TwiLead 05-11-182


The Triumph of American Materialism


James B. Twitchell

Columbia University Press, 1999, 310 pp., ISBN 0-213-11518-0


Twitchell teaches English and advertising at the University of Florida.  His book titles are irresistible and he is a wizard with words.  The first chapter provides a materialist’s philosophy of consumerism.  Further chapters cover Advertising, Packaging, Branding, Fashion, Shopping and Consumption.  One reviewer called it "A feisty defense of American materialism.”  Although it all looked intriguing, I believe several parts of it are repeated in later books, including Branded Nation.


“No other culture spends so much time declaring things don’t matter while saying ‘just charge it.”  “We are gagging on goods.” (2)


“Shame is what humans feel when the disparity between do and ought occurs.  We know what we should do, we don’t do it, we feel shame and shame makes us meek about ourselves, and often harsh on others.” (3-4)


“I’m not being tricked.  I’m consuming sensibly.  But they are so profligate, so wasteful, so careless.  Someone should talk to them.” (6)


“We currently live in a culture in which almost everyone can have almost everything.  What used to be ‘Use It Up, Wear It Out, Make It Do’ or ‘Do Without’ has become ‘Use It or Lose It.’”  (12)


“If you just play by a few rules you’ll have more things—if that’s what you want—than any generation before.  What are these rules?  Simple.  Finish high school, get a job, don’t get pregnant or get someone pregnant before you finish high school, don’t become addicted to drugs, and you can make it in America.” (12-13)


“But watch out!  Deviate from these rules by just a hair and you can fall over the edge.  Drop out of school, do some jail time, stay unemployed in the inner city, take a drug stronger than marijuana for longer than a week, or attempt to raise a child by yourself, and you will have the life of a peasant.” (14)


“The main focus of this project is the argument that such matters as branding, packaging, fashion, and even the act of shopping itself are now the central meaning-making acts in our postmodern world.” (14) [This is a powerful statement! dlm]


“Temptation is, after all, the patron saint of the marketplace.” (15)


Ch. 1.  Attention Kmart Shoppers   A Brief Consumer Guide to Consumption, Commercialism, and the Meaning of Stuff


“Most of the world most of the time spends most of its energy producing and consuming more and more stuff.”  [I believe he means the Western world. dlm]  It is the central characteristic of modern life.  (17)  “To the rest of the world we do indeed seem not just born to shop, but alive to shop.” (18) 


“The bust of mallcondo moving outward around the world at the speed of television.” (18)  “Did anyone before the 1950s—except the rich—ever shop just for fun?  Now the whole world wants to do it.”  (9) 


Human beings love things.  “We live through things.  We create ourselves through things.  And we change ourselves by changing our things.  We often depend on such material for meaning.” (19) [This is one of his key points. dlm] 


“Not only are we willing to consume, and not only does consuming make us happy, ‘getting and spending’ is what gives our lives order and purpose.”  (20) [This is a scary thought.  It appears that Twitchell sees no meaning beyond the material stuff of this world, a true materialist. Contrast what the Scripture says:  “Do not love the world, nor the things in the world.  If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.  For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the father but is from the world.  And the world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God abides forever.”  I John 2:15-17  dlm]


“Ask any group of teenagers what democracy means to them and 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.”  (23)


“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.  Paradoxically, buying stuff is not just our current popular culture, it is how we understand the world.” (23)


“We used to go into the dark cathedral looking for life’s meaning and then do a little shopping on the side.  Now we just go straight to the mall.” (27)


“We are healthier, we work at less exhausting jobs, and we live longer than ever.  Most of this has been made possible by consuming things, ironically spending more and more time at the carnival, less and less in church.” (27) [I suggest we are still benefiting from our ‘church’ heritage of self discipline and only beginning to see the consequences of unrestrained consumerism in broken homes, addictions, dysfunctions, white-collar crime, and all the other natural results of lust and greed turned loose. dlm]


“Where we were once ashamed of consuming too much (religious shame), we are now often ashamed of consuming the wrong brands (shoppers’ shame).” (27)


“The fact is that the carnival is a world of brazen excess, full of sound and excitement but signifying little in the way of philosophical depth.” (28)


“Once you have passed through ‘prime-branding time’ you are almost impossible to sell to.  The mall carnival is not for you.  You become in our culture, ‘a paltry thing,/ A tattered coat upon a stick’...forgotten.  Very little entertainment, let alone information, flows your way because no one is willing to pay the freight to send it.”  “Although you have the money, your kids spend it.  No wonder you become a critic of a culture that has made you a pariah.”  “But the money in materialism is to be made from tapping those with excess disposable time and money—the young.” (29)


“Marketing should not be a nasty word.  Religions have been doing it for generations.  If you like it, it is called saving souls; if you don’t it is called proselytizing.  But whatever it is called, marketing depends on branding, packaging, and distribution and it evolved from organized religion.”  (30)


“We have grown not weaker but stronger by accepting these self-evidently ridiculous myths that sacralize 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.” (31)  [But have we yet experienced all the results? dlm]


“...possessions are definitions—superficial meanings perhaps, but meanings nonetheless.  Without soldiers he is no king.  Without a BMW there can be no yuppie, without tattoos no adolescent rebel....” (38)  “We are not too materialistic; if anything we are not materialistic enough.  Meaning is added to objects by advertising, branding, packaging, and fashion because that meaning—derisively called status—is what we are after, what we need, especially when we are young.” (38)


“The purpose of many professors who grew up in the 1960s has become creating and then exploiting cultural politics.  Nine times out of ten, if you take a course in anything described as Cultural Studies, you will find that individuals are invariably seen as victims, while your instructor is the sage protector.” (41)


“Commercialism is driving popular culture, and popular culture is driving almost everything else.” (46)


“What is being packaged is not the good as much as the buyer of the goods.”  “The process of consumption, therefore, is creative and even emancipating.  In an open market we consume the real and the imaginary meanings, fusing objects, symbols, and images together....” “Lifestyles are secular religions, coherent patterns of valued things.”  (47)


“Consumption is...part of a lifelong attempt at creating meaning....” (47)


“Dr. Johnson said you could tell a man by his library; now just a peek at his running shoes will do.” (48) [You can probably tell if his meaning comes from fashion. dlm]


“In becoming the central register of selfhood, commercial culture is now playing out what was the historic role of organized religion.  The brands you once applied on Saturday or Sunday at the church of your choice are now being applied daily down at the mallcondo.  That the House of Worship has become the Marketplace of Commerce is a melancholy transformation, to be sure.  Much has been lost.  A sense of missionary purpose, for example.  But in many ways it is also a far more equitable and democratic process to trust pocketbooks over prayer books.”  (49) 



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