Cute, Quaint, Hungry, and Romantic: The Aesthetics of Consumerism

by Daniel Harris

ISBN: 0306810476

This book isn’t science: Harris is an essayist, one whose words have bite and humor, so he doesn’t follow up his pronouncements with statistics. His theories appeal (or don’t) based on the style of his argument and the reader’s willingness to take a few jabs along the way. He isn’t apologetic about not offering solutions to the current cult of consumerism — that would get in the way of his having a good time tearing things down. His goal:

I attempt to recover the repressed aesthetic data of our lives; to make this vast archive of subliminal images accessible to conscious analysis; and to remove the mental obstructions, the inveterate habits of inattentiveness, that prevent us from seeing how carefully even the most insignificant of our possessions have been designed.

On some topics I find him more dead-on that others. Below are excerpts of his arguments, so you can get a feel for what he does with each chapter devoted to the topic:

Cuteness “Something becomes cute not necessarily because of a quality is has but because of a quality it lacks, a certain neediness and inability to stand alone, as if it were an indigent starveling, lonely and rejected because of a hideousness we find more touching than unsightly.”

Quaintness “While roaming around the countryside, hunting for bargains, the gourmand of garbage gives a clever spin to the act of shopping. He recharacterizes his materialism as an activity of a higher magnitude, not a selfish act of purchasing a product but a custodial one of salvaging the past, the conscientious work of a dedicated folk archaeologist who excavates forgotten windfalls that might otherwise end up, with potentially disastrous consequences, in careless hands.”

Coolness “The adolescent’s rebellion against centuries of child worship takes on of its most violent forms in its extreme humorlessness and its emphatic rejection of the smile, “niceness,” of the amiability of the service economy, which has been supplanted by a sepulchral air of gravity.”

The Romantic “The notion that desire is a great leveler, that is renders us speechless and inept and thus forces us to rely on mood-enhancing commodities to capture the attention of our partners, is particularly useful for consumerism, which generously offers to bail us out and stage-manage our intimate moments…”

Zaniness “The modern landscape is littered with vast stockpiles of ludicrous paraphernalia, which we arrange like shrines in our kitchens, bedrooms, and offices.”

The Futuristic “Manufacturers exploit our naive confusion of aesthetics with utility, instilling awe through gratuitous variation of form that deceive us into believing that the novel appearance of cars with three wheels and toasters that resemble speeding chrome bullets necessarily enhances performance and efficiency.”

Deliciousness “The rhetoric with which advertisers make love to our tastebuds often has nothing whatsoever to do with how our Cajun McChicken Sandwiches, Taco Bell Meximelts, Eskimo Pies, and Rice-a-Roni San Francisco treats really taste but constitutes a highly fictional fantasy about how processed foods should taste in a utopian world…”

The Natural “The more destructive a product is to either the environment or our own bodies, the more prominently images of nature figure in the way it is advertised…”

Glamorousness “Every year, Cover Girl invests in the neighborhood of $60,000,000 on talent scouting, a laborious, international treasure hunt that one industry analyst estimates costs as much as $119 per facial pore of each of the seven models finally chosen to advertise only four of the companies products…”

Cleanness “Cleanness is such a crucial aesthetic to consumerism because it is the very mechanism that keeps us buying, that controls the flow of commodities in and out of our houses and thus numbs us to the irritation of overcrowding.”

I found some of his arguments more compelling than others: I bought the grotesqueness and sadism of cuteness, understood how quaintness actually works to erase real history, and believed what he had to say about deliciousness while not finding it new. Other chapters, on the futuristic and the natural, didn’t seem as cutting or as funny as Harris seemed to wander a bit.

I will confess to enjoying the general skewering Harris give mindless consumption, only to be suprised — the horror! — at finding myself a guilty party after all, as I do in fact have an old-fashioned cobbler’s bench in use as a coffee table. Actually, I think Harris expects that nearly all his readers will recognize themselves as participants in sick cycles of consumption — that is the world we live in. Perhaps in shifting the focus, if only slightly, we can be more cognizant of the factors driving our choices as we open our wallets.

Occasionally some pop culture references seem a bit dated, which I suspect is one of the perils of publishing on current topics. The one shortcoming of note in this book is absence of men. All too often, it is the impact of this or that marketing advance on housewives that Harris considers, but what about their husbands? What about women who aren’t housewives or mothers? What about gay men like himself? I would think that the aesthetic of cleanness is driving the current obsession with removing now-unwanted chest hair, or that a discussion of the futuristic in consumables might consider shopping at Sharper Image.

Overall, an entertaining read that will make you think about what you buy and what you don’t, as well as what you think about how those “other people” spend their money. Harris serves up great conversational fodder relating to the marketplace of things and the often unexamined ideas we hold about them. Recommended.

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