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Give Me Stuff or Give Me Death

New work dismisses the dark underbelly of consumer society



I Want That! How We All Became Shoppers
By Thomas Hine
Harper Collins, $24.95

So say you're strolling the orderly aisles of Target on your bimonthly bulk-item bender, when out from the Rubbermaid abyss pops a stately old codger who insists on talking shop.

His monologue is reasoned, somewhat insightful, but absent any particular urgency; he just can't compete with the alluring glow from those darn flat-screen TVs. Nevertheless, the geezer keeps pace with your cart, if not your fancies, and continues prattling away like a restrained, but benign patriarch. (Think 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 with a reverence normally reserved for convalescent Republican leaders.

Not quite a Yoda of the mini mall, Atlantic Magazine contributor and Populuxe author Thomas Hine seems like a man incapable of leaving Ikea in less than five hours. I Want That! is his so-called "subcultural" history of how and what and why we buy.

It begins with the agora market of ancient Athens and the fairs of medieval Europe and proceeds to the 19th-century department stores that defined their cities like Harrods of London, and New York's A.T. Stewarts.

Hine concludes with no less ubiquitous a wonder than Wal-Mart: "Never before have so many goods come together from so many places at such low cost." Hine gushes, "And never before have so many people been able to buy so many things ... Never before has so much seemed so dull."

Hine, however, is anything but dulled by the cornucopia of stuff whose acquisition, rather than manufacture, has become the backbone of our economy.

He likens the political and economic freedom offered in a democracy with the freedom of choice offered in a superstore. At times he seems poised to recommend the Bill of Rights be printed on every sales receipt.

I Want That! is a title that's considerably more dynamic than its content. Part of the reason the book feels like a stalking by a retail ethnographer is that it offers less analysis than restatements of the obvious. For instance, Hine argues that shopping has become so ingratiated into the fabric of our lives that it often defies analysis. Duh.

That Hine refrains from reflexive consumer bashing is admirable. However it's less than satisfying when instead of assessing the claims of consumer critics he merely dismisses them. Hine does not relish anyone peeing on his shopping parade and he strikes the pose of 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 with larger ticket items, but one wonders if the author has ever seen a 9-year-old blow through 20 bucks.

Much of the recent discourse on consumption is enmeshed in 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 consiglieri Click and Clak.

And yet so enraptured is Hine by the historical opportunity for citizens to choose, 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, and the chasm it has fostered between First World consumers and Third World producers.

As Hine writes, "Those who raise such issues have rarely considered the power of objects and the fundamental role that acquiring and using objects has played since prehistoric times."

Where Hine excels is in 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 a laissez-faire sales technique that allowed customers to roam free. Hine notes that this form of shopulism was much quicker to catch on in America than in the more socially rigid European societies.

Hine's principal assertion that buying is "primarily a practical expression of power" leaves something to be desired. This is because consumption is a one-sided story without its evil twin: production. By no means is the author required to agonize over the state of Third World manufacturing, but a rounded effort might at least address the implications.

Hine also seems oblivious to the nature of his beloved objects -- namely, that they are ephemeral. How much of what we buy today is even remembered a year later?

Even the most obsessive stereophile or kitsch connoisseur will hesitate to claim that what they own defines them. Perhaps when epitaphs start reading "I Got the Most from My Cosco Card" or "Check out my Vintage Barbies," this book will merit another read.

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