Contemporary scholars and writers are now debating the "invisible hand" of the information market with the same passion their counterparts two centuries ago displayed for the mythic extremity popularized by economist Adam Smith. The body of literature on globalization and the growth of electronic media has grown to substantial proportions. In the past ten years, authors have praised and denounced our increasingly fast-paced, media-surfeited society. Supporters cite greater access to information and vastly improved efficiency. Detractors note the growing digital divide and caution that electronic media have hastened the erosion of already tenuous social networks: youths are even more alienated and consumers even more passive, and modern selves are alternately "saturated" and "empty."
The only consensus, it seems, is that technological advances and the rapid movement of information and capital throughout the globe have contributed to the expansion of "popular culture"—a virtual arena in which a growing number of information producers, image makers, and active or passive consumers, depending on your theoretical position, struggle over meaning and morality. The three books reviewed here contribute substantially to the debate about image and identity in our modern society and world.
The supply side of the popular cultural marketplace—advertisers, public relations professionals, and grassroots advocates alike—is the subject of Image Makers: Advertising, Public Relations, and the Ethos of Advocacy, by sociologist Robert Jackall and anthropologist Janice Hirota. Unlike many scholars writing about popular culture, Jackall and Hirota carefully avoid linking the proliferation of images in contemporary society to postindustrial systems of production or to postmodern culture. In this treatise, after "years of fieldwork and archival research," Jackall and Hirota scrutinize the origins, micro operations, and ubiquity of the "ethos of advocacy" that they argue now occupies the substrate of our modern, not postmodern, popular culture.
This distinction between modernism and postmodernism, though understated in the text, is important. Chiefly, it signals the theoretical framework guiding the authors' conclusions about the ethos of advocacy. Jackall and Hirota do not frolic playfully amid the pastiche of juxtaposed meanings and images in contemporary culture. Rather, their theoretical dance partner is the surefooted social theorist Max Weber, most famous for The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1). In Protestant Ethic, Weber likens the necessary but nullifying effects of Western scientific rationalism and capitalist bureaucracy—the hallmarks of modernity—to an iron cage. In concluding his study Weber warns of "specialists without spirit" and "sensualists without heart." Indeed, these are the characters Jackall and Hirota sketch in their historical, theoretical, occupational ethnography of modern-day advocacy.
Essentially, their argument is this: Interpretive experts have been around since antiquity—the sages and seers of old with special powers of divination. Thus interpretive experts are not new. What is new is modernity. As U.S. society has grown increasingly technical, specialized, standardized, and bureaucratized, interpretive experts of every stripe have gained prominence. Without the "overarching systems of meaning"—often religious—that unified preindustrial communities, "the modern epoch has produced a new type of interpretive expert, the image maker skilled in the creation and propagation of symbols to persuade mass audiences to some action or belief."
Today these inducements come at us, segmented into market affinities, at an increasingly rapid pace. "At virtually every turn, Americans encounter . . . the incessant drumbeat of media events pounding out moralistic claims about what is wrong with the world or how the world ought to be."
Modern-day image makers sell not only products but also morality, and even identity—sometimes combining all three. All increasingly use imagistic means to affective ends. Ad makers, public relations executives, and street-level "technicians in moral sentiment" attempt to spur our sentiments so that we will surrender our kitchens to Mr. Clean, consent to "compassionate conservatism," and help a talking dog reduce crime rates. They specialize in sound bites, in seemingly spontaneous but carefully orchestrated events, and above all, in symbolic novelty. In short, interpretive experts and image makers feed us daily the mass media—and mediated—symbols that keep the status quo stable.
Image Makers chronicles past and present connections between advertising, the government, and the market. The authors ultimately contend that the "habits of mind" of highly specialized interpretive experts have infiltrated every corner of American society: academia and radio talk shows, social movements and the legal system. The result is a dangerous "fragmentation of knowledge and beliefs." The final chapter ponders this fragmentation and "the quandaries generated . . . by the endlessly shifting patterns of conflicting representations and claims that the apparatus and ethos of advocacy make possible, and indeed, inevitable."
The strengths of this text are many. It is a brilliant application of Weber's theories of modernism a century later—from instrumental rationality to charismatic authority to value-free science: it's all there. Moreover, the book is well written, if needlessly vituperative in places. The historical chapters are fascinating, readable, and relevant, and they throw considerable light on the highly visible public relations campaigns to which many of us have been keenly attuned since September 11. The ethnographic chapters on ad agencies and public relations firms attain the standards of grounded theoretical work; they resound with an authenticity that comes of achieving "theoretical saturation."
However, for readers who believe that modern publics retain some ability to discern what seems "real" and "true" or who think the impact of image making can be analyzed only by gathering empirical evidence from these publics, the book's theoretical framework may seem problematic. Not only does the unifying concept of the "ethos of advocacy" seem thin in places (why not "the ethos of persuasion," for example?), but so too does the authors' concern for the poor illiterate masses, "caught in the cages of their own emotional responses to a bewildering society"—pretty much everyone, as it turns out, except perhaps the authors. Theirs is the noble resuscitation of modernist objective truth. Unlike the "technicians in moral outrage" they expose, they do not "traffic . . . in . . . darker sentiments, those that emphasize the splits between people." Rather, the authors lambaste with apparent impartiality intellectual fads like postmodernism, social movements of the identity-politics variety, anything that smacks of political correctness, affirmative action, academic think tanks, and easy targets on both Left and Right: Al Sharpton and Rush Limbaugh.
So while Image Makers compels readers to think about the shoals of sanctimonious sensationalism that threaten to sink reasoned consensus, its effectiveness is undermined by its own illogical dismissal of non-class-based oppression and by its all-too-trendy tone of anti-political correctness. In the ultimate irony, the authors shore up their argument that the ethos of advocacy is ubiquitous; it appears to have crept into even their own scholarship. Despite these imperfections, Image Makers is well worth reading. Mental health professionals with an interest in the social and cultural changes taking place at this historical moment will find it compelling and provocative.
As if in response to the dour Weberian cant that the people are literally captivated by soul-stripping capitalist bureaucracy, Ann Powers, a cultural critic at the New York Times, has written an absorbing memoir of bohemian resistance as she and her traveling circus of friends have lived it. Equal parts cultural commentary, Generation X-nography, and finely honed personal narrative, Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America offers a wry and surprisingly earnest portrayal of Power's post-Catholic school, pre-New York Times days of living, loving, and Dumpster-diving in a San Francisco urban tribe.
With empathy and quippy precision, Powers sketches the outline of her twenty- into thirtysomething milieu on the torn archival paper of the "mean decade" of the 1980s. Her fictive kinship network—whose co-opted mainstream siblings still hang out in a Manhattan coffee shop on the long-running television show Friends—shared boots, beds, drugs, abandoned cat piss-soaked green couches, artistic visions, and above all, a hard-won, artfully practiced bohemian sensibility that allowed them to transfigure their difficult childhoods, minimum-wage jobs, and unorthodox lives into meaningful havens of shared spiritual and social rebellion.
Just as when "bohemian" described the scruffy artists of the 1830s Paris café scene, the term still connotes the fringe, the countercultural, the cultural lumpenproletariat of society. Powers contends that these liminal luminaries have been subverting the dominant paradigm since the sixties. Their work can be seen most visibly in the alternative politics and cultures of major urban centers. But bohemia is alive and kicking in the small vestibules of Texas and Tennessee, and indeed everywhere kids who are too smart or too weird or too gay to fit into prescribed high school factions listen to punk music, or write leftist diatribes, or open a laundromat café.
The bohemians of the 1990s go by different names: "slacker, genderfucker, riot grrrl, hip-hop nation, ecotopia, recombinant techno-revolution." And like their famous Greenwich Village predecessors of the 1920s, or the Beats, or the hippies, their countercultural closets have been pillaged by corporations and sold to the masses. But in the process, claims Powers, that mythical manufactured "mainstream" has been widened. Bohemians have redefined the substance and style of modern living. "What constitutes a family? What is the worth of work? What are the parameters of sensual pleasure, of love itself?" This is the "historical prerogative" of the bohemian: to question, to discuss, to bury a dying hegemonic past and to inaugurate a fuller, more artistic, more soulful way of life.
Powers chronicles the ways her flock of artist, activist, slacker, and queer friends and acquaintances accomplished these profound upendings of modern morality. In chapters on cohabitation urban group-house style, the borders of consensual sexualities, good drugs and bad drugs, the "cultured proletarian" workplace subversion of the artistic and underpaid, scoring good junk (the recycling ethos of bohemia), the Gen-X indie music scene, and finding "sustainable youth" in modern maturity, we are introduced to a group of young, imperfect, impudent, hedonistic, narcissistic, smart, funny, principled, compassionate, creative bohemians.
Powers' book reads at times like an assiduously polished cultural essay, at others like the diaries of our affected adolescent clients. At times it feels like a Rolling Stone review, at others like the middle-class white kid version of Carol Stack's famous ethnography of an African-American working-class community. At its best moments, the book is a resplendent, frank discussion among smart, political friends about being committed, selling out, and getting older. Indeed, Weird Like Us invites all its readers to come out—to tell the unvarnished truth about family and life and love, to broaden the discourse of lived possibility in this millennium. It is a wonderfully written, refreshingly candid, deeply personal and political rejoinder to the passive surrender of our moral and political agency in these momentous times. I recommend it to mental health professionals who have an interest in youth culture and in political and cultural criticism.
A fitting complement to the supply-side cultural commentary of Image Makers and the demand-side revisions of Weird Like Us is sociologist Diana Crane's thorough comparative historical examination of a venue of popular culture that affects each of us: clothing. In Fashion and Its Social Agendas: Class, Gender, and Identity in Clothing, Crane considers both the social agendas of fashion and the ways the dictates of dominant fashion have been adopted or subverted by different publics in the 19th and 20th centuries in France, England, and the United States.
In clear, compelling style, Crane asks and answers a series of interesting questions: How has the production and reception of fashion changed over time? How does it differ between more traditionally class-based societies and those that are less class-based? Does fashion move from elite couturiers to the masses? Did it ever? Does fashion retain the same class significance in the 20th century as it had in the 19th? Does contemporary fashion reinforce one hegemonic standard, or several conflicting standards? Finally, how do contemporary American women respond to fashion advertising? Are they mythical postmodern consumers, creating new identities through playful bricolage? Or are they duped consumers who passively accept the mandates of the fashion industry?
Mining four impressive data sets—two historical and two based on Crane's own work in the fashion worlds of New York, Paris, and London—and using focus groups of young and middle-aged women, Crane produces some fascinating findings.
Unlike the class-based social-control agenda of 19th-century fashion, 20th-century fashion is heavily influenced by changes in both cultural and material aspects of society: postindustrial forms of production, more leisure time, the dominance of electronic media, and social fragmentation. While the workplace remains the arena in which occupational and class hierarchies are reinforced rather rigidly by fashion strictures, the force of fashion as an element of social control has markedly diminished.
Current styles, particularly in the media-saturated United States, are often appropriated from urban youth street cultures and rapidly mass-produced by industrial fashion makers, then sold throughout the world. Diversity in clothing and styles has vastly increased; many styles now coexist.
Similarly, gender codes in fashion advertising represent "conflicting" rather than unitary hegemonies. Although women are still represented as passive, objectified, and sexualized, they are also portrayed as strong, successful, and powerful.
Young and middle-aged women who participated in focus groups on fashion advertising were neither duped consumers nor postmodern players. They refuted the idea that advertising influenced their body image. And they were thoroughly modernist in identity, choosing clothing on the basis of its comfort and practicality and evaluating fashions and fashion models with a well-established, coherent, traditionally feminine identity.
Readers interested in cultural phenomena will find Fashion and Its Social Agendas highly readable, timely, thoroughly convincing, and scholarly. I recommend it.
Ms. Bryson is a National Institute of Mental Health trainee at the Heller School for Policy and Management and the department of sociology at Brandeis University in Boston.