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issue: 02/15/2000

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consuming desires
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Consuming Desires: Consumption, Culture, and the Pursuit of Happiness
Edited by Roger Rosenblatt

reviewed by Bruce Hamilton


"You are not what you own."
- Fugazi, "Merchandise"

To most Americans, consumption is a thoughtless act. We buy without wondering where the item came from, how its production affected the environment, where the waste will go, what kind of corporation its purchase supported and whether its business practices are ethical.

We know we want. Why think why?

"Consuming Desires" answers that question in a set of 13 essays collected by Roger Rosenblatt. It examines a quintessentially American ideal- that one can never have too much stuff. It is a compelling but pedantic look at the psychology behind consumption and its outcomes.

Each writer in the collection considers a unique aspect of consumer culture, from movies to clothes to books. Jane Smiley links feminism to consumerism, arguing that the traditional tools of domestic drudgery evolved in a kind of emancipation.

"The way we live our lives today reflects what our ancestors aspired to get away from," she writes in "It All Begins With Housework." The history of capitalism began in the home, according to Smiley, and it was driven by a need to improve social conditions and quality of life.

Alex Kotlowitz describes a viscious cycle of fashion in which inner-city kids imitate the styles of affluent suburbanites who in turn try to look like their poorer peers. His essay, "False Connections," decries the empty cachet of brand names and the social phenomenon of its seekers.

"We have found some common ground as purchasers of each other's trademarks," Kotlowitz writes. "At best, the link is tenuous; at worst, it's false."

Most of the essays in "Desires" deal with the subconscious yearnings that underpin spending habits. In "Consuming for Love," Edward Luttwak portrays America as a society of "emotional destitutes" who buy presents for themselves to somehow replace broken or abandoned family ties.

Juliet Schor asks, "What's Wrong With Consumer Society?" and discovers our wants outpace our needs or our ability to pay for them. Credit lets us live beyond our means, crossing an "aspirational gap" between what we want and what we can afford just to gain status.

Like other thinkers included in this literary "salon," Schor blames media, citing a study that shows television causes people to spend more and save less. Molly Haskell makes a similar argument about the silver screen, which she says is one of the ways capitalism sells itself, desire and the tropes of class distinction.

Bill McKibben, author of "The End of Nature," gives a less alarmist look at the destruction of the environment in "Consuming Nature." He posits nature as a product; one is consuming whether listening to wolf howls or compact discs.

The final essay, "Can't Get That Extinction Crisis Out of My Mind," takes more of a doomsday tone. It concludes with the nagging motif of consumption as destruction. Metaphorically speaking, it says we are eating ourselves to death.

Reading these essays may change the way you think about shopping, eating or simply watching the tube, and for that reason it's an important work. These are cogent arguments against conspicuous consumption or at least rethinking our American dream of unlimited resources.

But like its subtitle, "Consumption, Culture, and the Pursuit of Happiness," this book is somewhat topheavy. A few of the writers leaven their prose with turgid rhetoric. The book fails to balance too many weighty ideas, but it carries them admirably far.

Bruce Hamilton welcomes your comments on this review.

   

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