Monthly Archives: January 2013

30: Kathy Peiss’ Hope in a Jar

Some books on feminism and women’s culture make me really psyched to be a lady.  Some make me feel like a grumpy old stick in the mud, grousing about too-short skirts and a lack of self-respect among the younger generation.  Unfortunately, Hope in a Jar belongs in the latter category.

I’m not trying to say that it’s an unnecessary or uninteresting book – it’s quite the opposite, actually.  Hope in a Jar is a history of the American cosmetics industry “from the bottom up,” and Peiss takes pains to show how women and minorities actively participated in and shaped beauty culture and the cosmetics industry that grew out of it.  It’s the first book to take this industry seriously by looking at it from this perspective; even better, Peiss is an American Studies scholar, so she does that thing where she tells you a lot about both her little slice of life and about its impact on American culture as a whole.  Accordingly, Elizabeth Arden, Madame C.J. Walker and Mary Kay, among others, are portrayed as both intimately connected to the all-female networks, grassroots marketing strategies, and white-focused beauty standards developed in Americas beauty culture and savvy businesswomen who brought fresh ideas into American business culture.  Therefore, after WWI, when the beauty business mushroomed (along with the rest of the economy) into a male-operated, mass-media behemoth, it was instrumental in bringing both female consumers and female businesswomen into the mass market, thus empowering women in the interwar economy.

Women were also empowered in those interwar years by the application of makeup itself.  Rather than succumb to sedate mass-market beauty prescriptions, women followed the lead of their favorite actresses and painted up; bobbed hair, short skirts, and rouged lips and cheeks defied authority and emphasized women’s sex appeal.  How better to celebrate their new status as equals in the marketplace than by asserting their physical presence and personal autonomy?

Right.  Here’s where my inner grump comes in: even if makeup can be seen as liberatory (which, hey, in the 1920s it probably was), it still focuses the attention on a woman’s body, on appearances, on sexuality.  At the risk of sounding like a generation-late Andrea Dworkin or a watered-down Maureen Dowd, women are always already seen as sexualized bodies, so emphasizing those bodies isn’t particularly subversive.  And anyway, the slide back from subversive subject to sexualized object is just too easy when both take the female body as their reference point.

But I digress.  That kind of feminism definitely had its place, and Peiss’ book is good at exploring its empowering intersections with mainstream beauty culture.

29: Joy Kasson’s Buffalo Bill’s Wild West

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West is one of those cool pop culture books that simultaneously teaches you a ton about a cultural product and about the culture that produced it.  In this case, the product is the ever-evolving, politically-topical, travelling western variety show hosted by “Buffalo Bill” Cody around the turn of the last century; the culture that produced it is turn-of-the-century America, a world as uneasy about the conflict and exploitation in its past as it was about the growth of industrial capitalism in its midst.  Arguing that Buffalo Bill himself was among the first modern American celebrities, Kasson shows how his Wild West shows knit together celebrity, American history, and cultural memory into a new narrative of American national identity.

Kasson uses a lot of interdisciplinary hoopla to achieve her goal, but basically, her argument goes like this.  Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show was enormously popular starting in the 1890s, and its producers constantly tweaked it to incorporate both audience feedback and topical stories, so we can safely consider it embedded enough in turn-of-the-century American culture to have both affected and reflected the mood of the times.  Further, the show presented itself as both authentic history and spectacle, and Buffalo Bill himself was both a real person and a widely-publicized invented celebrity.  By walking a very hazy line between fact and fiction, the show started an enduring link between American history and popular culture, where history becomes a spectacle created by the people for their own edutainment.  Conflicts, wars, even struggles with Native Americans get whitewashed; in the name of pleasure, even the bloodiest battle scenes end with Indians – yes, real Indians! – and Anglos reconciled to the applause of the audience at the end of the show.

And finally, from history as edutainment, it’s but a few short steps to national identity as edutainment: to paraphrase my friend Jessica, we like the lies we tell ourselves; if we tell them enough, eventually we come to believe them.

I like this book because it is readable, but also because it still rings true today.  Have you been to Disneyland?  Seen Lincoln?

28: Lynn Hunt’s Inventing Human Rights

In Inventing Human Rights, Lynn Hunt links the development of universal human rights – the idea that all people, as a rather formative American document puts it, “are created equal” and have “certain unalienable rights” – to two 18th-century events: the French Revolution and the rise of the epistolary novel.

The French Revolution resulted in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, which argues for the existence of a universal humanity – “man” – and the necessary connection between the rights of this universal body and the body politic.  If that language feels a lot like that in the Constitution, that’s because it is: universal humanity and equal rights were both Enlightenment concepts, and the framers of the Constitution were Enlightenment men.

But the novel?  Hunt argues that novels, which didn’t even exist before the 18th century, were hugely important in the construction of human rights because they created a sustained, intimate relationship between the reader and characters whose lives were very different from their own.  In particular, epistolary novels – especially ones about women – drew readers in with the most intimate details about characters’ lives; if reading through fictionalized correspondence seems pedantic today (er, it does to me, anyway), back then, this extended snooping allowed readers to become familiar with, even attached to, people they had nothing in common with.  Arguing that familiarity breeds empathy, Hunt finds in the novel a necessary corollary to abstract concepts like “universal” and “equality:” individual empathy.  This empathy, she says, is necessary for universal human rights to work, since you can only see another person as an equal when you can see yourself in them.

Hunt thus puts a very human face on universal human rights.  While she could pay a little more attention to the lives of non-readers and the complex power structures in which they live and work, in this book she still provides a compelling intellectual and cultural history of a very formative idea.

27: William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis

In Nature’s Metropolis, Bill Cronon shows that the rapid growth of Chicago in the 19th century – from a few thousand residents in 1837 to some 300,000 in 1871 – was directly connected to the massive environmental restructuring of the western half of the United States at that time.  Chicago grew so quickly because it was surrounded by the magical combination of ridiculously abundant natural resources (forests in the north, rich soil in the plains, fish in the rivers, and so on), a growing transportation network, a series of technological developments (railroads, refrigerated cars, grain elevators, mechanization of grain and meat processing, etc) that reduced both travel times and spoilage of goods, and a relatively unregulated capitalist economy.  Thus, businesspeople razed entire forests in the upper midwest for housing timber, then cleared the land and used it for farming and husbandry; shot all the bison on the great plains, quarantined the Native Americans on reservations, and fenced in the land to create an elaborate system of factory farming; and turned much of the midwest into corn and wheat farms.  Railroads carried animals and produce from the hinterlands to the centralized stockyards and grain elevators in Chicago, where it was processed and shipped east (or back west) as needed.  And Chicago, which had become the center of a vast agricultural production and distribution network, boomed overnight.  The city and the country had become inextricably linked.

This is truly a fascinating book, and so well-written that even the technological and economic processes by which massive wheat production eventually led to the creation of the stock exchange are interesting.  The only criticisms I’ve seen are that Cronon doesn’t spend enough time looking at the cultural productions in 19th century Chicago – and yes, that’s true, he spends much more time in the stockyards, the railyards, and the stock exchange than at the theatre.  But really, at over 600 pages already, I think the book is lovely the way it is.

26: Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media

Reviews of Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man seem to follow roughly the same format: a brief overview of McLuhan’s life that characterizes him as a wacky, provincial English professor-turned-overnight-celebrity; a few vague references to his most famous dictums; and an extension of his work to today’s media, with an insistence that despite the passage of time, McLuhan’s work is still surprisingly fresh and new and relevant. 

Be that as it may (hey, I’m all for finding relevance, even if I don’t have the need to call someone a prophet), McLuhan’s language is as obtuse as it is lovely, which makes for hard slogging.  Since one of the things he’s known for is his tendency to write in aphorisms, I think the easiest way to summarize him here is to write out the three that gave me the most trouble, plus a fourth that gives me faith in humanity.

“the medium is the message”

This is the phrase McLuhan is probably most famous for.  Because it is so short, it’s also a hard one to wrap my head around, and McLuhan wasn’t much for giving careful explanations. The “is” doesn’t help, either, because it implies that the two things are equal – which is confusing because it implies a tautology.  The way that this makes sense to me is to think about the relationship between social media and communication forms: a tweet or a Facebook status update or a Tumblr post is radically different from a blog post both in length and content; with less space and a greater emphasis on visuals, whatever information you’re trying to convey in these smaller, more networked formats gets compressed, transformed, digested.  It’s less medium = message and more medium –> message.  And the most successful messages are those that are well-tailored to by synergistic with their medium.

“the content of any medium is always another medium”

Ok.  Thanks, McLuhan, for defining a word with itself.  He goes on to explain, however, in his chapter on radio, that “[t]he content of the press is literary statement, as the content of the book is speech, and the content of the movie is the novel.  So the effects of radio are quite independent of its programming.”  In a way, media are like a hall of mirrors or like Baudrillard’s simulacra, copies of copies of copies; or maybe, in a more subversive vein, like Judith Butler’s processes of translation.  They are telescoping, reflecting and repeating one another like a big, coordinated multimedia ad campaign.  And because of the time-space compression of newer media (see the blog-to-Twitter progression), older media are kept alive, at least for a time, within newer media: books within e-books within blogs and so on.

 “the bad news sells the good news”

Ever wonder why the news is always bad?  It’s because bad news draws the viewer in to gawk or recoil in horror at the spectacle, so that the good news – the advertisements that show you what you can buy to make the horror go away – can catch you at a vulnerable moment.  Thus, when McLuhan was writing, anyway, commercials and programming were combined into one big program, so that program flowed into ad flowed back into program.  The interesting thing is that because a series of commercials is really a set of fragmented, disconnected texts, programmers rely on viewers’ brains to fill in the gaps and connect the fragments into a larger coherent narrative.  Luckily, our brains are trained – ideologically, repetitively – to look for common threads, and to see nothing strange about a seamless integration of real life news, entertainment, and injunctions to consume.

Although “the medium is the message” seems to argue that content follows form, the telescoping nature of media seems to ensure that we stay on a technologically-mediated level playing field of reflected images, and the media themselves seem capable of sheer manipulation, I don’t think that McLuhan was necessarily a technological determinist.  I say this because of his discussion of bicycles:

“It was no accident that the Wright Brothers were bicycle mechanics, or that early airplanes seemed in some ways like bicycles.  The transformations of technology have the character of organic evolution because all technologies are extensions of our physical being.”

Technologies may condition the way humans communicate, but human beings are still very much a part of the technological system; technological change is still “organic evolution” because technologies are “extensions of our physical being” and therefore humans, not technologies, control the direction and rate and quality of technological change.  To folks who fear that the culture industry is going to take over the world and we’ll wake up one day and find ourselves in the middle of Idiocracy, McLuhan argues that humans have the power to stop that kind of development from happening.  Which, if you think about it, was a necessary, albeit old school, message for Cold War America, presented in an interestingly old-fashioned print media-turned-celebrity package.

25: Jeff Meikle’s American Plastic

Jeff Meikle’s American Plastic delves into the history, technology, and business of plastic (in the US) to show that plastic is both material and metaphor for American culture.  On the one hand, plastic’s seemingly infinite malleability can lead to creative freedom and human domination over nature; on the other, its synthetic, chemical artificiality detaches us from the natural world and thus leads, somehow, to death.  Lest this dichotomy seem too simple, he situates his history of plastic within Thomas Hughes’ “technological momentum” framework, which holds that when technologies are young, they are easily manipulated by society; as they (and their attendant industries and systems of distribution) age, they shift from the manipulated to the manipulators.  Thus, if plastic was all “whatever” in the late 1800s, by the late 20th century, plastic had become a necessary, if silently lurking, element in our everyday lives.

The majority of the book focuses on technological manufacturing processes, the development of the plastics industry, and changing cultural perceptions of plastic (which were often, especially in DuPont’s case, carefully crafted by ad execs).  The part that I found most interesting was Meikle’s discussion of the relationship between plastics and streamlining in the 1930s, as it captures an industry, a technology, a culture and an aesthetic all in transition at once.

Although Bakelite, the first synthetic plastic, had been around since the turn of the century, it didn’t take off until the 1920s, when its promoters were able to recast it as a material of innovation rather than one of simulation.  This reframing of plastic as something wholly man-made – and the reframing of “man-made” as a positive quality – was reflected in Bakelite’s new emphasis on modern design, which took advantage of plastic’s plasticity to create shapes and textures that could not be held by natural materials.  Inspired by Bakelite, other plastics manufacturers followed suit and developed radios, furniture, bowls, and other household goods with sleek, smooth surfaces and simple, sweeping curves.  Meikle is careful to point out that this streamlining trend was NOT a direct result of the plastic manufacturing process, which involved pouring softened plastic into molds.  Instead, he argues that the 1930s were a moment of flux, when culture and technology were on relatively equal footing: 1930s design resulted partly from consumer demand for ‘machine-age forms’ and partly from the high cost of machining plastic molds, which pushed manufacturers to develop simpler, more streamlined forms.  In other words, plastic and streamlining came together as a “happy coincidence.”  Plastic sure did look good in curvilinear forms, though.  More importantly, the visual disconnect between the new streamlined plastics and natural materials and forms, which now looked irregular and staid by comparison, appealed to Americans’ utopian aspirations while also giving plastic its identity.

After WWII and into the 1960s, plastic stopped being the utopian super material and started to seem emblematic of everything that was wrong with American society: cookie cutter homes filled with identical vinyl floors, naugahyde furniture, and Tupperware, social isolation, inequality and environmental destruction.  Meikle doesn’t suggest that plastics directly caused the countercultural revolution – his analysis is far too nuanced to do that – but he does tie the proliferation of plastic to an ongoing tension between human creativity and the sense that American culture is increasingly detached from “the resistant stuff of nature.”  Considering that a little under a century ago we were celebrating the domination of nature via plastic, this tension reveals a now-mature technological system’s imbalance of power between humans and nature.  Meikle calls the tension “insoluble;” I’ve never considered myself much of an environmentalist, but I do hope he’s wrong.