short essay question need finished in 1 hour and half

Open Posted By: ahmad8858 Date: 23/10/2020 High School Research Paper Writing

i will give you short essay question,is about this class:Advertising as Social Communications

i will apply the text book or any related resource,you need finish in 1 hour and half

Category: Engineering & Sciences Subjects: Engineering Deadline: 24 Hours Budget: $80 - $120 Pages: 2-3 Pages (Short Assignment)

Attachment 1





Table of Contents

Title Page Acknowledgments Introduction PART ONE - The Consumer Society Critique




Chapter 3 - “THE SEXUAL SELL” (1963) ENDNOTES

Chapter 4 - “. . . IMAGES WITHOUT BOTTOM . . .” (1988) ENDNOTES

PART TWO - The Social Organization of Symbols










PART THREE - Consumption and Lived Experience







ENDNOTES PART FOUR - Consumption and Social Inequality







PART FIVE - The Liberatory Dimensions of Consumer Society

Chapter 16 - “Two CHEERS FOR MATERIALISM” (1999) Chapter 17 - “FEMINISM AND FASHION” (1985)




PART SIX - The Tendency of Capitalism to Commodify






PART SEVEN - New Critiques of Consumer Society
















We would like to thank a number of people who helped us along the way: Diane Wachtell, who originally suggested the idea of an anthology; Gerry McCauley, our wonderful agent; Matt Weiland, our editor, and Tim Roberts, our production editor, both at The New Press; Susan Bordo, Robert Goldman, and Tom O’Guinn, who provided photos for us; Elisheva Lambert and Jim McNeill, who provided dedicated research assistance; Eric Hall, who secured permissions; and Prosannun Parthas-arathi and Tuba Üstüner. We are especially grateful to those publishers and authors who allowed us to reprint their work free of charge or at reduced rates.




Douglas B. Holt and Juliet B. Schor Global warming, the conspicuous spending of the newly wealthy, excessive advertising, and, most recently, the “Battle of Seattle” have all conspired to put the question of our consumer lives back into public view. Consumer society— the “air we breathe,” as George Orwell has described it— disappears during economic downturns and political crises. It becomes visible again when prosperity seems secure, cultural transformation is too rapid, or environmental disasters occur. Such is the time in which we now find ourselves. As the roads clog with gas-guzzling SUVs and McMansions proliferate in the suburbs, the nation is once again asking fundamental questions about lifestyle. Has “luxury fever,” to use Robert Frank’s phrase, gotten out of hand? Are we really comfortable with the “Brand Is Me” mentality? Have we gone too far in pursuit of the almighty dollar, to the detriment of our families, communities, and natural environment? Even politicians, ordinarily impermeable to questions about consumerism, are voicing doubts. A year ago, Hillary Clinton got the attention of the world by worrying that the export of American entertainment and consumer products was destroying indigenous cultures; and recently, Vice President Al Gore suggested that Americans should focus less on earning money and spend more time with their families. Polls suggest majorities of Americans feel the country has become too materialistic, too focused on getting and spending, and increasingly removed


from long-standing nonmaterialist values. Why are doubts about consumer society reemerging at the

end of the twentieth century? Three factors have combined to create the current disquiet. Perhaps most obvious is the new inequality—the top 1 percent of households now own about 40 percent of all wealth, and the top 20 percent are responsible for half the country’s consumer spending. The long boom of the 1990s has resulted in a dazzling display among the nation’s newly rich to outdo one another in ostentatious spending. Each twist and turn of this Veblen- esque competition is duly reported on by the national media, whether it’s thousand-dollar bedsheets, ten-thousand-square- foot homes, or hundred thousand dollar vehicles. The entire nation becomes privy to the ins and outs of hiring butlers and erecting stone walls. The onlookers are alternately attracted and repelled, disliking the values driving the conspicuous consumption but at the same time fearful of falling too far behind in this accelerated race. Households of ordinary means console themselves with affordable luxuries, but all is not well in the kingdom of plastics.

On the one hand, the sheer disparities of wealth, income, and situation grow harder to justify, particularly as prosperity feels more assured. Homelessness, hunger, and child poverty continue to nag at Americans’ consciences. Furthermore, the upscaling of the wealthy puts pressure on others to follow suit. Many households find themselves stretched thin, as incomes for the majority have not kept pace with rising consumer standards. Savings rates have fallen, while credit card debt and bankruptcies have skyrocketed. Not only money but also time is in short supply. As lifestyle norms require two earners, and jobs become increasingly demanding, time for family and community is squeezed. The acceleration of daily life, often for purposes of consuming, contributes to a feeling that things are out of control. People look back to an earlier era when there was time enough, even if living standards were less opulent. Many long for a simpler, more authentic, less materialist past. “Balance” has become a defining mantra.

The second trend is the relentless commodification of all


areas of social life, and the rise of market values. Perhaps the most striking aspect of this trend is the marketization of a wide variety of goods and services that had hitherto been outside the profit nexus. Most prominent among these are the services produced in the household economy, where self- provision had been the norm. Today, as married women are more devoted to paid employment, they begin “outsourcing”—hiring baby-sitters, accountants, gardeners, grocery delivery, and personal shoppers. Households that can afford it substitute time for money. Less and less of daily life is produced at home; more and more of what we consume is commodified, i.e., produced for sale on the market.

This commodification of daily life is also occurring in other areas. Health care and education, which were previously provided as public goods to citizens, are given over to private corporations who produce them for profit, as if they were ordinary consumer goods. Public services such as welfare and prisons are run by corporations for the purpose of making money.

The production of news, culture, sports, and entertainment is also increasingly commodified. Twenty-five years ago, the public good aspect of book and newspaper publishing coexisted with the need to make money. Now, a handful of megaconglomerates have taken over all the major media. Profitability and reproducing the political legitimacy of the system have become the dominant criteria for cultural production. The mouse is truly eating the world.

Indeed, virtually no aspect of social life appears to be immune from these trends. “Personal style” is now a hot market commodity. Trend spotters scour the nation’s inner cities, searching for the successors to the hip-hop innovators of the 1980s. They scrutinize the walk, the talk, the way one’s pants are worn. At lightning speed, style moves from inner city to suburb and back again, a marketed commodity. But it’s not just youth culture that is being replicated and sold. Business gurus urge everyone to perfect their personal style. Brand and market yourself, whomever you are.

The relentless drive to commodify is also evident in the commercialization of public space and culture. Advertising


and marketing appear almost everywhere—in museums, on public television and radio, in doctor’s offices, on subway platforms, and on restaurant menus. Sports arenas, previously named for communities, now sport corporate logos. Movies are replete with product placements. Public schools, once relatively isolated from corporate advertisers, became their new frontier during the 1990s, as marketers strived for “share of mind” among six-year-olds. Many of the nation’s children now watch commercials in their classrooms (via Channel One), learn from corporate-written curricula, look at advertising on the Internet, or drink the official school soft drink (Coke or Pepsi).

Indeed, our deepest personal connections are increasingly dominated by market transactions, whether it’s through surrogate motherhood, the sale of one’s DNA, the booming trade in sex for hire, or the commercialization of religion and spirituality. Little remains sacred, and separate from the world of the commodity. As a result people become ever more desperate to sacralize the profane consumer world around them, worshiping celebrities, collections, and brand logos.

The third major development that is reigniting criticism of consumer society is the rapid globalization of the world economy. Beginning with the French general strike of December 1995, grassroots opposition to globalization has begun to intensify. The most dramatic example has been the Battle of Seattle, a mesmerizing confrontation between the agents of corporate globalization (represented by the World Trade Organization) and a coalition of labor, environmental, church, student, and anticonsumerist activists.

Protesters in Seattle attacked not only, or even mainly, the export of American jobs, but rather the corporate vision of global consumerism. They questioned the very desirability of the WTO’s stated purpose of increasing incomes through global trade. Rejecting the current system of cheap commodities based on exploiting labor and natural resources, they offered alternative visions of local economies built on sustainable agriculture, locally controlled manufacturing and retailing, and limited material desires. It is significant that


the protesters went after Nike, Starbucks, and other mega- brands. They stood against corporate consumerism, in favor of locally owned small businesses; they rejected the idea that one’s personhood is defined by the logo on the shoe; and they argued against the impoverishment of small farmers and producers that globalization has wrought.

Perhaps most important has been the link between the spread of consumerism and the ongoing devastation of the natural environment—the connections between air travel and carbon accumulation; the demand for exotic hardwoods and species extinction; meat consumption and soil erosion; toxics and human health hazards. Recent years have been the warmest of the century. Weather patterns have turned extreme, and crocuses are appearing in December. As the planet warms up, so too must the debate about our consumption, the ultimate cause of climate change.

Within the academy, a parallel discussion is taking place. Scholars are becoming more attentive to questions about the nature and desirability of consumer society, engaging in an ongoing academic conversation. As they have always been, the public and academic debates are dialectically connected. Sometimes scholars anticipate broader cultural changes; in other moments, such as the current one, political movements have set the agenda for the academic dialogue. In the pages that follow, we’ve selected essays that provide an entry point into these discussions.


What drives consumer society? Is it corporations, who by their marketing and advertising campaigns ultimately determine what consumers want? Or is it consumers, whom producers must satisfy in order to stay in business? This deceptively simple question has been at the heart of much of the scholarly literature, and continues to preoccupy both supporters and detractors of consumer society.


Throughout the middle decades of the century, from the 1940s until the 1980s, the theme of corporate influence was dominant in the scholarly literature. One of the most influential contributions was the 1944 classic essay “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, prominent members of the Frankfurt School. Drawing on Marx’s theory of alienation in the workplace, Adorno and Horkheimer argue that employers’ needs for objectified and submissive workers created a parallel need for dominated, passive consumers. Creativity and subjectivity, the hallmarks of the artisanal economy, are simply incompatible with the de-skilling and repetitiveness of mass-production industry. Culture, once brilliant, demanding, and intellectually challenging, becomes soothing, banal, familiar, and entertaining. With astonishing prescience, Adorno and Horkheimer predicted the “dumbing down” of art and culture, the concentration of cultural producers, and the spread of an entertainment society.

For Adorno and Horkheimer, the objectification of labor requires the objectification of the consumer. This “paramount position of production” was to assume a central role in other influential critiques of consumer society, such as John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society. Galbraith was also posing the question of compatability between production and consumption, but in ways more Keynesian than Marxian. In particular, the phenomenal increases in productivity that fueled mass production had to be accompanied by similarly phenomenal increases in consumer demand. But how to ensure that the endless stream of cars, appliances, and other products would actually be sold?

Galbraith’s answer—the dependence effect—is that “the institutions of advertising and salesmanship. . . create desires.” The corporation both creates the want, and satisfies it. Compatibility is ensured because the same institution controls both sides of the market.

This was to prove a potent theme in the fifties and early sixties, as the ascendance of Madison Avenue and its turn to ever more sophisticated psychological approaches alarmed many. Books such as Vance Packard’s The Hidden


Persuaders and Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man stressed the seamlessness of the system. In 1963 Betty Friedan produced a brilliant gynocentric companion piece to Adorno and Horkheimer’s androcentric analysis. For the latter, production means factories and male workers; for Friedan, the relevant labor process is the household economy and occupation: housewife. But in both, work is boring, repetitive, unskilled, mundane. Friedan argues that the feminine mystique, and its attendant confinement of women to the home, was driven mainly by the need to sell products. Combing through the motivation research of Ernest Dichter, Friedan reconstructs the marketers’ view of women. They were the backbone of the consumer economy, but career women did not care to spend their lives doing something as trivial and unsatisfying as shopping. Capitalism needed housewives, stunted in their careers, driven to purchase discerningly, manipulated into channeling their considerable creative potential into cake mixes, washing powders, and the choice of breakfast cereal rather than more significant accomplishments in the world of work.

Of course marketers promise more than the mundane world of the kitchen. As Stuart Ewen argues in his piece on style, Madison Avenue also offers commodities as the route to pleasure and sexuality, through their ability to create identity, freedom, “fascination and enchantment,” beauty, and style. Consumers are seduced by sophisticated advertising to adopt a host of superfluous preferences for products, which are at heart advertisers’ fictions: Buy style in the marketplace and you can be whoever you want to be.

While they differed in many ways, these critical accounts shared certain themes—they described false and true needs, a superficial, surface world of commodities versus an underlying realm of authentic life. Furthermore, in these accounts, the standard defense of the system became illegitimate, for if corporations created needs, particularly in insidious ways, they could hardly be credited for meeting them. There was a better, more authentic, and less consumerist way to live. But it was blocked by corporate power.


A second critique was aesthetic. Mass production was derided as lacking quality, taste, and creativity. Thus, consumer society produced neither the good, the true, nor the beautiful. It was a great con game.


The economic critiques explain how the profit motive leads to the organization of consumption. They are less compelling in their descriptions of why consumers go along with corporate designs. One answer is that advertisers have been successful because they have been able to embed valued meanings in products. If correct, this argument leads to the important conclusion that meaning does not necessarily emanate from the material or functional aspects of products.

As anthropology has been particularly good at showing, human understandings and experiences of what are seemingly objective properties are actually cultural constructions. Goods have symbolic meanings in all societies. However, capitalism poses a new problem—imbuing functionally and materially similar products with different symbolic meanings. The marketer needs to induce the consumer to pay a premium for products that are mere commodities (i.e., mass-produced, identical goods).

Despite their emphasis on manipulation, Adorno and Horkheimer understood the importance of symbolic meanings with their recognition that consumers could use consumer goods and marketed imagery to create categories of social difference. It is with Jean Baudrillard, however, that we begin to find a fully articulated theory of the production of social meaning through commodities. The primary target of his damning essays is the argument of most defenders of consumer society—the idea that commodities are produced to respond to individual needs and wants. Such tautological formulations beg the question: How are these needs and wants produced?


Baudrillard’s answer is that individual desires are disguised expressions of social differences in a system of cultural meanings that is produced through commodities. This “fashion system” is a code—an infinitely variable set of social differences—that people access through consumption. It is not meaningful to talk about authentic versus false needs in Baudrillard’s model, only the extent to which people have been absorbed into the fashion logic. One of the most important implications of this view is that if consumer society is premised upon the production of difference through commodities, then the system is extremely resilient. How can a social movement challenge consumer society without falling prey to the further expansion of fashionable difference through its opposition?

Building upon Baudrillard, Roland Barthes, and Judith Williamson’s pioneering discourse analyses of advertisements as mythological systems, Robert Goldman and his coauthor Stephen Papson explicate the ways in which cultural meanings are sold. By positing a set of equivalences, ads reframe public meanings in order to enhance the meanings of “commodity-signs.” From this approach, which is based on detailed analyses of the semiotic mechanics of ads, a new critique emerges. Rather than wants and needs, the conceptual building blocks are meaning and identity. The critic now has ammunition for challenging the meanings of commodities.

Susan Bordo uses this method to powerful effect in her analyses of how advertisements work as “gender ideology.” Gendered advertisements represent the idealized woman as thin without having to struggle to be so, and frequently exploit many women’s struggles to take control of their appetites and hunger. Advertising, in Bordo’s argument, is a compelling symbolic arena in which patriarchal ideology, which seeks to maintain control over women’s bodies and sexuality, is continually reproduced as an unintended consequence of advertisers’ seeking out meanings that will sell product.



The economic and cultural critiques are functionalist arguments in which consumers are imbricated into systems of superfluous benefits and commodified meanings, respectively. But how is it that people—whom we presume to be reasonably smart, industrious, diverse, and increasingly reflexive and cynical about marketing—allow this to happen? How do their actions as consumers work in concert with marketers’ efforts to reproduce the system? The foregoing approaches do not provide fully satisfactory accounts of that process. A tradition of research initiated by the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham (known as the “Birmingham School” or, more broadly, “British Cultural Studies”), pursued the question of how such structures play out in everyday life. Using detailed historical and ethnographic case studies this work links structuralist theories (such as Baudrillard’s) with anthropological accounts of the production of meaning. The Birmingham School’s most influential studies (including those by Stuart Hall, Paul Willis, Dick Hebdige, and others) examine how the everyday cultural practices found in British youth subcultures serve to reproduce class boundaries. This style of analysis is readily extended to broader questions about the organization of consumption in advanced capitalist societies. The essays in this volume offer vivid and nuanced depictions of the ways in which people use commodities to experience, challenge, and transform dominant cultural meanings.

Hebdige’s chapter on Italian motor scooters is the most explicit examination of the ways in which commodities are used in everyday life while simultaneously locating these practices within “larger networks of relationships.” His chronicle of the meanings of motor scooters begins with their introduction in Italy as a gendered (for the “new Italian woman”), cosmopolitan, and youthful mode of transportation. Migrating to Great Britain after World War II, the scooters’ design elements, combined with their “Italianness,” make them read as very feminine. These meanings were taken up


by the emerging scooter clubs as well as movies (one of the early product-placement successes). This rearticulation produced the scooter as the perfect raw semiotic material for yet another movement, the Mods. The Mods were a highly stylized male youth subculture that fancied accouterments that screamed modern and (slightly) effeminate (in opposition to the vulgarities of the “rockers”). Hebdige continues the structuralist emphasis on meaning embedded in relational oppositions but, in the poststructuralist spirit, demonstrates how these meanings shift dramatically across place and time.

Janice Radway’s famous ethnographic study shows how women use romance reading to manage their pleasures and identities within pa-triarchical relations. Digging beneath the common observation that women read romances “to escape,” she describes the ways in which women bracket their demanding family and household care responsibilities— patriarchal constructs naturalized as what women are born to do—in order to gain emotional respite. By entering a fantasy world in which a heroine with burdens similar to her own gets her emotional and identity needs met, the romance reader is able to experience vicariously the pleasures of receiving the care that often goes unreciprocated in her own family. Romances are “exercises in extrapolation. . . experiments [that] explore the meaning and consequences of behavior accepted by contemporary society as characteristically masculine.” In other words, the romances act as little mythologies, providing miraculous resolutions to the contradictory and often emotionally punishing nature of living in a culture dominated by men’s interests. Radway’s analysis, often considered only within the context of gender studies, offers an excellent treatment of the ways in which commodity logic works to capture powerful ideologies and pleasures. In a manner rather opposite that suggested by Galbraith and Ewen, the book market has evolved a carefully tailored formula to provide novels that will deliver the emotional safety valve demanded by women. This analysis entails a critique of consumer culture that addresses how the contradictions produced by patriarchy get channeled into the


commodification process rather than generating political, legal, and cultural efforts to push for an egalitarian family structure.

Tom O‘Guinn’s study of the Central Midwest Barry Manilow Fan Club delves into a central phenomenon of consumer society: the consumption of celebrity. Informed primarily by cultural anthropology, O’Guinn views celebrity fandom as a modern-day religion. Barry Manilow fans go to great lengths to “touch greatness,” that is, to develop a relationship with the star. While O‘Guinn does not explicitly develop the societal implications of this pervasive and intensive type of activity, we think it provides an illuminating example of consumer society at work. As sociologists have long argued, modern social relations tend to drain absolutist faith. However, the need for the metaphysical moorings that religion provides does not disappear. Consumer society, as perhaps the most powerful locus of cultural meanings now available (along with the nation-state), has become a prime site for the rearticulation of religiosity. Thus, as O’Guinn documents, people from all walks of life engage in a new form of religious practice via famous actors, sports stars and teams, and other media-anointed icons.

As a group, these essays push for a more complicated critique of consumer society. If commodities are an important site through which the most consequential discourses of our time move, then they surely cannot be dismissed as superfluous needs, or even as mere constellations of social difference. A compelling critique must focus not on only on the quantity of consumption, but also on what happens when the primary structures of social difference and inequality (gender, nation, race, and class) are channeled through commodities. It is to those questions that we now turn.



Perhaps the most influential statement of the view that consumption structures social difference is Thorstein Veblen’s 1899 Theory of the Leisure Class. With trenchant wit, Veblen argued that in modern society, wealth (rather than military prowess) had become the basis of social esteem. However, wealth is difficult to measure. Therefore, visible expenditure and the display of idleness become the primary means to communicate the possession of riches. The wealthiest display most ostentatiously, and new consumer trends appear first at the top. Then they trickle down the hierarchy. Of course, social hierarchies are not static. Veblen was writing in a time like our own—great fortunes were being made, and the nouveaux riches used luxury consumption (carriages, elaborately dressed servants, fancy dinner parties) to raise their social position. Central to Veblen’s analyses were the ideas that consuming is a means of social communication; that it communicates class and income differences; and that within a society the valuations of goods are widely shared.

These premises also underlie Pierre Bourdieu’s monumental work, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Bourdieu, using French consumer surveys, went beyond showing the class patterning of consumption to argue that the very notion of taste is an important aspect of reproducing class differences. For Veblen, it was the cost of an item that was the crucial differentiator. Bourdieu showed that differentiation extended to areas where cost was hardly a factor, as in styles of art, music, decor, and film, and to how, rather than simply what, one consumed. Consumer tastes varied in predictable ways, and depended on “cultural capital”—family upbringing and formal education as well as economic resources. At each place in the social hierarchy, individuals were inculcated into specific taste groups. Bourdieu showed that the class patterning of consumption had become far more sophisticated and complex. Those in the higher reaches of the hierarchy used their superior taste to create “distinction” for themselves, and to distance themselves from those of inferior tastes. Thus, the possession of “good” taste became a


mechanism whereby individuals assured their social and economic position; consumption, then, was an integral part of the reproduction of inequality. In Bourdieu’s account, one gained the authority to be a manager, or a professional, not merely by specific skills but also by one’s style of life. Consumption was no longer innocent, trivial, personal, or apolitical, but was directly linked to inequalities in production. Changing how people consume would be a necessary part of any egalitarian social transformation.

The contributions by Douglas Holt and Alex Kotlowitz build on these ideas. Holt’s article is the first general application of Bourdieu’s theories to the United States; previous research (e.g., David Halle) had looked at individual cultural forms, such as painting, and concluded that Bourdieu was wrong. By contrast, Holt finds clear class differences among his informants, which are expressed in the ways in which they consume (even more than what they choose). Those high in cultural capital apply a formal aesthetic sensibility to their consumption of food, decor, and mass media, in contrast to the functional aesthetic (emphasis on qualities such as durability) of low cultural capital consumers. Cultural elites also display more cosmopolitanism and connoisseurship in their choice of foods, travel, reading material, and decor. They seek out idiosyncratic consumer opportunities because they are much more sensitive about constructing a distinctive individual style. Those low in cultural capital remain willing participants in mass culture and mass taste. Kotlowitz, writing from a more Veblenian tradition, describes how the same labels and styles are now coveted by very different people—the impoverished African-American youth of inner-city Chicago and middle-class suburban kids both demand Hilfiger, Coach, Nike, and Hush Puppies. Veblen’s simple trickle down from rich to poor has been inverted, even exploded, but visible symbols of status are alive and well. Returning to the theme of the earlier critiques, Kotlowitz argues that the fashion bond between the ghetto and suburban youth is a false one, as the economic deprivation, racism, and social isolation of the urban poor leaves them substantively miles away from the middle-class kids.


Ann duCille’s penetrating piece also takes up the theme of racial differences. Looking at the history of how the Mattel corporation has introduced “multicultural” Barbies, duCille makes a sophisticated argument about the ways in which consumer society constructs categories of race. A “black” Barbie can have certain features (“pearly white teeth”), but not others (short or uncombable hair). As Mattel has moved into the lucrative “ethnic” market, it has done so in highly constrained and stereotypical ways, permitting only the “discursively familiar.” Ethnic Barbies retain the bodies and class status of the normative (white) Barbie. The currently trendy commodification of “difference,” duCille reminds us, is both an “impossible space,” and an “anti-matter.” Barbies remain mired in a relational hierarchy—as little girls put it, the white Barbie is the real one.


Nearly all the premises of critics of consumer society were challenged in the academic debates of the 1980s and 1990s. Veblen, whose influence in the American literature had been profound, was a ritual target of attack. Academics argued that consumption was not a form of social communication, that people were unable to read the “code” of consumer meanings, that advertisers had little control over how consumers constructed meaning. The old social hierarchies were dead; consumption had become a democratic exercise in which anybody could be anything merely by donning the right outfit or car or style. These accounts challenged the Veblenian idea that consumer innovation flowed from top to bottom, they argued against the view that group identities were formed through consumer patterns, and they emphasized the use of commodities to construct individual, creative selves. Instead of being a passive form of mass conformity, consuming was seen as a resistant, liberatory, and creative act. Scholars wrote about the pleasure, enjoyment, escape, and fantasy of consuming. Bourdieu’s hierarchies of taste were seen to have broken down, as high


art collapsed into mass culture. It was an anything-goes, chaotic world. Some argued that production and consumption were no longer part of a unified structure; consumption had eclipsed production as the driving force, with production relegated to a relatively minor and adaptive role. The classic critiques were denounced as elitist, moralistic, ascetic, puritanical, mechanical, and out of touch with the consumer experience. (This is the position represented by James Twitchell.) In a related, but more critical vein, a wide variety of work in mass communication and cultural studies has advocated a liberatory view, suggesting that many progressive political possibilities germinate in popular consumption. Elizabeth Wilson and John Fiske represent this view.

One of the most common arguments against consumer critics is that they are ascetic (often academic) elites whose status is constructed in opposition to hedonic pleasures. Therefore they aim to deny the bounty of capitalism to the hoi polloi. James Twitchell has become a witty, if not always persuasive, debunker of this anti-hedonist bias among consumer critics. In some ways, his argument is similar to that found in influential anthropological accounts, such as those of Mary Douglas and Douglas Isherwood or Grant McCracken, which take the view that material goods are the primary vehicle for experiencing meaning. What Twitchell adds is a positive spin on this manufactured meaning system, a pure consumer attitude: we love to spend, stuff is our new religion, it makes us happy, it gives us purpose, and, besides, it’s our nature to be materially acquisitive. Forget the dour, puritanical attitudes to spending. The consumer is king and virtually anything goes. Relax and enjoy the ride.

Elizabeth Wilson stakes out a feminist politics of fashion that can be readily generalized to a politics of consumption. Wilson argues against an unproductive division between a puritanical moralism that labels as oppressive any normative pressures to be fashionable and a liberal populism that welcomes all forms of pleasure (à la Twitchell). She demonstrates, in arguments that are closely aligned to those of Baudrillard and Barthes, the impossibility of escaping the


fashion system either through “feminist style” or through expressing “personal preferences.” Like Bourdieu, she locates feminist style in its appropriate milieu as the dress of cultural elites. Her arguments—that fashion is always impregnated with social meanings and aesthetic considerations, and that it can be played for pleasure as much as for social position—make fashion a form of aesthetic agency that allows for sociopolitical critique as well as a search for alternative ways of living. The pointlessness of fashion, which Veblen hated, is precisely what makes it valuable. It is in this marginalized area of the contingent, the decorative, and the futile, that not simply a new aesthetic but a new cultural order may seed itself. Out of the “cracks in the pavement of cities grow the weeds that begin to rot the fabric, i.e., aesthetic creativity.”

John Fiske is frequently cited as offering the most celebratory view of the ways in which structures of social domination can be resisted through consumption. Drawing upon Antonio Gramsci and Michel de Certeau, Fiske analyzes a variety of consumer activities—shopping, watching television, fashion, listening to rock music—to view “tactical raids” on patriarchal capitalism. Fiske finds that subordinated groups (women, people of color, the working class) use commodities to pursue their own socio-cultural interests, albeit in ways that will never threaten the political- economic underpinnings of the system. In the analysis of mall shopping we excerpt, a careful reading will reveal that Fiske’s arguments are more subtle than he is often given credit for. Fiske is concerned with redressing the structuralist emphasis on consumer society as an oppressive system that tends to avoid any consideration of how the oppressed are actually managing their lives within this oppression. To his credit, Fiske demands that elite critics recognize that the oppressed use cultural strategies to compensate for what they are denied economically and politically. What Fiske does not address, however, is the political and economic effects of the pursuit of interest through sociocultural identity.



Much of the debate about consumer society has centered on questions of quantity—excessive consumption, proliferation of new needs. But a second theme, stemming from Marx and Georg Lukacs, emphasizes that at the center of consumer society is a process—goods become commodities, moving through a “circuit” specific to capitalist economies. While this process has occurred since the beginnings of capitalism, vast new arenas are now being commodined—from education and health care to culture itself.

The papers in this section reveal the ways in which culture, embodied in concepts such as personal identity, alterity, dissent, and style, have all become grist for the marketer’s mill. These are the new commodities that the market is capitalizing on. In a prescient and sophisticated contribution on this theme, bell hooks analyzes the ways in which racial and cultural differences are sold in contemporary America, through a “consumer cannibalism” in which white middle- class consumers want to “eat” the commodified other: white college boys aspire to be transformed by erotic sexual encounters with black women’s bodies; bored suburbanites crave the exotic primitive sold in apparel catalogues. Blackness and primitiveness stand in for true pleasure, which consumer culture, despite its hedonistic tendencies, is now unable to deliver. While hooks acknowledges that these trends represent an opening that does challenge white supremacy and gender structures, she also warns that they often contain new, subtle messages of racism and sexism. Malcolm Gladwell’s essay describes how the consumption of otherness is now occurring through the search for the newest, coolest trends, a search carried out largely in the inner cities and in youth subcultures. This account of contemporary marketing practices reveals how much the market has changed in the last forty years.

In a forthcoming paper, one of us (Holt) has argued that this postmodern marketplace differs in fundamental ways


from the world that the earlier critical thinkers were responding to. In the accounts of Adorno and Horkheimer, Galbraith, Friedan, Baudrillard, and others, marketers possessed tremendous “cultural authority.” They were able to inscribe products with meanings, and convince people they needed those products and meanings. While the literature has tended to treat these arguments in absolutist terms (as either true or false), it is important to remember their historic context. Beginning in the 1920s, marketing emerged as a profession, with a self-confident project of social transformation. Marketing gurus, of whom Ernest Dichter with his “motivation research” is the most infamous example, presented their techniques as scientific. When viewed from within the zeitgeist of the period—the success of Hitler and Mussolini in using propaganda, the zenith of belief in positivist science, and the widespread belief in the possibility of social engineering through behaviorism, Freudian psychology, and the like—the idea that marketers could actually “organize” consumers must have been irresistible.

But such an era was not to last. As the social engineering approach became public, it encountered great resistance. (After all, who wants to be manipulated and programmed?) There ensued a broad attack on the deadening conformity of mass culture—witness the popularity of such authors as Galbraith, Packard, Friedan, Marcuse, and William Whyte. By the early 1960s the cultural authority of the market was under siege. As Thomas Frank’s piece shows, Madison Avenue was not to take this siege lying down. With a flexibility that shows how truly resilient consumer culture can be, Madison Avenue was able to turn the critique of itself into another advertising strategy. Frank’s contribution looks at how the Volkswagen bug was positioned as a statement against corporate conformity. In effect Madison Avenue was able to mobilize popular resentment against itself to reproduce itself. This was a trend that would continue for decades, in various ways, ending with countercultural icons such as William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and the Beatles showing up in commercials for Nike, the Gap, and Apple


Computers. Marketing learned a lesson from this attack: People must

experience consumption as a volitional site of personal development, achievement, and self-creation, not as a place in which they are simply mapping their lives on some advertiser’s template. Over time the field evolved away from a top-down approach toward one in which consumers provide the innovation for new trends and meanings (c.f., the “coolhunt,” described by Gladwell). Thus, marketers realize that they no longer need to create meaning, they only need to mobilize it. The logic of branding today is that Nike, for instance, does not aim to attach particular meanings to its product; it just needs to attach the swoosh to any person, place, or thing that is granted cultural value in the world of sport. Thus, monopolizing the public channels of meaning creation is becoming more important than monopolizing particular meanings. Two developments made this change feasible. On the one hand, the increasing role of brands, which often differentiate functionally equivalent products, elevated the importance of symbolism. Second, new more flexible production technologies allow a proliferation of customized products and niche markets, which grants the consumer far more choice (and “creativity”). Mass production is no longer so “mass.”

And yet the profitability of consumer corporations appears unassailable. They were able to relinquish certain forms of control to consumers while still retaining market power over other phases of the circuit of capital. Gladwell’s street-level innovators capture very little of the value they produce. Furthermore, and this is the enduring wisdom of the earlier critiques, particularly that of Adorno and Horkheimer, the post-modern marketplace retains the idea that subjectivity is created, and naturalized, through consuming. Indeed, the commodity form continues to gain stature as the preeminent site through which people experience and express the social world, even as the worlds that are channeled through it are orchestrated less by marketers than by consumers.

In this contemporary marketplace, escaping the commodity form becomes increasingly difficult. Difference, dissent,


resistance, opposition—they all resurface as consumables, whether through the purchase of a black Barbie, a Working Assets telephone card, or a Patagonia organic t-shirt. A recent popular anticonsumer manifesto by Naomi Klein has its own “NoLogo” logo; opposition ads are another form of ad. Is it possible to escape a world of such ubiquitous commodification?


The contributions in the last section of the book provide an optimistic answer to this question and offer a variety of stances from which to challenge consumer culture. Taken together, they are a rough roadmap of most of the forces that are now arrayed in an emergent anticonsumerist movement: environmentalists, spiritualists engaged in lives of voluntary simplicity, culture jammers, labor-oriented feminists, critics of capitalist production, and advocates for a new quality of life politics.

The section begins with an excerpt from Duane Elgin’s classic book Voluntary Simplicity. This perspective has gained many adherents in recent years, as millions of Americans have begun searching for more meaning, spirituality, intentionality, and simplicity in their lives. While most have not gone as far as Elgin advocates, downshifting has been one of the fastest-growing trends of the 1990s. Elgin’s strategy might be somewhat flippantly described as the rejection of “just do it” in favor of “just say no” to consumerism.

By contrast, Kalle Lasn advocates a far more radical, and oppositional, strategy. Building on the politics of the French Situationists, who believed in staging dramatic social moments that would illuminate the alienating nature of the “society of the spectacle,” Lasn has catalyzed a growing movement of “culture jammers.” Culture jammers are using sub-vertising, de-marketing, and the “un-cooling” of everything from fashion to fast food to auto transport. Through their own sophisticated marketing, employing the


consumer culture itself, they de-legitimate the premise of “I consume, therefore I am,” which lies at the core of the postmodern marketplace. In their view, true subjectivity arises only through an invigorating encounter with consumer culture.

Angela McRobbie and Frithjof Bergmann, each in their own way, tie changes in consumption to new structures of production. McRobbie’s essay addresses the exploitation of female garment workers in the small workshops of London, and she argues that a neighborhood-based system linking fashion designers, local customers, and well-paid workers could provide a new, relational economic model in which the forging of community creates security, a decent standard of living, and a measure of consumer and producer sovereignty. Her piece is especially innovative in its linking of feminist perspectives, economic development, and consumer concerns. Bergmann argues for a thorough overhauling of current production systems in favor of what he has termed “New Work.” The New Work movement, now gaining adherents in many countries, emphasizes the importance of work as a calling, dramatically curtailed hours of labor, and economic self-sufficiency through self-provisioning with sophisticated new technologies. Arguing strongly that consumption is mainly compensatory—a doomed attempt to deal with the painful alienation of modern life—Bergmann believes that when work is empowering, people will lose interest in high-consumption lifestyles. De-marketing will proceed virtually automatically.

Betsy Taylor and David Tilford provide a damning ecological critique of middle-class lifestyles. On the basis of an extensive review of the literature, they conclude that we cannot continue to consume stocks of natural resources and devastate renewable resources at current levels. This environmental critique is among the most compelling ever leveled at consumer society, and has gained tremendous resonance in recent years. Finally, Juliet Schor, in her call for a new politics of consumption, attacks the paralyzing logic of noninterference in consumer markets, arguing that the basic premises of that view are not supportable by the evidence.


She believes that erosion in the quality of life for many middle-class consumers is creating the conditions for an emerging anticonsumerist coalition.

Thus, we conclude the volume hopefully, for at least two reasons. First, while acknowledging the difficulty of remaining un-co-opted in the postmodern marketplace, these contributions affirm the possibility that politically self- conscious individuals and movements can take truly oppositional stances toward consumer society. Second, we see tremendous potential in the newly forged alliances among trade unionists, environmentalists, culture jammers, simple livers, and other opponents of consumer society. It is our hope that this volume, by helping to elucidate the dynamics and structures of that society, may prove useful in the struggle.


The literature on consumer society is vast. To produce a collection of reasonable length, we have had to exclude many articles, authors, and topics. The most glaring of these omissions is undoubtedly the debate about the globalization of consumer culture. Because this literature is so large and varied, we believe it deserves a volume of its own. Hence, the perspective of this collection is heavily North American.



The Consumer Society Critique





Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer The sociological theory that the loss of the support of objectively established religion, the dissolution of the last remnants of precap-italism, together with technological and social differentiation or specialization, have led to cultural chaos is disproved every day; for culture now impresses the same stamp on everything. Films, radio and magazines make up a system which is uniform as a whole and in every part. Even the aesthetic activities of political opposites are one in their enthusiastic obedience to the rhythm of the iron system. The decorative industrial management buildings and exhibition centers in authoritarian countries are much the same as anywhere else. The huge gleaming towers that shoot up everywhere are outward signs of the ingenious planning of international concerns, toward which the unleashed entrepreneurial system (whose monuments are a mass of gloomy houses and business premises in grimy, spiritless cities) was already hastening. Even now the older houses just outside the concrete city centers look like slums, and the new bungalows on the outskirts are at one with the flimsy structures of world fairs in their praise of technical progress and their built-in demand to be discarded after a short while like empty food cans. Yet the city housing projects designed to perpetuate the individual as a supposedly independent


unit in a small hygienic dwelling make him all the more subservient to his adversary—the absolute power of capitalism. Because the inhabitants, as producers and as consumers, are drawn into the center in search of work and pleasure, all the living units crystallize into well-organized complexes. The striking unity of microcosm and macrocosm presents men with a model of their culture: the false identity of the general and the particular. Under monopoly all mass culture is identical, and the lines of its artificial framework begin to show through. The people at the top are no longer so interested in concealing monopoly: as its violence becomes more open, so its power grows. Movies and radio need no longer pretend to be art. The truth that they are just business is made into an ideology in order to justify the rubbish they deliberately produce. They call themselves industries; and when their directors’ incomes are published, any doubt about the social utility of the finished products is removed.

Interested parties explain the culture industry in technological terms. It is alleged that because millions participate in it, certain reproduction processes are necessary that inevitably require identical needs in innumerable places to be satisfied with identical goods. The technical contrast between the few production centers and the large number of widely dispersed consumption points is said to demand organization and planning by management. Furthermore, it is claimed that standards were based in the first place on consumers’ needs, and for that reason were accepted with so little resistance. The result is the circle of manipulation and retroactive need in which the unity of the system grows ever stronger. No mention is made of the fact that the basis on which technology acquires power over society is the power of those whose economic hold over society is greatest. A technological rationale is the rationale of domination itself. It is the coercive nature of society alienated from itself. Automobiles, bombs, and movies keep the whole thing together until their leveling element shows its strength in the very wrong which it furthered. It has made the technology of the culture industry no more than the


achievement of standardization and mass production, sacrificing whatever involved a distinction between the logic of the work and that of the social system. This is the result not of a law of movement in technology as such but of its function in today’s economy. The need which might resist central control has already been suppressed by the control of the individual consciousness. The step from the telephone to the radio has clearly distinguished the roles. The former still allowed the subscriber to play the role of subject, and was liberal. The latter is democratic: it turns all participants into listeners and authoritatively subjects them to broadcast programs which are all exactly the same. No machinery of rejoinder has been devised, and private broadcasters are denied any freedom. They are confined to the apocryphal field of the “amateur,” and also have to accept organization from above. But any trace of spontaneity from the public in official broadcasting is controlled and absorbed by talent scouts, studio competitions and official programs of every kind selected by professionals. Talented performers belong to the industry long before it displays them; otherwise they would not be so eager to fit in. The attitude of the public, which ostensibly and actually favors the system of the culture industry, is a part of the system and not an excuse for it. If one branch of art follows the same formula as one with a very different medium and content; if the dramatic intrigue of broadcast soap operas becomes no more than useful material for showing how to master technical problems at both ends of the scale of musical experience—real jazz or a cheap imitation; or if a movement from a Beethoven symphony is crudely “adapted” for a film sound-track in the same way as a Tolstoy novel is garbled in a film script: then the claim that this is done to satisfy the spontaneous wishes of the public is no more than hot air. We are closer to the facts if we explain these phenomena as inherent in the technical and personnel apparatus which, down to its last cog, itself forms part of the economic mechanism of selection. In addition there is the agreement—or at least the determination—of all executive authorities not to produce or sanction anything that in any way differs from their own


rules, their own ideas about consumers, or above all themselves.

In our age the objective social tendency is incarnate in the hidden subjective purposes of company directors, the foremost among whom are in the most powerful sectors of industry—steel, petroleum, electricity, and chemicals. Culture monopolies are weak and dependent in comparison. They cannot afford to neglect their appeasement of the real holders of power if their sphere of activity in mass society (a sphere producing a specific type of commodity which anyhow is still too closely bound up with easygoing liberalism and Jewish intellectuals) is not to undergo a series of purges. The dependence of the most powerful broadcasting company on the electrical industry, or of the motion picture industry on the banks, is characteristic of the whole sphere, whose individual branches are themselves economically interwoven. All are in such close contact that the extreme concentration of mental forces allows demarcation lines between different firms and technical branches to be ignored. The ruthless unity in the culture industry is evidence of what will happen in politics. Marked differentiations such as those of A and B films, or of stories in magazines in different price ranges, depend not so much on subject matter as on classifying, organizing, and labeling consumers. Something is provided for all so that none may escape; the distinctions are emphasized and extended. The public is catered for with a hierarchical range of mass-produced products of varying quality, thus advancing the rule of complete quantification. Everybody must behave (as if spontaneously) in accordance with his previously determined and indexed level, and choose the category of mass product turned out for his type. Consumers appear as statistics on research organization charts, and are divided by income groups into red, green, and blue areas; the technique is that used for any type of propaganda.

How formalized the procedure is can be seen when the mechanically differentiated products prove to be all alike in the end. That the difference between the Chrysler range and General Motors products is basically illusory strikes every


child with a keen interest in varieties. What connoisseurs discuss as good or bad points serve only to perpetuate the semblance of competition and range of choice. The same applies to the Warner Brothers and Metro Goldwyn Mayer productions. But even the differences between the more expensive and cheaper models put out by the same firm steadily diminish: for automobiles, there are such differences as the number of cylinders, cubic capacity, details of patented gadgets; and for films there are the number of stars, the extravagant use of technology, labor, and equipment, and the introduction of the latest psychological formulas. The universal criterion of merit is the amount of “conspicuous production,” of blatant cash investment. The varying budgets in the culture industry do not bear the slightest relation to factual values, to the meaning of the products themselves. Even the technical media are relentlessly forced into uniformity. Television aims at a synthesis of radio and film, and is held up only because the interested parties have not yet reached agreement, but its consequences will be quite enormous and promise to intensify the impoverishment of aesthetic matter so drastically, that by tomorrow the thinly veiled identity of all industrial culture products can come triumphantly out into the open, derisively fulfilling the Wagnerian dream of the Gesamtkunst-werk —the fusion of all the arts in one work. The alliance of word, image, and music is all the more perfect than in Tristan because the sensuous elements which all approvingly reflect the surface of social reality are in principle embodied in the same technical process, the unity of which becomes its distinctive content. This process integrates all the elements of the production, from the novel (shaped with an eye to the film) to the last sound effect. It is the triumph of invested capital, whose title as absolute master is etched deep into the hearts of the dispossessed in the employment line; it is the meaningful content of every film, whatever plot the production team may have selected. The man with leisure has to accept what the culture manufacturers offer him. Kant’s formalism still expected a


contribution from the individual, who was thought to relate the varied experiences of the senses to fundamental concepts; but industry robs the individual of his function. Its prime service to the customer is to do his schematizing for him. Kant said that there was a secret mechanism in the soul which prepared direct intuitions in such a way that they could be fitted into the system of pure reason. But today that secret has been deciphered. While the mechanism is to all appearances planned by those who serve up the data of experience, that is, by the culture industry, it is in fact forced upon the latter by the power of society, which remains irrational, however we may try to rationalize it; and this inescapable force is processed by commercial agencies so that they give an artificial impression of being in command. There is nothing left for the consumer to classify. Producers have done it for him. Art for the masses has destroyed the dream but still conforms to the tenets of that dreaming idealism which critical idealism balked at. Everything derives from consciousness: for Malebranche and Berkeley, from the consciousness of God; in mass art, from the consciousness of the production team. Not only are the hit songs, stars, and soap operas cyclically recurrent and rigidly invariable types, but the specific content of the entertainment itself is derived from them and only appears to change. The details are interchangeable. The short interval sequence which was effective in a hit song, the hero’s momentary fall from grace (which he accepts as good sport), the rough treatment which the beloved gets from the male star, the latter’s rugged defiance of the spoilt heiress, are, like all the other details, ready-made cliches to be slotted in anywhere; they never do anything more than fulfill the purpose allotted them in the overall plan. Their whole raison d’être is to confirm it by being its constituent parts. As soon as the film begins, it is quite clear how it will end, and who will be rewarded, punished, or forgotten. In light music, once the trained ear has heard the first notes of the hit song, it can guess what is coming and feel flattered when it does come. The average length of the short story has to be rigidly adhered to. Even gags, effects, and jokes are calculated like the setting in


which they are placed. They are the responsibility of special experts and their narrow range makes it easy for them to be apportioned in the office. The development of the culture industry has led to the predominance of the effect, the obvious touch, and the technical detail over the work itself— which once expressed an idea, but was liquidated together with the idea. When the detail won its freedom, it became rebellious and, in the period from Romanticism to Expressionism, asserted itself as free expression, as a vehicle of protest against the organization. In music the single harmonic effect obliterated the awareness of form as a whole; in painting the individual color was stressed at the expense of pictorial composition; and in the novel psychology became more important than structure. The totality of the culture industry has put an end to this. Though concerned exclusively with effects, it crushes their insubordination and makes them subserve the formula, which replaces the work. The same fate is inflicted on whole and parts alike. The whole inevitably bears no relation to the details—just like the career of a successful man into which everything is made to fit as an illustration or a proof, whereas it is nothing more than the sum of all those idiotic events. The so-called dominant idea is like a file which ensures order but not coherence. The whole and the parts are alike; there is no antithesis and no connection. Their prearranged harmony is a mockery of what had to be striven after in the great bourgeois works of art. In Germany the graveyard stillness of the dictatorship already hung over the gayest films of the democratic era.

The whole world is made to pass through the filter of the culture industry. The old experience of the movie-goer, who sees the world outside as an extension of the film he has just left (because the latter is intent upon reproducing the world of everyday perceptions), is now the producer’s guideline. The more intensely and flawlessly his techniques duplicate empirical objects, the easier it is today for the illusion to prevail that the outside world is the straightforward continuation of that presented on the screen. This purpose has been furthered by mechanical reproduction since the


lightning takeover by the sound film. Real life is becoming indistinguishable from the movies.

The sound film, far surpassing the theater of illusion, leaves no room for imagination or reflection on the part of the audience, who is unable to respond within the structure of the film, yet deviate from its precise detail without losing the thread of the story; hence the film forces its victims to equate it directly with reality. The stunting of the mass-media consumer’s powers of imagination and spontaneity does not have to be traced back to any psychological mechanisms; he must ascribe the loss of those attributes to the objective nature of the products themselves, especially to the most characteristic of them, the sound film. They are so designed that quickness, powers of observation, and experience are undeniably needed to apprehend them at all; yet sustained thought is out of the question if the spectator is not to miss the relentless rush of facts. Even though the effort required for his response is semi-automatic, no scope is left for the imagination. Those who are so absorbed by the world of the movie—by its images, gestures, and words—that they are unable to supply what really makes it a world, do not have to dwell on particular points of its mechanics during a screening. All the other films and products of the entertainment industry which they have seen have taught them what to expect: they react automatically. The might of industrial society is lodged in men’s minds. The entertainments manufacturers know that their products will be consumed with alertness even when the customer is distraught, for each of them is a model of the huge economic machinery which has always sustained the masses, whether at work or at leisure—which is akin to work. From every sound film and every broadcast program the social effect can be inferred which is exclusive to none but is shared by all alike. The culture industry as a whole has molded men as a type unfailingly reproduced in every product. All the agents of this process, from the producer to the women’s clubs, take good care that the simple reproduction of this mental state is not nuanced or extended in any way.

The art historians and guardians of culture who complain


of the extinction in the West of a basic style-determining power are wrong. The stereotyped appropriation of everything, even the inchoate, for the purposes of mechanical reproduction surpasses the rigor and general currency of any “real style,” in the sense in which cultural cognoscenti celebrate the organic precapitalist past. No Palestrina could be more of a purist in eliminating every unprepared and unresolved discord than the jazz arranger in suppressing any development which does not conform to the jargon. When jazzing up Mozart he changes him not only when he is too serious or too difficult but when he harmonizes the melody in a different way, perhaps more simply, than is customary now. No medieval builder can have scrutinized the subjects for church windows and sculptures more suspiciously than the studio hierarchy scrutinizes a work by Balzac or Hugo before finally approving it. No medieval theologian could have determined the degree of the torment to be suffered by the damned in accordance with the ordo of divine love more meticulously than the producers of shoddy epics calculate the torture to be undergone by the hero or the exact point to which the leading lady’s hemline shall be raised. The explicit and implicit, exoteric and esoteric catalog of the forbidden and tolerated is so extensive that it not only defines the area of freedom but is all-powerful inside it. Everything down to the last detail is shaped accordingly. Like its counterpart, avant-garde art, the entertainment industry determines its own language, down to its very syntax and vocabulary, by the use of anathema. The constant pressure to produce new effects (which must conform to the old pattern) serves merely as another rule to increase the power of the conventions when any single effect threatens to slip through the net. Every detail is so firmly stamped with sameness that nothing can appear which is not marked at birth, or does not meet with approval at first sight. And the star performers, whether they produce or reproduce, use this jargon as freely and fluently and with as much gusto as if it were the very language which it silenced long ago. Such is the ideal of what is natural in this field of activity, and its influence becomes all the more powerful, the more


technique is perfected and diminishes the tension between the finished product and everyday life. The paradox of this routine, which is essentially travesty, can be detected and is often predominant in everything that the culture industry turns out. A jazz musician who is playing a piece of serious music, one of Beethoven’s simplest minuets, syncopates it involuntarily and will smile superciliously when asked to follow the normal divisions of the beat. This is the “nature” which, complicated by the ever-present and extravagant demands of the specific medium, constitutes the new style and is a “system of non-culture, to which one might even concede a certain ‘unity of style’ if it really made any sense to speak of stylized barbarity.”1

The universal imposition of this stylized mode can even go beyond what is quasi-officially sanctioned or forbidden; today a hit song is more readily forgiven for not observing the 32 beats or the compass of the ninth than for containing even the most clandestine melodic or harmonic detail which does not conform to the idiom. Whenever Orson Welles offends against the tricks of the trade, he is forgiven because his departures from the norm are regarded as calculated mutations which serve all the more strongly to confirm the validity of the system. The constraint of the technically- conditioned idiom which stars and directors have to produce as “nature” so that the people can appropriate it, extends to such fine nuances that they almost attain the subtlety of the devices of an avant-garde work as against those of truth. The rare capacity minutely to fulfill the obligations of the natural idiom in all branches of the culture industry becomes the criterion of efficiency. What and how they say it must be measurable by everyday language, as in logical positivism. The producers are experts. The idiom demands an astounding productive power, which it absorbs and squanders. In a diabolical way it has overreached the culturally conservative distinction between genuine and artificial style. A style might be called artificial which is imposed from without on the refractory impulses of a form. But in the culture industry every element of the subject matter has its origin in the same apparatus as that jargon


whose stamp it bears. The quarrels in which the artistic experts become involved with sponsor and censor about a lie going beyond the bounds of credibility are evidence not so much of an inner aesthetic tension as of a divergence of interests. The reputation of the specialist, in which a last remnant of objective independence sometimes finds refuge, conflicts with the business politics of the Church, or the concern which is manufacturing the cultural commodity. But the thing itself has been essentially objectified and made viable before the established authorities began to argue about it. Even before Zanuck acquired her, Saint Bernadette was regarded by her latter-day hagiographer as brilliant propaganda for all interested parties. That is what became of the emotions of the character. Hence the style of the culture industry, which no longer has to test itself against any refractory material, is also the negation of style. The reconciliation of the general and particular, of the rule and the specific demands of the subject matter, the achievement of which alone gives essential, meaningful content to style, is futile because there has ceased to be the slightest tension between opposite poles: these concordant extremes are dismally identical; the general can replace the particular, and vice versa.

Nevertheless, this caricature of style does not amount to something beyond the genuine style of the past. In the culture industry the notion of genuine style is seen to be the aesthetic equivalent of domination. Style considered as mere aesthetic regularity is a romantic dream of the past. The unity of style not only of the Christian Middle Ages but of the Renaissance expresses in each case the different structure of social power, and not the obscure experience of the oppressed in which the general was enclosed. The great artists were never those who embodied a wholly flawless and perfect style, but those who used style as a way of hardening themselves against the chaotic expression of suffering, as a negative truth. The style of their works gave what was expressed that force without which life flows away unheard. Those very art forms which are known as classical, such as Mozart’s music, contain objective trends which represent


something different to the style which they incarnate. As late as Schönberg and Picasso, the great artists have retained a mistrust of style, and at crucial points have subordinated it to the logic of the matter. What Dadaists and Expressionists called the untruth of style as such triumphs today in the sung jargon of a crooner, in the carefully contrived elegance of a film star, and even in the admirable expertise of a photograph of a peasant’s squalid hut. Style represents a promise in every work of art. That which is expressed is subsumed through style into the dominant forms of generality, into the language of music, painting, or words, in the hope that it will be reconciled thus with the idea of true generality. This promise held out by the work of art that it will create truth by lending new shape to the conventional social forms is as necessary as it is hypocritical. It unconditionally posits the real forms of life as it is by suggesting that fulfillment lies in their aesthetic derivatives. To this extent the claim of art is always ideology too. However, only in this confrontation with tradition of which style is the record can art express suffering. That factor in a work of art which enables it to transcend reality certainly cannot be detached from style; but it does not consist of the harmony actually realized, of any doubtful unity of form and content, within and without, of individual and society; it is to be found in those features in which discrepancy appears: in the necessary failure of the passionate striving for identity. Instead of exposing itself to this failure in which the style of the great work of art has always achieved self-negation, the inferior work has always relied on its similarity with others— on a surrogate identity.

In the culture industry this imitation finally becomes absolute. Having ceased to be anything but style, it reveals the latter’s secret: obedience to the social hierarchy. Today aesthetic barbarity completes what has threatened the creations of the spirit since they were gathered together as culture and neutralized. To speak of culture was always contrary to culture. Culture as a common denominator already contains in embryo that schematization and process of cataloging and classification which bring culture within


the sphere of administration. And it is precisely the industrialized, the consequent, subsumption which entirely accords with this notion of culture. By subordinating in the same way and to the same end all areas of intellectual creation, by occupying men’s senses from the time they leave the factory in the evening to the time they clock in again the next morning with matter that bears the impress of the labor process they themselves have to sustain throughout the day, this subsumption mockingly satisfies the concept of a unified culture which the philosophers of personality contrasted with mass culture. . . . . . . The culture industry perpetually cheats its consumers of what it perpetually promises. The promissory note which, with its plots and staging, it draws on pleasure is endlessly prolonged; the promise, which is actually all the spectacle consists of, is illusory: all it actually confirms is that the real point will never be reached, that the diner must be satisfied with the menu. In front of the appetite stimulated by all those brilliant names and images there is finally set no more than a commendation of the depressing everyday world it sought to escape. Of course works of art were not sexual exhibitions either. However, by representing deprivation as negative, they retracted, as it were, the prostitution of the impulse and rescued by mediation what was denied. The secret of aesthetic sublimation is its representation of fulfillment as a broken promise. The culture industry does not sublimate; it represses. By repeatedly exposing the objects of desire, breasts in a clinging sweater or the naked torso of the athletic hero, it only stimulates the unsubli-mated forepleasure which habitual deprivation has long since reduced to a masochistic semblance. There is no erotic situation which, while insinuating and exciting, does not fail to indicate unmistakably that things can never go that far. The Hays Office merely confirms the ritual of Tantalus that the culture industry has established anyway. Works of art are ascetic and unashamed; the culture industry is pornographic and prudish. Love is downgraded to romance. And, after the descent, much is permitted; even license as a marketable


speciality has its quota bearing the trade description “daring.” The mass production of the sexual automatically achieves its repression. Because of his ubiquity, the film star with whom one is meant to fall in love is from the outset a copy of himself. Every tenor voice comes to sound like a Caruso record, and the “natural” faces of Texas girls are like the successful models by whom Hollywood has typecast them. The mechanical reproduction of beauty, which reactionary cultural fanaticism wholeheartedly serves in its methodical idolization of individuality, leaves no room for that unconscious idolatry which was once essential to beauty. The triumph over beauty is celebrated by humor—the Schadenfreude that every successful deprivation calls forth. There is laughter because there is nothing to laugh at. Laughter, whether conciliatory or terrible, always occurs when some fear passes. It indicates liberation either from physical danger or from the grip of logic. Conciliatory laughter is heard as the echo of an escape from power; the wrong kind overcomes fear by capitulating to the forces which are to be feared. It is the echo of power as something inescapable. Fun is a medicinal bath. The pleasure industry never fails to prescribe it. It makes laughter the instrument of the fraud practiced on happiness. Moments of happiness are without laughter; only operettas and films portray sex to the accompaniment of resounding laughter. But Baudelaire is as devoid of humor as Holderlin. In the false society laughter is a disease which has attacked happiness and is drawing it into its worthless totality. To laugh at something is always to deride it, and the life which, according to Bergson, in laughter breaks through the barrier, is actually an invading barbaric life, self-assertion prepared to parade its liberation from any scruple when the social occasion arises. Such a laughing audience is a parody of humanity. Its members are monads, all dedicated to the pleasure of being ready for anything at the expense of everyone else. Their harmony is a caricature of solidarity. What is fiendish about this false laughter is that it is a compelling parody of the best, which is conciliatory. Delight is austere: res severa verum gaudium. The monastic theory that not asceticism but the sexual act


denotes the renunciation of attainable bliss receives negative confirmation in the gravity of the lover who with foreboding commits his life to the fleeting moment. In the culture industry, jovial denial takes the place of the pain found in ecstasy and in asceticism. The supreme law is that they shall not satisfy their desires at any price; they must laugh and be content with laughter. In every product of the culture industry, the permanent denial imposed by civilization is once again unmistakably demonstrated and inflicted on its victims. To offer and to deprive them of something is one and the same. This is what happens in erotic films. Precisely because it must never take place, everything centers upon copulation. In films it is more strictly forbidden for an illegitimate relationship to be admitted without the parties being punished than for a millionaire’s future son-in-law to be active in the labor movement. In contrast to the liberal era, industrialized as well as popular culture may wax indignant at capitalism, but it cannot renounce the threat of castration. This is fundamental. It outlasts the organized acceptance of the uniformed seen in the films which are produced to that end, and in reality. What is decisive today is no longer puritanism, although it still asserts itself in the form of women’s organizations, but the necessity inherent in the system not to leave the customer alone, not for a moment to allow him any suspicion that resistance is possible. The principle dictates that he should be shown all his needs as capable of fulfillment, but that those needs should be so predetermined that he feels himself to be the eternal consumer, the object of the culture industry. Not only does it make him believe that the deception it practices is satisfaction, but it goes further and implies that, whatever the state of affairs, he must put up with what is offered. The escape from everyday drudgery which the whole culture industry promises may be compared to the daughter’s abduction in the cartoon: the father is holding the ladder in the dark. The paradise offered by the culture industry is the same old drudgery. Both escape and elopement are predesigned to lead back to the starting point. Pleasure promotes the resignation which it ought to help to forget.


Amusement, if released from every restraint, would not only be the antithesis of art but its extreme role. The Mark Twain absurdity with which the American culture industry flirts at times might be a corrective of art. The more seriously the latter regards the incompatibility with life, the more it resembles the seriousness of life, its antithesis; the more effort it devotes to developing wholly from its own formal law, the more effort it demands from the intelligence to neutralize its burden. In some revue films, and especially in the grotesque and the funnies, the possibility of this negation does glimmer for a few moments. But of course it cannot happen. Pure amusement in its consequence, relaxed self- surrender to all kinds of associations and happy nonsense, is cut short by the amusement on the market: instead, it is interrupted by a surrogate overall meaning which the culture industry insists on giving to its products, and yet misuses as a mere pretext for bringing in the stars. Biographies and other simple stories patch the fragments of nonsense into an idiotic plot. We do not have the cap and bells of the jester but the bunch of keys of capitalist reason, which even screens the pleasure of achieving success. Every kiss in the revue film has to contribute to the career of the boxer, or some hit song expert or other whose rise to fame is being glorified. The deception is not that the culture industry supplies amusement but that it ruins the fun by allowing business considerations to involve it in the ideological clichés of a culture in the process of self-liquidation. Ethics and taste cut short unrestrained amusement as “na-ïve”—naïveté is thought to be as bad as intellectualism—and even restrict technical possibilities. The culture industry is corrupt: not because it is a sinful Babylon but because it is a cathedral dedicated to elevated pleasure. On all levels, from Hemingway to Emil Ludwig, from Mrs. Miniver to the Lone Ranger, from Toscanini to Guy Lombardo, there is untruth in the intellectual content taken ready-made from art and science. The culture industry does retain a trace of something better in those features which bring it close to the circus, in the self-justifying and nonsensical skill of riders, acrobats and clowns, in the “defense and justification of


physical as against intellectual art.”2 But the refuges of a mindless artistry which represents what is human as opposed to the social mechanism are being relentlessly hunted down by a schematic reason which compels everything to prove its significance and effect. The consequence is that the nonsensical at the bottom disappears as utterly as the sense in works of art at the top.

The fusion of culture and entertainment that is taking place today leads not only to a depravation of culture, but inevitably to an intellectualization of amusement. This is evident from the fact that only the copy appears: in the movie theater, the photograph; on the radio, the recording. In the age of liberal expansion, amusement lived on the unshaken belief in the future: things would remain as they were and even improve. Today this belief is once more intellectualized; it becomes so faint that it loses sight of any goal and is little more than a magic-lantern show for those with their backs to reality. It consists of the meaningful emphases which, parallel to life itself, the screen play puts on the smart fellow, the engineer, the capable girl, ruthlessness disguised as character, interest in sport, and finally automobiles and cigarettes, even where the entertainment is not put down to the advertising account of the immediate producers but to that of the system as a whole. Amusement itself becomes an ideal, taking the place of the higher things of which it completely deprives the masses by repeating them in a manner even more stereotyped than the slogans paid for by advertising interests. Inwardness, the subjectively restricted form of truth, was always more at the mercy of the outwardly powerful than they imagined. The culture industry turns it into an open lie. It has now become mere twaddle which is acceptable in religious bestsellers, psychological films, and women’s serials as an embarrassingly agreeable garnish, so that genuine personal emotion in real life can be all the more reliably controlled. In this sense amusement carries out that purgation of the emotions which Aristotle once attributed to tragedy and Mortimer Adler now allows to movies. The culture industry reveals the truth about catharsis as it did about style.


The stronger the positions of the culture industry become, the more summarily it can deal with consumers’ needs, producing them, controlling them, disciplining them, and even withdrawing amusement: no limits are set to cultural progress of this kind. But the tendency is immanent in the principle of amusement itself, which is enlightened in a bourgeois sense. If the need for amusement was in large measure the creation of industry, which used the subject as a means of recommending the work to the masses—the oleograph by the dainty morsel it depicted, or the cake mix by a picture of a cake—amusement always reveals the influence of business, the sales talk, the quack’s spiel. But the original affinity of business and amusement is shown in the latter’s specific significance: to defend society. To be pleased means to say Yes. It is possible only by insulation from the totality of the social process, by desensitization and, from the first, by senselessly sacrificing the inescapable claim of every work, however inane, within its limits to reflect the whole. Pleasure always means not to think about anything, to forget suffering even where it is shown. Basically it is helplessness. It is flight; not, as is asserted, flight from a wretched reality, but from the last remaining thought of resistance. The liberation which amusement promises is freedom from thought and from negation. The effrontery of the rhetorical question “What do people want?” lies in the fact that it is addressed—as if to reflective individuals—to those very people who are deliberately to be deprived of this individuality. Even when the public does— exceptionally—rebel against the pleasure industry, all it can muster is that feeble resistance which that very industry has inculcated in it. Nevertheless, it has become increasingly difficult to keep people in this condition. The rate at which they are reduced to stupidity must not fall behind the rate at which their intelligence is increasing. In this age of statistics the masses are too sharp to identify themselves with the millionaire on the screen, and too slow-witted to ignore the law of the largest number. Ideology conceals itself in the calculation of probabilities. Not everyone will be lucky one


day—but the person who draws the winning ticket, or rather the one who is marked out to do so by a higher power— usually by the pleasure industry itself, which is represented as unceasingly in search of talent. Those discovered by talent scouts and then publicized on a vast scale by the studio are ideal types of the new dependent average. Of course, the starlet is meant to symbolize the typist in such a way that the splendid evening dress seems meant for the actress as distinct from the real girl. The girls in the audience not only feel that they could be on the screen, but realize the great gulf separating them from it. Only one girl can draw the lucky ticket, only one man can win the prize, and if, mathematically, all have the same chance, yet this is so infinitesimal for each one that he or she will do best to write it off and rejoice in the other’s success, which might just as well have been his or hers, and somehow never is. Whenever the culture industry still issues an invitation naïvely to identify, it is immediately withdrawn. No one can escape from himself anymore. Once a member of the audience could see his own wedding in the one shown in the film. Now the lucky actors on the screen are copies of the same category as every member of the public, but such equality only demonstrates the insurmountable separation of the human elements. The perfect similarity is the absolute difference. The identity of the category forbids that of the individual cases. Ironically, man as a member of a species has been made a reality by the culture industry. Now any person signifies only those attributes by which he can replace everybody else: he is interchangeable, a copy. As an individual he is completely expendable and utterly insignificant, and this is just what he finds out when time deprives him of this similarity. This changes the inner structure of the religion of success—otherwise strictly maintained. Increasing emphasis is laid not on the path per aspera ad astra (which presupposes hardship and effort), but on winning a prize. The element of blind chance in the routine decision about which song deserves to be a hit and which extra a heroine is stressed by the ideology. Movies emphasize chance. By stopping at nothing to ensure that all


the characters are essentially alike, with the exception of the villain, and by excluding nonconforming faces (for example, those which, like Garbo’s, do not look as if you could say “Hello sister!” to them), life is made easier for moviegoers at first. They are assured that they are all right as they are, that they could do just as well and that nothing beyond their powers will be asked of them. But at the same time they are given a hint that any effort would be useless because even bourgeois luck no longer has any connection with the calculable effect of their own work. They take the hint. Fundamentally they all recognize chance (by which one occasionally makes his fortune) as the other side of planning. Precisely because the forces of society are so deployed in the direction of rationality that anyone might become an engineer or manager, it has ceased entirely to be a rational matter who the one will be in whom society will invest training or confidence for such functions. Chance and planning become one and the same thing, because, given men’s equality, individual success and failure—right up to the top—lose any economic meaning. Chance itself is planned, not because it affects any particular individual but precisely because it is believed to play a vital part. It serves the planners as an alibi, and makes it seem that the complex of transactions and measures into which life has been transformed leaves scope for spontaneous and direct relations between man. This freedom is symbolized in the various media of the culture industry by the arbitrary selection of average individuals. In a magazine’s detailed accounts of the modestly magnificent pleasure-trips it has arranged for the lucky person, preferably a stenotypist (who has probably won the competition because of her contacts with local bigwigs), the powerlessness of all is reflected. They are mere matter—so much so that those in control can take someone up into their heaven and throw him out again: his rights and his work count for nothing. Industry is interested in people merely as customers and employees, and has in fact reduced mankind as a whole and each of its elements to this all-embracing formula. According to the ruling aspect at the time, ideology emphasizes plan or


chance, technology or life, civilization or nature. As employees, men are reminded of the rational organization and urged to fit in like sensible people. As customers, the freedom of choice, the charm of novelty, is demonstrated to them on the screen or in the press by means of the human and personal anecdote. In either case they remain objects.

The less the culture industry has to promise, the less it can offer a meaningful explanation of life, and the emptier is the ideology it disseminates. Even the abstract ideals of the harmony and beneficence of society are too concrete in this age of universal publicity. We have even learned how to identify abstract concepts as sales propaganda. Language based entirely on truth simply arouses impatience to get on with the business deal it is probably advancing. The words that are not means appear senseless; the others seem to be fiction, untrue. Value judgments are taken either as advertising or as empty talk. Accordingly ideology has been made vague and noncommittal, and thus neither clearer nor weaker. Its very vagueness, its almost scientific aversion from committing itself to anything which cannot be verified, acts as an instrument of domination. It becomes a vigorous and prearranged promulgation of the status quo. The culture industry tends to make itself the embodiment of authoritative pronouncements, and thus the irrefutable prophet of the prevailing order. It skillfully steers a winding course between the cliffs of demonstrable misinformation and manifest truth, faithfully reproducing the phenomenon whose opaqueness blocks any insight and installs the ubiquitous and intact phenomenon as ideal. Ideology is split into the photograph of stubborn life and the naked lie about its meaning—which is not expressed but suggested and yet drummed in. To demonstrate its divine nature, reality is always repeated in a purely cynical way. Such a photological proof is of course not stringent, but it is overpowering. Anyone who doubts the power of monotony is a fool. The culture industry refutes the objection made against it just as well as that against the world which it impartially duplicates. The only choice is either to join in or to be left behind: those provincials who have recourse to eternal beauty and the amateur stage in


preference to the cinema and the radio are already— politically—at the point to which mass culture drives its supporters. It is sufficiently hardened to deride as ideology, if need be, the old wish-fulfillments, the father-ideal and absolute feeling. The new ideology has as its objects the world as such. It makes use of the worship of facts by no more than elevating a disagreeable existence into the world of facts in representing it meticulously. This transference makes existence itself a substitute for meaning and right. Whatever the camera reproduces is beautiful. The disappointment of the prospect that one might be the typist who wins the world trip is matched by the disappointing appearance of the accurately photographed areas which the voyage might include. Not Italy is offered, but evidence that it exists. A film can even go so far as to show the Paris in which the American girl thinks she will still her desire as a hopelessly desolate place, thus driving her the more inexorably into the arms of the smart American boy she could have met at home anyhow. That this goes on, that, in its most recent phase, the system itself reproduces the life of those of whom it consists instead of immediately doing away with them, is even put down to its credit as giving it meaning and worth. Continuing and continuing to join in are given as justification for the blind persistence of the system and even for its immutability. What repeats itself is healthy, like the natural or industrial cycle. The same babies grin eternally out of the magazines; the jazz machine will pound away forever. In spite of all the progress in reproduction techniques, in controls and the specialities, and in spite of all the restless industry, the bread which the culture industry offers man is the stone of the stereotype. It draws on the life cycle, on the well-founded amazement that mothers, in spite of everything, still go on bearing children and that the wheels still do not grind to a halt. This serves to confirm the immutability of circumstances. The ears of corn blowing in the wind at the end of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator give the lie to the anti-Fascist plea for freedom. They are like the blond hair of the German girl whose camp life is photographed by the Nazi film company in the summer


breeze. Nature is viewed by the mechanism of social domination as a healthy contrast to society, and is therefore denatured. Pictures showing green trees, a blue sky, and moving clouds make these aspects of nature into so many cryptograms for factory chimneys and service stations. On the other hand, wheels and machine components must seem expressive, having been degraded to the status of agents of the spirit of trees and clouds. Nature and technology are mobilized against all opposition; and we have a falsified memento of liberal society, in which people supposedly wallowed in erotic plush-lined bedrooms instead of taking open-air baths as in the case today, or experiencing breakdowns in prehistoric Benz models instead of shooting off with the speed of a rocket from A (where one is anyhow) to B (where everything is just the same). The triumph of the gigantic concern over the initiative of the entrepreneur is praised by the culture industry as the persistence of entrepreneurial initiative. The enemy who is already defeated, the thinking individual, is the enemy fought. The resurrection in Germany of the anti-bourgeois “Haus Sonnenstösser,” and the pleasure felt when watching Life with Father, have one and the same meaning. . . .


1 Nietzsche, Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen, Werke, Vol. i (Leipzig, 1917), p. 187. 2 Frank Wedekind, Gesammelte Werke, Vol. IX (Munich, 1921), p. 426.




John Kenneth Galbraith The notion that wants do not become less urgent the more amply the individual is supplied is broadly repugnant to common sense. It is something to be believed only by those who wish to believe. Yet the conventional wisdom must be tackled on its own terrain. Intertemporal comparisons of an individual’s state of mind do rest on technically vulnerable ground. Who can say for sure that the deprivation which afflicts him with hunger is more painful than the deprivation which afflicts him with envy of his neighbor’s new car? In the time that has passed since he was poor, his soul may have become subject to a new and deeper searing. And where a society is concerned, comparisons between marginal satisfactions when it is poor and those when it is affluent will involve not only the same individual at different times but different individuals at different times. The scholar who wishes to believe that with increasing affluence there is no reduction in the urgency of desires and goods is not without points for debate. However plausible the case against him, it cannot be proven. In the defense of the conventional wisdom, this amounts almost to invulnerability.

However, there is a flaw in the case. If the individual’s wants are to be urgent, they must be original with himself. They cannot be urgent if they must be contrived for him. And above all, they must not be contrived by the process of production by which they are satisfied. For this means that the whole case for the urgency of production, based on the


urgency of wants, falls to the ground. One cannot defend production as satisfying wants if that production creates the wants.

Were it so that a man on arising each morning was assailed by demons which instilled in him a passion sometimes for silk shirts, sometimes for kitchenware, sometimes for chamber pots, and sometimes for orange squash, there would be every reason to applaud the effort to find the goods, however odd, that quenched this flame. But should it be that his passion was the result of his first having cultivated the demons, and should it also be that his effort to allay it stirred the demons to ever greater and greater effort, there would be question as to how rational was his solution. Unless restrained by conventional attitudes, he might wonder if the solution lay with more goods or fewer demons.

So it is that if production creates the wants it seeks to satisfy, or if the wants emerge pari passu with the production, then the urgency of the wants can no longer be used to defend the urgency of the production. Production only fills a void that it has itself created.


The point is so central that it must be pressed. Consumer wants can have bizarre, frivolous or even immoral origins, and an admirable case can still be made for a society that seeks to satisfy them. But the case cannot stand if it is the process of satisfying wants that creates the wants. For then the individual who urges the importance of production to satisfy these wants is precisely in the position of the onlooker who applauds the efforts of the squirrel to keep abreast of the wheel that is propelled by his own efforts.

That wants are, in fact, the fruit of production will now be denied by few serious scholars. And a considerable number of economists, though not always in full knowledge of the implications, have conceded the point. Keynes noted that needs of “the second class,” i.e., those that are the result of


efforts to keep abreast or ahead of one’s fellow being, “may indeed be insatiable; for the higher the general level, the higher still are they.”I And emulation has always played a considerable role in the views of other economists of want creation. One man’s consumption becomes his neighbor’s wish. This already means that the process by which wants are satisfied is also the process by which wants are created. The more wants that are satisfied, the more new ones are born.

However, the argument has been carried farther. A leading modern theorist of consumer behavior, Professor James Duesenberry, has stated explicitly that “ours is a society in which one of the principal social goals is a higher standard of living . . . [This] has great significance for the theory of consumption . . . the desire to get superior goods takes on a life of its own. It provides a drive to higher expenditure which may even be stronger than that arising out of the needs which are supposed to be satisfied by that expenditure.”2 The implications of this view are impressive. The notion of independently established need now sinks into the background. Because the society sets great store by ability to produce a high living standard, it evaluates people by the products they possess. The urge to consume is fathered by the value system which emphasizes the ability of the society to produce. The more that is produced, the more that must be owned in order to maintain the appropriate prestige. The latter is an important point, for, without going as far as Duesenberry in reducing goods to the role of symbols of prestige in the affluent society, it is plain that his argument fully implies that the production of goods creates the wants that the goods are presumed to satisfy.3


The even more direct link between production and wants is provided by the institutions of modern advertising and salesmanship. These cannot be reconciled with the notion of


independently determined desires, for their central function is to create desires—to bring into being wants that previously did not exist.4 This is accomplished by the producer of the goods or at his behest. A broad empirical relationship exists between what is spent on production of consumer goods and what is spent in synthesizing the desires for that production. A new consumer product must be introduced with a suitable advertising campaign to arouse an interest in it. The path for an expansion of output must be paved by a suitable expansion in the advertising budget. Outlays for the manufacturing of a product are not more important in the strategy of modern business enterprise than outlays for the manufacturing of demand for the product. None of this is novel. All would be regarded as elementary by the most retarded student in the nation’s most primitive school of business administration. The cost of this want formation is formidable. In 1987, total advertising expenditure—though, as noted, not all of it may be assigned to the synthesis of wants—amounted to approximately one hundred and ten billion dollars. The increase in previous years was by an estimated six billion dollars a year. Obviously, such outlays must be integrated with the theory of consumer demand. They are too big to be ignored.

But such integration means recognizing that wants are dependent on production. It accords to the producer the function both of making the goods and of making the desires for them. It recognizes that production, not only passively through emulation, but actively through advertising and related activities, creates the wants it seeks to satisfy.

The businessman and the lay reader will be puzzled over the emphasis which I give to a seemingly obvious point. The point is indeed obvious. But it is one which, to a singular degree, economists have resisted. They have sensed, as the layman does not, the damage to established ideas which lurks in these relationships. As a result, incredibly, they have closed their eyes (and ears) to the most obtrusive of all economic phenomena, namely, modern want creation.

This is not to say that the evidence affirming the dependence of wants on advertising has been entirely


ignored. It is one reason why advertising has so long been regarded with such uneasiness by economists. Here is something which cannot be accommodated easily to existing theory. More pervious scholars have speculated on the urgency of desires which are so obviously the fruit of such expensively contrived campaigns for popular attention. Is a new breakfast cereal or detergent so much wanted if so much must be spent to compel in the consumer the sense of want? But there has been little tendency to go on to examine the implications of this for the theory of consumer demand and even less for the importance of production and productive efficiency. These have remained sacrosanct. More often, the uneasiness has been manifested in a general disapproval of advertising and advertising men, leading to the occasional suggestion that they shouldn’t exist. Such suggestions have usually been ill received in the advertising business.

And so the notion of independently determined wants still survives. In the face of all the forces of modern salesmanship, it still rules, almost undefiled, in the textbooks. And it still remains the economist’s mission—and on few matters is the pedagogy so firm—to seek unquestionably the means for filling these wants. This being so, production remains of prime urgency. We have here, perhaps, the ultimate triumph of the conventional wisdom in its resistance to the evidence of the eyes. To equal it, one must imagine a humanitarian who was long ago persuaded of the grievous shortage of hospital facilities in the town. He continues to importune the passersby for money for more beds and refuses to notice that the town doctor is deftly knocking over pedestrians with his car to keep up the occupancy.

And in unraveling the complex, we should always be careful not to overlook the obvious. The fact that wants can be synthesized by advertising, catalyzed by salesmanship, and shaped by the discreet manipulations of the persuaders shows that they are not very urgent. A man who is hungry need never be told of his need for food. If he is inspired by his appetite, he is immune to the influence of Messrs. Batten,


Barton, Durstine & Osborn. The latter are effective only with those who are so far removed from physical want that they do not already know what they want. In this state alone, men are open to persuasion.


The general conclusion of these pages is of such importance for this essay that it had perhaps best be put with some formality. As a society becomes increasingly affluent, wants are increasingly created by the process by which they are satisfied. This may operate passively. Increases in consumption, the counterpart of increases in production, act by suggestion or emulation to create wants. Expectation rises with attainment. Or producers may proceed actively to create wants through advertising and salesmanship. Wants thus come to depend on output. In technical terms, it can no longer be assumed that welfare is greater at an all-round higher level of production than a lower one. It may be the same. The higher level of production has, merely, a higher level of want creation necessitating a higher level of want satisfaction. There will be frequent occasion to refer to the way wants depend on the process by which they are satisfied. It will be convenient to call it the Dependence Effect.

We may now contemplate briefly the conclusions to which this analysis has brought us.

Plainly, the theory of consumer demand is a peculiarly treacherous friend of the present goals of economics. At first glance, it seems to defend the continuing urgency of production and our preoccupation with it as a goal. The economist does not enter into the dubious moral arguments about the importance or virtue of the wants to be satisfied. He doesn’t pretend to compare mental states of the same or different people at different times and to suggest that one is less urgent than another. The desire is there. That for him is sufficient. He sets about in a workmanlike way to satisfy desire, and accordingly, he sets the proper store by the


production that does. Like woman’s, his work is never done. But this rationalization, handsomely though it seems to

serve, turns destructively on those who advance it once it is conceded that wants are themselves both passively and deliberately the fruits of the process by which they are satisfied. Then the production of goods satisfies the wants that the consumption of these goods creates or that the producers of goods synthesize. Production induces more wants and the need for more production. So far, in a major tour de force, the implications have been ignored. But this obviously is a perilous solution. It cannot long survive discussion.

Among the many models of the good society, no one has urged the squirrel wheel. Moreover, the wheel is not one that revolves with perfect smoothness. Aside from its dubious cultural charm, there are serious structural weaknesses which may one day embarrass us. For the moment, however, it is sufficient to reflect on the difficult terrain which we are traversing. We have seen how deeply we are committed to production for reasons of economic security. Not the goods but the employment provided by their production was the thing by which we set ultimate store. Now we find our concern for goods further undermined. It does not arise in spontaneous consumer need. Rather, the dependence effect means that it grows out of the process of production itself. If production is to increase, the wants must be effectively contrived. In the absence of the contrivance, the increase would not occur. This is not true of all goods, but that it is true of a substantial part is sufficient. It means that since the demand for this part would not exist, were it not contrived, its utility or urgency, ex contrivance, is zero. If we regard this production as marginal, we may say that the marginal utility of present aggregate output, ex advertising and salesmanship, is zero. Clearly the attitudes and values which make production the central achievement of our society have some exceptionally twisted roots.

Perhaps the thing most evident of all is how new and varied become the problems we must ponder when we break the nexus with the work of Ricardo and face the economics of


affluence of the world in which we live. It is easy to see why the conventional wisdom resists so stoutly such change. It is far, far better and much safer to have a firm anchor in nonsense than to put out on the troubled seas of thought.


1 J. M. Keynes, Essays in Persuasion, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” (London: Macmillan, 1931), p. 365. 2 James S. Duesenberry, Income, Saving and the Theory of Consumer Behavior (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1949), p. 28. 3 A more recent and definitive study of consumer demand has added even more support. Professors Houthakker and Taylor, in a statistical study of the determinants of demand, found that for most products price and income, the accepted determinants, were less important than past consumption of the product. This “psychological stock,” as they called it, concedes the weakness of traditional theory; current demand cannot be explained without recourse to past consumption. Such demand nurtures the need for its own increase. H. S. Houthakker and L. D. Taylor, Consumer Demand in the United States, 2nd ed., enlarged (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970). 4 Advertising is not a simple phenomenon. It is also important in competitive strategy and want creation is, ordinarily, a complementary result of efforts to shift the demand curve of the individual firm at the expense of others or (less importantly, I think) to change its shape by increasing the degree of product differentiation. Some of the failure of economists to identify advertising with want creation may be attributed to the undue attention that its use in purely competitive strategy has attracted. It should be noted, however, that the competitive manipulation of consumer desire is only possible, at least on any appreciable scale, when such need is not strongly felt.




Betty Friedan Some months ago, as I began to fit together the puzzle of women’s retreat to home, I had the feeling I was missing something. I could trace the routes by which sophisticated thought circled back on itself to perpetuate an obsolete image of femininity; I could see how that image meshed with prejudice and misinterpreted frustrations to hide the emptiness of “Occupation: housewife” from women themselves.

But what powers it all? If, despite the nameless desperation of so many American housewives, despite the opportunities open to all women now, so few have any purpose in life other than to be a wife and mother, somebody, something pretty powerful must be at work. The energy behind the feminist movement was too dynamic merely to have trickled dry; it must have been turned off, diverted, by something more powerful than that underestimated power of women.

There are certain facts of life so obvious and mundane that one never talks about them. Only the child blurts out: “Why do people in books never go to the toilet?” Why is it never said that the really crucial function, the really important role that women serve as housewives is to buy more things for the house. In all the talk of femininity and woman’s role, one forgets that the real business of America is business. But the perpetuation of house-wifery, the growth of the feminine mystique, makes sense (and dollars) when one realizes that


women are the chief customers of American business. Somehow, somewhere, someone must have figured out that women will buy more things if they are kept in the underused, nameless-yearning, energy-to-get-rid-of state of being housewives.

I have no idea how it happened. Decision-making in industry is not as simple, as rational, as those who believe the conspiratorial theories of history would have it. I am sure the heads of General Foods, and General Electric, and General Motors, and Macy’s and Gimbel’s and the assorted directors of all the companies that make detergents and electric mixers, and red stoves with rounded corners, and synthetic furs, and waxes, and hair coloring, and patterns for home sewing and home carpentry, and lotions for detergent hands, and bleaches to keep the towels pure white, never sat down around a mahogany conference table in a board room on Madison Avenue or Wall Street and voted on a motion: “Gentlemen, I move, in the interests of all, that we begin a concerted fifty-billion dollar campaign to stop this dangerous movement of American women out of the home. We’ve got to keep them housewives, and let’s not forget it.”

A thinking vice-president says: “Too many women getting educated. Don’t want to stay home. Unhealthy. If they all get to be scientists and such, they won’t have time to shop. But how can we keep them home? They want careers now.”

“We’ll liberate them to have careers at home,” the new executive with horn-rimmed glasses and the Ph.D. in psychology suggests. “We’ll make home-making creative.”

Of course, it didn’t happen quite like that. It was not an economic conspiracy directed against women. It was a byproduct of our general confusion lately of means with ends; just something that happened to women when the business of producing and selling and investing in business for profit—which is merely the way our economy is organized to serve man’s needs efficiently—began to be confused with the purpose of our nation, the end of life itself. No more surprising, the subversion of women’s lives in America to the ends of business, than the subversion of the sciences of human behavior to the business of deluding women about


their real needs. It would take a clever economist to figure out what would keep our affluent economy going if the housewife market began to fall off, just as an economist would have to figure out what to do if there were no threat of war.

It is easy to see why it happened. I learned how it happened when I went to see a man who is paid approximately a million dollars a year for his professional services in manipulating the emotions of American women to serve the needs of business. This particular man got in on the ground floor of the hidden-persuasion business in 1945, and kept going. The headquarters of his institute for motivational manipulation is a baronial mansion in upper Westchester. The walls of a ballroom two-stories high are filled with steel shelves holding a thousand-odd studies for business and industry, 300,000 individual “depth interviews,” mostly with American housewives.1

He let me see what I wanted, said I could use anything that was not confidential to a specific company. Nothing there for anyone to hide, to feel guilty about—only, in page after page of those depth studies, a shrewd cheerful awareness of the empty, purposeless, uncreative, even sexually joyless lives that most American housewives lead. In his own unabashed terms, this most helpful of hidden persuaders showed me the function served by keeping American women housewives— the reservoir that their lack of identity, lack of purpose, creates, to be manipulated into dollars at the point of purchase.

Properly manipulated (“if you are not afraid of that word,” he said), American housewives can be given the sense of identity, purpose, creativity, the self-realization, even the sexual joy they lack—by the buying of things. I suddenly realized the significance of the boast that women wield seventy-five percent of the purchasing power in America. I suddenly saw American women as victims of that ghastly gift, that power at the point of purchase. The insights he shared with me so liberally revealed many things. . . . The dilemma of business was spelled out in a survey made in


1945 for the publisher of a leading women’s magazine on the attitudes of women toward electrical appliances. The message was considered of interest to all the companies that, with the war about to end, were going to have to make consumer sales take the place of war contracts. It was a study of “the psychology of housekeeping”; “a woman’s attitude toward housekeeping appliances cannot be separated from her attitude toward homemaking in general,” it warned.

On the basis of a national sample of 4,500 wives (middle- class, highschool or college-educated), American women were divided into three categories. “The True Housewife Type,” “The Career Woman,” and “The Balanced Homemaker.” While 51 percent of the women then fitted “The True Housewife Type” (“From the psychological point of view, housekeeping is this woman’s dominating interest. She takes the utmost pride and satisfaction in maintaining a comfortable and well-run home for her family. Consciously or subconsciously, she feels that she is indispensable and that no one else can take over her job. She has little, if any, desire for a position outside the home, and if she has one it is through force or circumstances or necessity”), it was apparent that this group was diminishing, and probably would continue to do so as new fields, interests, education were now open to women.

The largest market for appliances, however, was this “True Housewife”—though she had a certain “reluctance” to accept new devices that had to be recognized and overcome. (“She may even fear that they [appliances] will render unnecessary the old-fashioned way of doing things that has always suited her.”) After all, housework was the justification for her whole existence. (“I don’t think there is any way to make housework easier for myself,” one True Housewife said, “because I don’t believe that a machine can take the place of hard work.”)

The second type—The Career Woman or Would-Be Career Woman—was a minority, but an extremely “unhealthy” one from the sellers’ standpoint; advertisers were warned that it would be to their advantage not to let this group get any larger. For such women, though not necessarily job-holders,


“do not believe that a woman’s place is primarily in the home.” (“Many in this group have never actually worked, but their attitude is: ‘I think housekeeping is a horrible waste of time. If my youngsters were old enough and I were free to leave the house, I would use my time to better advantage. If my family’s meals and laundry could be taken care of, I would be delighted to go out and get a job.’ ”) The point to bear in mind regarding career women, the study said, is that, while they buy modern appliances, they are not the ideal type of customer. They are too critical.

The third type—“The Balanced Homemaker”—is “from the market standpoint, the ideal type.” She has some outside interests, or has held a job before turning exclusively to homemaking; she “readily accepts” the help mechanical appliances can give—but “does not expect them to do the impossible” because she needs to use her own executive ability “in managing a well-run household.”

The moral of the study was explicit: “Since the Balanced Homemaker represents the market with the greatest future potential, it would be to the advantage of the appliance manufacturer to make more and more women aware of the desirability of belonging to this group. Educate them through advertising that it is possible to have outside interests and become alert to wider intellectual influences (without becoming a Career Woman). The art of good homemaking should be the goal of every normal woman.”

The problem—which, if recognized at that time by one hidden persuader for the home-appliance industry, was surely recognized by others with products for the home—was that “a whole new generation of women is being educated to do work outside the home. Furthermore, an increased desire for emancipation is evident.” The solution, quite simply, was to encourage them to be “modern” housewives. The Career or Would-Be Career Woman who frankly dislikes cleaning, dusting, ironing, washing clothes, is less interested in a new wax, a new soap powder. Unlike “The True Housewife” and the “Balanced Homemaker” who prefer to have sufficient appliances and do the housework themselves, the Career Woman would “prefer servants—housework takes too much


time and energy.” She buys appliances, however, whether or not she has servants, but she is “more likely to complain about the service they give,” and to be “harder to sell.”

It was too late—impossible—to turn these modern could-or- would-be career women back into True Housewives, but the study pointed out, in 1945, the potential for Balanced House- wifery—the home career. Let them “want to have their cake and eat it too . . . save time, have more comfort, avoid dirt and disorder, have mechanized supervision, yet not want to give up the feeling of personal achievement and pride in a well-run household, which comes from ‘doing it yourself.’ As one young housewife said: ‘It’s nice to be modern—it’s like running a factory in which you have all the latest machinery.’ ”

But it was not an easy job, either for business or advertisers. New gadgets that were able to do almost all the housework crowded the market; increased ingenuity was needed to give American women that “feeling of achievement,” and yet keep housework their main purpose in life. Education, independence, growing individuality, everything that made them ready for other purposes had constantly to be countered, channeled back to the home.

The manipulator’s services became increasingly valuable. In later surveys, he no longer interviewed professional women; they were not at home during the day. The women in his samples were deliberately True or Balanced Housewives, the new suburban housewives. Household and consumer products are, after all, geared to women; seventy-five percent of all consumer advertising budgets is spent to appeal to women; that is, to housewives, the women who are available during the day to be interviewed, the women with the time for shopping. Naturally, his depth interviews, projective tests, “living laboratories,” were designed to impress his clients, but more often than not they contained the shrewd insights of a skilled social scientist, insights that could be used with profit.

His clients were told they had to do something about this growing need of American women to do creative work—“the major unfulfilled need of the modern housewife.” He wrote in


one report, for example: Every effort must be made to sell X Mix, as a base upon which the woman’s creative effort is used.

The appeal should emphasize the fact that X Mix aids the woman in expressing her creativity because it takes the drudgery away. At the same time, stress should be laid upon the cooking manipulations, the fun that goes with them, permitting you to feel that X Mix baking is real baking.

But the dilemma again: how to make her spend money on the mix that takes some of the drudgery out of baking by telling her “she can utilize her energy where it really counts”—and yet keep her from being “too busy to bake”? (“I don’t use the mix because I don’t do any baking at all. It’s too much trouble. I live in a sprawled-out apartment and what with keeping it clean and looking after my child and my part- time job, I don’t have time for baking.”) What to do about their “feeling of disappointment” when the biscuits come out of the oven, and they’re really only bread and there is no feeling of creative achievement? (“Why should I bake my own biscuits when there are so many good things on the market that just need to be heated up? It just doesn’t make any sense at all to go through all the trouble of mixing your own and then greasing the tin and baking them.”) What to do when the woman doesn’t get the feeling her mother got, when the cake had to be made from scratch? (“The way my mother made them, you had to sift the flour yourself and add the eggs and the butter and you knew you’d really made something you could be proud of.”)

The problem can be handled, the report assured: By using X Mix the woman can prove herself as a wife and mother, not only by baking, but by spending more time with her family. . . . Of course, it must also be made clear that home-baked foods are in every way preferable to bakery-shop foods . . .

Above all, give X Mix “a therapeutic value” by downplaying the easy recipes, emphasizing instead “the stimulating effort


of baking.” From an advertising viewpoint, this means stressing that “with X Mix in the home, you will be a different woman . . . a happier woman.”

Further, the client was told that a phrase in his ad “and you make that cake the easiest, laziest way there is” evoked a “negative response” in American housewives—it hit too close to their “underlying guilt.” (“Since they never feel that they are really exerting sufficient effort, it is certainly wrong to tell them that baking with X Mix is the lazy way.”) Supposing, he suggested, that this devoted wife and mother behind the kitchen stove, anxiously preparing a cake or pie for her husband or children “is simply indulging her own hunger for sweets.” The very fact that baking is work for the housewife helps her dispel any doubts that she might have about her real motivations.

But there are even ways to manipulate the housewives’ guilt, the report said:

It might be possible to suggest through advertising that not to take advantage of all 12. uses of X Mix is to limit your efforts to give pleasure to your family. A transfer of guilt might be achieved. Rather than feeling guilty about using X Mix for dessert food, the woman would be made to feel guilty if she doesn’t take advantage of this opportunity to give her family 12 different and delicious treats. “Don’t waste your skill; don’t limit yourself.”

By the mid-fifties, the surveys reported with pleasure that the Career Woman (“the woman who clamored for equality— almost for identity in every sphere of life, the woman who reacted to ‘domestic slavery’ with indignation and vehemence”) was gone, replaced by the “less worldly, less sophisticated” woman whose activity in PTA gives her “broad contacts with the world outside her home,” but who “finds in housework a medium of expression for her femininity and individuality.” She’s not like the old-fashioned self-sacrificing housewife; she considers herself the equal of man. But she still feels “lazy, neglectful, haunted by guilt feelings” because she doesn’t have enough work to do. The advertiser must


manipulate her need for a “feeling of creativeness” into the buying of his product.

After an initial resistance, she now tends to accept instant coffee, frozen foods, precooked foods, and labor-saving items as part of her routine. But she needs a justification and she finds it in the thought that “by using frozen foods I’m freeing myself to accomplish other important tasks as a modern mother and wife.”

Creativeness is the modern woman’s dialectical answer to the problem of her changed position in the household. Thesis: I’m a housewife. Antithesis: I hate drudgery. Synthesis: I’m creative!

This means essentially that even though the housewife may buy canned food, for instance, and thus save time and effort, she doesn’t let it go at that. She has a great need for “doctoring up” the can and thus prove her personal participation and her concern with giving satisfaction to her family.

The feeling of creativeness also serves another purpose: it is an outlet for the liberated talents, the better taste, the freer imagination, the greater initiative of the modern woman. It permits her to use at home all the faculties that she would display in an outside career.

The yearning for creative opportunities and moments is a major aspect of buying motivations.

The only trouble, the surveys warned, is that she “tries to use her own mind and her own judgment. She is fast getting away from judging by collective or majority standards. She is developing dependent standards.” (“Never mind the neighbors. I don’t want to ‘live up’ to them or compare myself to them at every turn.”) She can’t always be reached now with “keep up with the Joneses”—the advertiser must appeal to her own need to live.

Appeal to this thirst. . . . Tell her that you are adding more zest, more enjoyment to her life, that it is within her reach now to taste new experiences and that she is entitled to taste these experiences. Even more


positively, you should convey that you are giving her “lessons in living.”

“House cleaning should be fun,” the manufacturer of a certain cleaning device was advised. Even though his product was, perhaps, less efficient than the vacuum cleaner, it let the housewife use more of her own energy in the work. Further, it let the housewife have the illusion that she has become “a professional, an expert in determining which cleaning tools to use for specific jobs.”

This professionalization is a psychological defense of the housewife against being a general “cleaner-upper” and menial servant for her family in a day and age of general work emancipation.

The role of expert serves a two-fold emotional function: (I) it helps the housewife achieve status, and (2) she moves beyond the orbit of her home, into the world of modern science in her search for new and better ways of doing things.

As a result, there has never been a more favorable psychological climate for household appliances and products. The modern housewife. . . is actually aggressive in her efforts to find those household products which, in her expert opinion, really meet her need. This trend accounts for the popularity of different waxes and polishes for different materials in the home, for the growing use of floor polishers, and for the variety of mops and cleaning implements for floors and walls.

The difficulty is to give her the “sense of achievement” of “ego enhancement” she has been persuaded to seek in the housewife “profession,” when, in actuality, “her time- consuming task, housekeeping, is not only endless, it is a task for which society hires the lowliest, least-trained, most trod-upon individuals and groups. . . . Anyone with a strong enough back (and a small enough brain) can do these menial chores.” But even this difficulty can be manipulated to sell her more things:


One of the ways that the housewife raises her own prestige as a cleaner of her home is through the use of specialized products for specialized tasks. . . .

When she uses one product for washing clothes, a second for dishes, a third for walls, a fourth for floors, a fifth for venetian blinds, etc., rather than an all- purpose cleaner, she feels less like an unskilled laborer, more like an engineer, an expert.

A second way of raising her own stature is to “do things my way”—to establish an expert’s role for herself by creating her own “tricks of the trade.” For example, she may “always put a bit of bleach in all my washing—even colored, to make them really clean!”

Help her to “justify her menial task by building up her role as the protector of her family—the killer of millions of microbes and germs,” this report advised. “Emphasize her kingpin role in the family . . . help her be an expert rather than a menial worker . . . make housework a matter of knowledge and skill, rather than a matter of brawn and dull, unremitting effort.” An effective way of doing this is to bring out a new product. For, it seems, there’s a growing wave of housewives “who look forward to new products which not only decrease their daily work load, but actually engage their emotional and intellectual interest in the world of scientific development outside the home.”

One gasps in admiration at the ingenuity of it all—the housewife can participate in science itself just by buying something new—or something old that has been given a brand new personality.

Besides increasing her professional status, a new cleaning appliance or product increases a woman’s feeling of economic security and luxury, just as a new automobile does for a man. This was reported by 28 percent of the respondents, who agreed with this particular sentiment: “I like to try out new things. I’ve just started to use a new liquid detergent—and somehow it makes me feel like a queen.”

The question of letting the woman use her mind and even


participate in science through housework is, however, not without its drawbacks. Science should not relieve housewives of too much drudgery; it must concentrate instead on creating the illusion of that sense of achievement that housewives seem to need.

To prove this point, 250 housewives were given a depth test: they were asked to choose among four imaginary methods of cleaning. The first was a completely automatic dust- and dirt-removal system which operated continuously like a home-heating system. The second, the housewife had to press a button to start. The third was portable; she had to carry it around and point it at an area to remove the dirt. The fourth was a brand new, modern object with which she could sweep the dirt away herself. The housewives spoke up in favor of this last appliance. If it “appears new, modern” she would rather have the one that lets her work herself, this report said. “One compelling reason is her desire to be a participant, not just a button-pusher.” As one housewife remarked, “As for some magical push-button cleaning system, well, what would happen to my exercise, my feeling of accomplishment, and what would I do with my mornings?”

This fascinating study incidentally revealed that a certain electronic cleaning appliance—tong considered one of our great laborsavers—actually made “housekeeping more difficult than it need be.” From the response of eighty percent of those housewives, it seemed that once a woman got this appliance going, she “felt compelled to do cleaning that wasn’t really necessary.” The electronic appliance actually dictated the extent and type of cleaning to be done.

Should the housewife then be encouraged to go back to that simple cheap sweeper that let her clean only as much as she felt necessary? No, said the report, of course not. Simply give that old-fashioned sweeper the “status” of the electronic appliance as a “labor-saving necessity” for the modern housewife “and then indicate that the modern homemaker would, naturally, own both.”

No one, not even the depth researchers, denied that housework was endless, and its boring repetition just did not give that much satisfaction, did not require that much


vaunted expert knowledge. But the endlessness of it all was an advantage from the seller’s point of view. The problem was to keep at bay the underlying realization which was lurking dangerously in “thousands of depth interviews which we have conducted for dozens of different kinds of house- cleaning products”—the realization that, as one housewife said, “It stinks! I have to do it, so I do it. It’s a necessary evil, that’s all.” What to do? For one thing, put out more and more products, make the directions more complicated, make it really necessary for the housewife to “be an expert.” (Washing clothes, the report advised, must become more than a matter of throwing clothes into a machine and pouring in soap. Garments must be carefully sorted, one load given treatment A, a second load treatment B, some washed by hand. The housewife can then “take great pride in knowing just which of the arsenal of products to use on each occasion.”)

Capitalize, the report continued, on housewives’ “guilt over the hidden dirt” so she will rip her house to shreds in a “deep cleaning” operation, which will give her a “sense of completeness” for a few weeks. (“The times of thorough cleaning are the points at which she is most willing to try new products and ‘deep clean’ advertising holds out the promise of completion.”)

The seller must also stress the joys of completing each separate task, remembering that “nearly all housekeepers, even those who thoroughly detest their job, paradoxically find escape from their endless fate by accepting it—by ‘throwing myself into it,’ as she says.”

Losing herself in her work—surrounded by all the implements, creams, powders, soaps, she forgets for a time how soon she will have to redo the task. In other words, a housewife permits herself to forget for a moment how rapidly the sink will again fill with dishes, how quickly the floor will again be dirty, and she seizes the moment of completion of a task as a moment of pleasure as pure as if she had just finished a masterpiece of art which would stand as a monument to her credit forever.


This is the kind of creative experience the seller of things can give the housewife. In one housewife’s own words:

I don’t like housework at all. I’m a lousy houseworker. But once in a while I get pepped up and I’ll really go to town . . . When I have some new kind of cleaning material—tike when Glass Wax first came out or those silicone furniture polishes—I got a real kick out of it, and I went through the house shining everything. I like to see the things shine. I feel so good when I see the bathroom just glistening.

And so the manipulator advised: Identify your product with the physical and spiritual rewards she derives from the almost religious feeling of basic security provided by her home. Talk about her “light, happy, peaceful feelings”; her “deep sense of achievement.” . . . But remember she doesn’t really want praise for the sake of praise . . . also remember that her mood is not simply “gay.” She is tired and a bit solemn. Superficially cheerful adjectives or colors will not reflect her feelings. She will react much more favorably to simple, warm and sincere messages.

In the fifties came the revolutionary discovery of the teenage market. Teenagers and young marrieds began to figure prominently in the surveys. It was discovered that young wives, who had only been to high school and had never worked, were more “insecure,” less independent, easier to sell. These young people could be told that, by buying the right things, they could achieve middle-class status, without work or study. The keep-up-with-the-Joneses sell would work again; the individuality and independence which American women had been getting from education and work outside the home was not such a problem with the teenage brides. In fact, the surveys said, if the pattern of “happiness through things” could be established when these women were young enough, they could be safely encouraged to go out and get a part-time job to help their husbands pay for all the things they buy. The main point now was to


convince the teenagers that “happiness through things” is no longer the prerogative of the rich or the talented; it can be enjoyed by all, if they learn “the right way,” the way the others do it, if they learn the embarrassment of being different.

In the words of one of these reports: 49 percent of the new brides were teenagers, and more girls marry at the age of 18 than at any other age. This early family formation yields a larger number of young people who are on the threshold of their own responsibilities and decision-making in purchases . . .

But the most important fact is of a psychological nature: Marriage today is not only the culmination of a romantic attachment; more consciously and more clear- headedly than in the past, it is also a decision to create a partnership in establishing a comfortable home, equipped with a great number of desirable products.

In talking to scores of young couples and brides-to- be, we found that, as a rule, their conversations and dreams centered to a very large degree around their future homes and their furnishings, around shopping “to get an idea,” around discussing the advantages and disadvantages of various products. . . .

The modern bride is deeply convinced of the unique value of married love, of the possibilities of finding real happiness in marriage and of fulfilling her personal destiny in it and through it.

But the engagement period today is a romantic, dreamy and heady period only to a limited extent. It is probably safe to say that the period of engagement tends to be a rehearsal of the material duties and responsibilities of marriage. While waiting for the nuptials, couples work hard, put aside money for definite purchases, or even begin buying on an installment plan.

What is the deeper meaning of this new combination of an almost religious belief in the importance and beauty of married life on the one hand, and the product-centered outlook, on the other? . . .


The modern bride seeks as a conscious goal that which in many cases her grandmother saw as a blind fate and her mother as slavery: to belong to a man, to have a home and children of her own, to choose among all possible careers the career of wife-mother- homemaker.

The fact that the young bride now seeks in her marriage complete “fulfillment,” that she now expects to “prove her own worth” and find all the “fundamental meanings” of life in her home, and to participate through her home in “the interesting ideas of the modern era, the future,” has enormous “practical applications,” advertisers were told. For all these meanings she seeks in her marriage, even her fear that she will be “left behind,” can be channeled into the purchase of products. For example, a manufacturer of sterling silver, a product that is very difficult to sell, was told:

Reassure her that only with sterling can she be fully secure in her new role . . . it symbolizes her success as a modern woman. Above all, dramatize the fun and pride that derive from the job of cleaning silver. Stimulate the pride of achievement. “How much pride you get from the brief task that’s so much fun . . .”

Concentrate on the very young teenage girls, this report further advised. The young ones will want what “the others” want, even if their mothers don’t. (“As one of our teenagers said: ‘All the gang has started their own sets of sterling. We’re real keen about it—compare patterns and go through the ads together. My own family never had any sterling and they think I’m showing off when I spend my money on it— they think plated’s just as good. But the kids think they’re way off base.’ ”) Get them in schools, churches, sororities, social clubs; get them through home-economics teachers, group leaders, teenage TV programs and teenage advertising. “This is the big market of the future and word-of- mouth advertising, along with group pressure, is not only the most potent influence but in the absence of tradition, a most necessary one.”

As for the more independent older wife, that unfortunate


tendency to use materials that require little care—stainiess steel, plastic dishes, paper napkins—can be met by making her feel guilty about the effects on the children. (“As one young wife told us: ‘I’m out of the house all day long, so I can’t prepare and serve meals the way I want to. I don’t like it that way—my husband and the children deserve a better break. Sometimes I think it’d be better if we tried to get along on one salary and have a real home life but there are always so many things we need.’ ”) Such guilt, the report maintained, can be used to make her see the product, silver, as a means of holding the family together; it gives “added psychological value.” What’s more, the product can even fill the housewife’s need for identity: “Suggest that it becomes truly a part of you, reflecting you. Do not be afraid to suggest mystically that sterling will adapt itself to any house and any person.”

The fur industry is in trouble, another survey reported, because young high school and college girls equate fur coats with “uselessness” and “a kept woman.” Again the advice was to get to the very young before these unfortunate connotations have formed. (“By introducing youngsters to positive fur experiences, the probabilities of easing their way into garment purchasing in their teens is enhanced.”) Point out that “the wearing of a fur garment actually establishes femininity and sexuality for a woman.” (“It’s the kind of thing a girl looks forward to. It means something. It’s feminine.” “I’m bringing my daughter up right. She always wants to put on ‘mommy’s coat.’ She’ll want them. She’s a real girl.”) But keep in mind that “mink has contributed a negative feminine symbolism to the whole fur market.” Unfortunately, two out of three women felt mink-wearers were “predatory . . . exploitative . . . dependent . . . socially nonproductive . . .”

Femininity today cannot be so explicitly predatory, exploitative, the report said; nor can it have the old high- fashion “connotations of standout-from-the-crowd, self- centeredness.” And so fur’s “ego-orientation” must be reduced and replaced with the new femininity of the housewife, for whom ego-orientation must be translated into togetherness, family-orientation.


Begin to create the feeling that fur is a necessity—a delightful necessity . . . thus providing the consumer with moral permission to purchase something she now feels is ego-oriented. . . . Give fur femininity a broader character, developing some of the following status and prestige symbols . . . an emotionally happy woman. . . wife and mother who wins the affection and respect of her husband and her children because of the kind of person she is, and the kind of role she performs. . . .

Place furs in a family setting; show the pleasure and admiration of a fur garment derived by family members, husband and children; their pride in their mother’s appearance, in her ownership of a fur garment. Develop fur garments as “family” gifts— enable the whole family to enjoy that garment at Christmas, etc., thus reducing its ego-orientation for the owner and eliminating her guilt over her alleged self-indulgence.

Thus, the only way that the young housewife was supposed to express herself, and not feel guilty about it, was in buying products for the home-and-family. Any creative urges she may have should also be home-and-family oriented, as still another survey reported to the home sewing industry.

Such activities as sewing achieve a new meaning and a new status. Sewing is no longer associated with absolute need. . . . Moreover, with the moral elevation of home-oriented activities, sewing, along with cooking, gardening, and home decorating—is recognized as a means of expressing creativity and individuality and also as a means of achieving the “quality” which a new taste level dictates.

The women who sew, this survey discovered, are the active, energetic, intelligent modern housewives, the new home-oriented modern American women, who have a great unfulfilled need to create, and achieve, and realize their own individuality—which must be filled by some home activity. The big problem for the home-sewing industry was that the “image” of sewing was too “dull”; somehow it didn’t achieve


the feeling of creating something important. In selling their products, the industry must emphasize the “lasting creativeness” of sewing.

But even sewing can’t be too creative, too individual, according to the advice offered to one pattern manufacturer. His patterns required some intelligence to follow, left quite a lot of room for individual expression, and the manufacturer was in trouble for that very reason; his patterns implied that a woman “would know what she likes and would probably have definite ideas.” He was advised to widen this “far too limited fashion personality” and get one with “fashion conformity”—appeal to the “fashion-insecure woman,” “the conformist element in fashion,” who feels “it is not smart to be dressed too differently.” For, of course, the manufacturer’s problem was not to satisfy woman’s need for individuality, for expression or creativity, but to sell more patterns—which is better done by building conformity.

Time and time again, the surveys shrewdly analyzed the needs, and even the secret frustrations of the American housewife; and each time if these needs were properly manipulated, she could be induced to buy more “things.” In 1957, a survey told the department stores that their role in this new world was not only to “sell” the housewife but to satisfy her need for “education”—to satisfy the yearning she has, alone in her house, to feel herself a part of the changing world. The store will sell her more, the report said, if it will understand that the real need she is trying to fill by shopping is not anything she can buy there.

Most women have not only a material need, but a psychological compulsion to visit department stores. They live in comparative isolation. Their vista and experiences are limited. They know that there is a vaster life beyond their horizon and they fear that life will pass them by.

Department stores break down that isolation. The woman entering a department store suddenly has the feeling she knows what is going on in the world. Department stores, more than magazines, TV, or any other medium of mass communication, are most


women’s main source of information about the various aspects of life . . .

There are many needs that the department store must fill, this report continued. For one, the housewife’s “need to learn and to advance in life.”

We symbolize our social position by the objects with which we surround ourselves. A woman whose husband was making $6,000 a few years ago and is making $10,000 now needs to learn a whole new set of symbols. Department stores are her best teachers of this subject.

For another, there is the need for achievement, which for the new modern housewife, is primarily filled by a “bargain.”

We have found that in our economy of abundance, preoccupation with prices is not so much a financial as a psychological need for the majority of women. . . . Increasingly a “bargain” means not that “I can now buy something which I could not afford at a higher price”; it mainly means “I’m doing a good job as a housewife; I’m contributing to the welfare of the family just as my husband does when he works and brings home the paycheck.”

The price itself hardly matters, the report said: Since buying is only the climax of a complicated relationship, based to a large extent on the woman’s yearning to know how to be a more attractive woman, a better housewife, a superior mother, etc., use this motivation in all your promotion and advertising. Take every opportunity to explain how your store will help her fulfill her most cherished roles in life. . .

If the stores are women’s school of life, ads are the textbooks. They have an inexhaustible avidity for these ads which give them the illusion that they are in contact with what is going on in the world of inanimate objects, objects through which they express so much of so many of their drives . . .


Again, in 1957, a survey very correctly reported that despite the “many positive aspects” of the “new home- centered era,” unfortunately too many needs were now centered on the home—that home was not able to fill. A cause for alarm? No indeed; even these needs are grist for manipulation.

The family is not always the psychological pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of promise of modern life as it has sometimes been represented. In fact, psychological demands are being made upon the family today which it cannot fulfill. . . .

Fortunately for the producers and advertisers of America (and also for the family and the psychological well-being of our citizens) much of this gap may be filled, and is being filled, by the acquisition of consumer goods.

Hundreds of products fulfill a whole set of psychological functions that producers and advertisers should know of and use in the development of more effective sales approaches. Just as producing once served as an outlet for social tension, now consumption serves the same purpose.

The buying of things drains away those needs which cannot really be satisfied by home and family—the housewives’ need for “something beyond themselves with which to identify,” “a sense of movement with others toward aims that give meaning and purpose to life,” “an unquestioned social aim to which each individual can devote his efforts.”

Deeply set in human nature is the need to have a meaningful place in a group that strives for meaningful social goals. Whenever this is lacking, the individual becomes restless. Which explains why, as we talk to people across the nation, over and over again, we hear questions like these: “What does it all mean?” “Where am I going?” “Why don’t things seem more worth while and when we all work so hard and have so darn many things to play with?”

The question is: Can your product fill this gap?


“The frustrated need for privacy in the family life,” in this era of “togetherness” was another secret wish uncovered in a depth survey. This need, however, might be used to sell a second car. . . .

In addition to the car the whole family enjoys together, the car for the husband and wife separately—“Alone in the car, one may get the breathing spell one needs so badly and may come to consider the car as one’s castle, or the instrument of one’s reconquered privacy.” Or “individual” “personal” toothpaste, soap, shampoo.

Another survey reported that there was a puzzling “desexualization of married life” despite the great emphasis on marriage and family and sex. The problem: what can supply what the report diagnosed as a “missing sexual spark”? The solution: the report advised sellers to “put the libido back into advertising.” Despite the feeling that our manufacturers are trying to sell everything through sex, sex as found on TV commercials and ads in national magazines is too tame, the report said, too narrow. “Consumerism,” is desexing the American libido because it “has failed to reflect the powerful life forces in every individual which range far beyond the relationship between the sexes.” The sellers, it seemed, have sexed the sex out of sex.

Most modern advertising reflects and grossly exaggerates our present national tendency to downgrade, simplify and water down the passionate turbulent and electrifying aspects of the life urges of mankind. . . . No one suggests that advertising can or should become obscene or salacious. The trouble lies with the fact that through its timidity and lack of imagination, it faces the danger of becoming libido- poor and consequently unreal, inhuman and tedious.

How to put the libido back, restore the lost spontaneity, drive, love of life, the individuality, that sex in America seems to lack? In an absentminded moment, the report concludes that “love of life, as of the other sex, should remain unsoiled by exterior motives . . . let the wife be more than a housewife


. . . a woman . . .” One day, having immersed myself in the varied insights these reports have been giving American advertisers for the last fifteen years, I was invited to have lunch with the man who runs this motivational research operation. He had been so helpful in showing me the commercial forces behind the feminine mystique, perhaps I could be helpful to him. Naively I asked why, since he found it so difficult to give women a true feeling of creativeness and achievement in housework, and tried to assuage their guilt and disillusion and frustrations by getting them to buy more “things”—why didn’t he encourage them to buy things for all they were worth, so they would have time to get out of the home and pursue truly creative goals in the outside world.

“But we have helped her rediscover the home as the expression of her creativeness,” he said. “We help her think of the modern home as the artist’s studio, the scientist’s laboratory. Besides,” he shrugged, “most of the manufacturers we deal with are producing things which have to do with homemaking.”

“In a free enterprise economy,” he went on, “we have to develop the need for new products. And to do that we have to liberate women to desire these new products. We help them rediscover that homemaking is more creative than to compete with men. This can be manipulated. We sell them what they ought to want, speed up the unconscious, move it along. The big problem is to liberate the woman not to be afraid of what is going to happen to her, if she doesn’t have to spend so much time cooking, cleaning.”

“That’s what I mean,” I said. “Why doesn’t the pie-mix ad tell the woman she could use the time saved to be an astronomer?”

“It wouldn’t be too difficult,” he replied. “A few images— the astronomer gets her man, the astronomer as the heroine, make it glamorous for a woman to be an astronomer. . . but no,” he shrugged again. “The client would be too frightened. He wants to sell pie mix. The woman has to want to stay in the kitchen. The manufacturer wants to intrigue her back


into the kitchen—and we show him how to do it the right way. If he tells her that all she can be is a wife and mother, she will spit in his face. But we show him how to tell her that it’s creative to be in the kitchen. We liberate her need to be creative in the kitchen. If we tell her to be an astronomer, she might go too far from the kitchen. Besides,” he added, “if you wanted to have a campaign to liberate women to be astronomers, you’d have to find somebody like the National Education Association to pay for it.” The motivational researchers must be given credit for their insights into the reality of the housewife’s life and needs—a reality that often escaped their colleagues in academic sociology and therapeutic psychology, who saw women through the Freudian-functional veil. To their own profit, and that of their clients, the manipulators discovered that millions of supposedly happy American housewives have complex needs which home-and-family, love-and-children, cannot fill. But by a morality that goes beyond the dollar, the manipulators are guilty of using their insights to sell women things which, no matter how ingenious, will never satisfy those increasingly desperate needs. They are guilty of persuading housewives to stay at home, mesmerized in front of a television set, their nonsexual human needs unnamed, unsatisfied, drained by the sexual sell into the buying of things.

The manipulators and their clients in American business can hardly be accused of creating the feminine mystique. But they are the most powerful of its perpetuators; it is their millions which blanket the land with persuasive images, flattering the American housewife, diverting her guilt and disguising her growing sense of emptiness. They have done this so successfully, employing the techniques and concepts of modern social science, and transposing them into those deceptively simple, clever, outrageous ads and commercials, that an observer of the American scene today accepts as fact that the great majority of American women have no ambition other than to be housewives. If they are not solely responsible for sending women home, they are surely


responsible for keeping them there. Their unremitting harangue is hard to escape in this day of mass communications; they have seared the feminine mystique deep into every woman’s mind, and into the minds of her husband, her children, her neighbors. They have made it part of the fabric of her everyday life, taunting her because she is not a better housewife, does not love her family enough, is growing old.

Can a woman ever feel right cooking on a dirty range? Until today, no range could ever be kept really clean. Now new RCA Whirlpool ranges have oven doors that lift off, broiler drawers that can be cleaned at the sink, drip pans that slide out easily. . . . The first range that any woman can keep completely clean easily . . . and make everything cooked taste better.

Love is said in many ways. It’s giving and accepting. It’s protecting and selecting. . . knowing what’s safest for those you love. Their bathroom tissue is Scott tissue always. . . . Now in four colors and white.

How skillfully they divert her need for achievement into sexual phan-tasies which promise her eternal youth, dulling her sense of passing time. They even tell her that she can make time stand still:

Does she . . . or doesn’t she? She’s as full of fun as her kids—and just as fresh looking! Her naturalness, the way her hair sparkles and catches the light—as though she’s found the secret of making time stand still. And in a way she has . . .

With increasing skill, the ads glorify her “role” as an American housewife—knowing that her very lack of identity in that role will make her fall for whatever they are selling.

Who is she? She gets as excited as her six-year-old about the opening of school. She reckons her days in trains met, lunches packed, fingers bandaged, and 1,001 details. She could be you, needing a special kind of clothes for your busy, rewarding life.


Are you this woman? Giving your kids the fun and

advantages you want for them? Taking them places and helping them do things? Taking the part that’s expected of you in church and community affairs . . . developing your talents so you’ll be more interesting? You can be the woman you yearn to be with a Plymouth all your own. . . . Go where you want, when you want in a beautiful Plymouth that’s yours and nobody else’s . . .

But a new stove or a softer toilet paper do not make a woman a better wife or mother, even if she thinks that’s what she needs to be. Dyeing her hair cannot stop time; buying a Plymouth will not give her a new identity; smoking a Marlboro will not get her an invitation to bed, even if that’s what she thinks she wants. But those unfulfilled promises can keep her endlessly hungry for things, keep her from ever knowing what she really needs or wants.

A full-page ad in the New York Times, June 10, 1962, was “Dedicated to the woman who spends a lifetime living up to her potential!” Under the picture of a beautiful woman, adorned by evening dress and jewels and two handsome children, it said: “The only totally integrated program of nutrient make-up and skin care—designed to lift a woman’s good looks to their absolute peak. The woman who uses ‘Ultima’ feels a deep sense of fulfillment. A new kind of pride. For this luxurious Cosmetic Collection is the ultimate . . . beyond it there is nothing.”

It all seems so ludicrous when you understand what they are up to. Perhaps the housewife has no one but herself to blame if she lets the manipulators flatter or threaten her into buying things that fill neither her family’s needs nor her own. But if the ads and commercials are a clear case of caveat emptor, the same sexual sell disguised in the editorial content of a magazine or a television program is both less ridiculous and more insidious. Here the housewife is often an unaware victim. I have written for some of the magazines in which the sexual sell is inextricably linked with the editorial content. Consciously or unconsciously, the editors know what the advertiser wants.


The heart of X magazine is service—complete service to the whole woman who is the American homemaker; service in all the areas of greatest interest to advertisers, who are also business men. It delivers to the advertiser a strong concentration of serious, conscientious, dedicated homemakers. Women more interested in the home and products for the home. Women more willing and able to pay . . .

A memo need never be written, a sentence need never be spoken at an editorial conference; the men and women who make the editorial decisions often compromise their own very high standards in the interests of the advertising dollar. Often, as a former editor of McCall’s recently revealed,2 the advertiser’s influence is less than subtle. The kind of home pictured in the “service” pages is dictated in no uncertain terms by the boys over in advertising.

And yet, a company has to make a profit on its products; a magazine, a network needs advertising to survive. But even if profit is the only motive, and the only standard of success, I wonder if the media are not making a mistake when they give the client what they think he wants. I wonder if the challenge and the opportunities for the American economy and for business itself might not in the long run lie in letting women grow up, instead of blanketing them with the youth-serum that keeps them mindless and thing-hungry.

The real crime, no matter how profitable for the American economy, is the callous and growing acceptance of the manipulator’s advice “to get them young”—the television commercials that children sing or recite even before they learn to read, the big beautiful ads almost as easy as “Look, Sally, Look,” the magazines deliberately designed to turn teenage girls into housewife buyers of things before they grow up to be women:

She reads X Magazine from beginning to end . . . She learns how to market, to cook and to sew and everything else a young woman should know. She plans her wardrobe ’round X Magazine’s clothes, heeds X Magazine’s counsel on beauty and beaus . . . consults X


Magazine for the latest teen fads . . . and oh, how she buys from those X Magazine ads! Buying habits start in X Magazine. It’s easier to START a habit than to STOP one! (Learn how X Magazine’s unique publication, X Magazine-at-school, carries your advertising into high school home economics classrooms.)

Like a primitive culture which sacrificed little girls to its tribal gods, we sacrifice our girls to the feminine mystique, grooming them ever more efficiently through the sexual sell to become consumers of the things to whose profitable sale our nation is dedicated. Two ads recently appeared in a national news magazine, geared not to teenage girls but to executives who produce and sell things. One of them showed the picture of a boy:

I am so going to the moon . . . and you can’t go, ’cause you’re a girl! Children are growing faster today, their interests can cover such a wide range—from roller skates to rockets. X company too has grown, with a broad spectrum of electronic products for worldwide governmental, industrial and space application.

The other showed the face of a girl: Should a gifted child grow up to be a housewife? Educational experts estimate that the gift of high intelligence is bestowed upon only one out of every 50 children in our nation. When that gifted child is a girl, one question is inevitably asked: “Will this rare gift be wasted if she becomes a housewife?” Let these gifted girls answer that question themselves. Over 90 percent of them marry, and the majority find the job of being a housewife challenging and rewarding enough to make full use of all their intelligence, time and energy. . . . In her daily roles of nurse, educator, economist and just plain housewife, she is constantly seeking ways to improve her family’s life. . . . Millions of women— shopping for half the families in America—do so by saving X Stamps.

If that gifted girl-child grows up to be a housewife, can even


the manipulator make supermarket stamps use all of her human intelligence, her human energy, in the century she may live while that boy goes to the moon?

Never underestimate the power of a woman, says another ad. But that power was and is underestimated in America. Or rather, it is only estimated in terms that can be manipulated at the point of purchase. Woman’s human intelligence and energy do not really figure in. And yet, they exist, to be used for some higher purpose than housework and thing-buying— or wasted. Perhaps it is only a sick society, unwilling to face its own problems and unable to conceive of goals and purposes equal to the ability and knowledge of its members, that chooses to ignore the strength of women. Perhaps it is only a sick or immature society that chooses to make women “housewives,” not people. Perhaps it is only sick or immature men and women, unwilling to face the great challenges of society, who can retreat for long, without unbearable distress, into that thing-ridden house and make it the end of life itself.


1 The studies upon which this chapter is based were done by the Staff of the Institute for Motivational Research, directed by Dr. Ernest Dichter. They were made available to me through the courtesy of Dr. Dichter and his colleagues, and are on file at the Institute, in Croton-on-Hudson, New York. 2 Harrison Kinney, Has Anybody Seen My Father?, New York, 1960.



“. . . IMAGES WITHOUT BOTTOM . . .” (1988)

Stuart Ewen Style, bard to define . . . but easy to recognize.


Each week on television, a taut-faced woman named Elsa Klensch hosts a program titled “Style.” The prime focus of the show revolves around the new designer collections, transporting us to major fashion shows around the world, but there is more.

Some features center on the homes of the people in the world of fashion design: castles in the countryside near Rome; converted farm houses in rural Connecticut; fabulous playpens overlooking Paris. Still other items deal with the daily lives of people employed in the “world” (one dare not call it industry!) of fashion. We follow a tawny Milanese mannequin through her regular two-hour body and facial treatment at Sergio Valente. We observe a busy New York model, rollerskating and taking tap-dance lessons; intimately sharing her longing to “make it” in the musical theater. We glide through the byways of Tokyo with Toko, a slender fashion model with “the most famous Japanese face in the world.” Her spare time, we learn, is divided between shopping for her new apartment and practicing traditional Japanese Buddhism. Materialism and its spiritual rejection coexist without conflict.

Accompanying commercials blend right in, telling us of the slimming value of Tab cola, or of the way that Henry Grethel clothing will lead us into accidental and anonymous romantic encounters with beautiful women—or men—in elegant hotel


rooms. We see that style is about beautiful mouth-watering

surfaces, but we see more. Beyond displaying surfaces, the uninterrupted message of the television program is that style makes up a way of life, a utopian way of life marked by boundless wealth. The people we view apparently inhabit a universe of bounty. They wear dresses costing thousands. They live in castles. Their encounters with interior designers lead to unrestrained flights of fancy. Their desires, their fantasies, their whims are painlessly translated into objective forms. There are no conflicts. In the name of “good taste,” there is no mention of cost. There is no anxiety about affordability.

This way of life is marked by an endless succession of material objects, yet it is a life that curiously seems to float beyond the terms of the real world. This is essential to the magic of style, its fascination and enchantment. Part of the promise of style is that it will lift us out of the dreariness of necessity.

At the other end of the tunnel of television, however, sits the viewer: cheaper clothes; no castles; bills piling up; no stranger to the anxieties of desire placed within the constraints of possibility. The viewer sits, watches, embedded in the finite terms of daily life. From this vantage point, the viewer is engaged in a relationship with style. It is a relationship that offers a pledge, a pledge repeated across the panorama of American consumer culture again and again, day in and day out. Everyday life in its details (clothing, house, routine objects, and activities) can, through the sorcery of style, be transformed. Without ever saying so explicitly, the media of style offer to lift the viewer out of his or her life and place him or her in a utopian netherworld where there are no conflicts, no needs unmet; where the ordinary is—by its very nature—extraordinary. Style today is an incongruous cacophony of images, strewn across the social landscape. Style may be borrowed from any source and turn up in a place where it is least expected. The stylish person may look like a duchess one week, a murder


victim the next. Style can hijack the visual idiom of astronauts, or poach from the ancient pageantry of Guatemalan peasant costumes.

An advertisement for Neiman-Marcus (1984), one of the most fashionable department stores in the United States, reveals style’s ability to constitute what Herbert Marcuse once described as a “unity of opposites.” In an ad for women’s clothing, the newspaper display offers readers a choice between two stylistic polarities.

One possible direction is “Attitude,” a cool and self- confident expression of aristocratic taste. The typeface here is elegant and conservative. Above is a photograph of a woman, a poised Parisian, perhaps, wearing a broad- brimmed chapeau and haute couture coat. Her delicate hand caresses the brim of her hat; her skin is milky white; her eyes are passive, and vacant. Below her, the words:

ATTITUDE IS disposition with regard to people or things.

ATTITUDE IS wearing the correct thing at the correct hour.


ATTITUDE IS exactly sized. (“I wear a size 6”)


ATTITUDE IS dressing to please someone else.

ATTITUDE IS an evaluation.

ATTITUDE IS strolling the avenue.

ATTITUDE is Neiman-Marcus.

On the same page, on the other side of a sharp, jagged line, lies another vision of style: “Latitude.” Far from the “cultured” refinement of the aristocrat, this is about breaking


the rules, violating taboos. The typeface here is scrawled, in bold graffiti strokes. Above is a picture of another woman, a languid and brooding Semitic type, wearing the head scarf of a Palestinian and a loose-fitting desert caftan. She reclines; her arms fall back above her head. Her skin is olive, glistening with moisture, and her dark eyes look off to the side, gazing in the direction of forbidden desires. Below her, the words:

LATITUDE IS freedom from narrow restrictions permitting freedom of action.

LATITUDE IS changing the structure of a garment, however, whenever, the mood hits.

LATITUDE IS a slash.

LATITUDE IS whatever feels comfortable.


LATITUDE IS dressing to please yourself.

LATITUDE IS an evolution.

LATITUDE IS loving the street life.

and, once more, LATITUDE IS Neiman-Marcus.

Colliding world views are translated into style, images to be purchased. As disembodied images, they can be easily reconciled, both available from the same source. As the ad concludes, we are instructed that style may fall on “the left or right” of a “strongly defined line,” yet depending on the “moment or imagination,” either may be appropriate. Style makes statements, yet has no convictions. “Our stocks,” the advertisement concludes, “are full of both looks. Ask any N- M salesperson for a little direction—or just say the word. Attitude. Or Latitude.” Obedience or self-determination,


conservative or radical, Brahmin or Untouchable, Superego or Id; any of these dualities may be purchased, simultaneously, in the world of style.

If the style market constitutes a presentation of a way of life, it is a way of life that is unattainable for most, nearly all, people. Yet this doesn’t mean that style isn’t relevant to most people. It is very relevant. It is the most common realm of our society in which the need for a better, or different way of life is acknowledged, and expressed on a material level, if not met. It constitutes a politics of change, albeit a “change” that resides wholly on the surface of things. The surfaces, themselves, are lifted from an infinite number of sources.

The imagery of elite culture is an ongoing aspect of style. A magazine advertisement for Benson & Hedges “Deluxe Ultra Lights” places two large, gold-edged packages of cigarettes in front of a sweeping spiral staircase, draped in muted tones of ivory and pink. Halfway up the stairs a woman in a beaded evening gown, dragging a white mink stole up thickly carpeted stairs, has her cigarette lit by an elegant gent in a black tuxedo. Meanwhile, in another ad in the same magazine, an unseen hand pours Chivas Regal scotch into a sparkling crystal slipper. Each image reeks of money, offering the consumer a democratic promise of limitless possibility while, at the same time, projecting the sheltered prerogatives of an elite few. Assuming the iconography or “attitude” of elites may, for some, represent a change for the better, an elevation of status. More and more, however, style offers other visions of change, drawn from an endless repository of images.

ELLE magazine presents a photo-feature entitled “Paramilitary Mode.” Sultry, daring members of a “pricey platoon” display the potential allure of military gear. “Wake up to the fun of fatigues,” challenges the text, as an enticing woman, preparing for “combat,” removes her button-fly pants, revealing camouflage panties upon her forward-thrust


hip. TAXI, a slick magazine on “fashion, trends and leisure

living,” presents a profile of Ennio Capasa, a “rising star” among fashion designers. His “Japanese-influenced collection,” comments the magazine (quoting the New York Times), “looks like what one imagines a rebel against totalitarianism would do to make drab clothes individual and the stultifying sexy.” Political transformation and liberation come through “with energy and force,” part of a bold, sensual new look.

An advertisement for Esprit jeans argues that “denim and jeans-wear” are “social equalizers.” Warring on the elitist tyranny of “silks and satin,” the ad continues, Esprit jeans offer an “Elegance” that is “anti-fashion and anti-luxury.” To underscore the political egalitarianism of the product, the jeans are modeled by two “real” young women—not professional models—whose credentials are listed to create an atmosphere of intelligence, physical and spiritual health, and firm social commitments. Both blond and blue-eyed— conforming to the Aryan, photogenic ideals of the fashion trade—these two really care. Cara Schanche of Berkeley, California (another symbol of youthful idealism), is an “English Literature Student, Part-time Waitress, Anti-Racism Activist, Beginning Windsurfer, Friend of the Dalai Lama.” Her soulmate in style, Ariel O’Donnell of San Francisco, is a “Waitress/Bartender, Non-professional AIDS Educator, Cyclist, Art Restoration Student, Anglophile, Neo-Feminist.” In the world of style, ideas, activities, and commitments become ornaments, adding connotation and value to the garment while they are, simultaneously, eviscerated of meaning.

Another ad, for Bloomingdale’s “Fall ’87 Collection,” draws its idiom from an indiscriminate clatter of social, political, and artistic references. “Courage comrades,” begins the ad. “Back-to-School’s anything but a bore for young Post- constructivists. We condone conspicuous clothes with working-class conviction. . . . And a fundamentalist belief in French Connection, The Fall ’87 Collection. . . . Juniors moves into a new age at Bloomingdale’s. From counter


culture to sophisticated, sexy, fast forward fashion for progressive thinkers.” Ideas and concepts—socialism, fundamentalism, conspicuous consumption, new age—meld into an effervescent swirl of inchoate activity, a fashion statement, implying everything, signifying nothing. Here, amid the polymorphous collage, we are tantalized by empty promises of transgression. If the “life-style” of style is not realizable in life, it is nevertheless the most constantly available lexicon from which many of us draw the visual grammar of our lives. It is a behavioral model that is closely interwoven with modern patterns of survival and desire. It is a “hard to define . . . but easy to recognize” element in our current history.

Often silently, at times unacknowledged, style works on the ways that people understand and relate to the world around them. Its influence can be seen within the insecure, but nonetheless formative, boundaries of adolescence, when the search for identity accelerates. Anita A——, now a twenty- four-year-old college student, confides,

When I was in high school I cut out an advertisement from a magazine and hung it on my wall. The ad read “Create An Image” in big bold white letters. . . . I don’t remember what the ad was for, and I never really cared. . . . I simply wanted to remind myself to work on my style. . . . I used to be really taken by someone who could cause that intense silence just by entering a room. I was often captured by their style.1

Lisa E——, twenty, feels that style “is closely related to advertising.” “My elements of style,” she readily admits, “are what’s spread across the pages of Vogue, Elle and Glamour magazines.” She explains,

Right now I’m in the middle of a style change. I’m making myself miserable as I wait for my hair to grow out from an extremely short, close shaven cut. That haircut was my favorite. It was easy to care for. It looked great on me. I was always complimented . . . so


why change it? The androgenous, short-haired look of Annie Lennox has been replaced by the more feminine locks of Paulina Porizkova. Her image is everywhere nowadays. It’s her image that is making me desire longer hair. So I will add that to me.2

For others, style is seen as a powerful mode of self- expression, a way in which people establish themselves in relation to others. Michael H——, who grew up in the South Bronx, spent much of his childhood and adolescence playing basketball. For him, style was an essential part of the game, part of winning:

I played the game from sun-up till sundown. It’s never enough to just score the ball in the basket, or to simply block someone’s shot. There’s got to be style added to it . . . finesse, control, aggression. When a basketball is dunked in the basket, especially while an opponent is present, it says a statement and a sense of style. “Get off of me, and take this!” is the clear message. To block an opponent’s shot and send the ball into another area of the park or gym is very threatening and shows style.

Michael’s sense of “style” has been shaped by the choreography and competition of basketball, but it has also been mediated by items from the marketplace. Michael discusses the use of commodities in the process of establishing and expressing cultural meanings:

When I grew up I wore basketball sneakers and Lee jeans. I wore my hair sometimes in braids or in waves, and I walked with a bop. It’s a cultural statement that my friends and I identified with while growing up. . . . It’s the “thing” to wear basketball sneakers in the ghetto.3

For a newcomer to the United States, the preponderance of market-place style can initiate a moment of personal crisis. For Linda M——, a young woman who grew up in Peru, in a culture that she describes as “traditional,” her encounter with “style” in metropolitan New York accentuated a fissure of meaning. In Peru, she explains, style was understood as


“the way in which the inner being of someone is expressed.” Here, in the United States, style has a “very different meaning . . . which comes from the external world rather than from the inner one”:

Not only tastes are being shaped, . . . but also perceptions of one’s own self. . . . The interaction of people and environment is being turned inside out.

My personal experience has been a difficult one. There are ways in which I feel anachronic in a modern society. . . . I found a tremendous difference in my perspectives of life and that of most people in a commercialized society. . . . Only now I seem to begin to understand why life seems so meaningless to many people in a big society up to the point where they prefer to drug themselves not to bear with an empty reality which displays a glamour of images without bottom, without real meaning. . . .

If style . . . has become something people think they could buy, then what we are losing is man himself. We are betraying our own self, we are selling our own inner being and replacing it for a more suitable one for “modern society.”4

The phenomenon of style within contemporary American society is varied and complex. It registers different meanings to different people, or among different communities. Yet what Linda M——says, about “a glamour of images without bottom,” cannot help but strike a chord with anyone who has observed, or lived in, the shadow of the managed image. In so many arenas of life, style has become the legal tender.

Style, more and more, has become the official idiom of the market-place. b In advertising, packaging, product design, and corporate identity, the power of provocative surfaces speaks to the eye’s mind, overshadowing matters of quality or substance. Style, moreover, is an intimate component of subjectivity, intertwined with people’s aspirations and anxieties. Increasingly, style has emerged as a decisive component of politics; political issues and politicians are regularly subjected to the cosmetic sorcery of image


managers, providing the public with a telegenic commodity. Democratic choice, like grocery shopping, has become a question of which product is most attractively packaged, which product is most imaginatively merchandised. How has this ubiquitous primacy of style come about?

Precisely because style deals in surface impressions, it is difficult to concretize, to discern its definitions. It forms a chimerical, yet highly visible corridor between the world of things and human consciousness. Investing profane things with sacred meanings, however, is an ancient activity, a universal preoccupation of our species. This, in and of itself, does not define style, nor does it situate style within the particular conditions and contradictions of contemporary life.

The ornamentation of life has been practiced within traditional cultures for millennia; the tendency to invest such embellishments with intricate, powerful, and often mysterious webs of interpretation has also been common. Often interwoven within mythological and magical belief systems, decorative objects asserted astonishing powers. They could explain the world as it was, ratify established patterns of kinship and power, or express visions of something beyond the conventional terms of existence: a horror or a consolation.

Yet within such traditional societies, the role of imagery and decoration differed significantly from the volatile phenomenon of style in modern life. Traditional imagery stood for an unchanging or cyclical world, frozen in time and space, hierarchical and static, where everyone knew his or her assigned place in the “great chain of being.” Modern style speaks to a world where change is the rule of the day, where one’s place in the social order is a matter of perception, the product of diligently assembled illusions. Today, style is one way by which we perceive a world in flux, moving—apparently—ever forward, whereas traditional societies’ use of imagery invoked a sense of perpetuity, which conformed to a general outlook on life.

The power of style, and its emergence as an increasingly important feature in people’s lives, cannot be separated from the evolution and sensibility of modernity. Style is a visible


reference point by which we have come to understand life in progress. People’s devotion to the acceleration of varying styles allows them to be connected to the “reality” of a given moment. At the same time they understand that this given moment will give way to yet another, and another, and that as it does, styles will change, again and again. A sense of rootedness or permanency is elusive in the world of style, and it is perhaps this quality, more than any other, that locates style in the modern world. On the one hand, style speaks for the rise of a democratic society, in which who one wishes to become is often seen as more consequential than who one is. On the other hand, style speaks for a society in which coherent meaning has fled to the hills, and in which drift has provided a context of continual discontent.

But the question of style cannot be limited to the realm of subjectivity. Style is also a significant element of power. Style, today, is inextricably woven into the fabric of social, political, and economic life. It is the product of a vast and seamless network of industries. The production of sumptuous images, for the very few, was once limited to the sacred workshops of the medieval monasteries; now, the production and marketing of style is global, touching the lives and imaginations of nearly everyone. Design, of one sort or another, is affixed to almost every conceivable commodity, and style is now “ladled out” from what the art critic Herbert Read once disparagingly termed a continuous and “glorified soup kitchen.” It is to the historic development of that “soup kitchen,” and to its implications, that we now must turn.


1 Style Project, written testimony A6. 2 Ibid., written testimony A9. 3 Ibid., written testimony A10. 4 Ibid., written testimony A2.



The Social Organization of Symbols




Jean Baudrillard The rapturous satisfactions of consumption surround us, clinging to objects as if to the sensory residues of the previous day in the delirious excursion of a dream. As to the logic that regulates this strange discourse—surely it compares to what Freud uncovered in The Interpretation of Dreams? But we have scarcely advanced beyond the explanatory level of naive psychology and the medieval dreambook. We believe in “Consumption”: we believe in a real subject, motivated by needs and confronted by real objects as sources of satisfaction. It is a thoroughly vulgar metaphysic. And contemporary psychology, sociology and economic science are all complicit in the fiasco. So the time has come to deconstruct all the assumptive notions involved —object, need, aspiration, consumption itself—for it would make as little sense to theorize the quotidian from surface evidence as to interpret the manifest discourse of a dream: it is rather the dream-work and the dream-processes that must be analyzed in order to recover the unconscious logic of a more profound discourse. And it is the workings and processes of an unconscious social logic that must be retrieved beneath the consecrated ideology of consumption.




The empirical “object,” given in its contingency of form, color, material, function and discourse (or, if it is a cultural object, in its aesthetic finality) is a myth. How often it has been wished away! But the object is nothing. It is nothing but the different types of relations and significations that converge, contradict themselves, and twist around it, as such —the hidden logic that not only arranges this bundle of relations, but directs the manifest discourse that overlays and occludes it.


Insofar as I make use of a refrigerator as a machine, it is not an object. It is a refrigerator. Talking about refrigerators or automobiles in terms of “objects” is something else. That is, it has nothing to do with them in their “objective” relation to keeping things cold or transportation. It is to speak of the object as functionally decontextualized:

1. . Either as an object of psychic investment2 and fascination, of passion and projection—qualified by its exclusive relation with the subject, who then cathects it as if it were his own body (a borderline case). Useless and sublime, the object then loses its common name, so to speak, and assumes the title of Object as generic proper name. For this reason, the collector never refers to a statuette or a vase as a beautiful statuette, vase, etc., but as “a beautiful Object.” This status is opposed to the generic dictionary meaning of the word, that of the “object” plain and simple: “Refrigerator: an object that refrigerates . . .”

2. . Or (between the Object, as proper name and projective equivalent of the subject, and the object, with the status of a common name and implement) as an object specified by its trademark, charged with differential connotations of status, prestige and


fashion. This is the “object of consumption.” It can just as easily be a vase as a refrigerator, or, for that matter, a whoopee cushion. Properly speaking, it has no more existence than a phoneme has an absolute meaning in linguistics. This object does not assume meaning either in a symbolic relation with the subject (the Object) or in an operational relation to the world (object-as- implement): it finds meaning with other objects, in difference, according to a hierarchical code of significations. This alone, at the risk of the worst confusion, defines the object of consumption.


In symbolic exchange, of which the gift is our most proximate illustration, the object is not an object: it is inseparable from the concrete relation in which it is exchanged, the transferential pact that it seals between two persons: it is thus not independent as such. It has, properly speaking, neither use value nor (economic) exchange value. The object given has symbolic exchange value. This is the paradox of the gift: it is on the one hand (relatively) arbitrary: it matters little what object is involved. Provided it is given,3 it can fully signify the relation. On the other hand, once it has been given—and because of this—it is this object and not another. The gift is unique, specified by the people exchanging and the unique moment of the exchange. It is arbitrary, and yet absolutely singular.

As distinct from language, whose material can be disassociated from the subjects speaking it, the material of symbolic exchange, the objects given, are not autonomous, hence not codifiable as signs. Since they do not depend on economic exchange, they are not amenable to systematization as commodities and exchange value.

What constitutes the object as value in symbolic exchange is that one separates himself from it in order to give it, to throw it at the feet of the other, under the gaze of the other (ob-jicere); one divests himself as if of a part of himself—an


act which is significant in itself as the basis, simultaneously, of both the mutual presence of the terms of the relationship, and their mutual absence (their distance). The ambivalence of all symbolic exchange material (looks, objects, dreams, excrement) derives from this: the gift is a medium of relation and distance; it is always love and aggression.4


It is from the (theoretically isolatable) moment when the exchange is no longer purely transitive, when the object (the material of exchange) is immediately presented as such, that it is reified into a sign. Instead of abolishing itself in the relation that it establishes, and thus assuming symbolic value (as in the example of the gift), the object becomes autonomous, intransitive, opaque, and so begins to signify the abolition of the relationship. Having become a sign object, it is no longer the mobile signifier of a lack between two beings, it is ‘of’ and ‘from’ the reified relation (as is the commodity at another level, in relation to reified labor power). Whereas the symbol refers to lack (to absence) as a virtual relation of desire, the sign object only refers to the absence of relation itself, and to isolated individual subjects.

The sign object is neither given nor exchanged: it is appropriated, withheld and manipulated by individual subjects as a sign, that is, as coded difference. Here lies the object of consumption. And it is always of and from a reified, abolished social relationship that is “signified” in a code.

What we perceive in the symbolic object (the gift, and also the traditional, ritual and artisanal object) is not only the concrete manifestation of a total relationship (ambivalent, and total because it is ambivalent) of desire; but also, through the singularity of an object, the transparency of social relations in a dual or integrated group relationship. In the commodity, on the other hand, we perceive the opacity of social relations of production and the reality of the division of labor. What is revealed in the contemporary profusion of sign objects, objects of consumption, is precisely this opacity, the


total constraint of the code that governs social value: it is the specific weight of signs that regulates the social logic of exchange.

The object-become-sign no longer gathers its meaning in the concrete relationship between two people. It assumes its meaning in its differential relation to other people. It assumes its meaning in its differential relation to other signs. Somewhat like Lévi-Strauss’ myths, sign-objects exchange among themselves. Thus, only when objects are autonomized as differential signs and thereby rendered systematizable can one speak of consumption and of objects of consumption.


So it is necessary to distinguish the logic of consumption, which is a logic of the sign and of difference, from several other logics that habitually get entangled with it in the welter of evidential considerations. (This confusion is echoed by all the naive and authorized literature on the question.) Four logics would be concerned here:

1. . A functional logic of use value; 2. . An economic logic of exchange value; 3. . A logic of symbolic exchange; 4. . A logic of sign value.

The first is a logic of practical operations, the second one of equivalence, the third, ambivalence, and the fourth, difference.

Or again: a logic of utility, a logic of the market, a logic of the gift, and a logic of status. Organized in accordance with one of the above groupings, the object assumes respectively the status of an instrument, a commodity, a symbol, or a sign.

Only the last of these defines the specific field of consumption. Let us compare two examples:

The wedding ring: This is a unique object, symbol of the relationship of the couple. One would neither think of changing it (barring mishap) nor of wearing several. The symbolic object is made to last and to witness in its duration the permanence of the relationship. Fashion plays as


negligible a role at the strictly symbolic level as at the level of pure instrumentality.

The ordinary ring is quite different: it does not symbolize a relationship. It is a non-singular object, a personal gratification, a sign in the eyes of others. I can wear several of them. I can substitute them. The ordinary ring takes part in the play of my accessories and the constellation of fashion. It is an object of consumption.

Living accommodations: The house, your lodgings, your apartment: these terms involve semantic nuances that are no doubt linked to the advent of industrial production or to social standing. But, whatever one’s social level in France today, one’s domicile is not necessarily perceived as a “consumption” good. The question of residence is still very closely associated with patrimonial goods in general, and its symbolic scheme remains largely that of the body. Now, for the logic of consumption to penetrate here, the exteriority of the sign is required. The residence must cease to be hereditary, or interiorized as an organic family space. One must avoid the appearance of filiation and identification if one’s debut in the world of fashion is to be successful.

In other words, domestic practice is still largely a function of determinations, namely: symbolic (profound emotional investment, etc.), and economic (scarcity).

Moreover, the two are linked: only a certain “discretionary income” permits one to play with objects as status signs—a stage of fashion and the “game” where the symbolic and the utilitarian are both exhausted. Now, as to the question of residence—in France at least—the margin of free play for the mobile combinatory of prestige or for the game of substitution is limited. In the United States, by contrast, one sees living arrangements indexed to social mobility, to trajectories of careers and status. Inserted into the global constellation of status, and subjugated to the same accelerated obsolescence of any other object of luxury, the house truly becomes an object of consumption.

This example has a further interest: it demonstrates the futility of any attempt to define the object empirically. Pencils, books, fabrics, food, the car, curios—are these


objects? Is a house an object? Some would contest this. The decisive point is to establish whether the symbolism of the house (sustained by the shortage of housing) is irreducible, or if even this can succumb to the differential and reified connotations of fashion logic: for if this is so, then the home becomes an object of consumption—as any other object will, if it only answers to the same definition: being, cultural trait, ideal, gestural pattern, language, etc.—anything can be made to fit the bill. The definition of an object of consumption is entirely independent of objects themselves and exclusively a function of the logic of significations.

An object is not an object of consumption unless it is released from its psychic determinations as symbol; from its functional determinations as instrument; from its commercial determinations as product; and is thus liberated as a sign to be recaptured by the formal logic of fashion, i.e., by the logic of differentiation.


There is no object of consumption before the moment of its substitution, and without this substitution having been determined by the social law, which demands not only the renewal of distinctive material, but the obligatory registration of individuals on the scale of status, through the mediation of their group and as a function of their relations with other groups. This scale is properly the social order, since the acceptance of this hierarchy of differential signs and the interiori-zation by the individual of signs in general (i.e., of the norms, values, and social imperatives that signs are) constitutes the fundamental, decisive form of social control—more so even than acquiescence to ideological norms.

It is now clear that there is no autonomous problematic of objects, but rather the much more urgent need for a theory of social logic, and of the codes that it puts into play (sign systems and distinctive material).



Let us recapitulate the various types of status of the object according to the specific and (theoretically) exhaustive logics that may penetrate it:

1. . The refrigerator is specified by its function and irreplaceable in this respect. There is a necessary relation between the object and its function. The arbitrary nature of the sign is not involved. But all refrigerators are interchangeable in regard to this function (their objective “meaning”).

2. . By contrast, if the refrigerator is taken as an element of comfort or of luxury (standing), then in principle any other such element can be substituted for it. The object tends to the status of sign, and each social status will be signified by an entire constellation of exchangeable signs. No necessary relation to the subject or the world is involved. There is only a systematic relation obligated to all other signs. And in this combinatory abstraction lie the elements of a code.

3. . In their symbolic relationship to the subject (or in reciprocal exchange), all objects are potentially interchangeable. Any object can serve as a doll for the little girl. But once cathected, it is this one and not another. The symbolic material is relatively arbitrary, but the subject-object relation is fused. Symbolic discourse is an idiom.

The functional use of the object occurs in relation to its technical structure and its practical manipulation. It relates to the common name: e.g., refrigerator. The use of the symbol-object occurs in the context of its concrete presence and through the proper name proper to it. Possession and passion baptize the object (in the metaphorical name of the subject), affixing their seal to it. The “consumption of” the object occurs in the context of its brand name, which is not a proper name, but a sort of generic Christian name.5




We can see now that objects have no meaning except in those logical contexts that can mingle, often contradictorily, on the plane of one object alone; and that these various significations depend on the index and modalities of commutation possible within the framework of each logic. And so what possible meaning can any classification, definition, or categorization of objects in themselves have when the object (once again taken in the widest sense of the term) is commutable according to many rules (the rules of equivalence in the functional and economic domain; the rules of difference in the domain of signs; the rule of ambivalence in that of the symbolic)? Is it when the discourse of the conscious and the unconscious gets entangled in the object— the full discourse of denotation, the parallel discourse of connotation, the internal discourse of the subject and social discourse of relationship—even the entirely latent discourse, in the object, of the symbolic absence of the subject from himself and the other?6 And what possible foundation could there be for all the possible theories of needs, more or less indexed as they are to these would-be categories and classifications of objects? In such an area of flux, empirical formalizations are devoid of meaning. The situation is reminiscent of Borges’ zoological classification: “Animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor; (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) suckling pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, etc., etc., . . . .”7 All classifications of objects and needs are neither more logical nor less surrealist than this.



To reduce the conceptual entity “object” is, by the same token, to deconstruct the conceptual entity “need.” We could explode that of the subject as well.

Subject, object, need: the mythological structure of these three ideas is identical, triply elaborated in terms of the naive factuality and the schemas of a primary level psychology.

What speaks in terms of need is magical thinking. The subject and the object having been posited as autonomous and separated entities—as specular8 and distinct myths—it then becomes necessary to establish their relation. This is accomplished, of course, with the concept of need. Incidentally—all else remaining equal—the concept resembles that of mana.9 Conceiving exchange as an operation between two separated terms, each existing in isolation prior to the exchange, one has to establish the existence of the exchange itself in a double obligation: that of giving and that of returning. Thus it is necessary to imagine (as Mauss and the native apparently do) an immanent power in the object, the hau, whose force haunts the recipient of the object and incites him to divest himself of it. The insurmountable opposition between the terms of the exchange is thus reduced at the price of a tautological, artificial, magical, supplementary concept, of which Lévi- Strauss, in his critique, has worked out the economics in positing exchange directly as structure. Thus, the psychologist, economist, etc., having provided themselves with a subject and an object, can barely rejoin them but for the grace of need. But this concept can only explain the subject-object relation in terms of adequation, the functional response of subjects to objects, and vice versa. It amounts to a kind of functionalist nominalism, which precipitates the whole psycho-economic ideology of optimality, equilibrium, functional regulation and adaptation of needs.

In fact, the operation amounts to defining the subject by means of the object and the object in terms of the subject. It is a gigantic tautology of which the concept of need is the consecration. Metaphysics itself has never done anything else and, in Western thought, metaphysics and economic


science (not to mention traditional psychology) demonstrate a profound solidarity, mentally and ideologically, in the way they posit the subject and tautologically resolve its relation to the world. Mana, vital force, instincts, needs, choices, preferences, utilities, motivations: it is always a question of the same magical copula, the equal sign in “A = A.” Metaphysics and economics jostle each other at the same impasses, over the same aporias, the same contradictions and dysfunctions, condemning each from the start to unlimited circular speculation by positing the autonomy of the subject and its specular reflection in the autonomy of the object.


But we know that the tautology is never innocent—no more than the finalism that underlies the entire mythology of needs. Such run-arounds are always the rationalizing ideology of a system of power: the dormant virtue of opium, the refrains of “Que Sera Sera”: like Borges’ animal categories (“included in the present classification”), or like the theological pronouncement: “When a given subject purchases such and such an object, this behavior is a function of his particular choices and preferences.” At bottom, under the umbrella of the logical principle of identity, such admirable metaphors for the void sanction the circular principle of a system of power, the reproductive finality of the order of production. This is why economic science does not dispense with the concept of need. It could easily do so, for its calculations operate at the level of statistical demand. But the notion is urgently required for ideological support.

The legitimacy of production rests on a petitio principii, i.e., that people discover a posteriori and almost miraculously that they need what is produced and offered at the marketplace (and thus, in order that they should experience this or any particular need, the need must already exist inside people as a virtual postulation). And so it appears that


this begging of the question—this forced rationalization— simply masks the internal finality of the order of production. To become an end in itself, every system must dispel the question of its real teleology. Through the meretricious legitimacy of needs and satisfactions, the entire question of the social and political finality of productivity is repressed.

One could object that this is not a forced rationalization, since the discourse of needs is the subject’s spontaneous form of interpreting his relation to objects and to the world. But this is precisely the problem. In his attempt to recapture this discourse, the analyst of modern society reproduces the misconstruction of naive anthropology: he naturalizes the processes of exchange and signification.

Thus social logic itself escapes him. It is true that all magical thinking draws a certain measure of efficacy from the empirical manipulation and theoretical misunderstanding of its own procedures. Thus, speculation on needs converges with the long tradition of speculation on mana. It is mythical thought that reflects in the mirror of economic “rationality.”


It thus proves necessary to reconstruct social logic entirely. Nothing is more instructive in this regard than the adulterous relations that obtain between the economic and the social sciences. Virtuous thinkers have done their utmost for a generation now to reconcile these estranged disciplines (in the name of Man, their dada). They have striven to attenuate all that is profoundly inadmissible—obscene—for their disciplines in the very existence of the others and in the haunting memory of a knowledge that escapes them. Economics in particular can only delay the eruption, in the midst of its calculations, of a psychological logic of the unconscious or of an equally unconscious logic of social structures. The logic of ambivalence on the one hand, of difference on the other, are incompatible with the logic— sacred to economics—of equivalence. To foil their literally


destructive influence, “economic science” will throw in its lot with desiccated and inoffensive forms of psychology and sociology, i.e., the latter as traditional disciplines-all in the name of pious interdisciplinary study. One never thinks, from this viewpoint, of introducing social or psychological dimensions of a specific nature: rather, one simply adds to the criteria of individual utility (“rational” economic variables) a pinch of “irrational” individual psychology (motivational studies, depth psychology) and some interpersonal social psychology (the individual need for prestige and status)—or simply a kind of global socio-culture. In short, one looks for context.

Some examples: certain studies (Chombart de Lauwe) reveal in the lower orders an abnormal consumption of meat: too little, or too much. As long as one consumes meat along the mean, one partakes of economic rationality. No problems. Otherwise, one produces the psychological: the need for prestige, conspicuous under- or over-consumption, etc. Hence, the social and the psychological are defined as the “economically pathological”! Another social analyst, Katona, discovers his “discretionary income” and his cultural implications with relish: he explores, beyond purchasing power, a “propensity to buy that reflects the motivations, the tendencies and the expectations of the clientele!”10 Such are the maudlin illuminations of psycho-economics.

Or sometimes it is observed (when it becomes impossible to ignore) that the individual is never alone, that he is determined by his relation to others. And so Robinsonades are abandoned for micro-sociological bricolage. American sociology has somehow been arrested at this point. Even Merton, with his theory of the reference group, always works on groups that in fact are empirically given and with the empirical notion of aspiration as a lubricant of the social dynamic.

Psychologism goes hand in hand with culturalism, another benign version of a sociology that refuses to live dangerously: needs are functions of the particular history and culture of each society. This is the zenith of liberal analysis, beyond which it is congenitally incapable of


thinking. The postulate of man endowed with needs and a natural inclination to satisfy them is never questioned. It is simply immersed in a historical and cultural dimension (very often defined in advance, and by other means): and then, by implication, impregnation, interaction, articulation or osmosis, it is recontextualized in a social history or a culture that is understood really as a second nature! All this culminates in overblown “character structures,” cultural types writ large that are given as structures, though they are only empirical totalizations of distinctive traits, and-again- basically gigantic tautologies, since the “model” is composed of an admixture of the characteristic traits it is intended to explain.

Tautology is at work everywhere. Thus, in the theory of “consumption models”: social situations can be as important as taste in determining the level of consumption (in France, sweets are inseparable from their use by parents as instruments of education). “It would thus be possible, when one got acquainted with the sociological significance of products, to paint the portrait of a society with the aid of the products that correspond to these norms. Reference groups and membership groups could be understood at the level of consumer behavior.” Or, again, the concept of “role” in the work of Lazarsfeld and others: the good housekeeper is supposed to do the washing herself, use a sewing machine, and refrain from using instant coffee. The “role” plays the same function in the relation of the subject to social norms as need does in relation to objects. The same circle and the same white magic.

In the end, it is discovered that you can break down the purchase of a car into a whole constellation of possible motivations: biographical, technical, utilitarian, psychosymbolic (overcompensation, aggressiveness), sociological (group norms, desire for prestige, conformism or originality). The worst of it all is that every one of these is equally valid. It would be difficult to imagine a case where any one wouldn’t apply. Often they formally contradict each other: the need for security versus the need to take risks; the desire to conform versus the need to be distinctive, etc. And


which are determinant? How do you structure or rank them? In an ultimate effort, our thinkers strain to make their tautology dialectical: they talk about ongoing interaction (between the individual and the group, from one group to another, from one motivation to another). But the economists, hardly fond of dialectical variables, quickly retreat to their measurable utilities.

The confusion is quite irreparable, in fact. Without entirely lacking in interest, the results obtained at these different levels of abstraction (needs, social aspirations, roles, models of consumption, reference groups, etc.) are partial and misleading. Psycho-social economics is a sort of near-sighted, cross-eyed hydra. But it surveys and defends something, for all that. It exorcises the danger of a radical analysis, whose object would be neither the group nor the individual subject at the conscious level, but social logic itself, for which it is necessary to create a principle of analysis.

We have already asserted that this logic is a logic of differentiation. But this is not a question, as should be clear by now, of treating prestige, status, distinction, etc., as motivations, a level that has been largely the-matized by contemporary sociology. At any rate, it is little more than a para-sociological extension of the traditional psychological givens. There is no doubt that individuals (or individuated groups) are consciously or subconsciously in quest of social rank and prestige and, of course, this level of the object should be incorporated into the analysis. But the fundamental level is that of unconscious structures that organize the social production of differences.


Even before survival has been assured, every group or individual experiences a vital pressure to produce themselves meaningfully in a system of exchange and relationships. Concurrently with the production of goods, there is a push to elaborate significations, meaning—with the result that the


one-for-the-other exists before the one and the other exist for themselves.

The logic of exchange is thus primordial. In a way, the individual is non-existent (like the object of which we spoke at the beginning). At any rate, a certain language (of words, women, or goods) is prior to the individual. This language is a social form in relation to which there can properly speaking be no individuals, since it is an exchange structure. This structure amounts to a logic of differentiation on two simultaneous planes:

1. It differentiates the human terms of the exchange into partners, not individuated, but nevertheless distinct, and bound by the rules of exchange.

2. It differentiates the exchange material into distinct and thus significant elements.

This is true of language communication. It applies also to goods and products. Consumption is exchange. A consumer is never isolated, any more than a speaker. It is here that total revolution in the analysis of consumption must intervene: Language cannot be explained by postulating an individual need to speak (which would pose the insoluble double problem of establishing this need on an individual basis, and then of articulating it in a possible exchange). Before such questions can even be put, there is, simply, language—not as an absolute, autonomous system, but as a structure of exchange contemporaneous with meaning itself, and on which is articulated the individual intention of speech. Similarly, consumption does not arise from an objective need of the consumer, a final intention of the subject toward the object; rather, there is social production, in a system of exchange, of a material of differences, a code of significations and invidious (statuaire) values. The functionality of goods and individual needs only follows on this, adjusting itself to, rationalizing, and in the same stroke repressing these fundamental structural mechanisms.

The origin of meaning is never found in the relation between a subject (given a priori as autonomous and conscious) and an object produced for rational ends—that is, properly, the economic relation, rationalized in terms of


choice and calculation. It is to be found, rather, in difference, systematizable in terms of a code (as opposed to private calculation)—a differential structure that establishes the social relation, and not the subject as such.


We should refer at this point to Veblen, who, even if he posited the logic of differentiation more in terms of individuals than of classes, of prestige interaction rather than of exchange structure, nevertheless offers in a way far superior to those who have followed him and who have pretended to surpass him the discovery of a principle of total social analysis, the basis of a radical logic, in the mechanisms of differentiation. This is not a superadded, contextual variable, situationally given, but a relational variable of structure. All of Veblen’s work illustrates how the production of a social classification (class distinctions and statutory rivalry) is the fundamental law that arranges and subordinates all the other logics, whether conscious, rational, ideological, moral, etc.

Society regulates itself by means of the production of distinctive material: “The end of acquisition is conveniently held to be the consumption of the goods accumulated. . . but it is only in a sense far removed from its native meaning that consumption of goods can be said to afford the incentive from which accumulation proceeds. . . . Possession of wealth confers honors: it is an invidious distinction.”11


“Conspicuous abstention from labor becomes the conventional index of reputability.”12 Productive labor is degrading: the tradition never dies; it is only reinforced as social differentiation increases in complexity. In the end, it takes on the axiomatic authority of an absolute prescription— even alongside the moral reprobation of idleness and the


reactive valorization of labor so strong in the middle classes (and today recuperated ideologically by the ruling class itself): a président directeur général works a fifteen-hour day, devotedly—it is his token of affected servitude. In fact, this reaction-formation proves, to the contrary, the power of leisure-nobility value as a deep-seated, unconscious representation.

Leisure is thus not a function of a need for leisure in the current sense of enjoying free time and functional repose. It can be invested in activities, provided they do not involve economic necessity. Leisure may be defined as any consumption of unproductive time. Now, this has nothing to do with passivity: it is an activity, an obligatory social phenomenon. Time is not in this instance “free,” it is sacrificed, wasted; it is the moment of a production of value, of an invidious production of status, and the social individual is not free to escape it. No one needs leisure, but everyone is called upon to provide evidence of his availability for unproductive labor. The consumption of empty time is a form of potlatch. Here, free time is a material of exchange and signification. Like Bataille’s “accursed share,”13 it assumes value in the exchange itself—or in destruction—and leisure is the locus of this symbolic operation. 14

The style of contemporary leisure provides a kind of experimental verification: left to himself, the conditions for creative freedom at last realized, the man of leisure looks desperately for a nail to hammer, a motor to dismantle. Outside the competitive sphere, there are no autonomous needs. Spontaneous motivation doesn’t exist. But for all that, he can’t permit himself to do nothing. At a loss for something to do with his free time, he nevertheless urgently “needs” to do nothing (or nothing useful), since this has distinctive social value.

Even today, what claims the average individual, through the holidays and during his free time, is not the liberty to “fulfill” himself (in terms of what? What hidden essence will surge to the fore?). He must verify the uselessness of his time—temporal surplus as sumptuous capital, as wealth. Leisure time, like consumption time in general, becomes


emphatic, trade-marked social time—the dimension of social salvation, productive of value, but not of economic survival.15

Veblen pushed the law of distinctive value very far: “the canon of honorific waste may, immediately or remotely, influence the sense of duty, the sense of beauty, the sense of utility, the sense of devotional or ritualistic fitness, and the scientific sense of truth.”16


This law of value can play on wealth or on destitution. Conspicuous luxury or conspicuous austerity answer to the same fundamental rule. What appears as an insoluble formal contradiction at the level of the empirical theory of needs falls into place, arranged according to this law, in a general theory of distinctive material.

Thus, churches are traditionally more sumptuous in the fashionable districts, but class imperative can impose a type of ascetic religiosity: Catholic pomp becomes the fact of the lower classes whereas, among Protestants, the spareness of the chapel only testifies to the greater glory of God (and establishes the distinctive sign of the class as well). There are innumerable examples of this paradox of value—of spartan wealth. People manipulate the subtle starkness of modern interiors. You pay through the nose to eat practically nothing. To deny oneself is a luxury! This is the sophistry of consumption, for which the refusal to validate a value is merely a hierarchical nuance in its formal verification.17

It is important to grasp that behind all these alleged finalities—functional, moral, aesthetic, religious and their contradictions—a logic of difference and super-difference is at work. But it is always repressed, since it belies the ideal finality of all the corresponding behavior. This is social reason, social logic. It transverses all values, all materials of exchange and communication.

In principle, nothing is immune to this structural logic of value. Objects, ideas, even conduct are not solely practiced as use values, by virtue of their “objective” meaning, in terms


of their official discourse—for they can never escape the fact that they may be potentially exchanged as signs, i.e., assume another kind of value entirely in the very act of exchange and in the differential relation to the other that it establishes. The differential function of sign exchange always overdetermines the manifest function of what is exchanged, sometimes entirely contradicting it, repossessing it as an alibi, or even producing it as an alibi. This explains how the differential function materializes indifferently in opposite or contradictory terms: the beautiful or the ugly, the moral or the immoral, the good or the bad, the ancient or the new. The logic of difference cuts across all formal distinctions. It is equivalent to the primary process and the dream work: it pays no heed to the principle of identity and non- contradiction.18


This deep-seated logic is akin to that of fashion. Fashion is one of the more inexplicable phenomena, so far as these matters go: its compulsion to innovate signs, its apparently arbitrary and perpetual production of meaning—a kind of meaning drive—and the logical mystery of its cycle are all in fact of the essence of what is sociological. The logical processes of fashion might be extrapolated to the dimension of “culture” in general—to all social production of signs, values and relations.

To take a recent example: neither the long skirt nor the mini-skirt has an absolute value in itself—only their differential relation acts as a criterion of meaning. The mini- skirt has nothing whatsoever to do with sexual liberation; it has no (fashion) value except in opposition to the long skirt. This value is, of course, reversible: the voyage from the mini- to the maxi-skirt will have the same distinctive and selective fashion value as the reverse; and it will precipitate the same effect of “beauty.”

But it is obvious that this “beauty” (or any other interpretation in terms of chic, taste, elegance, or even


distinctiveness) is nothing but the exponential function—the rationalization—of the fundamental processes of production and reproduction of distinctive material. Beauty (“in itself”) has nothing to do with the fashion cycle.19 In fact, it is inadmissible. Truly beautiful, definitively beautiful clothing would put an end to fashion. The latter can do nothing but deny, repress and efface it —while conserving, with each new outing, the alibi of beauty.

Thus fashion continually fabricates the “beautiful” on the basis of a radical denial of beauty, by reducing beauty to the logical equivalent of ugliness. It can impose the most eccentric, dysfunctional, ridiculous traits as eminently distinctive. This is where it triumphs—imposing and legitimizing the irrational according to a logic deeper than that of rationality.



It would appear that a “theory of needs” has no meaning. Only a theory of the ideological concept of need would make any sense. Before certain false problems have been overcome and radically reformulated, any reflection on the genesis of needs would have as little foundation as, for example, a history of the will. A form of the chimerical dialectic of being and appearance, soul and body still persists in the subject- object of dialectic of need. Ideological speculation of this sort has always appeared as a “dialectical” game of ceaseless interaction in a mirror: when it is impossible to determine which of two terms engenders the other and one is reduced to making them reflect or produce each other reciprocally, it is a sure sign that the terms of the problem itself must be changed.

So it proves necessary to examine how economic science— and behind it, the political order—operates the concept of




The legitimacy of the concept is rooted in the alleged existence of a vital anthropological minimum that would be the dimension of “primary needs”—an irreducible zone where the individual chooses himself, since he knows what he wants: to eat, to drink, to sleep, to make love, to find shelter, etc. At this level, he cannot, it is supposed, be alienated in his need as such: only deprived of the means to satisfy it.

This bio-anthropological postulate directly launches the insoluble dichotomy of primary and secondary needs: beyond the threshold of survival, man no longer knows what he wants. And it is here that he becomes properly “social” for the economist: i.e., vulnerable to alienation, manipulation, mystification. On one side of the imaginary line, the economic subject is prey to the social and the cultural; on the other, he is an autonomous, inalienable essence. Note that this distinction, by conjuring away the socio-cultural in secondary needs, permits the recuperation, behind the functional alibi of survival-need, of a level of individual essence: a human essence grounded in nature. Moreover, this all proves quite versatile as an ideology. It has a spiritualist as well as a rationalist version. Primary and secondary needs can be separated in order to refer the former back to animality, the latter to the immaterial. 20 Or one can simply reverse the whole procedure by positing primary needs as (alone) objectively grounded (thus rational), and treat the others as subjectively variable (hence irrational). But this ideology is quite coherent in its overall features, because it always defines man a priori as an essence (or a rationality) that the social merely obscures.

In fact, the “vital anthropological minimum” doesn’t exist: in all societies, it is determined residually by the fundamental urgency of an excess: the divine or sacrificial share, sumptuous discharge, economic profit. It is this pre- dedication of luxury that negatively determines the level of


survival, and not the reverse (which is an idealist fiction). Advantages, profits, sacrifice (in the sense of social wealth) and “useless” expenditures are all deducted in advance. And the priority of this claim works everywhere at the expense of the functional side of the balance sheet—at the expense, where necessary, of minimal subsistence.

There have never been “societies of scarcity” or “societies of abundance,” since the expenditures of a society (whatever the objective volume of its resources) are articulated in terms of a structural surplus, and an equally structural deficit. An enormous surplus can coexist with the worst misery. In all cases, a certain surplus coexists with a certain poverty. But the crucial point is that it is always the production of this surplus that regulates the whole. The survival threshold is never determined from below, but from above. Eventually, one might hypothesize, there will be no survival at all, if social imperatives demand it: the newborn will be liquidated (like prisoners of war, before a new constellation of productive forces made slavery profitable). The Siane of New Guinea, enriched through contact with Europeans, squandered everything in feasts, without ceasing to live below the “vital minimum.” It is impossible to isolate an abstract, “natural” stage of poverty or to determine absolutely “what men need to survive.” It may please one fellow to lose everything at poker and to leave his family starving to death. We know it is often the most disadvantaged who squander in the most “irrational” way. The game flourishes in direct relation to underdevelopment. There is even a narrow correlation between underdevelopment, the size of the poor classes, and the tentacular spread of the church, the military, domestic personnel, and expensive and useless sectors in general.

Conversely, just as survival can fall well below the vital minimum if the production of surplus value requires it, the threshold of obligatory consumption can be set well above the strictly necessary—always as a function of the production of surplus value: this is the case in our societies, where no one is free to live on raw roots and fresh water. From which follows the absurdity of the concept of “discretionary


income” (the complement of the “vital minimum” concept): “the portion of his income the individual is free to spend as he pleases.” In what way am I more free buying clothing or a car than buying my food (itself very sophisticated)? And how am I free not to choose? Is the purchase of an automobile or clothing “discretionary” when it is the unconscious substitute for an unrealistic desire for certain living accommodations? The vital minimum today, the minimum of imposed consumption, is the standard package.21 Beneath this level, you are an outcast. Is loss of status—or social non-existence —less upsetting than hunger?

In fact, discretionary income is an idea rationalized at the discretion of entrepreneurs and market analysts. It justifies their manipulation of secondary needs, since, in their view, these don’t touch on the essential. The line of demarcation between essential and inessential has quite a precise double function:

1. To establish and preserve a sphere of individual human essence, which is the keystone of the system of ideological values.

2. To obscure behind the anthropological postulate the actual productivist definition of “survival”: during the period of (capital) accumulation, what is “essential” is what is strictly necessary for the reproduction of the labor force. In the growth phase, however, it is what is necessary to maintain the rate of growth and surplus value.


One can generalize this conclusion by saying that needs— such as they are—can no longer be defined adequately in terms of the naturalist-idealist thesis—as innate, instinctive power, spontaneous craving, anthropological potentiality. Rather, they are better defined as a function induced (in the individual) by the internal logic of the system: more precisely, not as a consummative force liberated by the affluent society, but as a productive force required by the


functioning of the system itself, by its process of reproduction and survival. In other words, there are only needs because the system needs them.

And the needs invested by the individual consumer today are just as essential to the order of production as the capital invested by the capitalist entrepreneur and the labor power invested by the wage laborer. It is all capital.

Hence, there is a compulsion to need and a compulsion to consume. One can imagine laws sanctioning such constraint one day (an obligation to change cars every two years).23

To be sure, this systematic constraint has been placed under the sign of choice and “liberty,” and hence appears as entirely opposed to the labor process as the pleasure principle is to the reality principle. In fact, the “liberty” to consume is of the same order as the freedom offered by the labor market. The capitalist system was erected on this liberty—on the formal emancipation of the labor force (and not on the concrete autonomy of work, which it abolishes). Similarly, consumption is only possible in the abstraction of a system based on the “liberty” of the consumer. It is necessary that the individual user have a choice, and become through his choice free at last to enter as a productive force in a production calculus, exactly as the capitalist system frees the laborer to sell, at last, his labor power.

And just as the fundamental concept of this system is not, strictly speaking, that of production, but of productivity (labor and production disengage themselves from all ritual, religious, and subjective connotations to enter the historical process of rationalization); so, one must speak not of consumption, but of consummativity: even if the process is far from being as rationalized as that of production, the parallel tendency is to move from subjective, contingent, concrete enjoyment to an indefinite calculus of growth rooted in the abstraction of needs, on which the system this time imposes its coherence—a coherence that it literally produces as a by-product of its productivity.24

Indeed, just as concrete work is abstracted, little by little, into labor power in order to make it homogeneous with the means of production (machines, energy, etc.) and thus to


multiply the homogeneous factors into a growing productivity—so desire is abstracted and atomized into needs, in order to make it homogeneous with the means of satisfaction (products, images, sign-objects, etc.) and thus to multiply consummativity.

The same process of rationalization holds (atomization and unlimited abstraction), but the ideological role of the concept of need is expanded: with all its hedonist illusions, need- pleasure masks the objective reality of need-productive force. Needs and labor25 are therefore two modalities of the same exploitation26 of productive forces. The saturated consumer appears as the spellbound avatar of the wage laborer.

Thus it should not be said that “consumption is entirely a function of production”: rather, it is consummativity that is a structural mode of productivity. On this point, nothing has really changed in the historical passage from an emphasis on “vital” needs to “cultural” needs, or “primary” needs to “secondary” ones. The slave’s only assurance that he would eat was that the system needed slaves to work. The only chance that the modern citizen may have to see his “cultural” needs satisfied lies in the fact that the system needs his needs, and that the individual is no longer content just to eat. In other words, if there had been, for the order of production, any means whatever of assuring the survival of the anterior mode of brutal exploitation, there would never have been much question of needs.27 Needs are curbed as much as possible. But when it proves necessary, they are instigated as a means of repression.28


The capitalist system has never ceased to make women and children work first (to whatever extent possible). Under absolute constraint, it eventually “discovered” the great humanitarian and democratic principles. Schooling was only conceded piece by piece, and it was not generalized until it had imposed itself on the system—like universal suffrage—as a powerful means of social control and integration (or as a


means of acculturation to industrial society). During the phase of industrialization, the last pennyworth of labor power was extorted without compunction. To extract surplus value, it was hardly necessary to prime the pump with needs. Then capital, confronted by its own contradictions (over- production, falling rate of profit), tried at first to surmount them by totally restructuring its accumulation through destruction, deficit budgeting and bankruptcy. It thus averted a redistribution of wealth, which would have placed the existing relations of production and structures of power seriously in question. But as soon as the threshold of rupture had been reached, capital was already unearthing the individual qua consumer. He was no longer simply the slave as labor power. This was truly a “production.” And in bringing it off, capital was only delivering up a new kind of serf: the individual as consumption power.29

This is the point of departure for an analysis of consumption at the political level: it is necessary to overcome the ideological understanding of consumption as a process of craving and pleasure, as an extended metaphor on the digestive functions—where the whole issue is naturalized according to the primary scheme of the oral drive. It is necessary to surpass this powerful imaginary preconception in order to define consumption not only structurally as a system of exchange and of signs, but strategically as a mechanism of power. Now, the question of consumption is not clarified by the concept of needs, nor by theories of their qualitative transformation, or their massive extension: these phenomena are no more than the characteristic effect, at the individual level, of a certain monopolistic productivity, of a totalitarian economy (capitalist or socialist) driven to conjuring up leisure, comfort, luxury, etc.; briefly, they are the ultimate realization of the private individual as a productive force. The system of needs must wring liberty and pleasure from him as so many functional elements of the reproduction of the system of production and the relations of power that sanction it. It gives rise to these private functions according to the same principle of abstraction and radical “alienation” that was formerly (and still today) the case for


his labor power. In this system, the “liberation” of needs, of consumers, of women, of the young, the body, etc., is always really the mobilization of needs, consumers, the body. . . . It is never an explosive liberation, but a controlled emancipation, a mobilization whose end is competitive exploitation.

It would appear that even the most deep-seated forces, the unconscious instincts, can be mobilized in this way by the “strategy of desire.” We are now at the very heart of the concept of controlled desublimation (or “repressive desublimation,” as Marcuse would say). At the limit, retranscribed in this primary psychoanalysis, the consumer appears as a knot of drives (future productive forces) repressed by the system of ego defense functions. These functions must be “desublimated”—hence, the deconstruction of the ego functions, the conscious moral and individual functions, to the benefit of a “liberation” of the id and the super-ego as factors of integration, participation and consumption—to the benefit of a kind of total consuming immorality in which the individual finally submerges himself in a pleasure principle entirely controlled by production planning.

To sum up: man is not simply there first, equipped with his needs, and designated by nature to fulfill and finalize himself qua Man. This proposition, which smacks of spiritualist teleology, in fact defines the individual function in our society —the functional myth of productivist society. The whole system of individual values—this religion of spontaneity, liberty, creativity, etc.—is bloated with the productivist option. Even the vital functions are immediately “functions” of the system.

We must reverse the terms of the analysis, and abolish the cardinal reference to the individual, for even that is the product of this social logic. We must abandon the constitutive social structure of the individual, and even his lived perception of himself: for man never really does come face to face with his own needs. This is not only true of “secondary” needs (where the individual is reproduced according to the finalities of production considered as consumption power). It


applies equally well to “survival” needs. In this instance, man is not reproduced as man: he is simply regenerated as a survivor (a surviving productive force). If he eats, drinks, lives somewhere, reproduces himself, it is because the system requires his self-production in order to reproduce itself: it needs men. If it could function with slaves, there would be no “free” workers. If it could function with asexual mechanical robots, there would be no sexual reproduction.30 If the system could function without feeding its workers, there would be no bread. It is in this sense that we are all, in the framework of this system, survivors. Not even the instinct of self-preservation is fundamental: it is a social tolerance or a social imperative. When the system requires it, it cancels this instinct and people get excited about dying (for a sublime cause, evidently).

We do not wish to say that “the individual is a product of society” at all. For, as it is currently understood, this culturalist platitude only masks the much more radical truth that, in its totalitarian logic, a system of productivist growth (capitalist, but not exclusively) can only produce and reproduce men—even in their deepest determinations: in their liberty, in their needs, in their very unconscious—as productive forces. The system can only produce and reproduce individuals as elements of the system. It cannot tolerate exceptions.


So today everything is “recuperable.”31 But it is too simple to argue that first there are needs, authentic values, etc., and then they are alienated, mystified, recuperated, or what have you. This humanitarian Mani-cheanism explains nothing. If everything is “recuperable,” it is because everything in monopoly capitalist society32—goods, knowledge, technique, culture, men, their relations and their aspirations— everything is reproduced, from the outset, immediately, as an element of the system, as an integrated variable.


The truth is—and this has been recognized for a long time in the area of economic production—that use value no longer appears anywhere in the system. The determining logic of exchange value is, however, as ubiquitous as ever. This must be recognized today as the truth of the sphere of “consumption” and the cultural system in general. In other words, everything, even artistic, intellectual, and scientific production, even innovation and transgression, is immediately produced as sign and exchange value (relational value of the sign).

A structural analysis of consumption is possible to the extent that “needs,” consumption behavior and cultural behavior are not only recuperated, but systematically induced and produced as productive forces. Given this abstraction and this tendency toward total systematization, such an analysis is entirely possible, if it in turn is based on an analysis of the social logic of production and the generalized exchange of signs.


1 This piece first appeared in Cahiers Internationaux de Sociologie, 1969. It was then published in France as For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign in 1979 and again, in its current form, in 1981 by Telos Press, translation Charles Levin. 2 Investissement: this is the standard, and literal, French equivalent of Freud’s Besetzung, which also means investment in ordinary German. The English, however, have insisted on rendering this concept by coining a word that sounds more technical: cathexis, to cathect, etc. The term has been used here mainly to draw attention to the psychoanalytic sense, which varies in intensity and precision, of Baudrillard’s investissement, investir. Loosely, Freud’s concept involves the quantitative transfer of psychic energy to parts of the psyche, images, objects, etc.—Trans. 3 Not epistemologically given!—Trans.


4 Thus the structure of exchange (cf. Lévi-Strauss) is never that of simple reciprocity. It is not two simple terms, but two ambivalent terms that exchange, and the exchange establishes their relationship as ambivalent. 5 In the logic of the commodity, all goods or objects become universally commutable. Their (economic) practice occurs through their price. There is no relationship either to the subject or to the world, but only a relation to the market. 6 The same goes for food: as a “functional need,” hunger is not symbolic. Its objective is satiation. The food object is not substitutable. But it is well known that eating can satisfy an oral drive, being a neurotic substitute for lack of love. In this second function, eating, smoking, collecting objects, obsessive memorization can all be equivalent: the symbolic paradigm is radically different from the functional paradigm. Hunger as such is not signified, it is appeased. Desire, on the other hand, is signified throughout an entire chain of signifiers. And when it happens to be a desire for something experienced as lost, when it is a lack, an absence on which the objects that signify it have come to be inscribed, does it make any sense to treat such objects literally, as if they were merely what they are? And what can the notion of need possibly refer to, in these circumstances? 7 Borges, cited in Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (New York: Vintage, 1970). p. xv. 8 .Speculaire: The adjective specular and the noun specularity occur often in Baudrillard’s analyses of ideology. They deliberately recall the mirror-like relations of the Imaginary order, which is opposed to the Symbolic order in Lacanian psychoanalysis. For the best introduction to Lacan in English, see Anthony Wilden, The Language of the Self (New York: 1968) and System and Structure (London: 1972). The latter work is less informative with respect to Lacan specifically, but attempts a curious synthesis that may fruitfully be compared with Baudrillard’s work. Wilden is more sympathetic toward traditional Marxist assumptions and to mainstream social science in the form of cybernetics, systems theory, etc. With the work of Lévi-Strauss, Lacan and others behind them, both have in common a concern for


the apparently special or traditionally unaccountable status of symbolic exchange, a critique of the “digital bias” (Wilden) in the Western epistème (which, by definition, would include the 19th-century revolutionary critique of or version of political economy); and both attempt to reexamine such basic concepts as need, desire, the subject, object, etc.—Trans. 9 According to Marcel Mauss in The Gift (London: Routledge, 1970). 10 Chombart de Lauwe, Pour une Sociologie des Aspirations (Paris: Gonthier, 1969) and George Katona, The Society of Mass Consumption (New York: McGraw Hill, 1964). 11 Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class (New York: Mentor, 1953), p. 35. 12 Ibid., P. 43. 13 Georges Bataille, La Part Maudite (Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1967). 14 See the analysis of an analogous type of operation in the chapter on The Art Auction in For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (New York: Telos, 1981). 15 “Free” time brings together the “right” to work and the “liberty” to consume in the framework of the same system: it is necessary for time to be “liberated” in order to become a sign-function and take on social exchange value, whereas labor time, which is constrained time, possesses only economic exchange value. Cf. Part I of this essay: one could add a definition of symbolic time to that of the object. It would be that which is neither economically constrained nor “free” as sign-function, but bound, that is, inseparable from the concrete act of exchange—a rhythm. 16 Veblen, op. cit., p. 88. 17 Cf. “universal” furniture (or “universal” clothing in Roland Barthes’ study of fashion): as the epitome of all functions, it becomes once again opposable to them, and thus simply one more term in the paradigm. Its value isn’t universal, but derived from relative distinction. Thus all the “universal” values (ideological, moral, etc.) become again—indeed, perhaps are produced from the outset as—differential values. 18 In relation to this one, the other functions are secondary processes. They certainly constitute part of the sociological


domain. But the logic of difference (like the primary process) constitutes the proper object of genuine social science. 19 Any more than originality, the specific value, the objective merit is belonging to the aristocratic or bourgeois class. This is defined by signs, to the exclusion of “authentic” values. See Goblot, La Barrière et le Niveau: Etude Sociologique sur la Bourgeoisie Francaise Moderne (Paris: Presse Universitaire de France, 1967). 20 On this point, see Ruyer, La Nutrition Psychique. 21 English in the original—Trans. 22 Consommativité: Baudrillard’s neologism obviously suggests a parallel with the term “productivity,” and all that connotes—Trans. 23 It is so true that consumption is a productive force that, by significant analogy, it is often subsumed under the notion of profit: “Borrowing makes money.” “Buy, and you will be rich.” It is exalted not as expenditure, but as investment and profitability. 24 Hence, it is vain to oppose consumption and production, as is so often done, in order to subordinate one to the other, or vice versa, in terms of causality or influence. For in fact we are comparing two heterogeneous sectors: productivity, that is, and abstract and generalized exchange value system where labor and concrete production are occluded in laws— the modes and relations of production: secondly, a logic, and a sector, that of consumption, which is entirely conceived in terms of motivations and individual, contingent, concrete satisfactions. So, properly speaking, it is illegitimate to confront the two. On the other hand, if one conceives of consumption as production, the production of signs, which is also in the process of systematization on the basis of a generalization of exchange value (of signs), then the two spheres are homogeneous—though, at the same time, not comparable in terms of causal priority, but homologous from the viewpoint of structural modalities. The structure is that of the mode of production. 25 Cf. besoin and besogne. Baudrillard here draws attention to the etymological connection between the French term for need and the archaic word besogne, which commonly


referred to labor, a heavy burden, etc., as well as meaning to need—Trans. 26 In both senses of the term: technical and social. 27 A hypothesis: labor itself did not appear as a productive force until the social order (the structure of privilege and domination) absolutely needed it to survive, since the power based on personal and hierarchical relations was no longer sufficient by itself. The exploitation of labor is a last resort for the social order. Access to work is still refused to women as socially subversive. 28 Nonetheless,, this emergence of needs, however formal and subdued, is never without danger for the social order—as is the liberation of any productive force. Apart from being the dimension of exploitation, it is also the origin of the most violent social contradictions, of class struggle. Who can say what historical contradictions the emergence and exploitation of this new productive force—that of needs— holds in store for us? 29 There is no other basis for aid to underdeveloped countries. 30 Robots remain the ultimate and ideal phantasm of a total productivist system. Still better, there is integrated automation. However, cybernetic rationality is devouring itself, for men are necessary for any system of social order and domination. Now, in the final analysis, this amounts nonetheless to the aim of all productivity, which is a political goal. 31 The term itself has been “recuperated,” for it presupposes an original purity and delineates the capitalist system as a maleficent instance of perversion, revealing yet another moralizing vision. 32 Or, more simply, in a system of generalized exchange.




Robert Goldman and Stephen Papson We’ve seen them thousands of times. They are commodity signs. The most familiar include the Coke insignia, the McDonald’s arches, the Levi’s 501 emblem, the Nike “swoosh.” Commodity signs find their source in advertisements.

Today most television viewers have long since become acclimated to advertisements. We take them for granted. We decipher ads routinely, automatically, even absentmindedly, in what Walter Benjamin once called a “state of distraction.” Ordinarily, little attention is paid to the codes that enable us to make sense of advertisements. Yet the transparency of these advertising codes is critical to our daily routine of reading and deciphering ads.

When we as viewers step back from this process of making and taking meaning from ads, it becomes apparent to us that the process depends on how we understand the advertisement itself as a framework for telling a particular kind of story. Once the commercial narrative framework is accepted as unproblematic, we are able to routinely decipher and evaluate the combinations of meanings that commercials advance as potential sign currency. We rarely pause to consider the assumptions imposed by the advertising framework since our attention is usually fixed on solving the particular riddle of each ad as it passes before us on the screen; just as importantly, our attention is usually fixed on


the question of whether or not we like the ad. The vast majority of ads offer viewers few satisfactions from deciphering; but the few ads that do excite decoding pleasures place their products in line to realize profitable sign values.

Stripped of its glamour, advertising is a kind of cultural mechanics for constructing commodity signs. Advertisements are structured to boost the value of commodity brand names by attaching them to images that possess social and cultural value: brand-name commodity + meaning of image = a commodity sign. Constructing this currency of commodity images requires that advertisements take the form of semiotic equations into which disconnected signifiers and signifieds are entered and then recombined to create new equivalencies. Ads invite viewers to perceive an exchange between otherwise incommensurate meaning systems, and they must be structured to steer interpretation in that direction if they are to fulfill their purpose.

Advertisements are always commodity narratives. John Berger and Judith Williamson have each described the general curve of the commodity narrative expressed through the advertisement. According to Berger, “The spectator- buyer is meant. . . to imagine herself transformed by the product into an object of envy for others, an envy which will then justify her loving herself.”1 Consumer ads typically tell stories of success, desire, happiness, and social fulfillment in the lives of the people who consume the right brands. Interpreting the stories that ads tell is always conditional on how they address, or “hail,” us—how we are positioned, how the commodity is positioned. When ads hail us, they appellate us, naming us and inviting us to take up a position in relation to the advertisements. Consumer ads greet us as individual viewers with what seem to be our own (already) ideological assumptions and personalities.2

Judith Williamson, in her pathbreaking book Decoding Advertisements, cracked open the operation of the advertising framework. She calls this the metastructure, “where meaning is not just ‘decoded’ within one structure, but transferred to create another.”3 This metastructure sets


up tacit rules guiding these transfers; the metastructure is the framework within which sign currencies are assembled. Within this framework, advertisers attempt to engineer the transfers of meanings and values necessary to generate commodity signs. The commodity sign is formed at the intersection between a brand name and a meaning system summarized in an image.

We are socialized into recognition of sign values at an early age. A 1991 study of 6-year-old children confirmed the potential potency of sign values when it reported that children were as familiar with Joe Camel’s link to cigarettes as they were with the Mickey Mouse logo and its connection to the Disney Channel.4 In today’s consumer-goods markets, products require signs that add value to them. Product standardization makes it imperative that products attach themselves to signs that carry an additional element of value. Nike captured a larger market share of the sneaker industry than Reebok did between 1986 and 1993 because Nike effectively harnessed the power of Michael Jordan’s image while Reebok failed to counter with a superior or even an equal stream of imagery. In this kind of industry, everything depends on having a potent, differentiated image.

In the hotly competitive advertising industry, advertisers struggle to differentiate their images. For years, advertisers relied on a formula for joining the meaning of a brand-name product to the meaning of a socially charged image, vying for viewer attention by devising visually distinctive styles of joining meanings. The formula’s success led to expanded usage until it began to provoke sustained consumer resistance. Late 1970s polling data registered rising consumer complaint about feeling “manipulated” and “insulted” by ads. In the late 1980s, advertisers responded with a wave of more “realist looks” in ads. But the problem of advertising clutter continued unabated and eventually pressured advertisers to adopt advertising narratives that were more abbreviated, oblique, and ambiguous. By the late 1980s, a new cultural cutting edge of advertising emerged as advertisers began to indulge in self-reflective banter to win back the favor of disenchanted viewers. An avant-garde of


advertisers—most notably Wieden & Kennedy and Chiat/Day —bypassed the clutter by stylistically differentiating their methods of narrative representation. What advertisers once sought to conceal in their ads, they now boldly compete to utter aloud. Where advertisers once sought to maximize the transparency of the framework, they now try to jar viewers into interpretive quandaries as a way of keeping them engaged in the ads. Some ads now humorously caution viewers to remember that a sign is just a sign, and not the product itself. Replicas already abound. For example, a current, extra-hip Sprite commercial has jumped on the bandwagon to position its sign against other folks’ advertising claims that soda pop can make you popular, give you athletic ability, or “make me more attractive to the opposite sex, though I wish it would.” “If I need a badge I’ll become a security guard,” declares the youthful, black, inner-city narrator. “If I need a refreshing drink, I’ll obey my thirst. Image is nothing!” This Special K ad told of a relationship between eating cereal and gaining the look (body shape) you want. The narrative is a slightly modified version of the “envy and desire” script iterated in Berger’s quote above. This concluding scene defined the Special K sign in terms of the arched foot and calf of the model. The product sign now stands for the object of desire that supposedly comes with purchase of the product. Notice how the sign is literally formed as a combination of meaning systems: half product lettering and half product outcome. The calf is transformed into a marker of desire realized through the sign of Special K. Because of the relationship between the viewer and the object of desire, the calf portion of the sign functions as a closing form of appellation.


Like the Special K image, these Citicorp images offer a study in the formation of a commodity sign. Here the sign is formed by joining an image of the Citicorp Tower with the reflection of portraits of people who are labled as “Americans” (like ourselves) who “want to succeed.”

Advertising campaigns have even attempted to disrupt the taken-for-granted semiotic framework that supports the usual advertising as-sumptions concerning the correspondence between commodities and social outcomes.5 Already, imitators have adopted the tactic of disregarding coding rules associated with video editing, so that sequences of images are not ordered according to conventional narrative expectations. But how far can advertisers go in creating narrative confusion without undermining the goals of advertising? What happens when viewers can no longer figure out what the point of an ad is? Ambiguous and oblique ads may temporarily solve problems of clutter, but how effective are such ads in establishing commodity signs? In today’s consumer-goods markets, the competition in images has evolved into a stage that we call sign wars. Today,


advertisers seem caught between the Scylla of fetishized formulas that annoy and alienate viewers, and the Charybdis of clever self-reflexivity that regains viewer attention at the risk of blowing apart the whole system of sign value. Sprite’s campaign lampoons the typical advertising hype that one can secure athletic accomplishments, sex appeal, popularity, or status badges by consuming commodity signs.


Corporate competition in selling consumer commodities has become centered on the image, the look, the sign. The sign value of the commodity gives a brand name its zip, its meaning. Over the years the cycle of this sign competition has begun to race along, while its density and intensity has escalated. Our study of sign wars explores what happens when meaning is systematically commodified and becomes subject to an economic circuit of exchange and devaluation.

We look at consumer-goods ads as exercises in sign construction. We view advertising as a system of sign values. A sign value is generally equal to the desirability of an image. A sign value establishes the relative value of a brand where the functional difference between products is minimal. Contemporary ads operate on the premise that signifiers and signifieds that have been removed from context can be rejoined to other similarly abstracted signifiers and signifieds to build new signs of identity. This is the heart of the commodity sign machine. No cultural analysis of advertising today can ignore the mercurial process of recombining


meaning systems in order to generate additional value and desirability for brand-name commodities.

The necessity of differentiating products motivates sign competition. The competition to build images that stand out in the media markets is based on a process of routinely unhinging signifiers from signifieds so that new signifier- signified relationships can be fashioned. This process occurs with such rapidity and frequency that we scarcely notice it anymore. But, slow down the videotape and the process becomes blatant as advertisers associate meaning systems that otherwise would not occupy the same space: for example, the sleek, phallic grace and power of a fighter jet in a steep climb is joined to an image of a female diver in a Diet Coke ad. The fighter jet is unhinged from its usual context and some of its connotations—sleekness, phallic grace, and power—can now be rehinged to the signified of the cola via the signifier of the gracefully arched female form. Stating the process in this linear march-step fashion makes it seem very mechanistic and formulaic, and to a certain extent it is.

Ads ask us to choose and construct our identities out of our consumption choices. What are the cultural consequences of continuously unhinging and recombining signifiers and signifieds to hail these identities? And what happens when the process of hinging and unhinging accelerates? By the mid-1980s, the average duration of television ad campaigns decreased to less than 13 weeks, as images were taken up and abandoned at an increasingly frenetic pace. That pace has not abated, and viewers are no longer surprised by the MTV-style of mutating images—a style based on an overfamiliarity with media formulas and clichés, and a frenzy of images thrown at us at ever-accelerating speeds until the speed itself is the primary signifier. As Moore remarks:

Advertising is picking up speed. After more than 45 years of watching television commercials, after more than a decade of MTV and video games, viewers are used to a barrage of visual stimuli. In fact, younger viewers demand it. So television commercials move blindingly fast: Sometimes hundreds of images are crammed into 30 seconds. To follow the story in Nike’s


1993 Super Bowl ad, in which [Michael] Jordan and Bugs Bunny battle Marvin the Martian and his flock of giant green chickens, you probably needed super-slow motion on your VCR. . . . What’s pushing this frenetic pace? . . . Zapping. Viewers armed with remote controls can, and will, zap an ad that doesn’t hold their interest. They also flash among channels, following the action on several. “They look at little snippets. Then they lean on that thing [the remote control] and they do their own editing at home. They’re able to glean the content of six shows instead of one.” As a result, commercials have started to skip around, too. “In the past [ad producers] paid the minutest attention to continuity. Now you can shorthand a lot,” Sann says. In fact, if you don’t, “you’re going to bore people and they’re going to shut you off.”6

The appetite of advertising—what we call the commodity sign industry—for new meanings and styles is voracious. The production and reproduction of competitive sign values require the continuous search for cultural matter that might have fresh value. The economy of images drives cultural turnover, eroding the premise that anything carries lasting value (except perhaps the famous iconic trinity of Elvis, Marilyn, and James Dean).

Ads vary widely in the stylistic strategies used to compete in the field of sign value. In the jeans industry, ads for Bongo jeans or Shawnee jeans or Steel jeans are structured by mechanical formulas for making sign values out of fetishized glamour looks. At the other end of the spectrum, Diesel jeans ads construct convoluted, angry, and self-conscious images about cynical and jaded consumption, yet continue to tease with the fetish character of glamour. Practices of sign production have grown more extreme with each passing season in parity industries like the fashion and footwear industries, where jeans and sneakers are distinguished mostly by their signs. With brand names like Get Used or Damaged or Request jeans the sign is the primary commodity —where the commodity, the social relation, and the sign are collapsed into a single signifying field.


In a mature sign economy, allusions to previous ad campaigns become rampant and imagery is fashioned out of bits and pieces of previous signs and media representations, including ads, TV shows, movies, and music videos. When this logic of sign articulation escalates too far, it results in absurd campaigns that race along on the pure logic of pastiche—drawing together and combining meanings that otherwise seem ludicrous in the same sentence. Case in point: Miller Lite’s 1993 campaign combines meanings that do not go together—for example, sumo wrestlers with competition divers; rodeo bulldogging and divorce lawyers; recliner ski jumping; drag-strip racing and Wiener dogs—to create a unifying image that functions as an analogy for the combination of meanings that Miller Lite takes as its sign: “Tastes Great” and “Less Filling.” While ads like this may seem brain-dead, they illustrate how the logic of constructing novel sign values edges us toward a postmodern world where recombining meanings to construct differentiated sign values results in a “wild and wacky” TV image world composed of a cut-and-paste culture.

The “look” has become an essential element of currency production because escalating market competition has made it renewable, ephemeral, and disposable. In 1990, Nike’s advertising sign machine created a spin-off commodity—a commodity based solely on sign value; a commodity whose sign value eclipsed its use value. Nike put out a new line of T- shirts featuring images drawn from their successful TV ads starring Michael Jordan, Spike Lee, and Bo Jackson. The product targeted teen and preteen boys in a market defined by the circulation of images. Every six weeks, Nike released a new T-shirt with another “hot” image from their ad campaign.7 This truly is planned obsolescence in the sign industry. This constant refreshing of signs illustrates the imperative of finding new spaces for signs and circulating them as quickly as possible. The same process reveals a fundamental social instability of sign value in a mature political economy of sign value.



Advertising continuously appropriates meanings, which it chews up in the process of recontextualizing those meanings to fit commodities or corporations. Think of it as a giant harvesting machine—but instead of harvesting wheat, it harvests signifiers and signifieds of meaning. This harvest of uprooted meanings is delivered to a film editing studio, where it is reorganized according to the “scripts” (and agendas) of the advertiser. Advertising contributes in this way to a postmodern condition in which disconnected signs circulate at ever increasing rates, in which signifiers become detached from signifieds and reattached to still other signifieds.

Constructing a sign value retraces the path of meaning Roland Barthes describes as the transformation of language into myth.8 It may be useful to walk through his formal grid for tracking the signifier, using an example from a Reebok campaign for the Blacktop shoe. The campaign drew on the referent system of “the blacktop”—a social and cultural space where inner-city youth play basketball. Appropriating signifiers for the purpose of constructing sign values tends to fetishize the signifier. What does this mean? Reebok’s Blacktop campaign lifted the photographic image of the chain-link fence and turned it into a signifier of inner-city alienation. Similarly, Reebok has stolen and hollowed out rapper images in the form of the MC and the DJ and the “fatboys.” When Reebok took the name of the socially structured space of the asphalt basketball court—the blacktop—and appropriated it as the name for their shoe, they not only sought to inflate the sign value of their shoe, they also turned the blacktop as a social and cultural space into what Barthes called a second-order signifier. Inside the semiotic space of the Reebok ads, the Blacktop (as defined by the chain-link image, the stylized MC image, etc.) has been turned into a reified signifier that marks the “place where legends are made” by Reebok.


The DJ,

the chain-link fence,

and the fatboys


are turned into reified signifiers of Reebok’s appropriation of the “hood,” a.k.a. the “Blacktop.”

Producing marketable commodity signs depends on how effectively advertisers are able to colonize and appropriate referent systems. Few referent systems are immune to this process, although the Bush White House aggressively combated consumer-goods advertising usage of the presidency because of its “sacred” status. Any referent system can be tapped, but remember that advertisers appropriate referent systems for the purpose of generating sign value, so they dwell on referent systems that they calculate might have value to their target audience. Celebrities are usually sought because they have high potential sign value. The referent systems that can pay off most handsomely when properly appropriated involve lifestyle and subcultures. In recent years advertising has appropriated nostalgia, hip-hop music, grunge, and feminist sensibilities. At our current stage of consumer culture, references to the images of these subcultures are drawn from the mass media more often than from daily life.

There exists no finite list of referent systems available for ads; there are as many as humans are capable of subjectively expressing. However, at any given moment, audiences will not be receptive to, and cannot recall, an infinite array of referent systems linked to brand names. At any rate, the issue is not whether all meaning systems will be used up, but rather how the sphere of cultural meaning has been turned over to the service of sustaining a system of commodities. The value-production process is insatiable as meaning


systems are abstracted, appropriated, and carved up to fit the agendas of semiotic formulas necessary to fuel the engines of commodity sign production. Over the years, the velocity of this process of meaning circulation has accelerated, and the process of extracting sign value from any given meaning system has become subject to marginally diminishing returns. Ceaseless repetition of this circuit, the ceaseless replacement of images, has led to a rising cultural sensibility that meaning is insubstantial and ephemeral. Much of what has been written in marketing and reporting circles under the rubric of “Generation X” (members of the post-baby-boom generation) chronicles the culture of cynicism that has grown up in response to a cultural world characterized by the constant turnover of superficial meanings.

Sign values depend, then, on a system of cultural cannibalism. Though methods for producing sign values resist capsulation, we can distinguish some general approaches to appropriation. A common approach starts with the positive or “mimetic” appropriation of value. This frequently involves appropriating an image—a celebrity, a style, or the like—that is “hot” in terms of its potential market value. A second route relies on the negative signifier and the practice of counterpositioning, so that a sign value or a sign identity is established by sharply contrasting it with what it is not. A third maneuver adds the self-referential and media-referential domain. Here we enter into the logic of sign and code differentiation. A well-known combination of these strategies is the Energizer Bunny ad campaign, which is premised on using parody to harness the negative value of overused and irritating advertising genres. Like any system of currency, sign values only exist in relation to other values. Because sign values are constructed out of meaning, they must be articulated with reference to another system of value—a meaning system that is external to, and different from, the product. More and more frequently the referent system that is cannibalized to construct a new image comes from the land of television itself.

Effective sign values are rarely manufactured out of thin


air. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule—for instance, Spuds MacKenzie for Bud Light. However, the risks associated with inventing an image are considerable, as Burger King (with Herb the Nerd) and Reebok (with its “UBU” campaign) found out. In each case the effort to invent a signifying image or gesture for their signs failed. Inventing a signifier without any basis in daily life (e.g., the Pepsi “summer chillout” gesture) is generally a recipe for sign failure in the contemporary era.


Once upon a time, the Nike swoosh symbol possessed no intrinsic value as a sign, but value was added to the sign by drawing on the name and image value of celebrity superstars like Michael Jordan. Michael Jordan possesses value in his own right—the better his performances, the higher his value. The sign of Nike acquired additional value when it joined itself to the image of Jordan. Similarly, when Nike introduced a new shoe line named “Air Huarache” and wanted to distinguish its sign from those of other shoe lines, Nike adopted John Lennon’s song “Instant Karma” as a starting point for the shoe’s sign value. Nike justified drawing on Lennon’s classic song by insisting that it was chosen because it dovetailed with Nike’s own message of “self-improvement: making yourself better.”9

No less common than drawing upon the value of a commodity classic like a famous song is the adoption of a subcultural style or image that has captured the popular imagination; the most pervasive current example of a signifying style appropriated for its sign value is rap or hip- hop music. This is almost invariably based on a cultural trickle-up process in which value is appropriated (it trickles up) while the critical ideological force of the style is dissipated (it trickles away). We emphasize that the mimetic approach to producing sign value works by sponging off other values.


Effective appropriation of a cultural moment or style is contingent on how the ad appellates (hails) its target audience members. An excellent example of appellation can be found in a series of McDonald’s ads that hailed the viewer with a dude who speaks in the tongue and intonation of Southern California surfer-valley dudes immortalized and cleaned up in the movie Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. The “Excellent” campaign, by Leo Burnett USA of Chicago, offers viewers a permanently stoned, long-haired youth who wears the layered garb that signals membership in this subcultural totem group. In one ad he shares with viewers his analysis of navigation:

“In the past, when ancient old dudes cruised, they used the stars to lead their way. This was not a very excellent system because they were lost all day and ended up living in bogus caves. But luckily we dudes of today have a most excellent number of highways and very many busy streets, and even more excellent than that—they’ve all been built right next to a McDonald’s. ”

Another ad has him acting as a tourist guide, sitting astride a stone wall in front of a mansion as he discourses about the site. The content of his monologues is unimportant; it is the style with which they are delivered that defines the ads and their attitude.

“We have here a major casa. Home of seriously rich dudes. Now I know rich dudes have the most excellent manners. If we ask politely, well they’re sure to invite us in. [He turns toward the mansion and yells out:] Yo, seriously rich dudes. May we come in and see your most excellent stuff? [When there is no reply, he turns back to us with a shrug:] Not home. Must’ve gone to McDonald’s for apple pie or something.”


These ads begin and end with a wildly painted yellow “M” that extends beyond a red block. From its position in the lower right corner of the screen it is obvious that this replaces the ubiquitous golden arches logo of the fast-food giant. A change of this sort in a semiotic building block like the corporate logo should not be taken lightly. McDonald’s here shows their moral flexibility to modify their corporate insignia to fit with the aesthetic preferences of a different target audience. Presenting this emblem at the start of the ad is as much a part of the hailing process as the youth who addresses us.

Generation X has recently become the hot topic in the advertising and marketing industries. It’s risky hailing youth like this because if the representation does not ring true, then the advertiser has antagonized and estranged the viewer. Young and Rubicam Advertising’s director of consumer research advises that when targeting youth, “You need to speak to them in their language and on their terms . . . Contrived ‘hip’ is the kiss of death with young people.”10 Constructing sign value by appropriating linguistic usage or gestures or music or clothing style also requires careful attention to the process of restylizing, which deletes —“airbrushes”—negative moments. Ads that build on a borrowed speech usage or a gesture or a look are based on


the tacit acknowledgment that subcultures are the source of authentic—read: desirable—signs. Authenticity must have a referent system to back it up. Whether it is rap or Generation X or punk or grunge, this process of producing sign value makes images palatable by stripping out—extracting—the essential political ideology that initially drove the expression of these discourses. What is left is mere surface.

Driven by the logic of hailing, the practice of cultural appropriation when situated within the framework of the advertisement seems to magically unfold into an equivalency between brand and cultural icon. In an attempt to appeal to the “twentysomething” audience, Chevrolet has recently laid claim to the history of rock ‘n’ roll as represented by the music of Jimi Hendrix. Chevrolet justified this act of appropriation as “a natural combination. Camaro and rock ‘n’ roll truly grew up together. For a quarter century, the car and music have been the life of the party.” Chevrolet cements this new equivalency with the slogan “From the country that invented rock ‘n’ roll.”11

Once a sign is appropriated it circulates between advertising discourse and everyday life in a stylized form— this kind of mediation invariably changes the sign’s cultural meanings and associations. Whether or not these signifying efforts are successful in marketing terms, the signs thus produced tend to be reified images of social relations. Despite this, our critique of commodity signs cannot end with the simple assertion that these signs are nothing more than the alienated relations and desires denied people in their production relations. Historically, the cultural emphasis on consuming, owning, and wearing signs as an indicator of personal identity was well under way by the 1920s. Since then, the commodity self has offered an identity assembled out of the sign-objects that a person consumes. Individuals may seek to present an identity through the commodity signs they possess and wear.

Signwork has evolved as a key practice of what Erving Goffman termed “face-work” in an impersonal urban society. The commodity self based on the packaging of self as a collection or ensemble of commodity signs is predicated on a


certain degree of plasticity. At the very least, advertising has established the premise that the most gratifying social relations are those associated with the confident, and discriminating, sign user. While this contributes to rampant pseudoindividual-ism, 12 it is also true that commodity signs provide people with real social indicators of identity—after all, consumers do use signs to construct identities and to make invidious distinctions between themselves and others. This is one social consequence of positioning spectator- buyers to step into the advertising mirror.

Two generations ago, Sennett and Cobb examined how wearing badges to earn respect in our urban class-based society resulted in an array of social-psychological injuries.13 Hebdige tracked how this, in turn, contributed to subcultural resistance to fashion codes, as youth bent the “approved” signs to suit their meanings (signs of disapproval). Hebdige adapted the concept of “bricolage” to describe the act of wearing meaning-laden objects (signs) in ways that seem to violate the cosmology (the moral hierarchies) of consumerism that binds the many signs into a cultural system.14 As working-class political opposition has become closed off, opposition in the society of the spectacle is most readily expressed through the category of style. Though the code of commodity culture has always been able to reabsorb opposition and turn it into new commodity styles, the punk subculture’s efforts at bricolage upped the ante, and advertisers eventually responded by appropriating and restylizing the bricolaged look, and then turning it back into yet another commodity sign. Levi’s advertising led the way, and others followed, into a period of “counterbricolage.”15

This movement between bricolage and commodity counterbricolage has in its own right been a form of sign wars. Today, the appropriation process has grown so rapid that it can exploit and exhaust a subcultural movement before it has had time to develop—grunge is a case in point. Grunge has not only been thoroughly appropriated, its style stolen in a media blitz, the term itself has been adopted by the culture industry as a metaphor for what cultural analysts like ourselves call bricolage. Grunge has become a mass-


media metaphor for the new style of mixing things that don’t go together. In this brave new world of hyperappro-priation, anything goes—retrolooks from any decade are thrown into the blender, as are the political sensibilities of any marginalized subculture—and everything becomes a mishmash.


The perpetual abstraction and recombination of images in pursuit of new currency has logically led to the creation of “image banks.” Image banks are an institutionally rationalized approach to managing a marketplace of images for the construction of commodity signs in a stage of advanced sign competition. Banks deal in currency. The name image bank is indicative of the fact that images have become a free-floating and interchangeable currency. Image banks deal in stock photos—of mountain tops, sunsets, farm scenes, sea birds, and so on—that have been severed from meaningful context. Advertising agencies work with image banks because they provide a cost-cutting measure. Bankable images, catalogued and filed, are a reminder that signifiers and signifieds are no longer conceived of as necessarily or naturally conjoint. The same image or scenic representation may appear in multiple and diverse commodity narratives— for example, the same shot of flamingo-like waterbirds in flight appears in a Du Pont ad to signify nature-not-yet- destroyed, while in a Kodak film commercial it signifies superior image quality. The image bank also signals a world where there is no necessary material ground—no necessary correspondence between image and referent system. The arbitrariness of the relationship between image signifiers and signifieds has reached a new plateau. A humorous instance of image bank abstraction gone haywire is illustrative. The advertising agency BBDO created a newspaper ad for Apple Computer that proved embarrassing


when it discovered that the stock photo of an office building used in the ad was actually an image of the IBM Tower in Atlanta.16


In the past, most ad campaigns (failures as well as successes) aimed at conveying a coherent and memorable symbolic value for their product by connecting it with an object of desire. But as these symbolic contests have escalated over the years, the turnover of images and symbols has accelerated and the reliance on media intertextuality has increased. This has contributed to an important cultural shift, the “substitution of referential density for narrative coherence.”17 Referential density means that frames become packed with multiple referents minus unifying threads that give the viewer clues about their relationships. Texts become defined not so much by the story they tell, but by the referential combinations they style. Style overwhelms story. Accelerated editing, a refusal to obey sequencing conventions, and a devotion to supermag-nified close-ups—all place greater emphasis on the isolated signifier whose meaningfulness is now divorced from the contexts that initially gave meaning to it. Referential density is becoming a prominent characteristic of our cultural landscape, the result of a seemingly endless process of cannibalizing and lifting isolated images from previous media references and reassembling them in pastiche form. Indeed, advertising has shifted from an emphasis on narrative coherence such as that described by Roland Marchand as the “social tableaux”— stories about how to successfully live and act in modern society through the proper use of commodities—to visual fascination. While narrative coherence has hardly vanished in the world of ads, its importance has diminished and the old stories have been abbreviated into tacit assumptions.


More and more today, ads either refer to other ads or are about the subject of advertising itself as a method of positioning the commodity brand name. This process is usually referred to as “media self-referentiality” and “intertextuality.” Spirals of referentiality are a function of the continuous process of lifting meanings from one context and placing them into the advertising framework where they become associated with another meaning system. Each time this occurs, meanings are modified and chains of signification are constructed. Let’s take an apparently simple example of a bell. Initially, a bell may have meaning to you because it is located in the church near your home and you associate its ringing with the time of day when your mother called you home for dinner. In other words, its meaning was linked to its location and to your relationships with others. But as Walter Benjamin and John Berger have both shown, when a bell is photographed, the image is freed from its context and can be put to almost any service. Now the image can be used to signify a brand of tomatoes or it can be used to indicate “not-suburbia.” Today, such an image has been used in a generic way to signify tourism or Europeanness, what we call a “Euro-signifier.” We have just described what Barthes meant by second-order signifiers—that is, the bell now stands for Europeanness. Barthes understood that in the modern era this process of hinging and unhinging signifiers and signifieds could go on and on as the image of the bell gets lifted from its new context of generic tourism for use in yet another way. In this sense, advertising contributes to a world littered by second-order signifiers. The circuit of sign- value production is predicated on the diffusion of second- order signifiers. In advertising, harnessing the power of splitting the sign (much like an atom) releases significant potential energy as each signifying valence is steered toward recombination with another split sign to produce a new sign value. But this process also produces cultural by-products. In advertising, one result is an abnormally high level of second- order signifiers—what Barthes saw as the fundamental element of myth.

For decades, advertisers sought to avoid raising the subject


of their ad’s agenda or the power dynamic going on between text and viewer. Instead, the focus was on the glitter of the spectacular moment. But after decades of this, audiences have matured, become more media-literate, media-saturated, and media-cynical. The arbitrariness of the process eventually rises to the surface and can no longer be ignored. By the latter 1980s there emerged a genre of ads that played at being self-reflexive about the arbitrary process of meaning construction in ads. A new spiral emerged in which advertisers tried to top one another in how outrageous they can be in their self-reflexive acknowledgments. As commercials increase in referential density, images can be thrown together without any relationship to the image that comes before or after. These are but a few of the arbitrary images that populate a 1992 Mazda ad. No order is implied by our layout.



Where does this conversation about advertising culture fit in relation to changes in culture, the economy, and society? How are the spirals of speed, referential density, and media reflexivity related to the larger goings-on of our culture? We have previously argued that advertising has upheld culturally predominant ways of seeing things. Predominant ways of seeing are, however, almost always being contested or stretched by opposing social forces and relations. For example, in American society, patriarchy’s long hegemony has recently been effectively contested by women who find patriarchal ways of seeing as too confining and repressive to meet their interests.

Saying that advertising tends to further the hegemony of commodity and market relations does not mean that advertisers are a wily ideological bunch intent on manipulating us politically. When we look at ads as an ideological site, we see ads as ideological in all the following senses: (1) as discourses that socially and culturally construct a world; (2) as discourses that disguise and suppress inequalities, injustices, irrationalities, and contradictions; (3) as discourses that promote a normative vision of our world and our relationships; and (4) as discourses that reflect the logic of capital. In this sense, ideology refers to the “meaning made necessary by the conditions of our society while helping to perpetuate those conditions.”18 Ads are ideological insofar as they construct socially necessary illusions and normalize distorted communication. 19 We are studying ads, then, because we think ads reveal some inner cultural contradictions of a commodity culture.

Advertisements offer rich social texts for investigating the socially constructed nature of hegemony because they are situated at the intersection of conflicting economic and cultural demands: on the one hand, advertisements must devote themselves to reproducing commodity relations (selling more products); on the other hand, they must engage


the attention and interpretive participation of consumers by hailing them with images of their own “alreadyness.” Ads thus can be made to reveal not only a dominant mode of representation, but also the self-contradictory representations of commodity culture.

We have focused on two sides of the same coin: on sign wars, battles over the currency of images, and on the cultural contradictions of a political economy of sign value. As ideological discourses for understanding these cultural contradictions, ads can be made to speak a certain kind of truth about the commodity culture that produces them. To the extent that ads must give us back some sense of ourselves, they also unintentionally capture our cultural contradictions. Insofar as advertisers today feel the pressure to efficiently hail finely targeted audience segments, they must include signifiers of the self-contradictions manifested by this or that target group “persona” in their representations. In the last few years, in addition to the many ads that either try to suppress or disguise contradictions, we now have ads that literally swim in their self-reflexive awareness of issues of domination and power in commodity culture. Indeed, some ads now flaunt their own contradictoriness, or that of our culture, to gain attention for themselves. Today the practice of cultural criticism seems to be sponsored by commodity interests.

Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, written in 1964, is the classic statement of the culture industry’s capacity for containing opposition. 20 Marcuse argued that when culture was turned into commodity form it could contain contradictions and blunt critical alternative ways of seeing. He felt the process of commodifying language purged the vernacular of “class” from mass-mediated discourses, even though it remained an animating force in the landscape of everyday work life. Thirty years later, class has indeed been erased from public discourse, supplanted by the category of individual life-style; but the culture industry’s capacity to contain crisis and contradiction has become disengaged from its capacity to redirect the language of resistance and opposition. While the evidence is compelling that advertising


is able to appropriate and incorporate the language and visual representations of resistance, we are less convinced by the capacity of advertising to contain crisis tendencies.

Ironically, in a world where advertisers are forever struggling to stylistically differentiate themselves, more than ever before they depend on symbols of cultural opposition to drive the sign—value circuit. In fact, we have come to believe that while some advertising is aimed at containing contradictions (e.g., the environmental consequences of capitalist growth), advertising has itself become the site of new cultural crisis tendencies and emergent cultural contradictions, not the least of which is a profoundly privatized cynicism.

Advertising is in crisis, yet somehow it remains the voice of commodity hegemony. Its formulas have antagonized viewers. Its cultural products no longer merely incorporate opposition to produce images of harmony, although god knows there are plenty of advertisers who still try. While the advertising form has historically functioned as a site for ideologically masking social and cultural contradictions, the neat, clean, and tidy categories of the past have been sublated.

Our argument emphasizes not the particular ad, but the system of ads—the sheer abundance of ads driven by the logic of capital and the reproduction of commodities. As a system, advertising produces sign wars, and sign wars will have real cultural consequences. Indeed, perhaps we should begin by asking what collective crises of meaning lie in store for a culture and society characterized by an increasing circulation velocity of images made necessary by sign wars.


1 Berger, John (1972). Ways of Seeing. New York: Penguin, p. 134. 2 Williamson, Judith. (1978). Decoding Advertisements. London: Marion Bo-yars; see also Hall, Stuart. (1980).


“Encoding/Decoding.” Pp. 128–138, in Stuart Hall, et al. (eds.), Culture Media and Language. London: Hutchinson & Co. 3 Williamson, 1978, p. 43. 4 Fischer, P.M., M.P. Schwartz, J.W. Richards Jr., A.O. Goldstein, T.H. Rojas. (1991). “Brand logo recognition by children aged 3 to 6 years. Mickey Mouse and Old Joe the Camel,” JAMA. Dec 11, 266 (22): 3145–8. 5 Semiotics is well suited to the tasks of both constructing and deconstructing sign values because it mimics the structural mechanics of both the commodity form and the advertising form. The “preferred” interpretive conventions of the advertising form reproduce the logic of the commodity form. The latter consists of three intertwined moments: (1) abstraction, the removal of a meaningful action or relationship from its context; (2) equivalence exchange, the formal relation of universal exchangeability between items that are otherwise not comparable; and (3) reification, the conversion of human attributes and relations into the characteristics of objects or things. Advertisements routinely abstract meaning systems from their contexts, place them into relations of formal exchange, engineer a transfer of meanings to construct an equivalency, and propose a reified commodity sign. In this sense, we see the advertising framework replicating the logic of the commodity form. 6 Moore, Martha T. “Visual Overload: Fleeting ad images catch viewers,” USA Today, June 15, 1993, p. iB. 7 Baker, Nena. “If Nike lost a shoe, it’d still have T-shirt for its back,” The Oregonian, April 28, 1991, p. Ki, 5. 8 Barthes, Roland. (1972). Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang. 9 Baker, Nena. “Nike’s ready to go all out to promote latest sneaker,” The Oregonian, March 14, 1992, p. B1. 10 Elliott, Stuart. “Hey, Dude, That’s One Serious Pitch,” The New York Times, May 10, 1991, p. D1. 11 “’93 Camaro Advertising Arrives with Rock ’n’ Roll Beat,” PR Newswire, March 29, 1993. 12 See Adorno, Theodor. (1941). “On Popular Music,” Studies in Philosophy and Social Science, (9): 117-148;


Gendron, Bernard. (1986). “Theodor Adorno Meets the Cadillacs,” pp. 18-36 in Tania Modleski (ed.) Studies in Entertainment. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 13 Sennett, Richard and Jonathan Cobb. (1972). The Hidden Injuries of Class. New York: Vintage. 14 Hebdige, Dick. (1979). Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Methuen. 15 See Goldman, Robert and Steve Papson. (1991). “Levi’s & the Knowing Wink.” Current Perspectives in Social Theory. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, pp. 69-95. 16 Horovitz, Bruce. “Cost-conscious agencies turn to rental photos,” Los Angeles Times, July 16, 1991, p. D6. 17 Hebdige, Dick. (1998). Hiding in the Light: on images & things. London: Routledge, p. 237. 18 Williamson, p. 13. 19 See Eagleton, Terry. (1991). Ideology, an introduction. New York: Verso, p. 1 20 Marcuse, Herbert. (1964). One Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon.




Susan Bordo


In a television commercial, two little French girls are shown dressing up in the feathery finery of their mother’s clothes. They are exquisite little girls, flawless and innocent, and the scene emphasizes both their youth and the natural sense of style often associated with French women. (The ad is done in French, with subtitles.) One of the girls, spying a picture of the other girl’s mother, exclaims breathlessly, “Your mother, she is so slim, so beautiful! Does she eat?” The daughter, giggling, replies: “Silly, just not so much,” and displays her mother’s helper, a bottle of FibreThin. “Aren’t you jealous?” the friend asks. Dimpling, shy yet self-possessed, deeply knowing, the daughter answers, “Not if I know her secrets.”

Admittedly, women are continually bombarded with advertisements and commercials for weight-loss products and programs, but this commercial makes many of us particularly angry. On the most obvious level, the commercial affronts with its suggestion that young girls begin early in learning to control their weight, and with its romantic mystification of diet pills as part of the obscure, eternal arsenal of feminine arts to be passed from generation to generation. This romanticization, as often is the case in American commercials, trades on our continuing infatuation with (what we imagine to be) the civility, tradition, and savoir-faire of “Europe” (seen as the stylish antithesis to our own American clumsiness, aggressiveness, crudeness). The


little girls are fresh and demure, in a way that is undefinably but absolutely recognizably “European” —as defined, that is, within the visual vocabulary of popular American culture. And FibreThin, in this commercial, is nothing so crass and “medical” and pragmatic (read: American) as a diet pill, but a mysterious, prized (and, it is implied, age-old) “secret,” known only to those with both history and taste.

But we expect such hype from contemporary advertisements. Far more unnerving is the psychological acuity of the ad’s focus, not on the size and shape of bodies, but on a certain subjectivity, represented by the absent but central figure of the mother, the woman who eats, only “not so much.” We never see her picture; we are left to imagine her ideal beauty and slenderness. But what she looks like is not important, in any case; what is important is the fact that she has achieved what we might call a “cool” (that is, casual) relation to food. She is not starving herself (an obsession, indicating the continuing power of food), but neither is she desperately and shamefully binging in some private corner. Eating has become, for her, no big deal. In its evocation of the lovely French mother who doesn’t eat much, the commercial’s metaphor of European “difference” reveals itself as a means of representing that enviable and truly foreign “other”: the woman for whom food is merely ordinary, who can take it or leave it.

Another version, this time embodied by a sleek, fashionable African American woman, playfully promotes Virginia Slims Menthol (Figure 1). This ad, which appeared in Essence magazine, is one of a series specifically targeted at the African American female consumer. In contrast to the Virginia Slims series concurrently appearing in Cosmo and People, a series which continues to associate the product with historically expanded opportunities for women (“You’ve come a long way, baby” remains the motif and slogan), Virginia Slims pitches to the Essence reader by mocking solemnity and self-importance after the realization of those opportunities: “Why climb the ladder if you’re not going to enjoy the view?” “Big girls don’t cry. They go shopping.” And, in the variant depicted in Figure i: “Decisions are easy. When


I get to a fork in the road, I eat.” Arguably, the general subtext meant to be evoked by these

ads is the failure of the dominant, white culture (those who don’t “enjoy the view”) to relax and take pleasure in success. The upwardly mobile black consumer, it is suggested, will do it with more panache, with more cool—and of course with a cool, Virginia Slims Menthol in hand. In this particular ad, the speaker scorns obsessiveness, not only over professional or interpersonal decision-making, but over food as well. Implicitly contrasting herself to those who worry and fret, she presents herself as utterly “easy” in her relationship with food. Unlike the FibreThin mother, she eats anytime she wants. But like the FibreThin mother (and this is the key similarity for my purposes), she has achieved a state beyond craving. Undominated by unsatisfied, internal need, she eats not only freely but without deep desire and without apparent consequence. It’s “easy,” she says. Presumably, without those forks in the road she might forget about food entirely.

The Virginia Slims woman is a fantasy figure, her cool attitude toward food as remote from the lives of most contemporary African American women as from any others. True, if we survey cultural attitudes toward women’s appetites and body size, we find great variety—a variety shaped by ethnic, national, historical, class, and other factors. My eighty-year-old father, the child of immigrants, asks at the end of every meal if 1 “got enough to eat”; he considers me skinny unless I am plump by my own standards. His attitude reflects not only memories of economic struggle and a heritage of Jewish-Russian preference for zaftig women, but the lingering, well into this century, of a once more general Anglo-Saxon cultural appreciation for the buxom woman. In the mid-nineteenth century, hotels and bars were adorned with Bouguereau-inspired paintings of voluptuous female nudes; Lillian Russell, the most photographed woman in America in 1890, was known and admired for her hearty appetite, ample body (over two hundred pounds at the height of her popularity), and “challenging, fleshly arresting” beauty.1 Even as such fleshly challenges became less widely appreciated in the twentieth


century, men of Greek, Italian, Eastern European, and African descent, influenced by their own distinctive cultural heritages, were still likely to find female voluptuousness appealing. And even in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton began to set a new norm for ultra-slenderness, lesbian cultures in the United States continued to be accepting—even celebrating—of fleshy, space-claiming female bodies.


Even more examples could be produced, of course, if we


cast our glance more widely over the globe and back through history. Many cultures, clearly, have revered expansiveness in women’s bodies and appetites. Some still do. But in the 1980s and 1990s an increasingly universal equation of slenderness with beauty and success has rendered the competing claims of cultural diversity ever feebler. Men who were teenagers from the mid-seventies on, whatever their ethnic roots or economic class, are likely to view long, slim legs, a flat stomach, and a firm rear end as essentials of female beauty. Unmuscled heft is no longer as acceptable as it once was in lesbian communities. Even Miss Soviet Union has become lean and tight, and the robust, earthy actresses who used to star in Russian films have been replaced by slender, Westernized types.

Arguably, a case could once be made for a contrast between (middle-class, heterosexual) white women’s obsessive relations with food and a more accepting attitude toward women’s appetites within African American communities. But in the nineties, features on diet, exercise, and body-image problems have grown increasingly prominent in magazines aimed at African American readers, reflecting the cultural reality that for most women today— whatever their racial or ethnic identity, and increasingly across class and sexual-orientation differences as well—free and easy relations with food are at best a relic of the past. (More frequently in Essence than in Cosmo, there may be a focus on health problems associated with overweight among African Americans, in addition to the glamorization of slenderness.) Almost all of us who can afford to be eating well are dieting—and hungry—almost all of the time.

It is thus Dexatrim, not Virginia Slims, that constructs the more realistic representation of women’s subjective relations with food. In Dexatrim’s commercial that shows a woman, her appetite-suppressant worn off, hurtling across the room, drawn like a living magnet to the breathing, menacing refrigerator, hunger is represented as an insistent, powerful force with a life of its own. This construction reflects the physiological reality of dieting, a state the body is unable to distinguish from starvation.2 And it reflects its psychological


reality as well; for dieters, who live in a state of constant denial, food is a perpetually beckoning presence, its power growing ever greater as the sanctions against gratification become more stringent. A slender body may be attainable through hard work, but a “cool” relation to food, the true “secret” of the beautiful “other” in the FibreThin commercial, is a tantalizing reminder of what lies beyond the reach of the inadequate and hungry self. (Of course, as the ads suggest, a psychocultural transformation remains possible, through FibreThin and Virginia Slims.)


Sometimes, when I am analyzing and interpreting advertisements and commercials in class, students accuse me of a kind of paranoia about the significance of these representations as carriers and reproducers of culture. After all, they insist, these are just images, not “real life”; any fool knows that advertisers manipulate reality in the service of selling their products. I agree that on some level we “know” this. However, were it a meaningful or usable knowledge, it is unlikely that we would be witnessing the current spread of diet and exercise mania across racial and ethnic groups, or the explosion of technologies aimed at bodily “correction” and “enhancement.”

Jean Baudrillard offers a more accurate description of our cultural estimation of the relation and relative importance of image and “reality.” In Simulations, he recalls the Borges fable in which the cartographers of a mighty empire draw up a map so detailed that it ends up exactly covering the territory of the empire, a map which then frays and disintegrates as a symbol of the coming decline of the empire it perfectly represents. Today, Baudrillard suggests, the fable might be inverted: it is no longer the territory that provides the model for the map, but the map that defines the territory; and it is the territory “whose shreds are slowly rotting across the map.” Thinking further, however, he declares even the


inverted fable to be “useless.” For what it still assumes is precisely that which is being lost today—namely, the distinction between the territory and its map, between reality and appearance. Today, all that we experience as meaningful are appearances.3

Thus, we all “know” that Cher and virtually every other female star over the age of twenty-five is the plastic product of numerous cosmetic surgeries on face and body. But, in the era of the “hyperreal” (as Baudrillard calls it), such “knowledge” is as faded and frayed as the old map in the Borges tale, unable to cast a shadow of doubt over the dazzling, compelling, authoritative images themselves. Like the knowledge of our own mortality when we are young and healthy, the knowledge that Cher’s physical appearance is fabricated is an empty abstraction; it simply does not compute. It is the created image that has the hold on our most vibrant, immediate sense of what is, of what matters, of what we must pursue for ourselves.

In constructing the images, of course, continual use is made of knowledge (or at least what is imagined to be knowledge) of consumers’ lives. Indeed, a careful reading of contemporary advertisements reveals continual and astute manipulation of problems that psychology and the popular media have targeted as characteristic dilemmas of the “contemporary woman,” who is beset by conflicting role demands and pressures on her time. “Control”—a word that rarely used to appear in commercial contexts—has become a common trope in advertisements for products as disparate as mascara (“Perfect Pen Eyeliner. Puts you in control. And isn’t that nice for a change?”) and cat-box deodorant (“Control. I strive for it. My cat achieves it”). “Soft felt tip gives you absolute control of your line” (Figure 2). It is virtually impossible to glance casually at this ad without reading “line” as “life”—which is, of course, the subliminal coding such ads intend. “Mastery” also frequently figures in ads for cosmetics and hair products: “Master your curls with new Adaptable Perm.” The rhetoric of these ads is interestingly contrasted to the rhetoric of mastery and control directed at male consumers. Here, the message is almost always one of


mastery and control over others rather than the self: “Now it’s easier than ever to achieve a position of power in Manhattan” (an ad for Manhattan health club), or “Don’t just serve. Rule” (an ad for Speedo tennis shoes).

Advertisers are aware, too, of more specific ways in which women’s lives are out of control, including our well- documented food disorders; they frequently incorporate the theme of food obsession into their pitch. The Sugar Free Jell- O Pudding campaign exemplifies a typical commercial strategy for exploiting women’s eating problems while obscuring their dark realities. (The advertisers themselves would put this differently, of course.) In the “tip of my tongue” ad (Figure 3), the obsessive mental state of the compulsive eater is depicted fairly accurately, guaranteeing recognition from people with that problem: “If I’m not eating dessert, I’m talking about it. If I’m not talking about it, I’m eating it. And I’m always thinking about it . . . It’s just always on my mind.”

These thoughts, however, belong to a slender, confident, and—most important—decidedly not depressed individual, whose upbeat, open, and accepting attitude toward her constant hunger is far from that of most women who eat compulsively. “The inside of a binge,” Geneen Roth writes, “is deep and dark. At the core . . . is deprivation, scarcity, a feeling that you can never get enough.”4 A student described her hunger as “a black hole that I had to fill up.” In the Sugar Free Jell-O ad, by contrast, the mental state depicted is most like that of a growing teenage boy; to be continually hungry is represented as a normal, if somewhat humorous and occasionally annoying, state with no disastrous physical or emotional consequences.

The use of a male figure is one strategy, in contemporary ads, for representing compulsive eating as “natural” and even lovable. Men are supposed to have hearty, even voracious, appetites. It is a mark of the manly to eat spontaneously and expansively, and manliness is a frequent commercial code for amply portioned products: “Manwich,” “Hungry Man Dinners,” “Manhandlers.” Even when men advertise diet products (as they more frequently do, now that


physical perfection is increasingly being demanded of men as well as women), they brag about their appetites, as in the Tommy Lasorda commercials for Slim-Fast, which feature three burly football players (their masculinity beyond reproach) declaring that if Slim-Fast can satisfy their appetites, it can satisfy anyone’s. The displacement of the female by a male figure (displacement when the targeted consumer is in fact a woman) thus dispels thoughts of addiction, danger, unhappiness, and replaces them with a construction of compulsive eating (or thinking about food) as benign indulgence of a “natural” inclination. Consider the ad shown in Figure 4, depicting a male figure diving with abandon into the “tempered-to-full-flavor-consistency” joys of Häagen-Dazs deep chocolate.





Emotional heights, intensity, love, and thrills: it is women who habitually seek such experiences from food and who are most likely to be overwhelmed by their relationship to food, to find it dangerous and frightening (especially rich, fattening, soothing food like ice cream). The marketers of Häagen-Dazs know this; they are aware of the well-publicized prevalence of compulsive eating and binge behaviors among women. Indeed, this ad exploits, with artful precision, exactly the sorts of associations that are likely to resonate with a person for whom eating is invested with deep emotional meaning. Why, then, a male diver? In part, as I have been arguing, the displacement is necessary to insure that the grim actualities of women’s eating problems remain


obscured; the point, after all, is to sell ice cream, not to remind people of how dangerous food actually is for women. Too, the advertisers may reckon that women might enjoy seeing a man depicted in swooning surrender to ice cream, as a metaphor for the emotional surrender that so many women crave from their husbands and lovers.




I would argue, however, that more than a purely profit- maximizing, ideologically neutral, Madison Avenue mentality is at work in these ads. They must also be considered as gender ideology—that is, as specifically (consciously or unconsciously) servicing the cultural reproduction of gender difference and gender inequality, quite independent of (although at times coinciding with) marketing concerns. As gender ideology, the ads I have been discussing are not distinctively contemporary but continue a well-worn representational tradition, arguably inaugurated in the Victorian era, in which the depiction of women eating, particularly in sensuous surrender to rich, exciting food, is taboo.5

In exploring this dimension, we might begin by attempting to imagine an advertisement depicting a young, attractive woman indulging as freely, as salaciously as the man in the Post cereal ad shown in Figure 5. Such an image would violate deeply sedimented expectations, would be experienced by many as disgusting and transgressive. When women are positively depicted as sensuously voracious about food (almost never in commercials, and only very rarely in movies and novels), their hunger for food is employed solely as a metaphor for their sexual appetite. In the eating scenes in Tom Jones and Flashdance, for example, the heroines’ unrestrained delight in eating operates as sexual foreplay, a way of prefiguring the abandon that will shortly be expressed in bed. Women are permitted to lust for food itself only when they are pregnant or when it is clear they have been near starvation—as, for example, in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, in the scene in which Mrs. Miller, played by Julie Christie, wolfs down half a dozen eggs and a bowl of beef stew before the amazed eyes of McCabe. Significantly, the scene serves to establish Mrs. Miller’s “manliness”; a woman who eats like this is to be taken seriously, is not to be trifled with, the movie suggests.



The metaphorical situation is virtually inverted in the representation of male eaters. Although voracious eating may occasionally code male sexual appetite (as in Tom Jones), we frequently also find sexual appetite operating as a metaphor for eating pleasure. In commercials that feature male eaters, the men are shown in a state of wild, sensual transport over heavily frosted, rich, gooey desserts. Their total lack of control is portrayed as appropriate, even adorable; the language of the background jingle is unashamedly aroused, sexual and desiring:

I’m thinking about you the whole day through [crooned to a Pillsbury cake]. I’ve got a passion for you. You’re my one and only, my creamy deluxe [Betty Crocker frosting]. You butter me up, I can’t resist, you leave me breathless [Betty Crocker frosting]. Your brownies give me fever. Your cake gives me chills [assorted Betty Crocker mixes]. I’m a fool for your chocolate. I’m wild, crazy, out of control [assorted Betty Crocker mixes]. I’ve got it bad, and I should know, ’cause I crave it from my head right down to my potato [for Pillsbury


Potatoes Au Gratin]. Can’t help myself. It’s Duncan Hines [assorted cake mixes] and nobody else.

In these commercials food is constructed as a sexual object of desire, and eating is legitimated as much more than a purely nutritive activity. Rather, food is supposed to supply sensual delight and succor—not as metaphorically standing for something else, but as an erotic experience in itself. Women are permitted such gratification from food only in measured doses. In another ad from the Diet Jell-O series, eating is metaphorically sexualized: “I’m a girl who just can’t say no. I insist on dessert,” admits the innocently dressed but flirtatiously posed model (Figure 6). But at the same time that eating is mildly sexualized in this ad, it is also contained. She is permitted to “feel good about saying ‘Yes’ ”—but ever so demurely, and to a harmless low-calorie product. Transgression beyond such limits is floridly sexualized, as an act of “cheating” (Figure 7). Women may be encouraged (like the man on the Häagen-Dazs high board) to “dive in”—not, however, into a dangerous pool of Häagen-Dazs Deep Chocolate, but for a “refreshing dip” into Weight Watchers linguini (Figure 8). Targeted at the working woman (“Just what you need to revive yourself from the workday routine”), this ad also exploits the aquatic metaphor to conjure up images of female independence and liberation (“Isn’t it just like us to make waves?”).



All of this may seem peculiarly contemporary, revolving as it does around the mass marketing of diet products. But in fact the same metaphorical universe, as well as the same practical prohibitions against female indulgence (for, of course, these ads are not only selling products but teaching appropriate behavior) were characteristic of Victorian gender ideology. Victorians did not have Cosmo and television, of course.



But they did have conduct manuals, which warned elite women of the dangers of indulgent and overstimulating eating and advised how to consume in a feminine way (as little as possible and with the utmost precaution against unseemly show of desire). Godey’s Lady’s Book warned that it was vulgar for women to load their plates; young girls were admonished to “be frugal and plain in your tastes.”6 Detailed lexicons offered comparisons of the erotic and cooling effects of various foods, often with specific prescriptions for each sex.7 Sexual metaphors permeate descriptions of potential transgression:

Every luxurious table is a scene of temptation, which it requires fixed principles and an enlightened mind to withstand. . . . Nothing can be more seducing to the appetite than this arrangement of the viands which compose a feast; as the stomach is filled, and the natural desire for food subsides, the palate is tickled by more delicate and relishing dishes until it is betrayed into excess.8

Today, the same metaphors of temptation and fall appear frequently in advertisements for diet products (see Figure 9). And in the Victorian era, as today, the forbiddenness of rich food often resulted in private binge behavior, described in The Bazaar Book of Decorum (1870) as the “secret


luncheon,” at which “many of the most abstemious at the open dinner are the most voracious . . . swallowing cream tarts by the dozen, and caramels and chocolate drops by the pound’s weight.”9

The emergence of such rigid and highly moralized restrictions on female appetite and eating are, arguably, part of what Bram Dijkstra has interpreted as a nineteenth- century “cultural ideological counteroffensive” against the “new woman” and her challenge to prevailing gender arrangements and their constraints on women.10 Mythological, artistic, polemical, and scientific discourses from many cultures and eras certainly suggest the symbolic potency of female hunger as a cultural metaphor for unleashed female power and desire, from the blood-craving Kali (who in one representation is shown eating her own entrails) to the Malleus Malificarum (“For the sake of fulfilling the mouth of the womb, [witches] consort even with the devil”) to Hall and Oates’s contemporary rock lyrics: “Oh, oh, here she comes, watch out boys, she’ll chew you up.”11



In Tom Jones and Flash-dance, the trope of female hunger as female sexuality is embodied in attractive female characters; more frequently, however, female hunger as sexuality is represented by Western culture in misogynist images permeated with terror and loathing rather than affection or admiration. In the figure of the man-eater the metaphor of the devouring woman reveals its deep psychological underpinnings. Eating is not really a metaphor for the sexual act; rather, the sexual act, when initiated and desired by a woman, is imagined as itself an act of eating, of incorporation and destruction of the object of desire. Thus,


women’s sexual appetites must be curtailed and controlled, because they threaten to deplete and consume the body and soul of the male. Such imagery, as Dijkstra has demonstrated, flourishes in the West in the art of the late nineteenth century. Arguably, the same cultural backlash (if not in the same form) operates today—for example, in the ascendancy of popular films that punish female sexuality and independence by rape and dismemberment (as in numerous slasher films), loss of family and children (The Good Mother), madness and death (Fatal Attraction, Presumed Innocent), and public humiliation and disgrace (Dangerous Liaisons ).

Of course, Victorian prohibitions against women eating were not only about the ideology of gender. Or, perhaps better put, the ideology of gender contained other dimensions as well. The construction of “femininity” had not only a significant moral and sexual aspect (femininity as sexual passivity, timidity, purity, innocence) but a class dimension. In the reigning body symbolism of the day, a frail frame and lack of appetite signified not only spiritual transcendence of the desires of the flesh but social transcendence of the laboring, striving “economic” body. Then, as today, to be aristocratically cool and unconcerned with the mere facts of material survival was highly fashionable. The hungering bourgeois wished to appear, like the aristocrat, above the material desires that in fact ruled his life. The closest he could come was to possess a wife whose ethereal body became a sort of fashion statement of his aristocratic tastes. If he could not be or marry an aristocrat, he could have a wife who looked like one, a wife whose non-robust beauty and delicate appetite signified her lack of participation in the taxing “public sphere.”12




This essay grew out of a shorter piece, “How Television Teaches Women to Hate Their Hungers,” in Mirror Images (Newsletter of Anorexia Bulimia Support, Syracuse, N.Y.) 4, no. 1(1986): 8—9. An earlier version was delivered at the 1990 meetings of the New York State Sociological Association, and some of the analysis has been presented in various talks at Le Moyne and other colleges and community organizations. I owe thanks to all my students who supplied examples.


1 Journalist Beatrice Fairfax, quoted in Lois Banner, American Beauty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 136.


2 “Starvation Stages in Weight-loss Patients Similar to Famine Victims,” International Obesity Newsletter 3 (April 1989). 3 Jean Baudrillard, Simulations (New York: Semiotext(e), 1983), pp. 1—3; quotation is on p. 2. 4 Geneen Roth, Feeding the Hungry Heart (New York: New American Library, 1982), p. 15. 5 See Helena Mitchie, The Flesh Made Word (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), for an extremely interesting discussion of this taboo in Victorian literature. 6 Quoted from Godey’s by Joan Jacobs Brumberg, Fasting Girls (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), p. 179. 7 Mitchie, The Flesh Made Word, p. 15. Not surprisingly, red meat came under especial suspicion as a source of erotic inflammation. As was typical for the era, such anxieties were rigorously scientized: for example, in terms of the heat- producing capacities of red meat and its effects on the development of the sexual organs and menstrual flow. But, clearly, an irresistible associational overdetermination—meat as the beast, the raw, the primitive, the masculine—was the true inflammatory agent here. These associations survive today, put to commercial use by the American Beef Association, whose television ads feature James Garner and Cybill Shepard promoting “Beef: Real Food for Real People.” Here the nineteenth-century link between meat aversion, delicacy, and refinement is exploited, this time in favor of the meat-eater, whose down-to-earth gutsiness is implicitly contrasted to the prissiness of the weak-blooded vegetarian. 8 Mrs. H. O. Ward, The Young Lady’s Friend (Philadelphia: Porter and Coates, 1880), p. 162, quoted in Mitchie, The Flesh Made Word, pp. 16—17. 9 Quoted in Mitchie, The Flesh Made Word, p. 193. 10 Bram Dijkstra, Idols of Perversity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), PP. 30—31. 11 Malleus Malificarum quoted in Brian Easlea, Witch- Hunting, Magic, and the New Philosophy (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1980), p. 8; Hall and Oates, “Man- Eater.” 12 Women were thus warned that “gluttonous habits of life”


would degrade their physical appearance and ruin their marriageability. “Gross eaters” could develop thick skin, broken blood vessels on the nose, cracked lips, and an unattractively “superanimal” facial expression (Brumberg, Fasting Girls, p. 179). Of course, the degree to which actual women were able to enact any part of these idealized and idolized constructions was highly variable (as it always is); but all women, of all classes and races, felt their effects as the normalizing measuring rods against which their own adequacy was judged (and, usually, found wanting).



Consumption and Lived Experience




Dick Hebdige

One of the difficulties of sociological discourse lies in the fact that like all discourse, it unfolds in strictly linear fashion whereas, to escape over- simplification and one-sidedness one needs to be able to recall at every point the whole network of relationships found there.


Nowhere do we encounter “networks of relationships” more familiar and “material” yet more elusive and contradictory than those in which material objects themselves are placed and have meaning(s). If linearity is an effect of all discourse then the world of things seems especially resistant to coherent exegesis. And one of the central paradoxes facing those who write about product design must be that the more “material” the object—the more finite its historical and visual appearance—the more prodigious the things that can be said about it, the more varied the analyzes, descriptions and histories that can be brought to bear upon it.

In a sense, each essay in Roland Barthes’ Mythologies is an equation which depends for its impact on the initial


recognition of this perverse formula and Barthes handles the paradox with a relish which alternates between the comic and the macabre (“What I claim is to live to the full the contradiction of my time, which may well make sarcasm the condition of truth”1). In “The New Citroen,” Barthes describes how the “tangible” is made to intersect with the “ethereal,” the “material” with the “spiritual” through the convention of the annual motor show where the industry’s new product is miraculously “unveiled” before the public. He refers to the mystique of the object: the dual mystery of its appearance—its magical lines, its “classical” body and the unanswerable riddle (unanswerable at least for Barthes, the aesthete) of how it came to be made in the first place—to religious myths and archetypes. Here a set of contemporary wonders—the transubstantiation of labor power into things, the domestication of the “miracle” in use—is intimated by Barthes through the manipulation of a single pun: the Citroen DS19 (short for “diffusion Special”) is pronounced “Déesee” (Goddess) in French.

The essay is, then, a kind of trial by catachresis. It might be argued that that is precisely Barthes’ “method”; that Barthes would have been the first to insist on the validity of constructing an analysis on the strength of a single word—on what it evokes and makes possible for the mythologist. Indeed, for Barthes it is only through “displacements” of this kind that writing is exalted into Literature:

. . . for the text is the very outcropping of speech, and it is within speech that speech must be fought, led astray —not by the message of which it is the instrument, but by the play of words of which it is the theater. . . The forces of freedom which are in literature depend not on the writer’s civil person, nor on his political commitment . . . nor do they even depend on the doctrinal content of his work, but rather on the labor of displacement he brings to bear upon the language . . . 2

To be Barthesian, writing is the only practice in which the writer has a “presence” in which, about which he or she is qualified to speak:


The paradox is that the raw material, having become in some ways its own end, literature is basically a tautological activity . . . the ecrivain is one who absorbs the why of the world radically into a how to write . . . 3

And for Barthes, that writing which would claim to deal with representation, with myth and the “doxa” must satisfy certain conditions. It must be self-returning and sensitive to the plurality of verbal signs. It must be capable of “sarcasm.” A pun is therefore valued insofar as it opens up and undermines the strictures of a “natural” (i.e., “bourgeois”) speech. So Barthes renders the Citroen back into its “real” premythical components. He recreates it using purely linguistic materials. Barthes’ “New Citroen” is powered on a figure of speech. Nonetheless the subversive rationale of this replacement is not necessarily visible to everyone who picks up a copy of Mythologies. Like the DS revolving slowly on its dais, the argument is simply “exhibited,” turned by a mechanism which remains hidden from the wondering eyes of the reader (even, in all likelihood, from the eyes of the reader who appreciates the pun):

It is obvious that the new Citroen has fallen from the sky inasmuch as it appears at first sight as a superlative object. We must not forget that an object is the best messenger of a world above that of nature: one can easily see in an object a perfection and an absence of origin, a closure and a brilliance—a transformation of life into matter . . . and in a word a silence which belongs to fairy tales.4

If writing is regarded as a “narcissistic activity”5 as Barthes would have it, then the gross illusion that language is transparent (what has recently been dubbed the “realist fallacy”) is certainly avoided. But the “new” position has its own attendant fantasies: when language becomes a mirror for the narcissist, other illusions are, of course, possible. We could say that what is “misrecognised” in (this kind of) language is the depth of perception (the depth of the reflection). To put it another way, what is “misrecognised” is


the illusory “materiality” of language itself. For Barthes, the real can only be inserted into language as

a “silence” —“a silence which belongs to fairy tales.” But instead of the “silence” of the object, we might like to stress its solidity, its materiality, the simple fact of its “being there.” And it might be more accurate to say that the problem of representing the material world remains paramount in Barthes and is depicted in that form—i.e., as the relationship of speech to silence—because that problem is itself material: Barthes was, after all, a litterateur. Had he been an engineer or a traveling sales rep. who yearned to own a car capable of impressing potential clients (“actualising (perhaps) . . . the very essence of petit- bourgeois advancement” 6), then the “problem” would have been differently conceived and differently presented. And if he had shared the interest in mechanics and “progress” (mechanics as a metaphor for progress) which no doubt informed the ecstatic response of many of the supplicants who filed past the Citroen stand in 1955 and wanted, themselves, to possess the Goddess, then, no doubt, we too would have been confronted with a different object, a different alienation. For, far from being silent, the number of voices which speak through and for “dumb things” are legion. The enigma of the object resides for us less in its “silence,” its imagined essence than in the babble which proliferates around it.


The variability of significance rather than the persistence of qualities should be at the forefront of analysis . . .


How then can we hope to provide a comprehensive and


unified account of all the multiple values and meanings which accumulate around a single object over time, the different symbolic and instrumental functions it can serve for different groups of users separated by geographical, temporal and cultural location? The problem Bourdieu outlines and Barthes embodies in Mythologies has already been acknowledged: there is a tendency amongst those who aspire toward a “materialist” conception of design to question the adequacy of the object as the basic unit of analysis and to substitute instead design practice as a more satisfactory point of entry. But this shift in emphasis and the quest for epistemological rigour which motivates it carries its own price. For in the case of design history, there can be no subject without objects. All design practice has as its ultimate ideal and actual destination a tangible result, a real set of objects. Indeed, in design the thing itself is the ideal.

How then is it possible to talk simultaneously about objects and the practices which shape them, determine or delimit their uses, their meanings and their values without losing sight of the larger networks of relationships into which those objects and practices are inserted? The task becomes still more daunting if we acknowledge first that there can be no absolute symmetry between the “moments” of design/production and consumption/use and, further, that advertising stands between these two instances—a separate moment of mediation: marketing, promotion, the construction of images and markets, the conditioning of public response. It is tempting when writing about design either to run these three moments together or to give undue prominence to one of them so that production, mediation or consumption becomes the “determining instance” which dictates the meaning of the object in every other context. In either case, the result is more or less the same—a delicately (un)balanced sequence of relationships is reduced to a brutal set of aphorisms, e.g., masses consume what is produced in mass (where production is regarded as determining); desire is a function of the advertising image (where mediation is regarded as the determining instance); people remain human and “authentic,” untouched by the appeal of either images or


objects (where consumption or the refusal of consumption is seen as determining). Clearly none of these models is sufficient in itself though each may seem appropriate in particular circumstances when applied to particular objects. It would be preferable to find a way of holding all three instances together so that we can consider the transformations effected on the object as it passes between them. But we are still left with the problem of constructing a language in which that passage can be adequately represented.

If we abandon those solutions to the problem which limit the production of significance to the immanent logic of the object itself—as an internal organisation of elements or as a latent essence—if, in other words, we abandon the formalist option and if we also discard the no less abstract language of pure function: “uses,” “gratification” and so on, then the criteria for excluding and organising information become increasingly uncertain. We are in a field without fences left with an intractable mass: “cultural significance.”

To reconstruct the full “cultural significance” of the DS Citroen we would have to do more than merely “demystify” its reception in the marketplace at the point where, as Barthes would have it, the Goddess is “mediatised” from “the heaven of Metropolis” and brought within the range of some people’s pockets and everybody else’s aspirations. If we were to produce a comprehensive analysis we would have to take into account the kinds of significance generated as the object passes through a maze of independent but interlocking frames—drawing back at every point to consider the structures in which each individual frame is housed.

We could trace the passage of the Citroen, then, from its inception/ conception through the various preparatory stages: market research, motivational research, design— engineering, styling (division of labor within the design team; relationship of team to management infrastructure), modifications in conception at design stages, constraints of available technological resources on DS design, adaptation of existing Citroen plant to accommodate the new product, production of prototypes and models; production (labor


relations, labor processes), exhibitions and launch of new product, press conferences, press releases and handouts, reviews in trade press, advertising campaign (target group), distribution of finished product: retail arrangements, distribution of foreign licences, provision of servicing facilities, price, sales figures (consumer profile of target group), formation and composition of the Citroen user groups, etc., etc. Finally we would have to place the DS alongside other cars available in 1955 in order to assess its difference from equivalent products—the extent of its stylistic and technical “advances” or departures, its potential for “prestige,” etc.

The “cultural significance” of the Citroen DS 19 might be defined as the sum total of all the choices and fixings made at each stage in the passage of the object from conception, production and mediation to mass-circulation, sale and use. Nor do the connotations accumulate in an orderly progression from factory to consumer. In the production of significance, time is reversible and each stage in the sequence (production-mediation-consumption) can predominate at different times in determining meaning.

For instance, to take a more topical example, the meaning of the Mini Metro is overdetermined by the uncertainty surrounding its production and the reputation for “bloodymindedness” of the British Leyland workforce—a reputation constructed through Press and television coverage of industrial disputes. This in turn enables the Metro to function contradictorily in the news media both as a symbol of “Britain’s hope” and as a symptom of the “British disease” (where production hold-ups and technical faults are cited as evidence of Britain’s decline as an industrial power which, to complete the circle, is “explained” by reference to the “problem” of the British workforce). The entire history of British Leyland labor relations is reified in the Mini Metro’s public image. The advertising campaign mobilises that history (the memory of strikes hovers just behind the copy just as in the Hovis television ads the memory of the Depression looms out of the conjunction of sound and image —the melancholy strains of a northern brass band, the black


and white image of “noble” cloth-capped workers). The Mini Metro advertising campaign overlays two forms of patriotic optimism—that Britain can make it, that British Leyland can go on making it (and supplying the spares) across the more generalised faith in the future which purchasing a new car normally implies. The potential purchaser is invited to make all three investments simultaneously—in the future of Britain, in the future of British Leyland, and in his or her own personal future. And newspaper reports make it clear that whenever a dispute threatens production of the Metro, then all three investments are endangered. In this way every reader’s stake (as a taxpayer) in the British Leyland Motor Company is realized in the image of the Metro (the car for little people), in the image of the Metro in jeopardy and a number of parallel inter-pellations become possible: “you” the reader/taxpayer/consumer/car-owner /Briton/patriot/non- striker. The place of the Mini Metro in the present scheme of things is thus defined by a double address in time—back to British Leyland’s past and forward toward a dream of trouble-free consumption, a purified economy and a disciplined, docile working class . . .

That, of course, does not exhaust the “meaning” of the Mini Metro for all time or for all people. It is merely an attempt to isolate some of the themes which already in 1981 have begun to congregate around what we might term the “official” fixing of the Mini Metro image—a fixing which brings us back to Barthes and myths and second-order significations. And the degree to which that reading of the Metro image proves convincing and even intelligible depends on the reader’s prior knowledge of and place within a nexus of political issues and cultural codes which are historically particular and lie quite outside the scope of the list I compiled in relation to the 1955 Citroen. We come back, then, to the original problem: not one object but many objects at different “moments” (the moments, for instance, of design, assembly and use), at different (real and mythical) times (in different conjunctures in relation to imagined pasts and futures) seen from different perspectives for different purposes. How can all these different times, purposes and perspectives be


reconciled so that they can be depicted? One solution might be to turn from the object to the text in order to find a more fragmentary mode of representation in which the object can be brought back “into touch” with that larger, less tangible and less coherent “network of relationships” which alone can give it order and significance . . .

The rest of this paper consists of a “dossier” on one particular genre of commodities: the Italian motor scooter. The sequence of the narrative corresponds loosely to the progression of the object from design/production through mediation into use though there is a good deal of cross- referencing between different “moments.” Theoretical models have been introduced to frame the material and the narrative has been interrupted at certain points so that sections dealing with larger economic and social developments can be inserted. It is hoped that by presenting the “history of the motor scooter” in this way, some indication of the extent of the variability in its significance can be given as “echoes” and “rhymes” build up within the text. The text itself is “variable” because there is no one “voice” speaking through it. The same or similar information may be relayed through a different “voice” in a different section, i.e., its significance may vary according to its placement. In the same way, for the same reason, any “echoes” which do accumulate cannot be closed off, summed up, reduced to a “silence” or amplified into a thunderous conclusion.

What follows is premissed on the assumption—itself hardly novel—that the facts do not speak for themselves. They are already “spoken for” . . .


The first motor scooters were manufactured in Europe in the years immediately after the First World War (though there are recorded examples of machines called “scooters” being sold even earlier than this in the United States). From the outset, the word “scooter” denoted a small, two-wheeled


vehicle with a flat, open platform and an engine mounted over the rear wheel. The scooter was further characterised by its low engine capacity: the Autoglider (1921) had a two- and-a-half hp engine. Together these features distinguished the scooter from other categories of two-wheeled transport and marked it off especially from its more powerful, more “primitive” (i.e., of earlier origin, more “functional” and “aggressive”) antecedent: the motor cycle. The demarcation between motorcycle and motorscooter coincided with and reproduced the boundary between the masculine and the feminine.

The earliest scooters were designed to meet the imagined needs of the female motor cyclist. For instance, it was possible for women to stand while driving the Scootamotor (1920) thus preserving decorum and the line of their long skirts. (How could the designer have predicted the flattening out of the female silhouette in the women’s fashions of the 1920s? How could he have foreseen the vogue for trousers, breeches and strictly tailored suits which, as Lisa Tickner suggests, were to provide such provocative metaphors for the emancipation of women?7) Long before the mass production of Italian Vespas and Lambrettas began to threaten the supremacy of the British motorcycle industry in the 1950s and 1960s, the scooter was interpreted as an alien intrusion—a threat to the masculine culture of the road. It was seen as an absurd omen of a much more general process: the feminisation of the public domain (women over thirty were enfranchised in 1918 and one year later the Sex Disqualification Removal Act was passed giving women access to the professions). The machine’s lowly status and its vulnerability to ridicule were further reinforced by its visible resemblance to a child’s toy scooter. The Zutoped, for instance, was modelled directly on the original toy. Despite modifications in design over the years, the overall conception and placement of the scooter—its projected market, its general shape, its public image—remained fixed in the formula—motor cycles:scooters as men:women and children.

Scooters were permanently wedded to motorcyles in a relation of inferiority and dependence:


The scooter is a device that we refuse to grace with the description of motorcycle and which, therefore, has no place in this work.



The operative value of the system of naming and classifying commonly called the totemic drives derives from their formal character: they are codes suitable for conveying messages which can be transposed into other codes and for expressing messages received by means of different codes in terms of their own system . . . totemism, or what is referred to as such, corresponds to certain modalities arbitrarily isolated from a formal system, the function of which is to guarantee the controvertibility of ideas between different levels of social reality . . .


If we start the scooter cycle by following the lead established in 1962 by Lévi-Strauss we do not approach isolated phenomena as the imaginary bearers of substance and meaning but are driven to focus instead on how those phenomena are arranged conceptually and semantically; on what signifying power they possess as elements or functions within codes which are themselves organised into symbolic systems. For the structuralist,

the term totemism covers relations, posed ideologically between two series, one natural the other cultural . . .


[where] the natural series comprises on the one hand categories, on the other particulars; the cultural series comprises groups and persons.

LÉVI-STRAUSS, TOTEMISM (1962) In “primitive” societies, elements from the natural world— flora and fauna—are made to perform these totemic functions. Through the principles of metaphor and metonymy, they guarantee the controvertibility of formal codes into moral, aesthetic and ideological categories. Machines on the other hand, are for Roland Barthes “superlative object(s)” invested with a super-natural aura (“We must not forget that an object is the best messenger of a world above that of nature . . .”). They are brought down to earth (“mediatised”) by being made to function as differential elements—as markers of identity and difference—organised into meaningful relations through their location within cultural/ideological codes. The first marker of identity is sexual difference. The sexing of the object is the first move in its descent from “the heaven of Metropolis” to its “proper” place in the existing (i.e. mortal and imperfect) order of things. In advanced industrial societies, the transposition of gender characteristics onto inanimate objects is peculiarly marked. Typically the qualities and status ascribed to the gender of the “ideal” user are transferred onto the object itself. Paul Willis’s study of a Birmingham motorcycle gang provides an interesting example of this kind of “anthropomorphisation”:

The motor cycle boys accepted the motor bike and allowed it to reverberate right through into the world of human concourse. The lack of the helmet allowed long hair to blow freely back in the wind, and this, with the studded and ornamented jackets, and the aggressive style of riding, gave the motorbike boys a fearsome look which amplified the wildness, noise, surprise and intimidation of the motorbike. The motorbikes themselves were modified to accentuate these features. The high cattlehorn handlebars, the chromium-plated mudguards gave the bikes an


exaggerated look of fierce power.8

This is merely an extreme localised instance of a much more widespread assumption that equates motorcycles with masculinity, machismo with what Barthes has called the “bestiary of power.”9 Once it has been sexed, the machine functions as a material sign of (realises) imagined gender differences: mechanical sexism.

Advertisements adjudicate in the settling of gender differences. Sometimes the object is split, janus-like, into its two opposed aspects: his and hers. His: functional, scientific, useful. Hers: decorative, aesthetic, gratifying. The distinction corresponds to the separation of design functions: his/engineering; hers/styling. Relations of dominance/subordination inscribed in the sexual division of labor are transposed so that engineering is perceived as superordinate and necessary (masculine/productive), styling as secondary and gratuitous (feminine/non-productive).

These transpositions can color critical perception of the broadest social and economic developments. For instance, the transition from a production (puritan) economy to a consumer (pagan) one is often condensed in books on economic history into a single image: the image of General Motors’ growing ascendancy from the mid-1920s onwards over the Ford Motor Company. The success of General Motors is represented as the triumph of sophisticated marketing strategies (obsolescence of desirability—the annual model; massive advertising; “consumer financing” [the “trade in,” hire purchase]; exotic styling) over Ford’s more sober approach (“honest” competition in terms of quality and price). Styling is seen as the key to the popularity of General Motors’ products: whereas Ford’s Model T design remained virtually the same for decades but became relatively cheaper to purchase and produce, G.M. designers introduced ostentatious styling features to distinguish between markets on status grounds. The development of the modern advertising industry is frequently associated either with the increased spending power of the female consumer or with the growing influence which women are felt to exert


over household expenditure. Vance Packard, writing in the late 1950s, quotes the chairman of Allied Stores Corporation to “illustrate” women’s progressive colonisation of the consumption sphere:

It is our job to make women unhappy with what they have. We must make them so unhappy that their husbands can find no happiness or peace in their excessive savings . . . 10

The “spread of consumerism” is understood by reference to woman’s essential gullibility and improvidence. Packard’s triple invective against The Wastemakers (1960)—the Detroit motor industry; The Status-Seekers (1959)—the new breed of consumer; and The Hidden Persuaders (1957)—saturation and “subliminal” advertising—is carried along on a series of analogies between the decline of the “real” solid/masculine /functional aspects of American industrial design which symbolise the pioneer spirit, and the complementary rise of the “fantastic”/feminine /decorative elements which symbolise consumer decadence. The fact that terms taken from women’s fashion are beginning to infiltrate the language of automobile design is cited as evidence of a more general decline in standards: a car parts dealer from Illinois is quoted as describing a car as a “woman’s fashion item” and Packard claims that in professional design argot, product styling is now referred to as the “millinery aspect” and designing a new car shell is called “putting a dress on a model.”11 The sinister nature of these developments is inferred through the connection between General Motors’ success and the investment in styling which is itself indicative of the “feminisation” or “emasculation” of American society. Throughout the book, indeed throughout much of the critical writing on product design produced in the 1950s, a certain type of car, a certain type of styling functions to-temically to duplicate category distinctions which are collectively predicated on the denial or dismissal of the “female” and the “feminine.” Misogynist values are thus relayed mechanically through the medium of objects and attitudes towards objects. The marking out of sexual


difference moves along a chain which is constantly slipping: man/woman: work/pleasure: production/consumption: function/form, for example:

. . . women have escaped the sphere of production only to be absorbed the more entirely by the sphere of consumption, to be captivated by the immediacy of the commodity world no less than men are transfixed by the immediacy of profit . . . 12

This characterisation of the “masculine” and “feminine” domains and the priorities it encapsulates have been institutionalised in education in the distinction between “hard” and “soft” subjects: engineering is installed in universities as a scientific discipline (and seems relatively protected from the cuts?); fashion/fashion history is doubly subordinate—it is only an “applied art”—and is eminently dispensable.

The patriarchal inflection cuts across the entire field of academic discourse. It is this implicit bias which, at a deep level, orders the marxian distinction between “phenomenal forms” and “real relations.” It is no coincidence that Althusser, in his parody of “vulgar marxism,” should refer to the “economic base” as “His Imperial Majesty”:

. . . when the Time comes, (the superstructures) as his pure phenomena . . . scatter before His Majesty the Economy as he strides along the royal road of the Dialectic . . . 13

Hairdrier: motorcyclists’ slang for an Italian scooter


Scooter A machine of less than 250cc engine capacity with body work giving considerable weather protection and having a smart, clean appearance.



In 1946 and 1947, two new Italian scooters appeared which eclipsed all previous models in terms of sales and served to fix the design concept of the contemporary scooter—the Vespa (Wasp) appeared first and was designed by Corriando D’Ascanio for Piaggio, formerly Piaggio Air, the company which during the War had produced Italy’s only heavy bomber, the P108 B. (It was not particularly successful. Mussolini’s son, Bruno, was killed piloting an early test flight.)

In 1943, the works at Pontedera were completely destroyed by Allied bombing and a new factory was built with facilities geared towards peace-time production. (Piaggio later diversified into machine tools.) The scooter was originally conceived as a small-scale project which was intended to make maximum usage of available plant, materials and design expertise and to fill a gap in the market, supplying the demand on the part of consumers deprived during the War years of visually attractive, inexpensive luxury goods, for a cheap, stylish form of transport capable of negotiating Italy’s war-damaged roads.

D‘Ascanio, who had previously specialised in helicopter design, incorporated airplane motifs into the original Vespa. The air-cooled engine and stressed skin framework were commonplace enough in aircraft design but their application to two-wheeled transport was regarded as a major innovation. Equally novel was the idea of mounting the wheels on stub-axles rather than between forks. This made them easier to detach—and thus easier to repair—than motorcycle wheels. D’Ascanio was said to have adapted the idea from the mountings used on airplane landing gear though stub-axles were, of course, a standard feature of car design. But the spot-welded, sheet-metal frame represented the most noticeable departure from the conventional idea of the motorcycle. The two-stroke engine was concealed behind removable metal cowlings and the platform frame, which was attached to the central spine, extended upwards almost to the handlebars, providing foot support and protection from the weather. Speed was hardly a consideration: the 98cc engine (subsequently 130cc) had a top speed of only 35mph


but the low fuel consumption (approximately 120mpg) and the ease with which the gear and clutch controls could be mastered, acted as compensatory incentives. (D’Ascanio had substituted handlebar controls for the foot pedals favored by the motorcycle industry.) The two-stroke engine which was mounted over the rear wheel was chosen for its simplicity and, without complicated valve gear or pump lubrication, driving was reduced to a basic set of operations which could be assimilated quickly even by people with no prior motorcycling experience.

The design, then, made concessions to the rider’s comfort, convenience and vanity (the enveloping of machine parts meant that the scooterist was not obliged to wear specialist protective clothing). In addition, the Vespa made a considerable visual impact. It was streamlined and self- consciously “contemporary.” There was a formal harmony and a fluency of line which was completely alien to the rugged functionalism of traditional motorcycle designs.

The Vespa was launched at the 1946 Turin show and was an immediate commercial success though reactions in the motorcycle trade were varied. While the novel styling was on the whole regarded favorably, at least in design circles, attention was drawn to basic engineering faults (the suspension was considered too “soft” and the sparking was sometimes erratic), and the scooter was criticised on the grounds of general safety (it was unstable at speed, and the eight-inch wheels were considered too small to give adequate road grip, especially in wet or slippery conditions). Piaggio, for their part, argued that these criteria were simply not appropriate: the machine was designed as a small, “gadabout” vehicle suitable for travelling short distances at low speeds. In other words, the Vespa was to be presented to the public not as a poor relation of the motorcycle but as the principal term in a new transport category, as a machine in its own right with its own singular qualities, its own attractions and its own public.

D’Ascanio’s Vespa established the pattern for all subsequent scooter designs and its general shape changed little over the years (the headlamp was later moved from the


mudguard to the handlebars but this was the only major styling alteration). It combined three innovations—the stub- axles, open frame, and enclosed engine—which were reproduced over the next twenty years by manufacturers in France, Germany and Britain so that, by 1966, one journalist could state authoritatively that “there is hardly a scooter built today which does not incorporate two out of these three distinctive features.” 14 This fixing of the design concept was made possible through the phenomenal sales (by 1960, 1,000,000 Vespas had been sold, and after a slack period in the late 1960s, the oil crisis led to a market revival and in 1980 Piaggio were reported to be producing 450,000 scooters a year [see Guardian, 21 February, 1981]). Domination of the market led to domination of the image: the field was secured so effectively that by the mid-1960s the words “Vespa” and “scooter” were interchangeable in some European languages. (Traffic signs in Paris still stipulate the times when “Vespas” can be parked.)


In design history, the monopoly exerted by the Vespa design over definitions of the scooter has tended to obscure the fact that Piaggio were not the only engineering company in Italy to recognise the emergence of the new “mood” and market. When the Vespa was entered for the 1946 Milan show, it appeared alongside a range of new lightweight motorcycles and mopeds and no fewer than seventeen auxiliary motors for powering pedal-cycles (see Hough, The History of the Motor Cycle). Moreover, the car industry was just as concerned to make inroads into the revitalised working-class and teenaged markets. By 1953, the Vespa was competing against a peculiarly Continental hybrid: the Isetta three- wheeler, the first of the “bubble cars.” D’Ascanio was, then, merely the victor in the race to find a metaphor for the ricostruzione, to develop a “popular” commodity capable of translating the more inchoate desire for mobility and change —a desire associated with the re-establishment of


parliamentary democracy and given a material boost in the form of Marshall Aid—into a single object, a single image.

In 1947, another scooter appeared which in its basic concept, scale and price, bore a close resemblance to the Piaggio prototype—the Lambretta produced by Innocenti of Milan. For almost twenty-five years, until Innocenti’s scooter section was bought outright by the Indian Government in the early 1970s, the Lambretta range offered the most serious threat to Piaggio’s lead in terms of international sales and trade recognition. By 1950, Piaggio and Innocenti had between them opened up a completely new market for cheap motorised transport. Early advertising campaigns were directed at two emergent consumer groups—teenagers and women—neither of which had been considered worthwhile targets for this class of goods before the War. A new machine had been created and inscribed in its design was another new “invention”: the ideal scooterist—young, socially mobile, conscious of his or her appearance. The scooter was defined by one sympathetic journalist as “a comfortable, nicely designed little vehicle for people who do not care too much about the mechanical side of things.”15

As the two companies competed for the same markets, the design of Lambretta and Vespa scooters drew closer together until, by the late 1960s, they were, in styling if not in performance and engineering detail, virtually identical. However, there were marked differences between the Lambretta model A and the D‘Ascanio Vespa. Once again, the Lambretta design was a feat of bricolage—the material resources: expertise, plant and production processes—of the two component firms (Innocenti SpA which specialised in steel tube manufacture had amalgamated after the War with the Trussi coachbuilding concern) were adapted and diverted into scooter production. The model A chassis was based on a double steel tube structure (similar to the one used on the earlier British Corgi); the front wheel was carried on a fork, the rear wheel on a stub-axle and, as with the Vespa, there was a footboard for the rider. But the Lambretta differed from the Vespa in that it had a larger (125cc) engine and a pillion seat for passengers; on the model A there were


footpedal changes for the gears and the clutch, the legshields were shorter and narrower and, most significantly, at least most conspicuously, the engines of the early models were open. Though for safety reasons, the gear and clutch controls were subsequently transferred to the handlebars, the Lambretta engine remained fully exposed until 1951 when the C and CL models were introduced. On the C model, the double tube chassis was replaced by a single tube frame and the prospective buyer was confronted with a choice between two different machines: the “dressed” (CL) or the “undressed” (C) scooter. Demand for the “dressed” model (which also offered superior weather protection with broader, higher legshields based on the D’Ascanio design) was so great that Innocenti were soon forced to withdraw open Lambrettas from production. Inevitably, the addition of the sleek, protective side panels drew the Lambretta closer to its rival. A pattern of parallel growth emerged: the production of a new model by Innocenti would force a similar design response from Piaggio and vice versa. By 1953, both companies were offering 125 and 150cc models. During the mid- and late-1950s, two factors: the demand for sturdier, high performance scooters suitable for long-distance touring and the appearance of powerful German machines—the Heinkel, the Bella, the TWN Contessa—led to adjustments in the engine and wheel sizes of both Vespa and Lambretta models: Piaggio introduced the four-speed GS (Gran Sport) and SS (Super Sport), Innocenti countered with the Lambretta 175cc TV series.

But throughout, the basic scooter “silhouette” remained more or less unchanged: the word “scooter” became synonymous with a streamlined shape and legshields. By the end of the 1950s, most of the successful designs for scooters in the popular 125—150cc ranges—the Italian Iso Milano, the French Moby, the German NSU Prima—made clear visual references to the Piaggio original. When British motorcycle manufacturers finally, and with considerable reluctance (see section entitled “The Reception in Britain”), capitulated to local demand and began producing their own (resolutely unsuccessful) scooters, they tended to turn to Italian models,


even, occasionally, to Italian designers (e.g., Vincent Piatti designed a scooter for Cyclemaster in the mid-1950s). The extent to which Continental scooters had penetrated the international motorcycle market was to lead (for a brief period) to an inversion of the traditional hierarchy. Motorcycle designers began adopting the “effeminate” practice of enclosing the machine parts. With the Ariel Leader the engine at last slipped out of sight . . .


This convergence of form in the designs for machines in related categories is not in itself remarkable. After all, design innovations are meant to set trends. However, the encasement of mechanical parts in metal or plastic “envelopes”—a development associated historically with the emergence of streamlining—signalled more than just a change in the look of things. It marked a general shift in production processes, in the scale and rate of capital accumulation, in the relationship between commodity production and the market. The drift towards a more systematic “packaging” of objects, itself linked to the growth of the consultancies, coincided with a much broader development—the rise of the giant corporations—the modern conglomerates and multi-nationals with the concentration of power and resources into larger and larger units, a movement which in turn had required a fundamental reorganisation of social and cultural life: the translation of masses into markets.

The economist Paul Sweezey has outlined some of the changes associated with the development of monopoly capitalism in the post-War period: the automation of the work process; increased specialisation and diversification (spreading of risk over a wider product range); expansion of the white-collar sector; control of distribution networks; market sharing between corporations; price fixing (the self- imposed limitation of growth in productive capacity to keep prices pegged at an “acceptable” level); imperialism


(exploitation of Third World resources, domination of Third World markets); the displacement of competition from the field of price to the field of sales promotion; increased expenditure on research, design and “market preparation.” All these developments were motivated by need: “the profound need of the modern corporation to dominate and control all the conditions and variables which affect its viability.”16

It is in this context that the massive expansion of the advertising and marketing industries during the period can be most clearly understood. Given the huge costs involved in producing a new line of goods, if crippling losses were to be avoided, the consumer had to be as carefully primed as the materials used in the manufacturing process. The expedient was, on the face of it, quite simple: the element of risk was to be eliminated through the preparation and control of the market. It was not just the careful monitoring of current market trends that could help to guarantee profits. What was required was a more structured supervision of consumer demands according to the principles of what was later called “want formation.”17 In other words, corporate viability was seen to rely increasingly upon the regulation of desire.

It was during this period that design became consolidated as a “scientific” practice with its own distinctive functions and objectives. From now on, the shape and look of things were to play an important part in aligning two potentially divergent interests: production for profit, and consumption for pleasure. The investment on a previously unimagined scale in the visual aspects of design from the 1930s onward indicated a new set of priorities on the part of manufacturers and marked another stage in a more general (and more gradual) process: the intercession of the image between the consumer and the act of consumption.

These developments were, of course, already well advanced by the time Piaggio’s Vespa appeared on the scene. In America there was a thriving, highly-organised advertising industry by the mid-1920s and advertising personnel were already formulating policy on the basis of sociological and psychological research (according to Stuart Ewen, the work


of the early symbolic interactionists which placed the emphasis squarely on the social construction of personal identity was particularly influential18). The elaborate cynicism and self-consciously shark-like image of the post- War advertising executive were already fully in evidence by the end of the decade. The following passage appeared in 1930 in Printer’s Ink, the advertising trade journal:

. . . advertising helps to keep the masses dissatisfied with their mode of life, discontented with the ugly things around them. Satisfied customers are not as profitable as discontented ones.19

And by 1958, the equivalence between the amounts of money spent on the construction of products and the production of consumers had become so systematised that J. K. Galbraith could present it to his readers as an economic law:

A broad empirical relationship exists between what is spent on the production of consumer goods and what is spent in synthesizing the desires for that production. The path for an expansion of output must be paved by a suitable expansion in advertising budget.20

With the pressure on designers to provide “product identity” and “corporate image,” a further refinement became possible: a single commodity could be used to promote a range of visually compatible objects produced by different divisions of the same corporation. An Olivetti typewriter or an IBM computer was an advertisement for itself and the company which produced it. The form functioned tautologically: it was a trademark in three dimensions. It “looked its best” in a “totally designed environment.”

Developments such as these brought the practical aims of product and graphic design into a close proximity and this tendency to merge design functions became even more pronounced as multidisciplinary approaches—ergonomics and “management science”—emerged to displace the notion of designer “intuition” (see The Practical Idealists, J. P. A. Blake, Lund Humphries, 1969). By the end of the 1950s, the language of contemporary design, peppered with analogies


from cybernetics and systems theory, was beginning to reflect the preoccupations with teamwork, integration and total planning which were to provide the dominant themes of the 1960s design boom. The dream of achieving a perfect symmetry between collective desires and corporate designs seemed at last on the point of fruition. An exaggerated formalism took root. The object itself would mediate between the needs of capital and the will of the masses: the consumer would be made over in the image of the object. In an article called “The Persuasive Image,” which appeared in Design magazine in 1960, Richard Hamilton wrote:

. . . the media . . . the publicists who not only understand public motivations but who play a large part in directing the public response to imagery . . . should be the designer’s closest allies, perhaps more important in the team than researchers or sales managers. Ad man, copy writer and feature editor need to be working together with the designer at the initiation of a programme instead of as a separated group with the task of finding the market for a completed product. The time lag can be used to design a consumer to the product and he can be “manufactured” during the production span. Then producers should not feel inhibited, need not be disturbed by doubts about the reception their products may have by an audience they do not trust, the consumer can come from the same drawing board . . .21


Both Innocenti and Piaggio invested in aggressive advertising campaigns supervised by their own publicity departments. By the early 1950s, both companies were publishing their own magazines (in three or four European languages) and had formed their own scooter clubs with massive national, later international memberships. Through


these clubs they organised mass rallies and festivals. They mounted exhibitions, sponsored (sometimes in conjunction with Via Secura, the Italian Road Safety Organisation) tours, trials, races, hill climbs, competitions. Against those interests which sought to discredit the scooter’s performance, Innocenti and Piaggio set out to display its versatility and range, its resilience, its androgynous qualities (“feminine” and sleek but also able to climb mountains, cross continents . . . )

More than this, by controlling the structures within which the scooter was to be perceived and used, they were attempting to penetrate the realm of the “popular.” The duty of manufacturers to the market was to extend far beyond the mere maintenance of production standards, the meeting of delivery dates. Now they were to preside over the creation of new forms of social identity, and leisure, a new consumer relation to the “look of things.” The tests and trials, the spectacles, displays and exhibitions, the social clubs and magazines were part of a more general will—linked, as we have seen, to the expansion of productive forces—to superimpose the image of the factory on the world.

The four sections which follow deal with public representations of the scooter. Most of the detail is drawn from material put out by Innocenti during the 1950s and 1960s—promotional films, advertisements, copies of Lambretta Notizario, etc. This simply reflects the availability of sources—Piaggio’s campaigns were no less intensive and incorporated similar themes.

The way in which the material itself has been organised is not entirely arbitrary: the narrative is ordered according to the dictates of an economic principle: the circulation of the Image precedes the selling of the Thing. Before looking at what the scooter came to mean in use, it is necessary to consider how it was made to appear before the market . . .


The Age of the Product ended after World War 2 with


industrial design’s search to disperse, miniaturise and dematerialise consumer goods.


Innocenti’s decision to launch the (“dressed”) CL and (“undressed”) C Lambrettas simultaneously in 1951 determined once and for all the direction in which consumer preferences were moving in the transport field. It amounted to an unofficial referendum on the issues of styling and taste and the results were unequivocal: the scooter-buying public voted overwhelmingly for convenience, looks, an enclosed engine. The success of the CL merely confirmed the growing trend in product design toward “sheathing”—defined by one design historian as the encasement of “complex electronic parts in boxes that are as unobtrusive and easy to operate as possible.”22

All these themes were foregrounded in the advertising campaigns and marketing strategies employed by Innocenti and Piaggio. Scooters were presented to the public as clean, “social appliances”23 which imposed few constraints on the rider. Design features were cited to reinforce these claims: the panels enclosing scooter engines were easy to remove and the engines themselves were spread out horizontally to facilitate cleaning and the replacement of spares. The stub- axles made it simpler to remove the wheels, and by the 1960s most scooters were designed to accommodate a spare. Elegance and comfort were selected as particularly strong selling points: the Lambretta was marketed in Britain as the “sports car on two wheels” and a variety of accessories— windscreens, panniers, bumpers, clocks, even radios and glove compartments were available to lend substance to the luxurious image. Innocenti’s promotion policies tended to center directly on the notion of convenience: an international network of service stations manned by trained mechanics was set up to cater for the needs of a new class of scooterists who were presumed to have little interest in even the most routine maintenance (though the stereotype of the “effeminate,” “impractical” scooterist was resisted by the


scooter clubs, which encouraged their members to acquire rudimentary mechanical skills, to carry tool boxes, etc.). The concept of “trouble free scootering” was taken even further in Spain. At the height of the Continental touring craze in the late 1950s, Innocenti introduced a special mobile rescue unit called the Blue Angels to cope with Lambretta breakdowns and consumer complaints.

All these support structures can be regarded as extensions of the original design project: to produce a new category of machines, a new type of consumer. The provision of a comprehensive after-sales service can be referred back ultimately to the one basic element which distinguished the D’Ascanio Vespa from its competitors—the disappearance of the engine behind a sleek metal cowling. The sheathing of machine parts placed the user in a new relation to the object —one which was more remote and less physical—a relationship of ease. As such it formed part of what Barthes described in 1957 as the general “sublimation of the utensil which we also find in the design of contemporary household equipment”24—a sublimation effected through the enveloping skin which served to accentuate the boundary between the human and the technical, the aesthetic and the practical, between knowledge and use. The metal skin or clothing added another relay to the circuit linking images to objects. It was another step toward an ideal prospect—the dematerialisation of the object; the conversion of consumption into life style.

The following description of an advertisement incorporates many of the themes explored in the last two sections:

A machine, suspended on a circle of glass, is seen through a shop window. The voyeuristic relation is now a familiar one, familiar through the investment made by commerce in the Image, through the reiteration in similar advertisements of the same visual structure. (This is an early example of the genre. It is almost quaint. Almost innocent. The conventions have yet to be refined, obscured.) We look at them looking. We circle around from “her” to “him” to “her,” from the “girl” to the “boy” to the “mother” (that, surely, is implied). We have all come by now to recognise the indirect address:


desire by proxy. We are all now visionary consumers. Placed through the geometry of looks in a precise relation to the dream machine—a revelation in mechanical parts, we gaze with them from “outside” at “her,” the object of desire—the scooter/girl poised on their adjacent pedestals. The girl’s posture is classical. It is Diana, naked, surprised in the wood: the heel slightly lifted, the mouth slightly open (provocative, ashamed). The model is “undressed.” But a pane of glass intercedes between “her” and the boy. Its function is to mediate. This, at least, is made perfectly clear because the cleaning fluid masks it, makes it visible, opaque. The boy’s hands, pressed against the glass, mark it as a barrier. Our glance is directed around a circle of glass, through the girl, through the glass, through the boy and his “mother,” through a reflection of a scooter on a circle of glass. All looks are turned at last towards the center of the image where the engine stands exposed—a still point at the centre of reflection. This is the place where we can all meet—“her” and “her” and “him” and “her” and you and I—the place where we can come into contact at a distance. A place where we can find contentment (where we can find the “content” of the “message”). The transference from “her” to “her,” from the object-girl to the fetishised object—has taken place. At last—the object that was lost is found . . .

The mechanism which motivates our gaze is as naked as the machine which motivates the ad. The devices are laid bare: the caption reads: “A world of dreams is revealed in the shop-window.” A historical transition is arrested in the composition of a single image: the dematerialisation of the object, the emergence of what Henri Lefebvre has called the “Display Myth”:

Consuming of displays, displays of consuming, consuming of displays of consuming, consuming of signs, signs of consuming. . . .25


Sound: “The air hostess can become the pilot herself . .


.” image: air hostess sprints across runway from plane to Lambretta; sound: “. . . and there’s plenty of room on that pillion for a friend!” image: man in pilot’s uniform leaps on behind her


INNOCENTI FOR G.B., 1954 When Innocenti first began exporting Lambrettas to New York in the early 1960s (a time when, according to Vance Packard, the New York cognoscenti were turning from Detroit to Europe for their cars seeking that “Continental, squared off boxy look”26) scooters were displayed (and sometimes sold) not in car or motorcycle showrooms but in exclusive “ladies” fashion shops. They were thought to be a good thing to dress a window with, regarded less as a means of transport than as chic metal accessories, as jewellry on wheels.

Fashion items appeared regularly in issues of Lambretta Notizario (e.g., “one is all-too-frequently tormented by the sight of badly trousered women on motor scooters [sic] . . . Hats? Any hat—provided it is practical and above all else— elegant.”). A series of advertisements in the same magazine showed young women seated on scooters in a variety of contexts: the captions ran “On a Pic-nic,” “Shopping,” “In the Country,” “By the Sea,” “In the Busy City,” etc. A reciprocal effect is achieved through the elision scooter/girl: the scooter’s versatility is used to advertise the freedom enjoyed by “modern” young Italian women and vice versa (i.e., look at all the places “she” can visit, all the things “she” can do). These two creations—the new Italian woman (an image fixed and disseminated internationally by the post-War Italian film industry through stars like Anna Magnani, Silvano Mangano and Sophia Loren) and the new Italian scooter are run together completely in an article which appeared in the British weekly magazine Picture Post entitled “A New Race of Girls” (5 September, 1954). The two inventions—“


untamed, unmanicured, proud, passionate, bitter Italian beauties” and the “clean, sporting Vespa scooter”—are together alleged to have “given Italians the same sort of ‘lift’ that the creation of the Comet gave the British.” The article is illustrated by a photograph of Gina Lollabrigida on a Vespa.

The scooter is singled out (along with “beauty competitions and films”) as a catalyst in the “emancipation” of the new Italian woman (“the motor scooter gave her new horizons” . . . ). And it is held directly responsible for successive changes in Italian women’s fashion since the War:

The pocket handkerchief fashion which swept the women’s world in 1949 was devised to keep a pillion girl’s hair tidy at speed. The following winter, the headkerchief was developed by the Florentine designer, Emilio Pucci, into a woollen headscarf. Next year, the blown hair problem was solved by the urchin cut. The narrowing of the new look skirt was dictated in order to prevent it getting tangled up with the wheels. The slipper shoe was created for footplate comfort. The turtle neck sweater and the neckerchief were designed against drafts down the neck . . . 27

The final sentence reads: By such means as this was the Italian girl’s appearance transformed, and her emancipation consummated.


The entire world becomes a setting for the fulfillment of publicity’s promise of the good life. The world smiles at us. It offers itself to us. And because everywhere is imagined as offering itself to us, everywhere is more or less the same.

JOHN BERGER, WAYS OF SEEING, 1972 By 1951, Vespas were being manufactured under licence in Germany, France and Britain. Innocenti had a factory at


Serveta in Spain and the motorcycle company NSU held the licence for Lambrettas in Germany until 1955. As the domestic market reached saturation point (by 1956 there were 600,000 two- and three-wheelers in Italy), Innocenti and Piaggio directed their attention toward Europe and the Third World. (Ironically enough, when Innocenti were forced to sell their scooter operation in 1972 [according to business history sources because of industrial disputes], it was taken over by Scooters India, a state-funded project based in Lucknow which still produces the “classic” Lambretta models of the 1960s.) By 1977, Vespa were exporting 289,000 scooters a year to 110 countries.

These new horizons were inevitably translated into advertising imagery. During the late 1950s, Innocenti ran a series of posters entitled “The Whole World in Lambretta,” which showed scooters posed against Buddhist temples or busy London streets. The caption beneath a photograph depicting a group of Ghanaian scooterists in “folk costume” invoked the then-fashionable notion of youth/style-as-a- universal: “Wearing a continental suit or a native dress does not change young people’s taste for scooters.” It was through strategies such as these that Innocenti and Piaggio could appropriate new markets and convert them into visual capital. One promotion ploy exemplifies the process clearly:

In 1962, Innocenti mounted a “world wide photographs” competition. Entrants were instructed to submit “holiday style” snaps of Lambrettas in “representative” national settings:

For example: a street in Las Vegas with the signboards of the famous gambling houses, a picture of a Lambretta amidst the intense traffic of a street of a great metropolis like London, New York, Paris, etc., or against a background of forests, exotic countries, natives in their traditional costumes, wild animals, monuments, and antique vestiges [sic] etc. . . .

Other conditions were stipulated: the Lambrettas should dominate the frame, be “well centreed . . . if possible taken in close up.” The “boys and girls” photographed on or directly


adjacent to the scooter should be “young and sports looking” (sic). All photographs and negatives were to be retained “in INNOCENTI files as documentation” and could be used in any future “advertising exploit considered by INNOCENTI suitable for its purposes.”

The competition rules lay out in a precise, accessible form, the criteria which shaped Innocenti advertising policy. The scooter was to be loosely located within a range of connotations—youth, tourism, sport—which were so open- ended that they could be mobilised literally anywhere in the world. In this way, it was possible to reconcile the different practical and symbolic functions which the scooter was likely to serve for different national markets. Ultimately Innocenti ads recognise only one collectivity: the “international brotherhood” of “boys and girls”: they interpellate the world.

A film produced for Innocenti in 1954 (Travel Far, Travel Wide) equates “freedom” with physical mobility, with the freedom to “go where you please.” Made against a background of sponsored global marathons and long-distance rallies (one, organised by Innocenti in 1962 went from Trieste to Istanbul), the film was designed to promote the touring potential of the larger “sporting” scooters. The closing image shows a group of young scooterists approaching a frontier. The voice-over reads:

A frontier. And on the other side, a completely different way of life. But whatever country you go to in the world today, you’ll find Lambrettas and Lambretta service stations.

This is the paradigm of tourism (everywhere is anywhere, everywhere is different) but here it is especially contradictory. On the one hand, the need for “national markets” and the impetus to travel demand that national characteristics, “different ways of life” be accentuated. On the other hand, trouble-free touring (complete with every modern convenience) and the construction of homogenous “modern” markets require the suppression of national differences and traditional cultures. “Youth” and “progress” mediate between these two demands: it is natural for youth


to be different, it is the destiny of science to generate change. The scooter serves as the material bridge between different generations, different cultures, different epochs, between contradictory desires. It is a sign of progress. It is for the “young or young at heart.” It is a passport to the future. Freedom in space becomes freedom in time: “with a Lambretta you’re part of the changing scene.”28


The image of the Innocenti works in Milan appeared as a logo on many of the early Lambretta ads. The image of the factory itself is the final mediation—the moment of production recalled at point of sale. The photograph, taken from an airplane, reduces an entire industrial complex to the status of a diagram (the reduction is a display of power in itself). We are left with an abstract “modern” pattern signifying progress, technology, resources: an echo of the image of the scooter.

The idealisation of production and production processes and the related image of the factory-as-microcosm are not of course confined to Innocenti’s publicity campaigns. The same motifs can be found in the tradition which led to the development of Italian corporatism under Mussolini and to the “progressivism” of Giovanni Agnelli, head of Fiat during the period immediately after World War I. They lay behind Adriano Olivetti’s attempts to establish “factory communities” and worker welfare schemes after World War II; they provided the moral and aesthetic basis for Olivetti’s concept of “integrated design.” And the images themselves derived originally from Marinetti, Sant’Elia and the futurists. . .

A promotion film called We carry on, made in 1966 soon after Innocenti’s death, clearly draws on this native tradition. (The film won first prize in the non-fiction class at Cannes in 1967. The pressure to enter an impressive [“artistic”] product must have been intensified after 1961 when Piaggio won the same award.)


. . . The slow aerial surveillance of the huge Innocenti plant which opens the film suddenly cuts to the production area. The camera work is determinedly “modern” and avant-garde. A scooter is assembled before our eyes. As it moves along the line each stage in its construction is dramatised through the use of expressionist lighting, jump cuts and skewed camera angles. On the soundtrack, harsh musique concrete further reinforces the image of inhuman automation and industrial power. The voice-over alternates between the sober recital of statistical facts ( . . . “the production line is one mile long and one-third of a mile wide . . .”) and “poetic” descriptions of technical processes. The style of the latter is “futurist baroque”:—“The factory is a hothouse in which the flowers are pieces of machinery . . . the electro-magnetic test bed is the altar of destruction on which will be sacrificed the body of a Lambretta” . . . At one point, there is a montage sequence which recalls the earlier “World in Lambretta” series but the rapid juxtaposition of shots—a scooter parked near an oasis, in a city street, on a Mediterranean beach— marks the conjunction of scooter and landscape as “bizarre.” The contrasts are deliberately violent. (Surrealism in the service of industry: the film seems to have helped determine the stylistic conventions and the “strangeness” of many present-day [prestige] advertising films, e.g., the Benson and Hedges’s “desert” series.) After an elegiac tribute to Innocenti (the camera circling respectfully around a plinth mounted with a bust of “our founder”) the film ends with another aerial shot as the camera sweeps across the workers’ swimming pool and tennis courts to rest, at last, above the enormous central tower/ panopticon. There is a slow final scan along the ranks of completed scooters waiting for dispatch on the factory forecourt . . . “machines which carry one name and one name only—a name which dominates the whole world.” The soundtrack is dominated by the wail of a siren on top of the tower “calling his [i.e., Innocenti’s] people to work. . . . He is gone but we shall carry on . . .”



The final sections are designed to explore some of the “cultural meanings” which became attached to the scooter as it was used in Britain.


a) The Motorcycle Industry

Look, here’s a beauty for you. She buys a scooter for a hundred and forty pounds and then she wants to know where the spark comes from.


Imports of foreign motorcycles and scooters into Great Britain for the first six months of 1954—3,318; for the first six months of 1956—21,125.


The first Italian scooters appeared in Britain in the early 1950s. Innocenti and Piaggio opted for different distribution strategies. Piaggio granted a manufacturing licence to the Bristol-based Douglas Motorcycle Company in 1951 and, in the same year, P. J. Agg and Son were registered as the Lambretta Concessionaires importing Innocenti’s scooters from the Continent. Sales and marketing were also handled differently by the two companies. Innocenti advertising tended to be pitched more directly at the image-conscious youth market and by 1960 the Agg concessionaires had established a nationwide network of over 1,000 service stations and, for the first time in Europe, had secured a market lead for Innocenti over Piaggio.

By the mid-1950s the Italian scooter was beginning to represent a threat to the British motorcycle industry which


until World War II had dominated the international market. Demand for the traditionally heavy, high performance machines which British manufacturers produced had been declining steadily since 1945. Within ten years, the trend had become pronounced: at the 1955 Earl’s Court Motor Cycle Show, three motorcycles were on a display competing against fifty new scooters.

British manufacturers were eventually forced into scooter production though the transition from heavy, utilitarian vehicles to light, “visually attractive” ones was never satisfactorily accomplished. (The BSA Dandy, for instance, had narrow legshields and footboard, and there was none of what Stephen Bayley has described as the “beautiful clothing”29 of the Vespa or Lambretta.) However, the initial response was one of scorn and dismissal. All the criticisms levelled by the Italian motorcycle industry in the 1940s were revived. Scooters were defined as “streamlined” and “effete.” The original sales line—that this was a form of transport which (even) women could handle—was turned against itself. Scooters were not only physically unsafe, they were morally suspect. They were unmanly. They ran counter to the ethos of hard work, self-sufficiency and amateur mechanics upon which the success of the British motorcycle industry and the prevailing definitions of masculinity—the “preferred readings” of manhood—were based.

These objections, formed at least partly in response to commercial pressure, percolated down throughout the motorcycle producer, retail and user cultures. Motorcycle shops, many of them owned by former TT veterans, refused to stock the “gimmicky” new machines, to finance service facilities, or to employ mechanics. The reluctance to legitimate scooters and scooterists lingered on within the motorcycling fraternity. The scooter remained, for “committed” motorcyclists, a sexed (and inferior) object. As recently as 1979, an article appeared in Motorcycle Sport which invoked all the old categories and prejudices. The article, entitled “Is the Scooter Making a Comeback?” consists of an apparently neutral assessment of scooter performance. The writer endorses only the more powerful


machines. The German Maicolette (known in the early 1960s as the “dustbin” amongst those British scooterists with Italianate tastes) is praised for “its beefy two-stroke engine. It could romp along at a confident 70mph holding the road like a motorcycle . . . it went like a rocket.”30 The author concludes by extracting the “essence” of “motorcycling sport”—its complexity, “depth,” power, its solitary nature— and contrasting these qualities against the “superficial,” “social” “fun” of scootering: “Naturally,” the gender of the ideal motorcyclist is beyond question.

. . . motorcycling is a much more complex sport than scootering . . . the enjoyment springs from the pure isolation aboard a fast solo when the rider, for a brief spell, is beyond authority and is in control of his own destiny. Motorcycling is fun of a multi-dimensional variety. Scootering is pleasure of the more superficial sort.31

b) Design

Somewhere on the lower slopes of clique acceptance was the popular Italian craze which dominated British taste in the later 1950s and which found expression in the vogue for products like motor scooters . . . Olivetti typewriters . . . Espresso coffee machines . . .

STEPHEN BAYLEY, IN GOOD SHAPE, 1979 Those “superficial” qualities which were interpreted negatively by the motorcycling industry—the social aspects and the look of the scooter—were regarded as positive assets by those working in the design field, at least by those young enough to appreciate the beauty of a mass-produced but “well-shaped” machine. The emergent Modern consensus in design which was to become dominant during the 1960s closed more or less unanimously around the Italian scooter and held it up to British industrialists as an example of what a good design should look like. As an everyday artefact


invested with some standards of style and utility but which still managed to satisfy all the key criteria: elegance, serviceability, popularity and visual discretion—the scooter fulfilled all the modern ideals.

At least that was the opinion circulated amongst the “select band of glossy monthly magazines” which, as Banham puts it, decides “who shall see what”32 in the design world. Indeed, the first article in the inaugural issue of one of the most influential of the post-War journals was entirely devoted to the “Italian look.” Writing in Design (January, 1949), F. K. Henrion compiled a list of tasteful artefacts which “have together transformed the appearance” of Italian city life. He singled out cars, furniture, ceramics and a Gio Ponti coffee machine. But the Vespa scooter—“a virtual institution”—was especially commended:

. . . the most important of all new Italian design phenomena is without doubt the Vespa. This miniature motorcycle, streamlined and extremely pleasant to look at, has become an important factor in Italian village and town life.33

Henrion drew attention to the scooter’s flexibility in use and its capacity for bridging markets:

. . . you see businessmen with briefcases, commercial travellers with boxes of samples on the vast floorspace. In the evenings, you see young couples . . . at weekends, mother, child and father on picnics. You see these machines parked side by side in front of Ministries and it is surprising how many people afford them at a price equivalent to £80.34

Finally he placed the significance of the Vespa in the context of an overall “Italian style,” as part of the “second Italian renaissance”:

I seemed to sense a similarity of aesthetic values amongst different products—a similarity which, seen from a distance of many years, might be called the style of the mid 20th Century.35


Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, Italy tended to epitomise for young, trendsetting British designers, everything that was chic and modern and “acceptable,” particularly in automobile and (through magazines like Domus) interior design. The cult of the individual designer- as-genius—as a modern Renaissance man blending mathematical skills and artistic flair—seems to have grown up largely around a few Italian names—Ponti, Ghia, Pininfarina, Nizzoli, etc. Sometimes the “superiority” of the Italian design is “explained” through its relationship to fine art (e.g., futurism). Ann Ferebee, for instance, compares streamlined Italian products to Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space and praises “sheathed” Italian transport for its “sculptural elegance.”36 And always the “refinement . . . and purity . . . of line”—in this case of Pin-infarina’s 1947 Cisitalia Coupe—is valorised because it sets “alternative standards against the baroque styles [then] emerging in America.”37 All these qualities and effects have been attributed at different times to the Italian scooter. It has become installed in the mythology of good Italian taste. It has now become an “object lesson”: it is the only entry for 1946 in Stephen Bayley’s In Good Shape—it stands in for its time.

A clash, then, between two “official” versions of the scooter, between two divergent interests. A “clash of opinion” between, on the one hand, a declining heavy engineering industry with a vested interest in preserving the market as it stands, with a fixed conception of both product and market, with material resources geared towards the reproduction of that market, the production of a particular design genre, with a set of established cultural values to mobilise in its defense; on the other, a design industry on the point of boom, with a vested interest in transforming the market, in aestheticising products and “educating” consumers, with material resources geared toward the production of a new commodity—Image—with an emergent set of cultural values (a new formation of desire) to articulate and bring to fruition. The Italian origins of the scooter function differentially within the two systems. In the first,


“Italianness” defines the scooter as “foreign competition” and doubles its effeminacy (Italy: the home of “male narcissism”). In the second, it defines the scooter as “the look of the future” and doubles its value as a well-designed object (Italy: the home of “good taste”).

The object splits. And is re-assembled in use . . .


By the mid-1950s, there were British branches of the Lambretta and Vespa user clubs, co-ordinated from separate offices in Central London and sponsored by the Douglas Company and the Agg Concessionaires. Both provided monthly magazines (Vespa News, Lambretta Leader, later Jet-Set). While these organisations were clearly modelled on the lines of the Italian clubs and served a promotional and public relations function, they tended to be less rigidly centralised and local branches, run by amateur enthusiasts, were allowed to organise their own affairs. Moreover, some of the larger branches had their own names—the “Bromley Innocents,” the “Vagabonds,” the “Mitcham Goons”—their own pennants, badges and colors and, in their informal character, and strong regional affiliations, they bore some resemblance to the pre-War cycling clubs. In the 1950s and early ‘60s the mass rallies and organised scooter runs were a major attraction for club members. As many as 3,000 scooterists would converge on Brighton and Southend for the National Lambretta Club’s annual rally where, at the service marquee, set, according to one enthusiast, amidst “banners and flags, bunting and a Carnival atmosphere . . . your Lambretta would be repaired and serviced entirely free of charge.”38 During the evenings, there would be barbecues, fancy dress competitions and dances (“. . . this was the day of Rock and Roll . . . Marty Wilde, Tommy Steele, Adam Faith . . .”).39 One of the socially cohesive elements at these events, at least for many of the younger club members, was a shared prediliction for Italy and “Italianate” culture. The clubs organised “Italy in Britain” weeks to foster the connection. At


the Lambretta Concessionaires’ headquarters in Wimbledon, an espresso coffee machine dispensed “free frothy coffee” for club members who brought their machines in to be serviced.40 One of the records played at the Southend rally dances in the early 1960s was an Italian hit entitled the “Lambretta Twist” . . .

As more scooters came onto the market (by 1963, there were twenty-two different firms selling scooters in Britain), the emphasis shifted on to the competitive events, which tended to be dismissed by the motorcycling contingent as “rally-type stuff of an endurance nature.”41 It seems likely that the British scooter clubs were particularly receptive to the idea of competition because it offered a means of counteracting the stigma (of “effeminacy” and “shallowness”) which had been attached to the sport in its earlier “social” phase. Innocenti developed the 200cc Lambretta specifically to meet the demands of the Isle of Man Scooter Rally which, by the late 1950s, had become the most important event of its kind in Europe. Quite apart from the racing and the track events, there were scooter expeditions to the Arctic Circle, non-stop runs from London to Milan, ascents of Snowdon on a scooter with a side-car: feats of lone heroism which were intended to display the toughness and stamina of both rider and machine. Some of these gestures had a positively epic quality: one scooterist crossed the English Channel using a Vespa to operate paddles fitted to floats.42 Club scootering became more muscular, scooter runs longer, trials more arduous. Scooter Tours, an extension of the Lambretta Club of Great Britain, provided couriers to lead “snakes” of up to forty scooters to Switzerland, Austria and Germany.

As the demand for scooters began to level out (i.e., around 1959), the pressure to win races and break records grew more intense. “Friendly competition” sometimes gave way to open rivalry and these tensions tended to filter down from the works teams to the ordinary badge-wearing members. The younger, more ardent club supporters began marking out their loyalties in dress. The “blue boys,” for instance, wore sharply cut suits in royal blue—the Lambretta club color. These rivalries were underscored by the distribution


policies of the two firms: dealers were licenced to sell only Vespas or Lambrettas.

Nonetheless, competitiveness never totally dislodged the frame which had been imposed upon the sport at its inception: the “social aspects” with their attendant connotations of health, open air and cheerful camaraderie. This ideal was reflected in the actual composition of the clubs themselves. Subscriptions were not restricted to a single class or age group (though it seems plausible that there was a bias toward relatively young people [i.e. sixteen to thirty-five] from “respectable” working-class and lower- middle-class backgrounds). Female scooterists figured as prominently as the men, at least on the non-competitive circuit . . .

Piaggio and Innocenti publicity departments regarded the inclusion of a Vespa or Lambretta in a feature film as a major advertising coup. Film directors were solicited to promote the firms’ products. Stars were photographed on set (sometimes in period costume) seated on the latest scooter model.

In the early 1960s, two films appeared both of which were, in a sense, made around the Italian scooter (and Cliff Richard): Wonderful Life (which featured the Vespa) and Summer Holiday (which co-starred the Lambretta). These films articulate precisely the ideal of the “fun-loving” collective which hovers over the literature, the rallies and the “socials” of the early scooter clubs, and they recapitulate many of the themes encountered in the scooter ads: “tourism,” “youth,” “freedom” and “fashion.” All these categories were brought together in the image of Cliff Richard and a group of “zany,” “up-to-date” but good-hearted youngsters off on their scooters in search of a continental coast-line, a holiday romance . . .


During the mid-1960s, Italian scooters became wedded, at least as far as the British press and television were


concerned, to the image of the mods (and rockers)—to the image of “riotous assembly” at the coastal resorts of Southern England. (The marriage has yet to be dissolved: a feature made in 1979 for the television programme About Anglia on the Lambretta Preservation Society [a “respectable” offshoot of the old scooter clubs] began, as a matter of course, with documentary footage of the clashes in 1964 at Margate and Brighton.) The words “social scootering” had formerly summoned up the image of orderly mass rallies. Now it was suddenly linked to a more sinister collective: an army of youth, ostensibly conformist—barely distinguishable as individuals from each other or the crowd— and yet capable of concerted acts of vandalism. The mods and the scooter clubs, the “Battle of Brighton,” 1964, and the Brighton runs of the 1950s, were connected and yet mutually opposed. They shared the same space like the recto and verso of a piece of paper. After the “social aspects,” the “anti-social”; after Summer Holiday, My Generation . . .


Everyone was trying to look like a photograph, as smooth and as flat as a page in a magazine . . . Everyone wanted to catch the light . . .


HARPERS & QUEEN, 1980 . . . and even here in this Soho, the headquarters of the adult mafia you could everywhere see the signs of the un-silent teenage revolution. The disc shops with those lovely sleeves set in their windows . . . and the kids inside them purchasing guitars or spending fortunes on the songs of the Top Twenty. The shirt-stores and bra- stores with cine-star photos in the window, selling all the exclusive teenage drag . . . The hair-style salons . . . The cosmetic shops . . . Scooters and bubble-cars


driven madly down the roads by kids, who, a few years ago were pushing toy ones on the pavement . . . Life is the best film for sure, if you can see it as a film . . .

COLIN MACINNES, ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS, 1959 The first wave of modernist youth emerged in or around London in the late 1950s. Most commentators agree on certain basic themes: that Mod was predominantly working class, male-dominated and centreed on an obsessive clothes- consciousness which involved a fascination with American and Continental styles. The endorsement of Continental products was particularly marked.

The Dean in Colin MacInnes’s Absolute Beginners (1959) is a “typical” (i.e., ideal) early modernist:

College-boy smooth crop hair with burned-in parting, neat white Italian rounded-collared shirt, short Roman jacket very tailored (two little vents, three buttons) no turn-up narrow trousers with seventeen-inch bottoms absolute maximum, pointed toe shoes, and a white mac folded by his side . . . 43

His (unnamed) girl friend is described in similar detail: . . . short hem lines, seamless stockings, pointed toe high-heeled stiletto shoes, crepe nylon rattling petticoat, short blazer jacket, hair done up into the elfin style. Face pale-corpse colour with a dash of mauve, plenty of mascara . . . 44

But here the absence of precise calibration (no twos or threes or seventeens) pinpoints her position within the signifying systems of both the novel and the subculture itself. In the same way, though her style is rooted in the Italian connection, derived in all likelihood from the “new race of [Italian] girls,” this isn’t stated. The Dean, on the other hand, is defined through a geography of dress. He is English by birth, Italian by choice.

According to sociological and marketing sources, Mod was largely a matter of commodity selection.45 It was through commodity choices that mods marked themselves out as


mods, using goods as “weapons of exclusion” 46 to avoid contamination from the other alien worlds of teenaged taste that orbitted around their own (the teds, beats and later the rockers).

Mods exploited the expressive potential within commodity choice to its logical conclusion. Their “furious consumption programme”—clothes, clubs, records, hair styles, petrol and drinamyl pills—has been described as “a grotesque parody of the aspirations of [their] parents”—the people who lived in the new towns or on the new housing estates, the post-War working and lower-middle-class . . . 47 The mods converted themselves into objects, they “chose” (in order) to make themselves into mods, attempting to impose systematic control over the narrow domain which was “theirs,” and within which they saw their “real” selves invested—the domain of leisure and appearance, of dress and posture. The transference of desire (“. . . their parents’ . . . aspirations . . .”) on to dress is familiar enough. Here the process is autoerotic: the self, “its self” becomes the fetish.

When the Italian scooter was first chosen by the mods as an identity-marker (around 1958—9 according to eye witness accounts48), it was lifted into a larger unity of taste—an image made up out of sartorial and musical preferences— which in turn was used to signal to others “in the know” a refinement, a distance from the rest—a certain way of seeing the world. Value was conferred upon the scooter by the simple act of selection. The transformation in the value of the object had to be publicly marked:

There was a correct way of riding. You stuck your feet out at an angle of forty-five degrees and the guy on the pillion seat held his hands behind his back and leaned back . . . 49

Sometimes the object was physically transformed. According to Richard Barnes,50 Eddie Grimstead, who owned two scooter shops in London during the mid-1960s, specialised in customising scooters for the mods. The machines were resprayed (Lambretta later adopted some of Grimstead’s colour schemes) and fitted with accessories: foxtails,


pennants, mascots, chromium, horns, extra lights and mirrors, whip aeriels, fur trim, and leopard-skin seats. Such features extended the original design concept organically.

Although the scooter imposed no constraints on the rider’s dress (this, after all, was what had originally made the scooter “suit-able” for the fashion-conscious mods), a style became fixed around the vehicle—a uniform of olive green (parka) anoraks, levi jeans and hush puppies. Sometimes French berets were worn to stress the affiliation with the Continent and to further distinguish the “scooter boys” from the rockers whose own ensemble of leather jackets, flying boots and cowboy hats signalled an alternative defection to America, an immersion in the myth of the frontier.

The innovative drive within Mod, the compulsion to create ever newer, more distinctive looks was eventually to lead to another customising trend, one which, once again, seems to contradict the logic of the scooter’s appeal. As the banks of lights and lamps began to multiply, a reaction set in amongst the hard core of stylists—scooters were stripped: side panels, front mudguards, sometimes even the footboards, were removed and the remaining body-work painted in muted colors with a matte finish.51 These were the last, irreverent transformations. By this time Mod had surfaced as a set of newspaper photographs and Bank Holiday headlines. Fixed in the public gaze, Mod turned, finally, against itself. After baroque, minimalism: the image of the scooter was deconstructed, the object “re-materialised” . . .


It’ll be a great day when cutlery and furniture swing like the Supremes.


However, Mod’s significance (and influence) stretched beyond the confines of the subcultural milieu. It was largely through Mod that the demand for more “sophisticated” and autonomous forms of teenaged leisure was expressed. And


provision expanded accordingly. By 1964, the coffee bars, “Shirt-stores and bra-stores” of MacInnes’s Absolute Beginners had given way to discotheques and boutiques. There was now a Mod television programme, Ready, Steady, Go (opening sequence: Mod on scooter at traffic lights/voice- over: “The Weekend Starts Here . . .”). There was a thriving teenaged fashion industry in London based on Carnaby Street and the Kings Road. There were bowling alleys, Wimpey bars and no less than six weekly magazines aimed directly at the Mod market.52

At a more general level, Mod highlighted the emergence of a new consumer sensibility, what Raymond Williams might call a “structure of feeling,” a more discriminating “consumer awareness.” It was, after all, during the late 1950s when the term “modernist” first came into use, that the Coldstream Council recommended the expansion of Design within Higher Education, that Design Departments were set up in all the major art schools, that royal patronage was formally extended to industrial design,53 that the Design Centre itself opened in the Haymar-ket, that magazines like Which?, Shopper’s Guide, Home and House Beautiful began publicising the ideas of “consumer satisfaction” and “tasteful home improvement.” And it was in 1964 when “mod” became a household word, that Terence Conran opened the first of the Habitat shops which, according to the advertising copy, offered “a pre-selected shopping programme . . . instant good taste . . . for switched-on people.” 54

The mirrors and the chromium of the “classic” Mod scooter reflected not only the group aspirations of the mods but a whole historical Imaginary, the Imaginary of affluence. The perfection of surfaces within Mod was part of the general “aestheticisation” of everyday life achieved through the intervention of the Image, through the conflation of the “public” and the “personal,” consumption and display. In 1966, a Wolverhampton reader of a national newspaper felt concerned enough about a “decorating problem” to write in for advice:

I have painted walls and woodwork white and covered


the floors with Olive Sullivan’s “Bachelor’s Button” carpet in burnt oak orange chestnut. Upholstery is Donald Bros unbleached linen mullein cloth. Curtains are orange and in a bright Sekers fabric and I am relying upon pictures, books, cushions, and rug for bright contrasting accessories. I have found a winner in London Transport’s poster “Greenwich Observatory” which I think looks marvellous against the white walls.55

The separation of a room into its parts (each part labelled, placed), of a suit into its “features” (each button counted, sited on a map) spring from a common impulse. Together they delineate a new disposition. The reader’s room in Wolverhampton, the Dean’s suit in Soho—both are “integrated structures,” designed environments. Both are held in high regard. They are subjected to the same anxious and discriminating gaze. This is the other side of affluence: a rapacious specularity: the coming of the greedy I.


In 1964, on the stately promenades of the South Coast resorts, a battle was enacted between two groups of adolescents representing different tastes and tendencies. The seaside riots provided a spectacle which was circulated as an “event” first as news, later, as history (the film Quadrophrenia appeared in 1979). The spectacle “just happened” to be watched (“. . . one local paper carried a photo of a man amongst a crowd of boys swinging deck- chairs holding his child above his head to get a better view . . .”56).

According to a survey conducted at Margate, the mods tended to come from London, were from lower-middle- or upper-working-class backgrounds and worked in skilled or semi-skilled trades or in the service industries. (Jimmy, the hero of Quadrophrenia, is presented as a typical mod, he works as an office boy in a London advertising agency. . . . )


The rockers were more likely to do manual jobs and to live locally. 57 Most observers agree that mods far out-numbered rockers at the coast. When interviewed, the mods used the words “dirty” and “ignorant” to typify the rockers. The rockers referred to the mods as “pansy” and “soft.”

The clash of opinion between design and motorcycling interests, between service and productive sectors, “adaptive” and “outmoded” elements was translated at Brighton and Margate into images of actual violence. The rocker/mod polarity cannot be so neatly transposed into options on gender (i.e., sexist/counter-sexist). Apparently, girls occupied equally subordinate positions within both subcultures. Male mods sometimes referred to girlfriends as “pillion fodder.” There were proportionately fewer girls driving scooters within the mod subculture than outside it in the “respectable” scootering community . . .


The scooter fanatic of eighteen to twenty really doesn’t know what it is about. It isn’t impossible to be Mod [in 1980], they just go about it the wrong way—a scooter was a means of transport. You didn’t worship it . . . ORIGINAL MOD QUOTED IN OBSERVER MAGAZINE,

1979 The disappearance of the service stations, the recession, small Japanese motorcycles, compulsory crash helmets, Scooters India, the Red Brigades: the original “network of relations” transformed over time, and with it the object, and the relationship of the user to the object.

The scooter is “undressed”: all new mods are amateur mechanics. The shortage of spare parts and the collapse of the support structure of garages mean that more scooterists are forced to service and maintain their own machines.



In the Evening Standard (24 February, 1977), a Mr Derek Taylor, “one of these new fashionable middle-management people,” explained why he had sold his car and bought a secondhand Lambretta:

. . . with road tax at £4 a year, insurance £12 and petrol consumption of nearly 100mpg, I reckon I’m on to a good buy . . . I still enjoy my comfort and want to get to work in a clean and presentable condition . . .

Fashion remains a significant vector but its significance resides in the fact that it can be turned in on itself: “. . . fashion takes a back-seat, but the practical scooter man has all the accessories on board (monsoon-proof mac . . . RAF long Johns) . . .” (ibid.)

The fashion paradigm is punctured by the practical scooter-man. The fuel crisis and the plight of the Evening Standard’s “neglected” middle-management have redefined the object (some traces linger . . . “comfort . . . clean . . . presentable”). The image falls off into irony.

On the London Underground, a new poster advertising the “more attractive angular look”58 of the “New Line” P range Vespa takes its place alongside the Suzuki and the Mini Metro ads, the images of Adonis briefs, the Elliott twins and the “This Insults Women” stickers. The Italian scooter cycle kicks off again in slightly higher gear . . .


1 Roland Barthes, “Introduction,” Mythologies, Paladin, 1972(a). 2 Roland Barthes, quoted in J. Bird, The Politics of Representation, Block 2, 1980. 3 Roland Barthes, “Ecrivains et ecrivants,” in Critical Essays, Evanston, 1972(b). 4 Roland Barthes, “The New Citroen,” in Barthes, op. cit., 1972(a). 5 Roland Barthes, op. cit., 1972(b).


6 Roland Barthes, “The New Citroen”: “The bodywork, the lines of union are touched, the upholstery palpated, the seats tried, the doors caressed, the cushions fondled; . . . The object here is totally prostituted, appropriated: originating from the heaven of Metropolis, the Goddess is in a quarter of an hour mediatized, actualizing through this exorcism the very essence of petit-bourgeois advancement.” 7 Lisa Tickner, “Women and Trousers: unisex clothing and sex-role changes in the 20th Century,” in Leisure in the 20th Century, Design Council, 1977. 8 Paul Willis, “The Motor Cycle Within the Subcultural Group,” in Working Papers in Cultural Studies (2), University of Birmingham. 9 Roland Barthes, op. cit., 1972(a). 10 Vance Packard, The Wastemakers, Penguin, 1963. 11 Ibid. 12 T. Adorno, quoted in Colin MacCabe, Godard: Sound Image: politics, BFI Publications, 1981. 13 Louis Althusser, “Contradiction and Overdetermination,” in For Marx, Allen Lane, 1969. 14 Jan Stevens, Scootering, Penguin, 1966. 15 Mike Karslake, Jet-Set, Lambretta Club of Great Britain, December, 1974. 16 Paul Sweezey, “On the Theory of Monopoly Capitalism,” in Modern Capitalism and Other Essays, Monthly Review Press, 1972. Peter Donaldson in Economics of the Real World, Penguin, 1973, provides some interesting statistics here on the transfer of capital in Britain during the post-war period. He writes: “Spending on take-overs during the first half of the 1960s was something like ten times that of the 1950s . . . One estimate is that the mergers movement during the 1960s must have involved the transfer of some twenty per cent of the total net assets of manufacturing industry . . .” 17 See Vance Packard, The Status-Seekers, Penguin, 1961. 18 Stuart Ewen, “Advertising as Social Production,” in Communication and Class Struggle, Vol. 1, IG/IMMRC, 1979. Also Stuart Ewen, Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture, McGraw-Hill, 1977.


19 Quoted ibid. 20 J. K. Galbraith, The Affluent Society, Penguin, 1970. 21 Richard Hamilton in S. Bayley (ed.), In Good Shape: Style in Industrial Products 1900—1960, Design Council, 1979. 22 Ann Ferebee, A History of Design from the Victorian Era, Van Nos. Reinhold, 1970. 23 “This exquisite social appliance,” a line from We Carry On, Innocenti promotion films, 1966. 24 R. Barthes, 1972(a). 25 Henry Lefebvre, Everyday Life in the Modern World, Allen Lane, 1971. 26 Vance Packard, op. cit., 1963. 27 “A New Race of Girls,” in Picture Post, 5 September, 1954. 28 From an advertising jingle used on Australian radio during 1962, sung by the Bee Gees. 29 S. Bayley, op. cit., 1979. 30 Jack Woods, “Is the Scooter Making a Comeback?,” in Motorcycle Sport, November, 1979. 31 Ibid. 32 Reyner Banham, “Mediated Environments,” in Superculture: American Popular Culture and Europe, Paul Elek, 1975, (ed.) C. W. E. Bigsby. 33 F. K. Henrion, “Italian Journey,” in Design, January 1949. 34 Ibid. 35 Ibid. 36 Ann Ferebee, op. cit., 1970. 37 John Heskett, Industrial Design, Thames & Hudson, 1980. 38 Mike Karslake, op. cit., 1974. 39 Ibid. 40 Personal recollection from Mike Karslake. 41 Jack Woods, op. cit., 1979. 42 From an article entitled “The Buzzing Wasp” which appeared in On Two Wheels. The series also carried an article on Lambrettas called “The Alternative Society.” 43 Colin MacInnes, Absolute Beginners, reissued by Allison & Busby, 1980. 44 Ibid. 45 See R. Barnes, Mods!, Eel Pie Publishing, 1980, on which


I drew heavily for the mod sections in this paper; Generation X (eds.) Hamblett & Deverson, Tandem, 1964; Gary Herman, The Who, Studio Vista, 1971; S. Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panics. Paladin, 1972. See also D. Hebdige, “The Style of the Mods,” in S. Hall et. al. (eds.), Resistance Through Rituals, Hutchinson, 1976. 46 Baron Isherwood and Mary Douglas, The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption, Penguin, 1980. Isherwood and Douglas define consumption as a “ritual process whose primary function is to make sense of the inchoate flux of events. . . . rituals are conventions that set up visible public definitions.” Luxury goods are particularly useful as “weapons of exclusion.” This idea compares interestingly with Bourdieu’s definition of “taste”: “Tastes (i.e., manifested preferences) are the practical affirmation of an inevitable difference . . . asserted purely negatively by the refusal of other tastes . . .” 47 R. Barnes, op. cit., 1980. 48 Ibid. 49 Ibid. 50 Ibid. 51 Ibid. 52 S. Cohen, op. cit., 1972. 53 See Fiona MacCarthy, A History of British Design 1830— 1970, Allen & Unwin, 1979. The Design Centre opened in 1956. The Duke of Edinburgh’s Prize for Elegant Design was first awarded three years later; also The Practical Idealists, J. & A. Blake, Lund Humphries, 1969. 54 Ibid. 55 Quoted in F. MacCarthy, All Things Bright and Beautiful, Allen & Unwin, 1972. 56 S. Cohen, op. cit., 1972. 57 P. Barker and A. Little, in T. Raison (ed.), Youth in New Society, Hart-Davis, 1966. Peter Willmott gives some interesting figures on patterns of scooter and motorcycle ownership in a working-class London borough in Adolescent Boys in East London, Penguin, 1966, during the mod-rocker period. Of his sample of 264 boys, one in ten over sixteen owned scooters (mainly in the sixteen- to seventeen-year


range) whilst only one in twenty over sixteen owned a motor bike (they tended to be slightly older, seventeen to eighteen). 58 This comes from a review of the new Vespa P200 in “The Buzzing Wasp,” in On Two Wheels. Thanks to Mary Rose Young and thanks especially to Mike Karslake, president of the Lambretta Preservation Society, for giving me so much of his time and allowing me access to his collection of Innocenti publicity material and memorabilia.





Thomas C. O’Guinn


Christianity will go. We’re more popular than Jesus now.


It seemed to me then, as it does now, that one of the undeniable hallmarks of American consumer culture is a fascination with celebrity. Each week approximately 3.3 million Americans read People (Simmons Market Research Bureau 1990). Anyone who reads newspapers or magazines or watches television, will have no doubt noted that a great deal of air time and print space is devoted to covering celebrities. This interest and attention is not restricted to a certain social class; all have their celebrities, although each class tends to think the other misguided or too unsophisticated to appreciate the truly great. Some read of their admired ones in tabloids, others in the chic magazine of the “intelligentsia.”

At the center of all this attention is a great deal of consumption. At least one million Americans belong to a fan club (Dornay 1989). Approximately five million tourists have visited Graceland since being opened to the public in 1982,


60,000 alone during “Elvis Week”2 marking the tenth anniversary of Mr. Presley’s death. Tourists throng to celebrity graveyards in Los Angeles; the most famous of them, Forest Lawn is often referred to as the Disneyland of cemeteries. Others take drive-by bus tours of the homes of the stars. “Meet-a-Celebrity” tie-ins and other promotions are becoming routine. The production and marketing of celebrity could reasonably be called one of America’s largest industries.

Yet, the question of why remains. Why do we devote so much attention to celebrities? Why do “we live in a society bound together by the talk of fame” (Braudy 1986, p. vii)? Why do celebrities matter so much to us; and from the perspective of consumer research, why do they sit at the center of so much buying and consuming?

Apparently no one is really even sure how long the celebrity has been with us.3 Braudy (1986) traces the notion back to Homeric legends and early concepts of gods. Another frequently applied model is the traditional hero within the context of myth, probably best described by Campbell in his classic, Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949). Heros and their associated myths help us make sense of our lives, better understand our connections to each other and our culture. There is also something special about heros in a techno- science culture where the concept of god is so fundamentally threatened. The need for magic may be at its greatest in such a world. This is the modern “crisis of heroism” put forth by Becker (1973) in The Denial of Death. When heros and gods are reasoned away, a vacuum of anxiety remains. Amplifying Becker (1973), Rollin (1983; 38) says:

the therapy for the Age of Anxiety is apotheosis, the transformation of a human being into a heavenly being, a star, a hero, a god, a symbol of human potential realized.

Others (i.e., Klapp 1969; Lowenthal 1961) have argued that celebrities exist to give the individual identity in a modern mass culture. In this notion’s most recent incarnation, Reeves (1988) presents an intriguing thesis on stardom,


casting it as a cultural agent of personality development and social identification. Even though his specific focus is television stardom, the idea that stardom is a “cultural ritual of typification and individuation” extends well beyond that particular medium. Drawing on the work of Carey (1975), Geertz (1973), Bakhtin (1981) and Dyer (1979), Reeves (p. 150) argues that television stars help the individual connect who he or she is with “appropriate modes of being in American culture,” or cultural “types,” while at the same time providing just enough quirks against type to believe that we, like the stars, are actually unique individuals.

One of the more influential thoughts in conceptualizations of celebrity is Max Weber’s (1968, v. 1. 241) concept of “charisma”:

to be endowed with powers and properties which are supernatural and superhuman, or at least exceptional even where accessible to others; or again as sent by God, or as if adorned with exemplary value and thus worthy to be a leader.

However, as impactful as this concept has been, few suggest a wholesale application of the “charismatic leader” (Weber 1968) concept to modern celebrity. The reasons are generally because the sociologist-cum-economist Weber’s formulation requires a purposeful leader, a stable social system, and a clearly discernable power relationship. Two of these almost never exist in the case of modern celebrity, and the other, a stable social system, is a matter of some debate and interpretation (see Dyer 1979 and Alberoni 1972). Edward Shils (1965) also takes Weber to task for his narrow institutional conceptualization of charisma, and offers a much broader view of the concept. Still, it is Italian sociologist Francesco Alberoni who proposes a purely apolitical and modern model of celebrity.

Alberoni (1972) argues that the modern “star” does not and cannot possess generalized “charisma” in the true Weberian sense. Modern societies are too specialized to allow stars the kind of institutionalized power that Weber’s charismatic leader demands. However, he does believe that they are


perceived by their adoring masses as possessing some demi- divine characteristics that make them “elite” rather than charismatic. They are seen as spiritually special, but lacking any type of political power. Alberoni thus terms stars the “powerless elite.”

In fact, it could be that ritual is the central element in the Touching Greatness phenomenon. Rituals linger well beyond their substance. They can still be comforting even though their spiritual basis is long gone. Prayers said to a god not truly believed in may still benefit the supplicant. So too may be visiting the place of rituals, the church—even though the gods have gone away. Touching greatness may be a form that is substantially vestigial. The practice satisfies even though it is absent of much contemporary meaning. This could help explain why we seem to have such a need for celebrities which Boorstin (1962) saw as nothing more than “human pseudo-events,” and people famous for being famous.


The Touching Greatness project began at Mann’s Theater in Los Angeles. We (Belk, O‘Guinn, Sherry, Wallendorf) interviewed several people engaged in what seemed a particularly interesting form of consumer behavior. People spent from a few minutes to a few hours milling about looking at the hand and foot prints of movie stars. Some, such as the individual in Figure 10, chose to bend down, often while being photographed by a family member or friend, and place their own hands or feet in the impressions left by the stars. Some bought Hollywood and celebrity related souvenirs, signed up for tours of the stars’ homes, and otherwise participated in the celebrity centered consumption experience. Interviews then and during a return trip by Belk and O’Guinn two years later revealed that to many it was merely something to do, just situationally normative behavior and curiosity. For others, it meant


something more: a chance to remember and pay homage, to explain to their children who these men and women were and why they were important in their lives. Touching Greatness is more about the latter, or “true fans,” but is not wholly without connection to the former appreciative masses. It remains an interesting and legitimate question why behaviors such as those observed at Mann’s Theater are norms within our culture, and why such popular shrines exist at all.



The Central Midwest Barry Manilow Fan Club (CMBMFC) data are offered here as a case within the larger phenomenon and not as complete ethnography. These data will not allow the reader the depth necessary to fully appreciate the unique character of this particular club, for they were not collected for that purpose. Rather, they illustrate some of the themes observed across locales and fans.



Barry Manilow4 is a celebrity. I talked to some of his fans. At the time the data were collected several themes had emerged from work at other Touching Greatness sites. The data collected here and at subsequent locales were used to expand upon what had already been learned, and to test the evolving model with new data. What follows are some of these findings, along with illustrative text and photos.

The findings being reported here are based on thirty hours of interviews with eighteen members of the CMBMFC. The informants were all women. Most were in their mid-thirties to mid-forties. Socioeconomic-status varied, but was typically observed to be lower middle class. We saw no men, but were told that there were a few male members. 5 Interviews were conducted in three places: a small restaurant, the home of the CMBMFC president, Bobbie, six hours prior to a Barry Manilow concert, and in a backstage press area secured exclusively for our use before and after the show. Besides the author, five graduate assistants, three men and two women, participated in the fieldwork.


The Touching Greatness phenomenon has a broad cultural foundation. Apart from aspects of religion, I observed evidence of the fan club as surrogate family, and what could reasonably be viewed as a socialization outcome of life in a society in which the average family watches over seven hours of television a day (Condry 1989). Yet, the single best organizing structure is the first of these: religion. Perhaps it is because it is such a primal structure. Humans have been using it as a conceptual framework for explaining their existence, plight, and just about everything else for centuries. It is a very convenient and familiar source for


interpretation and attribution. Religion has so many points of contact with so many aspects of believers’ lives, that it is sometimes hard to see where it starts and stops. With this caveat in mind, a discussion of some of the uncovered themes follows. They are not exclusively religious, but are not inconsistent with a religious interpretation.


“He’s a husband, he’s a lover, he’s a friend, he’s everything.”

Barry Manilow pervades the lives of the members of the CMBMFC. In a very real sense, he is “everything.” Evidence of this comes in several forms. First, there is the more concrete, such as the expenditure of time and money. It is not uncommon for the members to attend five shows a year, often traveling considerable distances. There is also the purchase and creation of Barry Manilow paraphernalia. These include hundreds of photographs, extensive album and video collections, clipping files and other memorabilia. Large phone bills from calling other Barry Manilow members are common. Vacations are scheduled around tour dates. Life revolves around Barry. In terms of time and money, Barry is a primary beneficiary of these typically scarce resources.

Invoking Barry’s name and spirit also makes important rituals and life events even more special, or sacred (Belk, Sherry and Wallendorf 1991). A particularly palpable example was when Bobbie and her husband were married. The couple had a number of Barry’s songs played at the wedding, and the sheet music to a particular song, “Who Needs to Dream,” was superimposed over the couple’s wedding photograph (Figure 11). Many religions place a god or other important personage (i.e., saint, martyr, prophet, etc.) at the center of celebrations and rituals marking important life events, such as weddings, which thereby come to be regarded as sacred institutions.

Barry’s pervasiveness in the lives of the CMBMFC


members was also apparent in that they often referred to him in terms of a significant other, most typically as lover, husband or friend. This love was, however, rarely sexual. It was rather more spiritual love, though often with an idealized romantic pallor. For example, one woman who describes herself as a very faithful wife, says she takes off her wedding ring on only one occasion: to attend Barry Manilow concerts. She does this although she and Barry Manilow have no personal relationship in any traditional sense; yet, she sees important symbolism in the act. This is an important thing for her to do. It would, after all, be wrong to be married to two men at once. Extending the religious metaphor, some nuns wear wedding bands to symbolize their marriage to Christ.

Perhaps most significantly, informants explain that Barry is able to provide the emotional support and understanding they need like no one else in their lives. I was told that he “never lets them down.” CMBMFC members frequently describe him as “all” of these important roles or personages “rolled into one,” someone who can be all, provide all.

I believe in God, and I kind of think God sent Barry to help me. I think a lot of people feel that way, he’s got a special gift and he kind of reaches out to a lot of people.

Barry’s specialness occasionally borders on the miraculous. Bobbie tells of a time when a group of CMBMFC members were camping out for tickets in cold and wet weather. They had been out all night in rain and cold when sandwiches and coffee arrived “from nowhere.” Bobbie was amazed that what initially seemed like a meager amount of food had “fed everyone.” We also spoke to a woman who told us that Barry had “somehow” heard of her child who had cancer, picked him up in his limousine and visited with he and his mother at their home. On another occasion, the CMBMFC members were waiting for Barry’s plane to land. The weather was bad, but when Barry’s plane approached, the sky cleared and it was able to land. When he was safely inside the terminal, it started raining again.




Like most religions, this church has a mission; there is work to be done. Among the important duties are taking care of Barry, protecting him from bad fans, recruiting new followers, and always being there for him. These are all seen as important functions for members of the CMBMFC.


Perhaps chief among them is the idea of providing emotional support to Barry and otherwise taking care of him. Sometimes, we think of gods taking care of their followers, and not vice versa. But in fact, in many religions that is precisely the purpose of human existence, to serve god. Christians, for example, are told that the path to heaven and happiness is through serving the Lord, doing His work. Sometimes “His work” is in the form of altruism, serving god by serving others. Such behavior is very consistent with that observed among CMBMFC members. They are quick to point out that Barry and his fans do a great deal of charity work.

It is here that the role of wife/mother becomes most intermingled with that of religious follower. The women of the CMBMFC seem to derive a very important benefit from taking care of Barry, giving of themselves. They believe he needs and appreciates this effort, his appreciation being very significant. In preparation for the show we attended, four different fan clubs competed to decorate Barry’s dressing room. The members of the CMBMFC explained that decorations let Barry know they care, and are “there for him.” They also wanted to make him as “comfortable as possible.”

Some members have very personal ideas and aspirations about serving Barry. The president of the CMBMFC, herself a professional secretary, says that if she could be anything at all in relation to Barry she would be his secretary:

I would like to just spend a day following him around with my little clipboard or whatever saying “you’ve gotta be here, you’ve gotta be here, you’ve got a meeting with so and so” and just do that for a day. That’s all I want.

Serving Barry even extends to cleaning for Barry. After one show a group of CMBMFC members waited for Barry to leave his dressing room. When he did, he looked at the arena and commented on how dirty it was. They then explained that this was true except for the rows in which they had sat. Those were clean:

He [Barry] said something like “what went on here


today, looks like they had a circus, popcorn all over the floor” and I said “yes, but the first three rows are clean.” He turns to Mark and he says “you’re right, where they sat, those rows are clean.”

Churches must be kept clean. True believers respect the sacred space, whereas infidels defile it. Members of the CMBMFC are true believers.

Still, after telling the researchers so much about what they did for Barry, the opposite question was posed.

Researcher: And what does he give you? Bobbie: Just knowing that he’s there and he cares, you know, like I told her (my friend) tonight going to the mall. I said “this man, the fact that he does realize what he puts us through.”

Appreciation, particularly from a male, seemed very important. Further, it doesn’t seem entirely coincidental that when asked to explain what makes Barry so good, informants very frequently mention that Barry is very good to his mother. Here is where the devoted religious follower and the role of the long suffering and nurturing woman intertwine. The fan’s object of devotion is a person to whom they ascribe the attributes of specialness, extending to religious proportions. They serve him, and are happy in their work. It is not, however, insignificant that this minor deity or religiously imbued person is male. It is also important that this paradoxical relationship to suffering and pleasure seems so central to the gratifications derived by these women. It is also entirely consistent with the happy sufferer paradox of many religious experiences.


“Our day will come.” “Mostly they just sit and shake their heads at us.”

“I mean he cares for us too. In fact, he even told us . . . ; “I know you put up with a lot of grief and I’ve heard every name in the book just like you’ve heard every


name in the book and you put up with a lot,” and he said “I want you to know I’m here,” and he did everything he could do to make sure it doesn’t happen but it’s always gonna happen and he feels terrible about it because we’re considered his ladies and he takes care of us . . .”

“He realizes what he puts you through.” The members of the CMBMFC speak of the ridicule and

oppression they must face for their beliefs. Their families, particularly their husbands, do not understand their devotion and love for Barry. People make fun of them. Yet, it is suffering not entirely without reward; there is a bit of martyrdom related satisfaction apparent in some informants.


Many fans have collections of Barry Manilow things. Some have special “Barry Rooms” set aside for the display of their collections. Others have only parts of rooms, some just closets. Almost all attribute lack of room for Barry to unsympathetic husbands. Consistent with other research on collections (Belk, Wallendorf and Sherry 1989), the job is never done, collections are never complete. There’s always more Barry stuff. Few would sell even a single piece of their collections, and they rank their contents as their most prized and meaningful possessions.

I’d kill just about anybody if they just go in the room and try to walk out of the room with a poster, a record, just a clipping out of a newspaper, scraps of tickets, you name it. A lot of us have rooms devoted to just that, in fact, few of us have understanding husbands. I’m about one of the only ones in the entire Central Midwest Club that lets me do all of that.



Bobbie’s room is featured in two photographs (Figures 12 and 13). She devotes one of the bedrooms of her house to this pursuit. The room is covered in posters, photographs, clippings, letters, autographs, etc. These things have a great deal of meaning for Bobbie. These are special because they involve Barry, and form an important emotional conduit to networks of friends, memories and an important sense of self.

The highest status things in the collections are the things actually touched by Barry. This somehow proves that Barry exists for them, through this person-to-object-to-person connection (McCracken 1986). It is physical evidence of a personal relationship. A good example was a Perrier bottle from which Barry had drunk. This bottle occupies a prominent place on Bobbie’s shelf. The smaller bottles belong to members of Barry’s entourage.

This collecting of things actually touched by the admired one is a particularly interesting aspect of the Touching Greatness phenomenon. It was observed consistently across venues and celebrities, and is very consistent with a liturgical interpretation, going as far as the levels of sacredness assigned to religious relics (Geary 1986) depending on how “near” they were once to the sacred being. It also draws us back full circle to the behavior


observed at Mann’s Theater, of wanting to actu-ally touch the concrete images left by the stars. It wouldn’t be the same consumption experience if Plexiglas covered the concrete impressions.


Yet another important distinction concerning collections should be noted. Apparently, “real fans” don’t sell Barry things at a profit. This helps distinguish the infidel from the true believer. One of the most common behaviors at a Manilow concert is taking photographs of Barry, lots of them. Bobbie, for example, will take four to eight 24 exposure rolls per show, and see several shows per year. The photos taken of Barry are sold at cost or traded with other fans, but “it would be wrong” to sell them.

The only thing I ever charge is if they want copies and


they send me just for the print. Barry doesn’t like when you make a profit.

This is very reminiscent of the parable of Christ driving the merchants from the temple. Apparently, putting a price on something that is seen as without price would seem profane or vulgar and would move something sacred into the secular domain, and thus cheapen it (Belk, Sherry and Wallendorf 1989).


Fellowship seemed to be the greatest of all the benefits of CMBMFC membership. Respondents talked at length of how much getting together with one another meant to them. Many said that relationships started via membership have become some of the most important in their lives. The behavior we observed supports this assertion. The members of the CMBMFC seemed very close and legitimately interested in each others’ well-being. The greatest thing they have in common is the love for and devotion to Barry Manilow. They get together and talk and reminisce, and share one another’s joys and sorrows. There was a clear bond between them. This may be the strongest evidence for a Church of Barry interpretation, the centrality of fellowship. They gather in his name, but for each other.

Touching Greatness also provides other social benefits. When at Mann’s Theater it seemed that the concrete shrines facilitated communication among visitors, much of it inter- generational. Why Jimmy Stewart or Marilyn Monroe were important to father was explained to son. For others, the stars were known-in-common referents. Their films marked time, set events in context, and seemed to provide meaning in a non-trivial way. There was something important underneath this, a connection to culture and the individual within it, with consumption being an important part of the link. Buying, giving and collecting things within the touching greatness phenomenological frame is common and important to those involved. It concertizes the experiences and


facilitates social interaction.


Religion is one of the oldest of culture’s creations. Yet, “dead are all the gods” (Nietzsche 1893). Science and the ascendancy of the individual has either killed them or made of them vestigial forms which only vaguely resemble their ancestors. As the traditional social structures are challenged, evolve or succumb, contemporary cultures recast old into new. What were god-centered religions may be easily converted into social structures for celebrity worship. Even though few if any CMBMFC members actually believe Barry Manilow to be a god, they do attribute the qualities of the religiously blessed to him. They certainly believe him to be closer to god than they are. Clouds part when his plane lands; he supplies food in mysterious ways; and he possesses a special sense of knowing about his followers’ lives that is clearly beyond mortal. This is a religious system. By any standards Barry Manilow is worshipped by his fans. He is someone more than a priest and someone less than the son of God in a traditional Protestant Christian model. In contrast, data from Elvis Presley fan clubs show his fans as seeing him closer to truly divine; whereas data from Johnny Cash fan clubs show a very fallible mortal, but still spiritually special.

The Touching Greatness data provide support for the thesis that celebrities perform some of the functions of gods, or god-sent beings. Yet, also clear is support for the idea that the fan club serves some of the social function churches once did. There, people who share a deep devotion or admiration for a special individual, meet and form important bonds, and fulfill important social needs once facilitated by the church. Maybe these fan clubs have taken on such a liturgical feel because the religious form was simply the most familiar, the most easily borrowed and transformed. The church is replaced in form, if not substance because it has the best, most familiar and most comfortable bundle of social uses,


gratifications and shared meanings. We may miss God less than we miss each other.

While it is sometimes argued that extreme or marginal forms of behavior such as fanaticism are both qualitatively and quantitatively distinct from their more “normal” expression, it seems difficult to explain one without the other. The very fact that Graceland and Mann’s Theater exist and flourish means something apart from fanaticism. Likewise, the significance of the Touching Greatness phenomenon exists beyond the dispositional properties of individuals. It says something about the stage of a society’s development (Alberoni 1972), our collective needs, motivations and values, and how these are expressed through consumption.

There’s a great deal of consumption in the Touching Greatness phenomenon. Yet as a field we have chosen not to give this and other aspects of popular culture much attention. Perhaps that is precisely the reason; it is too popular. Academics can be the worst snobs of all in their refusal to consider the popular (see Lewis 1988; Bellah et al. 1985). This seems odd, since by definition, it is where so much of life occurs.


1 The author would like to thank Mark Michicich, L. J. Shrum, Lisa Kay Sla-bon, Lisa Braddock, Ian Malbon, and Connie O’Guinn, who participated in this research. Further thanks go to Bill Wallendorf, Molly Ziske, Kim Rot-zoll, Russell Belk, and the staff of the Overland Cafe, Los Angeles. 2 An Elvis week consists of nine days. 3 While there are many reasonable definitions of celebrity, and related terms such as “fame,” “star,” and “renown,” I choose to simply define a celebrity as one who is known by many, but knows far fewer, and the object of considerable attention. 4 Barry Manilow is a popular contemporary song stylist.


5 Most males mentioned were Barry impersonators.


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1990, vl. pt. 2, sections 7-18, Detroit: Gale Research. Dyer, R. (1979), Stars, London: British Film Institute. Geertz, Clifford (1973), The Interpretation of Cultures, New York: Basic Books. Geary, Patrick (1986), “Sacred Commodities: The Circulation of Medieval Relics,” in Arjun Appadurai (ed.), The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, New York: Cambridge University Press, 169—191. Klapp, Orrin E. (1969), Collective Search for Identity, New York: Holt, Rine-hart and Winston. Lennon, John (1966), New York Times, “Comment on Jesus Spurs a Radio Ban,” Aug 5, 1966, page 20, column 3. Lewis, George H. (1988), “Dramatic Conversations: The Relationship Between Sociology and Popular Culture,” in Ray B. Browne and Marshall W. Fishwick (eds.), Symbiosis: Popular Culture and Other Fields, Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 70-84. Lincoln, Yvonna S. and Egon G. Guba (1985), Naturalistic Inquiry, Beverly Hills, CA: Sage. Lowenthal, Lowel (1961), “The Triumph of Mass Idols,” in Lowel Lowenthal (ed.), Literature, Popular Culture and Society, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, pp. 109-140. McCracken Grant (1986), “Culture and Consumption: A Theoretical Account of the Structure and Movement of the Cultural Meaning of Consumer Goods,” Journal of Consumer Research, 13:1 (June), 71-84. Nietzsche, Friedrich (1893), Also Sprach Zarathustra, Leipzig: C. G. Nau-mann. Reeves, Jimmy L. (1988), “Television Stardom: A Ritual of Social Typification,” in James W. Carey (ed.), Media, Myths and Narratives: Television and the Press, Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 146-160. Rollin, Roger R. (1983), “The Lone Ranger and Lenny Skutnik: The Hero as Popular Culture,” in Ray B. Browne and Marshall W. Fishwick (eds.), The Hero in Transition, Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 14-45. Shills, Edward (1965), “Charisma, Order and Status,” American Sociological Review, 199—233. Simmons Market Research Bureau (1990), “Study of Media


and Markets,” New York: Simmons Media Research Bureau. Weber, Max (1968), Economy and Society, v-13, New York: Bedminster.




Janice A. Radway By the end of my first full day with Dorothy Evans and her customers, I had come to realize that although the Smithton women are not accustomed to thinking about what it is in the romance that gives them so much pleasure, they know perfectly well why they like to read. I understood this only when their remarkably consistent comments forced me to relinquish my inadvertent but continuing preoccupation with the text. Because the women always responded to my query about their reasons for reading with comments about the pleasures of the act itself rather than about their liking for the particulars of the romantic plot, I soon realized I would have to give up my obsession with textual features and narrative details if I wanted to understand their view of romance reading. Once I recognized this it became clear that romance reading was important to the Smithton women first because the simple event of picking up a book enabled them to deal with the particular pressures and tensions encountered in their daily round of activities. Although I learned later that certain aspects of the romance’s story do help to make this event especially meaningful, the early interviews were interesting because they focused so resolutely on the significance of the act of romance reading rather than on the meaning of the romance.

The extent of the connection between romance reading and my informants’ understanding of their roles as wives and


mothers was impressed upon me first by Dot herself during our first two-hour interview which took place before I had seen her customers’ responses to the pilot questionnaire. In posing the question, “What do romances do better than other novels today?,” I expected her to concern herself in her answer with the characteristics of the plot and the manner in which the story evolved. To my surprise, Dot took my query about “doing” as a transitive question about the effects of romances on the people who read them. She responded to my question with a long and puzzling answer that I found difficult to interpret at this early stage of our discussions. It seems wise to let Dot speak for herself here because her response introduced a number of themes that appeared again and again in my subsequent talks with other readers. My question prompted the following careful meditation:

It’s an innocuous thing. If it had to be . . . pills or drinks, this is harmful. They’re very aware of this. Most of the women are mothers. And they’re aware of that kind of thing. And reading is something they would like to generate in their children also. Seeing the parents reading is . . . just something that I feel they think the children should see them doing. . . . I’ve got a woman with teenage boys here who says “you’ve got books like . . . you’ve just got oodles of da . . . da . . . da . . . [counting an imaginary stack of books].” She says, “Now when you ask Mother to buy you something, you don’t stop and think how many things you have. So this is Mother’s and it is my money.” Very, almost defensive. But I think they get that from their fathers. I think they heard their fathers sometime or other saying, “Hey, you’re spending an awful lot of money on books aren’t you?” You know for a long time, my ladies hid ‘em. They would hide their books; literally hide their books. And they’d say, “Oh, if my husband [we have distinctive blue sacks], if my husband sees this blue sack coming in the house. . . . ” And you know, I’d say, “Well really, you’re a big girl. Do you really feel like you have to be very defensive?” A while ago, I would not have thought that way. I would have


thought, “Oh, Dan is going to hit the ceiling.” For a while Dan was not thrilled that I was reading a lot. Because I think men do feel threatened. They want their wife to be in the room with them. And I think my body is in the room but the rest of me is not (when I am reading).1

Only when Dot arrived at her last observation about reading and its ability to transport her out of her living room did I begin to understand that the real answer to my question, which she never mentioned and which was the link between reading, pills, and drinks, was actually the single word, “escape,” a word that would later appear on so many of the questionnaires. She subsequently explained that romance novels provide escape just as Darvon and alcohol do for other women. Whereas the latter are harmful to both women and their families, Dot believes romance reading is “an innocuous thing.” As she commented to me in another interview, romance reading is a habit that is not very different from “an addiction.”

Although some of the other Smithton women expressed uneasiness about the suitability of the addiction analogy, as did Dot in another interview, nearly all of the original sixteen who participated in lengthy conversations agreed that one of their principal goals in reading was their desire to do something different from their daily routine. That claim was borne out by their answers to the open-ended question about the functions of romance reading. At this point, it seems worth quoting a few of those fourteen replies that expressly volunteered the ideas of escape and release. The Smithton readers explained the power of the romance in the following way:

They are light reading—escape literature—I can put down and pick up effortlessly.

Everyone is always under so much pressure. They like books that let them escape.



I guess I feel there is enough “reality” in the world and reading is a means of escape for me.

Because it is an Escape [sic], and we can dream and pretend that it is our life.

I’m able to escape the harsh world for a few hours a day.

They always seem an escape and they usually turn out the way you wish life really was.

The response of the Smithton women is apparently not an unusual one. Indeed, the advertising campaigns of three of the houses that have conducted extensive market-research studies all emphasize the themes of relaxation and escape. Potential readers of Coventry Romances, for example, have been told in coupon ads that “month after month Coventry Romances offer you a beautiful new escape route into historical times when love and honor ruled the heart and mind.”2 Similarly, the Silhouette television advertisements featuring Ricardo Montalban asserted that “the beautiful ending makes you feel so good” and that romances “soothe away the tensions of the day.” Montalban also touted the value of “escaping” into faraway places and exotic locales. Harlequin once mounted a travel sweepstakes campaign offering as prizes “escape vacations” to romantic places. In addition, they included within the books themselves an advertising page that described Harlequins as “the books that let you escape into the wonderful world of romance! Trips to exotic places . . . interesting places . . . meeting memorable people . . . the excitement of love. . . . These are integral parts of Harlequin Romances—the heartwarming novels read by women everywhere.”3 Fawcett, too, seems to have discovered the escape function of romance fiction, for Daisy Maryles has reported that the company found in in- depth interviewing that “romances were read for relaxation and to enable [women] to better cope with the routine


aspects of life.”4 Reading to escape the present is neither a new behavior

nor one peculiar to women who read romances. In fact, as Richard Hoggart demonstrated in 1957, English working- class people have long “regarded art as escape, as something enjoyed but not assumed to have much connection with the matter of daily life.”5 Within this sort of aesthetic, he continues, art is conceived as “marginal, as ‘fun,’ ” as something “for you to use.” In further elaborating on this notion of fictional escape, D. W. Harding has made the related observation that the word is most often used in criticism as a term of disparagement to refer to an activity that the evaluator believes has no merit in and of itself. “If its intrinsic appeal is high,” he remarks, “in relation to its compensatory appeal or the mere relief it promises, then the term escape is not generally used.”6 Harding argues, moreover, on the basis of studies conducted in the 1930s, that “the compensatory appeal predominates mainly in states of depression or irritation, whether they arise from work or other causes.”7 It is interesting to note that the explanations employed by Dot and her women to interpret their romance reading for themselves are thus representative in a general way of a form of behavior common in an industrialized society where work is clearly distinguished from and more highly valued than leisure despite the fact that individual labor is often routinized, regimented, and minimally challenging.8 It is equally essential to add, however, that although the women will use the word “escape” to explain their reading behavior, if given another comparable choice that does not carry the connotations of disparagement, they will choose the more favorable sounding explanation. To understand why, it will be helpful to follow Dot’s comments more closely.

In returning to her definition of the appeal of romance fiction—a definition that is a highly condensed version of a commonly experienced process of explanation, doubt, and defensive justification—it becomes clear that romance novels perform this compensatory function for women because they


use them to diversify the pace and character of their habitual existence. Dot makes it clear, however, that the women are also troubled about the propriety of indulging in such an obviously pleasurable activity. Their doubts are often cultivated into a full-grown feeling of guilt by husbands and children who object to this activity because it draws the women’s attention away from the immediate family circle. As Dot later noted, although some women can explain to their families that a desire for a new toy or gadget is no different from a desire to read a new romantic novel, a far greater number of them have found it necessary to hide the evidence of their self-indulgence. In an effort to combat both the resentment of others and their own feelings of shame about their “hedonist” behavior, the women have worked out a complex rationalization for romance reading that not only asserts their equal right to pleasure but also legitimates the books by linking them with values more widely approved within American culture. Before turning to the pattern, however, I want to elaborate on the concept of escape itself and the reasons for its ability to produce such resentment and guilt in the first place.

Both the escape response and the relaxation response on the second questionnaire immediately raise other questions. Relaxation implies a reduction in the state of tension produced by prior conditions, whereas escape obviously suggests flight from one state of being to another more desirable one.9 To understand the sense of the romance experience, then, as it is enjoyed by those who consider it a welcome change in their day-to-day existence, it becomes necessary to situate it within a larger temporal context and to specify precisely how the act of reading manages to create that feeling of change and differentiation so highly valued by these readers.

In attending to the women’s comments about the worth of romance reading, I was particularly struck by the fact that they tended to use the word escape in two distinct ways. On the one hand, they used the term literally to describe the act of denying the present, which they believe they accomplish each time they begin to read a book and are drawn into its


story. On the other hand, they used the word in a more figurative fashion to give substance to the somewhat vague but nonetheless intense sense of relief they experience by identifying with a heroine whose life does not resemble their own in certain crucial aspects. I think it important to reproduce this subtle distinction as accurately as possible because it indicates that romance reading releases women from their present pressing concerns in two different but related ways.

Dot, for example, went on to elaborate more fully in the conversation quoted above about why so many husbands seem to feel threatened by their wives’ reading activities. After declaring with delight that when she reads her body is in the room but she herself is not, she said, “I think this is the case with the other women.” She continued, “I think men cannot do that unless they themselves are readers. I don’t think men are ever a part of anything even if it’s television.” “They are never really out of their body either,” she added. “I don’t care if it’s a football game; I think they are always consciously aware of where they are.” Her triumphant conclusion, “but I think a woman in a book isn’t,” indicates that Dot is aware that reading not only demands a high level of attention but also draws the individual into the book because it requires her participation. Although she is not sure what it is about the book that prompts this absorption, she is quite sure that television viewing and film watching are different. In adding immediately that “for some reason, a lot of men feel threatened by this, very, very much threatened,” Dot suggested that the men’s resentment has little to do with the kinds of books their wives are reading and more to do with the simple fact of the activity itself and its capacity to absorb the participants’ entire attention.

These tentative observations were later corroborated in the conversations I had with other readers. Ellen, for instance, a former airline stewardess, now married and taking care of her home, indicated that she also reads for “entertainment and escape.” However, she added, her husband sometimes objects to her reading because he wants her to watch the same television show he has selected. She “hates” this, she


said, because she does not like the kinds of programs on television today. She is delighted when he gets a business call in the evening because her husband’s preoccupation with his caller permits her to go back to her book.

Penny, another housewife in her middle thirties, also indicated that her husband “resents it” if she reads too much. “He feels shut out,” she explained, “but there is nothing on TV I enjoy.” Like Ellen’s husband, Penny’s spouse also wants her to watch television with him. Susan, a woman in her fifties, also “read[s] to escape” and related with almost no bitterness that her husband will not permit her to continue reading when he is ready to go to sleep. She seems to regret rather than resent this only because it limits the amount of time she can spend in an activity she finds enjoyable. Indeed, she went on in our conversation to explain that she occasionally gives herself “a very special treat” when she is “tired of housework.” “I take the whole day off,” she said, “to read.”

This theme of romance reading as a special gift a woman gives herself dominated most of the interviews. The Smithton women stressed the privacy of the act and the fact that it enables them to focus their attention on a single object that can provide pleasure for themselves alone. Interestingly enough, Robert Escarpit has noted in related fashion that reading is at once “social and asocial” because “it temporarily suppresses the individual’s relations with his [sic] universe to construct new ones with the universe of the work.”10 Unlike television viewing, which is a very social activity undertaken in the presence of others and which permits simultaneous conversation and personal interaction, silent reading requires the reader to block out the surrounding world and to give consideration to other people and to another time. It might be said, then, that the characters and events of romance fiction populate the woman’s consciousness even as she withdraws from the familiar social scene of her daily ministrations.

I use the word ministrations deliberately here because the Smithton women explained to me that they are not trying to escape their husbands and children “per se” when they read.


Rather, what reading takes them away from, they believe, is the psychologically demanding and emotionally draining task of attending to the physical and affective needs of their families, a task that is solely and peculiarly theirs. In other words, these women, who have been educated to believe that females are especially and naturally attuned to the emotional requirements of others and who are very proud of their abilities to communicate with and to serve the members of their families, value reading precisely because it is an intensely private act. Not only is the activity private, however, but it also enables them to suspend temporarily those familial relationships and to throw up a screen between themselves and the arena where they are required to do most of their relating to others.

It was Dot who first advised me about this phenomenon. Her lengthy commentary, transcribed below, enabled me to listen carefully to the other readers’ discussions of escape and to hear the distinction nearly all of them made between escape from their families, which they believe they do not do, and escape from the heavy responsibilities and duties of the roles of wife and mother, which they admit they do out of emotional need and necessity. Dot explained their activity, for instance, by paraphrasing the thought process she believes goes on in her customers’ minds. “Hey,” they say, “this is what I want to do and I’m gonna do it. This is for me. I’m doin’ for you all the time. Now leave me, just leave me alone. Let me have my time, my space. Let me do what I want to do. This isn’t hurting you. I’m not poaching on you in any way.” She then went onto elaborate about her own duties as a mother and wife:

As a mother, I have run ’em to the orthodontist. I have run ‘em to the swimming pool. I have run ’em to baton twirling lessons. I have run up to school because they forgot their lunch. You know, I mean, really! And you do it. And it isn’t that you begrudge it. That isn’t it. Then my husband would walk in the door and he’d say, “Well, what did you do today?” You know, it was like, “Well, tell me how you spent the last eight hours, because I’ve been out working.” And I finally got to the


point where I would say, “Well, I read four books, and I did all the wash and got the meal on the table and the beds are all made, and the house is tidy.” And I would get defensive like, “So what do you call all this? Why should I have to tell you because I certainly don’t ask you what you did for eight hours, step by step.”—But their husbands do do that. We’ve compared notes. They hit the house and it’s like “Well all right, I’ve been out earning a living. Now what have you been doin’ with your time?” And you begin to be feeling, “Now really, why is he questioning me?”

Romance reading, it would seem, at least for Dot and many of her customers, is a strategy with a double purpose. As an activity, it so engages their attention that it enables them to deny their physical presence in an environment associated with responsibilities that are acutely felt and occasionally experienced as too onerous to bear. Reading, in this sense, connotes a free space where they feel liberated from the need to perform duties that they otherwise willingly accept as their own. At the same time, by carefully choosing stories that make them feel particularly happy, they escape figuratively into a fairy tale where a heroine’s similar needs are adequately met. As a result, they vicariously attend to their own requirements as independent individuals who require emotional sustenance and solicitude.

Angie’s account of her favorite reading time graphically represents the significance of romance reading as a tool to help insure a woman’s sense of emotional well-being. “I like it,” she says, “when my husband—he’s an insurance salesman—goes out in the evening on house calls. Because then I have two hours just to totally relax.” She continued, “I love to settle in a hot bath with a good book. That’s really great.” We might conclude, then, that reading a romance is a regressive experience for these women in the sense that for the duration of the time devoted to it they feel gratified and content. This feeling of pleasure seems to derive from their identification with a heroine whom they believe is deeply appreciated and tenderly cared for by another. Somewhat paradoxically, however, they also seem to value the sense of


self-sufficiency they experience as a consequence of the knowledge that they are capable of making themselves feel good.

Nancy Chodorow’s observations about the social structure of the American family in the twentieth century help to illuminate the context that creates both the feminine need for emotional support and validation and the varied strategies that have evolved to meet it. As Chodorow points out, most recent studies of the family agree that women traditionally reproduce people, as she says, “physically in their housework and child care, psychologically in their emotional support of husbands and their maternal relation to sons and daughters.”11 This state of affairs occurs, these studies maintain, because women alone are held responsible for home maintenance and early child care. Ann Oakley’s 1971 study of forty London housewives, for instance, led her to the following conclusion: “In the housekeeping role the servicing function is far more central than the productive or creative one. In the roles of wife and mother, also, the image of women as services of men’s and children’s needs is prominent: women ‘service’ the labor force by catering to the physical needs of men (workers) and by raising children (the next generation of workers) so that the men are free from child-socialization and free to work outside the home.”12 This social fact, documented also by Mirra Komarovsky, Helena Lopata, and others, is reinforced ideologically by the widespread belief that females are naturally nurturant and generous, more selfless than men, and, therefore, cheerfully self-abnegating. A good wife and mother, it is assumed, will have no difficulty meeting the challenge of providing all of the labor necessary to maintain a family’s physical existence including the cleaning of its quarters, the acquisition and preparation of its food, and the purchase, repair, and upkeep of its clothes, even while she masterfully discerns and supplies individual members’ psychological needs.13 A woman’s interests, this version of “the female mystique” maintains, are exactly congruent with those of her husband and children. In serving them, she also serves herself.14

As Chodorow notes, not only are the women expected to


perform this extraordinarily demanding task, but they are also supposed to be capable of executing it without being formally “reproduced” and supported themselves. “What is . . . often hidden, in generalizations about the family as an emotional refuge,” she cautions, “is that in the family as it is currently constituted no one supports and reconstitutes women affectively and emotionally—either women working in the home or women working in the paid labor force.”15 Although she admits, of course, that the accident of individual marriage occasionally provides a woman with an unusually nurturant and “domestic” husband, her principal argument is that as a social institution the contemporary family contains no role whose principal task is the reproduction and emotional support of the wife and mother. “There is a fundamental asymmetry in daily reproduction,” Chodorow concludes, “men are socially and psychologically reproduced by women, but women are reproduced (or not) largely by themselves.”16

That this lack of emotional nurturance combined with the high costs of lavishing constant attention on others is the primary motivation behind the desire to lose the self in a book was made especially clear to me in a group conversation that occurred late in my stay in Smithton. The discussion involved Dot, one of her customers, Ann, who is married and in her thirties, and Dot’s unmarried, twenty- three-year-old daughter, Kit. In response to my question, “Can you tell me what you escape from?”, Dot and Ann together explained that reading keeps them from being overwhelmed by expectations and limitations. It seems advisable to include their entire conversation here, for it specifies rather precisely the source of those felt demands: DOT: All right, there are pressures. Meeting your bills, meeting whatever standards or requirements your husband has for you or whatever your children have for you. ANN: Or that you feel you should have. Like doing the housework just SO.


DOT: And they do come to you with problems. Maybe they don’t want you to—let’s see—maybe they don’t want you to solve it, but they certainly want to unload on you. You know. Or they say, “Hey, I’ve got this problem.” ANN: Those pressures build up. DOT: Yeah, it’s pressures. ANN: You should be able to go to one of those good old—like the MGM musicals and just . . . DOT: True. ANN: Or one of those romantic stories and cry a little bit and relieve the pressure and—a legitimate excuse to cry and relieve some of the pressure build-up and not be laughed at. DOT: That’s true. ANN: And you don’t find that much anymore. I’ve had to go to books for it. DOT: This is better than psychiatry. ANN: Because I cry over books. I get wrapped up in them. DOT: I do too. I sob in books! Oh yes. I think that’s escape. Now I’m not gonna say I’ve got to escape my husband by reading. No. ANN: No. DOT: Or that I’m gonna escape my kids by getting my nose in a book. It isn’t any one of those things. It’s just—it’s


pressures that evolve from being what you are. KIT: In this society. DOT: And people do pressure you. Inadvertently, maybe. ANN: Yes, it’s being more and more restrictive. You can’t do this and you can’t do that.17

This conversation revealed that these women believe romance reading enables them to relieve tensions, to diffuse resentment, and to indulge in a fantasy that provides them with good feelings that seem to endure after they return to their roles as wives and mothers. Romance fiction, as they experience it, is, therefore, compensatory literature. It supplies them with an important emotional release that is proscribed in daily life because the social role with which they identify themselves leaves little room for guiltless, self- interested pursuit of individual pleasure. Indeed, the search for emotional gratification was the one theme common to all of the women’s observations about the function of romance reading. Maureen, for instance, a young mother of two intellectually gifted children, volunteered, “I especially like to read when I’m depressed.” When asked what usually caused her depression, she commented that it could be all kinds of things. Later she added that romances were comforting after her children had been especially demanding and she felt she needed time to herself.

In further discussing the lack of institutionalized emotional support suffered by contemporary American women, Chodorow has observed that in many preindustrial societies women formed their own social networks through which they supported and reconstituted one another.18 Many of these networks found secondary institutional support in the local church while others simply operated as informal neighborhood societies. In either case, the networks provided individual women with the opportunity to abandon temporarily their stance as the family’s self-sufficient


emotional provider. They could then adopt a more passive role through which they received the attention, sympathy, and encouragement of other women. With the increasing suburbanization of women, however, and the concomitant secularization of the culture at large, these communities became exceedingly difficult to maintain. The principal effect was the even more resolute isolation of women within their domestic environment. Indeed, both Oakley in Great Britain and Lopata in the United States have discovered that one of the features housewives dislike most about their role is its isolation and resulting loneliness.19

I introduce Chodorow’s observations here in order to suggest that through romance reading the Smithton women are providing themselves with another kind of female community capable of rendering the so desperately needed affective support. This community seems not to operate on an immediate local level although there are signs, both in Smithton and nationally, that romance readers are learning the pleasures of regular discussions of books with other women.20 Nonetheless, during the early group discussions with Dot and her readers I was surprised to discover that very few of her customers knew each other. In fact, most of them had never been formally introduced although they recognized one another as customers of Dot. I soon learned that the women rarely, if ever, discussed romances with more than one or two individuals. Although many commented that they talked about the books with a sister, neighbor, or with their mothers, very few did so on a regular or extended basis. Indeed, the most striking feature of the interview sessions was the delight with which they discovered common experiences, preferences, and distastes. As one woman exclaimed in the middle of a discussion, “We were never stimulated before into thinking why we like [the novels]. Your asking makes us think why we do this. I had no idea other people had the same ideas I do.”

The romance community, then, is not an actual group functioning at the local level. Rather, it is a huge, ill-defined network composed of readers on the one hand and authors on the other. Although it performs some of the same


functions carried out by older neighborhood groups, this female community is mediated by the distances of modern mass publishing. Despite the distance, the Smithton women feel personally connected to their favorite authors because they are convinced that these writers know how to make them happy. Many volunteered information about favorite authors even before they would discuss specific books or heroines. All expressed admiration for their favorite writers and indicated that they were especially curious about their private lives. Three-fourths of the group of sixteen had made special trips to autographing sessions to see and express their gratitude to the women who had given them so much pleasure. The authors reciprocate this feeling of gratitude and seem genuinely interested in pleasing their readers. Many are themselves romance readers and, as a consequence, they, too, often have definite opinions about the particular writers who know how to make the reading experience truly enjoyable.21

It seems highly probable that in repetitively reading and writing romances, these women are participating in a collectively elaborated female fantasy that unfailingly ends at the precise moment when the heroine is gathered into the arms of the hero who declares his intention to protect her forever because of his desperate love and need for her. These women are telling themselves a story whose central vision is one of total surrender where all danger has been expunged, thus permitting the heroine to relinquish self-control. Passivity is at the heart of the romance experience in the sense that the final goal of each narrative is the creation of that perfect union where the ideal male, who is masculine and strong yet nurturant too, finally recognizes the intrinsic worth of the heroine. Thereafter, she is required to do nothing more than exist as the center of this paragon’s attention. Romantic escape is, therefore, a temporary but literal denial of the demands women recognize as an integral part of their roles as nurturing wives and mothers. It is also a figurative journey to a utopian state of total receptiveness where the reader, as a result of her identification with the heroine, feels herself the object of someone else’s attention


and solicitude. Ultimately, the romance permits its reader the experience of feeling cared for and the sense of having been reconstituted affectively, even if both are lived only vicariously.

Dot’s readers openly admit that parts of the romantic universe little resemble the world as they know it. When asked by the questionnaire how closely the fictional characters resemble the people they meet in real life, twenty- two answered “they are not at all similar,” eighteen checked “they are somewhat similar,” and two asserted that “they are very similar.” None of Dot’s customers believed that romantic characters are “almost identical” to those they meet daily.22 In a related set of responses, twenty-three revealed that they consider the events in romances to be “not at all similar” to those occurring in real life. An additional eighteen said that the two sets of events are “somewhat similar,” while only one checked “very similar.”

It is interesting to note, however, that when the questionnaire asked them to compare the heroine’s reactions and feelings with their own, only thirteen saw no resemblance whatsoever, while twenty-two believed that the heroine’s feelings “are somewhat like mine.” Five women did not answer the question. The general shift from perceptions of no similarity to detection of some resemblance suggests that Dot’s readers believe that the heroine is more realistically portrayed than other characters. At the very least, they recognize something of themselves in her feelings and responses. Thus while the lack of similarity between events in the fantasy realm and those in the real world seems to guarantee a reading experience that is “escapist,” emotional identification with the central character also insures that the experience will be an affectively significant one for the reader.

These conclusions are supported by comments about the nature of escape reading culled from the interviews. Jill, a very young mother of two, who had also begun to write her own romance, commented, for example, that “we read books so we won’t cry.” When asked to elaborate, she responded only that romances portray the world as “I would like it to be,


not as it really is.” In discussing why she preferred histor- icals to contemporary romances, Susan explained that “the characters shouldn’t be like now because then you couldn’t read to escape.” “I don’t want to read about people who have all the problems of today’s world,” she added. Her sentiments were echoed by Joy who mentioned in her discussion of “bad romances” that while “perfection’s not the main thing,” she still hates to see an author “dwelling on handicaps or disfigurements.” “I find that distasteful and depressing,” she explained. This sort of desire to encounter only idealized images is carried over even into meetings with romance authors. Several told of their disappointment at meeting a favorite writer at an autograph session who was neither pretty nor attractively dressed. All agreed, however, that Kathleen Woodiwiss is the ideal romance author because she is pretty, petite, feminine, and always elegantly turned out.

When I pursued this unwillingness to read about ugliness, despair, or serious human problems with Dot, she indignantly responded, “Why should we read depressing stuff when we have so much responsibility?” Ann made a similar remark, mentioning that she particularly dislikes books that attribute the hero’s “nastiness” toward the heroine to a bad love affair that soured him on other women. When I asked her for her reasons, she said, “because we’ve been through it, we’ve been ditched, and it didn’t sour us!” This comment led immediately to the further observation, “Optimistic! That’s what I like in a book. An optimistic plot. I get sick of pessimism all the time.”

Her distinction between optimistic and pessimistic stories recurred during several of the interviews, especially during discussions of the difference between romances and other books. At least four of the women mentioned Colleen McCullough’s best-selling novel, The Thorn Birds, as a good example of a tale that technically qualified as a romance but that all dislike because it was too “depressing.” When urged to specify what made the story pessimistic, none cited specific events in the plot or the death of the hero. Rather, they referred to the general tenor of the story and to the fact


that the characters were poor. “Too much suffering,” one reader concluded. In similarly discussing a writer whose books she never enjoys, Dot also mentioned the problem of the depressing romance and elaborated on her usual response to such a story. She described her typical argument with herself as follows:

“Well, Dorothy, you were absolutely, physically exhausted, mentally exhausted because everything was down—it was depressing.” And I’d get through it and it was excellently written but everyone worked in the coal mines. They were poor as church mice. They couldn’t make ends meet. Somebody was raped, an illegitimate kid. By the time I got through, I said, “What am I reading this for? This is dumb.” So I quit.

Dot’s sentiments were echoed by Ann when she volunteered the information that she dislikes historical romances set in Ireland, “because they always mention the potato famine” and “I tend to get depressed about that.”

In a related discussion, Dot’s daughter, Kit, observed that an unhappy ending is the most depressing thing that can happen in a romance. She believes, in fact, as does nearly everyone else, that an unhappy ending excludes a novel that is otherwise a romantic love story from the romance category. Kit is only one of the many who insist on reading the endings of the stories before they buy them to insure that they will not be saddened by emotionally investing in the tale of a heroine only to discover that events do not resolve themselves as they should. Although this latter kind of intolerance for ambiguity and unhappiness is particularly extreme, it is indicative of a tendency among Dot’s customers to avoid any kind of reading matter that does not conform to their rigid requirements for “optimism” and escapist stories. Romances are valuable to them in proportion to their lack of resemblance to the real world. They choose their romances carefully in an attempt to assure themselves of a reading experience that will make them feel happy and hold out the promise of utopian bliss, a state they willingly acknowledge to be rare in the real world but one, nevertheless, that they


do not want to relinquish as a conceptual possibility.


1 See chap. 2, n. 5, of Reading the Romance for the method of citing spoken quotations in this chapter and elsewhere in the text. 2 These coupon ads appeared sporadically in national newspapers throughout the spring and summer of 1980. 3 Neels, Betty. Cruise to a Wedding. Toronto: Harlequin Books, Harlequin Salutes Edition, 1980, p. 190. 4 Maryles, Daisy. “Fawcett Launches Romance Imprint with Brand Marketing Techniques.” Publishers Weekly, 3 September 1979, p. 70. 5 Hoggart, Richard. The Uses of Literacy: Changing Patterns in English Mass Culture. Fair Lawn, N.J.: Essential Books, 1957, p. 196. 6 Harding, D. W. “The Notion of ‘Escape’ in Fiction and Entertainment.” Oxford Review 4 (Hilary 1967), p. 24. 7 Ibid., p. 25. 8 For discussions of the growth of the reading public and the popular press, see Williams, Raymond, The Long Revolution, New York: Columbia University Press, 1961, pp. 156-213, and Altick, Richard, The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public, 1800—1900. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957, passim. 9 As Robert Escarpit has observed, “there are a thousand ways to escape and it is essential to know from what and toward what we are escaping.” The Sociology of Literature. Translated by Ernest Pick. Painesville, Ohio: Lake Erie College Press, 1965, p. 91. 10 Escarpit, ibid., p. 88. Although Dot’s observations are not couched in academic language, they are really no different from Escarpit’s similar observation that “reading is the supreme solitary occupation.” He continues that “the man [sic] who reads does not speak, does not act, cuts himself away from society, isolates himself from the world which


surrounds him . . . reading allows the senses no margin of liberty. It absorbs the entire conscious mind, making the reader powerless to act” (p. 88). For a detailed discussion of the different demands made upon an individual by reading and radio listening, see Lazarsfeld, Paul F., Radio and the Printed Page: An Introduction to the Study of Radio and Its Role in the Communication of Ideas. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1940, pp. 170-79. 11 Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978, p. 36. 12 Oakley, Ann. The Sociology of Housework. New York: Pantheon Books, 1974, p. 179. See also Oakley, Ann, Woman’s Work: The Housewife, Past and Present. New York: Vintage Books, 1976, pp. 60—155; McDonough, Roisin, and Rachael Harrison, “Patriarchy and Relations of Production,” In Feminism and Materialism: Women and Modes of Production, edited by Annette Kuhn and AnnMarie Wolpe, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978, pp. 11-41; Kuhn, Annette, “Structures of Patriarchy and Capitalism in the Family.” In Feminism and Materialism: Women and Modes of Production, edited by Annette Kuhn and AnnMarie Wolpe, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978, pp. 42—67; Sacks, Karen, “Engels Revisited: Women, the Organization of Production, and Private Property.” In Women, Culture and Society, edited by Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1974, pp. 207—22; and Lopata, Helena Znaniecki, Occupation: Housewife. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971, passim. 13 In addition to Lopata, see Komarovsky, Mirra. Blue-Collar Marriage. 1962. Reprint. New York: Random House, 1964; Myrdal, Alva and Viola Klein. Women’s Two Roles: Home and Work. 2d ed. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1968; Friedan, Betty, The Feminine Mystique. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1963; Mitchell, Juliet. Woman’s Estate. New York: Pantheon Books, 1971; and Steinmann, Ann, “A Study of the Concept of the Feminine Role of 51 Middle-Class American Families.” Genetic Psychology Monographs 67 (1963): 275—352.


14 With respect to this view of woman as a natural wife and mother, Dorothy Dinnerstein has observed that women are treated as “natural resources to be mined, reaped, used up without concern for their future fate.” The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise. New York: Harper and Row, 1976, p. 101. 15 Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering, p. 36. 16 Ibid. 17 It is worth remarking here that the feeling that housework ought to be done according to some abstract standard is apparently common to many women who work in the home. For a discussion of these standards, their origins in the generally unsupervised nature of housework, and the guilt they produce in the women who invariably feel they seldom “measure up,” see Oakley, The Sociology of Housework, pp. 100-112. 18 Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering, p. 36. For studies of contemporary working-class versions of these networks, see Stack, Carol, All Our Kin: Strategies for Survival in a Black Community. New York: Harper and Row, 1974; Young, Michael and Peter Willmott. Family and Kinship in East London. London: Penguin Books, 1966; and Lamphere, Louise, “Strategies, Cooperation, and Conflict among Women in Domestic Groups.” In Women, Culture, and Society, edited by Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere, pp. 97—112. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1974. 19 Oakley,The Sociology of Housework, pp. 52—54, 75, 88- 92; Oakley, Woman’s Work, pp. 101—2; Lopata, Occupation Housewife, pp. 36, 244—45. 20 A few months before I arrived in Smithton, several of Dot’s customers expressed an interest in getting together with other romance readers. Accordingly, Dot arranged an informal gathering in her home at which five to ten women socialized and discussed romances. Although the women claimed they enjoyed themselves, they have not yet met again. 21 There is ample evidence to indicate that writers’ and readers’ perceptions of romances are remarkably similar.


This holds true not only for the subject of the story itself but also for conceptions of the romance’s function. For comments very similar to Dot’s, see Van Slyke, Helen. “ ‘Old- Fashioned’ and ‘Up-to-the-Minute,’” Writer 88 (November 1975), pp. 14-16. 22 It is important to point out here that certain behaviors of the Smithton readers indicate that they actually hold contradictory attitudes about the realism of the romance. Although they admit the stories are unreal they also claim that they learn about history and geography from their reading.



Consumption and Social Inequality




Thorstein Veblen In what has been said of the evolution of the vicarious leisure class and its differentiation from the general body of the working classes, reference has been made to a further division of labor,—that between different servant classes. One portion of the servant class, chiefly those persons whose occupation is vicarious leisure, come to undertake a new, subsidiary range of duties—the vicarious consumption of goods. The most obvious form in which this consumption occurs is seen in the wearing of liveries and the occupation of spacious servants’ quarters. Another, scarcely less obtrusive or less effective form of vicarious consumption, and a much more widely prevalent one, is the consumption of food, clothing, dwelling, and furniture by the lady and the rest of the domestic establishment.

But already at a point in economic evolution far antedating the emergence of the lady, specialised consumption of goods as an evidence of pecuniary strength had begun to work out in a more or less elaborate system. The beginning of a differentiation in consumption even antedates the appearance of anything that can fairly be called pecuniary strength. It is traceable back to the initial phase of predatory culture, and there is even a suggestion that an incipient differentiation in this respect lies back of the beginnings of the predatory life. This most primitive differentiation in the consumption of goods is like the later differentiation with which we are all so intimately familiar, in that it is largely of


a ceremonial character, but unlike the latter it does not rest on a difference in accumulated wealth. The utility of consumption as an evidence of wealth is to be classed as a derivative growth. It is an adaptation to a new end, by a selective process, of a distinction previously existing and well established in men’s habits of thought.

In the earlier phases of the predatory culture the only economic differentiation is a broad distinction between an honourable superior class made up of the able-bodied men on the one side, and a base inferior class of labouring women on the other. According to the ideal scheme of life in force at that time it is the office of the men to consume what the women produce. Such consumption as falls to the women is merely incidental to their work; it is a means to their continued labour, and not a consumption directed to their own comfort and fulness of life. Unproductive consumption of goods is honourable, primarily as a mark of prowess and a perquisite of human dignity; secondarily it becomes substantially honourable in itself, especially the consumption of the more desirable things. The consumption of choice articles of food, and frequently also of rare articles of adornment, becomes tabu to the women and children; and if there is a base (servile) class of men, the tabu holds also for them. With a further advance in culture this tabu may change into simple custom of a more or less rigorous character; but whatever be the theoretical basis of the distinction which is maintained, whether it be a tabu or a larger conventionality, the features of the conventional scheme of consumption do not change easily. When the quasi-peaceable stage of industry is reached, with its fundamental institution of chattel slavery, the general principle, more or less rigorously applied, is that the base, industrious class should consume only what may be necessary to their subsistence. In the nature of things, luxuries and the comforts of life belong to the leisure class. Under the tabu, certain victuals, and more particularly certain beverages, are strictly reserved for the use of the superior class.

The ceremonial differentiation of the dietary is best seen in the use of intoxicating beverages and narcotics. If these


articles of consumption are costly, they are felt to be noble and honorific. Therefore the base classes, primarily the women, practice an enforced continence with respect to these stimulants, except in countries where they are obtainable at a very low cost. From archaic times down through all the length of the patriarchal regime it has been the office of the women to prepare and administer these luxuries, and it has been the perquisite of the men of gentle birth and breeding to consume them. Drunkenness and the other pathological consequences of the free use of stimulants therefore tend in their turn to become honorific, as being a mark, at the second remove, of the superior status of those who are able to afford the indulgence. Infirmities induced by over-indulgence are among some peoples freely recognised as manly attributes. It has even happened that the name for certain diseased conditions of the body arising from such an origin has passed into everyday speech as a synonym for “noble” or “gentle.” It is only at a relatively early stage of culture that the symptoms of expensive vice are conventionally accepted as marks of a superior status, and so tend to become virtues and command the deference of the community; but the reputability that attaches to certain expensive vices long retains so much of its force as to appreciably lessen the disapprobation visited upon the men of the wealthy or noble class for any excessive indulgence. The same invidious distinction adds force to the current disapproval of any indulgence of this kind on the part of women, minors, and inferiors. This invidious traditional distinction has not lost its force even among the more advanced peoples of to-day. Where the example set by the leisure class retains its imperative force in the regulation of the conventionalities, it is observable that the women still in great measure practice the same traditional continence with regard to stimulants.

This characterisation of the greater continence in the use of stimulants practiced by the women of the reputable classes may seem an excessive refinement of logic at the expense of common sense. But facts within easy reach of any one who cares to know them go to say that the greater


abstinence of women is in some part due to an imperative conventionality; and this conventionality is, in a general way, strongest where the patriarchal tradition—the tradition that the woman is a chattel—has retained its hold in greatest vigour. In a sense which has been greatly qualified in scope and rigour, but which has by no means lost its meaning even yet; this tradition says that the woman, being a chattel, should consume only what is necessary to her sustenance,— except so far as her further consumption contributes to the comfort or the good repute of her master. The consumption of luxuries, in the true sense, is a consumption directed to the comfort of the consumer himself, and is, therefore, a mark of the master. Any such consumption by others can take place only on a basis of sufferance. In communities where the popular habits of thought have been profoundly shaped by the patriarchal tradition we may accordingly look for survivals of the tabu on luxuries at least to the extent of a conventional deprecation of their use by the unfree and dependent class. This is more particularly true as regards certain luxuries, the use of which by the dependent class would detract sensibly from the comfort or pleasure of their masters, or which are held to be of doubtful legitimacy on other grounds. In the apprehension of the great conservative middle class of Western civilisation the use of these various stimulants is obnoxious to at least one, if not both, of these objections; and it is a fact too significant to be passed over that it is precisely among these middle classes of the Germanic culture, with their strong surviving sense of the patriarchal proprieties, that the women are to the greatest extent subject to a qualified tabu on narcotics and alcoholic beverages. With many qualifications—with more qualifications as the patriarchal tradition has gradually weakened—the general rule is felt to be right and binding that women should consume only for the benefit of their masters. The objection of course presents itself that expenditure on women’s dress and household paraphernalia is an obvious exception to this rule; but it will appear in the sequel that this exception is much more obvious than substantial.


During the earlier stages of economic development, consumption of goods without stint, especially consumption of the better grades of goods,—ideally all consumption in excess of the subsistence minimum,— pertains normally to the leisure class. This restriction tends to disappear, at least formally, after the later peaceable stage has been reached, with private ownership of goods and an industrial system based on wage labor or on the petty household economy. But during the earlier quasi-peaceable stage, when so many of the traditions through which the institution of a leisure class has affected the economic life of later times were taking form and consistency, this principle has had the force of a conventional law. It has served as the norm to which consumption has tended to conform, and any appreciable departure from it is to be regarded as an aberrant form, sure to be eliminated sooner or later in the further course of development.

The quasi-peaceable gentleman of leisure, then, not only consumes of the staff of life beyond the minimum required for subsistence and physical efficiency, but his consumption also undergoes a specialisation as regards the quality of the goods consumed. He consumes freely and of the best, in food, drink, narcotics, shelter, services, ornaments, apparel, weapons and accoutrements, amusements, amulets, and idols or divinities. In the process of gradual amelioration which takes place in the articles of his consumption, the motive principle and the proximate aim of innovation is no doubt the higher efficiency of the improved and more elaborate products for personal comfort and well-being. But that does not remain the sole purpose of their consumption. The canon of reputability is at hand and seizes upon such innovations as are, according to its standard, fit to survive. Since the consumption of these more excellent goods is an evidence of wealth, it becomes honorific; and conversely, the failure to consume in due quantity and quality becomes a mark of inferiority and demerit.

This growth of punctilious discrimination as to qualitative excellence in eating, drinking, etc., presently affects not only the manner of life, but also the training and intellectual


activity of the gentleman of leisure. He is no longer simply the successful, aggressive mate,—the man of strength, resource, and intrepidity. In order to avoid stultification he must also cultivate his tastes, for it now becomes incumbent on him to discriminate with some nicety between the noble and the ignoble in consumable goods. He becomes a connoisseur in creditable viands of various degrees of merit, in manly beverages and trinkets, in seemly apparel and architecture, in weapons, games, dancers, and the narcotics. This cultivation of the aesthetic faculty requires time and application, and the demands made upon the gentleman in this direction therefore tend to change his life of leisure into a more or less arduous application to the business of learning how to live a life of ostensible leisure in a becoming way. Closely related to the requirement that the gentleman must consume freely and of the right kind of goods, there is the requirement that he must know how to consume them in a seemly manner. His life of leisure must be conducted in due form. Hence arise good manners in the way pointed out in an earlier chapter. High-bred manners and ways of living are items of conformity to the norm of conspicuous leisure and conspicuous consumption.

Conspicuous consumption of valuable goods is a means of reputability to the gentleman of leisure. As wealth accumulates on his hands, his own unaided effort will not avail to sufficiently put his opulence in evidence by this method. The aid of friends and competitors is therefore brought in by resorting to the giving of valuable presents and expensive feasts and entertainments. Presents and feasts had probably another origin than that of naive ostentation, but they acquired their utility for this purpose very early, and they have retained that character to the present; so that their utility in this respect has now long been the substantial ground on which these usages rest. Costly entertainments, such as the potlatch or the ball, are peculiarly adapted to serve this end. The competitor with whom the entertainer wishes to institute a comparison is, by this method, made to serve as a means to the end. He consumes vicariously for his host at the same time that he is a witness to the consumption


of that excess of good things which his host is unable to dispose of single-handed, and he is also made to witness his host’s facility in etiquette.

In the giving of costly entertainments other motives, of a more genial kind, are of course also present. The custom of festive gatherings probably originated in motives of conviviality and religion; these motives are also present in the later development, but they do not continue to be the sole motives. The latter-day leisure-class festivities and entertainments may continue in some slight degree to serve the religious need and in a higher degree the needs of recreation and conviviality, but they also serve an invidious purpose; and they serve it none the less effectually for having a colourable non-invidious ground in these more avow-able motives. But the economic effect of these social amenities is not therefore lessened, either in the vicarious consumption of goods or in the exhibition of difficult and costly achievements in etiquette.

As wealth accumulates, the leisure class develops further in function and structure, and there arises a differentiation within the class. There is a more or less elaborate system of rank and grades. This differentiation is furthered by the inheritance of wealth and the consequent inheritance of gentility. With the inheritance of gentility goes the inheritance of obligatory leisure; and gentility of a sufficient potency to entail a life of leisure may be inherited without the complement of wealth required to maintain a dignified leisure. Gentle blood may be transmitted without goods enough to afford a reputably free consumption at one’s ease. Hence results a class of impecunious gentlemen of leisure, incidentally referred to already. These half-caste gentlemen of leisure fall into a system of hierarchical gradations. Those who stand near the higher and the highest grades of the wealthy leisure class, in point of birth, or in point of wealth, or both, outrank the remoter-born and the pecuniarily weaker. These lower grades, especially the impecunious, or marginal, gentlemen of leisure, affiliate themselves by a system of dependence or fealty to the great ones; by so doing they gain an increment of repute, or of the means with which


to lead a life of leisure, from their patron. They become his courtiers or retainers, servants; and being fed and countenanced by their patron they are indices of his rank and vicarious consumers of his superfluous wealth. Many of these affiliated gentlemen of leisure are at the same time lesser men of substance in their own right; so that some of them are scarcely at all, others only partially, to be rated as vicarious consumers. So many of them, however, as make up the retainers and hangers-on of the patron may be classed as vicarious consumers without qualification. Many of these again, and also many of the other aristocracy of less degree, have in turn attached to their persons a more or less comprehensive group of vicarious consumers in the persons of their wives and children, their servants, retainers, etc.

Throughout this graduated scheme of vicarious leisure and vicarious consumption the rule holds that these offices must be performed in some such manner, or under some such circumstance or insignia, as shall point plainly to the master to whom this leisure or consumption pertains, and to whom therefore the resulting increment of good repute of right inures. The consumption and leisure executed by these persons for their master or patron represents an investment on his part with a view to an increase of good fame. As regards feasts and largesses this is obvious enough, and the imputation of repute to the host or patron here takes place immediately, on the ground of common notoriety. Where leisure and consumption is performed vicariously by henchmen and retainers, imputation of the resulting repute to the patron is effected by their residing near his person so that it may be plain to all men from what source they draw. As the group whose good esteem is to be secured in this way grows larger, more patent means are required to indicate the imputation of merit for the leisure performed, and to this end uniforms, badges, and liveries come into vogue. The wearing of uniforms or liveries implies a considerable degree of dependence, and may even be said to be a mark of servitude, real or ostensible. The wearers of uniforms and liveries may be roughly divided into two classes—the free and the servile, or the noble and the ignoble. The services performed by


them are likewise divisible into noble and ignoble. Of course the distinction is not observed with strict consistency in practice; the less debasing of the base services and the less honorific of the noble functions are not infrequently merged in the same person. But the general distinction is not on that account to be overlooked. What may add some perplexity is the fact that this fundamental distinction between noble and ignoble, which rests on the nature of the ostensible service performed, is traversed by a secondary distinction into honorific and humiliating, resting on the rank of the person for whom the service is performed or whose livery is worn. So, those offices which are by right the proper employment of the leisure class are noble; such are government, fighting, hunting, the care of arms and accoutrements, and the like,— in short, those which may be classed as ostensibly predatory employments. On the other hand, those employments which properly fall to the industrious class are ignoble; such as handicraft or other productive labour, menial services, and the like. But a base service performed for a person of very high degree may become a very honorific office; as for instance the office of a Maid of Honour or of a Lady in Waiting to the Queen, or the King’s Master of the Horse or his Keeper of the Hounds. The two offices last named suggest a principle of some general bearing. Whenever, as in these cases, the menial service in question has to do directly with the primary leisure employments of fighting and hunting, it easily acquires a reflected honorific character. In this way great honour may come to attach to an employment which in its own nature belongs to the baser sort.

In the later development of peaceable industry, the usage of employing an idle corps of uniformed men-at-arms gradually lapses. Vicarious consumption by dependents bearing the insignia of their patron or master narrows down to a corps of liveried menials. In a heightened degree, therefore, the livery comes to be a badge of servitude, or rather of servility. Something of a honorific character always attached to the livery of the armed retainer, but this honorific character disappears when the livery becomes the exclusive badge of the menial. The livery becomes obnoxious


to nearly all who are required to wear it. We are yet so little removed from a state of effective slavery as still to be fully sensitive to the sting of any imputation of servility. This antipathy asserts itself even in the case of the liveries or uniforms which some corporations prescribe as the distinctive dress of their employees. In this country the aversion even goes the length of discrediting—in a mild and uncertain way—those government employments, military and civil, which require the wearing of a livery or uniform.

With the disappearance of servitude, the number of vicarious consumers attached to any one gentleman tends, on the whole, to decrease. The like is of course true, and perhaps in a still higher degree, of the number of dependents who perform vicarious leisure for him. In a general way, though not wholly nor consistently, these two groups coincide. The dependent who was first delegated for these duties was the wife, or the chief wife; and, as would be expected, in the later development of the institution, when the number of persons by whom these duties are customarily performed gradually narrows, the wife remains the last. In the higher grades of society a large volume of both these kinds of service is required; and here the wife is of course still assisted in the work by a more or less numerous corps of menials. But as we descend the social scale, the point is presently reached where the duties of vicarious leisure and consumption devolve upon the wife alone. In the communities of the Western culture, this point is at present found among the lower middle class.

And here occurs a curious inversion. It is a fact of common observation that in this lower middle class there is no pretence of leisure on the part of the head of the household. Through force of circumstances it has fallen into disuse. But the middle-class wife still carries on the business of vicarious leisure, for the good name of the household and its master. In descending the social scale in any modern industrial community, the primary fact—the conspicuous leisure of the master of the household—disappears at a relatively high point. The head of the middle-class household has been reduced by economic circumstances to turn his hand to


gaining a livelihood by occupations which often partake largely of the character of industry, as in the case of the ordinary business man of to-day. But the derivative fact—the vicarious leisure and consumption rendered by the wife, and the auxiliary vicarious performance of leisure by menials— remains in vogue as a conventionality which the demands of reputability will not suffer to be slighted. It is by no means an uncommon spectacle to find a man applying himself to work with the utmost assiduity, in order that his wife may in due form render for him that degree of vicarious leisure which the common sense of the time demands.

The leisure rendered by the wife in such cases is, of course, not a simple manifestation of idleness or indolence. It almost invariably occurs disguised under some form of work or household duties or social amenities, which prove on analysis to serve little or no ulterior end beyond showing that she does not and need not occupy herself with anything that is gainful or that is of substantial use. As has already been noticed under the head of manners, the greater part of the customary round of domestic cares to which the middle-class housewife gives her time and effort is of this character. Not that the results of her attention to household matters, of a decorative and mundificatory character, are not pleasing to the sense of men trained in middle-class proprieties; but the taste to which these effects of household adornment and tidiness appeal is a taste which has been formed under the selective guidance of a canon of propriety that demands just these evidences of wasted effort. The effects are pleasing to us chiefly because we have been taught to find them pleasing. There goes into these domestic duties much solicitude for a proper combination of form and colour, and for other ends that are to be classed as aesthetic in the proper sense of the term; and it is not denied that effects having some substantial aesthetic value are sometimes attained. Pretty much all that is here insisted on is that, as regards these amenities of life, the housewife’s efforts are under the guidance of traditions that have been shaped by the law of conspicuously wasteful expenditure of time and substance. If beauty or comfort is achieved,—and it is a more


or less fortuitous circumstance if they are,—they must be achieved by means and methods that commend themselves to the great economic law of wasted effort. The more reputable, “presentable” portion of middle-class household paraphernalia are, on the one hand, items of conspicuous consumption, and on the other hand, apparatus for putting in evidence the vicarious leisure rendered by the housewife.

The requirement of vicarious consumption at the hands of the wife continues in force even at a lower point in the pecuniary scale than the requirement of vicarious leisure. At a point below which little if any pretence of wasted effort, in ceremonial cleanness and the like, is observable, and where there is assuredly no conscious attempt at ostensible leisure, decency still requires the wife to consume some goods conspicuously for the reputability of the household and its head. So that, as the latter-day outcome of this evolution of an archaic institution, the wife, who was at the outset the drudge and chattel of the man, both in fact and in theory,— the producer of goods for him to consume,—has become the ceremonial consumer of goods which he produces. But she still quite unmistakably remains his chattel in theory; for the habitual rendering of vicarious leisure and consumption is the abiding mark of the unfree servant.

This vicarious consumption practiced by the household of the middle and lower classes can not be counted as a direct expression of the leisure-class scheme of life, since the household of this pecuniary grade does not belong within the leisure class. It is rather that the leisure-class scheme of life here comes to an expression at the second remove. The leisure class stands at the head of the social structure in point of reputability; and its manner of life and its standards of worth therefore afford the norm of reputability for the community. The observance of these standards, in some degree of approximation, becomes incumbent upon all classes lower in the scale. In modern civilised communities the lines of demarcation between social classes have grown vague and transient, and wherever this happens the norm of reputability imposed by the upper class extends its coercive influence with but slight hindrance down through the social


structure to the lowest strata. The result is that the members of each stratum accept as their ideal of decency the scheme of life in vogue in the next higher stratum, and bend their energies to live up to that ideal. On pain of forfeiting their good name and their self-respect in case of failure, they must conform to the accepted code, at least in appearance.

The basis on which good repute in any highly organised industrial community ultimately rests is pecuniary strength; and the means of showing pecuniary strength, and so of gaining or retaining a good name, are leisure and a conspicuous consumption of goods. Accordingly, both of these methods are in vogue as far down the scale as it remains possible; and in the lower strata in which the two methods are employed, both offices are in great part delegated to the wife and children of the household. Lower still, where any degree of leisure, even ostensible, has become impracticable for the wife, the conspicuous consumption of goods remains and is carried on by the wife and children. The man of the household also can do something in this direction, and, indeed, he commonly does; but with a still lower descent into the levels of indigence— along the margin of the slums—the man, and presently also the children, virtually cease to consume valuable goods for appearances, and the woman remains virtually the sole exponent of the household’s pecuniary decency. No class of society, not even the most abjectly poor, forgoes all customary conspicuous consumption. The last items of this category of consumption are not given up except under stress of the direct necessity. Very much of squalor and discomfort will be endured before the last trinket or the last pretence of pecuniary decency is put away. There is no class and no country that has yielded so abjectly before the pressure of physical want as to deny themselves all gratification of this higher or spiritual need. From the foregoing survey of the growth of conspicuous leisure and consumption, it appears that the utility of both alike for the purposes of reputability lies in the element of waste that is common to both. In the one case it is a waste of


time and effort, in the other it is a waste of goods. Both are methods of demonstrating the possession of wealth, and the two are conventionally accepted as equivalents. The choice between them is a question of advertising expediency simply, except so far as it may be affected by other standards of propriety, springing from a different source. On grounds of expediency the preference may be given to the one or the other at different stages of the economic development. The question is, which of the two methods will most effectively reach the persons whose convictions it is desired to affect. Usage has answered this question in different ways under different circumstances.

So long as the community or social group is small enough and compact enough to be effectually reached by common notoriety alone,—that is to say, so long as the human environment to which the individual is required to adapt himself in respect of reputability is comprised within his sphere of personal acquaintance and neighbourhood gossip, —so long the one method is about as effective as the other. Each will therefore serve about equally well during the earlier stages of social growth. But when the differentiation has gone farther and it becomes necessary to reach a wider human environment, consumption begins to hold over leisure as an ordinary means of decency. This is especially true during the later, peaceable economic stage. The means of communication and the mobility of the population now expose the individual to the observation of many persons who have no other means of judging of his reputability than the display of goods (and perhaps of breeding) which he is able to make while he is under their direct observation.

The modern organisation of industry works in the same direction also by another line. The exigencies of the modern industrial system frequently place individuals and households in juxtaposition between whom there is little contact in any other sense than that of juxtaposition. One’s neighbours, mechanically speaking, often are socially not one’s neighbours, or even acquaintances; and still their transient good opinion has a high degree of utility. The only practicable means of impressing one’s pecuniary ability on


these unsympathetic observers of one’s everyday life is an unremitting demonstration of ability to pay. In the modern community there is also a more frequent attendance at large gatherings of people to whom one’s everyday life is unknown; in such places as churches, theatres, ballrooms, hotels, parks, shops, and the like. In order to impress these transient observers, and to retain one’s self-complacency under their observation, the signature of one’s pecuniary strength should be written in characters which he who runs may read. It is evident, therefore, that the present trend of the development is in the direction of heightening the utility of conspicuous consumption as compared with leisure.

It is also noticeable that the serviceability of consumption as a means of repute, as well as the insistence on it as an element of decency, is at its best in those portions of the community where the human contact of the individual is widest and the mobility of the population is greatest. Conspicuous consumption claims a relatively larger portion of the income of the urban than the rural population, and the claim is also more imperative. The result is that, in order to keep up a decent appearance, the former habitually live hand-to-mouth to a greater extent than the latter. So it comes, for instance, that the American farmer and his wife and daughters are notoriously less modish in their dress, as well as less urbane in their manners, than the city artisan’s family with an equal income. It is not that the city population is by nature much more eager for the peculiar complacency that comes of a conspicuous consumption, nor has the rural population less regard for pecuniary decency. But the provocation to this line of evidence, as well as its transient effectiveness, are more decided in the city. This method is therefore more readily resorted to, and in the struggle to outdo one another the city population push their normal standard of conspicuous consumption to a higher point, with the result that a relatively greater expenditure in this direction is required to indicate a given degree of pecuniary decency in the city. The requirement of conformity to this higher conventional standard becomes mandatory. The standard of decency is higher, class for class, and this


requirement of decent appearance must be lived up to on pain of losing caste.

Consumption becomes a larger element in the standard of living in the city than in the country. Among the country population its place is to some extent taken by savings and home comforts known through the medium of neighbourhood gossip sufficiently to serve the like general purpose of pecuniary repute. These home comforts and the leisure indulged in—where the indulgence is found—are of course also in great part to be classed as items of conspicuous consumption; and much the same is to be said of the savings. The smaller amount of the savings laid by by the artisan class is no doubt due, in some measure, to the fact that in the case of the artisan the savings are a less effective means of advertisement, relative to the environment in which he is placed, than are the savings of the people living on farms and in the small villages. Among the latter, everybody’s affairs, especially everybody’s pecuniary status, are known to everybody else. Considered by itself simply—taken in the first degree—this added provocation to which the artisan and the urban labouring classes are exposed may not very seriously decrease the amount of savings; but in its cumulative action, through raising the standard of decent expenditure, its deterrent effect on the tendency to save cannot but be very great.

A felicitous illustration of the manner in which this canon of reputability works out its results is seen in the practice of dram-drinking, “treating,” and smoking in public places, which is customary among the labourers and handicraftsmen of the towns, and among the lower middle class of the urban population generally. Journeymen printers may be named as a class among whom this form of conspicuous consumption has a great vogue, and among whom it carries with it certain well-marked consequences that are often deprecated. The peculiar habits of the class in this respect are commonly set down to some kind of an ill-defined moral deficiency with which this class is credited, or to a morally deleterious influence which their occupation is supposed to exert, in some unascertainable way, upon the men employed in it. The


state of the case for the men who work in the composition and press rooms of the common run of printing-houses may be summed up as follows. Skill acquired in any printing- house or any city is easily turned to account in almost any other house or city; that is to say, the inertia due to special training is slight. Also, this occupation requires more than the average of intelligence and general information, and the men employed in it are therefore ordinarily more ready than many others to take advantage of any slight variation in the demand for their labour from one place to another. The inertia due to the home feeling is consequently also slight. At the same time the wages in the trade are high enough to make movement from place to place relatively easy. The result is a great mobility of the labour employed in printing; perhaps greater than in any other equally well-defined and considerable body of workmen. These men are constantly thrown in contact with new groups of acquaintances, with whom the relations established are transient or ephemeral, but whose good opinion is valued none the less for the time being. The human proclivity to ostentation, reenforced by sentiments of goodfellowship, leads them to spend freely in those directions which will best serve these needs. Here as elsewhere prescription seizes upon the custom as soon as it gains a vogue, and incorporates it in the accredited standard of decency. The next step is to make this standard of decency the point of departure for a new move in advance in the same direction, —for there is no merit in simple spiritless conformity to a standard of dissipation that is lived up to as a matter of course by every one in the trade.

The greater prevalence of dissipation among printers than among the average of workmen is accordingly attributable, at least in some measure, to the greater ease of movement and the more transient character of acquaintance and human contact in this trade. But the substantial ground of this high requirement in dissipation is in the last analysis no other than that same propensity for a manifestation of dominance and pecuniary decency which makes the French peasant- proprietor parsimonious and frugal, and induces the American millionaire to found colleges, hospitals and


museums. If the canon of conspicuous consumption were not offset to a considerable extent by other features of human nature, alien to it, any saving should logically be impossible for a population situated as the artisan and labouring classes of the cities are at present, however high their wages or their income might be.

But there are other standards of repute and other, more or less imperative, canons of conduct, besides wealth and its manifestation, and some of these come in to accentuate or to qualify the broad, fundamental canon of conspicuous waste. Under the simple test of effectiveness for advertising, we should expect to find leisure and the conspicuous consumption of goods dividing the field of pecuniary emulation pretty evenly between them at the outset. Leisure might then be expected gradually to yield ground and tend to obsolescence as the economic development goes forward, and the community increases in size; while the conspicuous consumption of goods should gradually gain in importance, both absolutely and relatively, until it had absorbed all the available product, leaving nothing over beyond a bare livelihood. But the actual course of development has been somewhat different from this ideal scheme. Leisure held the first place at the start, and came to hold a rank very much above wasteful consumption of goods, both as a direct exponent of wealth and as an element in the standard of decency, during the quasi-peaceable culture. From that point onward, consumption has gained ground, until, at present, it unquestionably holds the primacy, though it is still far from absorbing the entire margin of production above the subsistence minimum.

The early ascendency of leisure as a means of reputability is traceable to the archaic distinction between noble and ignoble employments. Leisure is honourable and becomes imperative partly because it shows exemption from ignoble labour. The archaic differentiation into noble and ignoble classes is based on an invidious distinction between employments as honorific or debasing; and this traditional distinction grows into an imperative canon of decency during the early quasi-peaceable stage. Its ascendency is furthered


by the fact that leisure is still fully as effective an evidence of wealth as consumption. Indeed, so effective is it in the relatively small and stable human environment to which the individual is exposed at that cultural stage, that, with the aid of the archaic tradition which deprecates all productive labour, it gives rise to a large impecunious leisure class, and it even tends to limit the production of the community’s industry to the subsistence minimum. This extreme inhibition of industry is avoided because slave labour, working under a compulsion more rigorous than that of reputability, is forced to turn out a product in excess of the subsistence minimum of the working class. The subsequent relative decline in the use of conspicuous leisure as a basis of repute is due partly to an increasing relative effectiveness of consumption as an evidence of wealth; but in part it is traceable to another force, alien, and in some degree antagonistic, to the usage of conspicuous waste.

This alien factor is the instinct of workmanship. Other circumstances permitting, that instinct disposes men to look with favour upon productive efficiency and on whatever is of human use. It disposes them to deprecate waste of substance or effort. The instinct of workmanship is present in all men, and asserts itself even under very adverse circumstances. So that however wasteful a given expenditure may be in reality, it must at least have some colourable excuse in the way of an ostensible purpose. The manner in which, under special circumstances, the instinct eventuates in a taste for exploit and an invidious discrimination between noble and ignoble classes has been indicated in an earlier chapter. In so far as it comes into conflict with the law of conspicuous waste, the instinct of workmanship expresses itself not so much in insistence on substantial usefulness as in an abiding sense of the odiousness and aesthetic impossibility of what is obviously futile. Being of the nature of an instinctive affection, its guidance touches chiefly and immediately the obvious and apparent violations of its requirements. It is only less promptly and with less constraining force that it reaches such substantial violations of its requirements as are appreciated only upon reflection.


So long as all labour continues to be performed exclusively or usually by slaves, the baseness of all productive effort is too constantly and deterrently present in the mind of men to allow the instinct of workmanship seriously to take effect in the direction of industrial usefulness; but when the quasi- peaceable stage (with slavery and status) passes into the peaceable stage of industry (with wage labour and cash payment), the instinct comes more effectively into play. It then begins aggressively to shape men’s views of what is meritorious, and asserts itself at least as an auxiliary canon of self-complacency. All extraneous considerations apart, those persons (adults) are but a vanishing minority today who harbour no inclination to the accomplishment of some end, or who are not impelled of their own motion to shape some object or fact or relation for human use. The propensity may in large measure be overborne by the more immediately constraining incentive to a reputable leisure and an avoidance of indecorous usefulness, and it may therefore work itself out in make-believe only; as for instance in “social duties,” and in quasi-artistic or quasi-scholarly accomplishments, in the care and decoration of the house, in sewing-circle activity or dress reform, in proficiency at dress, cards, yachting, golf, and various sports. But the fact that it may under stress of circumstances eventuate in inanities no more disproves the presence of the instinct than the reality of the brooding instinct is disproved by inducing a hen to sit on a nestful of china eggs.

This latter-day uneasy reaching-out for some form of purposeful activity that shall at the same time not be indecorously productive of either individual or collective gain marks a difference of attitude between the modern leisure class and that of the quasi-peaceable stage. At the earlier stage, as was said above, the all-dominating institution of slavery and status acted resistlessly to discountenance exertion directed to other than naively predatory ends. It was still possible to find some habitual employment for the inclination to action in the way of forcible aggression or repression directed against hostile groups or against the subject classes within the group; and this served to relieve


the pressure and draw off the energy of the leisure class without a resort to actually useful, or even ostensibly useful employments. The practice of hunting also served the same purpose in some degree. When the community developed into a peaceful industrial organisation, and when fuller occupation of the land had reduced the opportunities for the hunt to an inconsiderable residue, the pressure of energy seeking purposeful employment was left to find an outlet in some other direction. The ignominy which attaches to useful effort also entered upon a less acute phase with the disappearance of compulsory labour; and the instinct of workmanship then came to assert itself with more persistence and consistency.

The line of least resistance has changed in some measure, and the energy which formerly found a vent in predatory activity, now in part takes the direction of some ostensibly useful end. Ostensibly purposeless leisure has come to be deprecated, especially among that large portion of the leisure class whose plebeian origin acts to set them at variance with the tradition of the otium cum dignitate. But that canon of reputability which discountenances all employment that is of the nature of productive effort is still at hand, and will permit nothing beyond the most transient vogue to any employment that is substantially useful or productive. The consequence is that a change has been wrought in the conspicuous leisure practiced by the leisure class; not so much in substance as in form. A reconciliation between the two conflicting requirements is effected by a resort to make-believe. Many and intricate polite observances and social duties of a ceremonial nature are developed; many organisations are founded, with some specious object of amelioration embodied in their official style and title; there is much coming and going, and a deal of talk, to the end that the talkers may not have occasion to reflect on what is the effectual economic value of their traffic. And along with the make-believe of purposeful employment, and woven inextricably into its texture, there is commonly, if not invariably, a more or less appreciable element of purposeful effort directed to some serious end.


In the narrower sphere of vicarious leisure a similar change has gone forward. Instead of simply passing her time in visible idleness, as in the best days of the patriarchal regime, the housewife of the advanced peaceable stage applies herself assiduously to household cares. The salient features of this development of domestic service have already been indicated.

Throughout the entire evolution of conspicuous expenditure, whether of goods or of services or human life, runs the obvious implication that in order to effectually mend the consumer’s good fame it must be an expenditure of superfluities. In order to be reputable it must be wasteful. No merit would accrue from the consumption of the bare necessaries of life, except by comparison with the abjectly poor who fall short even of the subsistence minimum; and no standard of expenditure could result from such a comparison, except the most prosaic and unattractive level of decency. A standard of life would still be possible which should admit of invidious comparison in other respects than that of opulence; as, for instance, a comparison in various directions in the manifestation of moral, physical, intellectual, or aesthetic force. Comparison in all these directions is in vogue to-day; and the comparison made in these respects is commonly so inextricably bound up with the pecuniary comparison as to be scarcely distinguishable from the latter. This is especially true as regards the current rating of expressions of intellectual and aesthetic force or proficiency; so that we frequently interpret as aesthetic or intellectual a difference which in substance is pecuniary only. The use of the term “waste” is in one respect an unfortunate one. As used in the speech of everyday life the word carries an undertone of deprecation. It is here used for want of a better term that will adequately describe the same range of motives and of phenomena, and it is not to be taken in an odious sense, as implying an illegitimate expenditure of human products or of human life. In the view of economic theory the expenditure in question is no more and no less legitimate than any other expenditure. It is here called


“waste” because this expenditure does not serve human life or human well-being on the whole, not because it is waste or misdirection of effort or expenditure as viewed from the standpoint of the individual consumer who chooses it. If he chooses it, that disposes of the question of its relative utility to him, as compared with other forms of consumption that would not be deprecated on account of their wastefulness. Whatever form of expenditure the consumer chooses, or whatever end he seeks in making his choice, has utility to him by virtue of his preference. As seen from the point of view of the individual consumer, the question of wastefulness does not arise within the scope of economic theory proper. The use of the word “waste” as a technical term, therefore, implies no deprecation of the motives or of the ends sought by the consumer under this canon of conspicuous waste.

But it is, on other grounds, worth nothing that the term “waste” in the language of everyday life implies deprecation of what is characterised as wasteful. This common-sense implication is itself an outcropping of the instinct of workmanship. The popular reprobation of waste goes to say that in order to be at peace with himself the common man must be able to see in any and all human effort and human enjoyment an enhancement of life and well-being on the whole. In order to meet with unqualified approval, any economic fact must approve itself under the test of impersonal usefulness—usefulness as seen from the point of view of the generically human. Relative or competitive advantage of one individual in comparison with another does not satisfy the economic conscience, and therefore competitive expenditure has not the approval of this conscience.

In strict accuracy nothing should be included under the head of conspicuous waste but such expenditure as is incurred on the ground of an invidious pecuniary comparison. But in order to bring any given item or element in under this head it is not necessary that it should be recognised as waste in this sense by the person incurring the expenditure. It frequently happens that an element of the standard of living which set out with being primarily


wasteful, ends with becoming, in the apprehension of the consumer, a necessary of life; and it may in this way become as indispensable as any other item of the consumer’s habitual expenditure. As items which sometimes fall under this head, and are therefore available as illustrations of the manner in which this principle applies, may be cited carpets and tapestries, silver table service, waiter’s services, silk hats, starched linen, many articles of jewelry and of dress. The indispensability of these things after the habit and the convention have been formed, however, has little to say in the classification of expenditure as waste or not waste in the technical meaning of the word. The test to which all expenditure must be brought in an attempt to decide that point is the question whether it serves directly to enhance human life on the whole—whether it furthers the life process taken impersonally. For this is the basis of award of the instinct of workmanship, and that instinct is the court of final appeal in any question of economic truth or adequacy. It is a question as to the award rendered by a dispassionate common sense. The question is, therefore, not whether, under the existing circumstances of individual habit and social custom, a given expenditure conduces to the particular consumer’s gratification or peace of mind; but whether, aside from acquired tastes and from the canons of usage and conventional decency, its result is a net gain in comfort or in the fulness of life. Customary expenditure must be classed under the head of waste in so far as the custom on which it rests is traceable to the habit of making an invidious pecuniary comparison—in so far as it is conceived that it could not have become customary and prescriptive without the backing of this principle of pecuniary reputability or relative economic success.

It is obviously not necessary that a given object of expenditure should be exclusively wasteful in order to come in under the category of conspicuous waste. An article may be useful and wasteful both, and its utility to the consumer may be made up of use and waste in the most varying proportions. Consumable goods, and even productive goods, generally show the two elements in combination, as


constituents of their utility; although, in a general way, the element of waste tends to predominate in articles of consumption, while the contrary is true of articles designed for productive use. Even in articles which appear at first glance to serve for pure ostentation only, it is always possible to detect the presence of some, at least ostensible, useful purpose; and on the other hand, even in special machinery and tools contrived for some particular industrial process, as well as in the rudest appliances of human industry, the traces of conspicuous waste, or at least of the habit of ostentation, usually become evident on a close scrutiny. It would be hazardous to assert that a useful purpose is ever absent from the utility of any article or of any service, however obviously its prime purpose and chief element is conspicuous waste; and it would be only less hazardous to assert of any primarily useful product that the element of waste is in no way concerned in its value, immediately or remotely.





Pierre Bourdieu The aesthetic disposition is one dimension of a distant, self- assured relation to the world and to others which presupposes objective assurance and distance. It is one manifestation of the system of dispositions produced by the social conditionings associated with a particular class of conditions of existence when they take the paradoxical form of the greatest freedom conceivable, at a given moment, with respect to the constraints of economic necessity. But it is also a distinctive expression of a privileged position in social space whose distinctive value is objectively established in its relationship to expressions generated from different conditions. Like every sort of taste, it unites and separates. Being the product of the conditionings associated with a particular class of conditions of existence, it unites all those who are the product of similar conditions while distinguishing them from all others. And it distinguishes in an essential way, since taste is the basis of all that one has— people and things—and all that one is for others, whereby one classifies oneself and is classified by others.

Tastes (i.e., manifested preferences) are the practical affirmation of an inevitable difference. It is no accident that, when they have to be justified, they are asserted purely negatively, by the refusal of other tastes.1 In matters of taste,


more than anywhere else, all determination is negation; 2 and tastes are perhaps first and foremost distastes, disgust provoked by horror or visceral intolerance (“sick-making”) of the tastes of others. “De gustibus non est disputandum”: not because “tous les gouts sont dans la nature,” but because each taste feels itself to be natural—and so it almost is, being a habitus—which amounts to rejecting others as unnatural and therefore vicious. Aesthetic intolerance can be terribly violent. Aversion to different life-styles is perhaps one of the strongest barriers between the classes; class endogamy is evidence of this. The most intolerable thing for those who regard themselves as the possessors of legitimate culture is the sacrilegious reuniting of tastes which taste dictates shall be separated. This means that the games of artists and aesthetes and their struggles for the monopoly of artistic legitimacy are less innocent than they seem. At stake in every struggle over art there is also the imposition of an art of living, that is, the transmutation of an arbitrary way of living into the legitimate way of life which casts every other way of living into arbitrariness.3 The artist’s life-style is always a challenge thrown at the bourgeois life-style, which it seeks to condemn as unreal and even absurd, by a sort of practical demonstration of the emptiness of the values and powers it pursues. The neutralizing relation to the world which defines the aesthetic disposition potentially implies a subversion of the spirit of seriousness required by bourgeois investments. Like the visibly ethical judgments of those who lack the means to make art the basis of their art of living, to see the world and other people through literary reminiscences and pictorial references, the “pure” and purely aesthetic judgments of the artist and the aesthete spring from the dispositions of an ethos;4 but because of the legitimacy which they command so long as their relationship to the dispositions and interests of a group defined by strong cultural capital and weak economic capital remains unrecognized, they provide a sort of absolute reference point in the necessarily endless play of mutually self-relativizing tastes. By a paradoxical reversal, they thereby help to legitimate the bourgeois claim to “natural distinction” as


difference made absolute. Objectively and subjectively aesthetic stances adopted in

matters like cosmetics, clothing or home decoration are opportunities to experience or assert one’s position in social space, as a rank to be upheld or a distance to be kept. It goes without saying that the social classes are not equally inclined and prepared to enter this game of refusal and coun- terrefusal; and that the strategies aimed at transforming the basic dispositions of a life-style into a system of aesthetic principles, objective differences into elective distinctions, passive options (constituted externally by the logic of the distinctive relationships) into conscious, elective choices are in fact reserved for members of the dominant class, indeed the very top bourgeoisie, and for artists, who as the inventors and professionals of the “stylization of life” are alone able to make their art of living one of the fine arts. By contrast, the entry of the petite bourgeoisie into the game of distinction is marked, inter alia, by the anxiety of exposing oneself to classification by offering to the taste of others such infallible indices of personal taste as clothes or furniture, even a simple pair of armchairs, as in one of Nathalie Sarraute’s novels. As for the working classes, perhaps their sole function in the system of aesthetic positions is to serve as a foil, a negative reference point, in relation to which all aesthetics define themselves, by successive negations.5 Ignoring or ignorant of manner and style, the “aesthetic” (in itself) of the working classes and culturally most deprived fractions of the middle classes defines as “nice,” “pretty,” “lovely” (rather than “beautiful”) things that are already defined as such in the “aesthetic” of calendars and postcards: a sunset, a little girl playing with a cat, a folk dance, an old master, a first communion, a children’s procession. The striving toward distinction comes in with petit-bourgeois aestheticism, which delights in all the cheap substitutes for chic objects and practices—driftwood and painted pebbles, cane and raffia, “art” handicrafts and art photography.

This aestheticism defines itself against the “aesthetic” of the working classes, refusing their favorite subjects, the themes of “views,” such as mountain landscapes, sunsets and


woods, or souvenir photos, such as the first communion, the monument or the old master (see diagram 1). In photography, this taste prefers objects that are close to those of the popular aesthetic but semi-neutralized by more or less explicit reference to a pictorial tradition or by a visible stylistic intention combining the human picturesque (weaver at his loom, tramps quarreling, folk dance) with gratuitous form (pebbles, rope, tree bark).

It is significant that this middle-brow art par excellence finds one of its preferred subjects in one of the spectacles most characteristic of middle-brow culture (along with the circus, light opera and bull-fights), the folk dance (which is particularly appreciated by skilled workers and foremen, junior executives, clerical and commercial employees) (C.S. VII). Like the photographic recording of the social picturesque, whose populist objectivism distances the lower classes by constituting them as an object of contemplation or even commiseration or indignation, the spectacle of the “people” making a spectacle of itself, as in folk dancing, is an opportunity to experience the relationship of distant proximity, in the form of the idealized vision purveyed by aesthetic realism and populist nostalgia, which is a basic element in the relationship of the petite bourgeoisie to the working or peasant classes and their traditions. But this middle-brow aestheticism in turn serves as a foil to the most alert members of the new middle-class fractions, who reject its favored subjects, and to the secondary teachers whose aestheticism (the aestheticism of consumers, since they are relatively infrequent practitioners of photography and the other arts) purports to be able to treat any object aesthetically, with the exception of those so constituted by the middle-brow art of the petite bourgeoisie (such as the weaver and the folk dance, which are deemed merely “interesting”).6 These would-be aesthetes demonstrate by their distinctive refusals that they possess the practical mastery of the relationships between objects and groups which is the basis of all judgments of the type “Ça fait” (“It looks . . .”) (“Ça fait petit-bourgeois,” “Ça fait nouveau riche,” etc.), without being able to go so far as to ascribe


beauty to the most marked objects of the popular aesthetic (first communion) or the petit-bourgeois aesthetic (mother and child, folk dance) which the relations of structural proximity spontaneously lead them to detest.

Explicit aesthetic choices are in fact often constituted in opposition to the choices of the groups closest in social space, with whom the competition is most direct and most immediate, and more precisely, no doubt, in relation to those choices most clearly marked by the intention (perceived as pretension) of marking distinction vis-à-vis lower groups, such as, for intellectuals, the primary teachers’ Brassens, Jean Ferrat or Ferre. Thus the song, as a cultural property which (like photography) is almost universally accessible and genuinely common (since hardly anyone is not exposed at one moment or another to the “successes” of the day), calls for particular vigilance from those who intend to mark their difference. The intellectuals, artists and higher-education teachers seem to hesitate between systematic refusal of what can only be, at best, a middle-brow art, and a selective acceptance which manifests the universality of their culture and their aesthetic disposition.7 For their part, the employers and professionals, who have little interest in the “intellectual” song, indicate their distance from ordinary songs by rejecting with disgust the most popular and most “vulgar” singers, such as Les Compagnons de la Chanson, Mireille Mathieu, Adamo or Sheila, and making an exception for the oldest and most consecrated singers (like Edith Piaf or Charles Trenet) or those closest to operetta and bel canto. But it is the middle classes who find in song (as in photography) an opportunity to manifest their artistic pretension by refusing the favorite singers of the working classes, such as Mireille Mathieu, Adamo, Charles Aznavour or Tino Rossi, and declaring their preference for the singers who endeavour to dignify this “minor” genre. That is why the primary teachers distinguish themselves most clearly from the other fractions of the petite bourgeoisie in this area, where, more easily than in the domain of legitimate art, they can invest their academic dispositions and assert their own taste in the choice of singers who offer populist poetry in the


primary-school tradition, such as Jacques Douai or Brassens (who was on the syllabus of the Saint-Cloud entrance examination a few years ago).8 Diagram 1 The aesthetic disposition in the petite bourgeoisie (the various objects are ranked for each class fraction according to the percentage saying they would make a beautiful photo).


It may also be assumed that the affirmation of the omnipotence of the aesthetic gaze found among higher- education teachers, the group most inclined to say that all the objects mentioned could make a beautiful photograph and to profess their recognition of modern art or of the artistic status of the photograph, stems much more from a


self-distinguishing intention than from a true aesthetic universalism. This has not escaped the most knowing avant- garde producers, who carry sufficient authority to challenge, if need be, the very dogma of the omnipotence of art,9 and are in a position to recognize this faith as a defensive maneuver to avoid self-exposure by reckless refusals: “Who would say this: ‘When I look at a picture, I’m not interested in what it represents’? Nowadays, the sort of people who don’t know much about art. Saying that is typical of someone who hasn’t any idea about art. Twenty years ago, I’m not even sure that twenty years ago the abstract painters would have said that; I don’t think so. It’s exactly what a guy says when he hasn’t a clue: ‘I’m not one of these old fogies, I know what counts is whether it’s pretty’ ” (avant-garde painter, age 35). They alone, at all events, can afford the audacious imposture of refusing all refusals by recuperating, in parody or sublimation, the very objects refused by the lower-degree aestheticism. The “rehabilitation” of “vulgar” objects is more risky, but also more “profitable,” the smaller the distance in social space or time, and the “horrors” of popular kitsch are easier to “recuperate” than those of petit- bourgeois imitation, just as the “abominations” of bourgeois taste can begin to be found “amusing” when they are sufficiently dated to cease to be “compromising.”

The artist agrees with the “bourgeois” in one respect: he prefers naivety to “pretentiousness.” The essential merit of the “common people” is that they have none of the pretensions to art (or power) which inspire the ambitions of the “petit bourgeois.” Their indifference tacitly acknowledges the monopoly. That is why, in the mythology of artists and intellectuals, whose outflanking and double-negating strategies sometimes lead them back to “popular” tastes and opinions, the “people” so often play a role not unlike that of the peasantry in the conservative ideologies of the declining aristocracy.



1 Two examples, chosen from among hundreds, but paradigmatic, of explicit use of the scheme “something other than”: “La Fiancée du pirate is one of those very true French films that are really satirical, really funny, because it does not resort to the carefully defused, prudently inoffensive comedy one finds in La Grande Vadreuille and le Petit Baigneur. . . . In short, it is something other than the dreary hackwork of boulevard farce” (J. L. Bory, Le Nouvel Observateur, 8 December 1969: italics mine). “Through distance, or at least, through difference, to endeavour to present a text on pictorial modernity other than the hackneyed banalities of a certain style of art criticism. Between verbose aphasia, the textual transcription of pictures, endamations of recognition, and the works of specialized aesthetics, perhaps marking some-of the ways in which conceptual, theoretical work gets to grips with contemporary plastic production” (G. Gassiot-Talabot et al., Figurations 1960—1973 [Paris, Union générale des éditions, 1973], p. 7; italics mine). 2 This essential negativity, which is part of the very logic of the constitution of taste and its change, explains why, as Gombrich points out, “the terminology of art history was so largely built on words denoting some principle of exclusion. Most movements in art erect some new taboo, some new negative principle, such as the banishing from painting by the impressionists of all anecdotal’ elements. The positive slogans and shibboleths which we read in artists’ or critics’ manifestos past or present are usually much less well defined” (E. H. Gombrich, News and Form: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance [London, New York, Phaidon Press, 1966], p. 89). 3 This is seen clearly in the case of the theater, which touches more directly and more overtly on the implicit or explicit principles of the art of living. Especially in the case of comedy, it presupposes common values or interests or, more precisely, a complicity and connivance based on immediate assent to the same self-evident propositions, those of the doxa, the totality of opinions accepted at the level of pre- reflective belief. (This explains why the institutions supplying


the products, and the products themselves, are more sharply differentiated in the theater than in any other art.) 4 For an analysis of “art for art’s sake” as the expression of the artistic lifestyle, see P. Bourdieu, “L’invention de la vie d‘artiste,” Actes, 2 (1975), 67-93. 5 This is true despite the apparent exception in which some artists return to certain popular preferences, which had a totally different meaning in a cultural configuration dominated by choices which for them would be quite improbable or even impossible. These returns to the “popular” style, which often pass for a return to the “people,” are determined not by any genuine relationship to the working classes, who are generally spurned—even in idealization, which is a form of refusal—but by the internal relations of the field of artistic production or the field of the dominant class. (This point has a general validity, and one would need to examine what the writings of intellectuals on the working classes owe to the specific interests of intellectuals in struggles in which what is at stake, if not the people, is the legitimacy conferred, in certain conditions, by appearing as the spokesman for popular interests.) 6 It is in these two categories that we encounter the most marked refusal of souvenir photos (“Souvenir photos are stupid and banal”; “The main point of a photo is to preserve the images of those one loves”), of realism in painting (“A beautiful picture should reproduce what is beautiful in nature”) or in photography (“For a photograph to be good, you just have to be able to recognize what it shows”), and the most resolute assertion of faith in modern painting (in refusal of the opinion: “Modern painting is just slapped on anyhow . . .”). 7 One of the major limitations imposed by the list of pre- formed choices is that it does not bring out these “conflicts” and the strategies aimed at getting around them. A respondent who has, “against the grain,” chosen Georges Brassens or Jacques Douai might have been able to indicate his refusal of song, while showing his “open-mindedness,” by citing (with an implicit redefinition) something by Kurt Weill or an old Neapolitan song. (The France-Musique radio


program of “personal selections,” “Le concert egoiste,” is very revealing in this respect.) 8 Saint-Cloud: second to ENS rue d’Ulm in the hierarchy of the Ecoles norma-les superieures (translator). 9 This dogma is still recognized and professed in less advanced sectors of the field of artistic production, as this typical declaration shows: “However, I will say that these paintings by Gaston Planet are totally incomprehensible: I will say that I like them to be so. Not enigmatic. But entirely mute. Without points of reference. Without distractions” (Paul Rossi, Gaston Planet catalogue).




Douglas B. Holt Although consumption has, throughout history, served as a consequential site for the reproduction of social class boundaries, the particular characteristics of consumption that are socially consecrated and, hence, used to demarcate these boundaries have been configured in myriad ways. For example, elite lifestyles have been characterized by a rigid, formal interactional style and understated simplicity (the gentry of the eighteenth century), extravagant, fashion- conscious public sociability (high society in “the Gilded Age” of the late nineteenth century), informal social clubbiness (the new upper-middle class of the early twentieth century), and cultural refinement (the highbrow taste of urban elites in the twentieth century; see Collins 1975, pp. 187—211). But, many academics and critics now claim that in postmodern consumer societies, the United States in particular, consumption patterns no longer act to structure social classes. The massive proliferation of cultural meanings and the fragmentation of unitary identities, two primary traits of postmodern culture, have shattered straightforward correspondences between social categories and consumption patterns. So we find conservative, individualist arguments typical of marketing and economics (e.g., Schouten and McAlexander 1995), liberal sociological arguments (e.g., Halle 1993), and radical postmodern arguments (Baudrillard 1981), all inveighing that consumption patterns are no longer


consequential to class reproduction. In such societies, critical analysis of the reproduction of social class through consumption has become an increasingly treacherous interpretive exercise. Analyses that seek out such patterns are often dismissed as essentialist or worse. But is it true that social class is no longer produced through distinctive patterns of consumption? Or, alternatively, is this relationship occluded when old theorizing is used to analyze a new social formation?

Pierre Bourdieu’s (1984) theory of cultural capital and taste offers the most comprehensive and influential attempt to develop a theoretical frame-work to plumb the social patterning of consumption in an increasingly mystified social world. Yet this theory has received a chilly reception in the United States, routinely subject to both theoretical critique and empirical refutation. This study is motivated by the premise that these criticisms have misconstrued Bourdieu’s research and so have not explored fully the potential usefulness of the theory for disentangling the relationship between class and consumption in contemporary postmodern societies.


Max Weber (1978) coined the term “social class” to capture the idea that, in addition to the economic resources described by Marx, hierarchical social strata are also expressed and reproduced through “styles of life” that vary in their honorific value. Societies segregate into different reputational groupings based not only on economic position, but also on noneconomic criteria such as morals, culture, and lifestyle that are sustained because people tend to interact with their social peers. American social class strata were first analyzed in Veblen’s ([1899] 1970) bombastic essays about the leisure class, Simmel’s ([1904] 1957) theory of trickle- down status imitation, and in the Lynds’ studies of “Middletown,” but it is the approach developed by W. Lloyd


Warner and his associates in a series of widely publicized studies of the stratification of small American cities following World War II that has dominated consumer research for more than 30 years (Coleman 1983; Coleman and Rainwater 1978; Rainwater, Coleman, and Handel 1959; Warner, Meeker, and Eells 1949). Notwithstanding a variety of incisive critiques, the Warnerian approach offers an important formulation of the relationship between social class and lifestyle that is foundational for the advances made by Bourdieu. Yet the advantages of Bourdieu’s theory relative to Warner have never been foregrounded, likely because Warner’s social Darwinist presuppositions are directly at odds with Bourdieu’s (1984) critical view of consumption patterns as a consequential site of class reproduction.


The Warnerian approach to social class describes the primary social strata within a community by mapping the relative amount of respect and deference accorded to each group. The primary Warnerian method, evaluated participation, requires ethnographic interviews with a stratified random sample of the population of a town or small city. The interview is structured to allow informants to express specific criteria used to judge the reputation of fellow townspeople. This approach yielded a multidimensional conception of status: reputation is influenced by a wide range of moral, aesthetic, intellectual, educational, religious, ethnic, and personal behaviors for which hierarchical judgments can be formed. Like Veblen, Simmel, and the Lynds before him, Warner finds that consumer behaviors (e.g., “the ‘right’ kind of house, the ‘right’ neighborhood, the ‘right’ furniture”), are among the most important expressions of particular status positions in a community (Warner et al. 1949, p. 23). In addition, institutional affiliations (churches, clubs, political organizations) and neighborhoods are used to make judgments. These data are interpreted relationally to build


the status hierarchy operating in each town. Because ethnographic studies using evaluated participation are prohibitively expensive to administer, Warnerian status studies since the 1950s have relied instead on surrogate measures such as the Index of Status Characteristics (Warner et al. 1949), the Index of Social Position (Hollingshead and Redlich 1959), or the Computerized Status Index (Coleman 1983), which are derived from survey measures of occupation, income, neighborhood, and house type.

There is still much to value in Warner’s conception of status. In particular, its structuralist emphasis on relational differences in collective understandings of social position is an important but largely unacknowledged precursor to recent American sociological studies of the symbolic boundaries that sustain social hierarchies (e.g., Lamont 1992). However, in sociology, the Warnerian approach was long ago discredited owing to its narrow functionalist presuppositions that deny the interplay between cultural, economic, and political resources in the construction of social classes (Bendix and Lipset 1951; Gordon 1963; Pfautz and Duncan 1950). Beyond this metatheoretic problem, two specific conceptual lacunae become evident when Warner’s approach is compared with Bourdieu’s theory.

Conflating Dimensions of Social Class.

Warner’s community studies provide extensive empirical support for Weber’s multidimensional conception of social class: collective understandings of reputation are formed on the basis of criteria such as consumption patterns, economic position, morals, and educational attainment.1 Yet, Warnerian research never isolates and investigates the relationships between these dimensions. Without so doing, it is impossible to understand the distinctive contributions of consumption to social class. Instead, consumption is an untheorized covariate. Warner argues that each status group


develops, like a society in microcosm, a unique way of life; the consumer goods and activities that classes adopt are arbitrary. Any good or activity can be used as a means of maintaining in-group solidarity and excluding status inferiors. So he does not offer a coherent theory describing the conditions leading to status group formation, how these differences structure tastes, and why they are relatively durable over time. This lack of specification decreases the usefulness of Warner’s approach since it offers no explanation for the elective affinities between particular groups and particular consumption patterns. One example of this theoretical black box is the debate in marketing concerning the relative explanatory power of income and social class in predicting consumption patterns (see Schaninger [1981] for a review). Consistent findings that social class measures capture more variance than income alone never broach the central theoretical question underlying demonstrations of covariation: If factors other than income influence stratified consumption patterns, what are they and how do they work?

Object Signification.

For Warner, American social classes are organized in a manner analogous to the social structure of small, isolated, preindustrial societies of classic anthropological ethnographies—“Gemeinshaft” communities bound by affiliative ties within strong, interpenetrating social networks. Thus, his method emphasizes descriptions of peoples’ networks of friends, acquaintances, and organizational affiliations. This view of social organization motivates Warner’s incipient theory of status-based consumption patterns. Similar to Veblen, Simmel, and the Lynds, Warner views consumption objects as positional markers reinforcing status boundaries. In this emulationist model, elites are engaged in a continual game with those below in which elite consumption patterns are universally valorized, and thus lower-class groups attempt to emulate


them, leading elites to defend the distinctiveness of their consumption through pecuniary symbolism (Veblen), stylistic innovation (Simmel), and activities bounded by closed social networks (Warner).

This view of social class is an anachronism built upon a Rockwellian image of small town life that represents a minuscule and declining fraction of the contemporary United States (in contradistinction to Warner’s famous aphorism, “To study Jonesville is to study America”). Although status judgments based on the goods one owns and the activities in which one participates have merit for describing small, isolated, relatively immobile populations, they are of little value for most of the population in an era of transnational consumer capitalism. Status construction now must contend with the tremendous geographic mobility of American professionals and managers, the privatization of social life, the proliferation of media and travel, and the anonymity of urban environments, all of which have impersonalized the “other” whom one views as social references (Collins 1981; DiMaggio 1987; DiMaggio and Mohr 1985; Meyrowitz 1985). With interactional groups multiplying and in constant flux, it becomes exceedingly difficult to develop stable consensus goods that represent the group.

In addition, Warner’s object signification approach implies a highly strategized conception of consumption: people learn about, acquire, and experience consumption objects as status markers. Yet cultural consumer research has demonstrated repeatedly that consumption patterns can never be explained primarily by recourse to theories based on a view of consumption as instrumental or strategic action. Consuming is significantly an autotelic activity in which tastes are formed around the desires for and pleasures gained from particular goods and activities relative to others; so, to be empirically compelling, a theory describing differences in consumption across groups must explain these differences in terms of tastes, pleasures, and desires rather than strategic action.



Across a diverse range of substantive studies, Pierre Bourdieu has synthesized Weberian, Marxist, Durkheimian, and phenomenological traditions to argue for a model of social organization, the generative mechanism for which is competition for various types of capital within social fields. In Distinction (Bourdieu 1984), arguably the most important application of this grand theoretical project, Bourdieu describes how these various capitals operate in the social fields of consumption. I first review briefly Bourdieu’s key concepts and then discuss how the theory addresses the limitations of Warnerian social class research.2

Bourdieu argues that social life can be conceived as a multidimensional status game in which people draw on three different types of resources (what he terms economic, cultural, and social capital) to compete for status (what he terms “symbolic capital”). Distinct from economic capital (financial resources) and social capital (relationships, organizational affiliations, networks), cultural capital consists of a set of socially rare and distinctive tastes, skills, knowledge, and practices. Cultural capital entails what Gouldner (1979) has called a “culture of critical discourse”: a set of decontextualized understandings, developed through a reflexive, problematizing, expansionist orientation to meaning in the world, that are readily recontextualized across new settings (as opposed to knowledge of specific facts; see Hannerz 1990). Cultural capital exists in three primary forms: embodied as implicit practical knowledges, skills, and dispositions; objectified in cultural objects; and institutionalized in official degrees and diplomas that certify the existence of the embodied form. Cultural capital is fostered in an overdetermined manner in the social milieu of cultural elites: upbringing in families with well-educated parents whose occupations require cultural skills, interaction with peers from similar families, high levels of formal education at institutions that attract other cultural elites studying areas that emphasize critical abstract thinking and communication over the acquisition of particularized trade


skills and knowledges, and then refinement and reinforcement in occupations that emphasize symbolic production. These innumerable, diverse, yet redundant, experiences particular to cultural elites become subjectively embodied as ways of feeling, thinking, and acting through the generative social psychological structure that Bourdieu terms the “habitus.” The habitus is an abstracted, transposable system of schema that both classifies the world and structures action. Bourdieu emphasizes that the contents of the habitus are largely presuppositional rather than discursive and that the habitus structures actions through a process of creative typification to particular situations. In its subjective embodied form, cultural capital is a key element of the habitus.

Like other capital resources, cultural capital exists only as it is articulated in particular institutional domains. According to Bourdieu (as well as many other theorists of modernity), the social world consists of many distinctive, relatively autonomous, but similarly structured (i.e., “homologous”) fields such as politics, the arts, religion, education, and business. Fields are the key arenas in which actors compete for placement in the social hierarchy through acquisition of the statuses distinctive to the field. Thus, cultural capital takes on a distinctive form in each field: for example, in the academic field, cultural capital takes the form of intellectual brilliance, research competence, and detailed expertise that is embodied in presentations, teaching, and informal interactions, objectified in journal articles and books, and institutionalized in prestigious university degrees and society fellowships. In Distinction, Bourdieu documents how cultural capital is enacted in fields of consumption, not only the arts but also food, interior decor, clothing, popular culture, hobbies, and sport. Although cultural capital is articulated in all social fields as an important status resource, it operates in consumption fields through a particular conversion into tastes and consumption practices.

Unlike economic theories of markets in which people are conceived as strategic actors, in Bourdieu’s theory, resources that are valued in fields of consumption are naturalized and


mystified in the habitus as tastes and consumption practices. The habitus organizes how one classifies the universe of consumption objects to which one is exposed, constructing desire toward consecrated objects and disgust toward objects that are not valued in the field. The manifestation of the structuring capabilities of the habitus as tastes and consumption practices across many categories of goods and activities results in the construction of a distinctive set of consumption patterns, a lifestyle (“manifested preferences”) that both expresses and serves to reproduce the habitus. Within the field of consumption, tastes and their expression as lifestyles are stratified on the basis of the objective social conditions that structure the habitus. Thus, the field of consumption is stratified so that there exist different lifestyles organized by class position. (To continue the academic field example, the same stratified patterns can be discerned in the desired qualities for faculty members at elite “research” schools, “balanced” schools, “teaching” schools, and community colleges.)

Isolating Cultural Capital, Tastes, and Consumption Fields.

Bourdieu argues that it is critical to distinguish between the different types of statuses that accrue in different fields: consumption is a particular status game that must be analyzed in isolation rather than lumped together with work, religion, education, and politics as Warner does. In addition, compared with Warner’s conflation of the different bases of social class, a key contribution of Bourdieu’s theory is that it effectively disaggregates the key dimensions of taste and explains their unique contribution to social reproduction. Economic capital is inscribed in consumption fields as tastes and consumption practices organized around the exchange value of consumption objects. Like Veblen’s pecuniary distinctions, consumption objects can symbolize differences in economic resources of the consumer. But, whereas


economic capital is expressed through consuming goods and activities of material scarcity and inputed luxury, cultural capital is expressed through consuming via aesthetic and interactional styles that fit with cultural elite sensibilities and that are socially scarce.

Taste as Practice.

Warner and Bourdieu both argue that status is expressed and reproduced through implicit evaluations in everyday social interactions. However, for Warner, these interactions occur within heavily sedimented social networks and formal organizations such as leisure and service clubs and religious groups. This allowed him to assume, like Veblen, the Lynds, and Simmel before him, that elites evolve a distinctive constellation of consumption objects that express their status position. Public signaling of these consensus goods affirms one’s social position.

Significantly, Bourdieu offers a theory of social class consonant with social relations in advanced capitalist societies. Downplaying public displays of status symbols, Bourdieu emphasizes that status is continually reproduced as an unintended consequence of social interaction because all interactions necessarily are classifying practices; that is, micropoliti-cal acts of status claiming in which individuals constantly negotiate their reputational positions (see also Collins 1981; Goffman 1967). Crucial to this process is the expression of cultural capital embodied in consumer actions. Rather than accruing distinction from pecuniary rarity or from elite consensus, Bourdieu argues that cultural capital secures the respect of others through the consumption of objects that are ideation-ally difficult and so can only be consumed by those few who have acquired the ability to do so. To take an example that Bourdieu might use were he to study the contemporary United States, when someone details Milos Forman’s directorial prowess in The People vs. Larry Flynt to a friend over dinner (or, conversely, offers a damning harangue of Forman as an unrepentant proselytizer


of the dominant gender ideology), this discussion not only recreates the experiential delight that the movie provided but also serves as a claim to particular resources (here, knowledge of directorial styles in movies and the ability to carefully analyze these characteristics) that act as reputational currency. Such actions are perceived not as explicit class markers but as bases for whom one is attracted to and admires, whom one finds uninteresting or does not understand, or whom one finds unimpressive and so seeks to avoid. Thus, status boundaries are reproduced simply through expressing one’s tastes.

In addition to this embodied form, Bourdieu argues that cultural capital also becomes objectified in consumption objects. At first blush, this idea appears to parallel the object signification approach since consumption objects serve as signals of status in both. However, with objectified cultural capital, the stratificatory power of cultural objects results not from group consensus or economic scarcity but from the inferred cultural aptitude of the consumers of the object. In other words, cultural objects such as the high arts that require significant cultural capital to understand and appreciate properly imply that their consumers apply distinctive practices and so serve as surrogate representations of these practices. A foundational premise of Bourdieu’s theory, then, is that categories of cultural goods and activities vary in the level of cultural capital required to consume them successfully (i.e., to fully enjoy the act of consuming).


Cultural sociologists have vigorously debated the applicability of Bourdieu’s theory to the contemporary United States for over a decade. Although early research offered modest support, influential recent studies have challenged its usefulness for explaining how social reproduction works in the contemporary United States (Erikson 1996; Gartman


1991; Halle 1992; Lamont 1992). I argue that two crucial flaws in operationalizing tastes limit the credibility of these refutations (see Holt [1997a] for a more detailed version of this argument):

Forms of Taste.

Quantitative empirical studies of Bourdieu’s theory routinely operation-alize tastes only in their objectified form— preferences for particular categories, genres, or types of cultural objects. Exemplary studies of this type such as those conducted by Paul DiMaggio (1987; DiMaggio and Mohr 1985; DiMaggio and Ostrower 1990; DiMaggio and Useem 1978) and Richard Peterson (Hughes and Peterson 1983; Peterson and DiMaggio 1975; Peterson and Simkus 1992) use large-scale surveys that are analyzed through regression and factor analyzes. The obvious advantage to measuring only objectified tastes is that there are large databases available and this type of data is compatible with sophisticated statistical analysis.

But operationalizing Bourdieu’s theory in terms of preferences for cultural objects has become problematic, regardless of whether these objects are conceived as Warnerian consensus goods or as Bourdieuian objectified cultural capital. The utility of goods as consensus class markers has weakened substantially owing to a variety of widely noted historical shifts. Technological advances have led to the wide accessibility of goods, travel, and media by all but the poor (Bell 1976). Innovative styles and designs now diffuse rapidly between haute and mass markets, and between core and periphery states, thus dissolving lags that once allowed for stylistic leadership. From a different vantage point, theorists of postmodernity such as Jean Baudrillard, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Fredric Jameson have argued that a defining characteristic of advanced capitalist societies is the massive overproduction of commodity signs. This proliferation of signs leads to an anarchic welter of consumer symbols that are not readily


assimilated by social groups in any coherent way. This argument is supported by sociological research demonstrating a high degree of overlap in consumer preferences across social categories (e.g., Bourdieu 1984; Peterson and Simkus 1992). In postmodern cultures, it is increasingly difficult to infer status directly from consumption objects, as the object signification approach requires.

Historical changes are also draining the symbolic potency of objectified cultural capital. The postmodern condition is characterized by the breakdown of the hierarchy distinguishing legitimate (or high) culture from mass (or low) culture (Foster 1985; Frow 1995; Huyssen 1986; Jameson 1991). Many of the distinguishing traits of mass culture, such as seriality and mass reproduction, have now become central concerns of the art world, and many popular cultural forms from comic books to rock music to celebrities to television programs are produced and consumed using increasingly complex and esoteric formal lexicons that parallel modern art (Gamson 1994; Jenkins 1992). The objectified form of cultural capital becomes less effective in such a world since it depends on cultural categories and genres for which necessary levels of cultural competence are immanent and vary significantly. Objectified cultural capital can operate effectively only within a stable cultural hierarchy. Thus, as cultural hierarchies have dramatically blurred in advanced capitalist societies, objectified cultural capital has become a relatively weak mechanism for exclusionary class boundaries.

I suggest, then, that the cultural capital requirements necessary to consume successfully particular consumption objects today pose few constraints. Objects no longer serve as accurate representations of consumer practices; rather, they allow a wide variety of consumption styles. But this increasing semiotic malleability does not imply that cultural capital differences in consumption no longer signify. Rather, class differences in American consumption have gone underground; no longer easily identified with the goods consumed, distinction is becoming more and more a matter of practice. As popular goods become aestheticized and as


elite goods become “massified” (Peterson and DiMaggio 1975) the objectified form of cultural capital has in large part been supplanted by the embodied form. Given the deteriorating classificatory power of objectified tastes, cultural elites in advanced capitalist societies now attempt to secure distinction by adapting their consumption practices to accentuate the embodied form.

Emphasizing embodied tastes leads to a different style of consuming than in previous eras. In fields organized by a hierarchy of objectified tastes, consumption practices emphasize knowing about and consuming the appropriate goods (e.g., Bourdieu uses Mondrian paintings and Bach concertos as measures). However, for fields in which there is great overlap in the objects consumed, to consume in a rare, distinguished manner requires that one consume the same categories in a manner inaccessible to those with less cultural capital (see Bourdieu’s [1984, p. 282] description of the lifestyles of cultural producers). In other words, to express distinction through embodied tastes leads cultural elites to emphasize the distinctiveness of consumption practices themselves, apart from the cultural contents to which they are applied.

Contents of Taste.

Although not always clear in Distinction, it appears that Bourdieu, his supporters, and his critics all now agree that the particular cultural objects in which cultural capital is invested are conventions that are differentially configured across sociohistorical settings (Calhoun, LiPuma, and Postone 1993; Joppke 1986; Lamont 1992; Lamont and Lareau 1988).3 It is unlikely, then, that the cultural objects Bourdieu describes as resources for the expression of exclusionary tastes in 1960s Parisian society will operate similarly in other sociohistorical settings. Rather than a nomothetic theory, Bourdieu’s theory is a set of sensitizing propositions concerning the relations between social


conditions, taste, fields of consumption, and social reproduction that must be specified in each application to account for their particular configuration.

American refutations of Bourdieu’s theory (Erikson [1996]; Hall [1992]; Halle [1992]; and Lamont [1992] are the most significant) have, with few exceptions, operationalized elite taste using the same variables as Bourdieu. These studies evaluate whether the particular articulation of cultural capital in Parisian society of the 1960s, objectified primarily in the legitimate arts and embodied in formal aesthetic appreciation, applies to the contemporary United States. These critics echo a claim that is well documented in historical, demographic, and humanist writings (see, e.g., Huyssen 1986), that the fine arts are much less popular among cultural elites in the United States. Only a small fraction of the American population, cultural producers and a small coterie of insiders from the urban upper class, are knowledgeable fine arts consumers of the type Bourdieu describes as predominant in middle-class circles in France. Art history is not currently a regular part of academic training or informal family socialization in the United States, Bourdieu’s two primary channels for cultural capital accumulation. And, as sociological studies of genre preferences report, those with high cultural capital are the most ardent consumers of mass culture (DiMaggio and Useem 1978; Peterson and Simkus 1992). Thus, critics conclude that since the high arts play only a peripheral role in the lives of cultural elites, Bourdieu’s theory has little explanatory value in the contemporary United States (Erikson 1996; Halle 1992; Lamont 1992).

The flaw in this argument is that the arts constitute only a small fraction of the universe of consumption fields that can be leveraged for social reproduction. By focusing exclusively on art, these studies give short shrift to the activities that American cultural elites expend the vast majority of their nonwork energies pursuing, such as food, interior decor, vacations, fashion, sports, reading, hobbies, and socializing. These fields should be central to empirical studies of Bourdieu’s theory in the contemporary United States since


tastes serve as a resource for social reproduction only in fields in which cultural elites have invested the requisite time and psychic energy to convert their generic cultural capital assets to particular field-specific cultural capitals.


I used this reformulation of Bourdieu, specified to account for the sociohistorical context of the contemporary United States by emphasizing mass consumption practices, to guide the design of an interpretive study. The goal of the study is to explore whether variation in cultural capital resources leads to systematic differences in tastes and consumption practices for mass cultural categories. In so doing, I respond to Lamont’s call for a detailed mapping of how cultural capital currently operates in the United States (Lamont 1992; Lamont and Lareau 1988). I began with a sample of 50 informants from the vicinity of State College, a small city in rural central Pennsylvania dominated by Penn State University, who were randomly selected from the phone book (about 20 percent response rate). From this group, I compare 10 informants in the top quintile of cultural capital resources (whom I will refer to as “HCCs”) to 10 informants whose cultural capital resources are in the lowest quintile (hereafter “LCCs”).4 I view this comparison as a conservative evaluation of Bourdieu’s theory since the most significant class differences in cultural-capital-structured taste are found in large urban areas, where the new class (Gouldner 1979) of symbolic manipulators is larger and more cosmopolitan (Lamont 1992) and where there exist many urban subcultures of cultural producers that are more distinctive than the new class populations of suburban, ex- urban, and rural locations (Crane 1992). While LCCs are all from the local area and so express certain regional particularities in their tastes, the HCCs have lived across the country and the world, so their upbringing and education is similar to other HCCs in the United States.


Informants, all adult permanent residents of the county, were randomly selected from the local phone book, contacted by phone, and offered $20 to participate in an in-home interview. Although more women than men agreed to be interviewed, I compared the male and female informants and did not find any differences on the dimensions of taste reported below (DiMaggio and Mohr [1985] report similar findings). Following prior research (Halle 1992; Lamont 1992; Rainwater et al. 1959; Warner et al. 1949), in-home ethnographic interviews were used to collect data. The interviews lasted an average of one hour and forty minutes, and ranged from one to three hours. The interviews were transcribed into about 950 single-spaced pages of text. In addition to these transcripts, the data examined in the analysis also included details observed in the homes and a demographic questionnaire.

The two groups were constructed on the basis of cultural capital resources. According to Bourdieu and his American interlocutors, cultural capital resources are accumulated in three primary sites of acculturation: family upbringing, formal education, and occupational culture (Bourdieu 1984; DiMaggio and Unseem 1978; Lamont 1992; Peterson and Simkus 1992). The cultural capital rating scheme for this study uses all three of these antecedents, equally weighted. Family upbringing is measured in terms of father’s education and occupation, because the father’s status dominated family status when these informants were young. Five categories were created for each dimension (5 = high resources for cultural capital accumulation, 1 = low resources for cultural capital accumulation), guided by previous work that has calibrated differences in American education and occupation with differences in cultural capital (see Lamont 1992; Peterson and Simkus 1992). The 10 HCC informants are roughly equivalent to Gouldner’s (1979) “New Class”: all have at least bachelor’s degrees and work in professional, technical, and managerial jobs. Most come from families in which the parents are college educated. In contrast, the 10 LCC informants are from a working-class background: they have at most a high school education, do manual labor or


service/clerical work if they have jobs, and come from families where the father has at most a high school education (usually less) and did manual labor.5

The goal of the data collection was to elicit detailed descriptions of people’s tastes and consumption practices across a variety of popular cultural categories prevalent in the contemporary United States—food, clothing, home decor and furnishings, music, television, movies, reading, socializing, vacations, sports, and hobbies. I developed an interview guide to elicit people’s understandings and evaluations of different consumption objects, and the ways in which they consume their choices. Within each category, questions probed for detailed preferences and re-countings of particular episodes across a variety of situations and time periods (e.g., for eating: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks; at home vs. take-out, or eat-in restaurants; with family vs. alone; weeknights vs. weekends; before vs. after having children; special meals) to elicit as much detail as possible. Follow-up questions probed key emic terms that emerged in these descriptions.

In the next section, I describe six systematic differences in tastes and consumption practices between HCCs and LCCs that are structured by differences in social conditions. Like all social patterns, these dimensions are significant tendencies rather than orthogonal characteristics of the two groups.


A central contention in Distinction is that tastes are structured through continuities in interactions with material culture. The LCCs are acculturated in a social milieu in which they engage continually the material rigors of everyday life (e.g., paying monthly utility bills, keeping the car running, saving money to visit relatives) and so the ability to manage these material constraints becomes a primary value. The tastes of LCCs are organized to appreciate that which is


functional or practical—the taste of necessity (Bourdieu 1984, p. 177). Goods and activities are valued for their embodiment of the practical: virtuoso skills that achieve utilitarian ends evoke praise, cultural texts that realistically capture personal experiences are appreciated, corporeal pleasures take precedence.

In contrast, HCCs are acculturated in a social milieu in which they seldom encounter material difficulties and in which their education emphasizes abstracted discussion of ideas and pleasures removed from the material world. For HCCs, the material value of cultural objects is taken for granted: instead taste becomes a realm of self-expression, a means of constructing subjectivity. The tastes of HCCs express this distance from necessity, a distanced, formal gaze and a playful attitude that often takes the material value of cultural objects for granted.

This fundamental distinction in relationship to material culture underlies three important dimensions of taste and consumption practice that distinguish LCC and HCC informants across many of the categories discussed in the interviews: material versus formal aesthetics, referential versus critical appreciation, and materialism versus idealism.


For categories that are an important and a routine part of everyday life such as furniture, food, and clothing, LCC tastes are organized by a desire for pragmatic solutions to basic requirements. The LCC informants express concern for the utilitarian characteristics of their house and its furnishings; they must be comfortable, functional, durable, and easy to care for: INTERVIEWER: What kind of decor do you like in your house? KATIE (LCC): I like comfort. And things that people don’t have to be afraid of when they come in the house, that they


have to take off their shoes. Like the dark carpet that you don’t have to worry about. I used to have a dark carpet, but the lighter carpet is easier to clean than the dark carpet. The dark carpet shows every little lint and this can go for a week without having to vacuum. I think we go for comfort more than anything else. We each have our own couch, as you see. Now if I had a larger room, I’d have more rocking chairs or another chair. . . . And if I had another house I’d build a larger kitchen. I’d have a rocking chair in the kitchen and I would have it more comfortable in the kitchen. INTERVIEWER: When you’re setting up your house, what kinds of things do you like? BETSY (LCC): Well, wood. We both like . . . well, we have a lot of wood. INTERVIEWER: When you say you like wood, what about it? Just any furniture that’s made with wood you prefer? BETSY (LCC): Yes, that’s basically what we do. When we go for a piece of furniture, like when we were looking for a recliner, because I knew it was going to be used a lot, I said I want wood and he agreed because you get kids or company or whatever and they’re always going to go for the recliner and, of course, they’re not always going to have their arms clean or whatever. I said that’s basically what always wore out on mom’s furniture because of all the kids. You know, it’s just one of those things. I mean you wear out the arms of the furniture. I said, “I want wood.” So we basically always go for wood because it’s more durable and you just polish it and you know it’s going to last. I mean it’s not like cloth.

Although material characteristics dominate LCC tastes for interior and furniture, three informants do mention particular styles: two favor a country look, which uses colonial furniture, calico prints, and handmade crafts decorating walls and tables, while one is redecorating her


house in Victorian antiques and decor. However, unlike HCCs, LCCs do not invoke a discourse of style to talk about these decorative preferences. Instead, they describe their tastes in terms of the traditions in which they have been raised, which makes their choices comfortable and reassuring.

The HCCs often share LCC material requirements for home interiors; comfort and durability are still important. But rather than dominant dimensions of their taste, material characteristics are baseline criteria; choices between materially satisfactory options are based on formal aesthetic qualities. The HCCs view their homes as canvases upon which they express their aesthetic sensibilities. Interiors need to be visually appealing, to provide the appropriate experiential properties. Decorating is a highly personalized and personalizing activity that is an aesthetic expression of the cultivated sensibilities of the decorator: KATHRYN (HCC): I like choosing things and fitting things together, and bringing a few things from my old life into the new one, and putting them there as a reminder of where you came from. . . . Houses should be a background and they shouldn’t interrupt. They shouldn’t make people look at them rather than the people in them. . . . [when decorating] The main thing is not to draw attention to what we’re going to do. . . . That’s my philosophy, and anything that’s glaring or ostentatious or says it’s important is out the window to me. I don’t like something that is built to impress. INTERVIEWER: Tell me about the changes you’ve made to the house. JOHN (HCC): Well, this house was a disaster. I hadn’t done anything to it in almost 30 years. It’s almost a shrink question. I decided to get my life in order. And part of getting my life in order, now that I have the intellectual energy to do so after [he had recently taken early retirement]. . . . You know, when I’m not working it’s amazing how much


intellectual energy you have and it’s all for you. I realized that my surroundings had to be harmonious and sympathetic and supportive and all of that.

Similarly, preferred clothes of LCC informants are durable, comfortable, reasonably priced, well fitted, and, for clothes that will be seen by others, conforming to role norms (i.e., they are appropriate “work clothes” or “church clothes”). A common reference point that illuminates this materialist idea of desirable clothing is that many of the LCC women but none of the HCC women raise (with no prompting) the option of making clothes as a relevant baseline to evaluate store- bought clothing: INTERVIEWER: What kind of clothes do you like? HEATHER (LCC): Stuff that will last. I don’t really like to go with what’s fashionable, necessarily, just for the sake of being fashionable. I like to be comfortable. INTERVIEWER: What kinds of clothes are comfortable? HEATHER (LCC): Knits, something, you know, that’s comfortable. To work, I wear sneakers and knit pants and t- shirts, you know, that type of stuff ’cause you didn’t know when you were going to have to have to be holding somebody on the floor or whatever [she’s a teacher’s assistant]. For church and stuff, I wear skirts and sweaters or a blouse or whatever, or if we’re going somewhere, I like to dress, not necessarily overdress, but to be dressed nice and be comfortable.

. . . I’m just as happy getting something at K-Mart or Wal-Mart or even T J Maxx or something like that, but to go to Hesses or Brooks or, you know, some place really expensive, what I consider is really expensive. I find it difficult to spend thirtysome dollars on a shirt, or, you know, $50 or $60 on a skirt when I could go out


and buy the material if I have the time to make it for a lot less.

In contrast, HCCs express tastes similar to those applied to decor; they expect material quality as a given and so tastes are structured by particular ideas of what is fashionable: KATHRYN (HCC): I do not like clothes that draw attention to themselves. . . . But, I’m wearing more bright-colored clothes than I used to, because my first husband didn’t like me to draw attention to myself so I was dressed in very pale colors. But now, I think partly in reaction to that, I will buy clothes that are more brightly colored if I like them. . . . I don’t like clothes that are covered with—I call them “suburban clothes”—they are made of very synthetic fabrics and they have lots of gold on them, and buttons that shine a lot. They look kind of as if they’re shouting.

When HCCs do talk of economical choices, these are couched as less desirable outcomes forced by budgetary constraints (i.e., driven by economic capital) rather than as acculturated desires: INTERVIEWER: How about clothing, what types of clothes do you like? DENISE (HCC): What kind of clothes do I like—it’s different from what kind of clothes I can afford. I like well-made, well- tailored clothes that have absolutely luxurious fabrics. However, I have been buying a lot of stuff from L. L. Bean because it’s durable and I like gorgeous colors and all those kind of things. INTERVIEWER: When you say tailored. . . . What kind of styles? DENISE (HCC:) I don’t like really trendy looking clothes that you’re not going to be able to wear next week. I’m trying to think of a look, you know Chanel?


Some HCCs prefer “functional” clothing, but this term has

a very different meaning for HCCs than for LCCs. Functional, for HCCs, is a distinctive aesthetic based on parsimonious design and utilitarian construction similar to the functionalism of high modern architecture and design. “Function,” rather than a pragmatic solution to everyday needs, is inverted by HCCs into form through an aesthetic opposition to the frivolity of “fashion.” JOHN (HCC): Today I’m buying practical clothes. That is to say they’re mostly cotton. They’re all washable. Mostly they don’t require ironing because I got tired of ironing. . . . I look for—now when I’m buying clothing—I really don’t care what the current style is anymore. You know, if it has good design it will always be in style. And I also tend to look for things which probably are more expensive but which I know will be more durable. INTERVIEWER: Are there any particular clothing styles that you like? JOHN: Yeah, I guess the best way to say it would be styles that are functional and designed to be worn by human bodies as they are; as opposed to designed to be worn only standing up at cocktail parties or the races or, you know, as soon as you sit down you know it was a mistake.


Habitus-structured orientations toward material culture also organize distinctive styles of consuming mass cultural texts such as books, television, film, and music. Applying a formal interpretive lens, HCCs read popular entertainment as entertaining fictions that are potentially edifying but that do not reflect directly the empirical world (i.e., what Liebes and


Katz [1990] term “critical” interpretations). INTERVIEWER: Why did you like Rain Man so much? Why is that on your list? SHARON (HCC): Partly because I thought the dynamic between Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise was really entertaining and because Dustin Hoffman did such a good job in the role. INTERVIEWER: When you say just that Dustin Hoffman was really good, what do you mean by that? SHARON: I found it amazing. . . . When you watch a string of movies—like I’ve seen most of the Tom Cruise movies—to me most of his roles it’s Tom Cruise, not the character that he becomes, even though he does a really pretty decent job, more decent than a lot of actors do. But you’re still very aware of who the actor is and in him I see a lot of the same very subtle mannerisms that he brings to every role probably without even realizing it. And I’ve seen Dustin Hoffman in other things and to me in that movie he became the person he was portraying where your mind. . . . you didn’t even think of the fact that you’d seen him in how many other shows or movies because you were into the character. I like it when an actor and actress can do that. I think it’s rare.

The LCCs, in contrast, tend to interpret cultural texts from a referential perspective: they read these texts as more or less realistic depictions of the world that are potentially relevant to their own lives (see Press 1991). Because LCCs apply the classificatory system used in everyday life to cultural texts, they are attracted to programs and movies they feel are “real” and to music that speaks directly to their life situation. INTERVIEWER: What did you like about Sleepless in Seattle?


DAVID (LCC): It has a good ending and it’s realistic. Yeah, in a way, realistic. In a way it’s kind of far out because, you know, there’s a tremendous amount of money spent in phone calls and transportation back and forth and that bothered me all during the movie, you know, who can afford that? You know, maybe these people in their positions can. I’m never going to be in that position where I can afford that kind of . . . but, you know, if I could, I would probably get involved with somebody with that. If I had the money to do it, you know.

The LCCs’ referential interpretations lead them to dislike programs, movies, and music whose characters, plots, and lyrics confict with their worldview or remind them of disturbing past experiences: INTERVIEWER: Do you like Steven Spielberg movies? BETSY (LCC): We liked E.T. I haven’t seen the one [Schindler’s List]. Because I’m not in . . . I know it’s all real, as far as what happened to the people, but I can’t get into these . . . even when they have them on A&E like when they’re showing how the concentration camps were and things like that. But this movie, everyone I’ve talked to at work said the same thing as even what the critics are saying that he really did a good job showing exactly what happened to these people for real. I talked to a couple of people that seen the movie: “You have to see the movie.” Well, I can’t watch that kind of movie. I know it’s real and I know this happened to these people, but I can’t get into those kind of movies. INTERVIEWER: What kind of movies do you like? LYNN (LCC): I like the more romantic ones. I try to steer away from the ones that people die of anything, like any diseases or anything like that. . . . Because my mom died of


cancer in 1981 so I usually try to stay away from those.

Some HCCs also dislike and actively avoid scenes with graphic violence, but they see a tension between the use of violence in a fictional art form and their visceral reactions to it and so do not reject disturbing scenes categorically. For example, like Betsy above, Sue (HCC) has avoided seeing Schindler’s List because of its graphic depiction of genocide, but her rationale for doing so is quite different. Betsy wouldn’t think of seeing Schindler’s List because the horrific scenes of concentration camps are an extremely disturbing reality—she calls it “too real”—one that is too painful to voluntarily expose oneself to. Sue, in contrast, knows that she also will have an intense emotional response to Schindler’s List but is conflicted about seeing it because she perceives the movie as an artistic statement about an important event rather than just “reality.”


Because LCCs are acculturated in materially constrained environments, the good life is often cast in terms of having an abundance of things one likes and having things that are popularly understood as luxurious (Bourdieu 1984, p. 177). These materialist tastes are particularly influential in preferences for housing, food, and vacations. The LCC informants grew up and currently live in relatively small living spaces—apartments, trailers, and bungalows. So these informants value uniformly a large living space and large yards and have pursued these goals to the limits of their financial resources. HEATHER (LCC): Well it’s kinda weird how we settled on this house. We weren’t looking to buy a house ‘cause we had the house in [town near college], but it was really, really small. Really small. I mean, our bedroom, you walked sideways around the bed. It was small. . . . [Seeing the new house for the first time] First word out—“Wow!” And we


walked in and “Whoa!” ’cause it’s really big.

I asked Heather if their old house was a Victorian since the town has a large Victorian housing stock. She nods and continues to talk about the advantages of the floor plan in the new house. In contrast, HCCs Anna and Rebecca do not evaluate old versus new houses in terms of size. Instead they emphasize the charm and character of historic houses that new houses lack. Other LCC informants who have the money to do so (Ruth, Betsy, Susan) have also moved to larger houses on bigger pieces of property away from neighbors, while others without the necessary income dream of doing so (“any house out of town where I have some space”).

The LCCs with higher incomes consistently express preferences for consumption objects that are indicative of luxury and material abundance: Ruth and her husband own one Mercedes coupe and are shopping for more of these, they have recently acquired numerous antiques, and they enjoy dining regularly at the most expensive restaurant in the county. She tells a story about a birthday party she threw for her husband at this restaurant where they paid for dinner for a large group of friends. Similarly, Lisa and her husband recently dined at an expensive French restaurant, and she professes a desire to own a BMW someday, while Susan and her husband took up yachting on Cheseapeake Bay four years ago and have recently upgraded to a sailboat that can sleep seven people comfortably.

Desirable vacation destinations also reveal a yearning for abundance and luxury. For three of the LCCs an ocean cruise is the ideal vacation, and they speak excitedly about the cruises they have taken, describing the cornucopia of dining and social activities (Nancy: “If you’re bored on a cruise, it’s your own fault”). Cruises are an ideal expression of LCC materialist tastes because they are popularly constructed as luxurious and they promote an abundance of activities, food, and drink. Another LCC informant spoke in similar terms about her vacations to Poconos resorts: LISA (LCC): [Poconos resorts] have all kinds of activities. . . .


The next year we went to a different place and got the room with the pool in your own room and that place had horseback riding and carriage rides and it had a shooting range. . . . You pay like $400 a night and it’s most of your meals and entertainment, mostly all the activities they had.

Many LCC informants cannot afford these objects of luxury and abundance, yet they too express a yearning for abundance and luxury within the universe of consumption objects that is economically feasible. Among LCCs, restaurants that serve buffet style are consensus favorites— the contemporary American equivalent of the French working-class meals characterized by “plenty” and “freedom” (Bourdieu 1984, p. 194): DAVID (LCC): Well, generally when I go out to eat, I’m sitting there thinking, “If I was at home I could fix this, a bigger portion for a whole lot less money than what I’m paying here.” It destroys the whole thing, because I’m thinking so much about how much . . . they’re making a bloody fortune off me for, you know. . . . where a buffet, you know, I’m in the driver’s seat kind of you know. I know up front how much it’s going to cost me and I can eat as much as I want. If I go away hungry it’s my fault, you know. KATE (LCC): Of late, we’ve been going over to Milroy for seafood. Every Friday night they have a buffet. . . . They have crab legs, shrimp, all kinds of fish deep fried, with clams that are deep fried. Along with ham, chicken, beef. You have your beverage and delicious homemade dessert and soft ice cream for $6.95. . . . I wish you could see people eat those crab legs. They bring them out on trays and the minute they bring them to the salad bar, everyone rushes to get them. RUTH (LCC): At the Hotel Edison—it’s a family-style that has chicken, turkey, or ham that you can pick; there’s filling, and there’s lettuce with that, Jell-O salad, dessert, and coffee, all for like $10, you get all this food, as much as you want, they keep bringing it out, plus waffles. That’s why it’s his favorite


thing to eat is to go there and have waffles.

In contrast, through informal and formal humanistic education, HCCs learn to emphasize and value metaphysical aspects of life. They emphasize the subjective production of experience through creative, contemplative, aestheticized, abstracted engagement with the world rather than brute encounters with an empirical reality. Material abundance and luxury are crass forms of consumption because they are antithetical to the ethereal life of the mind. Since HCCs have been raised with few material constraints, they experience material deprivation differently than LCCs. Material paucity is often aestheticized, similar to functionalist design, into an ascetic style by HCCs (cf. Bourdieu 1984, p. 196). This said, it should also be noted that HCCs are at least as willing to make material acquisitions, often spending large amounts of money in so doing, provided that the good or activity supplies (or, at least, can be rationalized or imagined to supply) desired metaphysical experiences.

Materialism and idealism, then, refer to the cultural understandings that are inscribed in consumption practices rather than the quantities and physical characteristics of consumption objects. The HCCs are able to consume luxurious and scarce goods while at the same time negating connotations of waste, ostentation, and extravagance through tastes that assign value based on the ability of the good to facilitate metaphysical experience. In contrast, LCCs value abundance and luxury because these objects, with material and symbolic attributes far beyond what they understand as appropriate “use value,” signify a seldom- experienced distance from material needs. For example, although HCCs tend to have higher incomes, they live in smaller houses than the economically secure LCCs, have smaller yards, and place little value on house size. Charles, whose yearly income is over $100,000, lives in a small ramshackle bungalow in a middle-class town; John lives in a tiny row house in the historic district of another nearby town; Kathryn, whose family income is nearly $100,000, lives in a nondescript townhouse with well-worn furniture. Sue and


Margaret have both recently purchased smaller houses that are more manageable and livable than previous ones. This sense of material frugality is evinced throughout the day-to- day lives of this group. For example, Kathryn emphasizes several times that, because she was brought up in England during the war, she is very careful about her spending and is incensed when food is wasted. Though designer clothes very much appeal to her, she would never buy these items at full price, nor would she buy something that requires dry cleaning. Charles is a vegetarian whose standard lunch is some type of cooked grain (corn, wheat, barley, or oats) or soybeans with dried fruit and skim milk, and then some fruit or Jell-O for dessert. For dinner, he has rice, either plain or with some tomatoes or vegetables. Later in the evening, he eats raw vegetables; and he eats apples throughout the course of the day. He carries a briefcase and wears a leather jacket that he has owned for over 40 years.

Unlike the higher-income LCCs, HCCs never emphasize the extravagance of restaurants as a quality influencing their favorite places to dine. Rather, they use extravagance to contrast with their own tastes, which favor cuisines from other countries, often the peasant variety, eclecticism (interesting foods), artisanry, and casual atmospherics rather than the pretense associated with status-oriented restaurants. Since State College offers little in the way of such restaurants, HCCs expressed little interest in local dining. For example, Margaret denies the material symbolism of expensive restaurants connoting luxury and elegance and instead judges them on their ability to deliver experientially. Since none of the restaurants in the area deliver to her expectations, she occasionally dines at family- style restaurants but usually cooks at home. Similarly, Denise and her family usually go out for pizza and would only go to one of the expensive French restaurants “if one of my sons graduates from medical school or something.” Kathryn occasionally takes out-of-town visitors to this restaurant but prefers a local salad bar because she is always watching her figure. Anna and her husband tried a “nice” restaurant near their home, found the food atrocious, and, so, they prefer


going out for “bar food” instead.


Another central premise of cultural capital theory is that class reproduction occurs through acculturation in particular skills and dispositions required for occupational success (Willis 1978). These cultural capital assets not only allow for occupational success but also become valorized as ends in themselves and so serve as a currency to accrue status in the parallel symbolic economy of consumption (Bourdieu 1984; Collins 1975; DiMaggio 1987).

HCC careers are characterized by an emphasis on symbolic analysis, the necessity to synthesize and manipulate information, to understand and respond to new situations, to innovate rather than follow rote instructions. Structured by an ideology of meritocracy and entrepreneu-rialism, these knowledge-driven occupations place a premium on professional autonomy, peer competition, and the pursuit of an ever-changing knowledge base needed to maintain leverage in the labor market. Further, in the contemporary United States, HCC employment is characterized by a highly mobile national labor market for professional positions that requires frequent integration into new social networks with heterogeneous interests and values (DiMaggio 1987), structuring a cosmopolitan sensibility among HCCs (Hannerz 1990; Merton 1957). In sum, the labor market conditions experienced by contemporary American HCCs structures their tastes, through the habitus, to emphasize cosmopolitanism, individuality, and self-actualization.

In contrast, LCCs participate in a local labor market for highly routinized jobs (Leidner 1993). Work is a job, rarely a career. While many LCC informants like their jobs, particularly because of the social outlet they provide, and express pride in what they do, they also describe the tasks they are asked to perform as mundane, providing little intellectual or creative challenge. Instead, working-class jobs


are characterized by rote application of technique, high levels of surveillance, and a low emphasis on creativity and problem solving. Consumption by LCCs, then, is often constructed in opposition to rather than contiguous with work, pursuing experiences more exciting and fulfilling than work provides (Halle 1984; Rubin 1976). This orientation results in consumption practices that have a more autotelic cast compared with the instrumental, achievement orientation of HCCs. There is little sense of a competitive job market in which improving skills is critical in maintaining labor market leverage. Rather than individual achievement, working-class positions emphasize local communal mores (such as found in collective workplace practices to resist managerial control; see Burawoy 1979). The work of LCCs, then, structures tastes that emphasize the local, the autotelic, and the collective (cf. Rainwater et al. 1959).


The HCCs understand their social world to be much more expansive than do the LCCs. All of the HCC informants have lived in other states and five in other countries. They travel routinely throughout the United States and overseas to visit friends and family, for business, and for vacations. In contrast, only two of the LCC informants have lived outside the state in which they currently reside, they rarely travel outside of the mideastern states, and rarely mention friends or family outside the immediate vicinity: LYNN (LCC): I like State College because you’re within an hour of everything here, or two hours if you want to go to Harrisburg, a mall, or something like that. INTERVIEWER: Do you take vacations? LYNN: Usually, I’ll go to my grandparents [in the county] and cook dinner and go out to eat. During the school year usually


the days I take off there is something going on at her school —chaperoned a field trip. I don’t take a whole lot of days off. INTERVIEWER: Any other places? LYNN: Yeah, a little bit, especially during the summer we usually go out to all the little carnivals [around the county].

The HCCs talk frequently about the trade-offs of moving to a rural college town, comparing the physical beauty and peaceful way of life to the lack of cultural resources and demographic diversity. Some feel that the balance attained by a university town is just right, but many feel that they have made a significant lifestyle sacrifice because of the paucity of cultural resources. Because HCCs construct their reference groups on a national and even international basis, a common issue is how to maintain these relationships while living in a small isolated community. For example, Kathryn regularly invites out-of-town friends from Washington, Philadelphia, and New York to stay “out in the country,” and these friends reciprocate by putting her up in the city in order to get needed exposure to city life. Charles spends several months of the year visiting friends in Europe and the western United States. Margaret chose weaving as an avocation because it did not require her to become too invested in the local community: it had to “be moveable, to be portable, because I knew that it was likely that we’d be moving around a lot. And I needed something that I could take with me, that I wouldn’t feel resentful because I had to pick up and leave something there I had invested time and energy in.”

Tastes for news offer another informative example since what one considers relevant news depends on the breadth of the perceived social world in which one lives. The LCCs strongly favor the local newspaper because it covers the nexus that concerns them: they read the local section, obituaries, and local sports. The HCCs view the local newspaper as a poorly written and parochial substitute for


big-city papers. For example, Anna uses hunting articles featured in the local newspaper as a synecdoche standing for the parochial LCC mores that she disdains: INTERVIEWER: Why do you choose to subscribe to the [New York] Times as opposed to local newspapers? ANNA (HCC): Well, we subscribed to the local newspaper and we stopped our subscription for I guess two major reasons. One is we were sick of seeing the dead animals that hunters have caught on the front page during hunting season. In color, yeah, the bears. And two is we were . . . we felt that a lot of the editorials were really very . . . I just think very conservative and I just wasn’t . . . when they withheld “Doonesbury” . . . that was kind of the final blow.


The most powerful expression of the cosmopolitan-local opposition in the realm of tastes is through perceptions of and desires for the exotic—consumption objects far removed conceptually from what is considered to be normative within a category. Both HCCs and LCCs enjoy variety in their consumption to a greater or lesser extent, but they differ in their subjective understandings of what constitutes variety. What is exotic for LCCs is mundane for HCCs, and what is exotic for HCCs is unfathomable or repugnant for LCCs. And, while LCCs find comfort in objects that are familiar, HCCs seek out and desire exotic consumption objects.

Discussing food, LCCs offer conventional choices as their favorites for both home-cooked meals and restaurant meals, voicing uncertainty about or disdain toward more exotic choices. For example, while many HCCs eat Chinese food as a regular part of their diet and so do not use this cuisine as a signifier of exoticism, LCCs understand Chinese cuisine as exotic and so tend to avoid it. They rarely cook Chinese at home, they order Chinese dishes conservatively at


restaurants by always choosing the same dish or often choosing dishes most similar to American food such as sweet- and-sour pork, and some avoid it completely: “I’ll walk past a Chinese restaurant in State College and the smell of walking past it about gags me” (David).

The HCCs, however, frequently emphasize preferences for what they consider to be exotic foods. For example, Ronald asserts his distinctive tastes by describing a business trip to France where he enjoyed dishes that Americans generally consider inedible: INTERVIEWER: Were there any dishes that you really liked when you were [in France]? RONALD (HCC): I guess the morel mushrooms were the part that I remember the most because they had them on practically everything and they’re really great. I also had some very good horsemeat of all things. . . . It was a specialty of the house. It was a tenderloin where they . . . one of these thick French sauces on it. It was really great. . . . I’ve also been known to eat brains. If those are done properly by a French chef, they can be very good.

Similar differences were evident in entertainment choices as well. For whites who live outside of urban areas, one of the most culturally distant populations imaginable is the predominantly African-American ghetto. How informants position their tastes in regard to urban African-American cultural forms such as rap music, then, is revealing. The LCCs either adamantly dislike or express bewilderment about rap: INTERVIEWER: How about rap? LISA (LCC): No, that’s one thing I don’t like. INTERVIEWER: Why don’t you like it? LISA: I don’t know, I just never did. I just think it’s silly, these people are talking or whatever you call it, rapping, I


call it weird. Any fool can do that, that’s my opinion of it when it came out. SUSAN (LCC): I like all kinds of music. Classical . . . rap I hate. I shouldn’t say I like all, because I do not like rap. INTERVIEWER: What don’t you like about rap? SUSAN: I can’t understand it half the time. It’s too noisy. Too confusing. I just don’t like it. The beat. . . . I don’t like the talking all the time.

Among HCCs, however, showing respect for and interest in rap expresses cosmopolitan tastes—the tastes of a person whose social world is not only geographically but also racially and economically inclusive: INTERVIEWER: What do you think of rap music? SUE (HCC): What little I know about it, is that I think it’s the kind of music that’s really kind of neat. I like the beat of it. It’s very unique culturally. But some of the rap music that is on the radio, I don’t care for some of it. But I don’t want to denounce all of rap music because of the actions of a few. I think there is a place for it. INTERVIEWER: So you just heard a little of it here? SUE: Yeah. Even like some of Sister Souljah and some of those things. I’ve seen some on MTV. Every so often I’ll turn it on. And, as I said, I think it’s . . . it seems to have a lot of potential. I know it’s very popular among African-Americans and expresses their culture. But I don’t like the violence of some of it. And what appalls me about some of the rap music is that it’s done by African-Americans but it really degrades, particularly African-American women.


INTERVIEWER: When you say you think it has a lot of potential, what . . . ? SUE: Well, it’s . . . because I think it expresses emotion. I think the rhythm of it and the rhyming to it, is that you can get a lot of . . . what am I trying to say? The music kind of expresses what the words are trying to say. Because of that staccato beat to it. And that’s what I find attractive about it. But it’s what some of the words are saying that I don’t like.


Cultural historians and critics argue persuasively that the pursuit of individuality through consumption is a central characteristic of advanced capitalist (often “consumer”) societies, the United States in particular (Baudrillard 1981; Ewen and Ewen [1982] 1992; Jameson 1991). This characterization aptly describes HCCs, but is inaccurate for LCCs. Daniel Miller’s (1987) conception of the relationship between consumption and subjectivity provides a framework that can be used to explain this difference. The process of consumption allows people to reappropriate meanings that have become objectified in consumption objects through mass production. In highly differentiated, monetized societies dominated by the proliferation and fragmentation of objectified culture (i.e., meanings inscribed in objects found in the public world such as material goods, services, places, media, architecture, etc.), this process of appropriation becomes increasingly problematic. So practical strategies evolve to allow for the construction of subjectivity through consumption.

Although consumer subjectivity is problematic for both HCCs and LCCs, they pursue different strategies to overcome this tension. Consumption practices always simultaneously express the contradictory tendencies of individual distinction and social affiliation, but HCCs and LCCs differentially inflect this dialectic. For LCCs, consumer


subjectivity is produced through passionate and routinized participation in particular consumption activities. In most cases these subjectivities are explicitly collective, positioning one within an idioculture of other participants in the locality.

In contrast, given their cosmopolitan social milieu and their equation of subjectivity with individuality, consumer subjectivity for HCCs requires constructing what is perceived to be a unique, original style through consumption objects. The HCCs experience the potential for homogenization of commodity goods to a far greater extent than do LCCs and, thus, are far more energetic in their attempts to individuate their consumption. To express an individualistic sense of subjectivity through consumption is inherently contradictory in an era in which most goods are mass produced and experiences are mass consumed (see Clarke 1993; Holt 1995; Miller 1987), yet HCCs attempt to produce individual subjectivity through authenticity and connoisseurship.


The HCCs locate subjectivity in what they perceive to be authentic goods, artisanal rather than mass produced, and auratic experiences that are perceived as removed from, and so minimally contaminated by, the commodity form. The HCCs tend to disavow mass culture even when mass- produced goods are of high quality, and they camouflage their use of mass-produced goods when using them is unavoidable. John expresses this perspective explicitly in describing a particular plate that has captured his imagination: INTERVIEWER: What really interests you about this type of pottery right now? JOHN (HCC): Well, it’s very beautiful. It has . . . first of all, I guess good art pottery is probably part of the arts and crafts movement. It’s not mass produced. Most of it is not machine


made. It has individuality. There isn’t very much of it, relative to something like say to Roseville or some of the later potteries where they stamped out millions of them, you know . . . I think that our culture is to homogenize people. Homogenize their taste. And I think that, you know, you have subdivisions that are full of houses that all have vinyl siding and if you look at it in the right light, they all have a bulge in where they didn’t do it right. They’ll never be any different color. It will never weather. There’s the sameness that I find realty—I don’t know—it’s suffocating. I mean you go into shopping malls, you go into one shopping mall and it seems like every other shopping mall.

Similarly, Kathryn decorates her home with one-of-a-kind artisanal objects, which she views as personally meaningful, rather than mass-produced goods, which express exchange value: KATHRYN (HCC): Things that matter to me are things that remind me of things, rather than things that have their own intrinsic value. In other words, I’d rather put something on the wall that was painted by a friend . . . than something an interior designer had just written up. . . . So I’d never hire an interior designer because I can’t imagine living in someone else’s stage set, you know.

She approaches her clothing in the same way, hunting through Washington, D.C., thrift stores, out-of-town friends’ hand-me-downs, even deceased people’s clothing, in order to find articles that are unique and so more personalizable in relation to mass-merchandised fashion. Decommodified authenticity is taken to the extreme by Charles, who completely dismisses all of mass culture and, hence, professes complete ignorance of it. When asked about his favorite movies, he has a hard time recalling the last time he’s seen one and, out of desperation, dredges up Casablanca as his favorite. He never watches television so he does not know of Roseanne, and he has barely heard of


Madonna or Michael Jackson. Rather, he repeatedly redirects my questions to discussions of his own creations and those of his friends (such as the pieces of art he has scattered about his living room).

The desires of HCCs for decommodified authenticity are also prevalent in vacation preferences. Those LCCs who can afford to take a vacation uniformly favor popular destinations such as Disney World, Sea World, Atlantic City, and the beaches of New Jersey and Delaware. They also tend to prefer trips where the activities are planned by others and are highly routinized (ocean cruises, “all-in-one” bus and plane tours, theme parks). In contrast, HCCs dislike and so tend to avoid what they perceive to be mass-produced (and, so, artificial) tourist activities and, instead, wherever they are, engage in a tourist style that seeks the “authentic” experience that is found through exploration and happenstance rather than routinized and popular activities (cf. MacCannell 1976). The authentic is achieved when one actually enters the “world” of a different social milieu, rather than gazing at it from outside: KATHRYN (HCC): When traveling, I go to see friends who know their way around. Two of my friends were artists from down in Manhattan, so we go and see them and eat with them. And it’s sort of weird vegetarian restaurants in SoHo you know. . . . So we look for those things. Or we go and see another friend who’s in theater and we eat at a Chinese restaurant he knows. We go and see people who know their way around. . . . If we go to Philadelphia, we stay with my sister and we go with them to their lives, which is kind of rather “Mainline.” You know, sort of snooty, the Ivy League type. And that’s fun for a change, too. And so we see friends and family and go with them into their lives.

The HCCs on occasion “do” popular tourist destinations such as Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. But their understanding of these activities—they defensively admit to doing so and suggest that these activities are frivolous compared with other more interesting experiences on the


trip—expresses their interests in authentic, decommodified experiences in contrast with LCCs who view these same activities as highlights.

Country music provides another site for invoking tastes for decommodified authentic cultural objects versus the popular. Country music is sharply divided into “traditional” and “contemporary” genres (see Peterson 1978). The most popular radio station in the area plays contemporary country, while the traditional variant (which is usually understood to include bluegrass, swing, and Appalachian “old time” music as well as the “hard” country music of the 1950s—1970s exemplified by Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, and George Jones) is much less popular, played occasionally on the local National Public Radio (NPR) station and in live performances at some clubs in the area. For LCCs, traditional country music is the music they grew up with, a style that, except for the eldest informants, they now view as old-fashioned and backward. All but one who likes country, then, invokes the distinction between this style of country—often describing it as “twangy” and critically stereotyping the lyrical content (Heather: “The guy talks about his dog dying”)—and “new” or “contemporary” country. The LCCs strongly prefer the latter because it is has a modern sensibility with lyrics that aptly express their self-understandings. The three HCCs who express a preference for country, however, have little interest in contemporary country. Instead they favor bluegrass and other much less popular traditional styles that are described as original, unique varieties of American music, rather than a music genre that speaks to their lives. (These different tastes for country also provide another example of LCC’s referential vs. HCC’s critical interpretations of cultural texts described above.)


While authenticity involves avoiding contact with mass culture, connoisseurship involves reconfiguring mass cultural objects. Applying a highly nuanced, often idiosyncratic


approach to understand, evaluate, and appreciate consumption objects, connoisseurs accentuate aspects of the consumption object that are ignored by other consumers. Thus, personal style is expressed through consumption practice even if the object itself is widely consumed. This stylistic practice necessitates the development of finely grained vocabularies to tease out ever more detailed nuances within a category, the expression of opinionated and often eclectic evaluations of alternatives, and the ability to engage in passionate appreciation of consumption objects meeting one’s calculus of “quality” within a category.

All HCCs have at least one category for which they have developed the requisite knowledge and interest of a connoisseur and many have several such categories. John, a quintessential connoisseur, expresses such tastes for virtually every topic in the interview. We spend about 20 minutes talking about oriental rugs, touring his house to admire and evaluate the dozen or so rugs spread throughout. He waxes enthusiastically about their qualities, such as the use of vegetable dye, that make a rug beautiful rather than ordinary. JOHN (HCC): By the way, these are all vegetable dyes as opposed to aniline dye, which is another level of sophistication that I’ve worked my way up to. I’ve reached the point where when I see something that’s done with aniline dyes, I don’t like it anymore. . . . I mean this is a new Turkish carpet (points to a rug), but they’re once again using vegetable dyes. Well . . . I know we’re running out of time but I want to show you something. Now is that (points to another rug) bad color or is that bad color? INTERVIEWER: It’s different. JOHN: This is a very nice rug. But this is aniline dye and that’s vegetable dye. And it says it all right there.

Similarly, Sue approaches going out to eat as a connoisseur. She purposely accumulates specialized


knowledge about cuisines and restaurants that she uses to construct a distinctive style, leveraged as an important interactional resource to interact with her HCC friends. SUE (HCC): I really like going out to a good meal and having a glass of wine and making an event out of eating. And that’s true when I travel, too. I’m one of these people. . . . I research restaurants when I travel and I pick out restaurants in various areas where I’m going if they have good reputations because when I travel I think food is as important as the sights I see. You know, I can skimp on a hotel, but I don’t want to skimp on good food. And maybe it’s because my lifestyle is so hectic that I enjoy being waited on. But that’s something that I really do enjoy doing. INTERVIEWER: When you say it’s like an event for you, what do you mean by that? SUE: Well, it’s something I look forward to. It’s something I find relaxing. I have . . . I love eating. I mean talk to my friends at work. I mean, you know, I have a reputation for loving to eat. And I do, I love to try new and different foods. With the exception of insects and octopus, there’s very few things I don’t like to eat. So . . . I tell you, to me that’s a very important recreational activity.

In addition to the application of detailed knowledge and the accompanying enthusiasm these minutiae bring forth, eclecticism is, in addition to an expression of cosmopolitanism, an important dimension of connoisseurship. Eclecticism allows connoisseurs to construct distinctive tastes in categories in which the use of conventional goods is difficult to avoid because choices are largely constrained to a limited range of mass-produced goods. In categories such as interior decor, clothing, and food, in which consuming often requires combinations of goods (e.g., furniture and decorative items are combined to set up a living room or a bedroom, clothes are combined into an outfit, foods are combined into a meal), eclecticism can


take the form of combinatorial inventiveness. For example, while LCCs always offer normative combinations when asked about what they prepare for “special meals” (e.g., turkey dinner “with all the fixings” such as stuffing, potatoes, a green vegetable, gravy, and cranberry sauce), HCC connoisseurs break down these conventions. For example, Kathryn’s special meal is an intercontinental pastiche bearing no resemblance to normative combinations (all the more individualized due to the exotic components): INTERVIEWER: What would you prepare for a special meal? KATHRYN (HCC): Start with a cold soup like vichyssoise or gazpacho, my husband makes a spicy Jamaican chicken with rice, or maybe trout sauced with red wine base with Cointreau, and make a big salad with bitter greens, and a different dessert such as a great big souffle or something like that. We have wine with meals and my husband makes planter’s punch.

The same pattern is also evident in discussion of interior decor. Whereas the LCCs who express design preferences favor conventional styles of “country” or “Victorian,” HCCs explicitly disavow following a style that is widely adhered to and, instead, talk about how they mix and match to create their own personal look.

For reception-oriented categories such as reading, television and movies and music, people cannot actively combine different consumption objects, so eclecticism takes a different form: instead of eclectic combinations, connoisseurs express eclectic tastes by crossing or subverting institutionalized genre boundaries. The LCCs typically identify their movie tastes (e.g., “drama” or “action/adventure”), their reading choices (e.g., “historical romance”), and music tastes (“contemporary country”) using a popularly constructed genre distinction. Compare this to John, who describes his music tastes as beginning in high school with chamber music (for which he continues to prefer


to listen to particular recordings on record rather than compact disc), moving on to the Statler Brothers, George Harrison, folk music by artists such as Pete Seeger and the Weavers, Gilbert and Sullivan, the Beach Boys, and “lots of Vivaldi; lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of Vivaldi.”

The HCCs’ regard for connoisseurship is also evident when they discuss those categories in which they have not invested the resources to develop fine-grained tastes. For these, they evaluate their actions against a connoisseur standard and discuss, apologetically or defensively, their relative neglect: INTERVIEWER: What are some of your favorite meals generally? REBECCA (HCC): Okay. Well, this will be a real short section of your interview. I’m not a person who is picky about food. I’m not a person who can tell you necessarily what the ingredients in something are. I’m not a cook. I’m able to cook when I have to. But it’s not a priority for me. I can eat the same thing every day, you know.

In contrast, because LCC subjectivity is local and collective, consumer subjectivity depends on community acknowledgment of particular tastes and practices. Rather than seek out authentic decommodified goods and apply idiosyncratic tastes to mass goods, LCC subjectivity parallels the role of insider core members of consumer subcultures (Schouten and McAlexander 1995): they develop the requisite knowledge, skills, and social capital within a particular activity that then become key resources for the construction of subjectivity by self and others. For example, Nancy and her husband started a folk dancing club and spend most of their free time organizing events, going to dance practices, and socializing with some of the members who have become very close friends. From the interview, it is clear that she thinks of herself, first and foremost, as a folk dancer; it is through this avocation that she attains much of her subjective sense of self. Yet, she does not claim this as a distinctive identity. Instead, her sense of self vested in this


avocation is a communal one, located in sharing great enthusiasm and development of skills with like-minded others. This is a particularly powerful source of identity for Nancy, not because she has carved out a qualitatively distinctive style, but because, through her devotion, she is located at the nucleus of this local group. Likewise, Katie and her husband have played cards with the same group of six or eight friends two or three times per week for many years. Card playing has become a central constitutive element of Katie’s identity, one that exists only to the extent that it is jointly constructed with local others.

Because for LCCs subjectivity does not require asserting individuality in relation to mass culture or normative local tastes, there is no contradiction between subjectivity, mass consumer goods, and the conventions of mass culture. In fact, mass goods and conventions often provide useful resources from which a local identity is constructed. For example, Heather prides herself on wearing clothes with a nautical theme, which she will buy whenever she comes across such clothing at a local department store. Even when describing individuated consumption objects, LCCs rarely camouflage their use of mass-produced objects: INTERVIEWER: What are some of your favorite meals for dinner? LYNN (LCC): I like my chicken broccoli casserole. INTERVIEWER: How do you make that? LYNN: You just put everything in a casserole pan, cut up your cooked chicken and your cooked vegetables and you can use mixed vegetables and potatoes, and you have a thing of broccoli soup and one thing of broccoli and one broccoli cheese and just throw that in with milk and put it in the oven for 15 minutes and cut out biscuits that come in a round metal can, cut them up and put them on the top and then throw it back in until it’s brown. It’s pretty good and it’s real



Since LCCs do not participate in social worlds in which subjectivity is constructed through individuated consumption, they seldom use the connoisseur’s vocabulary of expertise and passion to talk about their preferences. Interview questions that HCCs use as opportunities to express fine-grained sensibilities provoke terse responses from LCCs, who understand these questions to ask for trivial expressions of preference rather than as an invitation for a consumerist performance. For example, Joseph has an impressive collection of 19 rifles hanging on his living room wall. When I inquire about the guns, Joseph makes clear that he is not so much interested in talking about different models and styles of guns to express connoisseur tastes (he would add “almost anything” for the right price) as he is in telling stories about acquiring and using the guns, such as trading with a friend for a gun, hunting deer and wild turkey with friends, and teaching his sons how to hunt, which invest the guns with particularized local meanings.

Ruth’s description of her antiques is particularly poignant in this regard. Through much determination and sacrifice over the last 20 years, Ruth and her husband have raised their income to the upper strata of the State College area. Now that they have reached this position, they are engaged in a project to evolve their lifestyle to match their economic position. Yet, even though Ruth lives in a nice neighborhood, has acquired a large collection of antiques, and entertains expensively, she does not convey an HCC style because she has not acquired the performative means to do so. Although most of her free time over the past five years has been devoted to antiquing, she has not developed the vocabulary of appreciation and evaluation to convey this interest as does an HCC connoisseur such as John: INTERVIEWER: How did you get into [antiques]? RUTH (LCC): I always liked antiques, but I never had them. I


would go to garage sales. I mean, like 10 years ago, when I was buying stuff at auctions and putting it in the garage, and after the children went and I said “We’re gonna re-do the house.” And so I started getting, I decided I was gonna do it. And I like Victorian and country and . . . so I went to the garage and started pulling these things out and then it just, I would buy more. (laughs) INTERVIEWER: You just got more, more involved in it? RUTH: Yeah. INTERVIEWER: And so how’d you find out about where all this stuff is, and which pieces you wanted? RUTH: Oh, just. . . . If I like it, I buy it. I mean, I, I look. Every weekend I look. (laughs) I made some purchases last weekend. In State College at a garage sale that picture for $35. INTERVIEWER: What, what do you like about the picture? RUTH: Oh, I just like . . . It just has personality. Something like a . . . different than new things. (laughs) . . . Plus if it gives you a little more . . . a homey feeling, I think. I don’t know, maybe it’s my age. (both laugh) This sofa here, I paid $22 for it. But I ended up reupholstering it. It costs me like $700 to refinish it, so, still in all $722. Where can you get a sofa like that? INTERVIEWER: Are there certain types of things you’re looking for? RUTH: I like Victorian things. [pause] I have country things in my kitchen. [pause] But, I just keep looking. [pause] If it appeals to me, we buy it.

Instead of describing her antiques in connoisseur terms,


she reverts to pragmatic evaluations (e.g., good prices). Throughout the interview, she is uncomfortable making any strong and specific evaluative claims about the qualities of her antiques compared to others; she just likes them. The interview was uncomfortable for both parties because we both understood that some of my questions encouraged her to express connoisseur tastes and that she was not able to respond as an HCC person might. She quickly became conscious of this inability and felt uncomfortable; likewise, I understood that my questions put her in an uncomfortable position because she had trouble responding as she wanted to, which made me feel uncomfortable.

By comparison, for HCCs, evaluating consumption objects is a primary, sometimes even dominant aspect of consuming. Thus, in many HCC interviews the mention of even the most mundane of consumption objects (e.g., water!) led, with little prompting, to lengthy soliloquies elaborating in great detail the prized and disliked qualities within a category. In these interviews, I was often left with the impression that a primary attraction of many consumption objects is that they serve as resources for very detailed and opinionated conversations about the relative merits of different goods within a category. For HCCs, the interview itself was clearly an enjoyable experience since it closely paralleled this style of consuming.


Contemporary American ideology holds that tastes are individualized and disinterested. “Be your own dog!” the Red Dog Beer ad shouts. But tastes are never innocent of social consequences. To be “cultured” is a potent social advantage in American society, providing access to desirable education, occupations, social networks, and spouses. Conversely, to grow up in conditions that deny the accumulation of cultural capital leads to exclusion from these privileged social circles and condescension and demands of deference from elites—a


form of “symbolic violence” (Bourdieu 1984) that is rarely acknowledged because tastes are understood as idiosyncratic choices.

One of the most important questions in the consumer society debate concerns materialism: the extent to which “things” (typically consumer goods) are linked to human happiness, and the unintended social and environmental consequences that result. My findings suggest that it is important to conceive of materialism sociologically as a class practice. A defining characteristic of modern capitalist societies is that human relationships are transmogrified into the symbolic qualities of goods produced for sate—what Marx called commodity fetishism. The competitive dynamics of advanced capitalism have led to the ever expanding colonization by marketplace symbolism of experiences that have historically been enacted in social domains other than commodified material culture (e.g., consider religion, health, family relationships, sexuality). The experiences of social life that create and sustain human subjectivity—love, prestige, security, fear, happiness, joy, anticipation—are increasingly reconstituted as “benefits” in the world of commodities. Rather than material mediators of culture (as Grant McCracken [1986] would have it), consumer goods now sit at the cultural epicenter. Postmodern consumer society, then, is the logical culmination of this migration of meanings and values from relationships with people to relationships with market goods and spectacles. (While the Beatles may not have been more popular than Jesus Christ, Michael Jordan no doubt is.)

Materialism is one important mode in which social identities are constructed through interaction with the marketplace. To understand materialism requires understanding who consumes in a materialist style, who uses the term “materialist” to characterize whom, and the social consequences that result from these practices. Reflecting their workplace ethos and relative advantage in the status marketplace, people whose capital volume is strongly weighted toward economic rather than cultural capital tend to consume using a materialist style of consumption. For


economic elites, this means pursuing the newest fashions, the latest technologies, the most luxurious, pampering products and services. For the ever increasing majority with relatively small and declining incomes, living in a society that so emphasizes material satisfactions constructs relative material deprivation as an intense lack and, thus, their tastes are structured around attaining glimpses (or simulacra) of elite comforts. But, with materialism as the dominant status game, how are cultural elites to distinguish themselves? The only option, structurally speaking, is to develop a set of tastes in opposition to materialism: consuming which emphasizes the metaphysical over the material—idealism—is prestigious currency in the cultural sphere. Hence, HCCs have constructed “materialist” as a pejorative term— synonymous with “showy,” “ostentatious,” “gaudy,” “unrefined”—used to denigrate the tastes of people whose tastes are formed by economic capital.

It is a misnomer, then, to equate materialism with status seeking. Materialists are no more (or less) interested in prestige than HCC idealists. Instead, they seek to acquire prestige in a particular status game (materialism) structured around particular practices (acquiring goods and participating in activities that are inscribed with economic symbolism: luxury, leisure, pampering, extravagance). From the perspective of HCCs, those who participate in this mode of status consumption seem particularly desperate to win prestige from their consumption. But, as I demonstrate in this study, cultural elites have their own set of exclusionary practices in which they invert materialism to affirm their societal position. Thus, materialism scales that isolate materialism as a vulgar form of status-claiming, while leaving uninterred the status claims embodied in the practices of cultural elites, serves to reinforce rather than challenge the exclusionary class boundaries erected by HCC consumption. Idealists are also inveterate status-seekers who are just as capable of selfishness as materialists.

But what about the societal and environmental consequences of materialism? It is important to disentangle the socially beneficial aspects of idealism from its use as a


pernicious symbolic boundary. To do so, we need to recognize that cultural elites are in a privileged position to pursue alternatives to materialism both because they typically are socialized in environments free of material scarcity and also because they reap prestige from idealist practices. Psychometric scales can be useful in weeding the negative social consequences of idealist consumption from its enormous positive possibilities, but they need to be informed by a social reflexivity that acknowledges that values, and social effects, are built into these measures. For example, to understand and ameliorate environmental degradation rather than perpetuate class boundaries, materialism research needs to examine the relationship between materialist and idealist consumption practices and the amount of material resources expended and pollution generated. I’m not convinced that idealist consumption is necessarily more environment-friendly than materialist consumption. One can abhor the idea that happiness and identity can be derived through objects and still mail order an abundance of experience-facilitating goods that overload dumps with packaging materials. And, alternatively, one can be extremely materialistic as measured by psychometric scales yet consume many fewer material resources than those who profess to be idealist, as the status condensed in a single pair of Nikes worn by a poor African-American urban teen attests.


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1 Compare Warner’s findings to imperialist interpretations in consumer research asserting that lifestyle and social class are synonomous (Levy 1966; Myers and Gutman 1974). 2 It is impossible to do justice to Bourdieu’s theory, complexly articulated over many dozens of studies over more than 30 years, in a short review. Instead I briefly summarize the key concepts that pertain specifically to Bourdieu’s work on social reproduction linking cultural capital to the field of consumption, and then highlight those aspects of the theory that distinguish it from Warner. Interested readers are encouraged to read Distinction and supporting theoretical statements that outline Bourdieu’s project, such as Bourdieu and Wacquant (1992) and Bourdieu (1977). 3 Bourdieu’s broad theoretical statements support the contemporary interpretation, yet he often makes ahistorical generalizations about the superordinate status of the high arts as a locus for high cultural capital consumption. In Distinction, Bourdieu encourages the latter reading because, in his intensive effort to isolate and describe synchronic differences in formal qualities of taste that vary with cultural capital, he does not execute a fully cultural analysis in which social differences in meanings of those objects consumed,


and their sociohistorical genesis, also become a focus of investigation (Calhoun 1993; Gartman 1991). 4 I selected the terms “HCC” and “LCC” to connote a hierarchy of tastes and, thus, of social and moral value. The terms are not intended to denigrate LCCs. Just the opposite: by illuminating hierarchies that are smoothed over in everyday life, I hope to defuse their exclusionary power. 5 Empirical assessments of Bourdieu’s theory typically compare two or more social class groupings as I do here. However, many studies use measures of social class to group informants that conflict directly with Bourdieu’s formulation. For example, Halle (1992) uses Warnerian measures of income and and neighborhood measures that necessarily conflate economic and social capital with cultural capital, while Erikson (1996) uses Erik Olin Wright’s class measures, which are primarily measures of economic capital. I follow Bourdieu’s theory more carefully in distinguishing the three socialization agents that are considered central in developing cultural capital resources (for a detailed discussion, see Holt [1997a]). Most studies do not measure all three sources of cultural capital acculturation. The occupation scale is adapted from Peterson and Simkus (1992), and arguments relating occupation and cultural capital are found in Collins (1975). The education scale is adapted from Bourdieu (1984) and Lamont (1992), calibrating the scale downward for parents given the tremendous status inflation in education over the past several decades (Bourdieu 1984). Although the two resulting groups of informants approximately resemble the upper-middle “New Class” of symbolic manipulators, who derive labor market leverage primarily from cultural capital assets, and the working class, whose social conditions rarely facilitate cultural capital formation, they are not identical. A significant percentage of the middle class with upwardly mobile trajectories out of the working class, particularly those who have entered managerial and entrepreneurial occupations that emphasize economic capital, will still have low cultural capital resources. Similarly, newly minted New Class members whose parents were working class and who were the first in their families to attend college do not


typically have the highest level of cultural capital resources. Alternatively, a growing number of HCCs (though none in this sample), such as urban artists, have working-class jobs.




Alex Kotlowitz A drive down Chicago’s Madison Street, moving west from the lake, Ais a short lesson in America’s fault lines of race and class. The first mile runs through the city’s downtown— or the Loop, as it’s called locally-past high-rises that house banks and law firms, advertising agencies and investment funds. The second mile, once lined by flophouses and greasy diners, has hitched onto its neighbor to the east, becoming a mecca for artists and new, hip restaurants, a more affordable appendage to the Loop. And west from there, past the United Center, home to the Chicago Bulls, the boulevard descends into the abyssal lows of neighborhoods where work has disappeared. Buildings lean like punch-drunk boxers. Makers of plywood do big business here, patching those same buildings’ open wounds. At dusk, the gangs claim ownership to the corners and hawk their wares, whatever is the craze of the moment, crack or smack or reefer. It’s all for sale. Along one stretch, young women, their long, bare legs shimmering under the lamplight, smile and beckon and mumble short, pithy descriptions of the pleasures they promise to deliver.

Such is urban decay. Such are the remains of the seemingly intractable, distinctly American version of poverty, a poverty not only “of the pocket” but also, as Mother Teresa said when she visited this section of the city, “of the spirit.”

What is most striking about this drive down Madison, though, is that so few whites make it. Chicago’s West Side, like other central-city neighborhoods, sits apart from


everything and everyone else. Its inhabitants have become geographically and spiritually isolated from all that surrounds them, islands unto themselves. Even the violence- which, myth has it, threatens us all-is contained within its borders. Drug dealers shoot drug dealers. Gang members maul gang members. And the innocents, the passersby who get caught in the crossfire, are their neighbors and friends. It was that isolation which so struck me when I first began to spend time at the Henry Horner Homes, a Chicago public housing complex that sits along that Madison Street corridor. Lafeyette and Pharoah, the two boys I wrote about in my book There Are No Children Here, had never been to the Loop, one mile away. They’d never walked the halls of the Art Institute of Chicago or felt the spray from the Buckingham Fountain. They’d never ogled the sharks at the John G. Shedd Aquarium or stood in the shadow of the stuffed pachyderms at the Field Museum. They’d never been to the suburbs. They’d never been to the countryside. In fact, until we stayed at a hotel one summer on their first fishing trip, they’d never felt the steady stream of a shower. (Henry Horner’s apartments had only bathtubs.) At one point, the boys, so certain that their way of life was the only way of life, insisted that my neighborhood, a gentrified community on the city’s North Side, had to be controlled by gangs. They knew nothing different.

And yet children like Lafeyette and Pharoah do have a connection to the American mainstream: it is as consumers that inner-city children, otherwise so disconnected from the world around them, identify themselves not as ghetto kids or project kids but as Americans or just plain kids. And they are as much consumers as they are the consumed; that is, they mimic white America while white America mimics them. “Inner-city kids will embrace a fashion item as their own that shows they have a connection, and then you’ll see the prep school kids reinvent it, trying to look hip-hop,” says Sarah Young, a consultant to businesses interested in tapping the urban market. “It’s a cycle.”1 A friend, a black nineteen-year- old from the city’s West Side, suggests that this dynamic occurs because the inner-city poor equate classiness with


suburban whites while those same suburban whites equate hipness with the inner-city poor. If he’s right, it suggests that commercialism may be our most powerful link, one that in the end only accentuates and prolongs the myths we have built up about each other.

Along Madison Street, halfway between the Loop and the city’s boundary, sits an old, worn-out shopping strip containing small, transient stores. They open and close almost seasonally-balloons mark the openings; “Close-Out Sale” banners mark the closings-as the African American and Middle Eastern immigrant owners ride the ebb and flow of unpredictable fashion tastes. GQ Sports. Dress to Impress. Best Fit. Chic Classics. Dream Team. On weekend afternoons, the makeshift mall is thronged with customers blithely unaware that store ownership and names may have changed since their last visit. Young mothers guiding their children by the shoulders and older women seeking a specific purchase pick their way through packs of teenagers who laugh and clown, pulling and pushing one another into the stores. Their whimsical tastes are the subject of intense curiosity, longing, and marketing surveys on the part of store owners and corporate planners.

On a recent spring afternoon, as I made my way down Madison Street toward Tops and Bottoms, one of the area’s more popular shops, I detected the unmistakable sweet odor of marijuana. Along the building’s side, two teenage boys toked away at cigar-sized joints, called blunts. The store is long and narrow; its walls are lined with shoes and caps and its center is packed with shirts, jeans, and leather jackets. The owner of the store, a Palestinian immigrant, recognized me from my previous visits there with Lafeyette and Pharoah. “You’re a probation officer, right?” he asked. I told him what my connection was with the boys. He completed a sale of a black Starter skullcap and then beckoned me toward the back of the store, where we could talk without distraction.

Behind him, an array of nearly 200 assorted shoes and sneakers lined the wall from floor to ceiling. There were the predictable brands: Nike, Fila, and Reebok, the shoes that have come to define (and nearly bankrupt) a generation.


There were the heavy boots by Timberland and Lugz that have become popular among urban teens. But it was the arrangement of shoes directly in front of me that the proprietor pointed to, a collection of Hush Puppies. “See that?” he asked. “It’s totally white-bread.” Indeed, Hush Puppies, once of earth tones and worn by preppies, have caught on among urban black teens—and the company has responded in kind, producing the shoes in outrageous, gotta- look-at-me colors such as crayon orange and fire-engine red. I remember the first time Pharoah appeared in a pair of lime green Hush Puppies loafers—I was dumbfounded. But then I thought of his other passions: Tommy Hilfiger shirts, Coach wallets, Guess? jeans. They were the fashions of the economically well heeled, templates of those who had “made it.” Pharoah, who is now off at college, ultimately found his path. But for those who are left behind, these fashions are their “in.” They give them cachet. They link them to a more secure, more prosperous world, a world in which they have not been able to participate—except as consumers.

Sarah Young, whose clients include the company that manufactures Hush Puppies, suggests that “for a lot of these kids, what they wear is who they are because that’s all they have to connect them to the rest of the larger community. It marks their status because there’s not a lot else.”2

It’s a false status, of course. They hold on to the idea that to “make it” means to consume at will, to buy a $100 Coach wallet or an $80 Tommy Hilfiger shirt. And these brand-name companies, knowing they have a good thing going, capitalize on their popularity among the urban poor, a group that despite its economic difficulties represents a surprisingly lucrative market. The companies gear their advertising to this market segment. People such as Sarah Young nurture relationships with rap artists, who they lure into wearing certain clothing items. When the company that makes Hush Puppies was looking to increase their presence in the urban market, Young helped persuade Wyclef Jean, a singer with the Fugees, to wear powder blue Bridgeport chukkas, which bear a sneaking resemblance to the Wallabee shoes familiar to members of my generation. In a recent issue of Vibe, a


magazine aimed at the hip-hop market, rappers Beenie Man and Bounty Killer are pictured posing in Ralph Lauren hats and Armani sweaters, sandwiched between photographs of other rappers decked out in Calvin Klein sunglasses and Kenneth Cole shoes. The first three full-page advertisements in that same issue are for Hilfiger’s athletic line, Coach handbags (with jazz singer Cassandra Wilson joyfully walking along with her Coach bag slung over her shoulder), and Perry Ellis casual wear (with a black man and three young boys lounging on the beach). This, as Pharoah told me, represents class—and, as Young suggested, the one connection that children growing up amid the ruins of the inner city have to a more prosperous, more secure world. It is as consumers that they claim citizenship. And yet that Coach handbag or that Tommy Hilfiger or Perry Ellis shirt changes nothing of the cruel realities of growing up poor and black. It reminds me of the murals painted on abandoned buildings in the South Bronx: pictures of flowers, window shades, and curtains, and the interiors of tidy rooms. As Jonathan Kozol observes in his book Amazing Grace, “the pictures have been done so well that when you look, the first time, you imagine that you’re seeing into people’s homes— pleasant-looking homes, in fact, that have a distinctly middle- class appearance.”3

But the urban poor are more than just consumers. They help drive fashions as well. The Tommy Hilfiger clothing line, aimed initially at preppies, became hot in the inner city, pushed in large part by rap artists who took to the clothing maker’s stylish, colorful vestments. A 1997 article in Forbes magazine suggests that Hilfiger’s 47 percent rise in earnings over the first nine months of its fiscal year 1996—1997 had much to do with the clothing line’s popularity among the kinds of kids who shop Chicago’s Madison Street.4 Suddenly, Tommy Hilfiger became cool, not only among the urban teens but also among their counterparts in the suburbs. “That gives them a sense of pride, that they’re bringing a style to a new height,” Sarah Young suggests.5 Thus, those who don’t have much control over other aspects of their life find comfort in having at least some control over something-style.


There’s another facet to this as well: the romanticization of urban poverty by some white teens. In St. Joseph, Michigan, a nearly all-white town of 9,000 in the state’s southwestern corner, a group of teens mimicked the mannerisms and fashions of their neighbors across the river in Benton Harbor, Michigan, a nearly all-black town that has been economically devastated by the closing of the local factories and foundries. This cadre of kids called themselves “wiggers.” A few white boys identified themselves with one of the Benton Harbor gangs, and one small band was caught carrying out holdups with a BB gun. A local police detective laughingly called them “wannabes.” At St. Joseph High School, the wiggers greeted one another in the hallways with a high five or a twitch of the head. “Hey, Nigger, wha’s up?” they’d inquire. “Man, just chillin’.”

But it was through fashions—as consumers—that they most clearly identified themselves with their peers across the way. They dressed in the hip-hop fashion made popular by M.C. Hammer and other rap artists, wearing blue jeans big enough for two, the crotch down at their knees. (The beltless, pants-falling-off-hips style originated, many believe, in prison, where inmates must forgo belts.) The guys wore Starter jackets and hats, the style at the time. The girls hung braided gold necklaces around their necks and styled their hair in finger waves or braids. For these teens, the life of ghetto kids is edgy, gutsy, risky—all that adolescents crave. But do they know how edgy, how gusty, how risky? They have never had to comfort a dying friend, bleeding from the head because he was on the wrong turf. They have never sat in a classroom where the desks are arranged so that no student will be hit by falling plaster. They have never had to say “Yes, Sir” and “No, Sir,” as a police officer, dripping with sarcasm, asks, “Nigger, where’d you get the money for such a nice car?” From a safe distance—as consumers—they can believe they are hip, hip being defined as what they see in their urban counterparts. With their jeans sagging off their boxer shorts, with their baseball caps worn to the side, with their high-tops unlaced, they find some connection, though in the end it is a false bond.


It is as consumers that poor black children claim membership to the larger community. It is as purchasers of the talismans of success that they can believe they’ve transcended their otherwise miserable situation. In the late 198os, as the drug trade began to flourish in neighborhoods such as Chicago’s West Side, the vehicle of choice for these big-time entrepreneurs was the Chevrolet Blazer, an icon of suburban stability. As their communities were unraveling, in part because of their trade, they sought a connection to an otherwise stable life. And they sought it in the only way they knew how, the only way available to them: as consumers. Inner-city teens are eager to participate in society; they want to belong.

And for the white teens like those in St. Joseph, who, like all adolescents, want to feel that they’re on the edge, what better way than to build some connection—however manufactured—to their contemporaries across the river who must negotiate that vertical drop every day? By purchasing, in complete safety, all the accoutrements associated with skirting that fall, they can believe that they’ve been there, that they’ve experienced the horrors and pains of growing up black and poor. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. They know nothing of the struggles their neighbors endure.

On the other hand, fashions in the end are just that— fashions. Sometimes kids yearn for baggy jeans or a Tommy Hilfiger shirt not because of what it represents but because it is the style of their peers. Those “wiggers,” for example, may equate the sagging pants with their neighbors across the river, but kids a few years younger are mimicking them as much as their black counterparts. Fashions grow long limbs that, in the end, are only distantly connected to their roots.

Take that excursion down Madison Street-and the fault lines will become abundantly clear. One can’t help but marvel at the spiritual distance between those shopping at Tops and Bottoms on the blighted West Side and those browsing the pricey department stores in the robust downtown. And yet many of the children have one eye trained down Madison Street, those on each side watching


their counterparts and thinking they know the others’ lives. Their style of dress mimics that of the others. But they’re being cheated. They don’t know. They have no idea. Those checking out the array of Hush Puppies at Tops and Bottoms think they have the key to making it, to becoming full members of this prosperous nation. And those trying on the jeans wide enough for two think they know what it means to be hip, to live on the edge. And so, in lieu of building real connections—by providing opportunities or rebuilding communities—we have found some common ground as purchasers of each other’s trademarks. At best, that link is tenuous; at worst, it’s false. It lets us believe that we are connected when the distance, in fact, is much farther than anyone cares to admit.


1 Sarah Young, telephone interview with the author, January 1998. 2 Ibid. 3 Jonathan Kozol, Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation (New York: HarperPerennial, 1996). 4 Joshua Levine, “Baad Sells,” Forbes 159, no. 8 (April 21, 1997): 142. 5 Sarah Young, telephone interview with the author, January 1998.




Ann DuCille

This is my doll story (because every black journalist who writes about race gets around to it sometime). Back when I started playing with Barbie, there were no Christies (Barbie’s black friend, born in 1968) or black Barbies (born in 1980, brown plastic poured into blond Barbie’s mold). I had two blonds, which I bought with Christmas money from girls at school. I cut off their hair and dressed them in African-print fabric . . . After an “incident” at school (where all of the girls looked like Barbie and none of them looked like me), I galloped down our stairs with one Barbie, her blond head hitting each spoke of the banister . . . until her head popped off, lost to the graveyard behind the stairwell. Then I tore off each limb, and sat on the stairs for a long time twirling the torso like a baton.




More than simple instruments of pleasure and amusement, toys and games play crucial roles in helping children to determine what is valuable in and around them. As elements of the rites and rituals of childhood, dolls, games, storybooks, fairytales, and comics assist children in the process of becoming, in the task of defining themselves in relation to the world around them. As marketed by Mattel, Inc., Barbie dolls in particular invite children to imagine themselves in the dolls’ image, to transport themselves into a realm of beauty, glamour, fun, success, and conspicuous consumption. “Imagine appearing on magazine covers, starring in fashion shows, and going to Hollywood parties,” one ad reads, “as you, Shani, Asha and Nichelle [black Barbie dolls] live your dreams of beauty and success, loving every marvelous minute!”

Person, persona, and personality, Barbie is marketed not simply as a doll, a toy, but as “a role model for girls.”1 In fact, one concept behind the doll was the notion that its adult female form would help to teach little girls how to become beautiful, feminine women—“just like Barbie,” a simile that still appears in advertising copy. Early Barbie dolls came with accessories such as bras, petticoats, girdles, and garters, which would guide little girls in negotiating these then-essential accouterments of womanhood and fashion.2 In the words of Billy Boy, a British fashion designer and Barbie doll aficionado, Barbie’s undergarment sets of the fifties and early sixties symbolized adulthood for most girls. As such, they “allowed young women to anticipate the structured and difficult-to-wear undergarments of the era.”3

Today, at a time when Madonna has transformed underwear into outerwear, Barbie also takes to the streets in such underclothes as see-through bustiers and spandex leggings. Whether for day or night, lingerie has made a comeback as popular accessories for Barbie dolls, which are generally sold without undergarments. (In 1995 Teacher Barbie’s lack of underwear triggered consumer complaints


that the doll seemed to be teaching something other than reading, writing, and arithmetic.) A line of lingerie introduced in 1991 as Barbie’s “Fancy Frills” presents little girls-“5 and over”—with four sets of accessories in which to dress their dolls, including lacy, see-through teddies and satin bras and panties. Other lingerie sets on the market include a “Wedding Day” ensemble, blue satin panties and camisole with a matching bed jacket and high-heel pumps. The label on the package may say “Wedding Day,” but the garments inside more readily suggest the wedding night.

While these ensembles are sold separately as accessories, some of the dolls come prepackaged with alternative nighttime wear. For example, Madison Avenue Barbie, a special F.A.O. Schwarz limited-edition doll introduced in 1991, is dressed to the nines in a fashionable pink suit and stylish green trapeze coat, but what she’s shopping for-what she carries in her Schwarz rocking-horse-emblazoned shopping bag—is no teddy bear but a hot-pink teddy, a sexy undergarment of the Victoria’s Secret variety.

The contradiction of the toystore tote bag and the hot-pink teddy suggests the same blurring of the lines between innocent child’s play and adult sexual fantasy that the Barbie doll itself suggests. The hot-pink teddy and similar garments not only teach little girls how to be grown up; they also prepare them for their role as adult consumers. But the messages that Barbie and her garments send are mixed and not just for or about little girls who would be women and shoppers. The elaborate lingerie ensembles, day-glow bustiers, lace panties, and Lycra tights of the nineties teach more than dress, deportment, and consumption; they spell out the ABCs of sex and seduction.

Moreover, the narrative of sensuality underneath the doll’s wardrobe is intertwined with the narrative of beauty and success that is the enabling script for Barbie’s personal romance and commercial empire. As would-be toys for girls, then, Barbie and her intimate trappings represent a seemingly innocent space for the displacement of adult ambivalence about sexuality. Like any good fetish, Barbie at once absorbs our sins and absolves us of them. She


transforms the unclean thoughts of grown-ups into the immaculate conceptions of children. Figured as mere child’s play, Victoria’s Secret is let out of the brown paper bag, as it were, and placed rocking-horse pure in the presexual space of the little girl’s playroom.

There is still more to the story. The original (or, as it turns out, not so original) 1959 Barbie was modeled after a sexy, adult-bodied, German-made doll called “Bild Lilli.” The Lilli doll, itself taken from a gold-digging comic-strip character, became a kind of sex toy, which reportedly was sold primarily to men in tobacco shops and other male haunts. Barbie’s taste in clothes—or, rather, Mattel’s—betrays the doll’s European origins as erotica. In their U.S. incarnations, Barbie and her wardrobe reflect the American ideal of continental decadence and the degree to which that decadence—a “No, No, Nanette” naughtiness—is located in the female form.

Probing deeper, a Freudian interpretation might even uncover both repressed sexual desire and a kind of Paris envy. In Paris and throughout Europe, lingerie resonates with a certain je-ne-sais-quoi, which Americans have envied but never gotten quite right. In the European underwear world, distinctions are finely drawn between the decadent and the delicate. Barbie’s intimate apparel, however, “blurs the boundary between the bordello and the boudoir,”4 transporting into toyland a perhaps uniquely American confusion about sex, sin, and the body.

For Mattel, of course, any relationship between sex and the text of Barbie—especially the charge that sex sells Barbie—is a figment of the imaginations of dirty-minded adults, who project their own sexual preoccupations and perversions onto innocent toys intended for children. Whether a fashion model, a flight attendant, or an astronaut, Barbie, according to her manufacturer, has always been a fine, upstanding career girl (as opposed to the “working girl” her wardrobe may suggest). But the company’s own marketing strategies and advertising copy would seem to contradict this plea of innocence, since the prose and pictures used to sell Barbie often sexualize the doll and position it as an object of both


desire and emulation. An ad for a Barbie T-shirt, for example, shows a truncated (head and torso only) version of the doll— arms bent back and chest thrust forward—floating above a caption that reads: “Your Barbie doll will look hot in this cool T-shirt.” In such ads—which replicate the calendar-girl and sex-kitten poses of adult models-both the graphics and the words invite an erotic gaze. Mattel also markets a line of “cool” career fashions for its Barbie dolls, but most of Barbie’s wardrobe has more to do with the bedroom and the ballroom than with the boardroom. If Barbie is indeed a role model for girls, just what role is she modeling? Linked as they are to a master narrative of beauty, boys, and fun, fun, fun, these lingerie sets may teach little girls more about taking their clothes off than about putting them on.

This lesson is reinforced through hundreds of other components of Barbie culture—from video and board games, puzzles, and comic books to an exercise tape and a line of girls’ clothing called Barbie for Girls. Board games such as “Barbie Dress Up,” “Barbie Dream Date,” and “Barbie Queen of the Prom,” along with a new line of video games for Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo, all invite players to join Barbie in the happiness of her favorite pursuits: shopping, dressing up, dating, and having fun. “Barbie Fashion Designer,” a CD- ROM computer game introduced in 1996, allows players to design Barbie clothes on the computer and print them on a light fabric that works in any printer. In “Barbie Magic Fairy Tales,” another computer game still in the planning stage, Barbie as Rapunzel reportedly gets to rescue Prince Charming Ken from the spell of a wicked witch. The would-be heroic twist to this plot does not disguise the fact that in all of these games, winning or succeeding is synonymous with having the right looks, the right hair, the right clothes, and the right boyfriend.

The same messages are imparted by Barbie, the Magazine for Girls, a bimonthly fanzine aimed at girls roughly between the ages of four and twelve. Like the Miss America pageant, which bills itself as a scholarship program rather than a beauty contest, the Barbie magazine presents itself as educational rather than commercial. Any given issue might


include a recipe for frozen fruit pops, a feature on outstanding American girls, or a math lesson that asks readers to use their arithmetic skills to assist Barbie on a shopping spree. (“Barbie is shopping for a new party dress. Read the clues below to figure out which dress she is going to buy.”) What the magazine actually does, however, is sell Barbie. Child models—often striking adult poses replete with grown-up hairdos—are used to sell the doll and a variety of Barbie-related products. Ingeborg Majer O’Sickey argues in fact that the publication uses child-women models to sell highly particularized notions of beauty and femininity. Both the images and the editorial beauty guides function as a kind of “basic training” designed to lure little girls into the adult world of clothes, cosmetics, and consumption.5

It is exactly this indoctrination into a particular, fixed notion of femininity that concerns me: the role-model persona Barbie projects, along with the like-me correlative that Mattel uses to sell black versions of the doll. It is surely significant that these dolls, which once came only in white, are now mass-produced and mass-marketed to “look like” the racial other; to resemble the “like me” missing from my own childhood play; to represent the vast array of colors, races, ethnicities, and nationalities that make up the real world.

Like Madonna, Barbie has developed both a posse of devoted fans and a gang of hostile critics. For millions of children and adults in the United States and around the world, she is the most popular, most enduring of all toys-the doll that children and collectors most love to consume. For others—wary parents and feminist scholars in particular— Barbie is a dangerous weapon against womankind—the icon of idealized femininity they most love to hate or at least interrogate, deconstruct if not destruct. The doll’s exaggerated proportions and the standard set by her morbidly thin form have been at the center of controversy. (If life-size, her measurements would be something like 36-18- 33, depending on who’s calculating, and she wouldn’t have enough body fat to menstruate regularly.) Indeed, read by many as a metaphor for young women often described pathologically as empty-headed, self-absorbed, anorexic


material girls, Barbie has long attracted the ire of feminists, who revile her as yet another manifestation of the damaging myths of female beauty and the feminine body that patriarchy thrusts upon girls and women.

But while Anna Quindlen and other feminists may want to drive a silver lame stake through her plastic heart, Barbie has her feminist fans too, some of whom see her as a revolutionary doll whose professional roles have run ahead of the prevailing images of women as housewives, secretaries, and nurses.6 “Barbie was an astronaut years before Sally Ride,” one of the doll’s defenders points out.7 And though she toys with Ken, she is not dependent on him or any other man. In fact, Ken is little more than another accessory—like Barbie’s lingerie or her condo or her Porsche. Not just an empty-headed, materialistic bimbo who finds math class tough,8 Barbie is for some a feminist heroine who has been first in war (Desert Storm Barbie saw active duty in the Gulf), first in peace (Ambassador Barbie held her own summit in 1990), and always in the hearts of her people (Americans buy her at the rate of one doll every second).


As the queenpin of a billion-dollar industry, Barbie reigns supreme at the intersection of gender and capitalism. Moreover, the tremendous boost in sales that accompanied Mattel’s marketing of ethnic Barbie dolls may suggest a critical link between consumerism and multiculturalism. Though it seems clear that black consumers buy black Barbie dolls, it is also clear that others buy them too. Doll collecting is big business, and Mattel’s ethnic dolls—particularly those in its Dolls of the World series—are designed and marketed at least as much with adult collectors in mind as with little girls. Donna Gibbs told me that the national dolls are intended more for adults, “although appropriate for children.” She explained that Mattel cultivates a competitive market for these “premium value” dolls by producing them in


limited quantities, issuing them strategically (two or three different nations or cultures each year), and retiring a given national doll after only a year or two on the market.9

Doll catalogues, buyers’ guides, and classified ads in Barbie Bazaar suggest precisely how premium this value currently is. According to the Collectors Encyclopedia of Barbie Dolls, Colored Francie is now one of the most sought- after dolls ever produced by Mattel.10 It may have been a flop when it appeared in 1967, but today, in mint condition, Colored Francie is worth between $700 and $900.11 Finding this now premium-value vintage doll-especially finding it NRFB (never-removed-from-box) —is the dream of serious collectors. “With the quality of the ethnic dolls,” writes Westenhauser, “Mattel has created a successful market of variety with Barbie that represents the racially diverse world in which we live.” Saying perhaps more than she intends about difference as decoration, Westenhauser adds that “such a large variety of Barbie dolls turns any home into a museum.”12

Questions about the ties between multiculturalism and capitalism are by all means larger than Barbie. But given the doll’s status as an American icon, interrogating Barbie may facilitate an analysis of the commodity culture of which she is both part and product. What makes such an interrogation difficult, however, is the fact that Barbie simultaneously performs several disparate, often contradictory operations. On the one hand, ethnic Barbie dolls seem to color in the whitewashed spaces of my childhood. They give little colored girls toys to play with that look like them. On the other hand, this seeming act of racializing the dolls is accomplished by a contrapuntal action of erasure. In other words, Mattel is only able to racialize its dolls by blurring the sharp edges of the very difference that the corporation produces and profits from. It is able to make and market ethnicity by ignoring not only the body politics of the real people its dolls are meant to represent, but by ignoring the body politic as well—by eliding the material conditions of the masses it dolls up.

Here and elsewhere in commodity culture, this concurrent racing and erasing occurs precisely because big business


both adores and abhors difference. It thrives on a heterogeneity that is cheaply reducible to its lowest common denominator—an assembly-line or off-the-rack difference that is actually sameness mass-reproduced in a variety of colors, flavors, fabrics, and other interchangeable options. For the most part, the corporate body is far less fond of more complex, less easily commodified distinctions—differences whose modes of production require constant retooling and fine-tuning. The exceptions here, of course, are the big-ticket specialty items—the handmade, one-of-a-kind originals and limited editions—which are intended not to be consumed rapidly by hordes who pay a little but to be acquired with deliberation by a few who pay a lot.

In today’s toy world, race and ethnicity have fallen into the category of precious ready-to-ware difference. To be profitable, racial and cultural diversity—global heterogeneity —must be reducible to such common, reproducible denominators as color and costume. Race and racial differences—whatever that might mean in the grander social order—must be reducible to skin color or, more correctly, to the tint of the plastic poured into each Barbie mold. Each doll is marketed as representing something or someone in the real world, even as the political, social, and economic particulars of that world are not only erased but, in a curious way, made the same. Black Jamaican Barbie—outfitted as a peasant or a maid—stands alongside white English Barbie, who is dressed in the fancy riding habit of a lady of leisure. On the toystore shelf or in the collector’s curio cabinet, maid and aristocrat enjoy an odd equality (they even sell for the same price), but this seeming sameness denies the historical relation they bear to each other as the colonized and the colonizer.

If we could line up the ninety or so different colors, cultures, and other incarnations in which Barbie currently exists, the physical facts of her unrelenting sameness (or at least similarity) would become immediately apparent. Even two dolls might do the trick: white Western Fun Barbie and black Western Fun Barbie, for example. Except for their dye jobs, the dolls are identical: the same body, size, shape, and


apparel. Or perhaps I should say nearly identical because in some instances—with black and Asian dolls in particular— coloring and other subtle changes (slanted eyes in the Asian dolls, thicker lips in the black dolls) suggest differently coded facial features.

In other instances, when Barbie moves across cultural as opposed to racial lines, it is costume rather than color that distinguishes one ethnic group or nation from another. Nigeria and Jamaica, for instance, are represented by the same basic brown body and face mold, dolled up in different native garbs, or Mattel’s interpretation thereof.13 With other costume changes, this generic black body and face can be Marine Barbie or Army Barbie or even Presidential Candidate Barbie. Much the same is true of the generic Asian doll—sometimes called Kira—who reappears in a variety of different dress-defined ethnicities. In other words, where Barbie is concerned, clothes not only make the woman, they mark the racial and/or cultural difference.

Such difference is marked as well by the miniature cultural history and language lessons that accompany each doll in Mattel’s international collection. The back of Jamaican Barbie’s box tells us: “How-you-du (Hello) from the land of Jamaica, a tropical paradise known for its exotic fruit, sugar cane, breathtaking beaches, and reggae beat!” In an odd rendering of cause and effect, the box goes onto explain that “most Jamaicans have ancestors from Africa, so even though our official language is English, we speak patois, a kind of ‘Jamaica Talk,’ filled with English and African words. 14 For example, when I’m filled with boonoonoonoos, I’m filled with much happiness!” So written, Jamaica becomes an exotic tropical isle where happy, dark-skinned, English-speaking peasants don’t really speak English.

Presented as if out of the mouths of native informants, the cultural captions on the boxes help to sell the impression that what we see isn’t all we get with these dolls. The use of first- person narration lends a stamp of approval and a voice of authority to the object, confirming that the consumer has purchased not only a toy or a collector’s item to display but access to another culture, inside knowledge of an exotic,


foreign other. The invariably cheerful greetings and the warm, chatty tone affirm that all’s well with the small world. As a marketing strategy, these captions contribute to the museum of culture effect, but as points of information, such reductive ethnographies only enhance the extent to which these would-be multicultural dolls make race and ethnicity collectors’ items, contributing more to the stock exchange than to cultural exchange.


Not entirely immune to criticism of its identity politics, Mattel sought advice from black parents and specialists in early childhood development in the making and marketing of a new assortment of black Barbie dolls—the Shani line. Chief among the expert witnesses was the clinical psychologist Darlene Powell Hopson, who coauthored with her husband Derek Hopson a study of racism and child development, Different and Wonderful: Raising Black Children in a Race- Conscious Society (1990). As part of their research and clinical work, the Hopsons repeated a groundbreaking study conducted by the black psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark in the 1940s.

The Clarks used dolls to demonstrate the negative effects of racism and segregation on black children. When given a choice between a white doll and a black doll, nearly 70 percent of the black children in the study chose the white doll. The Clarks’ findings became an important factor in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. More recently, scholars have called into question both the Clarks’ methodology and the meaning ascribed to their findings: the assumption that a black child’s choosing a white doll necessarily reflects a negative self-concept.15 William Cross has argued, for example, that the Clarks confounded two different issues : attitude toward race in general and attitude toward the self in particular. How one feels about race or what one knows of societal attitudes toward the racially marked is not always an


index of one’s own self-esteem; or, as Harriette Pipes McAdoo suggests, perhaps black children “are able to compartmentalize their view of themselves from their view of their racial group.”16

Such qualifications—coupled with the evidence of my own experience (my dreaming through the white male persona of Glenn Evans as a child did not mean that I hated my black female self)—have also led me to question the Clark studies. For Darlene and Derek Hopson, however, the research remains compelling. In 1985 they repeated the Clarks’ doll test and found that 65 percent of the black children in their sample chose a white doll over a black one. Moreover, 76 percent of the children interviewed said that the black dolls looked “bad” to them. Based on their own doll tests and their clinical work with children, the Hopsons concluded that black children, “in great numbers,” continue to identify with white images—even when black images are made available. “Our empirical results confirmed the messages Black children were sending us every day in our practice,” the Hopsons explain. “We’re not as good, as pretty, or as nice as Whites . . . We don’t like being Black. We wish we could be like them.”17

The Hopson findings sent shock waves across the country and around the world. The interest their results generated among social scientists, parents, and the popular press prompted the Hopsons to write Different and Wonderful, a guidebook in which they use their experience as psychologists and as parents to suggest ways of counteracting negative racialized imagery. Several of their interventional strategies involve “doll play,” and here again the ubiquitous Barbie has a featured role.

“If your daughter likes ‘Barbie’ dolls, by all means get her Barbie,” the Hopsons advise black parents. “But also choose Black characters from the Barbie world.”18 Admittedly, I know more about word usage than about child psychology, but it seems to me that the Hopsons’ own phrasing may speak to at least one problem with their positive play methodology and the role of Barbie in it. “Barbie,” unmodified in the preceding statement, apparently means


white Barbie, suggesting that the Hopsons also take white Barbie dolls as the norm. Black Barbie is toyland’s “but also,” just as black people are society’s “but also.”

The problem here is not simply semantic. Barbie has a clearly established persona and a thoroughly pervasive presence as a white living doll. The signature Barbies, the dolls featured on billboards, on boxes, in video and board games, on clothing, and in the Barbie exercise tape (as well as the actresses who play Barbie on Broadway and the models who make special appearances as Barbie at Disneyland and elsewhere) are always blond, blue-eyed, and white. Colorizing Barbie, selling her in black-face, does not necessarily make her over into a positive black image.

“My daughter wants to know why she can’t have a white Barbie doll,” one African American mother told me. “She’s been playing happily with black Barbie dolls since she was two, but lately she wants to know why she can’t have a white doll; why she can’t have a real Barbie.” The four-year-old’s words, like the Hopsons’ “but also,” speak to the larger color biases of imagery, texts, and toys that persist more than fifty years after the Clark study. If black children continue to identify with white images, it may be because even the would-be positive black images around them—including black Barbie dotts—serve to reinforce their second-class citizenship.19

But there may be other problems with the well-meaning advice offered black parents in Different and Wonderful. The Hopsons suggest that parents should not only provide their children with ethnic dolls but that they also should get involved in the doll play. “Help them dress and groom the dolls while you compliment them both,” they advise, offering this routine: “This is a beautiful doll. It looks just like you. Look at her hair. It’s just like yours. Did you know your nose is as pretty as your doll’s?” They further recommend that parents use “complimentary words such as lovely, pretty, or nice so that [the] child will learn to associate them with his or her own image. ”20

Certainly it is important to help black children feel good about themselves, which includes helping them to be


comfortable with their own bodies. One might argue, however, that these suggestions run the risk of transmitting to the black child a colorized version of the same old white beauty myth. Like Barbie dolls themselves, these techniques for positive play not only make beauty a desirable fixed physical fact—a matter of characteristics rather than character—they make this embodied beauty synonymous with self-worth. A better strategy might be to use the doll to show children how unlike any real woman Barbie is. In spite of their own good intentions, the Hopsons in effect have endorsed the same bill of goods Mattel has made the basis of its ethnically oriented marketing campaign—a campaign launched perhaps not entirely coincidentally in the fall of 1991, the year after the Hopsons’ book Different and Wonderful appeared.

Though one can only speculate about a link between the publication of Different and Wonderful and Mattel’s going ethnic in its advertising, it is clear that the Hopsons’ strategies for using dolls to instill ethnic pride caught the company’s attention.21 In 1990 Darlene Hopson was asked to consult with Mattel’s product manager Deborah Mitchell and designer Kitty Black Perkins—both African Americans—in the development of a new line of “realistically sculpted” black fashion dolls. Hopson agreed, and about a year later Shani and her friends Asha and Nichelle became the newest members of Barbie’s entourage.

According to the doll’s package: Shani means marvelous in the Swahili language . . . and marvelous she is! With her friends Asha and Nichelle, Shani brings to life the special style and beauty of the African American woman. Each one is beautiful in her own way, with her own lovely skin shade and unique facial features. Each has a different hair color and texture, perfect for braiding, twisting and creating fabulous hair styles! Their clothes, too, reflect the vivid colors and ethnic accents that showcase their exotic looks and fashion flair!22

These words attempt to convey a message of black pride—


after the fashion of the Hopsons’ recommendations for positive play—but that message is clearly tied to bountiful hair, lavish and exotic clothes, and other external signs of beauty, wealth, and success.

Mattel gave Shani a coming-out party at the International Toy Fair in February 1991. Also making their debuts were Shani’s friends Asha and Nichelle, notable for the different hues in which their black plastic skin comes—an innovation due in part to Darlene Hopson. Shani, the signature doll of the line, is what some would call brown-skinned; Asha is honey-colored; and Nichelle is deep mahogany. Their male friend Jamal, added in 1992, completes the collection.

The three-to-one ratio of the Shani quartet—three black females to one black male—may be the most realistic thing about these dolls. In the eyes of Mattel, however, Shani and her friends are the most authentic black dolls yet produced in the mainstream toy market. Billed as “Tomorrow’s African American woman,” Shani has broader hips, fuller lips, and a broader nose, according to Deborah Mitchell. Kitty Black Perkins, who has dressed black Barbies since their birth in 1980, adds that the Shani dolls are also distinguished by their unique, culturally specific clothes in “spice tones, [and] ethnic fabrics,” rather than “fantasy colors like pink or lavender”23—evidently the colors of the faint of skin.

The notion that fuller lips, broader noses, wider hips, and higher derrieres make the Shani dolls more realistically African American again raises many difficult questions about difference, authenticity, and the problematic categories of the real and the symbolic, the typical and the stereotypical. Again we have to ask what authentic blackness looks like. Even if we knew, how could this ethnic or racial authenticity ever be achieved in a doll? Also, where capital is concerned, the profit motive must always intersect with all other incentives.

The Shani doll is an apt illustration of this point. On the one hand, Mattel was concerned enough about producing a more “ethnically correct” black doll to seek the advice of black image specialists in the development and marketing of the Shani line. On the other hand, the company was not


willing to follow the advice of such experts where doing so would entail a retooling that would cost the corporation more than the price of additional dyes and fabrics.

For example, Darlene Hopson argued not just for gradations in skin tones in the Shani dolls but also for variations in body type and hair styles. But, while Mattel acknowledged both the legitimacy and the ubiquity of such arguments, the ever-present profit incentive militated against breaking the mold, even for the sake of the illusion of realism. “To be truly realistic, one [Shani doll] should have shorter hair,” Deborah Mitchell has admitted. “But little girls of all races love hair play. We added more texture. But we can’t change the fact that long, combable hair is still a key seller.”

In fact, there have been a number of times when Mattel has changed the length and style of its dolls’ hair. Christie, the black doll that replaced Colored Francie in 1968, had a short Afro, which was more in keeping with what was perhaps the signature black hairstyle of the sixties. Other shorter styles have appeared as the fashions of the moment dictated. In the early sixties, Barbie sported a bubble cut like Jacqueline Kennedy’s.24 Today, though, Mattel seems less willing to crop Barbie’s hair in accord with fashion. Donna Gibbs told me that the long hair of Mattel’s dolls is the result of research into play patterns. “Combing, cutting, and styling hair is basic to the play patterns of girls of all ethnicities,” she said. All of the products are test-marketed first with both children and adults, and the designs are based on such research.25

Hair play is no doubt a favorite pastime with little girls. But Mattel, I would argue, doesn’t simply respond to the desire among girls for dolls with long hair to comb; it helps to produce those desires. Most Barbie dolls come with a little comb or brush, and ads frequently show girls brushing, combing, and braiding their dolls’ long hair. In recent years Mattel has taken its invitation to hair play to new extremes with its mass production of Totally Hair Barbie, Hollywood Hair Barbie, and Cut and Style Barbie—dolls whose Rapunzel-like hair lets down in seemingly endless locks. (Cut


and Style Barbie comes with “functional sharp edge” scissors and an extra wad of attachable hair. Hair refill packs are sold separately.) But what does the transference of flowing fairy- princess hair onto black dolls mean for the black children for whom these dolls are supposed to inspire self-esteem?

In the process of my own archival research—poking around in the dusty aisles of Toys R Us—I encountered a black teenage girl in search of the latest black Barbie. During the impromptu interview that ensued, my subject confessed to me in graphic detail the many Barbie murders and mutilations she had committed over the years. “It’s the hair,” she said emphatically several times. “The hair, that hair; I want it. I want it!” Her words recalled my own torturous childhood struggles with the straightening combs, curling irons, and chemical relaxers that biweekly transformed my woolly “just like a sponge” kinks into what the white kids at school marveled at as my “Cleopatra [straight] hair.”

Many African American women and quite a few African American men have similar tales about dealing with their hair or with the hair of daughters or sisters or mothers. In “Life with Daughters,” the black essayist Gerald Early recounts the difficulties that arose when Linnet, the elder of his two daughters, decided that she wanted hair that would “blow in the wind,” while at the same time neither she nor her mother wanted her to have her hair straightened. “I do not think Linnet wanted to change her hair to be beautiful,” Early writes; “she wanted to be like everyone else. But perhaps this is simply wishful thinking here or playing with words, because Linnet must have felt her difference as being a kind of ugliness.”26

Indeed, “colored hair,” like dark skin, has been both culturally and commercially constructed as ugly, nappy, wild, and woolly, in constant need of taming, straightening, cropping, and cultivating.27 In the face of such historically charged constructions, it is difficult for black children not to read their hair as different and that difference as ugly. Stories and pictures abound of little black girls putting towels on their heads and pretending that the towels are long hair that can blow in the wind or be tossed over the shoulder.


But ambivalence about or antipathy toward the hair on our heads is hardly limited to the young. Adult African Americans spend millions each year on a variety of products that promise to straighten, relax, or otherwise make more manageable kinky black hair.28 And who can forget the painful scene—made hilarious by Spike Lee and Denzel Washington in Malcolm X—in which his friend Shorty gives the young Malcolm Little his first conk?

Mattel may have a point. It may be that part of Shani’s and black Barbie’s attraction for little black girls—as for all children and perhaps even for adults—is the dolls’ fairy- princess good looks, the crowning touch of glory of which is long, straight hair, combable locks that cascade down the dolls’ backs. Even though it is not as easy to comb as Mattel maintains, for black girls the simulated hair on the heads of Shani and black Barbie may suggest more than simple hair play; it may represent a fanciful alternative to what society presents as their own less attractive, short, kinky, hurts-to- comb hair.

As difficult as this prospect is to consider, its ancillary implications are even more jarring. If Colored Francie failed in 1967 partly because of her “Caucasian features” and her long, straight hair, is Shani such a success in the 1990s because of those same features? Is the popularity of these thin-bodied, straight-haired dolls a sign that black is most beautiful when readable in traditional white terms? Have blacks, too, bought the dominant ideals of beauty inscribed in Barbie’s svelte figure and flowing locks?

It would be difficult to answer these questions, I suppose, without making the kinds of reductive value judgments about the politics of black hair that Kobena Mercer has warned us against: the assumption that “hair styles which avoid artifice and look ‘natural,’ such as the Afro or Dreadlocks, are the more authentically black hair-styles and thus more ideologically ‘right-on.’ ”29 Suffice it to say that Barbie’s svelte figure—like her long hair—became Shani’s body type as well, even as Mattel claims to have done the impossible, even as they profess to have captured in this new doll the “unique facial features” and the “special style and beauty of


the African American people.” This claim seems to be based on subtle changes in the doll that apparently are meant to signify Shani’s black difference. Chief among these changes —especially in Soul Train Shani, a scantily clad hiphop edition of the series released in 1993—is the illusion of broader hips and an elevated buttocks.

This illusion is achieved by a technological sleight of design that no doubt costs the company far less than all the talk about Shani’s broader hips and higher derriere would suggest. No matter what Mattel spokespersons say, Shani— who has to be able to wear Barbie’s clothes—is not larger or broader across the hips and behind than other Barbie dolls. In fact, according to the anthropologists Jacqueline Urla and Alan Swedlund, who have studied the anthropometry (body measurements) of Barbie, Shani’s seemingly wider hips are if anything a fraction smaller in both circumference and breadth than those of other Barbie dolls. The effect of a higher buttocks is achieved by a change in the angle of the doll’s back.30

On closer examination, one finds that not only is Shani’s back arched, but her legs are also bent in and backward. When laid face down, other Barbie dolls lie flat, but the legs of Soul Train Shani rise slightly upward. This barely noticeable backward thrust of the legs also enhances the impression of protruding buttocks, the technical term for which is “ste-atopygia,” defined as an excessive accumulation of fat on the buttocks. (The same technique was used in nineteenth-century art and photography in an attempt to make subjects look more primitive.) Shani’s buttocks may appear to protrude, but actually the doll has no posterior deposits of plastic fat and is not dimensionally larger or broader than all the other eleven-and-a-half-inch fashion dolls sold by Mattel. One might say that reports of Shani’s butt enhancement have been greatly exaggerated. Her signifying black difference is really just more (or less) of the same.

There is a far more important point to be made, however. Illusion or not, Shani’s buttocks can pass for uniquely black only if we accept the stereotypical notion of what black looks like. Social scientists, historians, literary scholars, and


cultural theorists have long argued that race is socially constructed rather than biologically determined. Yet, however coded, notions of race remain finely connected to the biological, the phenotypical, and the physiological in discussions about the racially marked body, not to mention the racially marketed body.

No matter how much scholars attempt to intellectualize it otherwise, “race” generally means “nonwhite,” and “black” is still related to skin color, hair texture, facial features, body type, and other outward signifiers of difference. A less neutral term for such signifiers is, of course, stereotypes. In playing the game of difference with its ethnic dolls, Mattel either defies or deploys these stereotypes, depending on cost and convenience. “Black hair” might be easy enough to simulate (as in Kenyan Barbie’s astro-turf Afro), but—if we buy what Mattel says about its market research—anything other than long straight hair could cost the company some of its young consumers. Mechanical manipulation of Shani’s plastic body, on the other hand, represents a facile deployment of stereotype in the service of capital. A trompe l’oeil derriere and a dye job transform the already stereotypical white archetype into the black stereotype—into what one might call the Hottentot Venus of toyland.

Indeed, in identifying buttocks as the signifier of black female difference, Mattel may unwittingly be taking us back to the eugenics and scientific racism of earlier centuries. One of the most notorious manifestations of this racism was the use and abuse of so-called Hottentot women such as Sarah Bartmann, whom science and medicine identified as the essence of black female sexuality. Presented to European audiences as the “Hottentot Venus,” Saartjie or Sarah Bartmann was a young African woman whose large buttocks (common among the people of southern Africa whom Dutch explorers called Hottentots or Bushmen) made her an object of sexual curiosity for white westerners traveling in Africa. According to Sander Gilman, for Victorians the protruding buttocks of these African women pointed to “the other, hidden sexual signs, both physical and temperamental, of the black female.” “Female sexuality is linked to the image of the


buttocks,” Gilman writes, “and the quintessential buttocks are those of the Hottentot.” 31

Transformed from individual to icon, Bartmann was taken from Cape Town in the early 1900s and widely exhibited before paying audiences in Paris and London between 1910 and her death in 1915 at age twenty-five. According to some accounts, she was made to appear on stage in a manner that confirmed her as the primitive beast she and her people were believed to be. Bartmann’s body, which had been such a curiosity during her life, was dissected after her death, her genitals removed, preserved under a bell jar, and placed on display at the Musee de l’Homme in Paris.32 But as Anne Fausto-Sterling has argued so persuasively, even attempting to tell the known details of the exploitation of this woman, whose given African name is not known, only extends her victimization in the service of intellectual inquiry. The case of Sarah Bartmann, Fausto-Sterling points out, can tell us nothing about the woman herself; it can only give us insight into the minds and methodologies of the scientists who made her their subject.33

Given this history, it is ironic that Shani’s would-be protruding buttocks (even as a false bottom) should be identified as the site and signifier of black female alterity—of “butt also” difference, if I may be pardoned the pun. Georges Cuvier, one of several nineteenth-century scientists to dissect and to write about Bartmann, maintained that the black female “looks different”; her physiognomy, her skin color, and her genitalia mark her as “inherently different.”34 Long since recognized as morbidly racist, the language of Cuvier’s “diagnosis” nevertheless resembles the terms in which racial difference is still written today. The problems that underpin Mattel’s deep play with Shani’s buttocks, then, are the very problems that reside within the grammar of difference in contemporary critical and cultural theory.



With Shani and its other black Barbie dolls, Mattel has made blackness simultaneously visible and invisible, at once different and the same. What Mattel has done with Barbie is not at all unlike what society has done with the facts and fictions of difference over the course of several centuries. In theoretical terms, what’s at stake in studying Barbie is much more than just fun and games. In fact, in its play with racial and ethnic alterity, Mattel may well have given us a prism through which to see in living color the degree to which difference is an impossible space—antimatter located not only beyond the grasp of low culture but also beyond the reach of high theory.

Just as Barbie reigns ubiquitously white, blond, and blue- eyed over a rainbow coalition of colored optical illusions, human social relations remain in hierarchical bondage, one to the other, the dominant to the different. Difference is always relational and value-laden. We are not just different; we are always different from. All theories of difference—from Saussure and Derrida to Fanon and Foucault—are bound by this problematic of relativity. More significantly, all notions of human diversity necessarily constitute difference as oppositional. From the prurient nineteenth-century racism that placed Sarah Bartmann’s genitals under a bell jar, to the contemporary IQ-based social Darwinism that places blacks at the bottom of a bell curve, difference is always stacked up against a (superior) center. This is the irony of deconstruction and its failure: things fall apart, but the center holds remarkably firm. It holds precisely because the very act of theorizing difference affirms that there is a center, a standard, or—as in the case of Barbie—a mold.

Yet, however deep its fissures, deconsiruction—rather than destruction—may be the closest we can come to a solution to the problem for which Barbie is but one name. Barbie, like racism (if not race), is indestructible. Not even Anna Quindlen’s silver-lame stake through the doll’s plastic heart would rid us of this immovable object, which is destined to outlive even its most tenacious critics. (This is literally true, since Barbie dolls are not biodegradable. Remembering the revenge the faithful took on Nietzsche—“ ‘God is dead,’


signed Nietzsche” / “ ‘Nietzsche is dead,’ signed God”—I can see my obituary in Barbie Bazaar: “ ‘duCille is dead,’ signed Barbie.”) But if, as Wordsworth wrote, we murder to dissect, deconstructing Barbie may be our only release from the doll’s impenetrable plastic jaws, just as deconstructing race and gender may be the only way out of the deep space or muddy waters of difference.

The particulars of black Barbie illustrate the difficulties and dangers of treating race and gender differences as biological stigmata that can be fixed in plastic and mass- reproduced. But if difference is indeed an impossible space— a kind of black hole, if you will—it is antimatter that continues to matter tremendously, especially for those whose bodies bear its visible markings and carry its material consequences.

The answer, then, to the problematic of difference cannot be, as some have argued, that gender does not exist or that race is an empty category. Such arguments throw the body out with the murky bath water. But, as black Barbie and Shani also demonstrate, the body will not be so easily disposed of. If we pull the plug on gender, if we drain race of any meaning, we are still left with the material facts and fictions of the body—with the different ifs, ands, and butts of different bodies. It is easy enough to theorize difference in the abstract, to posit “the body” in one discourse or another. But in the face of real bodies, ease quickly expands into complexity. To put the question in disquietingly personal terms: from the ivory towers of the academy I can criticize the racist fictions inscribed in Shani’s false bottom from now until retirement, but shopping for jeans in Filene’s Basement, how am I to escape the physical fact of my own steatopygic hips? Do the facts of my own body leave me hoisted not on my own petard, perhaps, but on my own haunches?

We need to theorize race and gender not as meaningless but as meaning ful—as sites of difference, filled with constructed meanings that are in need of constant decoding and interrogation. Such analysis may not finally free us of the ubiquitous body-biology bind or release us from the quagmire of racism and sexism, but it may be at once the most and the


least we can do to reclaim difference from the molds of mass production and the casts of dominant culture.

Yet, if the process of deconstruction also constructs, tearing Barbie down runs the risk of building Barbie up—of reifying difference in much the same way that commodity culture does. Rather than representing a critical kiss of death, readings that treat Barbie as a real threat to womankind—a harbinger of eating and shopping disorders— actually breathe life into the doll’s plastic form. This is not to say that Barbie can simply be reduced to a piece of plastic. It is to say that hazard lies less in buying Barbie than in buying into Barbie, internalizing the larger mythologies of gender and race that make possible both the “like me” of Barbie and its critique. So, if this is a cautionary tale, the final watchword for consumers and critics alike must be not only caveat emptor but also caveat lector: let the buyer and the reader beware.


1 Ruth Handler, who came up with the idea for the doll and thinks of herself as Barbie’s mother, has had much to say about the Barbie doll as a role model. This particular quotation is taken from a booklet that comes with 35th Anniversary Barbie, an “authentic reproduction” of the first Barbie dolls sold in 1959. Handler, by the way, named Barbie after her daughter Barbara and Ken after her son. 2 In her biography of Barbie, Lord maintains that the original dolls were given undergarments because Charlotte Johnson, Barbie’s first dress designer, insisted that a fashion doll couldn’t wear haute-couture ensembles without the proper foundations. Forever Barbie, p. 34. 3 See Billy Boy, Barbie: Her Life and Times (New York: Crown, 1987), p. 22. Barbie herself would seem to agree with BillyBoy. In Barbie: What a Doll! “by Barbie, as told to Laura Jacobs” (New York: Abbeville Press, 1994), the putative author informs her readers: “In the early 1960s, when


fashions required more elaborate foundations like girdles and garters (before pantyhose had come along), my repertoire of intimate apparel was a bit more various. But as feminism and fashion together moved women away from a standardized ideal of perfection and toward a more embracing acceptance of fitness and its many different physiques, we no longer needed undergarments that would shape everyone the same way .. A figure was now akin to a fingerprint ; no two bodies wore the same dress the same way” (p. 75). 4 Greta Slobin, personal conversation, December 14, 1994. 5 lngeborg Majer O‘Sickey, “Barbie Magazine and the Aesthetic Commodification of Girls’ Bodies,” in Shari Benstock and Suzanne Ferriss, eds., On Fashion (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1994), pp. 21—40, esp. p. 23. 6 Anna Quindlen, “Barbie at 35,” New York Times, September 10, 1994, p. 19. 7 Helen Cordes, “What a Doll! Barbie: Materialistic Bimbo or Feminist Trailblazer?,” Utne Reader, March-April 1992, p. 50. 8 Among the 270 phrases programmed into the computer chip of some editions of Teen Talk Barbie in 1992 was “Math class is tough.” This drew protests from a variety of sources, including formal complaints from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the Association for Women in Mathematics, and the American Association of University Women. Mattel, not wanting to convey “anything but the most inspirational of messages,” promptly removed the offending phrase from Barbie’s microchip. See Tony Kornheiser, “Shut Up, Barbie,” Washington Post, October 4, 1992, p. F1. See also Constance Holden, “Mathematicians Talk Tough to New Barbie,” Science 258 (1992), 396; and “No More Math Phobia for Barbie,” New York Times, October 2, 1994, p. 28. 9 Phone conversation with Gibbs, September 9, 1994. 10 Sibyl DeWein and Joan Ashabraner, The Collectors Encyclopedia of Barbie Dolls and Collectibles (Paducah: Collector Books, 1994), p. 35. 11 This is the price range listed in the 11th edition of Jan


Foulke’s Blue Book: Dolls and Values (Grantsville, Md.: Hobby House Press, 1993), p. 83. Many of what are called vintage dolls-early or otherwise special-edition Barbie dolls— have the “premium value” described by Donna Gibbs. For example, according to the Blue Book a first-edition 1959 Barbie never removed from its box would be worth between $3,200 and $3,700. A Barbie infomercial airing in 1994—95 placed the value as high as $4,500. The same doll sold in 1959 for $2.99. 12 Westenhauser, The Story of Barbie (Paducah: Collector Books, 1994), pp. 138, 119. Serious Barbie collectors often purchase duplicates of a given doll: one to keep in mint condition in its box and one to display. Or, as we used to say of the two handkerchiefs we carried to Sunday school: one for show and one for blow. For an intriguing psychosocial analysis of the art of collecting, see Jean Baudrillard, “The System of Collecting,” in John Elsner and Roger Cardinal, eds., The Cultures of Collecting (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994), PP. 7-24. 13 after many calls to the Jamaican embassy in Washington and to various cultural organizations in Jamaica, I have concluded that Jamaican Barbie’s costume—a floor-length granny dress with apron and head-rag—bears some resemblance to what is considered the island’s traditional folk costume. But it was also made clear to me that these costumes have more to do with tourism than with local traditions. According to Gibbs at Mattel, decisions about costuming are made by the design and marketing teams in consultation with other senior staffers. The attempt, Gibbs informed me, “is to determine and roughly approximate” the national costume of each country in the collection (conversation, September 9, 1994). I still wonder, though, about the politics of these design decisions: why the doll representing Jamaica is figured as a maid, while the doll representing Great Britain is presented as a lady—a blond, blue-eyed Barbie doll dressed in a fancy riding habit with boots and hat. 14 Actually, Jamaican patois is spelled differently: potwah, I believe.


15 See e.g. Morris Rosenberg, Conceiving the Self (New York: Basic Books, 1979) and Society and the Adolescent Self-Image (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1989), and William E. Cross, Shades of Black: Diversity in African American Identity (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991), which challenge the Clarks findings. The psychologist Na’im Akbar argues that just as the Moynihan Report pathologized the black family, the Clark doll studies pathologized the black community by the implied assumption that it was “psychologically unhealthy for ‘colored’ children to go to school only with one another,” since “the outcome is likely to be self-hatred, lowered motivation, and so on.” According to Akbar, this problematic assumption gave rise to a racist logical fallacy embedded in the 1954 Supreme Court decision: that it was “psychologically healthy for Black children to attend school with white children,” since “such an opportunity is likely to improve the African-American child’s self-concept, intellectual achievement, and overall social and psychological adjustment.” Akbar, “Our Destiny: Authors of a Scientific Revolution,” in Harriette Pipes McAdoo and John Lewis McAdoo, eds., Black Children: Social, Educational, and Parental Environments (Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1985), pp. 24-25. Akbar’s analysis seems to miss the point that what concerned black parents in the 1950s (as well as before and since) was the material effects of Jim Crow education: separate was not equal. 16 Harriette Pipes McAdoo, “Racial Attitudes and Self Concept of Young Black Children over Time,” in Black Children: Social, Educational and Parental Enviornments (Beverly Hills: Sage, 1985), p. 214. 17 Darlene Powell Hopson and Derek S. Hopson, Different and Wonderful: Raising Black Children in a Race-Conscious Society (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990), pp. xix-xx. 18 Ibid., p. 127; my emphasis. “You do not want your child to grow up thinking that only White dolls, and by extension White people, are attractive and nice,” the Hopsons go on to explain (emphasis in the original). 19 The cover of the November-December 1993 issue of Barbie offers a good illustration of my point. It is dominated


by a full-page image of white Happy Holiday Barbie. Tucked away in a tiny insert in the upper-left corner is the face of a black Barbie doll, presumably stuck in to let us know that Happy Holiday Barbie also comes in black. Black Barbie was the cover story in Barbie Bazaar, May-June 1996. 20 Hopson and Hopson, Different and Wonderful, pp. 119, 124. 21 It is also clear that other factors influenced Mattel’s decision to go ethnic, including a marketing survey done in the late 1980s, which reportedly identified the top fourteen cities with the highest concentrations of black residents. According to the doll dealer and appraiser A. Glenn Mandeville, Mattel used this information and the complaints and suggestions of consumers to help develop its Shani line. In his words, “Mattel has indeed gone out in the 1990s to make sure they capture all markets.” Doll Fashion Anthology and Price Guide, 3rd ed. (Cumberland: Hobby House Press, 1992), p. 174. 22 Asha is a variant of the Swahili and Arabic name Aisha or Ayisha, meaning “life” or “alive.” It is also the name of Muhammad’s chief wife. As a minor point of interest, “Nichelle” is the first name of the black actress (Nichelle Nichols) who played Lieutenant Uhura on the original Star Trek TV series (1966—1969). 23 Quoted in Lisa Jones, “A Doll Is Born,” Village Voice, March 26, 1991, p. 36. 24 Kenyan Barbie, introduced in 1994, has the most closely cropped hair of any Barbie doll to date. I asked Donna Gibbs if Mattel was concerned that the doll’s severely cropped hair (little more than peach fuzz, or what a colleague described as “Afro turf”) would hamper sales. She told me that the company expected Kenyan Barbie to sell as well as all the other national dolls, which are intended more for adult collectors. Kenyan Barbie received a “short-cropped Afro in an attempt to make her look more authentic,” Gibbs informed me. “She represents a more authentic-looking doll.” (The doll also has bare feet and wears Mattel’s interpretation of the native dress of the Masai woman; the first-person narrative on the back of the box tells us that most Kenyan people wear


modern dress and that spears are banned in the city.) 25 Gibbs, conversation, September 9, 1994. 26 See Gerald Early, “Life with Daughters: Watching the Miss America Pageant,” in his The Culture of Bruising: Essays on Prizefighting, Literature, and Modern American Culture (Hopewell: Ecco Press, 1994), p. 268. 27 Among many texts on the politics of black people’s hair, see Cheryl Clarke’s poem “Hair: A Narrative,” in her Narratives: Poems in the Tradition of Black Women (New York: Kitchen Table/Women of Color Press, 1982); Kobena Mercer, “Black Hair/Style Politics,” in Ferguson, Gever, Minh-ha, and West, eds., Out There, pp. 247—264; and Ayoka Chinzera, director, Hair-piece: A Film for Nappy-Headed People, 1982. In fiction see Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. 28 I intend no value judgment in making this observation about what we do with our hair. Though Afros, braids, and dreadlocks may be seen by some as more “authentically black” or more Afrocentrically political than straightened or chemically processed hair, I am inclined to agree with Kobena Mercer that all black hairstyles are political as a historical, ethnic signifier (p. 251). It is history that has made black hair “mean.” 29 Mercer, “Black Hair/Style Politics,” pp. 247—248. 30 Jacqueline Urla and Alan Swedlund, “The Anthropometry of Barbie: Unsettling Ideas of the Feminine in Popular Culture,” in Jennifer Terry and Jacqueline Urla, eds., Deviant Bodies: Critical Perspectives on Difference in Science and Popular Culture (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995). 31 Sander L. Gilman, “Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth- Century Art, Medicine, and Literature,” in Henry Louis Gates Jr., ed., “Race,” Writing, and Difference (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), p. 238. 32 See Stephen Jay Gould, “The Hottentot Venus,” Natural History 91 (1982), 20—27. For a poetic interpretation of Sarah Bartmann’s story, see the title poem in Elizabeth Alexander’s The Venus Hottentot (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1990), pp. 3-7.


33 Anne Fausto-Sterling, “Gender, Race, and Nation: The Comparative Anatomy of ‘Hottentot’ Women in Europe: 1815 —1817,” in Terry and Urla, eds., Deviant Bodies, pp. 19-48. 34 Gilman, “Black Bodies, White Bodies,” p. 232.



The Liberatory Dimensions of Consumer Society




James Twitchell Of all the strange beasts that have come slouching into the 20th 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 20th century’s various -isms, it has been the one that has ultimately triumphed. The world of commodities appears 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 we are so materialistic, but why we are so unwilling to acknowledge and explore what seems the central characteristic of modern life.

When the French wished to disparage the English in the 19th 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. We are developing and rapidly exporting a new material culture, a mallcondo culture. To the rest of the world we do indeed seem not just born to shop, but alive to shop. Americans spend more time tooling around the mallcondo—three to four times as many hours as our European counterparts—and 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 people in the less developed parts of the world. The quantity and disparity are increasing daily, even though, as we see in Russia and China, the “emerging nations” are playing a frantic game of catch-up.

This burst of mallcondo commercialism has happened recently—in my lifetime—and it is spreading 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 built in the early years after World War II. We have to put that stuff somewhere—quick!—before it turns to junk.

Sooner or later we are going to have to acknowledge the uncomfortable fact that this amoral consumerama has proved potent because human beings love things. In fact, to a considerable degree we live for things. In all cultures we buy things, steal things, exchange things, and horde things. From time to time, some of us collect vast amounts of things, from tulip bulbs to paint drippings on canvases to matchbook covers. Often these objects have no observable use.

We live through things. We create ourselves through things. And we change ourselves by changing our things. 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.” We don’t—unless we are academic critics—call them “bads.” This sounds simplistic, but it is crucial to understanding the powerful allure of materialism. Our commercial culture has been blamed for the rise of eating disorders, the spread of “affluenza,” the epidemic of depression, the despoliation 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. In


demonizing it, in seeing ourselves as helpless and innocent victims of its overpowering force, in making it the scapegoat du jour, we reveal far more about our own eagerness to be passive in the face of complexity than about the thing itself.

Anthropologists tell us that consumption habits are gender- specific. Men seem to want stuff in the latent and post- midlife years. That’s when the male collecting impulse seems to be felt. Boys amass playing marbles first, Elgin marbles later. Women seem to gain potency as consumers after childbirth, almost as if getting and spending is part of a nesting impulse. Historians, however, tell us to be careful about such stereotyping. Although women are the primary consumers of commercial objects today, they have enjoyed this status only 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 cultural historians such as 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, in the 19th 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 simply because it had the machines to do so, 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.

Karl Marx understood the magnetism of things better than anyone else. In The Communist Manifesto (1848), he wrote:

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.

Marx used this insight to motivate the heroic struggle against capitalism. But 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. Don’t turn to today’s middle-aged academic critic for any help on that score. Driving about in his totemic Volvo (unattractive and built to stay that way), he can certainly criticize the bourgeois afflictions of others, but he is unable to provide much actual insight into their consumption practices, much less his own. Ask him to explain the difference between “Hilfiger” inscribed on an oversize shirt hanging nearly to the knees 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 then to 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 whatever. If you were to say next that aspiration and affiliation are at the heart of both displays, he would say that you just don’t get it, just don’t get it at all.

If you want to understand the potency of American consumer culture, ask any group of teenagers what democracy means to them. 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 one focus for the early civil rights movement. Go back further. It was the right to consume freely which 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. The pressure to commercialize—to turn things into commodities and then market them as charms—has always been particularly Western. As Max Weber first argued in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), much of the Protestant Reformation was geared toward denying the holiness of many things that the Catholic church had endowed with meanings. From the inviolable priesthood to the sacrificial holy water, this deconstructive movement systematically unloaded meaning. Soon the marketplace would capture this off-loaded 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 worth it. You are in good hands. We care. Trust in us. We are here for you.

Materialism, it’s important to note, 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.

We have not grown weaker but stronger by accepting the self-evidently ridiculous myths that sacramentalize mass- produced objects; we have not wasted away but have proved inordinately powerful; have not devolved and been rebarbarized, but seem to have marginally improved. Dreaded affluenza notwithstanding, commercialism has lessened pain. Most of us have more pleasure and less discomfort in our lives than most of the people most of the time in all of history.

As Stanley Lebergott, an economist at Wesleyan University,


argues in Pursuing Happiness (1993), most Americans have “spent their way to happiness.” Lest this sound overly Panglossian, what Lebergott means is that while consumption by the rich has remained relatively steady, the rest of us—the intractable poor (about four percent of the population) are the exception—have now had a go of it. If the rich really are different, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, and the difference is that they have longer shopping lists and are happier for it, then we have, in the last two generations, substantially caught up. The most interesting part of the book is the second half. Here Lebergott unloads reams of government statistics and calculations to chart the path that American consumption has taken in a wide range of products and services: food, tobacco, clothing, fuel, domestic service, and medicine—to name only a few. Two themes emerge strongly from these data. The first, not surprisingly, is that Americans were far better off by 1990 than they were in 1900. And the second is that academic critics—from Robert Heilbroner, Tibor Scitovsky, Robert and Helen Lynd, and Christopher Lasch to Juliet Schor, Robert Frank, and legions of others—who’ve censured the waste and tastelessness of much of American consumerism have simply missed the point. Okay, okay, money can’t buy happiness, but you stand a better chance than with penury.

The cultural pessimists counter that it may be true that materialism offers a temporary palliative against the anxiety of emptiness, but we still must burst joy’s grape. Consumption will turn sour because so much of it is based on the chimera of debt. Easy credit=overbuying= disappointment=increased anxiety.

This is not just patronizing, it is wrongheaded. As another economist, Lendol Calder, has argued in Financing the American Dream (1999), debt has been an important part of families’ financial planning since the time of Washington and Jefferson. And although consumer debt has consistently risen in recent times, the default rate has remained remarkably stable. More than 95.5 percent of consumer debt gets paid,


usually on time. In fact, the increased availability of credit to a growing share of the population, particularly to lower- income individuals and families, has allowed many more “have nots” to enter the economic mainstream. There is, in fact, a special crippling quality to poverty in the modern Western world. For the penalty of intractable, transgenerational destitution is not just the absence of things; it is also the absence of meaning, the exclusion from participating in the essential socializing events of modern life. When you hear that some ghetto kid has killed one of his peers for a pair of branded sneakers or a monogrammed athletic jacket you realize that chronically unemployed poor youths are indeed living the absurdist life proclaimed by existentialists. The poor are truly the self-less ones in commercial culture.

Clearly what the poor are after is what we all want: association, affiliation, inclusion, magical purpose. While they are bombarded, as we all are, by the commercial imprecations of being cool, of experimenting with various presentations of disposable self, they lack the wherewithal to even enter the loop. The grandfather of today’s academic scolds is Thorstein Veblen (1857—1929), the eccentric Minnesotan who coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption” and has become almost a cult figure among critics of consumption. All of his books (save for his translation of the Lexdaela Saga) are still in print. His most famous, The Theory of the Leisure Class, has never been out of print since it was first published in 1899.

Veblen claimed that the leisure class set the standards for conspicuous consumption. Without sumptuary laws to protect their markers of distinction, the rest of us could soon make their styles into our own—the Industrial Revolution saw to that. But since objects lose their status distinctions when consumed by the hoi polloi, the leisure class must eternally be finding newer and more wasteful markers. Waste is not just inevitable, it is always increasing as the foolish hounds


chase the wily fox. Veblen lumped conspicuous consumption with sports and

games, “devout observances,” and aesthetic display. They were all reducible, he insisted, to “pecuniary emulation,” his characteristically inflated term for getting in with the in- crowd. Veblen fancied himself a socialist looking forward to the day when “the discipline of the machine” would be turned around to promote stringent rationality among the entire population instead of wasted dispersion. If only we had fewer choices we would be happier, there would be less waste, and we would accept each other as equals.

The key to Veblen’s argumentative power is that like Hercules cleaning the Augean stables, he felt no responsibility to explain what happens next. True, if we all purchased the same toothpaste things would be more efficient and less wasteful. Logically we should all read Consumer Reports, find out the best brand, and then all be happy using the same product. But we aren’t. Procter & Gamble markets 36 sizes and shapes of Crest. There are 41 versions of Tylenol. Is this because we are dolts afflicted with “pecuniary emulation,” obsessed with making invidious distinctions, or is the answer more complex? Veblen never considered that consumers might have other reasons for exercising choice in the marketplace. He never considered, for example, that along with “keeping up with the Joneses” runs “keeping away from the Joneses.” Remember in King Lear when the two nasty daughters want to strip Lear of his last remaining trappings of majesty? He has moved in with them, and they don’t think he needs so many expensive guards. They whittle away at his retinue until only one is left. “What needs one?” they say. Rather like governments attempting to redistribute wealth or like academics criticizing consumption, they conclude that Lear’s needs are excessive. They are false needs. Lear, however, knows otherwise. Terrified and suddenly bereft of purpose, he bellows from his innermost soul, “Reason not the need.”

Lear knows that possessions are definitions—superficial meanings, perhaps, but meanings nonetheless. And unlike


Veblen, he knows those meanings are worth having. Without soldiers he is no king. Without a BMW there can be no yuppie, without tattoos no adolescent rebel, without big hair no Southwestern glamor-puss, without Volvos no academic intellectual, and, well, you know the rest. Meaning is what we are after, what we need, especially when we are young.

What kind of meaning? In the standard academic view, growing out of the work of the Frankfurt school theorists of the 1950s and ’60s (such as Antonio Gramsci, Theodor Adorno, and Max Horkheimer) and later those of the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, it is meaning supplied by capitalist manipulators. What we see in popular culture, in this view, is the result of the manipulation of the many for the profit of the few. For an analogy, take watching television. In academic circles, we assume that youngsters are being reified (to borrow a bit of the vast lexicon of jargon that accompanies this view) by passively consuming pixels in the dark. Meaning supposedly resides in the shows and is transferred to the sponge-like viewers. So boys, for example, see flickering scenes of violence, internalize these scenes, and willy-nilly are soon out jimmying open your car. This is the famous Twinkie interpretation of human behavior—consuming too much sugar leads to violent actions. Would listening to Barry Manilow five hours a day make adolescents into loving, caring people?

Watch kids watching television and you see something quite different from what is seen by the critics. Most consumption, whether it be of entertainment or in the grocery store, is active. We are engaged. Here is how I watch television. I almost never turn the set on to see a particular show. I am near the machine and think I’ll see what’s happening. I know all the channels; any eight-year-old does. I am not a passive viewer. I use the remote control to pass through various programs, not searching for a final destination but making up a shopping basket, as it were, of entertainment.


But the academic critic doesn’t see this. He sees a passive observer who sits quietly in front of the set letting the phosphorescent glow of mindless infotainment pour over his consciousness. In the hypodermic analogy beloved by critics, the potent dope of desire is pumped into the bleary dupe. This paradigm of passive observer and active supplier, a receptive moron and smart manipulator, is easily transported to the marketplace. One can see why such a system would appeal to the critic. After all, since the critic is not being duped, he should be empowered to protect the young, the female, the foreign, the uneducated, and the helpless from the onslaught of dreck. In the last decade or so, however, a number of scholars in the humanities and social sciences have been challenging many of the academy’s assumptions. d What distinguishes the newer thinking is that scholars have left the office to actually observe and question their subjects. Just one example: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, interviewed 315 Chicagoans from 82 families, asking them what objects in the home they cherished most. The adult members of the five happiest families picked things that reminded them of other people and good times they’d had together. They mentioned a memento (such as an old toy) from their childhood 30 percent of the time. Adults in the five most dissatisfied families cited such objects only six percent of the time.

In explaining why they liked something, happy family members often described, for example, the times their family had spent on a favorite couch, rather than its style or color. Their gloomier counterparts tended to focus on the merely physical qualities of things. What was clear was that both happy and unhappy families derived great meaning from the consumption and interchange of manufactured things. The thesis, reflected in the title of his co-authored 1981 book, The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self, is that most of the “work” of consumption occurs after the act of purchase. Things do not come complete, they are forever being assembled.


Twentieth-century French sociologists have taken the argument even further. Two of the most important are Pierre Bourdieu, author of Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1984), and Jean Baudrillard, whose books include The Mirror of Production (1983) and Simulacra and Simulation (1994). In the spirit of reader-response theory in literary criticism, they see meaning not as a single thing that producers affix to consumer goods, but as something created by the user, who jumbles various interpretations simultaneously. Essentially, beneath the jargon, this means that the Budweiser you drink is not the same as the one I drink. The meaning tastes different. The fashion you consider stylish, I think is ugly. If we buy the package not the contents, it is because the package means more.

The process of consumption is creative and even emancipating. In an open market, we consume the real and the imaginary meanings, fusing objects, symbols, and images together to end up with “a little world made cunningly.” Rather than lives, individuals since midcentury have had lifestyles. For better or worse, lifestyles are secular religions, coherent patterns of valued things. Your lifestyle is not related to what you do for a living but to what you buy. One of the chief aims of the way we live now is the enjoyment of affiliating with those who share the same clusters of objects as we do.

Mallcondo culture is so powerful in part because it frees us from the strictures of social class. The outcome of material life is no longer preordained by coat of arms, pew seat, or trust fund. Instead, it evolves from a never-ending shifting of individual choice. No one wants to be middle class, for instance. You want to be cool, hip, with it, with the “in” crowd, instead.

One of the reasons terms like Yuppie, Baby Boomer, and GenX have elbowed aside such older designations as “upper middle class” is that we no longer understand social class as well as we do lifestyle, or what marketing firms call “consumption communities.” Observing stuff is the way we understand each other. Even if no one knows exactly how


much money it takes to be a yuppie, or how young you have to be, or how upwardly aspiring, everybody knows where yuppies gather, how they dress, what they play, what they drive, what they eat, and why they hate to be called yuppies. For better or worse, American culture is well on its way to becoming world culture. The Soviets have fallen. Only quixotic French intellectuals and anxious Islamic fundamentalists are trying to stand up to it. By no means am I sanguine about such a material culture. It has many problems that I have glossed over. Consumerism is wasteful, it is devoid of otherworldly concerns, it lives for today and celebrates the body, and it overindulges and spoils the young with impossible promises.

“Getting and spending” has eclipsed family, ethnicity, even religion as a defining matrix. That doesn’t mean that those other defining systems have disappeared, but that an increasing number of young people around the world will give more of their loyalty to Nike than to creeds of blood, race, or belief. This is not entirely a bad thing, since a lust for upscale branding isn’t likely to drive many people to war, but it is, to say the least, far from inspiring.

It would be nice to think that materialism could be heroic, self-abnegating, and redemptive. It would be nice to think that greater material comforts will release us from racism, sexism, and ethnocentrism, and that the apocalypse will come as it did at the end of romanticism in Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, leaving us “Scepterless, free, uncir- cumscribed . . . Equal, unclassed, tribeless, and nationless.”

But it is more likely that the globalization of capitalism will result in the banalities of an ever-increasing worldwide consumerist culture. The French don’t stand a chance. The untranscendent, repetitive, sensational, democratic, immediate, tribalizing and unifying force of what Irving Kristol calls the American Imperium need not necessarily result in a Bronze Age of culture. But it certainly will not produce what Shelley had in mind.

We have not been led into this world of material closeness against our better judgment. For many of us, especially when


young, consumerism is our better judgment. We have not just asked to go this way, we have demanded. Now most of the world is lining up, pushing and shoving, eager to elbow into the mall. Getting and spending has become the most passionate, and often the most imaginative, endeavor of modern life. While this is dreary and depressing to some, as doubtless it should be, it is liberating and democratic to many more.




Elizabeth Wilson

Proust knew how much the fleeting expression of fashion . . . can reflect something beyond its limited time, something that whispers of the nostalgia of human impermanence and mirrors man’s. . . destiny.


One dimension to the history of fashion is the history of the individuals who created this world in which reality and fantasy mingle and become confused, a world in which we go adorned in our dreams. It is a world of microcosmic detail and of the grand gesture, of long term obsessions and love at first sight, of hysterical excitement and abject despair.

For everyone clothes are compulsory. This produces two kinds of individual at each extreme of the spectrum: those who hate it all, who, were it not for social pressure, would not bother with the aesthetics of their appearance and who experience fashion as a form of bondage; and those who live it as compulsion, the fashion freaks for whom dress is a source of passionate interest, who are its addicts; “fashion victims,” junkies of the art of self adornment.

Many addicts made a career from their obsession. In the London of the 1870s, Mary Eliza Haweis was the wife of a fashionable but impecunious clergyman. She supplemented the ever-failing family purse by writing articles and books on style, dress and interior decoration, some of which were best


sellers. She loved fashion, and understood the horror of a faulty ensemble: “After I had made myself killing,” she wrote in her diary before her marriage, “all my roses and silver were in vain, I had forgotten my white shoes and had to creak about and dance in my walking Oxfords! Awful.” She regarded persons of taste and sensitivity as a persecuted minority:

Those whose taste has been cultivated by having beautiful things always about them are incredibly sensitive to awkward forms and inappropriate colors in inharmonious combinations. To such persons [these] . . . cause not only the mere feeling of disapprobation but even a kind of physical pain.1

Today, the Italian fashion journalist, Anna Piaggi, has taken the addiction to even further extremes. As reported in the Observer (1 May 1983):

She is a fashion phenomenon. The most dedicated follower of fashion pales into insignificance beside a woman who has spent months traveling by train because the exaggerated crinolines she was affecting at the time would not fit through the door of an airplane.

Many men as well as women have made not simply a career but a life work out of being fashion addicts. The supreme example was perhaps Beau Brummell, for whom perfection in dress was a symbolic philosophy. There was Paul Poiret, a great impresario of fashion. There was a whole coterie of artists and designers in Paris in the 1930s and 1940s: Christian Berard, Jean Cocteau, Christian Dior.

Many of these men and women paid dearly for their addiction, gave their lives, in a sense, to “that most difficult of all causes—to make oneself a work of art.”2 Poiret died in the poorhouse, as did Beau Brummell. Many of the beauties died young, mysteriously of rare illnesses, tragically of drink or drugs, or both. Some became the walking epitome of their epoch, and could not move on when times changed. There sometimes seems something almost mad about these women


and men who dedicated their lives to the “tragic game” of being chic.

Secrecy—addiction—obsession: these words gesture toward our feeling that a love of fashion is not quite respectable. Halfway between hobby and ritual it is indulged in the “privacy of the home,” yet flaunted in the public world, is stigmatized by its uncertain status as not quite art, yet certainly not really life.

Caught between the addicts and the puritans, however, many, perhaps most, individuals experience above all an intense ambivalence about fashion and a love of fine dressing. This ambivalence has reproduced itself within contemporary feminism in a specific way.

It is difficult to discuss fashion in relation to the feminism of today, because the ideologies about dress that have circulated within the women’s movement seem never to have been made explicit. This may be one reason for the intense irritation and confusion that the subject provoked from the beginning of the women’s liberation movement in 1970, and still provokes.

One cause for irritation has been that from the earliest days of contemporary feminism the mass media promoted a caricature of feminists—the bra-burning “women’s libbers” who hated men but dressed just like them; a caricature virtually unchanged from nineteenth-century Punch. It seems that bra-burning was an invention of the media. There were, however, many demonstrations, both in England and in America, against sexism in the media, against the way in which stereotyped ideals of beauty were forced on women, and against the way in which women were seen only as sexual objects, not as people.3 This was an important theme in the early years of the contemporary women’s movement but the mass media consistently and willfully confused anti- sexism with being anti-sex.

Meanwhile, two different ways of understanding culture emerged within feminism. The first of these was a wholehearted condemnation of every aspect of culture that reproduced sexist ideas and images of women and femininity, all of which came to seem in some sense “violent” and


“pornographic”; the other, by contrast, was a populist liberalism which argued that it would be elitist to criticize any popular pastime which the majority of women enjoyed, whether it were reading pulp romances or dressing in smart clothes, an approach that was an offshoot of a general intellectual interest in popular culture.

Underlying these two approaches were hidden discourses rooted in the history of culture. On the one hand there was the continuing effect of the nineteenth-century cult of the natural sciences, which I discussed in relation to utopias; yet simultaneously feminists were influenced by the beliefs of nineteenth-century liberalism and its twentieth-century reinterpretations, although these contradict the more authoritarian “Fabian utilitarianism.” These two views are mutually inconsistent, although no debate within feminism has fully brought this out. They possibly reflect a deeper division, which, it has been suggested, underlies many current political debates—a division between

on the one hand, those committed to “cultures of identity” and the achievement of true self and expression. On the other hand, those who act on the basis that human interaction depends on dissimulation, who insist on the central value of the city, its unpredictability, the fluidity of its codes and the subversive play with them.4

This division between the “authentic” and the “modernist” can be applied to many of the fashions I have discussed, and especially to contemporary counter-cultural fashions. The hippie, for example, would be “authentic,” the punk, as I suggested, “modernist.” The nineteenth-century dress reformers were “authentic,” but the dandies, like the courtesans of the French Second Empire, were “modernists”—preoccupied with the creation of an image, not the discovery of the “true” self. The division suggests two radically divergent ways of seeing the world—and fashion— and two radically different kinds of politics. Is fashionable dress part of the oppression of women, or is it a form of adult play? Is it part of the empty consumerism, or is it a site of


struggle symbolized in dress codes? Does it muffle the self, or create it?

An unresolved tension between “authenticity” and “modernism” haunts contemporary feminism. The recurring theme of women’s relationship to nature, of women’s utopias, and of the vision of a wholly other world in which “women’s values” hold sway suggests a longing for a more “authentic” world, closely bound to “nature,” in which we will find our true selves. Engagement in the political battle, the use of avant-garde art, the appropriation of jazz and rock by women’s bands and of an anarchic tradition of humor by women comics, and the belief in the social construction of the gendered self represent the “modernist” approach. (Sometimes the two converge, as at Greenham.)

This unresolved tension marks a number of feminist debates, for example the debate about heterosexual love, the controversies over pornography and romantic fiction, and the debate about dress and feminist attitudes to personal adornment. Some feminists, for example, have defined men— men at least in so-called “patriarchal society”—as the oppressors of women, and the construction of female sexuality as the core of female subordination; since they have also acknowledged that most women, including most feminists, do wish to relate sexually and emotionally to men, they have set up an insoluble problem. Thesis and antithesis can never dissolve into a synthesis; the dialectic simply leaves a wound. Others, of course, have argued that it is fine for women to pursue their desires in whatever direction they lead; lesbian sadomasochism has been the practice most frequently justified, but the arguments apply equally to heterosexuality in any form.5

In the sphere of literature, while some feminists have argued that pornography constitutes actual violence toward women, others have asserted our right to look, and, indeed, to be turned on by it. In discussions about pulp fiction there is a similar dispute between the moralists who denounce it as promoting false values and as being a form of ideological subordination of women, and the hedonists who emphasize its fantasy and erotic potential.


Similarly with dress: the thesis is that fashion is oppressive, the antithesis that we find it pleasurable; again no synthesis is possible. In all these arguments the alternatives posed are between moralism and hedonism; either doing your own thing is okay, or else it convicts you of false consciousness. Either the products of popular culture are the supports of a monolithic male ideology, or they are there to be enjoyed and justified.

A slightly different version of these arguments acknowledges that desires for the “unworthier” artifacts of the consumer society have been somehow implanted in us, and that we must try to resolve the resulting guilt by steering some moderate middle way. To care about dress and our appearance is oppressive, this argument goes, and our love of clothes is a form of false consciousness—yet, since we do love them we are locked in a contradiction. The best we can then do, according to this scenario, is to try to find some form of reasonably attractive dress that will avoid the worst pitfalls of extravagance, self-objectification and snobbery, while avoiding also becoming “platform women in dingy black.”

Susan Brownmiller’s Femininity exemplifies this false logic. She defines the erotically appealing as being in direct conflict with the serious and the functional, and offers feminists only the choice between the two:

Why do I persist in not wearing skirts? Because I don’t like this artificial gender distinction. Because I don’t wish to start shaving my legs again. Because I don’t want to return to the expense and aggravation of nylons. Because I will not reacquaint myself with the discomfort of feminine shoes . . . Because the nature of feminine dressing is superficial in essence.6

Yet she finds unshaven legs unappealing, and low-heeled shoes unerotic (although they were certainly fashionable in 1984, the year the book was published) and longs for the gracefulness and pretty colors of her discarded gowns.

Neither a puritanical moralism, nor a hedonism that supports any practice in the name of “freedom” is an


adequate politics of popular culture. The body of theory, or ideology, that I have called “utilitarianism” contributed to the construction of this impasse with the unacknowledged, and unrecognized, influence of its machine philosophy, its glorification of the work ethic and its inability to grant pleasure a proper place in human culture—the influence of Veblen. Later nineteenth-century feminism was marked by this Fabian spirit which posed use against beauty; the same utilitarianism marks it today. The logic of this view is ultimately that the only justification for clothing is function— utility.

The emphasis on function leads to an image of what is “natural” which is inseparably locked into this debate. The belief that nature is superior to culture was enshrined within the Romantic reaction to the industrial revolution. Janet Radcliffe Richards, one of the few writers to have examined feminist attitudes to dress, suggests that underlying feminist contempt for fashion and cosmetics is a “muddle” about “the natural person being the real thing.”7 She argues that feminists share what is actually a conservative view: that to try to “make the most of oneself” is to create a false impression, somehow to deceive the world.

Human beings, however, are not natural. They do not live primarily by instinct. They live in socially constructed cultures. To suggest, therefore, as Professor Jaegar did, that we would do better to dress as much as possible like sheep, since we, like sheep, are mammals, is to make a fundamental mistake about what human existence is.

To set up the “natural” as superior to the “artificial” (as if the very concept of human culture were not artificial) is a view also influenced by some of the non-conformist, puritan versions of Christianity, which confused the natural with simplicity, and so the uncorrupt. These, like Fabianism, have influenced British and American non-Marxist socialism. Since contemporary feminism, in Britain at least, has been greatly influenced by the socialist tradition, it is hardly surprising that the feminist debate about dress has been marked by this counter-liberatory ideology. One side of the stifled debate about dress has been simply a re-run in very different


circumstances of the whole nineteenth-century dress reform project: to get out of fashion.

It would be wrong to deny the rational aspects of this view: the dreadful exploitation of garment workers throughout the world is a reality, and feminists should support campaigns against it. In the United States, for example, there is a label in clothes made by properly unionized labor stating that fact. Ultimately only progressive economic policies can end this exploitation, and in that sense the clothes we wear are part of a wider struggle that doesn’t necessarily imply a rejection of finery as such. There is also the issue of the way in which certain styles of female dress are held to signal sexuality in a way that invites sexual harassment, makes women vulnerable (when they wear high heels, for example, so that they can’t run away from a rapist, or to catch a bus) and also punishes them by making them uncomfortable.

Yet these arguments are often used not rationally, but as rationalizations. Exploitation in the electronics industry does not lead feminists to reject the use of videos and word- processors; the horrors of the agri-industry in no way restrict their enjoyment of gourmet food.8 Those who can afford foreign holidays usually take them, notwithstanding the despoliation that international tourism inflicts on the third world. The quite special rage reserved for fashionable dressing tells us that dress speaks the irrational-unconscious in a special way.

This relates also to an attitude of persistent hostility to the fine arts that has been evident in certain veins of progressive thought. A “progressive” condemnation of fashion can extend to a general denigration of “bourgeois art.” Aesthetes are then equated with the degenerate upper classes, and their preoccupations become suspect. To care or know about traditional art, classical music or “high culture” generally is often to be convicted of pretentiousness and a damaging involvement with the norms of bourgeois culture. The ultimate example of such an attitude is the radical feminist who dismisses Tintoretto and Rubens as “all tits and bums” or as “pornography.”9

The self-righteousness of such attitudes surfaces whenever,


as happened several times in recent years, “serious” British newspapers carried articles about feminism and fashion. One correspondent (a man) wrote to the Guardian in response to such a piece:10

The strength of the feminist movement lies in the fact that they do not need to rely on such superficiality— they gain their sisterhood through being women in a patriarchal environment. They are fighting the oppression of society—a fight they will never win if they feel obliged to conform to the fashions that society imposes on them.

while a woman responded: I can’t be the only woman who reaches for the first t- shirt and skirt/ trousers that come to hand in the morning, adding a jumper (knitted by Mum from age- old patterns) when it looks chilly. . . I’m wearing the same summer frocks that I’ve worn for the past two years. Well, they’re not worn out, are they? I have absolutely no idea what is going on in the distant, nonsensical world of fashion. And oddly enough I don’t think I’m the one out of touch.

More recently the same issue surfaced in the pages of Spare Rib, a feminist magazine. One woman wrote to the letters page (Spare Rib no. 139, November 1983):

Recently I have been the target of a lot of criticism from women. . . because they do not like the way that I dress and wear my hair (i.e. Mohican, Bondage, etc.). They tell me that I am ignoring its racist and sexist overtones, that it is not “feminist,” and that I am allowing myself to be exploited by the fashion market. . .

Do you criticize your sisters because they don’t wear dungarees and Kickers? Is a woman any less emancipated because she “chooses” to wear make-up and stilettos?

Is not the whole point of feminism to help a woman to realize her right to control her own life and make


decisions for herself? If so, why are we as feminists oppressing women with

a new set of rules . . . Would anyone with any individuality call that liberation?

Other readers wrote in to agree with her. This letter shows how, coexisting with a tradition of

puritanism (a word not used as a term of abuse, but to indicate a specific historical tradition) is a wholly other ideology of individualism and free choice. While feminists with one voice condemn the consumerist poison of fashion, with another they praise the individualism made possible by dress. “I thought that the feminist ideal was to dress according to personal preference and choice, and not according to a set of rules,” wrote a correspondent to the Sunday Times (29 August 1982) in response to an article (Sunday Times, 22 August 1982) in which Adrianne Blue had tried to describe feminist styles of dress. Although she made no attempt to tell anyone what to wear, the writers of several letters published appeared to object to the very attempt even to classify “feminist” ways of dressing, perhaps partly because it seemed to confirm stereotypes, but also, I suspect, because it subtly undermined the “free choice” ideology.

Liberated dress, according to this ideology, means “doing your own thing.” The idea of free choice has contributed significantly to contemporary feminism. Perhaps feminists should have questioned it more than they have. Perhaps feminists haven’t dared to, because the idea of free choice is so powerful in western societies. Yet “free choice” is really a myth, and is inconsistent with the belief, to which all feminists pay at least lip service, that human beings are “socially constructed.” The concept of social construction is based on the view that at birth a baby has the potential to develop in a variety of ways, limited to some extent by genetic heritage, but equally, or more importantly, dependent on the environmental influences that shape its experience and provide a comparatively favorable or unfavorable soil for growth. Many of the most important aspects of this development occur in early childhood. By the time we become adults, therefore, our capacity to choose


freely is greatly restricted by the way in which our personality has developed. It is also equally restricted by external circumstances such as class, wealth, gender, age, and where we live.

Despite their apparent acceptance of this “social construction” model, many feminists continue to discuss moral choice as though we were all free agents, as if they had never heard of the well-worn but sensible aphorism: “men make their history, but they do so in circumstances that are not of their own choosing.” In the realm of aesthetics the very idea of “free choice” is inappropriate; styles of dress are not dictated simply by economics or sexist ideology but are, as I have argued, intrinsically related to contemporary art styles.

In so far as feminists have dressed differently from other women (and most have not) their style of dress has still borne a close relationship to currently circulating styles. The initial “look” of movement women was the counter-cultural look of the student movement at the end of the 1960s when mini- skirts and Egyptian wig hairstyles (by then slightly out of date) coexisted with hippie robes and curls. Feminists wore floor length dresses in dusty tints, and long, pre-Raphaelite hair. Soon, to cut off your hair curtains became a symbol of liberation, and make-up was seldom worn—but then naturalism was fashionable in the mainstream.

If liberated dress meant doing your own thing, no one ever commented on how strange it was that everyone wanted to do the same thing. In the early seventies alternative lifestyle gear varied only within a narrow and predictable range of ethnic blouses, cheesecloth skirts, Biba sleeves, Laura Ashley smocks, bell-bottomed denims and cords and woolly sweaters with that special matted jumble sale finish. (Fifteen years later a different set of aesthetic conventions dictated trousers that are either much baggier or much tighter, bold colors and black and gray instead of Biba greenery-yallery, and hair that is dyed in flashes instead of being hennaed.)

In pioneering thrift-shop styles and retro-chic, feminism was innovative rather than anti-fashion. The hacking jacket worn with a flower skirt (1977), the trilby hat (1979) and the


old-fashioned handmade sweaters were fashions that feminism initiated and the mainstream copied.

Some feminists did disdain skirts and high heels, and the popular public stereotype of the feminist was of a stalwart woman in dungarees or boiler suit and Dr. Martens boots. Some feminists did wear such clothes, perhaps partly in order to avoid sexual harassment. Some lesbians had always worn boyish or “butch” styles, and lesbian feminists sometimes took over these styles as a way of proudly proclaiming their sexuality.

Even feminists who never wore a skirt or make-up went crazy about Kickers, or wore beautifully hand-painted boots in rainbow colors; they adorned themselves with rings and long, bright earrings made of feathers, beads or metal— drawing attention with all these, and with their brightly flashed hair, away from the body and toward its periphery. Fashion, banished from clothing, reappeared surreptitiously in forms of adornment that were less obviously feminine or sexualized.

Dungarees and boiler suits can in any case—and have been —redefined as “fashionable” and “sexy.” Yet the very idea of them has sometimes seemed to send men into a frenzy of agitation. In the spring of 1979 a debate was staged in London between Arthur Scargill, later President of the National Union of Miners, and Anna Coote, a feminist journalist, following an article in the Morning Star which had attacked the Yorkshire Miner, the newspaper of the most militant section of the National Union of Miners, for its policy of having “page three” pinups. Maurice Jones, then editor of the Yorkshire Miner, who was also on the platform, at one stage in the proceedings worked himself up into an incoherent frenzy at the outrage of women in dungarees (of whom there were none in an audience consisting in large part of feminists). Such irrational rage could only indicate some deep seated fear, presumably because “dungarees” when associated with “feminists” has become shorthand for rejection of men, for the most menacing (to men) aspect of lesbianism.11

The rage of men such as Maurice Jones suggests that it


may well be important for women to challenge norms of feminine dress, and even if there is nothing especially political about wearing “whatever you like,” women (and men) should be able to choose not to dress fashionably in so far as this is possible—I have argued that it is not really possible. Nevertheless it is mistaken to set up something called “alternative fashion” as a morally superior ideal, as another series of correspondents in the Guardian (25 October 1983) tried to do:

I’m sick of being patronized by . . . subtle propaganda. . . It’s no news to me and millions of other women who wear bright, cheap clothes, that overalls per se are not revolutionary. What matters is dressing to please ourselves and to say what we want. Men may like “impossible heels”—we want to walk and run, not deform our spines. . . Let’s hear about who runs the fashion industry and why it’s there at all.

So wrote one London woman. Another, from Yorkshire, bewailed the absence of alternative fashion in the north of England:

High street chic is the ultimate fashion goal for young women. The linched waist, dolman sleeve and three- quarter length leather boot is more eagerly sought than any amount of [alternative fashion].

Why is it. . . that despite dwindling incomes and few jobs people want conformist fashion instead of cheaper, imaginative and experimental apparel? Can alternative fashion only exist if it is under-written by well established sub-cultures? Or do people prefer to display the badges of achievement and status in mainstream society, no matter how precarious their own position is?

Some pertinent questions are asked; but the writers seem not to doubt that their own mode of dressing is both freely chosen and rationally superior. They thus manage to collapse together the two opposed traditions of liberal free choice and utilitarianism. This doesn’t resolve the contradiction, the


ambivalence; it merely expunges it with the false claim that there exists some form of “alternative dress” that is both these things.

To the extent that a feminist style does exist, it has to be understood as a sub-theme of the general fashion discourse. Boiler suits and dungarees are after all fashion garments, not just a feminist uniform. They are commercially marketed items of casual chic; and the contortions necessary in the lavatory, and the discomfort in cold weather of having to undress completely in order to relieve oneself, should prove conclusively that this form of dress is worn not to promote rational apparel, but to announce the wearer’s feminism in public. In urban society, clothes are the poster for one’s act. In the pre-industrial world clothes were the badge of rank, profession or trade. As classes fragment we revert to a state in which our clothes once more informally define us. Feminism, in evolving a style among these styles, joins the discourse rather than breaking with it, capitulates rather than transcends—which it could in any case never do.

Feminist style relates to a wider social structure. It is the style of dress adopted by intellectuals and white-collar workers of a certain status, what might be called polytechnic dressing (if “polytechnic” wasn’t used as a term of abuse along with “feminist”). Anita Brookner again mistakes this form of dressing for an expression of freedom:

A five-minute survey of my immediate community reveals a preponderance of blue jeans, dungarees, pullovers, tennis shoes, boots, shawls, odd waistcoats, long skirts, plaid blouses . . . To be sure academic gatherings are not noted for their elegance, but. . . there are several messages to be read here. . .

The first is that all degrees of seniority are obliterated in the desire to look as young, as carefree, as natural as possible. The second is that these unreconstructed dressers, although brought together for purposes of work . . . are dressed for play. . . The rules have disappeared. . . there does not seem to be the slightest awareness of the purpose of dressing: there is no disguise, no self-consciousness—and


certainly no shame. (London Review of Books, 15 April- 5 May 1982)

Yet, in the environment described, this form of dress is virtually compulsory, and does conform to a set of unspoken rules, of which one is the pseudo-democracy of 1960s liberal views on education: that it is possible to abolish the hierarchic distinctions between teachers and taught. In reality, the differences in status and power have changed little since the student rebellions; it is simply that now the informal dress of teachers gestures rather placatingly toward some alternative ideal. Angela Carter is nearer the mark when she suggests that “Jeans have lost their outlaw chic since the class of ’68 took them into the senior common room by a natural progression. They are now. . . a sign of grumpy middle age” (New Society, 13 January 1983).

The casual dress described by Anita Brookner, far from being the inspiration of free spirits, is the latter-day version of the Fabian style, of the vegetarians and socialists in sandals and hairy knickerbockers whom George Orwell used to refer to as “gruff lesbians,” “sandals wearers,” “orange juice drinkers,” “pansies” and other “cranks” unfortunately attracted to socialism. Orwell’s caricatures are offensive; moreover these “cranks” had been innovative. For example, it was liberating when Edward Carpenter wore open sandals. Then he broke a taboo; now casual dress may surely be optional. The idea that casual dress must be both freely chosen and somehow “better” is mixed up with another ideology from the 1960s: that formality is always repressive. We confuse opposition to the repressive rituals of our society with opposition to all ritual.

In relation to dress, some feminists, mostly American, have tried to retrieve fashion as one among other traditional female skills. They would argue that women’s creativity in the art of dress has been underrated, as have most feminine skills. Lois Banner uses a slightly different argument in suggesting that “the pursuit of beauty and of its attendant features, fashion and dress, has more than any other factor bound together women of different classes, regions and ethnic groups, and constituted a key element in women’s


separate experience of life.”12 She offers no evidence for this, and it would be as easy to argue that dress, beauty and fashion have promoted competitiveness and envy among women.

I have suggested that more typical of feminist discourse on dress has been its tendency to set up a kind of syllogism that cannot be resolved. It attempts to address and to resolve the ambivalence that is such a widespread response to fashion; yet the terms of the debate inevitably perpetuate that very ambivalence.

I have argued that to understand all “uncomfortable” dress as merely one aspect of the oppression of women, is fatally to over-simplify; that dress is never primarily functional, and that it is certainly not natural. I have argued, against those who see fashion as one form of capitalist “consumerism,” that these critics fail to understand that women and men may use the “unworthiest” items of capitalist culture to criticize and transcend that culture. The disaffected use bizarre dress to thumb the nose at consumerism and to create jeering cartoons of society’s most cherished conventions. But the fashionably dressed and the more traditionally glamorous are not therefore to be dismissed as necessarily the slaves of consumerism. Socially determined we may be, yet we consistently search for the crevices in culture that open to us moments of freedom. Precisely because fashion is at one level a game (although it is not just a game), it can be played for pleasure.

This perspective on fashion is diametrically opposed to that of those radicals who make a root and branch attack on “consumerism.” Many radicals do advocate a return to “use values.” We should struggle for a world, they argue, in which we would respect craft-made objects and lovingly use them. The beauty of pottery, fabrics and furniture—and of course clothes—resides in their simplicity and functionalism. Such critics contrast this sturdy “use” with modern culture in which we “consume,” that is, “use up.” Consumerism then comes to have destructive and voracious implications. Theodor Adorno and other cultural critics of the “Frankfurt School” developed a deeply pessimistic view of consumer


culture, seeing its very diversity, hedonism and inventiveness as a hidden form of uniformity—as I discussed earlier. But the political implication of this was “repressive tolerance” and the idea that every aspect of consumer culture duped and doped the masses: consumer culture was a form of “false consciousness.” These critics used psychoanalysis—a theory of the unconscious, to try to explain the way in which this false consciousness takes over the individual. Consumerism becomes a compulsive form of behavior, over which we have little conscious control. According to this puritanical view, we are squeezed between the imperatives of the market and the urges of an unconscious whose desires are warped and invalidated by the culture in which we live. Fashionable dressing and our pleasure in it then becomes one example of a mass outbreak of authenticity.

I believe that, on the contrary, fashion is one among many forms of aesthetic creativity which make possible the exploration of alternatives. For after all, fashion is more than a game; it is an art form and a symbolic social system:

Once literacy and a rich vocabulary of visual, aural and dramatic expressions exist, then society has a permanently available. . . resource in which all the tabooed, fantastic, possible and impossible dreams of humanity can be explored in blueprint.13

This is a far more democratic view than the elitism of the radicals—whether these are the Frankfurt School, Christopher Lasch, Stuart and Elizabeth Ewen or some feminists—who see consumer culture as nothing more than “false consciousness.” Apart from anything else, it is clear that while the modern educational system, based ultimately on elitist principles, has failed many of its pupils, these same young men and women have managed to develop what is often an extremely knowing and sophisticated visual taste and a capacity to use images and the adorned person to make complex—if often cynical and nihilist—commentaries on contemporary life.

The pointlessness of fashion, what Veblen hated, is precisely what makes it valuable. It is in this marginalized


area of the contingent, the decorative, the futile, that not simply a new aesthetic but a new cultural order may seed itself. Out of the cracks in the pavements of cities grow the weeds that begin to rot the fabric.

In the sense, therefore, that we can use and play with fashion, we should reject feminist ambivalence as an inappropriate if understandable response. Yet there is another sense in which fashion elicits an ambivalent response, and that has to do with an ambivalence that runs deeper and is more tightly embedded in fashion itself.

Fashion acts as a vehicle for fantasy. The utopias both of right and left, which were themselves fantasies, implied an end to fantasy in the perfect world of the future. There will, however, never be a human world without fantasy, which expresses the unconscious unfulfillable. All art draws on unconscious fantasy; the performance that is fashion is one road from the inner to the outer world. Hence its compulsiveness, hence our ambivalence, hence the immense psychological (and material) work that goes into the production of the social self, of which clothes are an indispensable part.

In this sense, ambivalence is an appropriate response to dress; and in this sense “modernism” is a more adequate response than the “cult of the authentic,” since the latter allows for no ambivalence:

Take the example of nudity as it is presented in . . . the mass media’s discovery of the body and sex. This nudity claims to be rational, progressive: it claims to rediscover the truth of the body, its natural reason, beyond clothing, taboos and fashion. In fact, it is too rationalistic, and bypasses the body. . . and the true path of desire, which is always ambivalent, love and death simultaneously.14

This ambivalence is that of contradictory and irreconcilable desires, inscribed in the human psyche by that very “social construction” that decrees such a long period of cultural development for the human ego. Fashion—a performance art —acts as vehicle for this ambivalence; the daring of fashion


speaks dread as well as desire; the shell of chic, the aura of glamour, always hide a wound.

Fashion reflects also the ambivalence of the fissured culture of modernity, is only like all modern art in expressing a flawed culture. The dilemma of fashion is the dilemma of all modern art: what is its purpose and how is it to be used in the world of “mechanical reproduction”? Where fashion differs from some forms of art is that whereas in some fields high art and popular culture have veered further and further apart, in dress the opposite has happened. High fashion has become to some extent demotic. All chic is now gutter chic.

Like all art, it has a troubled relationship with morality, is almost always in danger of being denounced as immoral. Yet also, like all art, it is likely to become most “immoral” when it comes closest to the truth. Utilitarian dress, like conventional “good” clothes and academic art, expresses conservatism. The progressive project is not to search for some aesthetically pleasing form of utilitarian dress, for that would be to abandon the medium; rather we should use dress to express and explore our more daring aspirations, while respecting those who use it to disguise personal inadequacies, real or imagined, or to make themselves feel confident or important.

Art is always seeking new ways to illuminate our dilemmas; dress, however tainted a medium—from its association with the body and with daily life and behavior—nevertheless does this too. Fashion is ambivalent—for when we dress we wear inscribed upon our bodies the often obscure relationship of art, personal psychology and the social order. And that is why we remain endlessly troubled by fashion—drawn to it, yet repelled by a fear of what we might find hidden within its purposes, masked by the enigma of its Mona Lisa smile.


1 Haweis, Mary Eliza (1818), “Pre-Raphaelite Dress,” quoted in Newton, Stella Mary (1974), Health, Art and Reason:


Dress Reformers of the Nineteenth Century, London: John Murray, p. 9. The diary quotation comes from Howe, Bea (1967), Arbiter of Elegance, London: The Harvill Press, p. 69. 2 beaten, Cecil, (1954), The Glass of Fashion, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. 3 I thought I remembered reading of a demonstration that was staged on Wall Street, New York City, at which bras were symbolically burned. An account of a demonstration against the Miss America Contest, which took place in Atlantic City in August 1968, is accompanied by a note from the editor of the anthology in which it appears saying “Bras were never burned”; however, one feature of the demonstration was “a huge Freedom Trash Can (into which we will throw bras, girdles, curlers, false eyelashes, wigs, and representative issues of Cosmopolitan, Ladies’ Home Journal, Family Circle, etc. Bring any such woman-garbage you have around the house).” See Morgan, Robin (ed.) (1970), Sisterhood Is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement, New York: Random House, p. 521. See also O’Sullivan, Sue (1982), “Passionate Beginnings: Ideological Politics 1969—82,” Feminist Review, no. 11, for an account of the English demonstration against the Miss World Contest at the Albert Hall, London, in November 1970. 4 Chalmers, Martin (1983), “Politics of Crisis,” in City Limits, 19—25 August. 5 see Snitow, Ann, Stansell, Christine and Thompson, Sharon (1984), Desire: The Politics of Sexuality, London: Virago, for a discussion of some of these issues. 6 Brownmiller, Susan (1984), Femininity, New York: Linden Press, Simon and Schuster. I am indebted for the information about Susan Brownmiller’s book to Chapkis, Wendy (1984), “The Gender Divide: A Discussion of Femininity by Susan Brownmiller.” Unpublished paper. 7 Radcliffe Richards, Janet (1980), The Sceptical Feminist, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. 8 I have avoided the discussion of vegetarianism here. There is, of course, a whole series of preoccupations surrounding food, some of which are, supposedly at any rate, concerned


with health, some with the exploitation of animals, some with conditions in the developing countries. The point still seems to me to stand—that western radical culture is far less ascetic about food—or drink—than it is about dress. 9 I have myself heard women refer to all nude paintings in the National Gallery, London, as pornography. Bel Mooney tells a similar anecdote in the Sunday Times (March 1984). Obviously this is a generalization on the basis of anecdote and open to criticism on that score; but such views do flavor parts of the radical scene. 10 The original article was Wilson, Elizabeth (1982), “If You’re so Sure You’re a Feminist, Why do you read the Fashion Page?,” Guardian, 26 July. The letters appeared on 2 August 1982. 11 For a description of this event, see Wilson, Elizabeth (1982), What Is to Be Done about Violence Toward Women?, Harmondsowrth: Penguin. 12 Banner, Lois (1983), American Beauty, New York: Alfred Knopf. 13 Martin, Bernice (1981), A Sociology of Contemporary Cultural Change, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, p. 51. 14 Baudrillard, Jean (1981), For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, St. Louis, Mo.: Telos Press, p. 97.




John Fiske Shopping malls are cathedrals of consumption—a glib phrase that I regret the instant it slides off my pen. The metaphor of consumerism as a religion, in which commodities become the icons of worship and the rituals of exchanging money for goods become a secular equivalent of holy communion, is simply too glib to be helpful, and too attractive to those whose intentions, whether they be moral or political, are to expose the evils and limitations of bourgeois materialism. And yet the metaphor is both attractive and common precisely because it does convey and construct a knowledge of consumerism; it does point to one set of “truths,” however carefully selected a set.

Truths compete in a political arena, and the truths that the consumerism-as-contemporary-religion strives to suppress are those that deny the difference between the tenor and vehicle of the metaphor. Metaphor always works within that tense area within which the forces of similarity and difference collide, and aligns itself with those of similarity. Metaphor constructs similarity out of difference, and when a metaphor becomes a cliche, as the shopping mall-cathedral one has, then a resisting reading must align itself with the differences rather than the similarities, for cliches become cliches only because of their centrality to common sense: the cliche helps to construct the commonality of common sense.

So, the differences: the religious congregation is


powerless, led like sheep through the rituals and meanings, forced to “buy” the truth on offer, all the truth, not selective bits of it. Where the interests of the Authority on High differ from those of the Congregation down Low, the congregation has no power to negotiate, to discriminate: all accommodations are made by the powerless, subjugated to the great truth. In the U.S. marketplace, 90 percent of new products fail to find sufficient buyers to survive (Schudson 1984), despite advertising, promotions, and all the persuasive techniques of the priests of consumption. In Australia, Sinclair (1987) puts the new product failure rate at 80 percent—such statistics are obviously best-guesstimates: what matters is that the failure rate is high. The power of consumer discrimination evidenced here has no equivalent in the congregation: no religion could tolerate a rejection rate of 80 or 90 percent of what it has to offer.

Religion may act as a helpful metaphor when our aim is to investigate the power of consumerism; when, however, our focus shifts to the power of the consumer, it is counterproductive. Shopping malls and the cultural practices, the variety of shoppings that take place within them, are key arenas of struggle, at both economic and ideological levels between those with the power of ideological practice (Althusser), hegemony (Gramsci), or strategy (de Certeau) and those whose construction as subjects in ideology is never complete, whose resistances mean that hegemony can never finally relax in victory, and whose tactics inflict a running series of wounds upon the strategic power. Shopping is the crisis of consumerism: it is where the art and tricks of the weak can inflict most damage on, and exert most power over, the strategic interests of the powerful. The shopping mall that is seen as the terrain of guerrilla warfare looks quite different from the one constructed by the metaphor of religion.

Pressdee (1986), in his study of unemployed youth in the South Australian town of Elizabeth, paints a clear picture of both sides in this war. The ideological practices that serve the interests of the powerful are exposed in his analysis of the local mall’s promotional slogan, which appears in the


form of a free ticket: “Your ticket to a better shopping world: ADMITS EVERYONE.” He comments:

The words “your” and “everyone” are working to socially level out class distinction and, in doing so, overlook the city’s two working class groups, those who have work and those who do not. The word “admits” with a connotation of having to have or be someone to gain admittance is cancelled out by the word “everyone”—there are no conditions of admittance; everyone is equal and can come in. (p. 10)

This pseudoticket to consumerism denies the basic function of a ticket—to discriminate between those who possess one and those who do not—in a precise moment of the ideological work of bourgeois capitalism with its denial of class difference, and therefore of the inevitability of class struggle. The equality of “everyone” is, of course, an equality attainable only by those with purchasing power: those without are defined out of existence, as working-class interests (derived from class difference) are defined out of existence by bourgeois ideology. “The ticket to a better shopping world does not say ‘Admits everyone with at least some money to spend’ . . . ; money and the problems associated with getting it conveniently disappear in the official discourse” (Pressdee 1986: 10-11).

Pressdee then uses a variation of the religious metaphor to sum up the “official” messages of the mall:

The images presented in the personal invitation to all in Elizabeth is then that of the cargo cult. Before us a lightshaft beams down from space, which contains the signs of the “future”; “Target,” “Venture”—gifts wrapped; a table set for two. But beamed down from space they may as well be, because. . . this imagery can be viewed as reinforcing denial of the production process—goods are merely beamed to earth. The politics of their production and consumption disappear. (p. 12)

Yet his study showed that 80 percent of unemployed young


people visited the mall at least once a week, and nearly 100 percent of young unemployed women were regular visitors. He comments on these uninvited guests:

For young people, especially the unemployed, there has been a congregating within these cathedrals of capitalism, where desires are created and fulfilled and the production of commodities, the very activity that they are barred from, is itself celebrated on the alter of consumerism. Young people, cut off from normal consumer power are invading the space of those with consumer power. (p. 13)

Pressdee’s shift from the religious metaphor to one of warfare signals his shift of focus from the powerful to the disempowered.

Thursday nights, which in Australia are the only ones on which stores stay open late, have become the high points of shopping, when the malls are at their most crowded and the cash registers ring up their profits most busily, and it is on Thursday nights that the youth “invasion” of consumer territory is most aggressive. Pressdee (1986) describes this invasion vividly:

Thursday nights vibrate with youth, eager to show themselves—it belongs to them, they have possessed it. This cultural response is neither spectacular nor based upon consumerism itself. Nor does it revolve around artifacts or dress, but rather around the possession of space, or to be more precise the possession of consumer space where their very presence challenges, offends and resists.

Hundreds of young people pour into the center every Thursday night, with three or four hundred being present at any one time. They parade for several hours, not buying, but presenting, visually, all the contradictions of employment and unemployment, taking up their natural public space that brings both life and yet confronts the market place. Security men patrol all night aided by several police patrols, hip guns visible and radios in use, bringing a new understanding


to law and order. Groups of young people are continually evicted from

this opulent and warm environment, fights appear, drugs seem plentiful, alcohol is brought in, in various guises and packages. The police close in on a group of young women, their drink is tested. Satisfied that it is only coca-cola they are moved on and out. Not wanted. Shopkeepers and shoppers complain. The security guards become agitated and begin to question all those seen drinking out of cans or bottles who are under 20, in the belief that they must contain alcohol. They appear frightened, totally outnumbered by young people as they continue their job in keeping the tills ringing and the passage to the altar both free and safe. (p. 14)

Pressdee coins the term “proletarian shopping” (p. 16) to describe this window shopping with no intention to buy. The youths consumed images and space instead of commodities, a kind of sensuous consumption that did not create profits. The positive pleasure of parading up and down, of offending “real” consumers and the agents of law and order, of asserting their difference within, and different use of, the cathedral of consumerism became an oppositional cultural practice.

The youths were “tricksters” in de Certeau’s terms—they pleasurably exploited their knowledge of the official “rules of the game” in order to identify where these rules could be mocked, inverted, and thus used to free those they were designed to discipline. De Certeau (1984) points to the central importance of the “trickster” and the “guileful ruse” throughout peasant and folk cultures. Tricks and ruses are the art of the weak that enables them to exploit their understanding of the rules of the system, and to turn it to their advantage. They are a refusal to be subjugated:

The actual order of things is precisely what “popular” tactics turn to their own ends, without any illusion that it will change any time soon. Though elsewhere it is exploited by a dominant power. . . here order is tricked


by an art. (de Certeau 1984: 26) This trickery is evidence of “an ethics of tenacity (countless ways of refusing to accord the established order the status of a law, a meaning or a fatality)” (p. 26).

Shopping malls are open invitations to trickery and tenacity. The youths who turn them into their meeting places, or who trick the security guards by putting alcohol into some, but only some, soda cans, are not actually behaving any differently from lunch hour window shoppers who browse through the stores, trying on goods, consuming and playing with images, with no intention to buy. In extreme weather people exploit the controlled climate of the malls for their own pleasure—mothers take children to play in their air-conditioned comfort in hot summers, and in winter older people use their concourses for daily walks. Indeed, some malls now have notices welcoming “mall walkers,” and a few have even provided exercise areas set up with equipment and instructions so that the walkers can exercise more than their legs.

Of course, the mall owners are not entirely disinterested or altruistic here—they hope that some of the “tricky” users of the mall will become real economic consumers, but they have no control over who will, how many will, how often, or how profitably. One boutique owner told me that she estimated that 1 in 30 browsers actually bought something. Shopping malls are where the strategy of the powerful is most vulnerable to the tactical raids of the weak. And women are particularly adept guerrillas.


Bowlby (1987) takes as a premise “Women shop.” Within this condensed truism, she finds a number of problems to do with the socially produced definitions of both women and shopping and with the connections between the two. While pondering some of these problems, I was browsing through a shop (where else?) selling cards and gifts. Three items took


my eye. One was a bumper sticker proclaiming “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping”; the second was a birthday card that said, “Happy Birthday to a guy who’s sensitive, intelligent and fun to be with—if you liked to shop you’d be perfect”; the third was a card designed for no specific occasion whose front cover showed a stylish, modern young woman and the words “Work to Live, Live to Love, and Love to Shop, so you see . . .” the dots led to the inside and the words “if I can buy enough things I’ll never have to work at love again.”

These slogans are all commodities to be bought, and while from one perspective they may be yet more evidence of the power of consumerism to invade and take over our most personal lives in that they are seducing us to abrogate our ability to make our own utterances to a commercially motivated producer—the ultimate incorporation—we must recognize that these are not only commodities in the financial economy but also texts in the cultural economy. The meanings that are exchanged are in no way determined by the exchange of money at the cash register. Culturally all three are operating, with different emphases, in two semantic areas—those of gender difference and work versus leisure—and are questioning the distribution of power and values within them.

Each slogan is a feminine utterance, and each utterance depends for its effect upon its foregrounded difference from patriarchal norms. The bumper sticker sets its user apart as different from the “normal” (i.e., masculine) user of the saying’s normal form—“When the going gets tough, the tough get going”—so as to distance her from its competitive masculinity (it is used typically to motivate sportsmen, soldiers, and, by extension, businessmen). In so doing, it manages simultaneously to mock such masculine power and to transfer it to a female practice, so that success in shopping becomes as much a source of power as success in sport, war, or business. Shopping entails achievement against a powerful oppositional force (that of capital) and the successful shopper is properly “tough.” The user of such a slogan would pronounce “Women shop” in a quite different


tone of voice from that used by, for instance, a dismissive patriarch. Shopping is seen as an oppositional, competitive act, and as such as a source of achievement, self-esteem, and power.

The uses of the message’s masculine original deny the difference between work and leisure: masculinity is appropriately and equally achieved in sport, war, and work, and conflates these into the single category of the public domain, which it colonizes for the masculine, implicitly leaving the domestic or private for the feminine. Its feminine appropriation, then, speaks against the confinement of femininity to the domains of nonwork, nonpublic, and the “meaning” of the household, the meaning of the domestic, as the place of leisure, relaxation, and privacy—all of which are patriarchal meanings in that they deny the social, economic, and political meanings of the unwaged labor of women in the house.

Opposite the card shop was one selling kitchen equipment; hanging prominently in the window was an apron (the sign of women’s domestic slavery) bearing the slogan “Woman’s place is in the mall.” Of course, one reading of this positions women as mere consumers in patriarchal capitalism, but the slogan also opposes “mall” to “home,” and offers up oppositional meanings—if “home” means for women domestic slavery and the site of subordination of women to the demands of patriarchal capitalism exerted through the structure of the nuclear family, then the mall becomes the site of all the opposite, liberational meanings. The mall is where women can be public, empowered, and free, and can occupy roles other than those demanded by the nuclear family. Later on in this essay I will summarize Bowlby’s arguments that the department store was the first public space that could legitimately be occupied by respectable women on their own, and Williamson’s that buying can bear meanings of empowerment. Both of these arguments are clearly relevant to understanding the contradictory meanings of this apron and its slogan.

But my attention has wandered from the greeting cards. Both of the cards described above link shopping and


romantic love as practices in which women excel and men are deficient. Even the “sensitive, intelligent” (i.e., nonjock) male recipient of the birthday card is incapable of understanding shopping. And for the other card, shopping has become, defiantly, the way to solve the problems faced by women in both work and love in a culture that patriarchally attempts to organize both in the interests of men. The conclusion, “If I can buy enough things I’ll never have to work at love again,” is nonsensical; it deliberately uses the logic of patriarchal capitalism to come to a nonsensical conclusion, the pleasure of which lies in exposing the nonsense for women of the dominant (i.e., patriarchal, capitalist) senses of commodities, work, and love.

The connection made by the two cards between shopping and romantic love may, at first sight, seem odd. But as capitalism developed throughout the nineteenth century it produced and naturalized first the nuclear family as the foundation social unit, and second a new and specific role for women within this unit and thus within the social formation at large. The woman became the domestic manager of both the economic and emotional resources of the family. The romance genre developed as a form of emotional training of women for their wifely role within the capitalist nuclear family. The development of the feminine as the sensitive, emotional, romantic gender was a direct product of the capitalist economy, so there are clear historical reasons for the interlinking of the romantic and the economic within the definition of the feminine that we have inherited from the nineteenth century.

The popular TV game show The New Price Is Right shares many characteristics with the slogans on the cards and bumper sticker. Most obviously it takes women’s skills as household managers, their knowledge of commodity prices, and their ability to assess relative values, and gives to them the power and public visibility that patriarchy more normally reserves for the masculine. These skills and knowledges are taken out of the devalued feminine sphere of the domestic, and displayed, like masculine skills, in public, on a studio set before an enthusiastic studio audience and millions of TV


viewers. In “normal” life, deploying these skills meets with little acclaim or self-esteem—the woman is expected to be a good household manager and all too frequently her role is noticed only when she is deemed to have failed in it. On The New Price Is Right, however, her skills and successes are not just acclaimed, but receive excessive applause and approbation from the excited studio audience. The excess provides a carnivalesque inversion of the more normal silence with which such skills are met in everyday life. Such silence is, of course, a means of subjugation, a form of discipline exerted by patriarchy over the feminine; their excessively noisy recognition is thus a moment of licensed liberation from the normal oppression, and women’s pleasure in it derives from a recognition that such skills and knowledges can produce positive values despite their devaluation in the patriarchal everyday. The New Price Is Right and “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping” are both cultural resources that can be used to speak and assert the feminine within and against a patriarchal “normality.” Similarly, the inadequacy of the sensitive, intelligent birthday boy when it comes to shopping would debar him from success on The New Price Is Right.

Successful contestants on the show receive expensive commodities or cash as their prizes. In another carnivalesque and therefore political inversion, the women’s skills are rewarded not by spending less of the family money (i.e., that earned by the man), but by money or goods for her. Feminine skills do not just husband (sic) masculine earnings and thus benefit the family, but actually produce rewards for the women. Similarly, in the “live” versions of this and other games sometimes played in shopping malls, the entry “ticket” is typically a receipt from one of the shops in the mall. The proof of having spent opens up the chance of winning. The receipt as money is a carnivalesque inversion of economic subjugation.

The deep structure of values that underlies patriarchal capitalism now needs to be extended to include earning as typically masculine, and, therefore, spending as typically feminine. So it is not surprising that such a society addresses


women as consumers and men as producers. We may summarize the value structure like this:








Bowlby (1987) makes some interesting points about how shopping enables women to cross the boundary between the public and the private. In her history of the Paris store Bon Marche and its origins at the end of the last century, Bowlby notes that the “diaries” the store gave to its customers as a form of promotion contained detailed information about how to reach the store by public transport:

That this should have been practically available to the bourgeois lady marks a significant break with the past: department stores were in fact the first public places— other than churches or cathedrals—which were considered respectable for her to visit without a male companion. But this also signified, at another level, a stepping out from domestic bounds. (p. 189)

The value to women of a public space to which they had legitimate and safe access is not confined to the late nineteenth century. Ferrier (1987) makes a similar point about contemporary malls:

For women there may be a sense of empowerment from


their competency in shopping operations, their familiarity with the terrain and with what they can get out of it. The space is designed to facilitate their shopping practices, and in our built environment there are few places designed for women. The shoppingtown offers public conveniences, free buses, parking, toilets, entertainment, free samples, competitions. In the shoppingtown, women have access to public space without the stigma or threat of the street. (p. 1)

She goes on to associate the freedom malls offer women to reject the gendered opposition of public versus domestic with the equal opportunities to reject the gendered opposition between work and leisure, and the economic one of for sale (i.e., public) versus bought (i.e., private):

The shoppingtown, with its carnival atmosphere, seems set to collapse the distinction between work and leisure. . . . The consumer is allowed to wander in and out of private space to look at, handle and try out products that she does not own. In a department store it is possible to wander through privately owned space, holding or wearing someone else’s property as if it were your own, without asking to do so, often without even having to go through the usual social intercourse appropriate to being a guest in someone’s place. Boundaries between public and private become ambiguous. (p. 2)

Women can find sources of empowerment both in “their” side of the structured values that patriarchy has provided for them (see above) and in their ability to escape the structure itself. Similarly, Bowlby (1985) finds evidence that spending the “man’s” money can be a resisting act within the politics of marriage. She quotes a typical piece of advice given to a congressman’s wife by Elizabeth Cady Stanton in her lectures in the 1850s:

Go out and buy a new stove! Buy what you need! Buy while he’s in Washington! When he returns and flies into a rage, you sit in a corner and weep. That will


soften him! Then, when he tastes his food from the new stove, he will know you did the wise thing. When he sees you so much fresher, happier in your new kitchen, he will be delighted and the bills will be paid. I repeat —GO OUT AND BUY!

Bowlby comments: Significantly, the injunction to buy comes from woman to woman, not from a man, and involves first bypassing and then mollifying a male authority. To “go out” and buy invokes a relative emancipation in women’s active role as consumers. (p. 22)

This is an example of de Certeau’s (1984) dictum that subordinated people “make do with what they have,” and if the only economic power accorded to women is that of spending, then being a woman in patriarchy necessarily will involve feminine “tricks” that turn the system back on itself, that enables the weak to use the resources provided by the strong in their own interests, and to oppose the interests of those who provided the resources in the first place.

In the same way that language need not be used to maintain the social relations that produced it, so too commodities need not be used solely to support the economic system of capitalism, nor need the resources provided by patriarchy go solely to the support of the system. The conditions of production of any cultural system are not the same as, and do not predetermine, the conditions of its use or consumption.

The gendered structure of values given above constitutes not only a way of constructing the social meanings of gender and of inserting those meanings into social domains, but also a means of discipline through knowledge. The “knowledge” that, for instance, femininity finds its meanings in the domestic, in consumption, in leisure, in the disempowered, is a means of disciplining women into the roles and values that patriarchy has inscribed for them. Yet shopping, while apparently addressing women precisely as disempowered domestic consumers, may actually offer opportunities to break free not just from these meanings, but from the


structure of binary oppositions that produces them. So Ferrier (1987) can argue:

It seems that the successful consumer system must have ambiguous boundaries; between leisure and work, public and private space, inside and out, desire and satisfaction, to attract consumers and to make shopping pleasurable. The shoppingtown is in some ways an extension of the consumer’s domestic space, and at the same time a totally separate “new world.” As Hartley (1983) points out, power resides in the interface between individuals in ambiguous boundaries. In the ambiguous boundaries of the shoppingtown, there is space for fantasy, for inversions, for pleasure. The pleasure and power are linked with the acts of transgression that are sanctioned. (p. 4)


Judith Williamson (1986a) incisively analyzes the problems that left-wing cultural critics face when grappling with what she calls “the politics of consumption.” She argues that in our society the conditions of production are ones over which people have no control, no choice about if or where to work, or about the conditions under which to work; consumption, however, offers some means of coping with the frustrations of capitalist conditions of production. It thus serves both the economic interests of the producers and the cultural interests of the consumers while not completely separating the two. The cultural interests of the consumers are essentially, Williamson argues, ones of control. Mainly this is a sense of control over meanings: “The conscious chosen meaning in most people’s lives comes much more from what they consume than what they produce” (p. 230). Consumption, then, offers a sense of control over communal meanings of oneself and social relations, it offers a means of controlling to some extent the context of everyday life. The


widespread use of VCRs is a case in point. In Morley’s 1986 study of lower-middle- and working-class families’ use of TV, he found that every household, even those with no wage earners, owned a VCR, which was used both to time-shift TV programs and to play rented films: in the first case the VCR allowed control over scheduling, in the second it allowed control over programming.

Williamson (1986a) argues that in a capitalist society buying and ownership not only offer a sense of control, but form the main, if not the only, means of achieving this:

Ownership is at present the only form of control legitimized in our culture. Any serious attempts at controlling products from the other side—as with the miners’ demand to control the future of their product, coal (or the printing unions’ attempts to control their product, newspaper articles, etc.) are not endorsed. Some parts of the left find these struggles less riveting than the struggles over meanings in street style. Yet underlying both struggles is the need for people to control their environment and produce their own communal identity; it is just that the former, if won, could actually fulfill that need while the latter ultimately never will. (p. 231)

It is also worth noting not only that the pleasures of control are found in the ownership of commodities through which people can create or modify the context of everyday life and thus many of the meanings it bears, but also that the consumer’s moment of choice is an empowered moment. If money is power in capitalism, then buying, particularly if the act is voluntary, is an empowering moment for those whom the economic system otherwise subordinates. And any one single act of buying necessarily involves multiple acts of rejection—many commodities are rejected for every one chosen, and rejecting the offerings of the system constitutes adopting a controlling relationship to it. The following anecdote related to me by a woman shopper is both typical and significant:

When I was a girl my mother would sometimes take me


to the shopping town to go shopping for shoes. She’d spend hours in the shoe shop trying on dozens of pairs, having the assistant running backwards and forwards nonstop. Eventually she’d choose one pair to take home, but I knew she wouldn’t buy them, she’d always return them next day saying they didn’t fit or weren’t right or something.

My informant’s apparent embarrassment at the “exploitation” of the shop assistant indicates that she understood the relations between her mother and the assistant at the personal level; her mother, however, was operating on the level of the system, the relationships were those between consumer and producer/distributor, and her pleasure was caused by her empowered position in this relationship. These shopping expeditions were “tactical raids” (de Certeau 1984) upon the system, or a highly developed form of “proletarian shopping” (Pressdee 1986).

But there is another dimension of meaning to this anecdote that can also be traced in Williamson’s comparison of the context of production with that of consumption, and that is one of class meanings. The woman telling me the anecdote also characterized her mother as traditionally middle-class, so part of her lack of embarrassment over her treatment of the shop assistant can be explained in terms of mistress- servant class relations, and thus appears less politically acceptable than when it is seen as a tactical raid upon the system.

This raises the suggestion that production may be essentially proletarian and consumption bourgeois. The attempt to control the context of production poses a radical threat to capitalism because it positions proletarian interests in direct, naked, uncompromising conflict with bourgeois interests; it thus invites (and receives) the full weight of the bourgeois ideological and repressive state apparatuses to control and ultimately squash it. The social allegiances formed when aligning oneself with those subordinated by the conditions of production are with those most severely subordinated by capitalism, and therefore those whose struggles are least likely to succeed.


Consumption, however, is more a bourgeois act; it appears to support, rather than threaten, bourgeois values, and by forging these social allegiances, the weak do not invite the repressive attentions of the strong, but can catch them “off guard,” as it were. Guerrilla tactics are often most successful when the guerrillas do not wear the uniform of “the enemy.” Shopping can never be a radical, subversive act; it can never change the system of a capitalist-consumerist economy. Equally, however, it cannot be adequately explained as a mere capitulation to the system. Williamson’s (1986a) key point here is that commodities are furnished by market capitalism, and in themselves cannot be radical; but, she argues, traces of radicalism are to be found in the way they are consumed and the needs that underlie their consumption: “What are potentially radical are the needs that underlie their use: needs both sharpened and denied by the economic system that makes them” (p. 232).

Stedman-Jones (1982), in his study of the culture of the London working classes in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, gives us further evidence of this use of commodities not to express radicalism itself, but to meet a need that is potentially radical:

More generally, evidence about patterns of spending among the London poor suggests that a concern to demonstrate self-respect was infinitely more important than any forms of saving based upon calculations of utility. When money was available which did not have to be spent on necessities, it was used to purchase articles for display rather than articles of use.(p.101)

The need for “display” is a need for self-esteem and respect that is denied by the conditions of production, but that may be met by the conditions of consumption. This display may involve the purchase of “middle-class” commodities, and thus give the appearance of buying into middle-class values and the social system that advantages them, but Stedman-Jones takes pains to point out that this is not so:

For the poor, this effort to keep up appearances, to demonstrate “respectability” entailed as careful a


management of the weekly family budget as any charity organizer could have envisaged. But its priorities were quite different. “Respectability” did not mean church attendance, teetotalism or the possession of a post office savings account. It meant the possession of a presentable Sunday suit, and the ability to be seen wearing it. . . . It is clear from these and other accounts that the priorities of expenditure among the poor bore little relation to the ambitions set before them by advocates of thrift and self-help. (p. 102.)

The meanings of a respectable suit for the poor are quite different from those for the affluent, even though the appearance of the poor man’s suit may derive many features from that worn by his “social betters.” The point is that the meanings of commodities do not lie in themselves as objects, and are not determined by their conditions of production or distribution, but are produced finally by the way they are consumed. The ways and the whys of consumption are where cultural meanings are made and circulated; the system of production and distribution provides the signifiers only.

In his ethnographic study of Bostonian Italians in the West End, Gans (1962) found similar patterns of consumption. He found that display of self through clothes was as common among West Enders as among other working-class groups, and that they were adept at making their own fashions out of what the fashion system provided:

At the time of the study, for example, the “Ivy League” style was beginning to be seen among the young men of the West End. Their version of this style, however, bore little resemblance to that worn on the Harvard campus: flannel colors were darker, shirts and ties were much brighter, and the belt in the back of the pants was more significant in size if not in function. (p. 185)

Gans’s description of this style as “informal and jaunty” points to its “display.” It would seem that self-display is, for those denied social power, a performance of their ability to


be different, of their power to construct their meanings from the resources of the system. It has within it elements of defiance and of pride in self- and subcultural identities, and it is pleasurable insofar as it is a means of controlling social relations and one’s cultural environment. There is a sense of freedom underlying display, and it is this that frequently attracts the disapproval of the middle classes, who are prone to label such performance as vulgar or tasteless. Gans finds that the car contains all these cultural meanings and pleasures for the West Enders:

The automobile, for example, serves as an important mode of self-expression to the male West Ender—as it does to many other working-class Americans: it displays his strength and his taste. When the man has the money—and the freedom to spend it—he thus will buy the most powerful automobile he can afford, and will decorate it with as many accessories as possible. The size of the car and the power of its motor express his toughness; the accessories, the carefully preserved finish, and chrome are an extension of the self he displays to the peer group. (p. 184)

The complexity and subtlety of the roles played by commodities in our culture are all too easily dismissed by the concept of a “consumer society.” In one sense all societies are consumer societies, for all societies value goods for cultural meanings that extend far beyond their usefulness. In this context, Marx’s distinction between use-value and exchange-value is less than helpful, for it suggests a difference between a “real” value, that of the material and human labor in goods, and a “false” value that society gives to commodities as it exchanges them.

Baudrillard (1981) claims that the ultimate effect of capitalism, certainly of its late variant in which we currently live, is to confuse the relationship of use-value and exchange- value, and, in fact, to turn a system of use-values into one of exchange-values. Exchange-values are culturally useful: “Through objects, each individual and each group searches out his-her place in an order” (p. 83). The function of


commodities, then, is not just to meet individual needs, but also to relate the individual to the social order. Consumption is not just the end-point of the economic chain that began with production, but a system of exchange, a language in which commodities are goods to think with in a semiotic system that precedes the individual, as does any language. For Baudrillard there is no self-contained individual, there are only ways of using social systems, particularly those of language, goods, and kinship, to relate people differently to the social order and thus to construct the sense of the individual.

Sinclair (1987) points out that Baudrillard’s poststructuralist account of the meaning of commodities differs from the more structuralist and Marxist ones of Williamson in an earlier work (1978) and Leiss (1978), both of whom conceive

of a system of persons on one hand made to correspond to a system of goods on the other, with individual subjects finding it increasingly difficult to maintain a coherent sense of unified identity as the satisfaction of their needs becomes ever more fragmented by greater product differentiation. (Sinclair 1987:55)

Williamson’s later work reserves this emphasis, and traces ways in which people can make meanings out of the commodity system, rather than, as here, having their meanings of themselves made for them by that system.

The semiotic function of goods is stressed even more strongly by Douglas and Isherwood (1979), who argue that “consumption is the very arena in which culture is fought over and licked into shape” (p. 57), and that goods “are needed for making visible and stable the categories of culture” (p. 59). They conclude:

Enjoyment of physical consumption is only part of the service yielded by goods; the other part is the enjoyment of sharing names. . . . Physical consumption involves proving, testing or demonstrating that the experience in question is feasible. But the anthropological argument insists that by far the


greater part of utility is yielded not at proving but in sharing names that have been learned and graded. This is culture. (pp. 75-76; quoted in Sinclair 1987:56)

The important point made by Douglas and Isherwood is that people constantly strive not just to gain access to cultural meaning systems, but rather to exert control over the meanings such systems can produce. Consumption then becomes a way of using the commodity system that gives the consumer some degree of control over the meanings it makes possible. Commodities are not just objects of economic exchange; they are goods to think with, goods to speak with.

Every society has some kind of map, a grid of the terms available to think in at any given time. In ours, consumer goods are just some of the chief landmarks which define the “natural” categories we are accustomed to. (Williamson 1986a:227)

Speech and thought, of course, are finally social practices, ways of relating to the social order. Products therefore “map out the social world, defining, not what we do, but the ways in which we can conceive of doing things” (Williamson 1986a:226). The crucial point that Williamson makes is that

the world of consumerism is the one we live in—it is too late to opt out: but there are two important questions— one, what we say in the language available, the other, what that language itself means. For the meanings and uses of products cannot be entirely controlled; they can be appropriated and turned around on the society which produces them. (p. 226)

The active semiotic use of commodities blurs the distinction between use-value and exchange-value, and that between materially based and socially produced values, for all values are arbitrary. The values of commodities can be transformed by the practices of their users, as can those of language, for as language can have no fixed reference point in a universal reality, neither can commodities have final values fixed in their materiality. The practices of the users of


a system not only can exploit its potential, but can modify the system itself. In the practices of consumption the commodity system is exposed to the power of the consumer, for the power of the system is not just top-down, or center-outward, but always two-way, always a flux of conflicting powers and resistances.

Consumption is not necessarily evidence of the desire for ownership of commodities for its own sake (that is the dominant ideological meaning of ownership), but is rather a symptom of the need for control, for cultural autonomy and for security that the economic system denies subordinated peoples. While agreeing strongly with Williamson that the problem facing the left is not how to turn people away from consumerism, but how to devise new ways in which the legitimate, and admirable, needs and desires appropriated by consumer goods can be met, we must also recognize that, until (if) the revolution comes, the left does not help its cause by devaluing, denigrating, or ignoring the “art of making do,” the everyday practices by which people in subordinated social formations win tricks against the system. Nor can we adequately or productively explain such tricks through the inoculation model (Barthes 1973), by which the system takes controlled doses of the disease of radicalism into itself in order finally to strengthen its resistance to it. At the very least such tricks are tactical victories that maintain the morale of the subordinate, and may well produce real gains in their cultural and social experience.

The desire to investigate the practices of making do, wherein can be found the cunning, the creativity, and the power of the subordinate, has been part of a shift in academia that has transformed much of academic theory and research over the past few years. In this shift some feminist scholarship and popular cultural theory come together to partake in a general academic shift of emphasis away from the “grand narrative” toward the particular, away from the text to the reading, away from the speech system toward the utterance, away from ideology and hegemony to the everyday practices of the subordinate. This shift may be summed up as the movement of interest from structures to practices, “from


the totalizing structures and mechanisms of power to the heterogeneous practices of everyday life” (Ferrier 1987:2).

Feminist scholarship has been particularly acute in exposing both the broad structures of patriarchy and the minutiae within which they are embodied. Similarly, Marxian scholarship has exposed the structures and practices of ideology and hegemony, and structuralism and psychoanalysis have done equally important work on the structures of language and subjectivity. As our understanding of these totalizing structures has become more sophisticated and more satisfying, so the realization is growing that this knowledge tells us only half the story, and of itself it can induce only a pessimistic elitism. It requires an often contradictory, sometimes complementary, knowledge of the everyday practices by which subordinated groups negotiate these structures, oppose and challenge them, evade their control, exploit their weaknesses, trick them, turn them against themselves and their producers.

Women, despite the wide variety of social formations to which they belong, all share the experience of subordination under patriarchy and have evolved a variety of tactical responses that enable them to deal with it on a day-to-day level. So, too, other subordinated groups, however defined— by class, race, age, religion, or whatever—have evolved everyday practices that enable them to live within and against the forces that subordinate them. Scholarship that neglects or devalues these practices seems to me to be guilty of a disrespect for the weak that is politically reprehensible. This is particularly the case in certain strands of Marxian or feminist scholarship that end up in the position of despising— or, at least, looking down on—those for whom they attempt to speak, and those whose sociopolitical interests they claim to promote. Similarly, studies of popular culture that are optimistic and positive, rather than pessimistic and negative, frequently celebrate the ritual functions of popular texts and thus deny or ignore the ability of disempowered groups to make their popular culture, often by oppositional practices, out of industrially provided and distributed cultural resources. Such work has traditionally drawn upon


anthropological models (those of Turner or Lévi-Strauss) or rhetorical ones (e.g., Burke) to reveal and explain the ritualistic structures of popular culture. In this approach the shift of emphasis from structures to practices has resulted in the move from structural anthropology to cultural ethnography.


One of the commonest practices of the consumer is window shopping, a consumption of images, an imaginative if imaginary use of the language of commodities that may or may not turn into the purchase of actual commodities. This “proletarian shopping” is closely bound up with the power of looking. As Madonna controls her “look,” that is, how she looks to others and therefore how they look upon her, so the window shopper searches a visual vocabulary from which to make statements about herself and her social relations. Looking is as much a means of exerting social control as speaking. Elsewhere, I have argued that shopping malls are a visual feast, a plethora of potential meanings, palaces of pleasures offered particularly to women (Fiske et al. 1987). The connections among femininity, women’s subordination in patriarchy, and looking have been well theorized, particularly in regard to film and advertising. In patriarchy, the woman has been constructed as the object of the masculine voyeuristic look, which places him in a position of power over her and gives him possession of her, or at least of her image. Women’s narcissistic pleasure, then, lies in seeing themselves as idealized objects of the male gaze; a woman is always the bearer of her own image, sees herself through the eyes of the other. While there is much evidence, particularly in cinema, to support this theory of the gender politics of looking, its ability to explain the pleasures of shopping, of the use of commodities to construct images of self, is more limited.

Despite the fact that the language of fashion shows strong


patriarchal characteristics as it swings its focus around the female body—now emphasizing the bust, now the buttocks, now the legs or the waist, but always guiding the eye toward the eroticized areas—the meaning of fashion for women cannot be reduced to such political simplicity, nor can the pleasures offered to women by their own bodies be adequately explained by the giving of pleasure to the masculine other. The pleasure of the look is not just the pleasure of looking good for the male, but rather of controlling how one looks and therefore of controlling the look of others upon oneself. Looking makes meanings; it is therefore a means of entering social relations, of inserting oneself into the social order in general, and of controlling one’s immediate social relations in particular. Commodities are the resources of the woman (or man) who is exercising some control over her look, her social relations, and her relation to the social order. The Madonna “wanna-bes” who buy fingerless lacey gloves are not buying the meanings these items would have, for instance, at a Buckingham Palace garden party—they are buying a cultural resource out of which to make their own meanings, to make a statement about their own subcultural identity and thus about their relationship to the social order. It is unhelpful to denigrate such a visual speech act by saying that it is pseudospeech or severely limited speech, in that the language of commodities only allows all the fans to say the same thing.

A number of points need raising in response to this criticism. The first is that if commodities speak class identities rather than individual identities, this does not mean that they are necessarily an inferior language system; such a criticism derives from the ideology of individualism and denies, first, the extent to which individual inflections of class meanings can be made within the commodity system (see the discussion on taste and style below), and, second, the extent to which class meanings are spoken by verbal language, however “creatively” or “originally” it may be used. All language systems relate the user to the social order and thus to others who share that or a similar relationship, at the same time they allow concrete and specific differences in


their use by each person. The pleasures of linguistic control traverse the realms of the personal and the social. The pleasures and meanings offered by the plenitude of goods in shopping malls are multiple, and bear the dominant ideology while offering considerable scope for cultural maneuver within and against it. On the economic level such glittering excess provides a daily demonstration that the capitalist system works, and on the ideological level that individualism can flourish within it. A wide consumer choice is not an economic requirement, but a requirement of the ideology of individualism. But exercising choice is not just “buying into” the system: choice also enhances the power of the subordinate to make their cultural uses of it.

Two people wearing the same clothes, or furnishing their houses in the same way, are embarrassed to the extent that they feel that their similarity of taste has denied their individual differences, for the centrality of individualism in our ideology gives priority to these meanings rather than to ones of social or class allegiance. It is not surprising, then, that one of our commonest ways of marking the difference between capitalist and communist societies is by the commodity system and consumer choice. Westerners typically mythologize communist societies as providing very limited consumer choice, and, therefore, of producing a gray, undifferentiated mass of people, instead of the vibrant individuals of the West. The “sheeplike” nature of such people, which leads them to accept such a totalitarian social system, is mapped out inconically in their monotonous grayness, resulting from the lack of consumer choice. Because style and taste have, according to this capitalist myth, no role in a communist system that denies its people the language of commodities as it denies them individual “freedom,” then the people in such a system have no control over their social relations, no way of varying or determining their points of entry into the social order.

It is therefore essential for capitalist shopping centers to emphasize the plenitude of commodities—goods tumble over each other in a never-ending plethora of objects, a huge cultural resource bank. Of course, such a plenitude of


differences can exist only within an overall similarity—all the goods are, after all, produced at the same historical moment by the same capitalist society—but any sense of individuality is constructed, as are all meanings, upon the play of similarity and difference. Similarity is the means of entry into the social order; difference negotiates the space of the individual within that order.

The difference between style and taste is never easy to define, but style tends to be centered on the social, and taste upon the individual. Style then works along axes of similarity to identify group membership, to relate to the social order; taste works within style to differentiate and construct the individual. Style speaks about social factors such as class, age, and other more flexible, less definable social formations; taste talks of the individual inflection of the social.

Such an interplay of style and taste is given spatial representation in Sydney’s Centrepoint. Its three levels are class determined, but within each level is a huge variety of commodities. Individuality is a construction of the social, of language, of gendered experience, of family, education, and so on; commodities are used to bear the already constructed sense of individual difference. They are no truer and no falser than our idiolect, our accent, our ways of behaving toward others in the family, and so on. All such markers of individual difference are social, commodities no more and no less than any other. So the class-differential levels of Centrepoint are used by people whose identity already, necessarily, contains class meanings, and riding the escalators through them becomes a concrete metaphor for class mobility. In late capitalist societies blue-collar workers can earn as much, if not more, than white- or pink-collar workers, so style and taste displace economics as markers of class identity and difference. And insofar as style/taste is symbolic and clearly arbitrary, with little of the material base of the economic, it becomes less determined, more open to negotiation: class identities based on economics offer little scope for negotiation; those based on style are not only more flexible, but also offer the consumer greater control in their construction.


In an earlier study, my colleagues and I argued that in Centrepoint class markers are found in the location of shops within the overall structure and in their design, both of which are spatial metaphors for social relations (see Fiske et al. 1987). The most “democratic” shops—those with low-priced goods that appeal to everyone, such as news agents, card shops, and pharmacies—are on the lowest level and tend not to have windows, but open fronts so the boundaries between their territory and the public concourse are leaky; their goods spill over into the pedestrian areas, minimizing the distinction between the public-democratic and the private- exclusive. On the “middle-class” level—that of the medium- priced, trendy fashion shops selling clothes, shoes, bags, and accessories—the shops mark their boundaries a little more clearly, but not exclusively. They have windows, but racks of shoes or T-shirts often push out onto the concourse. And the windows are packed full of goods, tastefully arranged according to color and style, but bursting with them. They offer a plenitude of differences, a bottomless cup of resources for individual tastes to draw upon. These windows, too, reveal the shop: the multitude of goods in the windows never obscures the even greater number of goods within the shop itself. The lighting of both the shop and the windows is bright and cleverly designed to give an identity to the shop that differentiates it from others and from the concourse. As different individuals construct their images within the similarity of fashion, so different shops construct their identity, frequently by the use of lighting and color, within the overall stylistic unity of the shopping center. Window shopping involves a seemingly casual, but actually purposeful, wandering from shop to shop, which means wandering from potential identity to potential identity until a shop identity is found that matches the individual identity, or, rather, that offers the means to construct that identity. The windows and lighting of these middle-range shops create an identity for them that differentiates them from each other and from the public areas, but then opens them up; their brightness invites the gaze, invites the browser inside.

The “democratic” shops do not stress their own identity, do


not differentiate themselves so clearly either from each other or from the public areas. The “middle-class” shops identify themselves as different, but as available to all who have the taste to want the identity they offer. The importance of individual differences increases as we ride the elevators up the class structure. So the “upper-class” shops are individualistic to the point of exclusivity. Their windows have fewer goods in them, signaling the opposite of mass availability; their lighting is more subdued, with highlights on the individual commodity, and the shop behind the window is much less easily seen—sometimes, indeed, it is invisible. The contrast in lighting styles between the middle- and upper- class windows is a contrast in class taste and social identity. The highlight on the exclusive commodity, a fur coat or a haute-couture dress, suggests that the wearer will be in the spotlight, picked out from the others. The overall bright lighting in the middle-class windows suggests that the wearers of the commodities within them will be members of the group that shares that style and taste. In theatrical terms, it is the difference between lighting the star and lighting the chorus line. The windows of these upscale shops exclude the mass viewer and signal the limited availability of their commodities, and thus of the identities they offer.

Centrepoint uses vertical differentiation to materialize class difference, a typical instance of the bourgeois ideological practice of conceptualizing classes as though they existed in a spatial, rather than a social, relationship to each other. So the upper-class shops are “naturally” on the highest floor, the “democratic” ones “naturally” on the lowest. This is a good example of how language constructs rather than reflects social reality, for there is no logical reason, if we wish to conceptualize the relationships among classes in spatial terms, that we should not use, for example, right, center, and left. There may not be a logical reason for our culture’s selection of the metaphor here, but there is, of course, an ideological one. Using right, center, and left as a metaphor would suggest both the arbitrary nature of class differences and their political dimension, whereas using upper, middle, and lower grounds these differences in


material reality and makes them appear natural. It also gives them a natural value system—as Lakoff and Johnson (1980) have shown, up in our culture is good (it is, after all, where God is) and down is bad. The spatial up-down metaphor that we commonly use to express moral and social values has been (literally) made concrete by Centrepoint’s system of levels.


A key feature of the styles on offer is newness, and shopping malls emphasize newness over almost any other characteristic. The plethora of shiny surfaces, the bright lights, the pervasive use of glass and mirrors all serve to make both the commodities and the center itself appear brand new, as though minted yesterday. In Centrepoint (Sydney) and Carillon (Perth) everything is squeaky clean, never a smear or finger mark on the acres of plate glass, never a dull patch on the shiny walls or ceiling. It all adds up to an overwhelming image of newness, a space with no place for the old, the shabby, the worn—no place for the past, only an invitation to the future. So the publicity for Centrepoint and Carillon is dotted with words like trend, new, fashion, now, today; newness and “nowness” mark the threshold of the future, not the culmination of the past.

Newness, of course, is central to the economic and ideological interests of capitalism: the desire for the new keeps the production processes turning and the money flowing toward the producers and distributors. The fashion industry has been frequently and accurately criticized for creating artificial newness and therefore artificial obsolescence to further its own economic interests, and, implicitly, to work against the interests of its consumers. Such a criticism, accurate as far as it goes, does not go far enough, for it fails to question why consumers, largely women, continue to want the new, if this desire is totally against their own interests. The “cultural dope” theory would


have to work enormously, not to say impossibly, hard to offer a finally convincing explanation of this.

The desire to be up to date, and there is plenty of evidence that it is a common desire, cannot be created entirely by slick publicity, for advertising can only harness and shape socially created desires, it cannot create them from scratch. At the ideological level, the origins of the desire for the new can be traced back to the ideology of progress that has pervaded the economic, political, and moral domains of post-Renaissance Christian capitalist democracies. Such Western societies see time as linear, forward moving and inevitably productive of change. The forward movement of time and the changes it brings are then made social sense of by the concept of progress, improvement, and development. Other societies in which time is seen as circular rather than linear give a quite different value to the relationships among the past, the present, and the future, and make a quite different sense of newness.

But, of course, ideologies do not suit all groups in a society equally well; indeed, it is their function not to do so. The sense of pleasure or satisfaction occasioned by progress achieved is not equally available to all; rather, it is most “naturally” accessible to the mature, white, middle-class male, and becomes progressively less available as social groups are distanced from the ideological norm. The life opportunities available to, for instance, a young, black, working-class female offer limited chances of experiencing the pleasures of progress achieved, yet people of such a group experience the same ideology of progress as do the “successful.”

There is, I suggest, an inverse relationship between the possession of a job that offers the pleasures of progress achieved and the seeking of alternative inflections of these pleasures in trendy fashions and the desire to be up to date. Chodorow (1978), for instance, has argued that men’s jobs in patriarchy have tended to be goal-oriented and to offer a sense of achievement, of a job done. Women’s jobs, on the other hand, tend to be repetitious and circular, of which domestic labor is the prime example and secretarial labor the


commercial equivalent. Chodorow’s emphasis on gender difference, however, leads her to neglect class, age, and race differences within men (and women)—so it is the mature, white, middle-class male who is most likely to have the sort of job that Chodorow characterizes as men’s. It is also likely that such a man will have conservative tastes in fashion, and will not find pleasure in up-to-dateness; indeed, he will often avoid it. For women, on the other hand, who are likely to have the nonprogressive, nonachieving job of wife-mother, or, if in the workforce, are likely to be in more routine, more repetitive jobs, it may be that participation in fashion is their prime, if not their only, means of participating in the ideology of progress. And because progress and the new have been masculinized, the pleasures they offer can receive public acclaim and validation. The stereotype of the dowdy housewife who has “let herself go” is encumbered with negative values partly because she is seen to have missed out on both the progressive and the public.

For a woman in patriarchy, commodities that enable her to be “in fashion” enable her to relate to the social order in a way that grants her access to the progressive and the public. Such a move may not be radical in that it does not challenge the right of patriarchy to offer these pleasures to men more readily than women, but it can be seen as both progressive and empowering insofar as it opens up masculine pleasures to women. Just as the department store was the first public space legitimately available to women, so the fashionable commodities it offers provide a legimated public identity and a means of participating in the ideology of progress.

Similarly, many youth subcultures, for both genders, are characterized by a strong desire for up-to-date tastes, in dress and music particularly. Those whose position in the social system denies them the sort of goal achievements of middle-class jobs frequently turn to style and fashion both as a source of pleasure and as a means of establishing themselves in a controlling rather than dependent relationship to the social order. By the imaginative use of commodities, young people can and do make themselves into icons of street art (Chambers 1986). Commodities provided


by an industrialized culture can be used for subcultural, resisting purposes (Hebdige 1979).

So the greeting cards discussed earlier in this chapter are not merely silly. In “Work to Live, Live to Love, and Love to Shop,” the female speaker recognizes that working, loving, and shopping are all ways of forming social relations; the utterance inside the card—“If I can buy enough things I’ll never have to work at love again”—recognizes that patriarchy’s grip on working and love is tighter than its grip on shopping. Thus it is that buying commodities offers a sense of freedom, however irrational, from the work involved in working and loving under patriarchy: working and loving are conflated as chores from which shopping offers an escape.



The Tendency of Capitalism to Commodify




Karl Marx


Acommodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. So far as it is a use-value, there is nothing mysterious about it, whether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it satisfies human needs, or that it first takes on these properties as the product of human labor. It is absolutely clear that, by his activity, man changes the forms of the materials of nature in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered if a table is made out of it. Nevertheless the table continues to be wood, an ordinary, sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will.1

The mystical character of the commodity does not therefore arise from its use-value. Just as little does it proceed from the nature of the determinants of value. For in the first place, however varied the useful kinds of labor, or


productive activities, it is a physiological fact that they are functions of the human organism, and that each such function, whatever may be its nature or its form, is essentially the expenditure of human brain, nerves, muscles and sense organs. Secondly, with regard to the foundation of the quantitative determination of value, namely the duration of that expenditure or the quantity of labor, this is quite palpably different from its quality. In all situations, the labor- time it costs to produce the means of subsistence must necessarily concern mankind, although not to the same degree at different stages of development.2 And finally, as soon as men start to work for each other in any way, their labor also assumes a social form.

Whence, then, arises the enigmatic character of the product of labor, as soon as it assumes the form of a commodity? Clearly, it arises from this form itself. The equality of the kinds of human labor takes on a physical form in the equal objectivity of the products of labor as values; the measure of the expenditure of human labor-power by its duration takes on the form of the magnitude of the value of the products of labor; and finally the relationships between the producers, within which the social characteristics of their labors are manifested, take on the form of a social relation between the products of labor.

The mysterious character of the commodity-form consists therefore simply in the fact that the commodity reflects the social characteristics of men’s own labor as objective characteristics of the products of labor themselves, as the socio-natural properties of these things. Hence it also reflects the social relation of the producers to the sum total of labor as a social relation between objects, a relation which exists apart from and outside the producers. Through this substitution, the products of labor become commodities, sensuous things which are at the same time su-prasensible or social. In the same way, the impression made by a thing on the optic nerve is perceived not as a subjective excitation of that nerve but as the objective form of a thing outside the eye. In the act of seeing, of course, light is really transmitted from one thing, the external object, to another thing, the eye.


It is a physical relation between physical things. As against this, the commodity-form, and the value-relation of the products of labor within which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material [dinglich] relations arising out of this. It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labor as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

As the foregoing analysis has already demonstrated, this fetishism of the world of commodities arises from the peculiar social character of the labor which produces them.

Objects of utility become commodities only because they are the products of the labor of private individuals who work independently of each other. The sum total of the labor of all these private individuals forms the aggregate labor of society. Since the producers do not come into social contact until they exchange the products of their labor, the specific social characteristics of their private labors appear only within this exchange. In other words, the labor of the private individual manifests itself as an element of the total labor of society only through the relations which the act of exchange establishes between the products, and, through their mediation, between the producers. To the producers, therefore, the social relations between their private labors appear as what they are, i.e., they do not appear as direct social relations between persons in their work, but rather as material [dinglich] relations between persons and social relations between things.

It is only by being exchanged that the products of labor acquire a socially uniform objectivity as values, which is


distinct from their sensuously varied objectivity as articles of utility. This division of the product of labor into a useful thing and a thing possessing value appears in practice only when exchange has already acquired a sufficient extension and importance to allow useful things to be produced for the purpose of being exchanged, so that their character as values has already to be taken into consideration during production. From this moment on, the labor of the individual producer acquires a twofold social character. On the one hand, it must, as a definite useful kind of labor, satisfy a definite social need, and thus maintain its position as an element of the total labor, as a branch of the social division of labor, which originally sprang up spontaneously. On the other hand, it can satisfy the manifold needs of the individual producer himself only in so far as every particular kind of useful private labor can be exchanged with, i.e., counts as the equal of, every other kind of useful private labor. Equality in the full sense between different kinds of labor can be arrived at only if we abstract from their real inequality, if we reduce them to the characteristic they have in common, that of being the expenditure of human labor-power, of human labor in the abstract. The private producer’s brain reflects this twofold social character of his labor only in the forms which appear in practical intercourse, in the exchange of products. Hence the socially useful character of his private labor is reflected in the form that the product of labor has to be useful to others, and the social character of the equality of the various kinds of labor is reflected in the form of the common character, as values, possessed by these materially different things, the products of labor.

Men do not therefore bring the products of their labor into relation with each other as values because they see these objects merely as the material integuments of homogeneous human labor. The reverse is true: by equating their different products to each other in exchange as values, they equate their different kinds of labor as human labor. They do this without being aware of it.3 Value, therefore, does not have its description branded on its forehead; it rather transforms every product of labor into a social hieroglyphic. Later on,


men try to decipher the hieroglyphic, to get behind the secret of their own social product: for the characteristic which objects of utility have of being values is as much men’s social product as is their language. The belated scientific discovery that the products of labor, in so far as they are values, are merely the material expressions of the human labor expended to produce them, marks an epoch in the history of mankind’s development, but by no means banishes the semblance of objectivity possessed by the social characteristics of labor. Something which is only valid for this particular form of production, the production of commodities, namely the fact that the specific social character of private labors carried on independently of each other consists in their equality as human labor, and, in the product, assumes the form of the existence of value, appears to those caught up in the relations of commodity production (and this is true both before and after the above-mentioned scientific discovery) to be just as ultimately valid as the fact that the scientific dissection of the air into its component parts left the atmosphere itself unaltered in its physical configuration.

What initially concerns producers in practice when they make an exchange is how much of some other product they get for their own; in what proportions can the products be exchanged? As soon as these proportions have attained a certain customary stability, they appear to result from the nature of the products, so that, for instance, one ton of iron and two ounces of gold appear to be equal in value, in the same way as a pound of gold and a pound of iron are equal in weight, despite their different physical and chemical properties. The value character of the products of labor becomes firmly established only when they act as magnitudes of value. These magnitudes vary continually, independently of the will, foreknowledge and actions of the exchangers. Their own movement within society has for them the form of a movement made by things, and these things, far from being under their control, in fact control them. The production of commodities must be fully developed before the scientific conviction emerges, from experience itself, that all the


different kinds of private labor (which are carried on independently of each other, and yet, as spontaneously developed branches of the social division of labor, are in a situation of all-round dependence on each other) are continually being reduced to the quantitative proportions in which society requires them. The reason for this reduction is that in the midst of the accidental and ever-fluctuating exchange relations between the products, the labor-time socially necessary to produce them asserts itself as a regulative law of nature. In the same way, the law of gravity asserts itself when a person’s house collapses on top of him. The determination of the magnitude of value by labor-time is therefore a secret hidden under the apparent movements in the relative values of commodities. Its discovery destroys the semblance of the merely accidental determination of the magnitude of the value of the products of labor, but by no means abolishes that determination’s material form.

Reflection on the forms of human life, hence also scientific analysis of those forms, takes a course directly opposite to their real development. Reflection begins post festum,f and therefore with the results of the process of development ready to hand. The forms which stamp products as commodities and which are therefore the preliminary requirements for the circulation of commodities, already possess the fixed quality of natural forms of social life before man seeks to give an account, not of their historical character, for in his eyes they are immutable, but of their content and meaning. Consequently, it was solely the analysis of the prices of commodities which led to the determination of the magnitude of value, and solely the common expression of all commodities in money which led to the establishment of their character as values. It is however precisely this finished form of the world of commodities—the money form—which conceals the social character of private labor and the social relations between the individual workers, by making those relations appear as relations between material objects, instead of revealing them plainly. If I state that coats or boots stand in a relation to linen because the latter is the universal incarnation of abstract


human labor, the absurdity of the statement is self-evident. Nevertheless, when the producers of coats and boots bring these commodities into a relation with linen, or with gold or silver (and this makes no difference here), as the universal equivalent, the relation between their own private labor and the collective labor of society appears to them in exactly this absurd form.

The categories of bourgeois economics consist precisely of forms of this kind. They are forms of thought which are socially valid, and therefore objective, for the relations of production belonging to this historically determined mode of social production, i.e., commodity production. The whole mystery of commodities, all the magic and necromancy that surrounds the products of labor on the basis of commodity production, vanishes therefore as soon as we come to other forms of production.

As political economists are fond of Robinson Crusoe stories,4 let us first look at Robinson on his island. Undemanding though he is by nature, he still has needs to satisfy, and must therefore perform useful labors of various kinds: he must make tools, knock together furniture, tame llamas, fish, hunt and so on. Of his prayers and the like, we take no account here, since our friend takes pleasure in them and sees them as recreation. Despite the diversity of his productive functions, he knows that they are only different forms of activity of one and the same Robinson, hence only different forms of human labor. Necessity itself compels him to divide his time with precision between his different functions. Whether one function occupies a greater space in his total activity than another depends on the magnitude of the difficulties to be overcome in attaining the useful effect aimed at. Our friend Robinson Crusoe learns this by experience, and having saved a watch, ledger, ink and pen from the shipwreck, he soon begins, like a good Englishman, to keep a set of books. His stock-book contains a catalog of the useful objects he possesses, of the various operations necessary for their production, and finally of the labor-time that specific quantities of these products have on average cost him. All the relations between Robinson and these


objects that form his self-created wealth are here so simple and transparent that even Mr. Sedley Taylorg could understand them. And yet those relations contain all the essential determinants of value.

Let us now transport ourselves from Robinson’s island, bathed in light, to medieval Europe, shrouded in darkness. Here, instead of the independent man, we find everyone dependent—serfs and lords, vassals and suzerains, laymen and clerics. Personal dependence characterizes the social relations of material production as much as it does the other spheres of life based on that production. But precisely because relations of personal dependence form the given social foundation, there is no need for labor and its products to assume a fantastic form different from their reality. They take the shape, in the transactions of society, of services in kind and payments in kind. The natural form of labor, its particularity—and not, as in a society based on commodity production, its universality—is here its immediate social form. The corvée can be measured by time just as well as the labor which produces commodities, but every serf knows that what he expends in the service of his lord is a specific quantity of his own personal labor-power. The tithe owed to the priest is more clearly apparent than his blessing. Whatever we may think, then, of the different roles in which men confront each other in such a society, the social relations between individuals in the performance of their labor appear at all events as their own personal relations, and are not disguised as social relations between things, between the products of labor.

For an example of labor in common, i.e., directly associated labor, we do not need to go back to the spontaneously developed form which we find at the threshold of the history of all civilized peoples.5 We have one nearer to hand in the patriarchal rural industry of a peasant family which produces corn, cattle, yarn, linen and clothing for its own use. These things confront the family as so many products of its collective labor, but they do not confront each other as commodities. The different kinds of labor which create these products—such as tilling the fields, tending the cattle,


spinning, weaving and making clothes—are already in their natural form social functions; for they are functions of the fam-ily, which, just as much as a society based on commodity production, possesses its own spontaneously developed division of labor. The distribution of labor within the family and the labor-time expended by the individual members of the family, are regulated by differences of sex and age as well as by seasonal variations in the natural conditions of labor. The fact that the expenditure of the individual labor- powers is measured by duration appears here, by its very nature, as a social characteristic of labor itself, because the individual labor-powers, by their very nature, act only as instruments of the joint labor-power of the family.

Let us finally imagine, for a change, an association of free men, working with the means of production held in common, and expending their many different forms of labor-power in full self-awareness as one single social labor force. All the characteristics of Robinson’s labor are repeated here, but with the difference that they are social instead of individual. All Robinson’s products were exclusively the result of his own personal labor and they were therefore directly objects of utility for him personally. The total product of our imagined association is a social product. One part of this product serves as fresh means of production and remains social. But another part is consumed by the members of the association as means of subsistence. This part must therefore be divided among them. The way this division is made will vary with the particular kind of social organization of production and the corresponding level of social development attained by the producers. We shall assume, but only for the sake of a parallel with the production of commodities, that the share of each individual producer in the means of subsistence is determined by his labor-time. Labor-time would in that case play a double part. Its apportionment in accordance with a definite social plan maintains the correct proportion between the different functions of labor and the various needs of the associations. On the other hand, labor- time also serves as a measure of the part taken by each individual in the common labor, and of his share in the part


of the total product destined for individual consumption. The social relations of the individual producers, both toward their labor and the products of their labor, are here transparent in their simplicity, in production as well as in distribution.

For a society of commodity producers, whose general social relation of production consists in the fact that they treat their products as commodities, hence as values, and in this material [sachlich] form bring their individual, private labors into relation with each other as homogeneous human labor, Christianity with its religious cult of man in the abstract, more particularly in its bourgeois development, i.e., in Protestantism, Deism, etc., is the most fitting form of religion. In the ancient Asiatic, Classical-antique, and other such modes of production, the transformation of the product into a commodity, and therefore men’s existence as producers of commodities, plays a subordinate role, which however increases in importance as these communities approach nearer and nearer to the stage of their dissolution. Trading nations, properly so called, exist only in the interstices of the ancient world, like the gods of Epicurus in the intermundia,h or Jews in the pores of Polish society. Those ancient social organisms of production are much more simple and transparent than those of bourgeois society. But they are founded either on the immaturity of man as an individual, when he has not yet torn himself loose from the umbilical cord of his natural species-connection with other men, or on direct relations of dominance and servitude. They are conditioned by a low stage of development of the productive powers of labor and correspondingly limited relations between men within the process of creating and reproducing their material life, hence also limited relations between man and nature. These real limitations are reflected in the ancient worship of nature, and in other elements of tribal religions. The religious reflections of the real world can, in any case, vanish only when the practical relations of everyday life between man and man, and man and nature, generally present themselves to him in a transparent and rational form. The veil is not removed from the countenance of the social life-process, i.e., the process of material


production, until it becomes production by freely associated men, and stands under their conscious and planned control. This, however, requires that society possess a material foundation, or a series of material conditions of existence, which in their turn are the natural and spontaneous product of a long and tormented historical development.

Political economy has indeed analyzed value and its magnitude, however incompletely,6 and has uncovered the content concealed within these forms. But it has never once asked the question why this content has assumed that particular form, that is to say, why labor is expressed in value, and why the measurement of labor by its duration is expressed in the magnitude of the value of the product.7 These formulas, which bear the unmistakable stamp of belonging to a social formation in which the process of production has mastery over man, instead of the opposite, appear to the political economists’ bourgeois consciousness to be as much a self-evident and nature-imposed necessity as productive labor itself. Hence the pre-bourgeois forms of the social organization of production are treated by political economy in much the same way as the Fathers of the Church treated pre-Christian religions.8

The degree to which some economists are misled by the fetishism attached to the world of commodities, or by the objective appearance of the social characteristics of labor, is shown, among other things, by the dull and tedious dispute over the part played by nature in the formation of exchange- value. Since exchange-value is a definite social manner of expressing the labor bestowed on a thing, it can have no more natural content than has, for example, the rate of exchange.

As the commodity-form is the most general and the most undeveloped form of bourgeois production, it makes its appearance at an early date, though not in the same predominant and therefore characteristic manner as nowadays. Hence its fetish character is still relatively easy to penetrate. But when we come to more concrete forms, even this appearance of simplicity vanishes. Where did the illusions of the Monetary System come from? The adherents


of the Monetary System did not see gold and silver as representing money as a social relation of production, but in the form of natural objects with peculiar social properties. And what of modern political economy, which looks down so disdainfully on the Monetary System? Does not its fetishism become quite palpable when it deals with capital? How long is it since the disappearance of the Phy-siocratic illusion that ground rent grows out of the soil, not out of society?

But, to avoid anticipating, we will content ourselves here with one more example relating to the commodity-form itself. If commodities could speak, they would say this: our use- value may interest men, but it does not belong to us as objects. What does belong to us as objects, however, is our value. Our own intercourse as commodities proves it. We relate to each other merely as exchange-values. Now listen how those commodities speak through the mouth of the economist:

“Value (i.e., exchange-value) is a property of things, riches (i.e., use-value) of man. Value, in this sense, necessarily implies exchanges, riches do not.”9

“Riches (use-value) are the attribute of man, value is the attribute of commodities. A man or a community is rich, a pearl or a diamond is valuable . . . A pearl or a diamond is valuable as a pearl or diamond.”10

So far no chemist has ever discovered exchange-value either in a pearl or a diamond. The economists who have discovered this chemical substance, and who lay special claim to critical acumen, nevertheless find that the use-value of material objects belongs to them independently of their material properties, while their value, on the other hand, forms a part of them as objects. What confirms them in this view is the peculiar circumstance that the use-value of a thing is realized without exchange, i.e., in the direct relation between the thing and man, while, inversely, its value is realized only in exchange, i.e., in a social process. Who would not call to mind at this point the advice given by the good Dogberry to the night-watchman Seacoal?i

“To be a well-favored man is the gift of fortune; but reading and writing comes by nature.”11



1 One may recall that China and the tables began to dance when the rest of the world appeared to be standing still— pour encourage les autres. “To encourage the others.” This is a reference to the simultaneous emergence in the 1850s of the Taiping revolt in China and the craze for spiritualism which swept over upper-class German society. The rest of the world was “standing still” in the period of reaction immediately after the defeat of the 1848 Revolutions. 2 Among the ancient Germans the size of a piece of land was measured according to the labor of a day; hence the acre was called Tagwerk, Tagwanne (jurnale, or terra jurnalis, or diornalis), Mannswerk, Mannskraft, Manns-maad, Mannshauet, etc. See Georg Ludwig von Maurer, Einleitung zur Ges-chichte der Mark-, Hof-, usw. Verfassung, Munich, 1854, p. 129 ff. 3 Therefore, when Galiani said: Value is a relation between persons (“La Ricchezza e una ragione tra due persone”) he ought to have added: a relation concealed beneath a material shell. (Galiani, Della Moneta, p. 221, Vol. 3 of Custodi’s collection entitled Scrittori classici italiani di economia politica, Parte moderna, Milan, 1803.) 4 Even Ricardo has his Robinson Crusoe stories. “Ricardo makes his primitive fisherman and primitive hunter into owners of commodities who immediately exchange their fish and game in proportion to the labor-time which is materialized in these exchange-values. On this occasion he slips into the anachronism of allowing the primitive fisherman and hunter to calculate the value of their implements in accordance with the annuity tables used on the London Stock Exchange in 1817. Apart from bourgeois society, the ‘parallelograms of Mr Owen’ seem to have been the only form of society Ricardo was acquainted with” (Karl Marx, Zur Kritik etc., pp. 38-9) [English translation, p. 60].

The “parallelograms” were the utopian socialist Robert


Owen’s suggestion for the most appropriate layout for a workers’ settlement, made in A New View of Society (1813) and immediately seized on by his critics. Ricardo’s reference to them is from his On Protection of Agriculture, London, 1822, p. 21. 5 “A ridiculous notion has spread abroad recently that communal property in its natural, spontaneous form is specifically Slav, indeed exclusively Russian. In fact, it is the primitive form that we can prove to have existed among Romans, Teutons and Celts, and which indeed still exists to this day in India, in a whole range of diverse patterns, albeit sometimes only as remnants. A more exact study of the Asiatic, and specifically of the Indian form of communal property would indicate the way in which different forms of spontaneous, primitive communal property give rise to different forms of its dissolution. Thus the different original types of Roman and Germanic private property can be deduced from the different forms of Indian communal property” (Karl Marx, Zur Kritik, etc., p. 10) [English translation, p. 33]. 6 The insufficiency of Ricardo’s analysis of the magnitude of value—and his analysis is by far the best—will appear from the third and fourth books of this work. [These are the books that appeared, respectively, as Volume 3 of Capital, and Theories of Surplus-Value (3 volumes).] As regards value in general, classical political economy in fact nowhere distinguishes explicitly and with a clear awareness between labor as it appears in the value of a product, and the same labor as it appears in the product’s use-value. Of course the distinction is made in practice, since labor is treated sometimes from its quantitative aspect, and at other times qualitatively. But it does not occur to the economists that a purely quantitative distinction between the kinds of labor presupposes their qualitative unity or equality, and therefore their reduction to abstract human labor. For instance, Ricardo declares that he agrees with Destutt de Tracy when the latter says: “As it is certain that our physical and moral faculties are alone our original riches, the employment of those faculties, labor of some kind, is our original treasure,


and it is always from this employment that all those things are created which we call riches . . . It is certain too, that all those things only represent the labor which has created them, and if they have a value, or even two distinct values, they can only derive them from that” (the value) “of the labor from which they emanate” (Ricardo, The Principles of Political Economy, 3rd edn, London, 1821, p. 334 and Destutt de Tracy, Elémens d‘idéologie, Parts 4 and 5, Paris, 1826, pp. 35—6). We would here only point out that Ricardo imposes his own more profound interpretation on the words of Destutt. Admittedly Destutt does say that all things which constitute wealth “represent the labor which has created them,” but, on the other hand, he also says that they acquire their “two different values” (use-value and exchange-value) from “the value of labor.” He thus falls into the commonplace error of the vulgar economists, who assume the value of one commodity (here labor) in order in turn to use it to determine the values of other commodities. But Ricardo reads him as if he had said that labor (not the value of labor) is represented both in use-value and in exchange-value. Nevertheless, Ricardo himself makes so little of the dual character of the labor represented in this twofold way that he is forced to spend the whole of his chapter “Value and Riches, their Distinctive Properties” on a laborious examination of the trivialities of a J. B. Say. And at the end he is therefore quite astonished to find that while Destutt agrees with him that labor is the source of value, he nevertheless also agrees with Say about the concept of value. [“I am sorry to be obliged to add that M. de Tracy supports, by his authority, the definitions which M. Say has given of the words ’‘value,’ ‘riches,’ and ‘utility’ ” (Ricardo, op. cit., p. 334).] 7 It is one of the chief failings of classical political economy that it has never succeeded, by means of its analysis of commodities, and in particular of their value, in discovering the form of value which in fact turns value into exchange- value. Even its best representatives, Adam Smith and Ricardo, treat the form of value as something of indifference, something external to the nature of the commodity itself. The explanation for this is not simply that their attention is


entirely absorbed by the analysis of the magnitude of value. It lies deeper. The value-form of the product of labor is the most abstract, but also the most universal form of the bourgeois mode of production; by that fact it stamps the bourgeois mode of production as a particular kind of social production of a historical and transitory character. If then we make the mistake of treating it as the eternal natural form of social production, we necessarily overlook the specificity of the value-form, and consequently of the commodity-form together with its further developments, the money form, the capital form, etc. We therefore find that economists who are entirely agreed that labor-time is the measure of the magnitude of value, have the strangest and most contradictory ideas about money, that is, about the universal equivalent in its finished form. This emerges sharply when they deal with banking, where the commonplace definitions of money will no longer hold water. Hence there has arisen in opposition to the classical economists a restored Mercantilist System (Ganilh etc.), which sees in value only the social form, or rather its insubstantial semblance. Let me point out once and for all that by classical political economy I mean all the economists who, since the time of W. Petty, have investigated the real internal framework [Zusammenhang] of bourgeois relations of production, as opposed to the vulgar economists who only flounder around within the apparent framework of those relations, ceaselessly ruminate on the materials long since provided by scientific political economy, and seek there plausible explanations of the crudest phenomena for the domestic purposes of the bourgeoisie. Apart from this, the vulgar economists confine themselves to systematizing in a pedantic way, and proclaiming for everlasting truths, the banal and complacent notions held by the bourgeois agents of production about their own world, which is to them the best possible one. 8 “The economists have a singular way of proceeding. For them, there are only two kinds of institutions, artificial and natural. The institutions of feudalism are artificial institutions, those of the bourgeoisie are natural institutions. In this they resemble the theologians, who likewise establish


two kinds of religion. Every religion which is not heirs is an invention of men, while their own is an emanation of God . . . Thus there has been history, but there is no longer any” (Karl Marx, Misère de la philosophie. Résponse à la philosophie de la misére de M. Proudhon, 1847, p. 113; English translation: Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, London, 1966, p. 105). Truly comical is M. Bastiat, who imagines that the ancient Greeks and Romans lived by plunder alone. For if people live by plunder for centuries there must, after all, always be something there to plunder; in other words, the objects of plunder must be continually reproduced. It seems, therefore, that even the Greeks and the Romans had a process of production, hence an economy, which constituted the material basis of their world as much as the bourgeois economy constitutes that of the present-day world. Or perhaps Bastiat means that a mode of production based on the labor of slaves is based on a system of plunder? In that case he is on dangerous ground. If a giant thinker like Aristotle could err in his evaluation of slave-labor, why should a dwarf economist like Bastiat be right in his evaluation of wage-labor? I seize this opportunity of briefly refuting an objection made by a German-American publication to my work Zur Kritik der Politischen Okonomie, 1859. My view is that each particular mode of production, and the relations of production corresponding to it at each given moment, in short “the economic structure of society,” is “the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness,” and that “the mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life.” [These passages are taken from the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, written in January 1859 (English translation, pp. 20-21).]

In the opinion of the German-American publication this is all very true for our own times, in which material interests are preponderant, but not for the Middle Ages, dominated by Catholicism, nor for Athens and Rome, dominated by politics. In the first place, it strikes us as odd that anyone should


suppose that these well-worn phrases about the Middle Ages and the ancient world were unknown to anyone else. One thing is clear: the Middle Ages could not live on Catholicism, nor could the ancient world on politics. On the contrary, it is the manner in which they gained their livelihood which explains why in one case politics, in the other case Catholicism, played the chief part. For the rest, one needs no more than a slight acquaintance with, for example, the history of the Roman Republic, to be aware that its secret history is the history of landed property. And then there is Don Quixote, who long ago paid the penalty for wrongly imagining that knight errantry was compatible with all economic forms of society. 9 Observations on Some Verbal Disputes in Pol. Econ., Particularly Relating to Value, and to Supply and Demand, London, 1821, p. 16. 10 Bailey, Samual, A Critical Dissertation on the Nature, Measures, and Causes of Values: Chiefly in Reference to the Writings of Mr. Ricardo and His Followers. By the Author of Essays on the Formation and Publication of Opinions, London 1825. 11 Both the author of Observations etc., and S. Bailey accuse Ricardo of converting exchange-value from something relative into something absolute. The reverse is true. He has reduced the apparent relativity which these things (diamonds, pearls, etc.) possess to the true relation hidden behind the appearance, namely their relativity as mere expressions of human labor. If the followers of Ricardo answer Bailey somewhat rudely, but by no means convincingly, this is because they are unable to find in Ricardo’s own works any elucidation of the inner connection between value and the form of value, or exchange-value.




bell hooks

This is theory’s acute dilemma: that desire expresses itself most fully where only those absorbed in its delights and torments are present, that it triumphs most completely over other human preoccupations in places sheltered from view. Thus it is paradoxically in hiding that the secrets of desire come to light, that hegemonic impositions and their reversals, evasions, and subversions are at their most honest and active, and that the identities and disjunctures between felt passion and established culture place themselves on most vivid display.


Within current debates about race and difference, mass culture is the contemporary location that both publicly declares and perpetuates the idea that there is pleasure to be found in the acknowledgment and enjoyment of racial difference. The commodification of Otherness has been so successful because it is offered as a new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling. Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream


white culture. Cultural taboos around sexuality and desire are transgressed and made explicit as the media bombards folks with a message of difference no longer based on the white supremacist assumption that “blondes have more fun.” The “real fun” is to be had by bringing to the surface all those “nasty” unconscious fantasies and longings about contact with the Other embedded in the secret (not so secret) deep structure of white supremacy. In many ways it is a contemporary revival of interest in the “primitive,” with a distinctly postmodern slant. As Marianna Torgovnick argues in Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives:

What is clear now is that the West’s fascination with the primitive has to do with its own crises in identity, with its own need to clearly demarcate subject and object even while flirting with other ways of experiencing the universe.

Certainly from the standpoint of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, the hope is that desires for the “primitive” or fantasies about the Other can be continually exploited, and that such exploitation will occur in a manner that reinscribes and maintains the status quo. Whether or not desire for contact with the Other, for connection rooted in the longing for pleasure, can act as a critical intervention challenging and subverting racist domination, inviting and enabling critical resistance, is an unrealized political possibility. Exploring how desire for the Other is expressed, manipulated, and transformed by encounters with difference and the different is a critical terrain that can indicate whether these potentially revolutionary longings are ever fulfilled.

Contemporary working-class British slang playfully converges the discourse of desire, sexuality, and the Other, evoking the phrase getting “a bit of the Other” as a way to speak about sexual encounter. Fucking is the Other. Displacing the notion of Otherness from race, ethnicity, skin- color, the body emerges as a site of contestation where sexuality is the metaphoric Other that threatens to take over, consume, transform via the experience of pleasure. Desired


and sought after, sexual pleasure alters the consenting subject, deconstructing notions of will, control, coercive domination. Commodity culture in the United States exploits conventional thinking about race, gender, and sexual desire by “working” both the idea that racial difference marks one as Other and the assumption that sexual agency expressed within the context of racialized sexual encounter is a conversion experience that alters one’s place and participation in contemporary cultural politics. The seductive promise of this encounter is that it will counter the terrorizing force of the status quo that makes identity fixed, static, a condition of containment and death. And that it is this willingness to transgress racial boundaries within the realm of the sexual that eradicates the fear that one must always conform to the norm to remain “safe.” Difference can seduce precisely because the mainstream imposition of sameness is a provocation that terrorizes. And as Jean Baudrillard suggests in Fatal Strategies:

Provocation—unlike seduction, which allows things to come into play and appear in secret, dual and ambiguous—does not leave you free to be; it calls on you to reveal yourself as you are. It is always blackmail by identity (and thus a symbolic murder, since you are never that, except precisely by being condemned to it).

To make one’s self vulnerable to the seduction of difference, to seek an encounter with the Other, does not require that one relinquish forever one’s mainstream positionality. When race and ethnicity become commodified as resources for pleasure, the culture of specific groups, as well as the bodies of individuals, can be seen as constituting an alternative playground where members of dominating races, genders, sexual practices affirm their power-over in intimate relations with the Other. While teaching at Yale, I walked one bright spring day in the downtown area of New Haven, which is close to campus and invariably brings one into contact with many of the poor black people who live nearby, and found myself walking behind a group of very blond, very white, jock type boys. (The downtown area was


often talked about as an arena where racist domination of blacks by whites was contested on the sidewalks, as white people, usually male, often jocks, used their bodies to force black people off the sidewalk, to push our bodies aside, without ever looking at us or acknowledging our presence.) Seemingly unaware of my presence, these young men talked about their plans to fuck as many girls from other racial/ethnic groups as they could “catch” before graduation. They “ran” it down. Black girls were high on the list, Native American girls hard to find, Asian girls (all lumped into the same category), deemed easier to entice, were considered “prime targets.” Talking about this overheard conversation with my students, I found that it was commonly accepted that one “shopped” for sexual partners in the same way one “shopped” for courses at Yale, and that race and ethnicity was a serious category on which selections were based.

To these young males and their buddies, fucking was a way to confront the Other, as well as a way to make themselves over, to leave behind white “innocence” and enter the world of “experience.” As is often the case in this society, they were confident that non-white people had more life experience, were more worldly, sensual, and sexual because they were different. Getting a bit of the Other, in this case engaging in sexual encounters with non-white females, was considered a ritual of transcendence, a movement out into a world of difference that would transform, an acceptable rite of passage. The direct objective was not simply to sexually possess the Other; it was to be changed in some way by the encounter. “Naturally,” the presence of the Other, the body of the Other, was seen as existing to serve the ends of white male desires. Writing about the way difference is recouped in the West in “The ‘Primitive’ Unconscious of Modern Art, or White Skin, Black Masks,” Hal Foster reminds readers that Picasso regarded the tribal objects he had acquired as “witnesses” rather than as “models.” Foster critiques this positioning of the Other, emphasizing that this recognition was “contingent upon instrumentality”: “In this way, through affinity and use, the primitive is sent up into the service of the Western tradition (which is then seen to have partly


produced it).” A similar critique can be made of contemporary trends in inter-racial sexual desire and contact initiated by white males. They claim the body of the colored Other instrumentally, as unexplored terrain, a symbolic frontier that will be fertile ground for their reconstruction of the masculine norm, for asserting themselves as transgressive desiring subjects. They call upon the Other to be both witness and participant in this transformation.

For white boys to openly discuss their desire for colored girls (or boys) publicly announces their break with a white supremacist past that would have such desire articulated only as taboo, as secret, as shame. They see their willingness to openly name their desire for the Other as affirmation of cultural plurality (its impact on sexual preference and choice). Unlike racist white men who historically violated the bodies of black women/ women of color to assert their position as colonizer/conqueror, these young men see themselves as non-racists, who choose to transgress racial boundaries within the sexual realm not to dominate the Other, but rather so that they can be acted upon, so that they can be changed utterly. Not at all attuned to those aspects of their sexual fantasies that irrevocably link them to collective white racist domination, they believe their desire for contact represents a progressive change in white attitudes toward non-whites. They do not see themselves as perpetuating racism. To them the most potent indication of that change is the frank expression of longing, the open declaration of desire, the need to be intimate with dark Others. The point is to be changed by this convergence of pleasure and Otherness. One dares—acts—on the assumption that the exploration into the world of difference, into the body of the Other, will provide a greater, more intense pleasure than any that exists in the ordinary world of one’s familiar racial group. And even though the conviction is that the familiar world will remain intact even as one ventures outside it, the hope is that they will reenter that world no longer the same.

The current wave of “imperialist nostalgia” (defined by Renato Rosaldo in Culture and Truth as “nostalgia, often found under imperialism, where people mourn the passing of


what they themselves have transformed” or as “a process of yearning for what one has destroyed that is a form of mystification”) often obscures contemporary cultural strategies deployed not to mourn but to celebrate the sense of a continuum of “primitivism.” In mass culture, imperialist nostalgia takes the form of reenacting and reritualizing in different ways the imperialist, colonizing journey as narrative fantasy of power and desire, of seduction by the Other. This longing is rooted in the atavistic belief that the spirit of the “primitive” resides in the bodies of dark Others whose cultures, traditions, and lifestyles may indeed be irrevocably changed by imperialism, colonization, and racist domination. The desire to make contact with those bodies deemed Other, with no apparent will to dominate, assuages the guilt of the past, even takes the form of a defiant gesture where one denies accountability and historical connection. Most importantly, it establishes a contemporary narrative where the suffering imposed by structures of domination on those designated Other is deflected by an emphasis on seduction and longing where the desire is not to make the Other over in one’s image but to become the Other.

Whereas mournful imperialist nostalgia constitutes the betrayed and abandoned world of the Other as an accumulation of lack and loss, contemporary longing for the “primitive” is expressed by the projection onto the Other of a sense of plenty, bounty, a field of dreams. Commenting on this strategy in “Readings in Cultural Resistance,” Hal Foster contends, “Difference is thus used productively; indeed, in a social order which seems to know no outside (and which must contrive its own trangressions to redefine its limits), difference is often fabricated in the interests of social control as well as of commodity innovation.”

Masses of young people dissatisfied by U.S. imperialism, unemployment, lack of economic opportunity, afflicted by the postmodern malaise of alienation, no sense of grounding, no redemptive identity, can be manipulated by cultural strategies that offer Otherness as appeasement, particularly through commodification. The contemporary crises of identity in the west, especially as experienced by white


youth, are eased when the “primitive” is recouped via a focus on diversity and pluralism which suggests the Other can provide life-sustaining alternatives. Concurrently, diverse ethnic/racial groups can also embrace this sense of specialness, that histories and experience once seen as worthy only of disdain can be looked upon with awe.

Cultural appropriation of the Other assuages feelings of deprivation and lack that assault the psyches of radical white youth who choose to be disloyal to western civilization. Concurrently, marginalized groups, deemed Other, who have been ignored, rendered invisible, can be seduced by the emphasis on Otherness, by its commodification, because it offers the promise of recognition and reconciliation. When the dominant culture demands that the Other be offered as a sign that progressive political change is taking place, that the American Dream can indeed be inclusive of difference, it invites a resurgence of essentialist cultural nationalism. The acknowledged Other must assume recognizable forms. Hence, it is not African American culture formed in resistance to contemporary situations that surfaces, but nostalgic evocation of a “glorious” past. And even though the focus is often on the ways that this past was “superior” to the present, this cultural narrative relies on stereotypes of the “primitive,” even as it eschews the term, to evoke a world where black people were in harmony with nature and with one another. This narrative is linked to white western conceptions of the dark Other, not to a radical questioning of those representations.

Should youth of any other color not know how to move closer to the Other, or how to get in touch with the “primitive,” consumer culture promises to show the way. It is within the commercial realm of advertising that the drama of Otherness finds expression. Encounters with Otherness are clearly marked as more exciting, more intense, and more threatening. The lure is the combination of pleasure and danger. In the cultural marketplace the Other is coded as having the capacity to be more alive, as holding the secret that will allow those who venture and dare to break with the cultural anhedonia (defined in Sam Keen’s The Passionate


Life as “the insensitivity to pleasure, the incapacity for experiencing happiness”) and experience sensual and spiritual renewal. Before his untimely death, Michel Foucault, the quintessential transgressive thinker in the west, confessed that he had real difficulties experiencing pleasure:

I think that pleasure is a very difficult behavior. It’s not as simple as that to enjoy one’s self. And I must say that’s my dream. I would like and hope I die of an overdose of pleasure of any kind. Because I think it’s really difficult and I always have the feeling that I do not feel the pleasure, the complete total pleasure and, for me, it’s related to death. Because I think that the kind of pleasure I would consider as the real pleasure, would be so deep, so intense, so overwhelming that I couldn’t survive it. I would die.

Though speaking from the standpoint of his individual experience, Foucault voices a dilemma felt by many in the west. It is precisely that longing for the pleasure that has led the white west to sustain a romantic fantasy of the “primitive” and the concrete search for a real primitive paradise, whether that location be a country or a body, a dark continent or dark flesh, perceived as the perfect embodiment of that possibility.

Within this fantasy of Otherness, the longing for pleasure is projected as a force that can disrupt and subvert the will to dominate. It acts to both mediate and challenge. In Lorraine Hansberry’s play Les Blancs, it is the desire to experience closeness and community that leads the white American journalist Charles to make contact and attempt to establish a friendship with Tshembe, the black revolutionary. Charles struggles to divest himself of white supremacist privilege, eschews the role of colonizer, and refuses racist exoticization of blacks. Yet he continues to assume that he alone can decide the nature of his relationship to a black person. Evoking the idea of a universal transcendent subject, he appeals to Tshembe by repudiating the role of oppressor, declaring, “I am a man who feels like talking.” When


Tshembe refuses to accept the familiar relationship offered him, refuses to satisfy Charles’ longing for camaraderie and contact, he is accused of hating white men. Calling attention to situations where white people have oppressed other white people, Tshembe challenges Charles, declaring that “race is a device—no more, no less,” that “it explains nothing at all.” Pleased with this disavowal of the importance of race, Charles agrees, stating “race hasn’t a thing to do with it.” Tshembe then deconstructs the category “race” without minimizing or ignoring the impact of racism, telling him:

I believe in the recognition of devices as devices—but I also believe in the reality of those devices. In one century men choose to hide their conquests under religion, in another under race. So you and I may recognize the fraudulence of the device in both cases, but the fact remains that a man who has a sword run through him because he will not become a Moslem or a Christian—or who is lynched in Mississippi or Zatembe because he is black—is suffering the utter reality of that device of conquest. And it is pointless to pretend that it doesn’t exist—merely because it is a lie . . .

Again and again Tshembe must make it clear to Charles that subject to subject contact between white and black which signals the absence of domination, of an oppressor/oppressed relationship, must emerge through mutual choice and negotiation. That simply by expressing their desire for “intimate” contact with black people, white people do not eradicate the politics of racial domination as they are made manifest in personal interaction.

Mutual recognition of racism, its impact both on those who are dominated and those who dominate, is the only standpoint that makes possible an encounter between races that is not based on denial and fantasy. For it is the ever present reality of racist domination, of white supremacy, that renders problematic the desire of white people to have contact with the Other. Often it is this reality that is most masked when representations of contact between white and non-white, white and black, appear in mass culture. One area


where the politics of diversity and its concomitant insistence on inclusive representation have had serious impact is advertising. Now that sophisticated market surveys reveal the extent to which poor and materially underprivileged people of all races/ ethnicities consume products, sometimes in a quantity disproportionate to income, it has become more evident that these markets can be appealed to with advertising. Market surveys revealed that black people buy more Pepsi than other soft drinks and suddenly we see more Pepsi commercials with black people in them.

The world of fashion has also come to understand that selling products is heightened by the exploitation of Otherness. The success of Ben-neton ads, which with their racially diverse images have become a model for various advertising strategies, epitomize this trend. Many ads that focus on Otherness make no explicit comments, or rely solely on visual messages, but the recent fall Tweeds catalogue provides an excellent example of the way contemporary culture exploits notions of Otherness with both visual images and text. The catalog cover shows a map of Egypt. Inserted into the heart of the country, so to speak, is a photo of a white male (an Out of Africa type) holding an Egyptian child in his arms. Behind them is not the scenery of Egypt as modern city, but rather shadowy silhouettes resembling huts and palm trees. Inside, the copy quotes Gustave Flaubert’s comments from Flaubert in Egypt. For seventy-five pages Egypt becomes a landscape of dreams, and its darker- skinned people background, scenery to highlight whiteness, and the longing of whites to inhabit, if only for a time, the world of the Other. The front page copy declares:

We did not want our journey to be filled with snapshots of an antique land. Instead, we wanted to rediscover our clothing in the context of a different culture. Was it possible, we wondered, to express our style in an unaccustomed way, surrounded by Egyptian colors, Egyptian textures, even bathed in an ancient Egyptian light?

Is this not imperialist nostalgia at its best—potent expression


of longing for the “primitive”? One desires “a bit of the Other” to enhance the blank landscape of whiteness. Nothing is said in the text about Egyptian people, yet their images are spread throughout its pages. Often their faces are blurred by the camera, a strategy which ensures that readers will not become more enthralled by the images of Otherness than those of whiteness. The point of this photographic attempt at defamiliariza-tion is to distance us from whiteness, so that we will return to it more intently.

In most of the “snapshots,” all carefully selected and posed, there is no mutual looking. One desires contact with the Other even as one wishes boundaries to remain intact. When bodies contact one another, touch, it almost always a white hand doing the touching, white hands that rest on the bodies of colored people, unless the Other is a child. One snapshot of “intimate” contact shows two women with their arms linked, the way close friends might link arms. One is an Egyptian woman identified by a caption that reads “with her husband and baby, Ahmedio A’bass, 22, leads a gypsy’s life”; the second woman is a white-skinned model. The linked hands suggest that these two women share something, have a basis of contact and indeed they do, they resemble one another, look more alike than different. The message again is that “primitivism,” though more apparent in the Other, also resides in the white self. It is not the world of Egypt, of “gypsy” life, that is affirmed by this snapshot, but the ability of white people to roam the world, making contact. Wearing pants while standing next to her dark “sister” who wears a traditional skirt, the white woman appears to be cross- dressing (an ongoing theme in Tweeds). Visually the image suggests that she and First World white women like her are liberated, have greater freedom to roam than darker women who live peripatetic lifestyles.

Significantly, the catalog that followed this one focused on Norway. There the people of Norway are not represented, only the scenery. Are we to assume that white folks from this country are as at “home” in Norway as they are here so there is no need for captions and explanations? In this visual text, whiteness is the unifying feature—not culture. Of course, for


Tweeds to exploit Otherness to dramatize “whiteness” while in Egypt, it cannot include darker-skinned models since the play on contrasts that is meant to highlight “whiteness” could not happen nor could the exploitation that urges consumption of the Other whet the appetite in quite the same way; just as inclusion of darker-skinned models in the Norway issue might suggest that the west is not as unified by whiteness as this visual text suggests. Essentially speaking, both catalogues evoke a sense that white people are homogeneous and share “white bread culture.”

Those progressive white intellectuals who are particularly critical of “essentialist” notions of identity when writing about mass culture, race, and gender have not focused their critiques on white identity and the way essentialism informs representations of whiteness. It is always the non-white, or in some cases the non-heterosexual Other, who is guilty of essentialism. Few white intellectuals call attention to the way in which the contemporary obsession with white consumption of the dark Other has served as a catalyst for the resurgence of essentialist based racial and ethnic nationalism. Black nationalism, with its emphasis on black separatism, is resurging as a response to the assumption that white cultural imperialism and white yearning to possess the Other are invading black life, appropriating and violating black culture. As a survival strategy, black nationalism surfaces most strongly when white cultural appropriation of black culture threatens to decontextualize and thereby erase knowledge of the specific historical and social context of black experience from which cultural productions and distinct black styles emerge. Yet most white intellectuals writing critically about black culture do not see these constructive dimensions of black nationalism and tend to see it instead as naive essentialism, rooted in notions of ethnic purity that resemble white racist assumptions.

In the essay “Hip, and the Long Front of Color,” white critic Andrew Ross interprets Langston Hughes’ declaration (“You’ve taken my blues and gone—You sing ‘em on Broadway—And you sing ’em in Hollywood Bowl—And you mixed ‘em up with symphonies—And you fixed’em—So they


don’t sound like me. Yep, you done taken my blues and gone.”) as a “complaint” that “celebrates . . . folk purism.” Yet Hughes’ declaration can be heard as a critical comment on appropriation (not a complaint). A distinction must be made between the longing for ongoing cultural recognition of the creative source of particular African American cultural productions that emerge from distinct black experience, and essentialist investments in notions of ethnic purity that undergird crude versions of black nationalism.

Currently, the commodification of difference promotes paradigms of consumption wherein whatever difference the Other inhabits is eradicated, via exchange, by a consumer cannibalism that not only displaces the Other but denies the significance of that Other’s history through a process of decontextualization. Like the “primitivism” Hal Foster maintains “absorbs the primitive, in part via the concept of affinity” contemporary notions of “crossover” expand the parameters of cultural production to enable the voice of the non-white Other to be heard by a larger audience even as it denies the specificity of that voice, or as it recoups it for its own use.

This scenario is played out in the film Heart Condition when Mooney, a white racist cop, has a heart transplant and receives a heart from Stone, a black man he has been trying to destroy because Stone has seduced Chris, the white call girl that Mooney loves. Transformed by his new “black heart,” Mooney learns how to be more seductive, changes his attitudes toward race, and, in perfect Hollywood style, wins the girl in the end. Unabashedly dramatizing a process of “eating the Other” (in ancient religious practices among so called “primitive” people, the heart of a person may be ripped out and eaten so that one can embody that person’s spirit or special characteristics), a film like Heart Condition addresses the fantasies of a white audience. At the end of the film, Mooney, reunited with Chris through marriage and surrounded by Stone’s caring black kin, has become the “father” of Chris and Stone’s bi-racial baby who is dark- skinned, the color of his father. Stone, whose ghost has haunted Mooney, is suddenly “history”—gone. Interestingly,


this mainstream film suggests that patriarchal struggle over “ownership” (i.e., sexual possession of white women’s bodies) is the linchpin of racism. Once Mooney can accept and bond with Stone on the phallocentric basis of their mutual possession and “desire” for Chris, their homosocial bonding makes brotherhood possible and eradicates the racism that has kept them apart. Significantly, patriarchal bonding mediates and becomes the basis for the eradication of racism.

In part, this film offers a version of racial pluralism that challenges racism by suggesting that the white male’s life will be richer, more pleasurable, if he accepts diversity. Yet it also offers a model of change that still leaves a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy intact, though no longer based on coercive domination of black people. It insists that white male desire must be sustained by the “labor” (in this case the heart) of a dark Other. The fantasy, of course, is that this labor will no longer be exacted via domination, but will be given willingly. Not surprisingly, most black folks talked about this film as “racist.” The young desirable handsome intelligent black male (who we are told via his own self- portrait is “hung like a shetland pony”) must die so that the aging white male can both restore his potency (he awakens from the transplant to find a replica of a huge black penis standing between his legs) and be more sensitive and loving. Torgovnick reminds readers in Gone Primitive that a central element in the western fascination with primitivism is its focus on “overcoming alienation from the body, restoring the body, and hence the self, to a relation of full and easy harmony with nature or the cosmos.” It is this conceptualization of the “primitive” and the black male as quintessential representative that is dramatized in Heart Condition. One weakness in Torgovnick’s work is her refusal to recognize how deeply the idea of the “primitive” is entrenched in the psyches of everyday people, shaping contemporary racist stereotypes, perpetuating racism. When she suggests, “our own culture by and large rejects the association of blackness with rampant sexuality and irrationality, with decadence and corruption, with disease


and death,” one can only wonder what culture she is claiming as her own.

Films like Heart Condition make black culture and black life backdrop, scenery for narratives that essentially focus on white people. Nationalist black voices critique this cultural crossover, its decentering of black experience as it relates to black people, and its insistence that it is acceptable for whites to explore blackness as long as their ultimate agenda is appropriation. Politically “on the case” when they critique white cultural appropriation of black experience that reinscribes it within a “cool” narrative of white supremacy, these voices can not be dismissed as naive. They are misguided when they suggest that white cultural imperialism is best critiqued and resisted by black separatism, or when they evoke outmoded notions of ethnic purity that deny the way in which black people exist in the west, are western, and are at times positively influenced by aspects of white culture.

Steve Perry’s essay “The Politics of Crossover” deconstructs notions of racial purity by outlining the diverse inter-cultural exchanges between black and white musicians, yet he seems unable to acknowledge that this reality does not alter the fact that white cultural imperialist appropriation of black culture maintains white supremacy and is a constant threat to black liberation. Even though Perry can admit that successful black crossover artists, such as Prince, carry the “cross-over impulse” to the point where it “begins to be a denial of blackness,” he is unable to see this as threatening to black people who are daily resisting racism, advocating ongoing decolonization, and in need of an effective black liberation struggle.

Underlying Perry’s condescension, and at times contemptuous attitude toward all expressions of black nationalism, is a traditional leftist insistence on the primacy of class over race. This standpoint inhibits his capacity to understand the specific political needs of black people that are addressed, however inadequately, by essentialist-based black separatism. As Howard Winant clarifies in “Postmodern Racial Politics in the United States: Difference and Inequality,” one must understand race to understand class


because “in the postmodern political framework of the contemporary United States, hegemony is determined by the articulation of race and class.” And most importantly it is the “ability of the right to represent class issues in racial terms” that is “central to the current pattern of conservative hegemony.” Certainly an essentialist-based black nationalism imbued with and perpetuating many racial stereotypes is an inadequate and ineffective response to the urgent demand that there be renewed and viable revolutionary black liberation struggle that would take radical politicization of black people, strategies of decolonization, critiques of capitalism, and ongoing resistance to racist domination as its central goals.

Resurgence of black nationalism as an expression of black people’s desire to guard against white cultural appropriation indicates the extent to which the commodification of blackness (including the nationalist agenda) has been reinscribed and marketed with an atavistic narrative, a fantasy of Otherness that reduces protest to spectacle and stimulates even greater longing for the “primitive.” Given this cultural context, black nationalism is more a gesture of powerlessness than a sign of critical resistance. Who can take seriously Public Enemy’s insistence that the domina