A quick subway trip uptown to indulge my preoccupation with shoes and whatnot (I’m heading out for a ten-day vacation abroad, and I want my feet, the man-earth interface, properly shod) and I find myself debouching from the R-Train right on Lower Broadway, across from one of my favorite NYC buildings! It’s called the Little Singer Building to distinguish it from the skyscraper, for a while, the world’s highest, that is no longer with us. A blast from the past of consumer culture, right out of Paris: the curving Art Nouveau ironwork brings to mind Galeries Lafayette, the great 19th century department store. (More on the buildings here and here.)
Walking around the area puts one in the center of the tourist, chi-chi, consumer maelström, and it can be overwhelming, but I soldier on. As I put on my own consumer hat, I chuckle at the thought of my current reading, a fabulous study of the origins and nature of consumer culture. The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism is a rich and complex analysis that takes off from Weber and ends up at the mall. The author disposes of the simplistic explanations of consumerism – instinct, manipulation by élite conspiracy, or variations on Veblenesque emulation – and locates the origins of our culture in the latter 18th century (Not much controversy there, think Josiah Wedgewood and his factory, embodying Adam Smith’s dicta on the division of labor. The two were friends, and Darwin later married into the family. So many cultural cross-currents at that point in time and space!) and links the ‘spirit’ of our consumerist age to the mutations of protestant theology and the cult of sentimentality. His argument is brilliant – not sure if I’m convinced yet, but his approach to the questions is the best I have ever come across.
The book is not for casual reading as it is assumes a wide knowledge of 18th century European, especially British, culture, and it makes a very involved and dense argument about religion and culture. I will try to post a summary of it once I have finished it and digested it somewhat. Meanwhile, I consume, calm in the knowledge that I must be of my Age, even if I repudiate its values in many ways. “I shop, therefore I am,” may not apply to me, but shop I must.