Lost in the supermarket 

Thomas Hine explores the consumer urge to splurge

Say you’re strolling the orderly aisles of Target on your bimonthly bulk-item bender when out from the Rubbermaid aisle pops a stately old codger who insists on talking shop.

His monologue is reasoned, occasionally entertaining, but absent any particular insight—he just can’t compete with a winter’s worth of toilet paper for nine bucks. Nevertheless, the old man keeps pace with your cart, if not your fancies, and continues prattling away, like Andy Rooney on Quaaludes. “What we buy says a lot about who we are,” goes one of his refrains. You begin to notice his tendency to discuss everyday shopping behavior with a reverence normally reserved for an Alan Greenspan press conference.

Not quite a Yoda of the mini-mall, Atlantic Monthly contributor Thomas Hine seems like a man incapable of leaving Ikea in less than five hours. His I Want That! How We All Became Shoppers is a cultural history of how and what and why we buy. It considers the agora of ancient Athens and the fairs of medieval Europe—where shoppers’ safe passage was guaranteed by the hosting overlord—and proceeds to the 19th-century department stores that defined their cities, like London’s Harrods and New York’s A.T. Stewart’s. And of course Hine gives consideration to that ubiquitous wonder, Wal-Mart:

“Never before have so many goods come together from so many places at such low cost,” he gushes. “And never before have so many people been able to buy so many things....[But] [n]ever before has so much seemed so dull.” But this point is soon lost in Hine’s rush to glorify stuff—and our inalienable right to buy it.

Hine, best known for 1986’s Populuxe, an illustrated tour of the halcyon ’50s, excels at unearthing lesser-known retail history. Some of the more remarkable changes in shopping chronicled in these pages concern the transition from smaller stores, where proprietors handled every single request, to the laissez-faire emporiums that allow customers to roam free. Hine notes that this form of sales was much quicker to catch on in the United States than in the more socially rigid European societies.

Regrettably though, the title of I Want That! is considerably more dynamic than its contents. This problem arises largely because the author offers less analysis than breathtaking tautology and restatement of the obvious. For instance, he argues that shopping has become so ingrained into the fabric of our lives that it often defies analysis. Trying anyway, he does manage to illuminate some of what’s behind our daily purchases. But his book feels like a glorification of mall denizens with its nearly obsessive championing of consumer choice. Hine’s apparent inability to tackle the downsides of consumer culture—the passivity and sense of entitlement fostered by a society that produces few tangible products, the seeming imperative of instant gratification—produces a perverse portrait of America’s other national pastime.

That Hine refrains from reflexive consumer-bashing is admirable. However, it’s less than satisfying when instead of addressing the common claims of consumer critics, Hine merely dismisses them by striking the pose of stalwart defender of the common customer. Call him a shopulist. Consumers are not dupes, he argues—they compare, research, and often agonize before buying. Certainly this is true of adults and big-ticket purchases, but one wonders if the author has ever witnessed a teenager blow through 20 bucks.

One popular anti-consumer bromide Hine does address is the claim that we shop to compete in a status arms race with the social group above us. The alacrity with which fashion trends spread within a subculture says more about the need for group members to affirm their bonds with one another than any desire to ascend a external hierarchy. Hine offers the example of the enduring tradition of African-American women churchgoers, with their formal dress and elaborate hats. “African American women aren’t trying to look like white women; they believe they look better.” You don’t have to look far to find other examples of buying to fit in. Unfortunately, though, Hine’s observations here fail to concede the basic point that our purchases are only a small part of who we are and how we relate to one other.

Most of the recent discourse on this country’s colossal consumption concerns its environmental and geopolitical consequences. Witness the many campaigns against SUVs from such unlikely quarters as evangelical Christians (What Would Jesus Drive?) and NPR’s “Car Talk” consiglieres, Click and Clack. Yet Hine is so enraptured by today’s historical opportunity for citizens to choose and for the poor to have plenty (of junk), that he’s quite content to dismiss the dark underbelly of consumer society: its failure to self-sustain, not to mention the chasm it has helped create between First World consumers and Third World producers. Hine’s principal assertion, that buying is “primarily a practical expression of power,” seems disingenuous. The tale of consumption is one-sided without the story of its evil twin: production. Though Hine is certainly not required to agonize over the state of Third World sweatshops, he seems curiously undisturbed (or, worse, deluded) over the fact that most of his allegedly empowering products are manufactured by those who lack the political and economic rights of the shoppers who consume them.

And Hine also seems oblivious to the nature of the objects offered in service to his beloved consumer bounty—namely, that they are ephemeral. How much of what we buy today is remembered a year later? Even the most obsessive stereophile or kitsch connoisseur will hesitate to claim that what he owns defines him. Perhaps when epitaphs start reading “I Got the Most From My Costco Card” or “Check Out My Vintage Barbies,” Hine’s argument will have reached the heart of consumer culture. Until then, his analysis goes no deeper than the surface of our lives. Just like our beloved American stuff.

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