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on June 10, 2001
In "Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic", essayist and cultural critic Daniel Harris proposes a simple thesis: consumer choices and their underlying aesthetic expressions are crucibles of self-deceptive individuality actually embedded in unseen, and often ignorant, mass-market conformity.
Claiming to avoid the usual critiques that define our spending habits and material acquisitions as blatant attacks on the bad taste of the average American, Harris instead claims that this work approaches "consumerism" from the vantage-point of the immediate, sensual, tactile and "experienced" world. Consumerism rooted in the senses.
In this regard, Harris succeeds magnificently. He captures the often pathetic, frequently silly, and always magical associations between what we feel, what we think, and the way our product choices define for ourselves a sense of self.
Along the way, Harris reveals the inherent contradictions that inhabit our pathetic need to make a "me" out of what is purchased. This is hardly a groundbreaking hypothesis. Where he departs from the usual and typical is in identifying the insidiously clever way that advertisers pander to our individual and collective, self-created, personas by masking the true nature of the very stuff we wear, listen to, watch, eat and take into our homes.
Broken down into delightful chapter heading such as, "Cuteness", "Coolness", "Deliciousness", "Glamorousness", etc., Harris' book exploits the that what is marketed as "cute" is often grotesque, "Coolness" is almost indistinguishable from awkward "nerdiness", "Delicious" food advertising almost never articulates bodily hunger, and the glamour of the fashion and cosmetic industries are couched in images and rhetoric that, perversely, prey on our fears of ugliness rejection.
In this sense, the book is a delight.
But Harris, immersed in an urban culture where commercial images and messages are the fabric of our existence, fails to make the case for a complete and inseparable link between what we are and what we buy. His work seduces us in theory. However, it is entirely restricted to the interplay between the advertiser and the consumer. This approach gives far too much credit to the psychological acuity of the advertising industry and far too little to the unpredictable, untidy and complex interior landscapes that govern our minds and bodies.
Bromides against the so-called banal "Americanism" of modern culture always seem to fall into this trap. Being an "American Consumer" does not abrogate the universal experience shared by all living people, be they American, Finns, or Chinese. And whereas we are sometimes the unwitting cast in a play written by others, we are also the dynamic authors of that play.
Is the media so brilliant that it can read and control our inner selves, like the Wizard of Oz, hiding safely behind black curtains, manipulating our every impulse? And does Harris unmask them and free us from their nefarious grasp?
Buy this book and decide for yourself.
As for me, I remain unconvinced. Living, breathing people are far more elusive, clever and complex than anyone can claim to know.
"Cute, Quaint...", is a good, entertaining, solid read that is one-dimensional, at best.
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on June 12, 2001
Diatribes on conumerism are certainly nothing new, but Daniel Harris attempts to be more than, as he states, "simply a covert attack on the bad taste of the lower classes."
Unfortunately, it doesn't quite work out that way. Much of the book is easily-gathered theories popular in anti-consumerist essays (Hey, did you know that most food ads don't have anything to do with hunger? Oh, you did? Ah well...) and when Hariis strays from simple ideas, he gets himself into a bind, countering with lots of gross generalizations (to Harris, it's completely inconceivable that someone might be collecting antiques due to a genuine interest in history, or that it's possible to enjoy the humor of "Airplane!" alone) that just sound like the rantings of someone who never got over being unpopular in high school.
Sure, you could buy this book--it's not bad, it's quite densely written, and I finished it, albeit taking a grain of salt with every other page. To save money, however, you could simply type "You're a big phony because you fall into the trappings of consumerism" over and over for 270 pages and get the same effect.
Douglas Rushkoff does this sort of thing better (and, god forbid, includes facts and research), and Kalle Lasn is full of himself, but at least he's optimistic. Harris reeks of nothing but bitterness.
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on May 24, 2000
Daniel Harris is that unusual essayist who writes about popular culture in an informative, unpretentious and humorous way. He doesn't spend all of his time trying to inflate the importance of the subjects of his essays to make himself seem more important. Instead, he just goes about selecting familiar yet unexamined niches of popular culture and reveals the ironies that turn up with wit and enthusiasm. These 10 essays on the aesthetics of consumerism may embarrass some readers when they show how we've been manipulated by corporate marketing, but, ultimately, one can't help but feel enlightened and thoroughly entertained by Harris' writing. As essays as good as these rarely appear in mainstream publications, I would recommend buying this book without hesitation.
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on March 29, 2003
There's a certain kind of book for which equivalence of opinion matters less than presentation. Daniel Harris's book falls into that category; it throws out a multitude of arguments, some rational, some purely bitter, some laughably overboard, yet it's all still *interesting*, and maintained my interest even when I thought Harris was overdoing it. A diatribe against the "cuteness factor" of stuffed animals might be something of a passe topic, but when it ends with a hilariously-entertaining listing of the way in which these artifacts subvert reality--including their ignorance of how real animals eat the "struggling young of competing species"--it at least puts a new spin on this sort of topic.
While many of Harris's points seem obvious and overdone, there's enough insight contained in several sections to make this worthwhile even as a serious review. The analysis of the aesthetic of cleanliness was a particular eye-opener, for example, as Harris makes the argument that "clean" is no longer described as the mere absense of filth; things now must be disinfected, spotless, gleaming, and (especially) lemon-fresh. Interesting stuff.
Verdict: Not necessarily the most scholarly tome, and the factual errors (c'mon, he even messes up the "Gremlins" rules!) might diminish its factual value. But still a great read, presenting many intriguing viewpoints on the aesthetics of consumerism.
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on July 20, 2001
Harris explains that he has no new ideas to fight consumerism or how to develop an acceptable aesthetic, but this book offers a new voice to current aestheticism, trends and pop-culture. If you want to find out why people like what they like, Harris gives bare minimum facts and allows you to draw your own conclusions, which was well received. For independent thinkers!
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on July 2, 2006
I'm a bit of a shopaholic and I like to read so I buy books often...maybe by the bus load. So durring one of my amazon buy-fests I picked up this book.

Now I'm a college kid looking into going to grad school for advertising so I'm no Bimbo and I'm no stranger to text book jabber after 10 semesters in school. This book however cute, funny and interesting, seems to be much more focused on seeing how many great scrabble words Harris can shove into one run on sentence after another. I spent way more time thinking about what kind of context he was using each word in and how that related to anything than actually following the point he was trying to make.

I don't know if there is enough adderall in the world to make this book readable.
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on April 19, 2016
The first couple chapters of this book are fine. Then it descends into an old man's "get off my lawn" rant. He uses examples from what he clearly THINKS pop culture is...but I'm not so certain he knows what he's talking about. I bought this book because Sianne Ngai's "Our Aesthetic Categories" was too expensive, but this book turned out to be a complete waste of money.
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on August 21, 2000
These essays are quirky, witty, obnoxious, and fun -- all at once. Daniel Harris is an exceptionally fine essayist whose gaze on consumer culture is like a laser beam. (Where else can you find sitcoms described as "laughter vomitoriums"?) If you have a wry attitude about consumer culture, you'll enjoy this book.
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on July 20, 2001
In this amusing and intelligent collection of essays Daniel Harris examines how consumer trends and choices have become an indispensable bromide for middle class Americans. Harris convincingly argues that consumer trends provide middle class Americans with a framework within which they can develop their identity and their sense of self. The irony of this is that while people may feel they are being different they in fact continuing to be just like everyone else.
For example, in his chapter on coolness, Harris points out that many middle class Americans purchase clothes which they associate with inner city gangs and violence. By dressing like a gangster, the average suburban office worker can feel like he too is hip, indifferent, potentially violent, and not to be messed with. The clothes make him feel like something of a warrior when in fact his pockets are frequently stuffed with expensive gadgets and he is hardly exposed to any danger or hardship at all. The chances are that he is working his regularly and buying what the market tells him to buy.
Similarly, in the chapter on zaniness, Harris shows how purchasing choices such as buying funky tee shirts or collecting kitsch make a person feel eccentric and unusual. By buying something that is marketed as "different", this person can feel unique when in fact, he or she may as well carry a state-sponsored sign around saying, "look at me, I am unique" while continuing to work, shop, and pay taxes like every body else.
The underlying theme of Harris's argument is that we need the illusion of empowerment that these market-driven decisions provide us with. By buying clothes that make us feel that we are special, it is that much easier for us to continue being components of a machine.
Harris's book is not perfect, as several other reviewers have already pointed out. For example, as amusing as his anecdotes were, I felt that they rambled on a bit more than necessary and that some chapters were not as interesting as others. I also began to develop a sneaking suspicion that Harris is or was an avid kitsch collector himself and that this book is as much a self-indictment as a social critique. But altogether "Cute, Quaint, Hungry, Romantic" is superbly written and never tries to be more than what it is: an intelligent and witty series of essays about why we buy the things we buy.
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on September 20, 2001
Alfred North Whitehead said that when one criticizes an epoch it is important to look, not at the commonly agreed upon, controversial issues, but at subjects which no one is discussing -- the aspects of life that everyone takes for granted. Daniel Harris does just that in this quirky, provocative book. He examines phenomena which are ubiquitous but unstudied, such as coolness, deliciousness, and cuteness. His book is full of original observations, but the one that I find most striking is the way in which advertisers of all products flatter their potential consumers with notion that they are daring individualists -- that buying a particular car, t-shirt, or coffee mug is somehow an empowering act of bold rebellion that sets one apart from the crowd. After reading this book I didn't flip through a magazine or watch television commercials the same way, and you won't either.
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