Author of Consuming Pleasures: Intellectuals and Popular Culture in the Postwar World
Daniel Horowitz’s latest book on the culture of consumption, published this year by the University of Pennsylvania Press, traces a shift among American intellectuals, away from a condemnation of all things popular culture toward a critical appreciation of its “rich inventiveness.” Horowitz analyzes the writings of leading mid-20th-century intellectuals such as Roland Barthes, Umberto Eco, C.L.R. James, Stuart Hall, Susan Sontag and others in illustrating a pivot of the way America regards and consumes popular culture.
Horowitz is also the author of Anxieties of Affluence: Critiques of American Consumer Culture, 1939-1979 and The Morality of Spending: Attitudes Toward the Consumer Society in America, 1875-1940.
Horowitz recently responded to questions for the Gate about Consuming Pleasures.
Gate: How did you go about choosing the writers to feature in Consuming Pleasures?
Daniel Horowitz: As often happens, this book took me in unanticipated directions. After writing two previous books (Morality of Spending and Anxieties of Affluence) in which I focused on writers who saw consumer culture as dangerous, I knew from the outset I wanted to concentrate on people who saw it as pleasurable. When I started, I thought I would carry this story up to the present but along the way leads distracted me. To be sure, at the start I knew some of where my attention would rest, but time and time again, mention of some other person what I was reading compelled me. The result is a book more international in scope, less wide-ranging chronologically, and more deeply researched than I had anticipated.
Gate: In your view, how did a conglomeration of leading intellectuals come to change tack on the collective attitude toward consumerism and materialism?
DH: The shift from moral threat to symbolic promise, originating in the 1950s, if not earlier, and then in full bloom by the 1970s and 1980s, rested on a series of changes both in consumer culture itself and in ways of understanding society. The increasing role of popular culture in America made it increasingly difficult for observers to deny or see as temporary or totally unacceptable the onrush of popular culture. Generational shifts also played important roles, especially the waning of the memories of totalitarianism. In addition, changes in attitudes toward race, class, gender, and sexuality played critical roles in underwriting fresh understandings.
Gate: What are the future ramifications of your research, as the lines between pop culture and more refined tastes become continuously blurred? Will cultural divisions one day be indistinguishable?
DH: Historians are more skilled in explaining the past than predicting the future. Yet it is clear to me that for many Americans, especially younger ones, the lines between levels of culture that once seemed distinct are now indistinguishable. In the last third of the 20th century, many people moved from seeing culture positioned vertically (with Mozart or Plato at the top and comic books or graffiti near the bottom) to understanding cultures as positioned horizontally, juxtaposed and integrated rather than separated.
Gate: Where do you fall on the intellectual spectrum? An appreciator of popular culture or one who prefers high art and consumerist tastes to remain distinct?
DH: Because this book charts the movement from hesitation to admiration, some readers will think I have “gone native,” overboard in my own welcoming of the popular. Yet the 15th-century art of Sassetta compels me more than that of 20th-century Warhol. I enjoy performances of Baroque operas and Mozart symphonies more than that of contemporary musicians, whose concerts my students have on relatively rare occasions been able to cajole me to attend.
Moreover, it is important to remember that the story I chronicle—of the shift from moral scorn to playful engagement–is not a Whiggish narrative of progress toward a wholly laudable triumph of consumer culture. Costs, challenges, and opportunities pervade all responses I examine—the oppositional, skeptical, ambiguous, and embracing. If moralistic condemnation is problematic because of its biases and blind spots, then celebratory acceptance is even more worrisome for a number of reasons, including its frequent inattention to the causes and costs of excess–environmental degradation, the growing gap in wealth and income between the rich and everyone else, and the erosion of standards. My measuring writers by a yardstick hardly means I approve of the end point that they strove toward or failed to arrive at.