Selling out. Been there, done that. So has cookery blogger and Graun regular Jack Monroe, apparently. Not a household name by any means, but someone who was catapulted to Twitter fame after attracting the attention of The Mail's Richard Littlejohn following a party political broadcast for Labour. You can read her reply here. Now, I'd be lying if I said I followed Jack's work. Food columns and cookery writing just ain't my thing. Food is something to nom on and that's it for me. It's fodder, not a petit bourgeois distraction from the class struggle on a plate. I also gathered from Jack's blogs that she does some anti-poverty campaigning too. Now comes the tricky bit. Jack, a) speaks out about food banks; b) supports Labour; c) writes about cooking. Therefore, on what basis is she being labelled a "sell-out" for fronting a Sainsbury's ad campaign?
It's ridiculous. It really is. I'm sure Jack was surprised to learn she was a pin-up for anti-capitalist foodies. That somehow blogging for free about shopping at Sainsbury's is okay, but getting paid to talk about shopping at Sainsbury's for Sainsbury's isn't. It's a funny old world. Just what exactly has she "sold out"?
Selling out is an infantile concept to start off with. As my old mucker Kit observes, selling out is "learning from your experience, as other people might call it." It is a favourite on the far left of course. As a movement more at home with purity than relevancy, selling out is a label one can stick on dissidents and ex-members. It's a way of blunting criticism, of ignoring inconvenient truths and sidelining critical thought about strategy and the "prestige" of the leaders. There's a reason why one general secretary's been in post for nearly 50 years. But you don't need me to tell you it's just a left thing.
We live in an age where the officially-endorsed mode of individuality - the consumer - has reached its apogee. Think about the most basic characteristic of consumer-as-subject. It's me, me, me. I will choose what I want. I will demand gratification from others. And as I'm making the choices, I owe no one else anything. Perhaps Susan Greenfield had a point. We are encouraged to live in our own personal universes, to be stars of the movie playing inside our heads. And, broadly speaking, it's an outcome of modes of subjectivation in which meaning is found in the pursuit of commodities, be they physical goods, services, or ways of stringing them both together in styles of life. This in itself is not new. What is different now is we're living after a mutation in the nature of the media and the "accessibility" of celebrity. Fame is divorced from actual and discernible talent. Reality TV, celebrity gossip rags, etc. created and sustained a demand for instant celebrities whose sole criterion for fame was being in the right place at the right time. Social media generally, and Twitter in particular has allowed for the net to be cast even wider. Fame can happen in an instant. You can find yourself promoted by A-list stars or, um, fronting a supermarket ad campaign. In turn this feeds back into the narcissistic consumer subject. If you showboat enough, appear stylish enough, are funny enough, troll enough, or have followers enough you too can be kissed by fame.
Am I trying to say calling out Jack for selling out is a matter of jealousy? No. To quote brit-rock favourites Skunk Anansie, "it takes blood and guts to be this cool/ but I'm still just a cliche". Presenting a particular sense of self is a tough job. Keeping up appearances is a daily task. We are all Hyacinth Bucket. Being part of a subculture or just trying to appear fashionable, stylish means constant, exhausting self-surveillance. Those virtuosos who do appear effortlessly cool and/or au fait with their chosen milieu do so on the basis of years of practice, of performing and presenting in certain ways. This, however, can never be admitted. Friend-of-the-blog Pierre Bourdieu talks about something called an illusio. This is an effect of the social fields we encounter daily to justify the hierarchy, the arbiters of taste and distinction. In youth/style subcultures particularly, the form the illusio takes is authenticity. If you're an authentic hipster, you just are. If you're an authentic gamer, you're just naturally gifted at games. If you're an authentic music aficionado, you have an instinct for the best clubs and hot new underground acts. And on it goes. If you wan to apply it to the far left, authenticity inheres around being authentically proletarian, or being authentically Marxist. It is the presentation of carefully crafted, carefully contrived sets of practices and knowledges as somehow the natural properties of certain people.
It's this idea of authenticity that has so irked Jack's naysayers. Like I said, I don't know Jack but it's pretty evident she did not stake any claims-to-authenticity. Yet it is the effect of the fields that pervade our social existence that mean our actions tend to be perceived in light of them, regardless of our subjective intentions. As far as Jack was concerned, she's just an ordinary mum getting by on a tight budget, and writing about it for the internet and the Graun. Yet for some who followed her writing, they framed her in terms of non-celebrity authenticity, as a woman who cooked on a budget because she had to. She was strangely earthy and was in some weird, unconscious but nevertheless real sense anti-corporate and counter-hegemonic. In the manichean clash between social media civilisations, Jack was a good guy fighting the good fight with 30p liver and sultana casserole. She was an ally that slotted into many right-on senses of self. In spite of herself, Jack was a coordinate, a safe point of light in a chain of personal universes she never knew existed.
Therefore her decision to appear in an advert for a BIG CAPITALIST EVIL destroyed her perceived authenticity, despite being open about having shopped in Sainsbury's. Because it wasn't about her, it was about the narcissism of others. She wasn't to know that signing on the dotted line was like SPD deputies voting for war credits in the Reichstag all over again.