I Want That!: How We All Became Shoppers, A Cultural History
At the core of a writer’s mind is a net. Some weave it tight and use it often, letting nothing slip through without examination so that future generations can read over the grit of an era long forgotten. The tightly-meshed filters of Samuel Pepys and Marcel Proust come to mind, as do their latter-day avatars Nicholson Baker, Thomas Pynchon, and David Foster Wallace. Others, however, let the mind’s sieve stretch into broad, hammock-like patterns that ignore the complex minutiae of life in exchange for its voluptuous and ephemeral generalities. Although Thomas Hine’s name has no place in the same paragraph with the aforementioned writers, his latest book I Want That! is the product of a mind that falls squarely into this second, hammock-like category.
When it comes to making heads or tails of consumer behavior, academic historians have–with characteristic obfuscation–bungled the task. It’s not that their work hasn’t been rigorous or provocative, but rather that they’ve written monographs for a narrow audience of egg-head colleagues, hoping–I suppose–to garner obscure accolades at one of the profession’s annual conferences instead of enlightening the general public about a basic facet of contemporary life. The necessary task of translation thus falls to a writer of Hine’s ilk–writers who take what’s been done by others, dress it up with gee-whiz anecdotes, and revive it with zippy prose for non-specialists. I Want That! conspicuously eschews academic conventions to offer a sprawling overview of the history of shopping from “prehistoric times to the age of the internet.” In so doing, it attempts something we rightly need and deserve–a readable riposte to an academic habit that snobbishly simplifies consumer behavior to nothing more than the bourgeois desires of the mall-rat classes. Hine sees more and, in stark contrast to his academic counterparts, likes what he sees. Pondering the phenomenon of Wal-Mart, for example, he writes, “[W]e should consider that it does provide a setting for exercising a kind of freedom that has threatened tyrants and autocrats for thousands of years.” He continues, “We go to Wal-Mart to acquire things that prove our own power. It is a place where people really do get to choose.” Shopping, as Hine portrays it, is never dull, but instead “a modern way of assuming a primal responsibility.” He cites with approval an anthropologist who argues that “shopping does connect with something deep, ancient, and widespread in human behavior.” The Greeks’ cultural attachment to the agora, in Hine’s breezy historical sweep, “made [them] different from the barbarians.” It was, he explains, “a market that generated philosophy.”
Surveying the myriad ways in which market researchers track our on-line shopping habits, he writes, “as all of us build up richer databases of our tastes, desires, pretenses, and weaknesses, there is little doubt there will be pleasant shopping surprises ahead.” Whether it be a car, a roll of paper towels at the HEB, or a Persian rug in a Turkish bazaar, shopping–as Hine portrays it–empowers, enlightens, dignifies. Never once does he consider it, say, a pathology, or a subtle constriction on our freedom.
This rosy perspective hinges in part on another one of Hine’s central premises, an idea that’s also a backlash against an old academic hobby horse. The scholarly emphasis on modern consumer behavior relies heavily on a class-based idea of emulation. Through a scholarly mixture of Marx and Weber, the assumption prevails that lower classes have historically purchased goods for no other reason than to garb themselves in the conspicuous markers of the upper classes. Hine bristles at the thought, effectively arguing that people shop for a wide range of reasons, social climbing being a minor one. We buy stuff, for example, to belong to a group of peers. He summarizes studies that show how young women purchase goods as a way of purchasing acceptance “by people who are in the same situation as they are.” We shop because “a purchase is an emotional commitment” that “can take the form of a discovery,” leading the consumer to “a rare and wonderful thing you didn’t know you wanted until you saw it.” We shop to garner confidence in ourselves. “We are not slaves to fashion,” he writes, “[r]ather we shop for and use clothes and things in an always unfinished attempt to be more certain about ourselves.” We shop to push ourselves to new heights. “Our shopping,” he explains, “is motivated by the same impulse to provide for ourselves and others, and to understand that doing so requires skill and fortitude.”
As in his critically-praised book, Populuxe, these counterintuitive sparks of insight leap off the page with refreshing promise. However, upon even the most cursory inspection, they eventually crumble into pseudo-profound, half-baked propositions that sadly justify historians’ disdain for journalistic forays into their territory. At their essence, Hine’s superficially provocative observations are speculations substantial enough to lodge in the hammock of his mind but otherwise completely lacking in the mesh-like evidence central to the practice of decent history. It’s as if Hine picked a topic that appealed to him and his publisher, did a LexisNexis search, read for a few weeks, mused, and rambled in print. It was tempting to read Hine, conclude “I don’t want that,” and chuck this lushly gussied-up book into the vortex of unreviewed titles.
To do so, however, would be to overlook the fact that I Want That! portends a quiet trend–albeit an unhappy one–in the analysis of popular culture. Hine bills his study as a “cultural history.” Overtly or not, cultural histories of consumer behavior have traditionally served as grumpy antidotes to a competing line of laissez-faire analysis. It’s a line of argument, moreover, undertaken by a breed genetically reluctant to criticize the sacrosanct activity of buying: economists. For decades, economists and economic historians have squirmed over the wonders of American production–the “putting out system” in the eighteenth-century, the rise of interchangeable parts in the nineteenth, mass production in the twentieth, fiber optics today, etc. Rah, rah, rah. Progress, onward, forward. To complement this seemingly inexorable evolution towards the perfection of production under the spell of a wand-waving invisible hand, they’ve packaged the consumer as an inert sponge, ready to absorb whatever spills out of the well-oiled machine. In this scenario, production and consumption never part ways. The machine floods the market with goods. The sponge soaks it up. And when the sponge is saturated, the government arrives to squeeze it and subsidize this process so central to the American way of life. Regional culture, Marx, Weber, the slow food movement, anti-globalization forces, and the history of boycotts be damned. As President George W. Bush warned us after the Twin Towers fell: Get out there and buy some stuff. And hurry. We obliged.
hen purchasing duct tape becomes a patriotic duty, and when we not only clear the shelves but proceed to tape ourselves inside our homes with it, it’s high time for some hell-raising. Hine, however, reveals how far we are from hell-raising. And not only that. He also shows how a cultural historian of consumption can play into the hands of the reductionist, free-market worshipping economists. Take the recent book published by the George Mason University economist Tyler Cowan, Creative Destruction: How Globalization Is Changing the World’s Cultures. (Answer: for the better.) Cowan’s paean to the free market glorifies the homogenized consumption of primarily American goods to the extent that nobody in the long run suffers from the seeming excesses of the marketplace. To the contrary, cultures thrive as people buy. He actually at one point makes the argument that West Indian steel drum bands reached a new level of creativity when they began to use the discarded oil drums dumped on the island by the multinationals. The trash of capitalism, he suggests, is the treasure of culture. How quaint. But God help the future of cultural criticism if this tripe persists as received wisdom. One can only imagine how pleased Cowan would be with the culture of consumption that Hine dished out as so universally appealing.
One of the first things a history graduate student learns is that historians write history to suit the era’s prevailing cultural winds. For example, historians in the 1950s, flush from the war, tended to gloss the American past with the shiny polish of heroism, bravery, and virtue. By the 1960s, a new generation came of age during Vietnam to scratch that polish and highlight the blemishes–corruption, oppression, slavery, labor unrest. I suppose it’s fair to say that Hine and Cowan are products of the 1990s, a time when culture became so commodified that even rebellion became something to shop for and consume. So much so that it too became homogenized. The tattooed boys and girls clad in their Gap sweatshirts tossing chairs through Starbucks windows at the WTO conference in 2000 were a pathetic parody of revolt. I know several dozens of students at my university who consider themselves counter-cultural radicals, and the only one who comes even remotely close calls herself by the name of an imagined superhero and worships Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (periodically leaving unreturned messages for him at the Woody Creek Tavern in Aspen). It’s cute, really. But counter-cultural? Like, not even.
Remember Jose Bove? He’s the angry French farmer who trashed a McDonald’s restaurant when the chain dared to open a franchise in his tiny French village. I don’t mean that he threw a few eggs at the windows. Bove and his buddies got loaded on some local swill and tore the place to the ground, making a special point to decapitate Ronald. Much to Frances’s credit, he became a national hero, a man manifesting that old European attachment to the land and the importance of consuming locally. Bove’s actions were extreme, but the sentiment behind them is not, even here in America. Not everyone in America went out and bought duct tape. Many in fact find consumption to be a powerful force of political opposition. A good portion of Americans look at consumer behavior and see gross excess. As obvious as the point may be, the critics of traditional consumption are out there, and they’re not just hiding in the ivory tower. We’re out there. It’s just going to take a finer net than Hine’s to find us.
James McWilliams shops with utmost reluctance.