Consuming Pleasures: Intellectuals and Popular Culture in the Postwar World

July 12, 2012

Daniel Horowitz is a leading cartographer of cultural studies, as much at home with the quaggy contents of the bog as with the high, dry sierra of theory. He writes big books on one big theme: the attitudes of cultural critics to his beloved America. American intellectuals can carry off a simple and patriotic pride in their nation inaccessible to the British and French, who sing the caustic counterpoint in this huge work to the author's artless yet fashionable applause for all that pop has made of painting, music, movies and the architecture of Las Vegas.

His prior books, classics in their way - The Morality of Spending: Attitudes Toward the Consumer Society in America 1875-1940 and The Anxieties of Affluence: Critiques of American Consumer Culture, 1939-1979 - stood out reproachfully against the severity of John Kenneth Galbraith and the horrified amazement with which Theodor Adorno responded to Manhattan's Morningside Heights neighbourhood after Weimar Germany. In those books, as in this one, Horowitz is at pains to put down, in his words, "the tradition of moralistic scorn", and to speak up for a school of cultural critics, most of them pictured here as much cheerier, more gregarious and endearing if American rather than British, who put off the awful robes of puritanical (boo!) prophecy and decked themselves out in the manner of Scott Fitzgerald's "gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover" (hurrah!).

He brings off this formidable task by designing a vast biographical fresco, at once chronological (starting off in 1945 and ending rather abruptly in 1972), political (left of arc and that), generational (youth wins, though the young in his roll call are getting on a bit), racial and sexual.

In all these allocations Horowitz is a bit painfully correct, moralising and elitism being the two worst things, playfulness and irony badges of honour, identity and polymorphous pleasuring the goals of life. It is a tableau vivant of how to live well by his precepts, and the crowded figures arguing, gesticulating, enjoying and sermonising in the streets of his perspectives are excellently delineated. He has worked prodigiously hard in the archives and produces in each compressed, but never caricatured, miniature exemplary accounts of, for instance, Walter Benjamin, Dwight Macdonald, Roland Barthes, David Riesman, C.L.R. James among the oldies; Tom Wolfe (a surprise inclusion), Herbert Gans (this summary is quite superb) and Susan Sontag, in the next row.

He is just as much at home with the British tradition, but until it becomes tinged with post-colonialism (by Stuart Hall) and affirmations of gaiety (by Dick Hebdige), he objects time and again to the dominance of the old school of F. R. Leavis and its fierce hostility to the commercialisation of culture, the degeneration of the people into the masses.

This is, of course, the main arch of Horowitz's whole topic, and his full, scrupulous, but in the end disapproving treatment of Richard Hoggart is its keystone. He pays handsome tribute to all that Hoggart did to revise the Leavises' commination of the times, but condemns him in the end for his "nostalgia" and his "elitism", terms that in Horowitz's hands turn out to mean preferring some ways of life and works of art over others, and grounding that preference in moral analysis.

The failure here is deep in Horowitz's generous, bien pensant heart. He takes "consuming pleasures" as his capacious title but never asks what it means. "Consume" is an ambitious metaphor; what you consume turns into you. On both sides of the Atlantic, consumers are getting fatter and fatter; what are they eating culturally?

By the same token, pleasure itself receives no scrutiny in these pages. It is invoked as an undifferentiated good, almost as blank a value as happiness in the US Constitution. All that seems to matter to Horowitz is the style of one's consumption, and as far as the intelligentsia goes, that stylishness be worn with another rather blank coupling of values, irony and playfulness.

Well, it's damned hard to be ironic about Fox News or Babestation, or to play around with a movie as inane as Avatar. Horowitz repeatedly comes down on Hoggart's group of drape-suited lads waggling a shoulder to the jukebox, but what are we critics nowadays to make of the infamously foul-mouthed exchanges on Celebrity Big Brother, let alone a populist politics that removes from 350,000 very poor schoolchildren their one decent meal of the day?

These things may not presage the end of the world, and Horowitz is an attractive, well-spoken companion alongside his long caravan of always interesting thinkers. But he has de-moralised his tongue. Depriving himself of what Clifford Geertz, a notable absentee from the book, called a social history of the moral imagination, leaves him speechless before some of the most revolting depredations of capitalism in our time.

Consuming Pleasures: Intellectuals and Popular Culture in the Postwar World

By Daniel Horowitz. University of Pennsylvania Press. 528pp, £23.00. ISBN 9780812243956. Published 15 April 2012

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