If James Twitchell weren’t a graceful, witty writer, his new book, Lead Us Into Temptation: The Triumph of American Materialism, would be excruciating. Twitchell, a professor of English and advertising at the University of Florida at Gainesville, seems to have deliberately crafted his tongue-in-cheek thesis to annoy as many people as possible. Consumerism, he argues, is not a bad thing; it is “democratic” and “liberating.” And scholarship that suggests otherwise is naive—a product of alarmist dumbbells whose reasoning has been muddled by Marxist ideology.
“The idea that consumerism creates artificial desires rests on a wistful ignorance of history and human nature, on the hazy, romantic feeling that there existed some halcyon era of noble savages and purely natural needs,” Twitchell writes. “Once fed and sheltered, our needs have always been cultural, not natural.” When we purchase an object, he continues, what we really buy is its meaning. And there is no escaping meaning: It is “pumped and drawn everywhere throughout the modern commercial world, into the farthest reaches of space and into the smallest divisions of time. Commercialism is the water we all swim in, the air we breathe, our sunlight and our shade. Currents of desire flow around objects like smoke in a wind tunnel.”
The notion of self-definition through the amassing of objects is hardly original, though Twitchell’s fierce, intentionally outrageous defense of it is. His argument has four main points. First, humans by nature are consumers. Their materialism, however, does not “crowd out” their spiritualism; rather, “spiritualism is more likely a substitute when objects are scarce.” Second, consumers are not dupes; they know they are more interested in “aura than objects, sizzle than steak.” Third, consumers do not invariably succumb to buyer’s remorse. Many genuinely like “over-priced kitsch” and are reassured by having lots of it around. Finally, production and consumption are not the polar opposites that Marxist analysts would have us believe they are. “Do we work in order to have the leisure to buy things,” he asks rhetorically, “or is the leisure to buy things how we make work necessary?” “Getting and spending” is an active process involving self-invention; it is often more meaningful to an individual than working.
Woe to the scholars who have historically disagreed. Twitchell accosts them with attacks that are amusing to the extent that they are unfair. Thorstein Veblen, for instance, who coined the term “conspicuous consumption,” is revealed to be a sourpuss whose distaste for the leisure class was stirred up when potential employers ignored his talents, not to mention his Yale Ph.D. “Although churlish to speculate, one wonders how Veblen would have reacted had he been able to find a job,” Twitchell sniffs.
Twitchell doesn’t reserve his scorn just for ideas or scholars he seeks to discredit. He heaps it on everything—from organized Christianity (“the appropriate precursor of modern materialism” because it trades a “surplus product”—redemption—for the “attention of a willing populace”) to television programs (“the scheduled interruptions of marketing bulletins”) to Ralph Lauren’s layered look (“borrowed from a Westport drunk”). And although Twitchell asserts that diverting one’s religious impulses to consumption is good, his word choice when describing this process undercuts his argument. The contemporary Eucharist, he argues, merges a product’s consumer with that product’s celebrity endorser, exemplified by the Gatorade “Be like Mike” ad campaign,which uses Michael Jordan: “If you replenish your lost body fluids with their greenish slime”—a less-than-appetizing characterization of Gatorade—”you will not just be drinking Mr. Jordan’s brand but will be participating in his majesty.” I couldn’t, however, discern whether Twitchell self-consciously undermines his case to provide ironic distance from his proconsumer cheerleading, or if he is so chronically dyspeptic that he can’t express himself another way.
Oddly absent from the bibliography in Lead Us Into Temptation is another book that it parallels in both tone and content—Paul Fussell’s Class: A Guide Through the American Status System. Published 16 years ago, Fussell’s book explains how social groups signal their place by surrounding themselves with certain status-coded objects. Excluded, however, from the lemminglike patterns of other-directed consumption is what Fussell terms an “X Class,” consisting mostly of college professors like himself, who consume objects associated with all status levels and playfully juxtapose them.
One almost gets the sense that Twitchell’s apologia pro consumerism is a response to books like Fussell’s. “The middle-aged critic, driving about in his well-designated Volvo (unattractive and built to stay that way),” lacks “insight into his own consumption practices,” Twitchell growls, though “he can certainly criticize the bourgeois afflictions of others.” To Twitchell, class itself may be a dated notion—the manners, gentlemen’s clubs, and political affiliations that helped build character in Victorian fiction have been replaced in contemporary fiction by branded objects. Regardless of what a character writes, if he scribbles it with a Mont Blanc pen instead of a Bic it says something about him. This is not a lazy shorthand on the part of writers, but a honing in on what has resonance in our culture. “‘Tribe’ would be a better descriptive term than ‘class’ to describe the way we live now,” he explains, “and the tribe you affiliate yourself with probably has more to do with the brand of refrigerator you just bought last Tuesday than with your income, age, education, job, bloodline, religion, or country club.”
Near the end of the book, Twitchell reveals that he drives a Mazda Miata—indeed, that he succumbed to the Japanese manufacturer’s ad campaign, which invests the undistinguished little car with the aura of a legendary British racing vehicle. You can imagine how uncomfortable this might make him, among the insular academic Volvo crowd of Gainesville. Having admitted that he himself prefers sizzle to steak, he is eager both to defend his weakness and to project it onto others.
Lead Us Into Temptation is strongest when Twitchell’s considerable wit works in harmony with arcane, irrefutable facts to buttress his thesis. Too often, however, Twitchell’s reasoning resembles sniping at a faculty dinner party. When, for example, he dismisses the Voluntary Simplicity movement, a fad that involves supplanting material possessions with more abstract, often spiritual ones, as “appealing to those for whom simplicity is a preexisting mental condition,” the reader cannot help but be amused by his sarcasm. Yet one wonders why he feels so threatened by people cutting up their charge cards. Is he in earnest? Or just desperate to show that his sly, nimble sports car can outperform his colleagues’ boxy Scandinavian clunkers?