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Don't ever judge people by what they buy...
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.