Jane McGonigal. I like what she’s calling “avant gaming”, I just think it’s a mistake to load it down with claims about its political power–and as with all pranks and jokes, it’s important to, well, be actually funny at some level of originality. It’s not just that this reshelving can’t carry the political weight they want it to carry, it’s that it’s not even an especially witty thing. “1984 is non-fiction now!” is something that people have pretty much been saying since the book came out, and that Orwell meant people to be saying since the book was not meant as prophecy or science-fiction in many ways.

  12. Gary Farber says:

    I didn’t feel like blogging this (it’s not as if I’m not posting enough lately), but this strikes me as at least a cousin to this topic. Obviously, the defenders would explain that It’s All Different, because it strikes a blow against corporations, man. I find that argument unconvincing, which isn’t to say that like most everyone, I don’t have problems with various common corporate practices.

    Whaddya think?

  13. Gary Farber says:

    FWIW, David Salmanson’s project bothers me not at all, because it’s actually trying to do something about bookstore practices worth objecting to, not the equivalent of sympathetic magic or sheer pranksterism for the “art” of it all.

  14. Timothy Burke says:

    “Yomango” strikes me as being in a different league of stupid: the Ministry of Reshelving is a small thing in comparison to that. Though I suppose shoplifting has actually long been an upper-middle-class kind of rite of passage, trying to organize it…yuck.

  15. DougLathrop says:

    “Yomangtistas” also rage against consumer culture by stealing supermarket food for park picnics or riding on public transport without paying.

    “C’mon, man, let’s go do some crimes.”

    “Yeah, let’s go eat sushi … and not pay!”

Comments are closed.