New Age Capitalism: Making Money East of Eden. By Kimberly J. Lau. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000. Pp. 178, notes, bibliography, index. $49.95 cloth, $19.95 paper)
As the reader senses from the book's title, this is not a standard folklore study; indeed, the word "folklore" is hard to find anywhere in it, which would seem to make it a problematic candidate for review in a folklore journal. But what Lau does in this study is to consider folklore obliquely, focusing our attention not on folk traditions themselves but on the ways in which aspects of everyday life often studied by folklorists (such as ethnic identity and stereotype, esoteric/exoteric factors, folk foods and folk medicines, culturally constructed ideas about gender) are manipulated, commodified, made fashionable (and thereby immensely profitable) by the practitioners of what Lau calls New Age Capitalism. The symptoms are all around us: runic blocks, magical crystals, do-it-yourself-witchcraft manuals, weekend sweatlodges/vision quests/pipe ceremonies (and others too tacky to mention), all of them providing scant insight into real cultural patterns and meanings but offering very attractive dividends for entrepreneurs who have learned how to package exotic folklore for those disinclined or unequipped to experience and research the cultural realities themselves.
But phony Indian shamans and reborn Norse wizards are easy to critique. Lau takes a more difficult course here, looking at some fashionable arenas (aromatherapy, macrobiotic eating, yoga and T'ai Chi) which arguably have had considerable effects on how people act, live, and feel. Thus it is not toward a program of denigration that Lau directs the discussion but toward the subtle culturally situated assumptions about exotic plants, Asian eating habits, gender and race, and ancient-mostly Asian-notions of meditation and self-control that seem to fuel the buying public's passion for buying remedies that their own culture presumably lacks. It's as if we want to have our Others and eat them too.
Using Robert Cantwell's term, "ethnomimesis" (the imitation of another culture's traditions) as a departure point, Lau goes further to show how complex the transaction actually is and how deeply the imitation actually reifies the imitator's own culture: yoga and T'ai Chi videos championing Asian values almost always feature White actors; procedures extolling the wisdom of the idealized distant past are employed in the creation of an ideal future, a New Age; philosophies drawn from group-centered, self-abnegating cultures are used to pursue the American notion of individualism and self-absorption. …