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Lead Us Into Temptation
The Triumph of American Materialism
By James B. Twitchell
Columbia University. 310 pp. $24.95

Reviewed by Jack Sullivan, chair of American Studies at Rider University, and the author of "New World Symphonies: How American Culture Changed European Music."

Sunday, August 8, 1999

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"There are no false needs," proclaims James B. Twitchell in this feisty defense of American materialism. "There are only false academics. We have not been duped by hegemonic brainwashing capitalists into desiring things we don't need. We are finally getting exactly what we always bargained for."

As the title implies, American consumers have led themselves into temptation, and taken the rest of the world with them. Consumption is a basic human activity, argues Twitchell, also the author of Adcult USA and The Trashing of Taste in America. It is precisely the wasteful, irrational "surfeit of things" we love most, along with the process of shopping and browsing, which is "creative and even emancipating."

Twitchell, who teaches English and advertising at the University of Florida, relishes being on the attack. Here he takes on many of the anti-consumer ideologues of the past 20 years, from academic critics such as Robert Heilbroner and Christopher Lasch to recyclers and Simplify-Your-Life groups, peddlers of "sin, guilt, and merchandised redemption." To their long quit list -- get rid of your car phone, quit watching commercials, boycott brand names -- he adds one more item: "Quit buying books to tell you how to quit buying."

Like Francis Fukuyama, he sees American materialism representing the "end of history," a final "triumph of the popular will," a new world culture that delivers what human beings have always desired. He ridicules those who purport to despise this culture as hypocrites who, "on the way to Walden Pond . . . pack the sports utility vehicle with the dish antenna, the cell phone, the bread maker, the ash tray, the paddle ball"; and who "zip over to Switzerland for a week or two of skiing, writing off part of their taxes for attending a kaffeklatch on the excesses of American commercialism." Take that, John Kenneth Galbraith!

What we should be doing, Twitchell contends, is not wallowing in the mythology of manipulation and victimization but trying to understand what Henry James called "the empire of things" and how people actually interact with it. He does just that in informative, lively sections on the histories of advertising, packaging, fashion, food and brand names. His analysis of the James Carville/Mary Matlin American Express ad -- the ultimate example of resolving differences through consumption -- is brilliant, as is his take on the brand-name fiction of Ian Fleming and Stephen King and the deep personality fault line that separates addicts of Pepsi from those of Coke.

Twitchell has written vibrantly about everything from vampires to aesthetics, and he once again offers a stimulating ride. But Lead Us Into Temptation goes beyond perceptive analysis into passionate cheerleading for capitalism, a long commercial for commercials, that inverts the phobic Puritanism of those he attacks.

Against the gloom and finger-wagging of the Cultural Studies crowd -- not to mention the anti-consumer tradition of Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Melville and dozens of others -- Twitchell discovers a transcendental "magic" in shopping. Consumerism delivers not just goods but "the enchantment of the world," a metaphysical way of connecting with others through brands, a "salvation through consumption" formerly provided by religion, which has always used the rhetoric of advertising. Shopping is not just about consuming things but "about consuming meaning, about socializing, about dreaming."

Twitchell's contention that we "have not been led astray," that the Church of Consumption exists only through "willing conspiracies on both sides of commercial transactions" may well be true, but that does not make it any less disheartening. He enthusiastically compares celebrities endorsing a brand name to saints on the walls of a cathedral, who are also "endorsing a product, renting their glory," for their corporation, the Church. But isn't consumerism sinister precisely because it emulates orthodox religions and ideologies, with their claims of One Truth, one product that will take care of everything, all based on marketing?

Isn't it possible to be grateful for having a "life of choice," as W.H. Auden once described American material culture, and also deplore the vulgarity that often goes with it? Only at the end, in an admission that the consumer world is "one-dimensional" and "wafer-thin," does Twitchell really acknowledge a dark side to the consumerist "triumph." I suspect he is the latest thinker to be driven to near madness by politically correct colleagues, that his irritation with their jargon and self-righteousness has moved him to take positions that are (one hopes) reactive. Does he really believe that "unlike reading, which really is passive, watching television is almost frantic with creative activity"? Or that marketers are "the real poets of modern life"? Or that "if anything," Americans are "not materialistic enough"?

Twitchell astutely quotes King Lear's "Reason Not the Need" speech to bolster the point that human beings require much more than basic necessities. But he neglects to mention the counterpoint in the play, namely that Cordelia, in contrast to her evil sisters, is heroic precisely because she refuses to market herself. As usual, Shakespeare told both parts of a complex truth. This book tells one part, vividly and entertainingly.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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