Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920.
List: 20th Century.
Subjects: Advertising, Consumerism, Culture, Progressive Era, New Era.
Excerpted from "Fears and Fables - The Lynds, Lears, and the Rise of Consumerism", an essay written for "America Between the Wars: 1917-1945," Professor Alan Brinkley, Spring 2002.
Obviously, this distrust of consumer culture was not shared by all of the Lynds' contemporaries. Indeed, as Jackson Lears points out in his book, Fables of Abundance, the advertising men of the 1920's thought exactly the converse -- rather than destroying communities, the artificial creation of desire at the heart of consumer culture could form, in Simon Patten's words, "the new basis of civilization." Hungering for respectability, this new managerial-professional class of ad men that emerged from the Progressive Era believed that they could utilize the powers of advertising and publicity not only to smooth out the bumps in the economic cycle but also, in the words of copywriter James Wallen, to "mold the daily lives of millions of our fellow men." (225) (See also William Leach's Land of Desire.)
Alas, as Lears points out, this abiding faith in the limitless possibilities of advertising to achieve great feats of social engineering came coupled with the carnival barker's longtime penchant for misanthropy. Frequently believing themselves to be members of an elite class removed from the population at large by virtue of their art, advertisers and publicists of the New Era embraced a vision of mass man as childlike, malleable, and, more often than not, imbecilic. As a result, in Lears's words, advertisers "wavered between a postmillennial rhetoric of uplift through professionalism and a sweeping contempt for their audience." (224)
In fact, it is this ubiquity of consumerism's founding tenets, even amid the arguments of its detractors, that lies at the heart of Lears's Fables of Abundance - more than just a work of history, the book is clearly animated by the desire to establish some independent perspective on consumer culture. Lears's central thrust is that the power of consumerism is mostly misunderstood - rather than promoting escape and hedonism, the advertising industry seeks to "stabilize the sorcery of the marketplace by containing dreams of personal transformation within a broader rhetoric of control…[it is less about] a riot of hedonism than a new way of ordering the existing balance of tensions between control and release." (10-11) The explicitly stated desires of the managerial-professional class to remold human civilization in the years after World War I is just one chapter of this story of control - As the years pass and as advertisers hone their techniques, Lears argues, the foundational tenets of consumer culture become more and more pervasive throughout society, eventually coming "to full fruition in the ideologically charged atmosphere of the Cold War." (251) (For an alternate take on this tale, see Lizabeth Cohen's A Consumers' Republic.)
Having explored this rise of consumerism, in the absence of other value systems, to a kind of cultural hegemony in modern times, Lears spends the last few chapters of his book struggling to reframe the debate among its critics. In so doing, Lears posits two schools of consumerist critique, the ascetic and the aesthetic. The former, and by far the more recurrent throughout the 20th century, has its roots in the Protestant affinity for "plain speech" -- it distrusts consumerism for its inherent deceptiveness, and is obsessed with the question of "authenticity," - or discovering the real. Ascetic or "cognitivist" critics, which include John Kenneth Galbraith, Sherwood Anderson, Thorstein Veblen, and the Abstract Expressionists (to name only a few) often renounce the pleasures afforded by consumer culture in their pursuit of the authentic (as seen in the glorification of the primitive and the archetype of the "stoic isolato"), even to the point of embracing self-destruction, as seen in the sad tales of Abstract Expressionists Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollack.
Since at best repression and at worst madness lies in the thorny and perhaps unanswerable question of what constitutes the real, Lears advocates an alternative, the aesthetic school of consumerist critique. Rather than feel alienated by material objects, this group, which in Lears's casting includes writers Henry James, Edith Wharton, Marcel Proust, and Joseph Cornell, take delight in "the things themselves" - they value the creations of consumer culture, as "portals of connectedness to the past, or to other beings in the present, and to the natural or man-made landscape." (380) In effect, Lears argues, man should look upon objects with the bemused eye of the collector rather than the acquisitive stare of the purchaser. After all, if the anxious, alienating cycle of spending that animates consumer culture is now inescapable, as Lears suggests and the Lynds feared, we might as well all sit back and enjoy the ride.