Friday, February 03, 2006

Just finished reading Christopher Lasch's The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics. Lasch's work traced the idea of progress and "progressivism" through the works of (generally) american intellectuals and thinkers from the early 19th century through the 1980's. While a great deal of it was interesting, I do tire of the "history of ideas" method of talking almost exclusively about famous authors. It would be refreshing to see more work done with newspapers and magazines and other guages of more popular opinion. One of the magazines he did cite which was of interest to me, though I imagine it would be tricky to find today, is a series which was done in The Nation in the 1920's called "These United States", a profile of each state in the union. These were apparently highly influenced by the work of Mencken and thus were often quite negative in their assesment, though this was not always the case. I believe Willa Cather was commissioned to write on Nebraska and found plenty of virtues to mention.

The book is quite lengthy and covers quite a few topics. One portion towards the end I thought I would share at some length, as it is one of my pet topics:

...Relentless "improvement" of the product and upgrading of consumer tastes are the heart of mass merchandising, and these imperatives are built into the mass media at every level.

Even the reporting of news has to be understood not as propaganda for any particular ideology, liberal or conservative, but as propaganda for commodities--for the replacement of things by commodities, use values by exchnge values, and events by images. The very concept of news celebrates newness. The value of news, like that of any oher commodity, consists primarily of its novelty, only secondarily of its informational value. As Frank Waldo pointed out many years ago, the news appeals to the same jaded appetite that makes a spoiled child tire of a toy as soon as it becomes familiar and demand a new one in its place. As Frank also pointed out ( in The Rediscovery of America, 1930), the social expectations that stimulate a child's appetite for new toys appeal to the desire for appropriation: the appeal of toys comes not to lie in their use, but in their status as possesions. "A frsh plaything renews the child's opportunity to say: this is mine." A child who seldom gets a new toy, Frank noted, "prizes it as part of himself." But if "toys become more frequent, value is gradually transfered from the toy to the toy's novelty . . . The arrival of the toy, not the toy itself, becomes the event." The news, accordingly, has to be seen as the "plaything of a child whose hunger for toys has been stimulated shrewdly." We can carry this analysis one step further by pointing out that the model of possession, in a society organized around mass consumption, is addiction. The need for novely and fresh stimulation becomes more and more intense, intervening interludes of boredom more and more intolerable.

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