Anthropological Quarterly 77.4 (2004) 845-853
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In this ambitious and provocative work, Kalman Applbaum offers us an anthropological confrontation with nothing less than the "animus of bourgeois society's self-conception" (8): marketing. At stake, ultimately, is an opportunity for us to understand how we came to be what we are. Or more exactly: how we came, so much of the time, to understand ourselves as consumers, "a particular kind of cultural being" (112-13). In the grand old tradition of Boasian or Meadian public cultural intervention, Applbaum's confrontation with the cultural logic of marketing promises to defamiliarize the categories that unobtrusively—and therefore all the more insidiously—have come to structure Euro-American common sense, and are now, in the name of globalization, in the process of being exported to the four corners of the world.
Marketing is much more than a practical solution to the problem of coordinating supply and demand. Indeed, it involves "the conveyance of a highly specific and culturally laden praxis for selling that smuggles in with itself an unaccounted for viewpoint on human needs and the best means to their satisfaction" (2). To account for it anthropologically means something more than simply enumerating its practices and its presuppositions (to which Applbaum devotes the first part of his book). A genealogy is also required, so [End Page 845] that we might come to understand how this rather contingent and questionable congeries of notions and habits came to seem natural. In his concluding paragraph, Applbaum recapitulates his program: "Contrary to marketing professionals' own supposition that their endeavour is a rationally conducted, universally applicable science that has arisen to solve the problem of human needs and wants, I wish to underscore that marketing should instead be seen as a culturally particularistic set of practices that surfaced as an adjunct to the affluent circumstances of Western society in the past century and a half" (235-36).
What Applbaum has in mind, however, is not simply some substantivist economic anthropology of the self. Marketing, the system of "total provisioning" (216) that we inhabit today may be historically contingent, but its cognitive categories and practical conventions have achieved unprecedented global influence. While Applbaum spends little time exploring the actual dynamics (as opposed to the discourse) of the global extension of marketing, his account of its formation and rise in Britain and the United States is both captivating and an object lesson in why we should avoid the "perhaps romantic conclusion that marketing is merely one of many competing agencies in a patchwork quilt of varying but essentially corresponding exchange systems that compose the world economy" (71).
Applbaum proclaims himself dissatisfied with the existing methodological-conceptual toolkit. Most restrictive, he feels, has been the tendency of anthropological exchange theory either to indulge deterministic transhistorical teleological narratives of commodification or to restrict the ethnographic gaze to the site of exchange itself. The former approach misses both the contextual nuances of particular formations and the question of agency; the latter is unable to account for the larger structures that make a given transaction possible or even imaginable, the "factually predominant at-a-distance constructions that impinge upon commodity exchange transaction" (70). The approach that Applbaum seeks to exemplify would, on the contrary, be able to account "for a great many functions in which marketing is implicated, from the proliferating semiotica of commodities, to the symbiotic union of producers and consumers, to the physical and social alteration of environment[s] where commercial exchanges occur, to the industrial conditions that have evolved for marketing's expanding province within world economy, and finally to the emergence of obstacles to effectively challenge marketing's totalizing principles" (23).
The substance of Applbaum's book is rich. We are given a tour of the conceptual and practical foundations of marketing thought, insights into the ritual significance of market research, an exploration of the assumptions that [End Page 846] drive the globalization of consumer goods campaigns, and, along the way, some...