Book Review

Book Review: Seal on Horowitz’s Consuming Pleasures

Review of Daniel Horowitz’s Consuming Pleasures: Intellectuals and Popular Culture in the Postwar World (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012). ISBN: 9780812243956. 491 pages.

Reviewed by Andrew Seal
Yale University

The book under review is the third that Daniel Horowitz has published on consumer culture in the United States, and it both is and isn’t useful to think of it as part of a trilogy, along with The Morality of Spending: Attitudes Toward the Consumer Society in America, 1875-1940 (1985) and The Anxieties of Affluence: Critiques of American Consumer Culture, 1939-1979 (2004). One reason in favor of doing so is simply that it puts Horowitz’s efforts into perspective: Horowitz has produced an achievement in many ways on par with Richard Slotkin’s dense and sweeping trio chronicling the place of the West in the American imagination, one of the very few other instances of such sustained scholarly diligence.[1]

It is clear that Horowitz himself sees Consuming Pleasures as building on the arguments of the previous two works, providing a further development of “the subject I have been working on since the early 1970s, the story of how intellectuals have responded to affluence and consumer culture” (x). Consuming Pleasures advances this story by tracking a new development in this debate: the emergence of a “postmoralism” or an “anthropological outlook on culture” which superseded the “new moralism” of modernist disdain and paternalistic expertise (the subject of Anxieties of Affluence), the position which in its own day had supplanted the more traditional moralism of self-restraint and parsimony (The Morality of Spending).

Horowitz argues that, in the heady first flush of the postwar U.S. economic boom, and in the slowly reconstructing and still rationing European envy of that prosperity, the seeds were sown for what was at first, for figures like David Riesman, the early Marshall McLuhan, Roland Barthes, and Richard Hoggart, a hesitant détente between intellectuals and “popular culture.” That thaw then gradually became, for Tom Wolfe, Herbert Gans, Stuart Hall, and Susan Sontag, a more engaged if not fully appreciative approach to the study of “consumer culture.” Pluralist assessments of cultural validity and worth reluctantly edged out hierarchical standards and fixed canons, with critics locating newfound resources for bottom-up creativity and even individuality within what was previously considered the top-down and stultifying domains of mass culture. By 1972, Horowitz argues, cultural critics like Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown had begun not only to tinker with the distinctions between high and low culture, but to argue for the suspension of such segmentations altogether. Such critics emphasized the emancipatory or even utopian promise of consumption, identifying within it an entirely malleable system of communication, a realm of free play and self-creation.

Like the prior two works, Consuming Pleasurestracks the shifts and rearticulations of these broad, society-wide dispositions through the writings of a deep roster of prominent intellectuals. It has long been one of Horowitz’s signal strengths to work over the contents of important texts and corpora in subtle ways through novel juxtapositions and insightful re-readings. Horowitz has expanded the boundaries of intellectual history in small but appreciable ways by, as he put it in The Morality of Spending, “insist[ing] on the benefits of exploring the interplay between the related stories of how Americans spent their money and how writers thought they should. The juxtapositions of data and advice enables us to see how changes in the standard of living prompted reconsiderations of the dilemmas of affluence, as well as how attitudes toward spending shaped the investigations” (Morality, xix).

In fact, Consuming Pleasures is far less interested in the data and investigations of consumer spending. The intellectuals it treats are more like organic intellectuals than were the figures covered in Morality of Spending or Anxieties of Affluence, speaking less as policy or corporate experts and more often as critics attempting, like the rest of the populace, to make a life inside consumer culture. Yet the feedback loop between prescription and description, between is and ought, is still the dominant motif of Consuming Pleasures. While the intellectuals of this book were not as insistent on knowing better as were figures like Simon Patten, Thorstein Veblen, John Kenneth Galbraith, or Christopher Lasch, the “postmoralist” critics—Wolfe, McLuhan, Sontag, Venturi and Scott Brown—still insisted on being in the know. And being on the cultural bleeding edge often pushed these postmoralists to turn prescriptive in spite of themselves, becoming advocates if by nothing other than the momentum of their predictions of consumer culture’s success and of its viability as a permanent and versatile social force. Part of the book’s own pleasures lie in Horowitz’s skillful reconstruction of these vexed and overdetermined positions.

While Horowitz’s ability to excavate the nuances of tone and disposition from a rich archival trove is impressively graceful, the foregoing account may not overturn or greatly complicate what the reader already knows of the intellectual transformations of the postwar decades, and indeed Horowitz freely admits in Consuming Pleasures that “some of what I say about individual books or authors is not especially new.” But he also asserts that “I demonstrate patterns and connections previously obscured by treating these texts and their authors in isolation” (11). The texts and authors covered in Consuming Pleasures do range widely, although as with the prior two works, the book’s structure has a loose, almost episodic quality which prompts the reader to wish more often for the addition or substitution of alternative authors and texts than might have been the case were Horowitz to have written a more synthetic, more argumentative account. But it is actually the question of breadth that makes Consuming Pleasures in some ways an odd man out in this trilogy, and its differences from Morality of Spending and Anxieties of Affluence provide both its greatest strengths and its disappointments.

For one thing, to characterize Consuming Pleasures as responding primarily or even principally to Horowitz’s previous works is to parochialize it excessively, for it is in many ways as much or more in dialogue with other scholars’ work than with Horowitz’s own, as tight as the thematic and methodological approaches may be. Horowitz is inordinately generous in his citations of other works, patiently reconstructing the arguments and historiographies of a formidably voluminous reservoir of scholarship. (Graduate students like myself ought both to cheer and quail at such an example.) Citing previous work by Eugene Lunn, Michael Denning, Lawrence Levine, Paul Gorman, and Andrew Ross early and often, Horowitz makes great use of this body of scholarship to take some productive shortcuts, allowing him to cover more ground and extend his reach considerably past the specific intellectuals whom he highlights.[2] Consuming Pleasures, although it was, according to Horowitz’s preface, written in about only seven years, is a work of formidable patience and detail, an aggregation and synthesis of decades worth of reading in the secondary sources. Horowitz’s command of these literatures almost redeems the standard scholarly excuse for an abbreviated, cover-your-behind footnote “The literature on this topic is vast, but… here’s what I can claim to have read.” Horowitz’s style is more, “The literature on this topic is vast, and here’s what you should know from it.”

Moving from secondary to primary sources offers another way in which Consuming Pleasures does much more than build on Horowitz’s previous work. While he drew on understudied sources before, in Consuming Pleasures, Horowitz retrieves for the English-speaking scholar an exciting new clutch of previously untranslated or exceedingly obscure articles by Roland Barthes, Umberto Eco, and Jürgen Habermas, and revives a now neglected but germinal text on popular culture, the 1964 Stuart Hall and Paddy Whannel collaboration, The Popular Arts.[3] He also continues the recuperation of C. L. R. James as a major figure of the middle decades of the twentieth century, an indispensable voice for understanding those years, despite his obscurity during them.

A large part of the excitement of opening up these documents to current scholarship is that they come as something of a historiographical surprise—not even missed in prior treatments of U.S. consumer culture, their authors considered to be part of other formations tangential at best to the “domestic” debates over mass culture, affluence, and consumerism in America. The singular methodological innovation of Consuming Pleasures is its insistence on setting the intellectual discourse on postwar consumer culture within a transatlantic frame, and doing so is, I feel, a major advance for the study of these debates and the intellectuals involved in them.

Setting forth the agenda of writing a transatlantic history of intellectual responses to consumer culture is considerably easier than writing it, however, and Consuming Pleasures accomplishes this task somewhat unevenly. Horowitz dealt with émigré intellectuals before in The Anxieties of Affluence (George Katona and Ernest Dichter), but rightly adds to that category a wider-angle consideration of transnationality, one less defined by the space of the nation-state. “The main focus here,” Horowitz writes, “is on the consequences of the flow (or blockage) of people and ideas across national borders, what the historian Thomas Bender has called the result of ‘the permeability of the nation at boundaries, the zones of contact and exchange among people, money, knowledges, and things’” (13).[4]

That indecision between “flow (or blockage)” is a risky move, but it is one that Horowitz makes central to his project, emphasizing repeatedly the ways that intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic rather stubbornly failed to look around themselves properly to take advantage of the many concurrent ideas for how to come to terms with the postwar consumer landscape. Yet documenting—much less theorizing—how these ideas became “lost in translation,” as Horowitz prefers to describe these blockages, often requires more fancy footwork than proving a connection did occur, and the temptation for the historian to reconstruct a debate that he or she feels should have happened over those that did is a challenge to resist. At least it ensnares Horowitz a little too often, even though he admits that, while “[o]ne can only speculate about what difference it would have made to American discussions of popular culture had the works of Barthes, Benjamin, Eco, Habermas, and James been available in the immediate postwar period… [n]ot much is the best guess” (121). Still, the desire to force these texts into circulations they did not have is palpable in Consuming Pleasures, and its counterfactuality adds a touch of awkwardness.

Horowitz notes repeatedly that many of the western European texts which today can provide us with such a rich record of responses to the idea of American consumer culture were not translated into English until the tail end of the period he covers, if not later (as with the untranslated Eco, Habermas, and Barthes essays he works with).[5] Horowitz does not explore this curious fact very much, or attempt to track down the specific circumstances of when and why they were finally translated. Nor does he really make as much use as he might have of the transatlantic connections within cultural criticism generally, and the study of popular or mass culture more specifically, that preceded World War II—sources which, like José Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses, massively impacted the postwar debates on mass culture. The only prewar transatlantic intellectual given much treatment is T. S. Eliot.

To be fair, though, that lack of prewar coverage is not an oversight on Horowitz’s part, but a conscious argument, albeit one that is, I would argue, overly mechanical. Horowitz sees the emergence of these new attitudes toward consumer or mass culture as the ineluctable product of its postwar inundation: “[postwar c]hanges in the economy [i.e., the period of sustained prosperity through the 1950s] made consumerism so prevalent that it was hard to ascribe the consumption of goods simply or primarily to moral weakness” (8). Horowitz adds further down the page that, along with these transformations in the economic base come important superstructural considerations: “shifts in attitudes, ideas, and approaches deserve at least equal attention.” Yet the main shift Horowitz outlines is a simplistic ideological turnover: “Generational shifts played important roles, especially the waning of the memories of totalitarianism and of the prominence of writers for whom Stalinism and Nazism were central… A new set of imperatives emerged over time, in part as a result of how the waning or reconfiguration of Marxism underwrote these changes” (9). Yet Horowitz is too good a historian for these somewhat schematic arguments to bleach the nuance and subtlety of the actual content of the rest of the book; holdovers from the prewar period—including the irrepressible Dwight Macdonald and Clement Greenberg as well as the fraught memories of the Popular Front—hover over much of Horowitz’s analysis, even if they might have been more directly and profitably engaged. Horowitz’s charming preface begins with an anecdote about stumbling on a 1937 essay written by one of his high school teachers, a woman with a Yale Ph.D., on the culturally redemptive possibilities present in moviegoing. In many ways, that initial move toward the Thirties encapsulates the persistent problem Horowitz faces that so much of his history is a sequence of almost random discoveries and undiscoveries—moments when a text like his high school teacher’s essay could be swallowed for years before popping up poignantly if also somewhat inconsequentially.

The emphasis on missed connections overall gives Consuming Pleasures a rather ghostly feel—an effect heightened by the continuing reverberations of the death of Susan Sontag, who in many ways anchors the back half of the book. Horowitz makes wonderful use of her recently published journals, and the opening up of these hidden sides of Sontag’s personality and experiences to the public eye adds a startlingly sharp dimension to the more sedate reflections of the other figures in the book. Yet Consuming Pleasures is haunted not just by the belated translations of Eco or Barthes or by Sontag’s journals, although Sontag herself brings together the two larger presences which Horowitz draws upon. Consuming Pleasures is, not too far under the surface, a story about how (some) Jews and (some) gay men and women fought simultaneously to use popular culture to achieve an identity and a place in American society and to justify to the more rarefied strata of that society the importance of popular culture. And because it tells that story, the Holocaust and homophobia loom in the shadows of the book. Unfortunately, that’s all they really do, though, as Horowitz does not fully engage with why Jews and gays seemed to have been so central to the repudiation of traditional hierarchies of high and low culture, and he often comes off as using these categories fairly reductively. There is even an interesting footnote in which he says, “I am grateful to Herbert J. Gans [also one of the subjects of Consuming Pleasures] for helping me think about the relationships of Jews to popular culture, even though we did not always agree” (376). That footnote follows the sentence “Whatever the sociological origins of concerns among Jews about popular culture, it is hard to overestimate the impact on them of an awareness of how Hitler had used mass media to advance Nazism” (21).

As uneven as these hauntings can be, they do make Consuming Pleasures a much richer book, and, together with the truly monumental feats of research and synthesis which Horowitz has performed, they promise readers a rewarding and deeply provoking experience.

———————————————————————————————————— Notes

[1] Richard Slotkin, Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (Middletown, CT, 1973); The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800-1890 (New York, 1985); and Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (New York, 1992).

[2] The principal works here are Eugene Lunn, Marxism and Modernism: An Historical Study of Lukács, Brecht, Benjamin, and Adorno (Berkeley, CA, 1982); Michael Denning, “The End of Mass Culture,” International Labor and Working-Class History 37 (Spring 1990): 4-18, and The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (New York, 1996); Lawrence Levine, “The Folklore of Industrial Society: Popular Culture and Its Audiences,” American Historical Review 97.5 (Dec. 1992): 1369-1399; Paul R. Gorman, Left Intellectuals and Popular Culture in Twentieth-Century America (Chapel Hill, 1996); Andrew Ross, No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture (New York, 1989).

[3] Stuart Hall and Paddy Whannel, The Popular Arts (Boston, 1967). It is interesting to note that the U.S. paperback edition—cited here—came out in a series edited by David Manning White, the editor of what Horowitz refers to as the “locus classicus of these [1950s] debates [on mass culture]… the 1957 book Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America, edited by Bernard Rosenberg and David Manning White” (19).

[4] Horowitz is quoting from Thomas Bender, A Nation among Nations: America’s Place in World History (New York, 2006), 7.

[5] Roland Barthes’s Mythologies (1957) was not translated until 1972, and even then only partially; Walter Benjamin’s key essays of the 1930s were not published in an accessible manner until 1968; Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s 1944 landmark book Dialektik der Aufklärung, with its crucial chapter on the Culture Industry, was not available in English until 1972; Umberto Eco’s Opera Aperta (1962) and Diario Minimo (1963) were incompletely translated as The Open Work (1989) and Misreadings (1993); The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962) by Jürgen Habermas only came out in English in 1989; and, while C. L. R. James’s American Civilization (1950) didn’t have to wait for a translation, as Horowitz points out, it nevertheless was not in print until 1993.