Consuming Pleasures: Intellectuals and Popular Culture in the Postwar World

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Consuming Pleasures: Intellectuals and Popular Culture in the Postwar World. By Daniel Horowitz. University of Pennsylvania Press. 528pp, Pounds 23.00. ISBN 9780812243956. Published 15 April 2012

Daniel Horowitz is a leading cartographer of cultural studies, as much at home with the quaggy contents of the bog as with the high, dry sierra of theory. He writes big books on one big theme: the attitudes of cultural critics to his beloved America. American intellectuals can carry off a simple and patriotic pride in their nation inaccessible to the British and French, who sing the caustic counterpoint in this huge work to the author's artless yet fashionable applause for all that pop has made of painting, music, movies and the architecture of Las Vegas.

His prior books, classics in their way - The Morality of Spending: Attitudes Toward the Consumer Society in America 1875-1940 and The Anxieties of Affluence: Critiques of American Consumer Culture, 1939-1979 - stood out reproachfully against the severity of John Kenneth Galbraith and the horrified amazement with which Theodor Adorno responded to Manhattan's Morningside Heights neighbourhood after Weimar Germany. In those books, as in this one, Horowitz is at pains to put down, in his words, "the tradition of moralistic scorn", and to speak up for a school of cultural critics, most of them pictured here as much cheerier, more gregarious and endearing if American rather than British, who put off the awful robes of puritanical (boo!) prophecy and decked themselves out in the manner of Scott Fitzgerald's "gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover" (hurrah!).

He brings off this formidable task by designing a vast biographical fresco, at once chronological (starting off in 1945 and ending rather abruptly in 1972), political (left of arc and that), generational (youth wins, though the young in his roll call are getting on a bit), racial and sexual.

In all these allocations Horowitz is a bit painfully correct, moralising and elitism being the two worst things, playfulness and irony badges of honour, identity and polymorphous pleasuring the goals of life. It is a tableau vivant of how to live well by his precepts, and the crowded figures arguing, gesticulating, enjoying and sermonising in the streets of his perspectives are excellently delineated. He has worked prodigiously hard in the archives and produces in each compressed, but never caricatured, miniature exemplary accounts of, for instance, Walter Benjamin, Dwight Macdonald, Roland Barthes, David Riesman, C.L.R. James among the oldies; Tom Wolfe (a surprise inclusion), Herbert Gans (this summary is quite superb) and Susan Sontag, in the next row. …


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