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Tuesday
Jan182011

Jonathan Lethem's Amazon Review of Life Inc.

Jonathan Lethem on Life Inc.
Amazon Review:

Jonathan Lethem is the author of seven novels. A recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, Lethem has also published his stories and essays in The New Yorker, Harper's, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and the New York Times, among others.

I once sat astonished in the audience at a conference on business law and copyright and watched as Douglas Rushkoff stood on stage and patiently, even gently, explained to a group of record company executives, who'd paid for the privilege of hearing him speak, why it was simply time for them to stop trying to rescue their industry. "You don't make anything of value," I believe he told them, with a tone of humane explanation. Ever since that moment Douglas has been one of my personal heroes, and I've been a most attentive reader of anything he cares to put between covers, knowing that his combination of a cold eye and a warm heart is guaranteed to astonish and embolden my own thinking about what's possible in the world--about what's possible to enact in the space between one human being and another. I don't exaggerate when I say he takes the potentially dry notion of 'public advocacy' and shifts it into the realm of epiphany, and art. That puts him with few living writers--Lewis Hyde, perhaps, and the British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips. Yet Rushkoff is perhaps even braver, or anyway lighter on his feet, working without the protection of any sort of ivory tower. He occupies the ground of our most immediate perplexities, and his reports of what he finds are breaking news.

Life Inc. is Rushkoff's best and most important book. Few texts stand any chance of truly changing your mind, let along saving the world. This is one of them. Rushkoff's the first to put the economic crisis in its greater historical and cultural perspective, and doing so, he reveals the underlying biases and embedded agendas of institutions we take for granted, from banking and central currency to corporations and even the suburbs.

Rushkoff really works the manner of a historical philosopher, but without any off-putting jargon or air of self-reference you'd fear encountering within the discipline--he's writing for his readers. His fundamental gesture here is to reexamine the very meaning and use of the world-concept "corporation." You'll never use it again unthinkingly, nor consent to its automatic use in any conversation that's meant to be halfway serious.

In Life Inc. we're given a concise and acute history of corporatism, from its origins as a way for feudal lords of the Late Middle Ages to maintain their monopolies on power, to its present expression in finance industry bailouts--consistently revealing things we take for granted as inventions with purposes that may not be serving us today. In Rushkoff's persuasive account, our acceptance of corporatism as a given leads us to internalize the values of corporations as our own. We use metrics like the GNP to measure our health as a nation, treat people as competitors or marks to be exploited, and the planet as a resource to be extracted. Each Wal-Mart purchase further bankrupts the local community, alienates us from our neighbor merchants, and makes us less likely to attend the PTA meeting.

Life Inc. is a book to give your uncle the disenchanted union organizer, and your other uncle, the soon-to-be-disenchanted Tea Party activist. Rushkoff goes beyond the left/right dialectic to show how both political parties suffer from a dependence on highly centralized solutions and an unhealthy marriage to corporate interests that know no national allegiances.

I recently wrote about the great John Carpenter movie, They Live, which concerns itself with magic sunglasses that translate the corporate signage all around us back into the raw propaganda it really is at its root: a set of commands to WORK, CONSUME, SLEEP, OBEY. This book is those glasses, a lens for seeing deeper into the world you occupy, the commitments you've chosen, the money in your wallet. Read Life Inc. and you'll want to start organizing a local currency in your neighborhood, I promise you.

Reader Comments (7)

Well written, and spot on.

And the They Live reference at the end is delicious nerd gravy.

January 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Mayer

I just finished reading this, and Lethem is on the money. He has managed to describe Rushkoff's place, which to me was always in between the familiar roles. Cold eye, warm heart.

Indeed.

@Andrew Mayer
nerd gravy = hahahahaha

January 19, 2011 | Unregistered Commentersquib

For me it was about the nicest and most affirming thing that's happened to me since starting to write.

I had been feel particularly unthrilled lately with having chosen to go primarily down the non-fiction path. My friends in fiction and narrative motion pictures appear to be having so much fun - and theater was actually my original chosen form. I start to miss it profoundly every year - somewhere between the Golden Globes and the Oscars, as I watch my old friends accept awards like we always said we'd do someday.

But non-fiction prose has its place, and sometimes it can be just as creative a challenge to argue something important in a way that makes sense and gets people to see the world in a new way. Jonathan Lethem - a master storyteller if ever there was one - saw something in me I had started to see as a flaw, or at least something to be taken for granted.

So after reading this, I went from bemoaning my state to counting my blessings. A strong enough dose of positive reinforcement for another good ten years of writing.

January 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDouglas

That's pretty cool Douglas. :)

Nice to see.

January 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Lanphier

wow - the power of writing, eh?

For what it's worth, there are master storytellers in every genre. I wouldn't look at Golden Globes or Oscars as an affirmation of anything other than being in the big clique (although quality work does get awarded, far more doesn't).

You have a great voice - a really rare combination of conviction and inclusiveness. I honestly loved every page of this book. Informative without the condescension, like you found something really cool you want to share. It's a rare gift, you've got it, and I'm glad that you have renewed inspiration (or whatever you call it).

The only other writer of non-fiction I've come across who combines these traits is Wade Davis. You're in great company.

January 21, 2011 | Unregistered Commentersquib

Doug: Maybe there's an axiom somewhere in this -- if there's a potential award attached to it, it must not have any real, lasting value otherwise. Stick with the non-fiction.

Besides, there are some of us who never read fiction and could care less what's on the top-selling list. There's way too much out there to be learned about real life to spend so much time in made up ones (although I do have to come clean and say that I can still be a junkie at night for mindless mainstream TV, but that's only because I don't have subscription broadcasting in my bedroom).

Although there is a question niggling in the back of my head -- did you eventually move from the neighborhood to a less conspicuous one? [If you exposed this in Life, Inc. I'm still reading]

January 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRotkapchen

Jonathan Lethem is one of my influences. I love reading his essays and novels. My favorite was his first novel, Gun, with Occasional Music.

March 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMary Hall

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