Memo - Nov. 1-3 - Mid-century Critics of Consumer Society

The first reading this week is a chapter from An All-Consuming Century: Why Commercialism Won in Modern America (2000), by Gary Cross, a historian at Penn State University. It surveys a range of critical perspectives on consumer society and explores how abundance generated anxiety and concern along with desire and material fantasies, and shows how these concerns became particularly acute in the years leading up to and after World War Two.

I would also like you to begin reading Tom Frank's The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip. Consumerism (1997). For this week, please focus especially on ch. 1 and 3. For next week, please focus on ch. 4 and 6-8. Frank is a historian and contemporary cultural critic whose work has paid particular to the language and logic business has used to absorb critiques of consumer capitalism and reconfigure them as pro-business ideology. There are many personal and corporate names in the book, but try not to get bogged down in them. Keep you eye on the big points and the most important individuals and firms.

(By the way, I've uploaded a few country songs to the website, to supplement the reading and discussion we had on country music. You'll find there a representative song by the Carter Family, two songs by Jimmie Rodgers, and a Hank Williams song.)

As you read for this week, please consider:
  • According to the chapter from An All-Consuming Centry, what were the major critiques of consumer capitalism of the 1930s and 40s? In what wasys were they rooted in older American values? In what ways did they  grow out of specifically twentieth-century circumstances?
  • Are any of these concerns still relevant today? Which ones? Why?
  • In some ways The Conquest of Cool is a history of the 1960s, but one that diverges from the dominant narratives that people use to explain that ear. What is the dominant narrative that Frank critiques? How does Frank's narrative change it or depart from it?
  • What was the business revolution of the 1960s? Where did it come from? How did it challenge prevailing ideas of American business pratice and organization?
  • How did advertising change over the course of the decade? What firms or individuals led those changes? What were their goals?
  • Which advertising campaigns had the greatest impact? Why? 
  • What did youth culture and the counter-culture have to do with the revolution in business and advertising?
  • How much of a challenge to the system did the counter-culture pose? Was it exaggerated, either at the time or in historical retelling? Why? What is at stake in the different kinds of narratives?
  • What were the new dominant advertising narratives that emerged in the 1960s?
  • How is the business and advertising world Frank analyzes similar to today? How is it different?