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  • Consumer Culture, Market Empire, and the Global South*
  • James P. Woodard

In the span of a few score years, contained entirely within the century that has just passed, clusters of models, patterns, and practices of consumption and their promotion—themselves constantly in flux—attained global ubiquity, transcending the privileged corners of English-speaking North America often identified as their places of conception and becoming part of the everyday lives of men, women, and children the world over, including uncounted millions whose poverty renders them marginal participants in the world of mass-marketed goods. During these years, the automobile ditched the deprecatory denomination of "rich man's toy" as the family car became a key marker of middle-class arrival, while automobiling overtook older forms of transport, travel, and community even in states whose leaders professed an antipathy to the possessive individualism so often identified with that class. Mass-marketed entertainments replaced or remade existing pastimes, performances, and festivities while introducing mores and modalities often identified as corrosive of lifeways of relative long standing. Advertising, in seemingly inexhaustible forms and fora, seemed to fuel this secular transformation even as it was sustained by it. Sweet commerce itself was made and remade, cast and recast—unevenly and on occasion unsuccessfully, to be sure, but impressively and always relentlessly.

This story is by now a familiar one for historians of the United [End Page 375] States, now three decades into the serious study of what was once called "the consumer culture." Indeed, the nation's remaking in the context of this culture (as opposed to its emergence in a given region or locale, or among members of a select, easily distinguishable social group) has been remarkably well told, in several book-length studies greeted with high praise, and in articles, essays, and conference papers numbering in the hundreds, if not thousands.1 Historians of Europe, or at least of Europe's more favored western portions, have likewise turned their attention to twentieth-century consumer culture. Here too, the results have been impressive, although it seems likely that the ongoing torrent of scholarship will swamp any future attempt at synthesis.2

Happily for the historians involved, as well as for students and scholars following along in print, specialists in these two geographical areas of study—which but for accidents of history might themselves be grouped among "area studies" fields—found the time and funding to come together to share their research beginning in the 1990s. Among the results are two collections of essays: Getting and Spending: European and American Consumer Societies in the Twentieth Century, edited by Susan Strasser, Charles McGovern, and Matthias Judt, and The Politics of Consumption: Material Culture and Citizenship in Europe and America, edited by Martin Daunton and Matthew Hilton.3 [End Page 376]

In the case of these two edited volumes, the exclusion of the rest of the world—lesser breeds without the mall, one is tempted to quip—is an explicit organizing principle. In other cases, attempts have been made to include portions of the extra-European, extra-U.S. American world, but the published results have been, perhaps inevitably, disappointing to scholars interested in that vast portion of the globe that includes all of the Americas south of the Florida Straits, the entirety of Africa, and Eurasia as it runs east-southeast from Istanbul through the Indian subcontinent and into Oceania (places grouped together as the "Global South" in the most recent and fashionable of a long line of geopolitical taxonomies).4 To take the best-known example, the Cultures of Consumption program directed by Frank Trentmann has resulted in a riot of edited volumes, the most wide-ranging of which, coedited with John Brewer, is Consuming Cultures, Global Perspectives: Historical Trajectories, Transnational Exchanges. Notwithstanding the capacious title and the come-hither promise of "renowned scholars explor[ing] the links between modernity and consumption" from "a truly global point of view" in which "the Western countries" share an equal footing with their (non-"Western"?) counterparts, the book's contents do [End Page 377] not deliver the goods as far as historians of the latter societies are concerned. Indeed, here and elsewhere in the Cultures of Consumption program...


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