Book Reviews

Daniel Scroop, Ed. Consuming Visions: New Essays on the Politics of Consumption in Modern America

Daniel Scroop, Ed. Consuming Visions: New Essays on the Politics of Consumption in Modern America, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007.

Consuming Visions is an engaging collection of essays providing the reader with a significant range of diverse perspectives on how consumerism and consumption have informed decisively the socio-cultural context of the United States throughout the course of the twentieth century. Recognizing as a starting point in their interrogations the fact that consumption is primarily political, the contributors to this volume proceed to address issues pertaining to areas such as socio-economic, political and legal history, advertising, communications, and art. In the span of the last two decades, the politics of consumption emerges as an inviting and challenging sphere of study and inquiry for scholars coming from a particularly wide spectrum of disciplines and thus, editor Daniel Scroop is thoroughly justified not only in setting as one of his project’s goals an attempt to outline the contours of the field but also in posing the question whether this great variety of voices actually participate in the same conversation. It is important to note that this plethora of multi-disciplinary responses are often accommodated in hospitable and over-arching forums, as is the case with three of the five essays of this collection which were previously presented as papers in the American Studies Association conference in Oakland, California in October 2006. At this initial point, it is also interesting to remark that although all five essayists focus exclusively on the American context a considerable number of the questions raised in their writings can easily find application in the socio-cultural contexts of other nations where the politics of consumption and consumerism are equally powerful.

Following a linear chronological pattern, the discussion opens with Daniel Scroop’s own article on the anti-chain store movement of the 1920s and 1930s, titled: “ ‘Where Does the Local Have an End and the Nonlocal a Beginning?’: The Anti-chain Store Movement, Localism and National Identity.” Early on, Scroop states clearly his conviction that “some of the best recent work on the politics of consumption is unduly dismissive of localism” (2) and proceeds with documenting adequately his tracing of the history of the anti-chain store movement as a social phenomenon with a significant impact on the collective national American ethos and makeup. Approaching local-centered reactions to the expansion of the big chains and the directed efforts of particular social and legal agents to regulate and monitor their impetus as meaningful contributions of local communities in asserting integral constituents of what was recognized as national American identity in the early decades of the century, the author brings to the surface interesting facets of how the local is often closely interrelated with the national. Scroop proposes an alternative way of approaching localism and comments on the shortsightedness of visions that often dismiss localism and its manifestations as simply unsophisticated and merely peripheral and inconsequential to the progress and evolution of American democracy. In an effort to convince his reader about the great dynamics of the anti-chain store movement, Scroop likens these significant oppositional stances of the 1920s and 1930s to the anti-globalization protests of the 1990s and 2000s and supplements his argument with references to and borrowings from such figures as Supreme Court justice Louis D. Brandeis, a representative of the legal system known for being openly “suspicious of corporate bigness” (13). It is true that Daniel Scroop succeeds in establishing for his reader a feeling of nostalgia for those reactions in the 20s and 30s, especially at a moment in history when escape from corporate bigness appears simply impossible. However, despite the very convincing tone throughout the article, the essayist never takes time to elaborate on what he himself recognizes as one of the most intriguing aspects of his topic, no other than the very ambivalence of the progressive character of localism as exemplified in the case of the anti-chain store movement. Instead, he spends most of his time in the conclusion voicing critical statements on important works such as Lizabeth Cohen’s A Consumers’ Republic: the Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (2003), charging them on the one hand with being dismissive of localism, while on the other offering a single-sided picture of the evolution of American democracy since they emphasize solely on the contributions of liberals. In this captivating and insightful historical account of the anti-chain store reactions, the historian’s own commentary on the ambivalence of the movement’s progressive traits would have been more intriguing and definitely more productive as a concluding point.

Chapters two and three cover socio-cultural and political phenomena, historical moments and influential personalities of the period ranging from the 1940s to the 1960s. Two different angles of pursuing consumption and its implications, two different facets of the politics of consumption are offered, as the two essayists approach critically two figures coming from totally different areas of professional and political activity. On his part, Henrik Bodker, in his article “Visions of Consumption as Ways of Understanding,” approaches critically the writings of pioneer advertiser James Webb Young, in an effort to expose the basic tenets and underlying principles of this individual perspective on advertising. Bodker handles carefully Young’s problematics and his mode of viewing the role of the advertiser as a “reconstructor of the world” (27). Emphasis is placed on the different phases and carefully planned movements of Young’s long course of persistent efforts to establish what the consumer wants and reaffirm the key principle of familiarity. Bodker highlights appropriately the central idea underlying the advertiser’s work: keeping a distance from the targeted culture and “acting as an invisible intermediary” (34). This is a point the writer reaches once he examines specific moments of Young’s contact with distinctive cultures, varying from local communities of the southwest to the Hopi Indians, in the context of which the advertiser is always present with a “fishy eye,” eager to make the consumer simply recognize what he himself has already understood (29). Evidently, Bodker finds a number of things about Young’s very presence in the cultural horizon as well as aspects of his insights in his writings challenging and appealing. Such is the case, for example, with the interdisciplinary character of the pioneer advertiser’s projects (36). However, the essayist comments accurately on the fact that Young’s mode consumes the advertiser himself as it “bereaves him of his immediacy in his relation to his surroundings,” while on the other hand facilitates the consumption of the very cultural traits one resorts to by “ever expanding markets” (34). More than anything else, Bodker brings to the attention of his reader the fact that Young’s case foregrounds a type of cultural understanding that cannot be thought of as disinterested in any sense but one always attuned to the accomplishment of specified market aims and needs.

In her turn, Eleanor Capper with her article “Caroline Ware and the Office of Price Administration” sheds light on the necessity of articulating innovative, flexible and progressive types of political agendas in relation to consumerism and consumption under given circumstances. In this well-written and minutely documented historical account, Capper traces the efforts of a figure she finds particularly appealing, Caroline Ware, the social-economic historian and academic and studies closely her career in O.P.A., the organization that started as a war agency in the 1940s. The picture of this exemplary case of a consumer advocate is given through a careful, insightful and engaging review of Ware’s agenda, best summarized as an effort of “establishing a consumer interest in federal government that would work towards the education and protection” (48) of citizens in the years of the second world war. First, the writer is mainly interested in acquainting her reader with Caroline Ware’s idea of the close interrelation between the act of “consuming wisely, preserving” and the very sense and notion of citizenship (47). In the process, Capper focuses on the problems O.P.A. faced during and after the war and discusses the vehement reaction and opposition of conservatives towards the organization itself as well as against the ideals that Ware and the people she collaborated with fought for. The writer informs her readers that public figures like Ware herself, Harriet Eliot and Leon Henderson were accused for un-American activities and moves on with documenting carefully further historical and political developments that never allowed Ware’s vision to become fully developed in practice. In conclusion, quite effectively Capper succeeds in highlighting the significance of Caroline Ware’s ideal of an “informed, articulate, educated consuming citizenry” (64) that receives adequate and protective care from a government agency.

The discussion follows an interesting pattern of fluctuation, with attention shifting from a story of consumer advocacy to one of advertising advocacy, as Bradley Queen in his article “Democracy for a Consumer Society: Commercial Speech and the First Amendment, 1938-1976” focuses primarily on Justice Blackmun and his decision to grant First Amendment protection to commercial speech in 1976. Early on, Queen promises to offer an interpretation of a case “rife with ironies that reveal another dimension to the historical study of American conservatism” (70-1). The writer quite appropriately draws attention to the fact that he has to recount a story noted for central contradictions, since commercial speech received First Amendment protection, for the first time in the history of the United States, thanks mainly to an abortion court case (71). Bradley Queen carefully enough highlights the inherent irony in a case where regulatory law and civil liberties “contributed to the constitutional protection of commercial speech, which itself was created by consumerism’s political economy and its attendant business institutions, two social forces that these areas of law had been positioned against for many years” (71). In the first part of his article, Queen offers a presentation of Blackmun’s ideas and comments on the justice’s “two-tiered theory” that helped not only create “an absolutist position” (79) but also redefine the very role of commercial speech. In the second part, the historian traces developments in legal matters from the 1930s to the 1970s that helped pave the ground for the articulation of ideas such as Blackmun’s. It is significant to note that in the introductory comment on this article, editor Daniel Scroop underlines interestingly that this is a case exemplifying the establishment of a conservative politics of consumption carrying grave “ramifications” for the overall American social, political, and legal context in the 1970s (x). Yet, Queen himself appears to be content with concluding his argumentation by repeating a phrase he has already used in the opening pages of his article: he recognizes the whole case as a sign of “a mature and conservative democracy” (74). The writer leaves thus his readers still wishing for a thorough and round interpretation and appreciation of these significant developments on the part of the historian, while at the same moment blurs his very own political standpoint.

The last chapter of the book hosts a particularly effective and fully-developed perspective on the politics of consumption given through the careful study of two films. Roopali Mukherjee’s “The Ghetto Fabulous Aesthetic in Contemporary Black Culture: Class and Consumption in the Barbershop Films” is not just an excellent reading of two films of the present decade but significantly enough offers also a careful insight into the particulars of advanced capitalism, focusing on African-American socio-cultural and economic current reality. In a sonorous voice and a penetrating manner, the writer traces the movement of the ghetto fabulous aesthetic “from defiance to bowdlerization and cooptation” (97), highlighting accurately how camouflaged both cultural and socio-economic cooptation often is, how contradictory and ambiguous imagery in urban contexts similarly is and how careful in reading such particular aesthetics one needs to be. Having defined her theoretical and political standpoint by references to thinkers and authors such as Dick Hebdige as well as by stating clearly that she is interested in exploring how hegemonic forces appropriate the resources of black popular culture to secure the acquiescence of the masses, she moves on with her insightful discussion on “Barbershop” (2002) and “Barbershop II: Back in Business” (2004). Mukherjee accurately places the two works against the New Jack aesthetic of the 90s as well as the soul dramas that followed as a popular and prominent type of black film narrative, focusing on how these two films “attribute a specific value to and function to black commerce and consumerism” (102). Studying this specific case of the visible economy of advanced capitalism, the writer argues convincingly that the two films “encourage working class African-Americans to overlook, and moreover, deny the collusions of capital in the exploitation of black labour and the stifling of black enterprise” (110) and thus performing “crucial cooptive work in the post-soul era” (118). Most importantly, Mukherjee substantiates extensively her position that despite the fact that on the surface these two film narratives may appear to be offering openings and alternatives to the dilemmas and dead-ends of black urban experience of the present moment, they are in fact far from articulating or merely facilitating the development of a truly progressive and anti-capitalist black socio-economic and cultural agenda.

Consuming Visions accommodates indeed a wide and varied scope of outlooks on the politics of consumption that prove how pervasive and deeply felt the implications of consumerism currently are. In conclusion, all five essayists presented here come up with particularly intriguing interrogations, contributing significantly to this multi-sided, challenging, on-going discussion.

Konstantinos Blatanis
University of Athens