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The Practice of Misuse: Rugged Consumerism in Contemporary American Culture by Raymond Malewitz (review)
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Reviewed by
Raymond Malewitz, The Practice of Misuse: Rugged Consumerism in Contemporary American Culture. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014, 240 pp. $55.00 cloth.

Raymond Malewitz’s The Practice of Misuse: Rugged Consumerism in Contemporary American Culture is a nuanced and dynamic account of a human/object praxis and the ideological trajectory of its recent history. To practice misuse is, most basically, to transform the material world by liberating objects from their original function and giving them new purpose. The more conspicuous examples are those that operate directly on matter to produce, for example, large-scale, open-air urban art installations made from scavenged detritus, hacked IKEA furniture, and the lifesaving carbon-dioxide filter jury-rigged by the astronauts of Apollo 13. But the idiom that Malewitz develops is delightfully elastic, moving gracefully between genres and disciplines to yield surprising examples: full bladders in Sam Shepard’s Icarus’ Mother, the makeshift performance venues of Off-Off-Broadway, and the elaborate puns in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. This broad understanding of misuse is necessitated in part by Malewitz’s emphasis: three of the six chapters are dedicated primarily to literary texts. Attentive to the ways in which the relationships between humans and commodities in literature are forged within the immaterial space of language, the book remakes misuse as both literary practice and critical methodology. More important to his project, however, is the cultural specificity of rugged consumerism, a term he coins to evoke the mythical American model of productive self-sufficiency—rugged individualism—as well its role in sustaining libertarian ideals. With incisive readings of campaign speeches, internet culture, public art, and novels by Chuck Palahniuk, Don DeLillo, and Cormac McCarthy, the book charts the itinerary of the rugged consumer from Left–libertarian countercultural utopian movements of the 1960s and 1970s to globalized neoliberalism of the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

The first chapter, “Misuse: from Aesthetics to Practice,” surveys contemporary iterations of misuse, as well as recent scholarship dedicated to thinking things outside of the determinist logic of origins. Malewitz outlines Ken Alder’s “thick” things, Michael Thompson’s “durable” and “transient” objects, Evan Watkin’s “technoideology,” and, most importantly for The Practice of Misuse, Bill Brown’s “thing theory,” which draws heavily on Heidegger to propose that a thing emerges from an object only when its functionality falters. Malewitz returns to thing theory throughout the book, locating the impetus for misuse (and sometimes misuse itself) in the capitulation of object to thing. For example, the second chapter, “Theaters of Rugged Consumerism,” begins by reading the off-the-grid, do-it-yourself lifestyle championed by countercultural [End Page 123] movements of the 1960s and 1970s as an effort to recover a “thingness” from the passive encounter with objects in what Theodor Roszak calls the “technocratic” culture of late capitalism. The remainder of the chapter develops a compelling reading of the many misuses of the do-it-yourself movement’s most celebrated playwright, Sam Shepard, by reading the material debris that litters his stages along with narratives of its accumulation, transformation, animation, and stasis in performance and beyond.

The third chapter, “The Garden in the Machine: Biomimetic Hybrids and the Tragedy of Single Use,” is to my mind the most innovative. Here, Malewitz puts thing theory into productive dialogue with the work of Bruno Latour and Jane Bennett to develop a vital materialist declension of rugged consumerism. This is a daring move, since misuse, insofar as it maintains some distinction between human and thing, seems incompatible with the vibrant world that Bennett imagines in which human and nonhuman matter is inextricably enjoined. The permutations of the chapter—too complex to rehearse here—involve a fascinating discussion of the V-2 rocket and celluloid film, which culminates in the use of the circular temporality of the intertwining technologies to solve a critical riddle of Gravity’s Rainbow.

The following two chapters leave behind the preceding Utopian iterations of rugged consumerism to consider the more recent imbrications of misuse and neoliberal individualism. Chapter 4, “The Rugged Consumer Bildungsroman,” begins with an excursus on the Watts Towers built by Sabato “Simon” Rodia in Los Angeles...