The Power of Culture:
Critical Essays in American History Edited by Richard Wightman Fox and T. J. Jackson Lears
University of Chicago Press, 292 pages, $42
Fables of Abundance:
a cultural History of Advertising in America By Jackson Lears
Basic Books, 492 pages, $30
New times rightly demand new histories, innovative in approach, perspective, and subject matter. And cultural history (a blend of social and intellectual history that owes much to American Studies) is rich in potential to answer the bewildering dilemmas of our new times. These two books attest to that potential while also suggesting the obstacles, mostly imposed by practitioners themselves, that currently deprive cultural history of a wider audience.
The essays in The Power of Culture illustrate the varied and often unconventional themes that engage the attention of cultural historians. In doing so, the collection also reveals the spacious boundaries claimed by those who work the field. An examination by Karen Halttunen of narrative accounts of murders in early America, for example, shows how changes in literary form presaged changes in Americans’ view of evil. The displacement of neighborhood grocers by supermarket chains in interwar Chicago, for another example, provides a framework for Lizabeth Cohen to explore connections between class and patterns of mass consumption. A third essay analyzes how the concept “obligation” was used to generate support for World War II. Citing evidence ranging from magazine ads to Norman Rockwell’s enormously popular rendering of “the Four Freedoms,” Robert B. Westbrook concludes that “Americans were fighting World War II to protect essentially private interests and discharge essentially private obligations”—a motivation with profound implications for postwar conceptions of civic responsibility. A fourth essay, by Michael L. Smith, takes a retrospective look at the high-tech future depicted by the World’s Fair of 1964 and sees it as an elaborate corporate-engineered exercise in nostalgia. In a fifth essay, a decade-long brouhaha about an ugly modernist sculpture in front of an ugly federal office building in New York’s Foley Square allows Casey Nelson Blake to compare elite, popular, and bureaucratic attitudes toward the use of public spaces.
By the standards of conventional history, such topics might seem quirky or obscure. In fashioning their arguments, moreover, the authors in each instance rely heavily on nontraditional sources, employing as “texts” such artifacts of low culture as popular literature, corporate advertising, trade publications, handbills, and other ephemera.
Yet it is angle of vision rather than method that invests these essays with their considerable interest. The contributors to The Power of Culture , like cultural historians generally, consciously reject the worldviews of the “liberal” and “radical” schools that for at least the past thirty years have monopolized historical discourse. Indeed, one underlying aim of cultural history is to repudiate both camps, exposing the errors and misconceptions of liberal orthodoxy and the radical left alike. Given the authority of those two schools—the fact that they have for so long marginalized alternative points of view—the critique advanced by cultural historians is most welcome. Those who (like conservatives) have languished among the excluded will find much in that critique to applaud. By demolishing the assumptions that have dominated contemporary historical thought and by incorporating into the historical mainstream phenomena hitherto largely ignored, cultural historians create new possibilities for reenvisioning the past. Particularly notable in this regard is an attitude toward religion that, if not sympathetic, at least recognizes religious belief as worthy of serious study rather than derision.
So perceptive in exposing others as narrowly doctrinaire, however, cultural historians are vulnerable to the same charge. At one level, the spirit of cultural history would seem to require inclusiveness, receptivity, and intellectual playfulness. At another level, the cultural historian becomes as dogmatic as any Marxist true believer. Today’s hip cultural historian is in the thrall of the latest intellectual fashions: semiotics, deconstruction, Michel Foucault, and a ritual hostility to the West and all its works. Were that not enough, the authors of these essays share a political perspective rooted in the idols of political correctness—race, gender, and ethnicity. The result is predictable. The Power of Culture is riddled with self- satisfied posturing embedded in a leaden prose studded with obfuscating jargon. In their introduction, for example, Richard Wightman Fox and Jackson Lears write:
Epistemological challenges to conventional notions of objectivity are also in some instances political challenges to the hegemonic discourse of instrumental reason. Feminist scholars were among the first to realize this . . . . Grasping the contingent character of categories once deemed immutable came easily to feminists as well as to critics of the imperial designs that for so long had been legitimated by the supposed superiority of Western science. The turn toward textuality has coincided with an awakening of feminist and environmentalist consciousness.
Within a select circle of the initiated, no doubt, such pontificating strikes a responsive chord. But historians who prattle about truth coming “easily” to feminists and critics of the evil, imperialistic West are writing off the larger public unconvinced of either feminism’s infallible insight or the West’s irredeemable depravity. And those too lazy to write clearly—those who choose to parade their sophistication with self-indulgent bombast—necessarily cut themselves off from a general audience. In so doing, cultural historians risk throwing away the promise of their enterprise. Put off by such pretentiousness, readers in search of history will confine themselves to the memoirs of Warren Christopher. Cultural historians will continue to spout off to one another, of course, but few will listen to what they have to say.
Unfortunately, Fables of Abundance by Professor Jackson Lears of Rutgers University makes precisely this point. For admirers of Professor Lears’ earlier work, the estimable No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880–1920 , this book will come as a disappointment.
For the energetic and resourceful cultural historian, a comprehensive study of advertising’s role in the development of American society would seem to provide an incomparably rich environment in which to exercise his craft. Despite prodigious research and occasional flashes of insight, Professor Lears kicks that opportunity away. Fables of Abundance is rambling, undisciplined, and poorly focused.
The problem is not that the author lacks for things to say. His hypothesis is singularly provocative. According to Lears, modern advertising can plead not guilty to the charge that is it has seduced Americans into sacrificing their souls to materialism. Rather, he argues, advertising in conjunction with the mass production of consumer goods has contributed to the disenchantment of the material world, draining it of the fantastic or sensuous qualities that it had possessed in an earlier age and thereby causing Americans to become disconnected from the world in which they live. In other words, Lears writes, “The problem was not hedonism but the lack of it—and not materialism but the spread of indifference toward a material world where things were reduced to disposable commodities.”
Developing this bold hypothesis in coherent fashion would pose a formidable challenge to the most gifted historian. Unfortunately, it is a challenge that Lears hardly takes up. His account lacks balance. Although the antics of those who peddled patent medicine in the nineteenth century receive fulsome treatment, we learn virtually nothing about advertising from the 1960s onward and we never learn the reason for the disparity of emphasis. The author moves from one topic to another with little apparent logic (though he takes care from time to time to bow in the direction of the PC idols). And the author’s use of evidence, although drawn from an impressive range of sources, seems arbitrary rather than persuasive. His disregard for the reader is evident not only in his bloated style (“The triumph of a positivistic version of Cartesian dualism required the sanctification of a particular vision of science”) but even in the ads chosen to illustrate the text: in many cases, the reproductions are so small as to be indecipherable.
“Good prose is like a windowpane,” George Orwell once observed. Professor Lears quotes the observation to take Orwell and “others before him” to task for clinging to a “naive faith in the transparency of language.” Those on the leading edge of cultural history are too clever by half to fall for such old bromides—which is unfortunate. One wishes that they would adopt Orwell’s aphorism as their motto and tape it to their word processors, before their cleverness leads to the demise of an otherwise worthy scholarly enterprise.
A.J. Bacevich is Executive Director of the Foreign Policy Institute at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.