The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History, 1880-1980 . Edited by Jackson Lears and Richard Wightman Fox. Pantheon, 236 pages, $9.95 paper.
January 31, 1984        

In his lovely idyll “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” Oscar Wilde dreamed a happy ending to the travails of modernity:

“At present machinery competes against man. Under proper conditions machinery will serve man. There is no doubt at all that this is the future of machinery; and just as trees grow while the country gentle man is asleep, so while humanity will be amusing itself, or enjoying cultivated leisure — which, and not labour, is the end of man — or making beautiful things, or reading beautiful things, or simply contemplating the world with admiration and delight, machinery will be doing all the necessary and un pleasant work.... On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the ma chine, the future of the world depends.”

It has not turned out that way, of course; at least not yet. Things are still in the saddle, riding humankind. But though the grinding Victorian poverty that appalled Wilde has not entirely disappeared, it has by and large evolved, in the developed capitalist world, into some thing less stark, though perhaps no less invidious: consumer society. The “realm of necessity,” of want, that Marx deplored has been succeeded not by a “realm of freedom” but by something intermediate: a realm of commodities. Life is less brutish and short, but the grandest promises of technological modernity — individual autonomy, creative work, “cultivated leisure” — have not been fulfilled for most people. “Progress,” the common expectation of 19th- century liberals and socialists, has taken a queer turn. Consumer society is not exactly what anyone expected or hoped for. It is by no means the antithesis of the good society; rather, it’s a more or less plausible counterfeit.

A great deal of American social criticism in this century has been a response to the advent of consumerism. Some of his criticism has taken the form of sentimental moralizing — lamentations over the emptiness of affluence, the perils of prosperity, the failure of success. Some of it has been more serious — academic (Erving Goffman) or popular (Vance Packard) or conservative (Paul Goodman) critiques of mass society. More recently, taking a clue from the Frankfurt school of Marxist social theorists (including Herbert Marcuse) and from British cultural historians Raymond Williams and E.P. Thompson, American radicals have tried to understand consumer society in all its complexity. Which is to say, not as a fall from grace, or a capitalist conspiracy, or the inevitable unfolding of the dialectic of modernity, but as a tense compromise between the requirements of the powerful and the aspirations of the ruled.

Christopher Lasch has pioneered this approach. Although often mistaken for conservative nostalgia, Lasch’s work is an acute and potentially subversive analysis of the deep structure of social control in developed capitalist societies (which is — crucially — a very different matter from social control in developing capitalist societies). A younger historian, Jackson Lears, took up a similar problem in “No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1929”, which was published in 1981. Lears’s widely praised (and widely attacked) study argued that American culture underwent a crisis at the end of the 19th century in response to increasing secularization, technological and demographic changes, and the rise of a national market economy. The result of this crisis was a normative shift from the “bourgeois ethos,” enjoining “perpetual work, compulsive saving, civic responsibility, and a rigid morality of self-denial,” to a “therapeutic ethos,” which sanctioned “periodic leisure, compulsive spending, apolitical passivity, and an apparently permissive (but subtly coercive) morality of individual fulfillment.” What made “No Place of Grace” original and controversial — was Lears’s further contention that “the older culture was suited to a production-oriented society of small entrepreneurs; the newer culture epitomized a consumption-oriented society dominated by bureaucratic corporations.”

Lears has returned to the subject, this time in the company of five other young radical historians. “The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History, 1880-1980” (edited by Lears and Richard Wightman Fox, Pantheon, 236 pa $9.9 paper) tries to document the shift from a “producer ethic to a “consumer ethic” through six studies of individuals and institutions within the American cultural elite. It is a superb collection: wide-ranging, detailed, suggestive, well argued. Lears leads off with a study of the early history of advertising, circa 1880-1930. He claims that the spread and refinement of advertising strategies did not merely follow from changes in popular values; on the other hand, neither did it create or effortlessly manipulate them. Secularization, urbanization, and the shift from entrepreneurial to corporate capitalism had left many people with a diminished or fragmented sense of self and with longings for more “real” or intense experience. Advertisers rushed to satisfy (i.e., exploit) these needs, but often out of a sense of public service, or at least with a sincere belief in their own prophecies of abundance and promises of self realization. Lears’s survey of early advertising techniques is informative; even more revealing is his portrait of Bruce Barton, a leading advertiser and popular inspirational writer of the 1920s, whose career embodied many of the confusions and anxieties that gave rise to the therapeutic ethos.

The growth of advertising influenced another key institution of consumer culture: mass-circulation magazines. However genteel or elitist the may have been. Victorian literary magazines generally treated their readers as peers, without condescension, and the reflected a traditional notion of reading as a contemplative activity. Christopher Wilson’s essay traces the development of a new editorial “voice” and rhetoric imported from the sphere of advertising and sales by a new type of editor manager. Pretested and prepromoted, these magazines — “McClure’s”, “Saturday Evening Post”, “Ladies’ Home Journal”, and others — combined ersatz “realism,” pseudointimacy, and predictability to create a streamlined, “managed” reading experience. They became ideal marketing vehicles, not merely for individual products but for consumerist values and self-images.

Two essays in “The Culture of Consumption” are biographical. Richard Fox recounts the frustrated, poignant career of Robert Lynd, sociologist, reformer, and author of “Middletown,” the classic portrait of small-town America in the mid-’20s. Lynd began as a religious radical and a harsh critic of corporate power. But as he elaborated his critique of consumer culture, he was captured by one of its central assumptions: that ordinary men and women are largely passive, impulsive and manipulable and therefore need the guiding expertise of trained, caring social scientists and professional planners. For all his idealism, Lynd ended by helping to foster among American intellectuals an undemocratic and self-serving conception: the “rational,” scientifically ordered, bureaucratically managed society.

Jean-Christophe Agnew’s essay on Henry James may he the best in the collection. Agnew’s review of commercial metaphors in James’s fiction, and of ambivalence about American business civilization in James’s memoirs, is perceptive, though not entirely original. But it is prefaced by a dazzling methodological essay. According to Agnew, commodities have always carried social meanings, but when they rapidly and incessantly “improve” or obsolesce, social meanings become unstable. Contemporary advertising “defamiliarizes” and “recontextualizes” once-familiar objects and their customary attributes, and the result is a “fragmentation of needs” and subtle but widespread social disorientation. Consumers try to cope with this confusion by constructing a symbolic “code” made up of commodities, the way primitive peoples orient themselves in an incomprehensible and threatening environment by constructing myths and rituals. Agnew’s brief sketch hints at how an anthropology of consumer culture might be constructed — a keenly interesting question for all those who live in one.

The last two essays in the book have contemporary subjects. Robert Westbrook examines the “commodification” of American politics, arguing that the electoral relationship “has become one of packages to packages, a relationship shaped by managers who are themselves for sale.” He outlines the history of professional campaign managements which by now consists of identifying and canvassing an “audience package” and then assembling and promoting a “candidate package” for that audience’s (i.e., electorate’s) consumption. The result: like other forms of mass marketing, electoral politics reinforces the apathy, atomization, and spectatorship that are endemic in consumer societies.

Finally, Michael Smith depicts the United States’ manned space program as a “triumph of commodity scientism.” In daily life in the 20th century, large-scale technology has become, for most people, indispensable but incomprehensible. And so, according to Smith, public attitudes toward new technological ventures like the arms race and the space race have been engineered by “presentation strategies” that play on anxieties (especially among males) about powerlessness — loss of technical competence, of control over one’s personal environment, even of sexual prowess. Automobile advertising had perfected the simple trick of transferring or projecting at tributes from product to consumer — for example, the car’s power implies the driver’s virility, its efficiency his purposefulness, its technical complexity his technical literacy, and so on. Government public-relations experts took over this approach to sell the Apollo moon flight, an expensive, wasteful project useful mainly as Cold War propaganda. The success of the moon shot generated national feelings of conquest and mastery, which masked the actual lack of public debate and control over the whole venture and over technological development generally.

“The Culture of Consumption” documents the invasion of nearly every region of modern American culture — journalism, literature, social science, politics, technology — by therapeutic attitudes, consumerist values, and advertising and mass-marketing techniques. But if this is an invasion, who is the aggressor? To their credit, the authors recognize that that’s not a simple question. They have avoided the temptation to explain consumerism as a gigantic fraud, a capitalist plot to mystify and pacify the populace. The populace has often enough pursued commodities actively, and elites have often believed in (and sometimes even been victimized by) the ideologies they purvey.

Still, consumerism has undeniably had political consequences: it has promoted popular passivity and the centralization of decision-making power in the state executive and in large, bureaucratic corporations. If this process is not a result of deliberate ruling-class manipulation, then how to account for it? “The Culture of Consumption” does not answer that vast and complex question, but it does contain a useful hint. Several contributors cite Raymond Williams’s fine essay “Advertising: The Magic System” (from “Problems in Materialism and Culture”), which defines consumer society as “a cultural pattern in which objects must be validated, if only in fantasy, by association with social and personal meanings which in a different [e.g., socialist] cultural pattern might be more directly available.” This “validation” is accomplished by a sort of magic: since individual consumption leaves whole areas of human need unsatisfied, the attempt is made, by magic, to associate this consumption with human desires to which it has no real reference:… [desires for] social respect, good taste, health, beauty, success, power to control your environment. The magic obscures the real sources of general satisfaction because their discovery would involve radical change in the whole common way of life.” Need is subversive; it must be bewitched.

Like all successful sorcerers, the ideologists of consumer culture believe in their own magic. “Fundamentally,” writes Williams, “they are involved, with the rest of the society, in the confusion to which the magical gestures are a response.” Sincerity is, after all, a requisite of effective propaganda. And besides, the ideology of consumption, of fulfillment through individual marketplace trans actions, is plausible. How many other sources of fulfillment are there, for most of us?

Altered slightly — to “What other sources of fulfillment could there be?” — that question is a radical one and invites utopian answers, like Wilde’s. The contributors to “The Culture of Consumption” have declined the invitation; their book is entirely diagnostic and not at all programmatic. In particular, they resist any suggestion that the dilemmas created by economic and techno logical “progress” will be re solved through more of the same, or that “genuine” progress lies just beyond the next turn of the modernist dialectic. Anti-modernists, they are convinced that modernization erodes vital (though flawed) traditions of localism, self-help, and mutual aid: that is, traditions of family, neighborhood, religion, and craft.

It is tempting to equate anti-modernism with nostalgia, though the authors would resist that suggestion, too. Still, some of them do occasionally slip into ambiguous usages. Lears and Fox write that in a corporate economy, most workers can “no longer” aspire to become their own bosses — as if most of them ever could in any important sense, considering the harsh constraints imposed by premodern technology. Westbrook hopes for a “revival” of republican democracy. Smith regrets that contemporary Americans have become “more” removed from decisions about technology’s social uses. The authors admit that mass consumption has lightened old burdens and furnished new pleasures. But they hint that the price has been too high: that premodern society was fundamentally more democratic and allowed more of the reality (though less of the rhetoric) of individual autonomy.

If that large historical claim is true (and I’m not persuaded of it), then what is to be done? No one— at least no one on the left, and certainly not Lears and his comrades — is seriously proposing a return to the “producer ethic,” even if the conditions in which that ethic flourished (an accumulating, entrepreneurial capitalism) could somehow be recreated. And surely no one (except William F. Buckley) wants the feudal ethic back. Whatever wisdom those cultures embodied will have to find a new form.

In their introduction to “The Culture of Consumption” Lears and Fox write: “People deserve a more democratic as well as a more affluent way of life. That belief unites the authors of these six essays.” Democracy plus affluence is utopia enough for now. But though our six authors are emphatic about how not to get there, they are enigmatic about how we can. We will apparently have to wait for Lasch, Lears, and others on the antimodernist left to work out a program as compelling as their critique. Perhaps they’ll succeed in summoning ancient wisdom to rescue us beleaguered, bewitched moderns.