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Tuesday, December 1, 2015

A Couple Things I Don’t Often Do

One thing I seldom do is to mark up the pages of a hardcover book, one in pretty good shape with a nice, sharp dust jacket. In this case, however, I am not the first to desecrate the pages, as a previous reader went at the text with blue highlighter, and I am making my own contributions lightly, in pencil.

Another activity from which I refrain as a general rule (though, obviously, not an ironclad law) is using this forum to discuss a book I recommend people not buy.

I could add a third item to the list. Rarely do I take the trouble to read fifty pages into a book before deciding it isn’t worth any more of my time.

Lead Us Into Temptation: The Triumph of American Materialism, by James B. Twitchell, published in 1999 by Columbia University Press with a retail price of $90 for hardcover (subsequently $30 for paperback), is the third in the author’s trilogy on American popular culture. Preceding volumes were Carnival Culture: TheTrashing of Taste in America and Adcult USA: The Triumph of Advertising in American Culture. While Columbia publishes many titles I wish I could stock in my bookstore, they offer no wholesale discount through Ingram, my major national distributor, and paying full retail price plus shipping to put books on the shelf on spec doesn’t work for me. This time, exploring the opening chapter of this book, I was glad I hadn’t paid full price, and I would not want to ask a customer to do so, either.

Before the first chapter, as early as the introduction, I found the author’s style annoying. He was going to take a position and presenting a thesis, but he was taking his sweet time about it, inscribing slow circles around a vague center while taking potshots at all manner of easy targets, such as the selling of self-help books to wean people away from consumerism. When what sounded like the main thesis made an appearance -- “We live through things. We create ourselves through things.” -- it stepped in quietly, sideways, at the edge of a scene, rather than taking center stage. And far too much word count is given over to list-making. When the lists are clichés – sometimes presented in quotation marks and other times without – they are particularly irritating. For example:
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 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.”
Soon the marketplace would capture this offloaded meaning and apply it to secular things. Buy this, you’ll be saved. You deserve a break today. You, you’re the one. We are the company that cares about you. You’re in good hands. We care. Trust in us. We are here for you.
My point is, he belabors his points. It’s insulting. Maybe it’s padding. Or both.

This author of nine books, as of the one next to me right now, teaches (or did in 1999) English and advertising at the University of Gainesville in Florida, but he clearly has contempt for academia in general and academic cultural criticisms in particular.
Nine times out of ten [clearly a rhetorical flourish rather than a statistical report], if you take a course in anything described as Cultural Studies, you will find that individuals are invariably seen as victims, while your instructor is the sage protector.
Your sage protector, I think he must mean to say. But note the academic author distancing himself from academia. Given his faculty position, one cannot help suspecting him of attacking straw men.

I made my first marginal notation on page 22, where the author lays out what he calls a “naive” four-part thesis. He begins the first of his four parts as follows:
(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.
He begins by claiming, in other words, that tools are tools. Forgive me for saying this, but – Duh! Next he claims that (2) consumers are “rational,” which he must do in order to oppose to what he presents as the widespread notion that consumers are helpless “victims” but which also, at the same time, ignores studies going back as far as 1979 (Tversky & Kahneman) that have tackled the classical economic model of rational decision-making. He wants to (3) cast doubt on the existence of “buyer’s remorse,” arguing that “consuming what looks to be overpriced kitsch may be preferable to consuming nothing.” He will go on later to say that we give our lives meaning by buying stuff, so buying nothing would yield a meaningless life, but then no one buys “nothing” in his view, and we’ll get back to that in a minute. Finally he would have us rethink the separation between production and consumption, which I would be perfectly willing to do if I were not already so put off by the paucity of claims (1) through (3).

Buying “stuff,” Twitchell wants us to believe, “is how we understand the world,” because if we’re not buying “overpriced kitsch,” we’re buying vacations or high culture experiences or the good feeling that comes from giving to charity. I’m not making this up.
One might well wonder if there is anything more to American life than shopping. After all, we are all consumers now, consumers of everything – consumers of health services, consumers of things and ideas, consumers of political representation, even consumers of what high culture there is left.
Note the clever move, blocking off the exit toward which you had turned. You may not be consuming kitsch, but aren’t you still consuming – say, opera or dental hygiene or philosophy. Every decision you make is a consumption decision.

For Freud, all dreams and all desires were basically about sex, and for Twitchell, everything you do is consuming. But if everything is consuming, all we can learn by investigating consumption will be more about consumption. Which is fine with Twitchell because while he concedes there are other important questions – happiness, justice, crime, divorce, drugs, pornography, etc., etc. – he declines to address them. Fair enough. Every writer gets to limit his domain of concern as he wishes. But saying that everything is just all this one “x”? Sorry, Charlie, not going there.

In an attempt to explode the consumer-victim straw man he has set up, the author asks readers to consider television viewing as an analogy. We are told, he says, that watching television is passive. He disagrees.
Most consumption, whether or entertainment or of what’s in the grocery store, is active. We are engaged. In fact, observe yourself watching and you will see that unlike reading, which really is passive, watching television is almost frantic with creative activity [italics mine].
Excuse me, but isn’t there a contradiction there? Oh, no, he qualified his statement with that “Most” at the beginning of the sentence, so reading can still be consumption, by his lights, but I’d sure like to hear a little more about how it “really is passive”! He could hardly think so were he to see the pages of my copy of his book, interaction demonstrated by the previous reader’s blue highlighting and my pencil underlining and marginal notes! The far more serious problem, however, with the claim that television is active and reading passive is that, once again, the author has completely ignored serious research studies in brain science. Channel-surfing to maximize images of sex and violence, the author’s self-avowed approach to viewing, is not evidence of creative brain activity or proof that screen input is more engaging than the printed page.

One thing I will say in the author’s defense, or at least to give him the benefit of doubt in the matter of political faddishness, is that he cannot easily be labeled either liberal or conservative and thus dismissed by half (assuming a 50/50 split) his audience. He derides consumer protection but quotes Marx and Weber approvingly, and then – surprise! He finds his intellectual soul-mates in French intellectuals. French academics, no less!
The French sociologists see consumer culture as multiple and interpenetrating discourses or fields, rather than as a singular dominant ideology that can be accepted or resisted. In the spirit of reader-response theory in literary criticism, they see meaning not rigidly super-applied to consumer goods by producers who hold the meaning stable, but rather supplied by the user who jumbles various interpretations simultaneously. Consumers are just [sic] another interpretive community. They are readers.
Readers? Wait, wasn’t reading “really ... passive”? And yet, the author concludes from his agreement with French sociology, that “the process of consumption, therefore, is creative and even emancipating.” We are creating “lifestyles,” today’s “secular religions, coherent patterns of valued things.”

I cannot say that I was completely bored by this book, that is, by the introduction and first chapter I read. Impatient, yes, annoyed, yes, but if I were still in the academic world myself I would probably have gone on to read it all, arguing with the author page by page. But life is short and calls me in too many other directions.

Why bother at all with this lengthy critique? Arguing is another thing I don’t do nearly as often as I used to – but sometimes it feels good to indulge myself!

Postscript: It was by the merest coincidence that David and I spent part of the evening watching a film we thought from the title was going to be a historical drama but that turned out to be a contemporary documentary of materialistic excess, "The Queen of Versailles." What a counterpoint to the book just that preceded it! Which was more "active," my reading or my viewing? What difference does it make? Yuck and ugh!


Dawn said...

Small living, hopefully a trend and not just people talking, has more and more appeal to me. Yet I haven't downsized. I think it's easier to talk about not being a consumer than it is to actually stop being a consumer.

I usually make myself read 100 pages before I abandon a book. Sometimes that is excruciating. I should let myself stop sooner.

P. J. Grath said...

Dawn, I don't think there is a "should" as far as how many pages you have to read before abandoning a book, but I salute you for going 100 pages!

Marilyn Zimmerman said...

What about the rule of fifty?