- The Hummer: Myths and Consumer Culture ed. by Elaine Cardenas, Ellen Gorman
Elaine Cardenas and Ellen Gorman (eds.), Lexington Books, 2007
The essay collection, The Hummer: Myths and Consumer Culture, edited by George Mason University doctoral students Elaine Cardenas and Ellen Gorman, offers an insightful cultural, historical, and anthropological analysis of the Hummer brand of vehicles in contemporary American consumer culture. The collection of partly empirical, partly conceptual, articles by fourteen American and one British author carefully dissect the culture of the Hummer from a variety of cultural perspectives.
The guiding concern of Cardenas and Gorman’s project is to understand the Hummer as a significant cultural object that is also a “moving contradiction.” They argue that a careful study of its inherent tensions will provide insights into the particular appeal of the object as much as into the current state of American consumer culture. The contradictions that the authors consequentially evoke and discuss in their particular social contexts are as insightful for Hummer admirers as they are alarming for Hummer-hating environmentalists.
What makes the Hummer such a fascinating object? In concert, the authors argue that the appeal of the brand draws from the vehicles’ paradoxical amalgamation of symbols promoting both military violence and family joy, egoistic self-protection and social responsibility, brutality and sex appeal, apocalypse and utopia, passion and rationality, neo-fascist aesthetics and soccer-mom liberalism. From a socially responsible consumer perspective, Hummer represents the beacon of consumerist excess by which drivers draw identity value from paramilitary machismo, physical predominance, and rampant self-making, while willingly accepting their vehicles’ threat to fellow citizens. Yet from a conservative patriotic perspective, Hummer legitimately symbolizes the bellicose, expanding American nation and its sacred way of life.
On these grounds, the authors establish a variety of prominent cultural linkages. Derived from the military HMMWV (Humvee), the civilian Hummer H2 primarily derives its popularity from the CNN reports in which the vehicle is featured as contributing to the success of Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait. This lightening fast operation linked the Humvee to military victory and valor and, consequentially, to the attenuation of the Vietnam syndrome. The advertising analyses in the book reveal how General Motors cursorily obscures this military correlation, while persistently rebuilding it with subliminal symbolism.
Another salient link emerges from the psychological state of American consumers that—so the authors argue—suffer from postmodern social disintegration combined with a post 9–11 anxiety. The trauma of September 11, 2001 sparked unprecedented feelings of vulnerability that were leveraged through frequent reports on road rages, drive-by-shootings, auto theft, and other random acts of violence within the boundaries of the American homeland. This situation evoked a rising consumer interest in protective vehicles (see Packer’s chapter) and bounded private spaces (see Hanson’s chapter). The Hummer is framed as the ultimate armor for these troubled consumers, providing massive metallic shelter and an imaginary option to entirely evade social or ecological menaces. Relatedly, the cultural critics’ chapters highlight the new dangers that arise with the militarization of the civil society (see Himberg’s chapter); a “combat consumption” culture (see Sze’s chapter); and the ecological consequences of consumer excess.
As several chapters of the work focus on drawing cultural insights from Hummer advertisements, the authors seldom critique their make and potential impact. The Hummer TV advertisements, though, have often been criticized for being inconsequential and even counterproductive. Hummer dealers that I have interviewed frequently reported on their difficulties selling their customers spots such as “Reclaim Your Manhood” (in which a tofu-eating man buys a Hummer H3 to keep up with a bigger, meat-packing other); the similarly configured “Get Your Girl On” spot for female audiences (with a presumed lack of self-esteem); or the magician spot series that introduce the easy-to-park H3. While these spots aspired to be self-critical and ironic, they were shocking for many Hummer owners, as they directly catered to the lost masculinity thesis of Hummer antagonists.
Gunster mentions in his chapter another aspect of Hummer that is crucial to its advertising: that the omnipotent machine readily evokes feelings of...