Accidental entrepreneurs

An article on the front page of today’s Wall Street Journal — the standard goofy story that begins in column four — affords me an opportunity to expand on yesterday’s post about permanent adolescents. The article details a bunch of accidental entrepreneurs who start making money selling goofy T-shirts on the Web. On the one hand, we’re led to believe that these people don’t think of themselves as businesspeople — this makes their entrepreneurship seem more authentic, naturalize the urge to make money, which seems to overwhelm one’s activities automaticallly. Whatever you start out doing, inevitably you’ll be doing it to make money, because this is simply the way the world works, and profit-making is the way we measure success and get the impetu to continue with whatever we’ve started. This is how the permanent adolescents can maintain their grip on their psuedo-countercultural status while undertaking the nuts-and-bolts work of capitalism, discovering how, for instance, to “monetize the Internet,” as one T-shirt vendor remarks.

And the product is one that capitalizes on the permanent adolescent phenomenon, monetizes that. “The T-shirt is the perfect fit for online commerce. It captures the Web’s renegade allure and allows surfers to show off their virtual journeys.” The T-shirt is a souvenir from a vacation taken into the heart of off-hand hipness, commorating the boredom-driven escape from everyday life into a meandering search for instant distraction. This would then seem to epitomize the T-shirt wearer’s refusal to play the game of everyday life, to go along with the system, to demonstrate his own renegade allure. But then the Journal quotes one of these T-shirt wearers, and you get to see just what a tool he is: “There’s a point where my girlfriend will tell me I’ll have to grow up, but until then, one definitely can’t have too many funny T-shirts.” The satisfaction afforded by one is so ephemeral that it must be supplemented by serial purchases, and ultimatly the serial purchases, the search for something new to buy, is what this is about — T-shirts, then, are no different than other permanent adolescent commodities like indie rock, Japanese kitsch, volumes of esoteric social theory, and so on.

And the paper takes an opportunity to get a gratuitous jab in at leftists by putting this in the pull quote: “One shirt shows a picture of Che Guevara and says: ‘I have no idea who this is'” — quite clever, as this mocks Guevara, his clueless followers, and radical chic all at once while pointing out how trivialized Guevara’s ideas have become.

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