Chapter One: Attention Kmart Shoppers
To speak of American "materialism" is ... both an understatement and a misstatement. The material goods that historically have been the symbols which elsewhere separated men from one another have become, under American conditions, symbols which hold men together. From the moment of our rising in the morning, the breakfast food we eat, the coffee we drink, the automobile we drive to workall these and nearly all the things we consume become thin, but not negligible, bonds with thousands of other Americans.
Daniel J. Boorstin, The Decline of Radicalism: Reflections on America Today
OF all "-isms" of the twentieth century none has been more misunderstood, more criticized, and more important than materialism. Who but fools, toadies, hacks, and occasional loopy Libertarians have ever risen to its defense? Yet the fact remains that while materialism may be the most shallow of the twentieth century's various -isms, it has been the one to ultimately triumph. The world of commodities seems so antithetical to the world of ideas that it seems almost heresy to point out the obvious: most of the world most of the time spends most of its energy producing and consuming more and more stuff.
The really interesting question may be not Why are we so materialistic? but Why are we so unwilling to acknowledge and explore what seems to be the central characteristic of modern life?
When the French wished to disparage the English in the nineteenth century, they called them a nation of shopkeepers. When the rest of the world now wishes to disparage Americans, they call us a nation of consumers. And they are right. Almost all mature American cities have a Market Street and almost all of us have been there. No longer. We are developing and rapidly exporting a new material culture, a "mallcondo" culture.
The bus lines today terminate not at Market Street but at the Mall, the heart of our new modern urbia. All around mallcondoville is a vast continuum of interconnected structures and modes of organizing work, shopping, and living, all based on principles of enclosure, control, and consumption.
Most of us have not entered the mallcondo cocoon ... yet. But we are on our way. We have the industrial "park," the "gated" community, the corporate "campus," the "domed" stadium, all of which play on the same conception of Xanadu's pleasure dome. Get inside. In the modern world the Kubla Khan down at the bank or over at the insurance company is not building a mallcondo dome around the natural world, but around a commercial one. Few are willing or able to live outside except, of course, the poor. "If you lived here, you'd be home by now" is no idle billboard; it is the goal of middle-class life.
To the rest of the world we do indeed seem not just born to shop, but alive to shop. We spend more time tooling around the mallcondothree to four times as many hours as our European counterpartsand we have more stuff to show for it. According to some estimates we have about four times as many things as Middle Europeans, and who knows how much more than the less developed parts of the world (Schor, The Overworked American 107). The quantity and disparity is increasing daily, even though, as we see in Russia and China, the "emerging nations" are playing a frantic game of catch up.
The Impact of the Baby Boom
This burst of mallcondo commercialism has happened recentlyin my lifetimeand it is moving outward around the world at the speed of television. The average American consumes twice as many goods and services as in 1950; in fact, the poorest fifth of the current population buys more than the average fifth did in 1955. Little wonder that the average new home of today is twice as large as the average house constructed after World War II (Bennett). We have to put that stuff somewherequick!before it turns to junk.
Manufacturing both things and their meanings is what mallcondo culture is all about, especially for the baby boomers. If Greece gave the world philosophy, Britain gave drama, Austria gave music, Germany gave politics, and Italy gave art, then America has recently contributed mass-produced and mass-consumed objects. "We bring good things to life" is no offhand claim but the contribution of the last century. Think about it: did anyone before the 1950sexcept the richever shop just for fun? Now the whole world wants to do it.
Sooner or later we are going to have to acknowledge the uncomfortable fact that this amoral commercial culture has proved potent because human beings love things. In fact, to a considerable degree, we live for things. Humans like to exchange things. In all cultures we buy things, steal things, and hoard things. From time to time, some of us collect vast amounts of things such as tulip bulbs, paint drippings on canvases, bits of minerals. Others collect such stuff as thimbles, shoes, even libraries of videocassettes. Often these objects have no observable use.
We live through things. We create ourselves through things. And we change ourselves by changing our things. We often depend on such material for meaning. In the West, we have even developed the elaborate algebra of commercial law to decide how things are exchanged, divested, and recaptured. Remember, we call these things goods as in "goods and services." Academics aside, we do not call them bads. This sounds simplistic, but it is crucial to understanding the powerful allure of materialism, consumption, mallcondo culture, and all that it carries with it.
Things are in the saddle, no doubt about it. We put them there. If some of us want to think that things are riding us, that's fine. The rest of us know better.
The Complexity of Consuming Commercialism
That consumption gives meaning to life seems to be rearranging the terms, getting things backwards. But think about it: do we work in order to have the leisure to buy things, or is the leisure to buy things how we make work necessary? We forever talk about how work gives meaninglabore est orarebut it may be consumption that we are referring to. Give a banana to a monkey and he eats it right away. Give him a bundle and he gets confused. He has no idea what to do with surplus. Should he hoard, should he gorge himself, should he share? This used to be a problem only for the rich; now the rest of us can share the perplexity.
I never want to imply that, in creating order in our lives, consumption is doing something to us that we are not covertly responsible for. We are not victims of consumption. Just as we make our media, our media make us. Again, commercialism is not making us behave against our "better judgment." Commercialism is our better judgment. Not only are we willing to consume, and not only does consuming make us happy, "getting and spending" is what gives our lives order and purpose. We have a deluding tendency to consider advertising, packaging, fashion, branding, and the rest of the movement of goods in the way we consider many other cultural sequences, like politics and religion, as somehow "out there" beyond our control. Not so.
Our desire to individualize experience causes us to forget that there is a continual interaction between forcesbetween people and their leaders, between males and females, between readers and writers, between young and old, even between producers and consumersin which there is a struggle not for dominance, but for expansion. In the language of William Blake, the endeavor is not to separate the Prolific and the Devourers, not to blame one for the condition of the other, but to realize that in the shifting of forces is the excitement and the danger of change. In this sense, commercialism is just another site in which the sometimes opposing forces of a culture are brought to bear on each other. The resulting friction is often quite hot.
I make this point now because commercial speechhow we talk about manufactured thingshas become one of the primary hotspots of modern culture. It has been blamed for the rise of eating disorders, the spreading of affluenza, the epidemic of depression, the despoiling of cultural icons, the corruption of politics, the carnivalization of holy times like Christmas, and the gnat-life attention span of our youth. All of this is true. Commercialism contributes. But it is by no means the whole truth. Commercialism is more a mirror than a lamp. That we demonize it, that we see ourselves as helpless and innocent victims of its overpowering force, that it has become scapegoat du jour, tells far more about our eagerness to be passive in the face of complexity than about our understanding of how it does its work.
Anthropologists tell us that consumption habits are gender specific. Men seem to want stuff in early adolescence and post-midlife. That's when the male collecting impulse seems to be felt. Boys gather playing marbles first, Elgin marbles later. Women seem to gain potency as consumers after childbirth, almost as if getting and spending is a nesting impulse. There are no women stamp collectors of note. They do save letters, however, far more often then men do.
Historians, however, tell us to be careful about such stereotyping. While it is clear that women are the primary consumers of commercial objects today, this has only been the case since the Industrial Revolution. Certainly in the pre-industrial world, men were the chief hunter-gatherers. If we can trust works of art to accurately portray how booty was split (and art historians like John Berger and Simon Schama think we can), then males were the prime consumers of fine clothes, heavily decorated furniture, gold and silver articles and, of course, paintings in which they could be shown displaying their stuff.
Once a surplus was created, as happened in the nineteenth century, women joined the fray in earnest. They were not duped. The hegemonic, phallocentric patriarchy did not brainwash them into thinking goods mattered. The Industrial Revolution produced more and more things not because production is what machines do, and not because nasty producers twisted their handlebar mustaches and whispered, "We can talk women into buying anything," but because both sexes are powerfully attracted to the world of things. Stuff is not nonsense. The material world magnetizes us and we focus much energy on our relationship with it.
Marx himself knew this better than anyone else. In the Communist Manifesto he writes:
The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian nations into civilization. The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls.... It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image. (9)
Marx uses this insight to motivate the heroic struggle against capitalism. But as we have seen, especially in the last few decades, it proved feckless. The struggle should not be to deter capitalism and its mad consumptive ways, but to appreciate how it works so its furious energy may be understood and exploited.
My Argument in a Nutshell
I am going to put forward a seemingly naïve thesis to understand the triumph of our commodity culture: (1) Humans are consumers by nature. We are tool users because we like to use what tool using can produce. In other words, tools are not the ends but the means. Further, materialism does not crowd out spiritualism; spiritualism is more likely a substitute when objects are scarce. When we have few things, we make the next world holy. When we have plenty, we enchant the objects around us. The hereafter becomes the here and now. You deserve a break today, not in the next life. (2) Consumers are rational. They are often fully aware that they are more interested in consuming aura than objects, sizzle than steak, meaning than material, packaging than product. In fact, if you ask themas academic critics are usually loath to dothey are quite candid in explaining that the Nike swoosh, the Polo pony, the Guess? label, the DKNY logo are what they are after. They are not duped by advertising, packaging, branding, fashion, or merchandising. They actively seek and enjoy what surrounds the object, especially when they are young. (3) We need to question the criticism that consumption almost always leads to "buyer's remorse." Admittedly the circular route from desire to purchase to disappointment to renewed desire is never-ending, but it may be followed because the other route from melancholy to angst is worse. In other words, in a world emptied of external values, consuming what looks to be overpriced kitsch may be preferable to consuming nothing. And (4) we need to rethink the separation between production and consumption, for they are more alike than separate, and occur not at different times and places but simultaneously.
Ironically the middle-aged critic, driving about in his well-designated Volvo (unattractive and built to stay that way), is unable to provide much insight into his own consumption practices, although he can certainly criticize the bourgeois afflictions of others. Ask him to explain the difference between "Hilfiger" inscribed on the oversize shirts worn outside pants slopped down to the thighs, and his rear window university decal (My child goes to Yale, sorry about yours), and you will be met with a blank stare. If you were to then suggest that what that decal and automotive nameplate represent is as overpriced as Calvin Klein's initials on a plain white T-shirt, he would pout that you can't compare apples and whatevers. If you were to say next that aspiration and affiliation is at the heart of both displays, he would say that you just don't get it, just don't get it at all.
But don't talk to critics if you want to understand the potency of American consumer culture. Ask any group of teenagers what democracy means to them and you will hear an extraordinary response. Democracy is the right to buy anything you want. Freedom's just another word for lots of things to buy. Appalling perhaps, but there is something to their answer. Being able to buy what you want when and where you want it was, after all, the right that made 1989 a watershed year in Eastern Europe.
Recall as well that freedom to shop was another way to describe the right to be served in a restaurant that provided a focus for the early civil rights movement. Go back farther. It was the right to consume freely that sparked the fires of separation of this country from England. The freedom to buy what you want (even if you can't pay for it) is what most foreigners immediately spot as what they like about our culture, even though in the next breath they will understandably criticize it.
Paradoxically, buying stuff is not just our current popular culture, it is how we understand the world. High culture has pretty much disappeared, desperately needing such infusions of life-preserving monies from taxpayer-supported endowments and tax-free foundations to keep it from gasping away. One might well wonder if there is anything more to American life than shopping. After all, we are all consumers now, consumers of everythingconsumers of health services, consumers of things and ideas, consumers of political representation, even consumers of what high culture there is left.
The new model citizen wearing his Calvins and eating his Paul Newman popcorn while applying his Michael Jordan cologne, described by both Left and Right, is the citizen consumer, the one who makes rational choices based on assimilating all the available information. Thinking ends in action and that action is buying. W. H. Auden may have lampooned this creature as the drone of the modern state (The Unknown Citizen), but it seems it is not the state that makes the drone, but the drone that makes the state.
The Case of Seven-Year-Old Mollie
We learn early that shopping around is the way to organize experience. Enid Nemy reports in my favorite part of the New York Times, "Metropolitan Diary," this passing tidbit: "Seven-year-old Mollie Kurshan of Ridgewood, N.J., recently attended The Nutcracker with her grandmother at the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center. There was a Sugar Plum Fairy and beautiful costumes, Mollie told her mother, and, best of all `They stopped in the middle so you could go shopping.' The Kurshans now have a cute little wooden nutcracker, bought at the gift shop during intermission" (A27).
By the time she gets to school, Mollie may see her education as something to purchase. Many of my students think of themselves as buyers of a degree. They can even tell you how much a credit hour costs. In addition, when we talk about how much a credit hour is worth, we mean in dollars and cents. A diploma is valued for how much it improves your starting wage.
Just look at the admission process, complete with competition for financial assistance. Schools live and die by what US News & World Report or Money magazine says about them. You make a deal with one school. You show the deal to other schools. They make counteroffers. It's just like car shopping.
Why go to a prestigious school? Not for good teachingyou are almost assured of being treated poorly in the full professor/teaching assistant configuration. No, you go because the school name improves the relative worth of the line on the vita, the certificate. The assumption is that you pay your money, you get your degree.
Mollie will also learn that what she experienced in Lincoln Center is the norm for what was once called High Culture. Art today is almost always commodified. Juliet B. Schor, a Harvard economist who wrote The Overworked American and then The Overspent American, quotes a museum curator sheepishly explaining why his museum had to be combined with a shopping mall: "The fact is that shopping is the chief cultural activity in the United States" (1991:108). He is right, as the endless catalogs from the Metropolitan or the Museum of Modern Art attest. Not only are all major museum shows sponsored by corporate interests, but they all end in the same spot: the gift shop.
Mollie may discover that shopping for stuff is so powerful that it sets not just mallcondo culture but our biological docks. The weekend developed so that shopping daySaturdaywould be set aside and formalized for consuming. Blue laws were passed because clearly Saturday was not enough, and the desire was spilling over to the Sabbath. The year is punctuated by shopping extravaganzas from Christmas to Valentine's Day to Mother's Day to Halloween. By the age often, we all know what Mollie Kurshan is learning: what to buy and when. We even know when prices fall: Washington's birthday, Labor Day, after Christmas.
Mollie even knows that objects themselves have seasons. Take candy, for instance. She knows exactly what kind of candy to expect as these days pass by: candy canes, sugar hearts, chocolate, candy corn. As she grows up she will even know what to buy during the day. Take fluids; we have coffee breaks, teatime, cocktail hour, and nightcap. The night belongs to Michelob. One of the biggest marketing problems Coca-Cola had was being thought of only as a hot weather drink. It created the image of Santa Claus, the one recognized by Molliea construction of adman Haddon Sundbloomin order to show Santa drinking a summertime beverage in the dead of winter.
Shopping is so powerful that it even generates our urban architecture. Since the 1950s, towns and cities have grown in grids around not office buildings or schools but malls. Look at Atlanta or Los Angeles. The city of the future is spoked outward from a shopping hub. What of transportation? Every fifth time Mollie's mom gets in the car it is to go buy something. Why do people go to New York City? The third most important reason is to go shopping. Shoppingas Mollie will learnis not just how we organize our life at various times. It is our life, especially when we are young.
Is this hyperbole? Is it possible for any of us to take a trip and not buy a souvenir? Getting there may be half the fun, but when you return home the experience may be forgotten without the aide memoire. The anxiety of returning empty-handed means we may lose the event. Kodak used this as a way to sell cameras. Show pictures of faraway places and people will travel to faraway places and take pictures of exactly what the ad showed. They were not duped or tricked by this process. We were there, we saw the picture, we "took" a picture just like it. We brought it home. Of course perception is reality, as the ad says. Is there any other kind?
The Carnivalization of Shopping
"Fill 'er up," we say as we motor through life from one defining purchase to another. On our journeying juggernauts we tape tributes onto our bumpers so all can see that we have been there, done that. Sometimes what we memorialize is not the trip but the purchase, not the thing but the image of it. On the bumpers of self we slap stickers: "Shop 'til you drop," "He who dies with the most toys wins," "People who say money can't buy happiness, don't know where to shop," "When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping," "But I can't be overdrawn! I still have some checks left!," "I'm spending my grandchildren's inheritance," "Nouveau riche is better than no riche at all," "A woman's place is in the mall." For those who want a thought larger than what fits on a car bumper, here is a greeting card. It says, "Work to Live, Live to Love, Love to Shop, so you see ... if I buy enough things I'll never have to work at love again." Wink wink, we say, but under the irony is truth.
Let me reiterate what is central to my thesis and so overlooked in much academic cultural criticism. We were not suddenly transformed from customers to consumers by wily manufacturers eager to unload a surplus of crapular products. We are many things, but what we are not are victims of capitalism. With few exceptions (food, shelter, sex), our needs are cultural, not natural. We have created a surfeit of things because we enjoy the process of getting and spending. The consumption ethic may have started in the early 1900s and hit full tilt after the midcentury, but the desire is ancient. Whereas kings and princes once thought they could solve problems by possessing and amassing things, we now say, "Count us in." Whereas the Duchess of Windsor once said, "All my friends know that I'd rather shop than eat," we now say, "Hey, wait for me."
Generations ago, consumption played out its Saturnalian excesses alongside the church, literally, at the carnival. Mardi Gras and Lent were connected. Consumption, then denial. It was the world turned upside down, then fight side up. We used to go into the dark cathedral looking for life's meaning and then do a little shopping on the side. Now we just go straight to the mall. If you travel about the globe, you will find that millions are quietly queuing up waiting their turn to start shopping. Woe to that government or church that tries to turn them back.
By standards of stuff, the last half century of our national life has been wildly successful. We have achieved unprecedented prosperity and personal freedom. We are healthier, we work at less exhausting jobs, and we live longer than ever. Most of this has been made possible by consuming things, ironically spending more and more time at the carnival, less and less in church.
The Mixed Blessing
"Wanting," "desiring," "needing" are the gerunds that lubricated this strain of capitalism and made our culture so compelling for have-nots around the world. In the last generation we have almost completely reversed the poles of shame so that where we were once ashamed of consuming too much (religious shame), we are now often ashamed of consuming the wrong brands (shoppers' shame).
Was it worth it? Are we happier for it? Was it fair? Did some of us suffer inordinately for the excesses of others? What are we going to do when all this stuff we have shopped for becomes junk? How close is the connection between the accumulation of goods and the fact that America also leads the industrialized world in rates of murder, violent crime, juvenile violent crime, imprisonment, divorce, abortion, single-parent households, obesity, teen suicide, cocaine consumption, per capita consumption of all drugs, pornography production, and pornography consumption?
These are important questions and we need to continually talk about them. I'm not going to. However, there is a mixed aspect of the material world that I will have to confront. The cornucopia of stuffwhich I will address under the rubrics of advertising, fashion, branding, and marketingis to a considerable number of people an experience that is not just boring but banal, almost obscene. The fact is that the carnival is a world of brazen excess, full of sound and excitement but signifying little in the way of philosophical depth. Most critics of mallcondo culture usually feel this antipathy toward commercialism in midlife, after they have chased the meaning of objects and have settled into a routine of low and simplified consumption. In advertising lingo, they no longer change brands because they have made their affiliations. For them the carnival is over and the church is beckoning.
Where the Generation Gap Begins
Yeats forecast this split between wanting and no longer interested via a sexual metaphor. In Sailing to Byzantium he wrote of the world of youthful urges from which the speaker is now alien:
That is no country for old men. The young In one another's arms, birds in trees Those dying generationsat their song, The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas, Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long Whatever is begotten, born, and dies. Caught in that sensual music all neglect Monuments of unaging intellect. (1-8)
To translate this "sensual music" into a consumerist apology: once you have passed through "prime-branding time" you are almost impossible to sell to. The mall carnival is not for you. You become in our culture, "a paltry thing,/ A tattered coat upon a stick" ... forgotten. Very little entertainment, let alone information, flows your way because no one is willing to pay the freight to send it. You better find your own Byzantium in far off High Aesthetica because you are not going to find it here in Lower Vulgaria. No one really makes movies for you (blockbusters are for the kids), programs television for you (check who watches primetime), publishes books and magazines for you (look at the bestseller lists or the flood of magazines like Details, Rolling Stone, Wired) because, although you have the money, your kids spend it. No wonder you become a critic of a culture that has made you a pariah.
There was no generation gap two generations ago. Fashions, like moral and ethical values, flowed down from above, from old to young, rich to poor. But the money in materialism is to be made from tapping those with excess disposable time and moneythe young. Ironically, the only way to return to a culture that served the mature would be if everyone over forty made it a habit to change brands of everything every week or so just like the kids.
This generation gap and the hostility it has engendered is part of the reason we have recently been so passionate about condemning commercialism, and yet so unwilling to examine its workings. These are our kids. We have raised them. They have (gasp!) our values. Clearly we are perplexed about how they act, and just as clearly we have selectively forgotten how important consumption was for us. Their excitement in consumption has been little studied, perhaps because while it is so unfocused, so common, so usual, it is also so youthful. . . .
© Copyright 1999 James B. Twitchell
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