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Lead Us into Temptation : the Triumph of American Materialism - James B. Twitchell

Lead Us into Temptation

the Triumph of American Materialism


Published: 18th October 2000
For Ages: 22+ years old
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"Coke adds life. Just do it. Yo quiero Taco Bell." We live in a commercial age, awash in a sea of brand names, logos, and advertising jingles -- not to mention commodities themselves. Are shoppers merely the unwitting stooges of the greedy producers who will stop at nothing to sell their wares? Are the producers' powers of persuasion so great that resistance is futile?

James Twitchell counters this assumption of the used and abused consumer with a witty and unflinching look at commercial culture, starting from the simple observation that "we are powerfully attracted to the world of goods (after all, we don't call them 'bads')." He contends that far from being forced upon us against our better judgment, "consumerism is our better judgment." Why? Because increasingly, store-bought objects are what hold us together as a society, doing the work of "birth, patina, pews, coats of arms, house, and social rank" -- previously done by religion and bloodline. We immediately understand the connotations of status and identity exemplified by the Nike swoosh, the Polo pony, the Guess? label, the DKNY logo. The commodity alone is not what we are after; rather, we actively and creatively want that logo and its signification -- the social identity it bestows upon us. As Twitchell summarizes, "Tell me what you buy, and I will tell what you are and who you want to be."

Using elements as disparate as the film "The Jerk, " French theorists, popular bumper stickers, and "Money" magazine to explore the nature and importance of advertising lingo, packaging, fashion, and "The Meaning of Self," Twitchell overturns one stodgy social myth after another. In the process he reveals the purchase and possession of things to be the self-identifying acts of modern life. Not only does the car you drive tell others who you are, it lets you know as well. The consumption of goods, according to Twitchell, provides us with tangible everyday comforts and with crucial inner security in a seemingly faithless age. That we may find our sense of self through buying material objects is among the chief indictments of contemporary culture. Twitchell, however, sees the significance of shopping. "There are no false needs." We buy more than objects, we buy meaning. For many of us, especially in our youth, Things R Us.

A pop-science, impressionistic examination of the American lust for all things material. Twitchell (Adcult USA: The Triumph of Advertising in American Culture, 1996, etc.), like Marshall McLuhan and Camille Paglia, has made a career of spinning commonplaces into avant-garde theses, fortified by a battery of examples taken from popular culture. His critique of the frenzy of modern American materialism opens inauspiciously with an offhand analysis of Carl Reiner's 1979 comedy The Jerk, in which Steve Martin plays an idiot savant who bumbles his way into a considerable fortune - and a massive collection of things. Reiner's film affords Twitchell a starting point: "No other culture," he intones, "spends so much time declaring things don't matter while saying, 'just charge it.' "He goes on to pillory a succession of easy targets, such as the self-help movement, the yuppie shame-fueled Voluntary Simplicity movement, the contemporary penchant for wearing clothing with the labels sewn on outside, the academic trend called cultural studies, and the idiotic fare that passes for television entertainment. Below Twitchell's superficial readings of these phenomena, however, lie some interesting observations. "We live," Twitchell writes, "in a culture in which almost everyone can have almost everything" - and a time in which the real prices for most consumer goods, from carrots to airplane tickets to personal computers, have fallen to record low levels. With so much stuff to consume so cheaply, he reasons, it's no wonder that we surround ourselves with gewgaws, gadgets, and throwaway goods. "The great vice of Americans is not materialism but a lack of respect for matter," wrote W.H. Auden half a century ago. Twitchell rejoins, "What sets American culture of the late twentieth century apart is not avarice, but a surfeit of machine-made things." That surfeit is everywhere, and, Twitchell writes, the rest of the world wants to share it. Racing from one datum to the next, Twitchell concludes that we get the material culture we deserve - in our case, a culture of abundant junk. (Kirkus Reviews)


ISBN: 9780231115193
ISBN-10: 0231115199
Audience: Professional
For Ages: 22+ years old
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 310
Published: 18th October 2000
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Country of Publication: US
Dimensions (cm): 15.2 x 22.6  x 1.8
Weight (kg): 0.41