World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption,
Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood argue for anthropologys
need to see "goods as an information system." "Instead
of supposing that goods are primarily needed for subsistence
plus competitive display," they argue, "let us assume
that they are needed for making visible and stable the categories
of culture." (59) "This approach to goods," they
continue, "emphasizing their double roles in providing
subsistence and in drawing lines of social relationships [is]
the way to a proper understanding of why people need goods."
course of the 20th century, anthropology has developed a sophisticated
mode of inquiry into the deep structures of traditional societies:
their kinship networks, totems and taboos, and foodways. Douglas
and Isherwood want to use that methodology to examine our complex
consumer culture. In order to begin that exercise, they invoke
Claude Levi-Strausss work on the nature and purpose of
food restrictions among the [?people?]. It was not dietary or
gastronomic criteria that allowed and disallowed certain foods,
Levi-Strauss argued in Totemism. On the contrary, Douglas
and Isherwood remind us, "animals which are tabooed are
because they are good to think, not because they
are good to eat." Animals that are good to think. What
exactly does this mean? The anthropologists explain:
it is said that the essential function of language is its capacity
for poetry, we shall assume that the essential function of consumption
is its capacity to make sense
Forget that commodities
are good for eating, clothing, and shelter; forget their usefulness
and try instead the idea that commodities are good for thinking;
treat them as a nonverbal medium for the human creative faculty.
Douglas and Isherwood ask us to consider commodities from the
wrong end round: to think of them not for their use value, for
what we do with them, but for the spaces and hierarchies, the
rituals and relationships, that their very existence makes possible
in a culture. My paper today is an attempt to consider the twentieth-century
book in light of Douglas and Isherwoods injunctions. That
is to say that for today, I want to forget for a moment that
books are good for reading, and consider instead the way they
are good for thinking. I want to put aside books as texts,
and to think structurally, of books as books.
(yet inseparable) from their lives as texts, books live for
us as commodities, as a specific kind of for-profit media form
within a saturated communications environment. Yet thinking
about the book as a commodity, as a good that is good for thinking,
does not come naturally. It is difficult, and not merely for
a literary critic trained to think of the book as a TEXT. Our
typical mode of encounter with animals is to eat them, hence
the pre-Levi-Straussian anthropologists assumption that
the way to understand their meanings is through eating practices--
through diet, nutrition, gastronomy, taste. Just so with books:
typically, we read them, and in so doing take them into ourselves.
Our varying decoding practices are our traditional focus of
study, and the act of internalizing texts has been naturalized
to the point that it is difficult to think of books in any other
way. Attempts, for instance, to get my students, or even my
grandmother, to describe the book theyre reading almost
invariably yield a description of story, or of the point where
the story interacts with individual interpretive experience--
the "theme." But if we want to think about books as
a communications medium, we need to inquire less into what ideas
books are about, and more into what ideas books enable. The
first step in this process of figuring out how books are good
to think is determining why it is so difficult to do so.
make an argument that the books own history mitigates
against seeing it as a commodity. For centuries, after all,
the books primary place was at the center of religious
practice. It is historically associated, as a result, with the
evanescent, spiritual, not-for-profit world. But printed books,
as Elizabeth Eisenstein and Raymond Williams have shown, have
always had as much of a secular as a spiritual existence. Their
history in the modern west is synonymous with the development
of industrial production and the rise of consumer culture that
went with it. If the book has maintained some sort of transcendent
identity, it has done so despite its position at the center
of the world of goods, not because of some privileged position
more precisely historical way of explaining why it is hard to
think of books as goods and not as texts, lies in contemporary
methods of reading instruction. These inculcate in us a habit
of thinking about books that is so strong we might well call
it ideological. In Professing Literature, Gerald Graff
traces the rise to dominance, over the last century, of what
he calls "positivistic," "explicatory" criticism.
This critical style emphasizes the need to penetrate INTO books,
rather than to reckon with their EXTERNAL, material or cultural
existences. Book historian Janice Radway develops this idea
further, arguing that proper "explicatory" reading
assumes an "official" idea of the book as "a
complex but fixed object containing several layers of meaning
that can be peeled away like the shell and skin of an almond
to reveal the texts true core of significance." (RR,
5). Graffs and Radways accounts of reading pedagogy
show the extent to which our official ideas of reading figure
the book as an object to be penetrated, with meaning that inheres
in its contents, rather than in its points of
intersection with the culture around it. Their observations
of reading instruction are drawn from the highest reaches of
the academy. But the interpretive tendency, the habit of mind,
they describe trickles down from the groves of academe to the
level of primary school, forming an interpretive norm within
which we all live.
environment created by official reading instruction, then, along
with the nominally sacred place books have in our common sense
understanding of history, helps explain why it is difficult
to think of books as something other than texts. Neither of
these explanations, however seems sufficient. I contend that
we need to look deeper into the media environment within which
books circulate in order better to understand the specific ways
in which books are good to think-- and, equally important, to
understand the reasons why we hesitate to think of them as goods
of this kind.
So far today
Ive spoken about a constant-- a persistent intransigence
when it comes to seeing books as goods. The conference theme,
however, is not Media Constants, but Media in Transition, so
let me explain where the "transition" part comes in.
Our will to see the modern book as separate from the world of
commodities result from the larger transition from an artisanal
to an industrial media environment. Like journalism and electronic
communications, the book industry participated in the shift
into what we can loosely term the culture-industrial mode of
production that began, in the U.S., in the late-19th century.
Unlike their confreres at newspapers and magazines, and later
in radio, cinema, and television, however, book industry workers
retainedeven cultivateda curiously anti-modern attitude
towards the world around them. This attitude centered on the
nature of books and their attendant place in culture. Even as
they tried to modernize the production and distribution of books,
book men (as they liked to call themselves) strove valiantly
to disregard and disavow the books identity as a product,
as a commodity. They worked instead to present books to the
public as objects immune to the commodification that hallmarked
remainder of this talk, I want briefly to provide a few examples
of book mens descriptions of the book as a non-commodity.
As I mentioned earlier, the trade-wide move to elevate the book
above other goods began in earnest in the late 19th century,
as industrialized America evolved into a national consumer economy.
Increased purchasing power, new goods (and traditional goods
packaged in new ways), and new forms of display and sale all
contributed to this change. Trade books, which had originally
been sold through printers and stationers, and then largely
through specialty shops, were caught up in this consumer revolution.
The immediate implications of this change were not attractive
to the book trade, and a Los Angeles newspaper ad from 1885
Sale:] Also 1000 volumes of standard novels, printed on extra
heavy paper, bound in cloth, and books that sell everywhere
for $1 per volume. Our price for next Saturday, 10 cents. These
books are now on sale in our muslin underwear department. These
books are sold in connection with other goods...
6 pairs of lisle hose at 49 cents per pair, you may, by paying
10 cents extra, have the choice of our entire stock of novels,
or by paying 25 cents, the choice out of the poetical works...
the 1870s and 80s, book men were in an uproar over the
sale of books in these "bazaars" or department stores.
This was in part because department stores were notorious for
selling books below retail price in order to lure buyers into
their establishments. But, as this ad should make clear, more
than mere profit was at stake. Publishing historian Donald Sheehan
has argued that department stores selling books posed a problem
for the book trade because "many retailers... had entered
the trade and accepted its meager monetary rewards because they
wished to escape an association with mere merchandise."
What was at stake, Sheehan argues, was not just economic but
cultural capital: a "lack of proper distinctions between
books and other products sold in the large retail stores...
[meant publishers and booksellers] experienced a distinct loss
in their psychic income as well as in their pocketbooks when
books and lisle hose were combined under a single roof"
then, with the prospect that their precious books would be piled
haphazardly on tables alongside muslin underwear and four-button
gloves, book men needed to find a discursive way to distinguish
their goods from the world of commodities around them. One way
that they did this was to shun one key aspect of the world of
modern goods, namely, the advertising of them. While all around
them national ad campaigns transformed the profitability of
household items and reshaped the communications media that relied
on advertising, trade publishers remained relatively faithful
to the traditional forms of genteel advertising they had used
since the antebellum period. Sheehan describes "the attitude...
towards advertising [as] generally apathetic, one might almost
say hostile" (177).
the book trade was subject to ridicule at the hands of other,
more "modern" media. In 1885, the New York Times attacked
the trades stodginess:
When a man
desires to sell a new hair dye, does he content himself with
announcing the fact once, or even twice, by a few lines inserted
in a newspaper? He knows better than that... But publishers
know nothing about the art of advertising, and consequently
few books sell.
in the trade journal Publishers Weekly rebutted the Times
charge by reiterating the "specialness" of books and
the necessity of their remove from the market. "If literature
and art are to be treated as common merchandise... it will make
commonplace the manners of our people and their intelligence
restricted to the counting-room. (S, 35).
to secure the cultural distinction of their products, of themselves,
and, by extension, of the national culture, underpinned book
mens turn of the century anti-commodification rhetoric.
They did not fashion their sense of cultural snobbery out of
whole cloth, however, but grounded it in a material reality
Unlike the rationalized and vertically integrated culture industries
around itthe Hollywood studio system is the perfect examplebook
publishing resisted effective advertising. As William Ellsworth
of The Century Company, explained:
of [the novel] Hugh Wynne doesnt go forth
and buy another copy as soon as he has read the first; in fact,
that is the last thing he does. He is through with Hugh
Wynne forever, and he turns to another book, an entirely
fresh one, probably born in the brain of another writer and
turned out from the factory of another publisher. For he is
not impressed by the publishers name...; the reader doesnt
say, as he lays down Hugh Wynne, Give me The
Century Companys books or none." [Quoted in
men took the antiquated structure of their businessan
economic liabilityand made them into an asset. As Alfred
problem and the toothpaste manufacturer's problem are quite
different. During the course of a year some publishers issue
several hundred new books, and many issue at least one hundredthat
is, one every three business days. And besides these there are
already on their lists from several hundred to several thousand
older titles, each requiring cataloguing and detailed attention.
The cosmetic manufacturer would throw up his hands at the idea
of a new product every three days (S, 27-28).
examples illustrate that, as the media environment around them
became increasingly commodified, book men emphasized the residual
aspects of artisanal manufacture in book production and distributionto
distinguish books from other, commercial, media. That need to
make distinctions has continued, keeping pace with the communications
revolutions of the twentieth century.
for the Council on Books in Wartime in 1943, journalist Anne
OHare McCormick argued for more liberal postal regulations
for books during the War. "To post office authorities,"
she explained, "a book is just another commodity, like
soap or electric bulbs, and so not entitled to priority. [Given
the circumstances] I should think that the only thing that should
have priority over American books is dynamite" (5-6). At
the same rally, Assistant Secretary of State Adolph Berle echoed
her sentiments with a clarion call: "Books in Wartime!
They must be something more than objects of trade!" (7).
In interviews with me this summer, publishers who had worked
during the War and into the present voiced the same sentiments.
During the 1960s, information and technology companies began
acquiring publishing houses as a way to break into the lucrative
textbook market. Charles Ellis, the CEO of John Wiley, remembered
the way publishers perceived this as an affront to their special
mission: "What we produce[d was] books or magazines-- IBM
produce[d] a product... [People] hated that-- didnt
like to think of what they did as making toothpaste or carrots."
(25/6/99) Remarking on the wave of acquisition and conglomerations
in publishing today, Simon Michael Bessie, former editor at
Knopf and head of Athenaeum Press, echoed this sentiment: saying
the new bottom-line oriented corporate publishers "speak
a different language-- they dont talk about books, but
about the product." And Jack Macrae, of Henry
Holt, denigrates the current management of Borders and Barnes
and Noble bookstores for being "not interested in [selling]
books, but in units."
often think about the publishing industry as anything other
than a selection and distribution network for books. But these
examples, which can be multiplied dozens of times over, suggest
that the industrys role in framing our idea of books is
in fact pronounced, if easy to overlook. The tenacious anti-commodity
discourse coming from the book industry itself, I would argue,
working hand in hand with the educational trends I described
earlier, shapes our "natural" disinclination to think
of books as goods. It is this discourse, in short, that invites
us to see books as good to read, and discourages us from seeing
them as good to think. Paradoxically, however, it is also this
discourse AND its very tenacity that DO make books good to think.
Because clearly the reason that books are particularly good
goods with which to think is that they are goods which pretend
not to be goods at all. As such, they allow us to continue to
imagine, to believe in, a sphere beyond the realm of commerce,
inhabited by people who are interested in something larger than
"units," "products," and "commodities."
It is not much of an exaggeration to argue, I think, that indeed,
books allow us to think we ARE such people, and as such, are
sanctioned or sanctified in particular ways. By the specific
ways in which they participate in and shape the world of goods,
books allow us to believe that there is an escape from or an
alternative to that world. Is this belief a reification of lived
existence, or a utopian alternative to it? Are books best for
reading, or for thinking? These are the questions I hope to
have raised today.