- Consuming Pleasures: Intellectuals and Popular Culture in the Postwar World by Daniel Horowitz
In two previous books—The Morality of Spending: Attitudes toward the Consuming Society in America, 1875–1940 (Lanham, Md., 1985) and The Anxieties of Affluence: Critiques of American Consumer Culture, 1939–1979 (Amherst, Mass., 2004)—Horowitz explored the evolution of American intellectuals’ critiques of consumer society between the 1870s and the 1970s. Together, these works provide among the most comprehensive and insightful chronicles of the patterns of resistance that accompanied new modes of consumption. In Consuming Pleasures, Horowitz’s work turns to the ideas of postwar intellectuals who embraced, rather than excoriated, the rise of consumerism. Shedding the moralistic language of their predecessors, these writers drew attention to the pleasures of consumption, its capacities to empower individuals, and the symbolic expressions that it enabled. According to Horowitz, the moral censures documented in his earlier work gradually eroded as a celebratory approach to consumer society began to emerge.
Horowitz charts this story through a close focus on texts written by critical intellectuals. The book unfolds as a succession of brief intellectual biographies followed by skillful synthetic condensations of the authors’ arguments. Horowitz emphasizes the early periods of his subjects’ careers in order to capture the moments of experimentation and innovation that contributed to the development of their mature views. Although the book identifies some mutual conversations and patterns of influence, Horowitz is clear that his subjects did not form a coherent or self-conscious movement and often were only vaguely aware of one another’s ideas. The virtues of this line of analysis include its capacity to [End Page 250] subsume many different kinds of texts within a common framework. Thus, Consuming Pleasures ventures outside the United States to examine intellectual developments in Germany, France, and especially Britain, devoting close attention to authors ranging from Jürgen Habermas to Tom Wolfe to Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. This expansive, interdisciplinary approach makes the book an invaluable account of the evolving critical response to mass culture.
Horowitz’s focus on what he describes as “discourse without community,” however, carries certain limitations. Many layers of context receive only glancing treatment in this study; readers learn little about institutional settings, disciplinary conversations, networks of communication, or means of popularization or dissemination. Although the historiography is rapidly growing, Horowitz says almost nothing about changing conceptions of consumption among consumers who were not critical intellectuals, or changing practices within the advertising industry itself. Horowitz defines his project at the outset, in part, as one of identifying processes of “causation and change,” but these absences limit his ability to relate the observations of critical intellectuals to broader historical narratives. What social, technological, or political shifts inspired this reassessment of the merits of consumption? Did his subjects’ increasing credulousness toward consumer society merely reflect a broader popular shift, or was it a precipitating factor? Consuming Pleasures largely bypasses these broad questions, instead favoring a close textual analysis in which influence is monitored primarily through intellectuals reading one another.
Nearly all of the intellectuals discussed in Consuming Pleasures were responding to a dominant cultural discourse that portrayed consumption as morally abhorrent. The book, however, largely bypasses those arguments, choosing to focus instead on moments of dissonance and rupture. The reason for this narrowed focus is understandable: The Anxieties of Affluence explored criticisms of consumer culture in great detail, whereas Horowitz’s focus in Consuming Pleasures is on a contrary line of argumentation. But for readers who have not encountered the previous book, the discursive context that made these contributions innovative and disruptive is insufficiently conveyed. Expressions of enthusiasm for popular culture seem much less seditious and original when they are not encountered as deeply embedded within countervailing trends. Despite the author’s occasional caveats to the contrary, readers of Consuming Pleasures could be forgiven for developing the impression that they are encountering a broad transformation in cultural understandings of consumption rather than a few outlying expressions of dissent.
By focusing on early celebrations of consumer culture, Horowitz also...