I know Scott Westerfeld as a science fiction writer, but his novel So Yesterday is set in the present, and it is categorized and marketed as “Young Adult” fiction, rather than SF. Be that as it may, So Yesterday is a clever and pointed novel about corporate logos, innovation, and the concept of “cool” — which to my mind are science fictional subjects, or at least aspects of our current reality that are themselves already science fictional.
The narrator of So Yesterday, 17-year-old Hunter, is (as his name implies) a coolhunter, also known as a Trendsetter: one of those people who discovers the newest trends, recognizing them before anyone else, and thereby helping to market them to the masses, to make them “cool.” The object of his affection, Jen, is an Innovator: one of the people who actually invents the trends (in fashion, clothing, etc.) that are then picked up by the Trendsetters and marketed. Hunter works freelance for “a certain athletic shoe company named after a certain Greek god,” advising them on what’s cool and what’s not. (The narrator promises that there will be “no product placement in these pages,” which is why he resorts to such cute euphemisms).
The plot of So Yesterday brings Hunter and Jen in contact with the Jammers, a group of renegade Innovators and Trendsetters, activist pranksters whose aim is to gum up the works: to subvert the process by which innovations turn into trends through corporate logo-ification and marketing. The fictional Jammers are reminiscent of many activist groups that really exist, such as Adbusters and rtmark and the Yes Men; but they go further than these actually existing groups both in the ways they take the cutting-edge technologies and networks of production, marketing, and distribution and turn them against themselves, and in the ways that (like an actual guerrilla/revolutionary group) they go well beyond the bounds of legality.
Logos, brand names, and so on, are so important a component of the construction of our social reality today that I’m surprised that more fiction writers haven’t taken it up. (Aside from So Yesterday, the books that come most readily to mind are William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, and Bret Easton Ellis’ Glamorama).
What’s most interesting about So Yesterday is Hunter’s (and on a different level, Westerfeld’s or the novel’s) ambivalence about the whole corporate machinery of cool. On the one hand, we have the sense of something creepy, something lost, when an in-group tells everybody else what to do — when that in-group, especially, promotes fads that take over people’s minds so stealthily that they do not even realize they are being manipulated. They just spend their dollars, which immediately turn into runaway corporate profits. And despite being on the cutting edge, Hunter remains oppressively aware of the social hierarchies of “cool,” among both teenagers and adults. He knows you can never trust the kids who are cool, or the people who are rich and fashionable.
Yet the concept of “cool” itself is never questioned by the novel. It’s axiomatic that certain things (or ways of being, or fashions) are cool, and that not everybody can embody such coolness. The cool object — in this novel, the ultimate object of cool is a running shoe produced surreptitiously by the Jammers, and adorned with an anti-logo, a design that negates, by crossing it out, the famous Nike swoosh — is instantly dazzling in its coolness to the cognescenti, the Innovators and Trendsetters, but only dimly apprehended by the mass of consumers who will end up purchasing it. If Hunter and Jen are attracted by the Jammers, it’s because the Jammers’ brand of subversion is itself the coolest thing out there.
And though the Jammers themselves are initially presented as revolutionaries, who want to tear down the whole corporate system, it turns out that their real interest is something more, or less. Their aim is not to destroy the system of cool, but if anything to restore the prestige of cool by mystifying it, making it more sticky and less transparent. Their objection to the corporate system is that “the cool hits the mall, before it has time to digest.” They aim, therefore, to “market confusion, jam the ads until the Consumers don’t know what’s real and what’s a joke.” They are anti-corporate Dadaists; but they know they live in an age when Dadaism, together with all the other High Modernist shock tactics, has itself become a highly effective advertising tactic the corporate arsenal.
Towards the end of the novel, “the client” (Nike) gets ahold of the designs for the super-cool shoe that the Jammers invented. Nike never releases this shoe as it is; “instead, they pirate little bits of it every season.” For the corporation follows “the first rule of consumerism: Never give us what we really want. Cut the dream into pieces, and scatter them like ashes. Dole out the empty promises. Package our aspirations and sell them to us, cheaply made enough to fall apart.” What’s utterly remarkable about this passage is how it negates itself. It provides a full critique of the commodification of desire, of how it works through negation and lack, of how it mobilizes infinite deferral. Except… that what it posits as the (lost) originary object of completely gratified desire is itself nothing more, or other, than the commodity fetish par excellence (the coolest running shoe ever made). And this deflates the whole point of the critique.
My point here is not to criticize Westerfeld, or his novel, for being insufficiently revolutionary. But rather, I want to suggest that the ambivalence I’m describing — the doubt as to whether you can really separate coolness from corporate branding, given that coolness in our society inevitably involves hierarchies of both money and taste, organized around the symbolic powers of brand names and logos — is a justified sort of “realism” or cynicism, when it’s juxtaposed with the utopianism of, say, the free software movement, or more generally of Hardt and Negri’s “multitude.”Hardt and Negri (and, in a different way, McKenzie Wark, whose wonderful Hacker Manifesto I will be writing about soon) argue cogently that, in our current network society, creativity and innovation are necessarily collective. Westerfeld’s characters, to the contrary, never question the “cool pyramid,” with lonely Innovators at the top, and the need of a marketing and profit-extracting machinery to filter the innovations and make them trickle down to the mass of Consumers. I’m inclined to say that, in a certain sense, both sides in this argument are right. The ambiguity of Westerfeld’s Jammers (an elite group intervening against, but yet retaining an allegiance to, the elite and corporate machinery of “cool”) points to a real difficulty, one that Hardt/Negri, Wark, and the no-logo and free-software activists don’t seem to have addressed with sufficient rigor.
The problem is this. In the high-technology, highly networked world we now live in, our highest value is always innovation. I myself see this as the highest value, and I have no wish to contest it. (Postmodernity is all about serial repetition of cultural codes and cliches that already exist, but this doesn’t contradict my point. Hip hop, for instance, is totally about innovation: its problem is precisely how to deploy samples, the already-sedimented, in such a way as to make them innovatively new; the High Modernist imperative to “make it new” has been transmogrified, but not abandoned). But innovation is nearly impossible to disentangle from the ways in which our entire society is saturated by fashion, marketing, and consumption. The innovator is not the same as the entrepreneur; Westerfeld recognizes this as much as anybody. But different as these roles are in essence, it is almost impossible to detach them in practice. Innovation is inextricably tied in with entrepreneurship, marketing, advertising, and branding, since these are the conditions of its possibility: the only ways it can be made-present, or come to any sort of being-in-the-world. So the move to Hardt/Negri’s affirmation of the multitude, or Wark’s self-recognition by the hacker class of its own class position, is fraught with much more difficulty — both conceptually and pragmatically — than these theorists recognize or acknowledge. Ironically limited and non-utopian, So Yesterday makes us aware of this situation.