8110051344_665174e7d0_zDaniel Horowitz, Consuming Pleasures: Intellectuals and Popular Culture in the Postwar World [University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012].

James Livingston, Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture is Good for the Economy, the Environment, and Your Soul [Basic Books, 2011].

Daniel Rodgers, Age of Fracture [Harvard, 2011].

James Livingston, The World Turned Inside Out: American Thought and Culture at the End of the Twentieth Century (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009].

It’s rare that hindsight makes present reality any more discernable, particularly now that the Internet is involved. But we still think we know a few things, hazily. Perhaps more so than any other people on earth, we denizens of western-style democracy know how to compare pleasurable experiences. Thanks to everyone who helped make this condition possible, we are anxious, lonely, and depressed at the same time we are learning to cook gourmet food in record numbers. What Frederic Jameson calls the cultural logic of late capitalism seems to have found its logical endpoint in our contemporary culture of options. Yet these problems have rarely stood in the way of prophetic historians, or their sympathetic readers, when something important is on the line.

If, for instance, one is to take Christopher Lasch’s 1979 analysis of American culture as authoritative, and also containing some predictive power, the last decade and a half appears to mark the capstone of The Culture of Narcissism. The spread of the Internet and its most successful offshoots —notably, social networking sites like Facebook and OK Cupid — pushes what Lasch called “the apotheosis of individualism” to an even greater height. As he put it in 1979, “The growth of bureaucracy, the cult of consumption with its immediate gratifications, but above all the severance of the sense of historical continuity have transformed the Protestant ethic while carrying the underlying principles of capitalist society to their logical conclusion. The pursuit of self-interest, formerly identified with the rational pursuit of gain and the accumulation of wealth, has become a search for pleasure and psychic survival.”

It is not difficult to picture Lasch perusing Facebook or OK Cupid and coming to the same conclusion about the Marquis de Sade’s vision of republican society: “Sade imagined a sexual utopia in which everyone has the right to everyone else, where human beings, reduced to their sexual organs, become absolutely anonymous and interchangeable. His ideal society thus reaffirmed the capitalist principle that human beings are ultimately reducible to interchangeable objects.” In our case, to “friends” and/or potential dates we see scrolling down a screen.

We are awash in savvier new age therapies, now amplified with greater claims to delivering lasting fulfillment because they are powered by increasingly sophisticated means of mass distribution (witness the TED talk). Gadgets like the iPhone and Android “smartphones” offer the promise of complete independence from the inconveniences of talking face-to-face or asking for directions, while at the same time enforcing an ever more total dependence on the digital interface. Worst of all, none of these trends seem reversible. The age of Apple, Google, and the new technocrats who herald the virtues of other-direction as repurposed “friendship” (Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO) or “dating” (Sam Yagan, OK Cupid’s CEO) appears to confirm everything Lasch forecast over 30 years ago.

Such is the bind of progress, perhaps. Yet however prone we are to remember Lasch’s analysis when we feel the empty bottles and crushed cans of contemporary culture pressing against us, there is at least one alternative reading available. According to James Livingston, we and our gadgets are living in revolutionary times. The cultural transformations that followed in the wake of capitalism’s great successes over the past 150 years mean much more than Lasch lets on; in fact they prove that his deep pessimism is entirely unwarranted. As Livingston argues in his latest book, Against Thrift (2011), the discrete psychological and characterological patterns that emerge with modern consumer culture are actually good for us—good for our economy, our environment, and our souls, as he puts it in his subtitle.[1] More specifically, the distinctive habits, values, and folkways that consumer culture fosters allow us to relate to one another more deeply and to experience activities like listening to music and eating gourmet food more richly.[2] Taken as a whole, these manifold opportunities make the culture of late capitalism an altogether better place to live than any epoch that came before it.

Like Lasch, Livingston’s argument is by turns subtly and overtly political. By breaking down traditional moral restraints that once imposed clear limits on consumption, pleasure, and instant gratification, he argues that our late-capitalist consumer aesthetic —available and prevalent in most western countries, preeminently the United States — helps rein in a new form of social democracy in which everyone plays an equal role: that of consumer-citizens. Advertising facilitates this tidy procession of goods and satisfying consumer experiences by ebbing away at the residual cultural cache of Puritan thrift and Victorian moralism; and so long as the U.S. government (among its other western, or at least good capitalist, counterparts) ensures an adequate distribution of income, progress will continue unabated. The democratization of consumer-citizenship and its attendant form of pursuing happiness will be the metanarrative of capitalist development long after Mark Zuckerberg is dead. (That is unless Raymond Kurzweil is right that The Singularity is Near.)

Thus speaks Livingston’s optimistic counter to Lasch’s dismal portrait of late- twentieth century American culture and society. They form a convenient opposition for certain purposes. But if we consider them as our only options for appraising where we stand in light of recent history, it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that both ways of seeing leave something to be desired. By alternate routes, Lasch and Livingston each tend to polarize our understanding; they rely on different kinds of generalizations, and in the end they each present overly stark and totalizing pictures of complex social realities. If only because both historians gloss over the infinite multiplicity within the singular American culture they attempt to paint with one broad brush or the other, we have good reason to ask for more specificity, more accuracy, and more nuance — if we can get it. After all, what should prophesy give us if not deliverance from present ills?

The problem is the familiar one of constructing paths beyond two poles. Following Lasch’s lead, we need to look closely at what we’ve lost in the march toward post-modernity if we want to understand where we stand. There is tragedy in recent history, and Lasch is right to emphasize what another famous 1970s pessimist (Daniel Bell) called The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. Yet Livingston is clearly on to something, at the very least in the questions he poses: Why not envision the culture of late capitalism as a complex field of experimental culture play in which newly independent agents, often endowed with newly acquired material means, articulated novel configurations of identity, selfhood, and moral values? Isn’t it possible that the culture of options, of manifold available forms of selfhood, which is embodied in the Internet and fostered by the mass consumption of digital gadgets, carries the premise of democratic citizenship to its highest possible realization?

taking a line

How do we have our cake and eat it too?

Perhaps the trick is to mix an appropriate measure of realism with a healthy dose of pragmatism, making the writing (and reading) of history into a sort of therapy for the contemporary observer. Several recent studies have attempted this kind of synthesis with mixed results. In Age of Fracture (2011), Daniel Rodgers describes the last decades of the twentieth century as beset by a “contagion of metaphors.” In his telling this contagion spread across the social sciences, literary theory, and philosophy, infiltrating nearly every aspect of politics, economics, and individual identity. As “people tried to think their way through events and experiences using the shifting stock of categories at their disposal,” Rodgers writes, “the terrain of common sense shifted. Notions of power moved out of structures and into culture. Identities became intersectional and elective. Concepts of society fragmented.” In short, Americans became even more individualized than they were before. “Disaggregation” was the metaphor that best defined late twentieth-century culture, and by the year 2000 many were left feeling a renewed “hunger for connections and responsibilities” — hence the rise of the Internet and much else.

Rodgers’ narrative and the sources he marshals to support it is vast and convincing. Yet his emphasis on intellectual history, and the social sciences in particular, obscures the deepest questions his book raises: what was the meaning of the Age of Fracture? How did individual Americans experience it, and how much variation existed in their responses? In a book published just before Rodgers’, James Livingston covers much of the same ground and comes closer to offering answers to these questions. Livingston’s title, The World Turned Inside Out: American Thought and Culture at the End of the Twentieth Century (2010), speaks to his main argument, which parallels Rodgers to a significant extent: with “the end of modernity” and the eclipse of the bourgeois ego, the postmodern consumer ego was all that was left.

Drawing on a mix of high theory and popular culture material including films and TV shows, Livingston brilliantly sketches the underlying affinities between postmodern theory and postmodern culture. Yet unlike Rodgers, he is unabashedly sanguine about the meaning of his findings. Less distinction between appearance and reality, fewer boundaries between the human and the artificial, and the growing sense that everything is determined by capital reinforced a pattern of cultural changes, which Livingston sums up as follows: “the apocalypse is now,” the bourgeois ego is dead, and soon the bourgeois family will be, too. Ha! In his telling the profound “disturbance of cultural norms” percolating through every sector of American society after 1975 signified a coming cultural revolution whose reach extends far beyond what 1960s radicals (perhaps excluding Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs) ever dreamed possible.

As one might expect, the apocalyptic enthusiasm that guides much of The World Turned Inside Out anticipates the tenor and scope of Livingston’s argument in Against Thrift. Like the latter book, however, this enthusiasm tends to distort his cogency at points. Livingston often seems more interested in serving as a futurist-provocateur than a cultural and intellectual historian, and this can be distracting to say the least. Even though he brings nuanced readings to cultural sources like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and South Park, his emphasis on endings — not to mention “Excremental Visions”, a subheading in chapter 5 — betrays an eagerness and a hermeneutic simplicity that undermines the credibility of his historical narrative. Even if Livingston is right about the cultural revolution in question, no one knows what its final shape will be or how it will affect existing social norms. Our uncertainty about any ending is all the more reason why we should look at the recent past with holstered hubris, not revolutionary fervor.

A great example of a more tempered approach to the late twentieth century is Daniel Horowitz’s most recent book, Consuming Pleasures: Intellectuals and Popular Culture in the Postwar World (2012). As Horowitz makes clear in his preface, this is the third in his series that attempts to trace “shifts in moral stances toward consumer culture” from “an emphasis on self-restraint to the achievement of satisfaction through commercial goods and experiences.” (The other two books being The Morality of Spending: Attitudes Toward the Consumer Society in America, 1875-1940 and The Anxieties of Affluence: Critiques of American Consumer Culture, 1939-1979.) The project is ambitious and Horowitz’s research efforts are impressive. Yet the blandness of his conclusions—particularly his emphasis on “the achievement of satisfaction through commercial goods and experiences”, a phrase Horowitz recycles continuously in his trilogy—anticipates a more general shortcoming that resurfaces throughout Consuming Pleasures.

Without doubt, Horowitz’s new book makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of how American and western European writers reconfigured ideas and attitudes toward popular culture between the 1930s and the 1970s. His chapters on figures and movements ranging from Walter Benjamin, to the Frankfurt School, to Richard Hoggart, to Pop Art, to Tom Wolfe, to Susan Sontag, to Robert Venturi and Reyner Banham are almost encyclopedic in their detailed precision, and the progression he charts is consistently illuminating. “The movement from hesitant to fuller appreciation of popular culture” was also a movement toward embracing “pleasure, playfulness, and sexuality as key aspects of a more positive interpretation of commercial culture.” This shift paralleled another “from an idealistic, elitist view of Culture with a capital ‘C’ to an anthropological outlook on culture, with a lowercase ‘c’”; but all told, Horowitz credits a broad group of postwar writers—preeminently Wolfe, Sontag, and Banham—with articulating “a new politics of consumption,” which emphasized the “fractured, multiple, constantly shifting…meanings derived from commercial goods and experiences.”

These writers and their theoretical, sometimes stylistic, innovations make up the heart of Consuming Pleasures, and Horowitz could not have made the significance of their collective insights clearer. But there is a lingering question whether he is up to more than intellectual history in this book. At several points he comes close to engaging the deeper ethical questions surrounding the new politics of consumption. In his conclusion, for example, Horowitz notes, “In its most radical formulation [the new politics of consumption] involved the separation of meaning from objects, thus enabling the development of a view of fragmented identities playfully exploring multiple meanings through commercial culture.” But in the next sentence he resorts to repetition of a familiar point: “Writers emphasized agency, meaning, and culture, as well as the relationships between identity and social structure.” At every opportunity, Horowitz seems to favor abstract description over ethical engagement, opting instead for reiteration of his thesis and basic information his readers already know. Unlike Livingston, whose lack of temperance causes different problems, Horowitz seems unwilling to be bold, which diminishes the weight of his argument and ultimately compromises the significance of his narrative.

What is finally most noticeably absent in Consuming Pleasures is a thorough account of why the achievement of satisfaction through commercial goods and experiences matters. Asking “what is at stake?” should not be considered outside the purview of cultural and intellectual history, at least not a priori. Nor should readers be content to see “the shift from moral threat to symbolic promise” in purely abstract terms. Horowitz alludes to the more concrete realm of lived experience when he acknowledges that “a series of cultural changes…helped underwrite new visions of consumer culture, which in turn emphasized the importance of individual subjectivity and the search for new, more fluid forms of cultural expression.” But he does not ask, much less attempt to answer, the larger questions that follow from this hefty assertion. What are the moral dimensions of a society in which more and more people came to identify participating in a consumer culture as coequal with the good life? How are these moral dimensions represented and expressed in popular culture? Do they give us a window into how Americans were reflecting on the nature and limits of subjective experience more generally after 1945? To what extent were these reflections new?

James Livingston clearly has answers to these questions, but he is never cited in Horowitz’s book. This omission alone speaks to the ways in which Horowitz’s project is incomplete. He is right to emphasize “the uses of cultural products as…means of resistance [and] reciprocity” between consumer-agents and the structures of consumer culture. But we need a fuller portrait of how these dynamics played out in the culture at large, among a wider subset of Americans. Reciprocity and resistance are intimately tied to definitions, discourses, and representations of subjectivity. Thus if Horowitz is correct in pinpointing “an emerging culture based not on a religious or communal morality of restraint but on one of pleasure that elevated the self to a position of prominence,” we need to understand this culture in much broader terms. We need to understand the ways in which it was contested, both inside and outside consumer contexts, and how it shifted over time. It is not enough to refer obliquely to “a more pleasure-filled acceptance of what commercial culture offered” while neglecting the many strands of concrete particularity that fit within the supposedly singular frame of “acceptance.” To go beyond the either/or of consumer culture—does it uplift, or does it degrade?—we need to think in terms of a continuum of costs and added vistas that contains as many voices as possible.

In short, we need to envision a panorama of conflicting discourses on selves, others, and shifting cultural constraints in the peculiar social contexts of postwar America. Whether this means downplaying the prophetic approach in favor of a more anthropological one is up for debate. But there will be no perfect narrative. No matter how historians choose to proceed, the problem remains sorting those tiny glimmers of past and present experience we can see. The rest is necessary blind faith.

[1] Although Livingston has been developing his defense of consumer culture for over twenty years, it is only in his latest book that he opted for such a provocative title and subtitle, which reveal the scope of his ambitions. As he announces in the introduction to Against Thrift, “In this book, I make the case for consumer culture: why it’s actually good for the economy, the environment, and our souls, among other things. In this sense, I’m trying to heal the split in our personalities by demonstrating that less work, less thrift, more leisure, and more spending are the cures for what ails us.” See James Livingston, Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution, 1850-1940 Pragmatism, Feminism, and Democracy: Rethinking the Politics of American History, The World Turned Inside Out: American Thought and Culture at the End of the Twentieth Century, and Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture is Good for the Economy, the Environment, and Your Soul.

[2] Livingston’s “Coda: Bataille Made Me Do It” offers an especially visceral snapshot of his brand of consumer-togetherness, which happens to take place in a high-end Manhattan restaurant. I have written about the ethical implications of this example in my review of the book, “Goods Aplenty: Against Thrift and the Question What For?”


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