Gary Cross on Nostalgia

Some of you may recall our recent Author’s Corner interview with Gary Cross, author of Consumed Nostalgia: Memory in the Age of Fast Capitalism.

Over at History News Network, Cross reflects on how consumerism and nostalgia for the commodities of the past might be able to help us to engage more effectively with the past.

Here is a taste:

It’s easy to mock the guy at old car shows whose pride is in his ’57 Chevy that took years to restore and is just like the one he had at seventeen or the middle-aged woman who proudly displays her Barbie doll collection from when she was 7. But these objects of memory certainly meet a need by helping people recover the past; and collecting can bring together those who have little else in common but a shared memory.

The problem with modern nostalgia isn’t that it longs for the past rather than the present or future; the trouble is that it fixates on stuff and thus short-circuits what memory can do for us. Some of this is probably inevitable. Few of us are mystics and, as in religion, most of us require “relics” to share and help us reach back to the past. But, in the end can commercialized nostalgia meet our needs? My obsession with the commodities of my childhood cannot be shared with my younger brother, much less with my children; they are just different. This longing separates me from communities and pasts beyond my personal experience.

But can’t the modern nostalgic impulse transcend all this? It can if we use things of memory to engage with the past, not merely regress into a romantic memory of childhood “innocence.” If we converse with that past, and bring a full and honest consciousness of our present lives into our encounter with the past, nostalgia can reveal something about ourselves as we are now and also show us how the world has actually changed. Such a conversation with the past might help us get over our obsessions with our childhoods. In fact, nostalgia need not be childish; it can bring us the pleasure of growing in our understanding of ourselves and of the larger world from the vantage point of grown-ups.

The Diderot Effect

Denis Diderot

About ten years ago I taught a course on the history of American consumerism.  It was a fun course to teach and I read a lot of scholarship on the subject.  For various reasons I never taught the course again and, as a result, I stopped reading heavily in consumer studies.

But every now and then I run across a piece that reconnects me to the content of the class.

Over at The Guardian, Oliver Burkeman writes about the “Diderot Effect.”  It comes from a 1769 essay by French Enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot entitled “Regrets for My Old Dressing Gown.” If you have not read Diderot’s essay, and you like reading historical documents, it is definitely worth your time.  There is a lot about this piece that speaks directly to our contemporary consumer culture.

Here is Burkeman’s take on Diderot’s essay:

Sometimes it’s nice to learn that a psychological phenomenon has a name, if only so I no longer have to think of it as Me Being Uniquely Irrational And Self-Defeating. So it is with the Diderot effect – which, I learned recently (via Lifehacker), is the term for when you buy something new, but then it makes your other possessions look timeworn by comparison, so you end up replacing them, too. The inspiration here is Denis Diderot’s 1769 essay Regrets For My Old Dressing Gown, in which he recounts being given a luxurious replacement. “My old robe was one with the other rags that surrounded me,” Diderot laments. But “all is now discordant”. Before long, he’s obliged to replace his furniture and paintings as well: “I was the absolute master of my old robe. I have become the slave of the new one.”
You already knew, of course, that consumerism exploits psychological weaknesses to get us to buy stuff we don’t need. We fall victim to “hedonic adaptation” (the way new possessions become part of the backdrop), along with “upward social comparison” (if you succeed in keeping up with the Joneses, you’ll just pick new Joneses to try to keep up with). But the Diderot effect adds a twist. We use possessions to help construct our identities, and we need those identities to feel consistent. A consistently shabbily dressed person might be signalling that her mind’s on higher matters; a consistently smart one that she values good taste. But someone who’s a random mixture of both just seems weird. In the words of the anthropologist Grant McCracken, products are deliberately marketed in “Diderot unities” – groups whereby, once you’ve purchased one, you’ll feel you need the others. Now that you’re ordering that new dining table from the catalogue, shouldn’t you consider those glasses and plates, too?

The Author’s Corner with Gary S. Cross

Gary S. Cross is Distinguished Professor of Modern History at Pennsylvania State University. This interview is based on his new book Consumed Nostalgia: Memory in the Age of Fast Capitalism (Columbia University Press, 2015).

JF: What led you to write Consumed Nostalgia?

GC: For many years, I’ve explored in a number of books 20th century childhood and consumer culture.  More recently, these interests led me to consider how modern memory is shaped by fast-changing childhood experiences with goods and media.  This topic has given me the opportunity to go beyond documentary sources to include findings from conversations with enthusiasts at car and toy shows, pop culture museums, and much else concerning how memories and longings for the past are shaped by the things that these enthusiasts collect and the old music and TV that attract them.  

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Consumed Nostalgia?

GC: The uses and meanings of nostalgia have changed for many since about 1970 as longings for places of origin and vanished societies, cultures, and regimes have given way to longings for consumer goods and media moments associated with early childhood (toys, dolls, theme parks, and domestic period Kitsch) and the transition to adulthood (cars and oldies music).  This new type of nostalgia, based on memories of fast changing consumer culture divides many Americans into narrow groups and can deprive them of deeper engagements with their pasts. 

JF: Why do we need to read Consumed Nostalgia?

GC: This book may reveal how many Americans understand the past, not as historians do, but through concrete attachments to things and the media.  It offers a way of understanding the impact of TV, popular music, heritage and theme parks, cars, and playthings on modern life. 

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

GC: I began my career as a modern French social historian in the late 70s and came to American history in a quest for students (and jobs) in the 1980s in a seven-year journeyman’s trek that led to a job at Penn State.  Eventually I shifted my research to American topics because my interests in consumer culture, childhood, and technology all could be more richly explored using American sources.  I wanted to write retrospectively on the world that I live in.

JF: What is your next project?

GC: Currently, I’m following up interests developed in my recent work on men and maturity and an fascination since I was in high school in the early 1960s in teenage car culture (maybe because I didn’t have a cool car). The book will be called, “Growing up with Cars.” 

JF: Thanks, Gary!

And thanks to Abby Blakeney for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

Pope Francis on the Culture of Waste

An excerpt from his book The Church of Mercy: A Vision for the Church posted at the Washington Post “On Faith” blog.

It is no longer the person who commands, but money, money, cash commands. And God our Father gave us the task of protecting the earth — not for money, but for ourselves, for men and women. We have this task!
ChurchOfMercy_TheNevertheless men and women are sacrificed to the idols of profit and consumption: it is the “culture of waste.” If a computer breaks, it is a tragedy; but poverty, the needs and dramas of so many people, end up being considered normal. If on a winter’s night — here on the Via Ottaviano, for example — someone dies, that is not news. If there are children in so many parts of the world who have nothing to eat, that is not news; it seems normal. It cannot be so! And yet these things enter into normality: that some homeless people should freeze to death on the street — this doesn’t make news.
On the contrary, when the stock market drops ten points in some cities, it constitutes a tragedy. Someone who dies is not news, but lowering income by ten points is a tragedy! In this way people are thrown aside as if they were trash.
This “culture of waste” tends to become a common mentality that infects everyone. Human life, the person, is no longer seen as a primary value to be respected and safeguarded, especially if that person is poor or disabled or not yet useful, like the unborn child, or is no longer of any use, like the elderly person. This culture of waste has also made us insensitive to wasting and throwing out excess foodstuffs, which is especially condemnable when, in every part of the world, unfortunately, many individuals and families suffer hunger and malnutrition.

Gettysburg: Memory, Market, Shrine

It is Gettysburg week in my Pennsylvania History course.  I am devoting class on Tuesday and Thursday to the story and commemoration of the battle.  I spent a good chunk of the day yesterday with Jim Weeks’s Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and An American Shrine.  I can’t say enough good things about this book.  Weeks was a Pennsylvania historian who left us too early.  (He passed away in 2005).

Weeks makes five major arguments about post-1863 Gettysburg:

1.  Gettysburg did not become a “shrine by popular will.”  It was promoted that way.

2.  Gettysburg was never at odds with the marketplace.

3.  African Americans have “ignored Gettysburg” because they had never been part of the commemoration

4.  The idea that some features of Gettysburg (avenues and monuments) “transcended” the marketplace while others (observation towers and trolleys) “desacralized” the site is not true.

5.  The present-era at Gettysburg, defined by “heritage” and “authenticity,” is merely “the latest in a series of transformations driven by cultural, economic, and social change….”

New York Times: Consumerism Has Encroached on Thanksgiving

From the editorial page:

In 1939, Thanksgiving was supposed to fall on Nov. 30, but President Franklin Roosevelt, on the advice of the National Retail Dry Goods Association, pushed it forward a week to extend the holiday gift-buying season. That delighted business owners but upset traditionalists, like the selectmen of Plymouth, Mass., who felt that celebrating early meant “sacrificing the real significance of the day for the purpose of satisfying commercial interests.”

Although Thanksgiving was already tied up with “commercial interests,” Americans back then at least waited until after the feasting to start their frenzied shopping. Lately, consumerism has encroached on the day itself. This shift isn’t entirely new. Walmart has been open on Thanksgiving for years. Now big retailers, including Target, J.C. Penney, Macy’s and Best Buy, will open earlier on Thursday than in past years to get a bigger jump on Black Friday. Kmart is opening at 6 a.m. Thanksgiving Day and staying open for 41 hours straight.
Retailers wouldn’t open on Thursday if they thought customers would rather spend time at home. The problem is their policies don’t just dilute the spirit of Thanksgiving. They’re hard on workers, who are often given no choice but to work on the holiday. One Cleveland lawmaker wants to help. Mike Foley, a Democrat in the Ohio House of Representatives, has drafted state legislation that would require employers to pay triple-time on the holiday or give workers the option of staying home. He has acknowledged that it’s unlikely to pass Ohio’s Republican-controlled House, but it would make working on Thanksgiving more worthwhile.

Gettysburg vs. Gettysburg

Jesse Smith, writing at The Smart Set, discusses the historic tensions between the town of Gettysburg and Gettysburg National Military Park.  Smith respects the attempts to keep the battlefield “sacred ground,” but also enjoys the kitsch of the town.  She writes: “any town with a Victorian photography studio, Civil War wax museum, multiple ghost tours, a fireworks superstore, and the General Pickett’s All-You-Can-Eat Buffet is a town worth exploring.”

Indeed it is.  While I can fully understand the need to restore the battlefield to its original 1863 state, Gettysburg also provides a wonderful laboratory for exploring the relationship between historical memory and consumerism.  Whenever I give a tour of the battlefield I take my students to General Pickett’s Buffet for lunch and offer them a short lecture (usually in the parking lot) of how it is hard to separate commercialism from these so-called “sacred sites.”

The best book on these issues is Jim Weeks, Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and an American Shrine.

Here is a taste of Smith’s excellent piece:

Gettysburg the Park has been trying to kick the kitsch factor of Gettysburg the town long before it developed a new master plan in 1999. In 1959, Kenneth and Thelma Dick opened a children’s amusement park named Fantasyland Storybook Park one mile south of Gettysburg’s downtown and close to the site of General Meade’s headquarters. Fantasyland offered attractions based on fairy tales, plus puppet theaters, live animal shows, and Indian “attacks.” The site boasted that presidents’ children and grandchildren made repeated visits; it described itself as “truly a ‘must’ for discerning families.”

The Park Service disagreed. It would decide what discerning families truly must see and experience at Gettysburg. In 1974, it bought Fantasyland but allowed the Dicks to continue operating the site. Fantasyland finally closed in 1980. The Park Service also allowed the Dicks to stay in the house they owned there. Thelma did until last year, when she died at 93 . Then the Park Service demolished the house. 

Walmart is Coming to Your Campus

Did you know that Walmart has a store on the campus of the University of Arkansas and will soon be opening stores on the campuses of Arizona State and Georgia Tech?  I wonder how many Razorback students are shelling out $14.97 for the “University of Arkansas Barbie Doll“?

Zack Budryk explains it all over at Inside Higher Education.  Here is a taste:

Charles Schmidt of the National Association of College Stores said that campus bookstores need not be afraid of Walmart. “In general, while competition can make you work harder, it likewise keeps you sharp and forces you to be a smarter, more efficient retailer,”  Schmidt said via e-mail.”[S]tudents already are going to big-box discounters, but at least if they’re in the same vicinity as your store, they are more liable to come in and give you the chance to ‘show them what you’ve got.’ Kind of a ‘mall’ effect.”

As has often been the case with Walmart, the expansion is not free of controversy. In an e-mailed statement, the labor group Making Change at Walmart criticized the company for paying what it says are insufficient wages, “while public institutions like ASU have faced painful budget cuts.”

“It’s becoming increasingly clear that ‘donations’ from Walmart or the Walton family come with strings attached – whether that be helping to greenwash the company’s image or helping fuel Walmart’s expansion onto college campuses,” reads the statement in part. “As

Walmart seeks to expand its reach beyond our main streets and into campuses across the country, we hope that our institutions of higher education will hold Walmart accountable for providing their communities with living wages, safe work conditions and jobs with dignity and respect that are free from retaliation.”

What do you think about this?

American History, Cracker Barrel-Style

Last weekend my parents were visiting from New Jersey and we went out to eat at Cracker Barrel.  I am sure you are familiar with Cracker Barrel.  This is the place where you can order everything from eggs and bacon, to meatloaf and mashed potatoes, to fried chicken and grits (do they go together?).

I always enjoy walking through the candy section of the Cracker Barrel store and telling my kids about Mallo Cups, Charleston Chews, Moon Pies, and Bit O’ Honeys.  If it is not too cold, we play a quick game of checkers on the over-sized board located on the front porch or rock on one of the rocking chairs.  (My kids prefer the chairs with the Penn State logos painted on them). Most stores also have a small wood pew displayed on the porch.  I am not sure if these are for sale, but I definitely want one for my future writing shed.  The store is very kitschy and nostalgic, but it is still a lot of fun.  I am more and more convinced that we need some nostalgia in our life.

In her recent piece at The Atlantic, Emily Chertoff reminds us that Cracker Barrel stores are modeled after 19th-century general stores.  And the antiques hanging from the walls and ceilings are real. Each restaurant/store is a veritable History Harvest of goods, all with a story to tell about the past.

Here is a taste of Chertoff’s piece:

The general store itself is a great illustration of the uneven pace of change. While many large American cities were able to support their own department stores by the end of the 19th century — the first, Macy’s, evolved out of a dry goods store in New York around 1860 — tiny general stores selling a whole variety of stuff still existed in parts of the U.S. until the middle of the 20th century. (See the dates on the photos above.) 

As travel and communications technology has sped up and proliferated, time has “sped up” too, in regions of the country that were once remote. Today’s cultural and technological gaps don’t seem so severe. Sure, there are differences between New York City and rural Tennessee, but the disparities are far fewer than they were even 10 years ago, thanks to increasingly (though not completely) even Internet access. 

With this in mind, the assortment of stuff on Cracker Barrel’s walls seems less haphazard and more like a genuine record of U.S. history. There are no wall labels, but for diners who take the time to really look at the objects around them, these places make pretty good museums.

Why Do Evangelicals Have All the Religious Bestsellers?

Mickey Maudlin, who is VP for Bible Publishing at HarperOne, believes it has something to do with the fact that evangelicals have done a better job of accommodating to consumer culture than mainline Protestants and Catholics.  He writes:

Because the most important agent in this world is the individual consumer, and because of the sheer size of this demographic, books, music and programs are marketed to these individuals, which has allowed for the rise of mega-churches (guaranteed quality programming), a network of Christian bookstores and a panoply of media offerings (TV, radio, websites, DVDs, etc.) targeted to these believers. So when an unknown author catches on in some circles — such as happened with Sarah Young’s devotional “Jesus Calling” — there is a system in place to respond (Young’s book has sold more than 2 million copies). There are a variety of ways to market effectively to their audience. Yes, those bestsellers break out into the general market, rising in rankings on Amazon and sold in stacks at Barnes & Noble, but often half the sales of these blockbusters are from specifically evangelical distribution channels. This is a huge advantage.

Now imagine the Catholic consumer, who typically does not see himself or herself as the deciding agent. Spend time with Catholic customers and you will hear questions like, “Which one is approved by the church?” — or by “my bishop” or by “my priest.” This is why there are so few Catholic bookstores despite there being more Catholics (about 75 million) than any other one church group. The biggest players in this world are those Catholic publishers who sell directly to Catholic institutions — such as schools and parishes — not to individual Catholic consumers. And even if a Catholic author catches on with consumers, there is no real distribution system directly to Catholics except for mainstream bookstores. 

That leaves mainline Protestants, a still sizable group (around 53 million), characterized by their diversity, tolerance and commitment to social justice but also by their weakening institutional ties. Everyone recognizes the significant weakening of denominations’ ability to impose an agenda on its constituency, but these affiliations retain a significant pull in shaping their clergy’s and their churches’ time and energy. At the same time, the denominations have almost no direct relationship with their lay members. This is why so many denominational publishers have struggled financially and shrunk their lists. The largest mainline denomination, the United Methodists, has often done the best job of reaching out to consumers through its Cokesbury bookstores and website, but even they have announced the closing of their remaining 50-plus stores after April of this year. Because of the split, diverse interests of these churches, there is no one place online or physically where these Christians come together. Few leaders rise up and are known outside their denomination; no website or magazine can claim to draw significant numbers (though The Christian Century comes closest). If a publisher wants to reach out to this constituency, there is no direct way to reach the masses in the same way evangelicals can to their constituencies.

Evangelical print culture in the early nineteenth century was popular for the same reasons.  I seem to remember Nathan Hatch having something say about this in The Democratization of American Christianity.

Ken Myers on the State of the Christian Church in America

This is a very rich interview with Ken Myers. It appeared at the “Christian Post” last May. (Thanks to Karl Johnson of the Chesterton House for bringing it to my attention).

For those of you who are unfamiliar with him, Myers was a former NPR reporter who founded Mars Hill Audio, an audio magazine to “assist Christians who desire to move from thoughtless consumption of contemporary culture to a vantage point of thoughtful engagement.”  Mars Hill Audio is must listening for thoughtful Christians. (I recently appeared on the journal to discuss Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?).

Myers argues that the church’s problem is not American culture, but “the culture of the church.” You really need to read the entire interview, but let me tantalize you with a few snippets:

CP: Practically speaking, how has the church been too influenced by the broader culture?

Myers: Here’s a small list:

  • The way in which the dominant role of technology in our lives promotes the deep assumption that we can fix anything;
  • The way in which proliferating mechanisms of convenience erodes the virtues of patience and longsuffering;
  • The way in which the elimination of standards of public propriety and manners undermines assumptions about the legitimacy of authority and deference to the communal needs; and
  • The way in which the high prestige accorded to entertainers creates the conviction that every valuable experience should be entertaining.

And this is just scratching the surface.

CP: What is greatest opportunity for the church today to truly impact the larger culture – or should we even be concerned about that?

Myers: Not long ago I interviewed a poet who suggested that he just couldn’t imagine early Church leaders sitting around trying to come up with clever ideas about how they might influence Roman culture.

Robert Wilken made a very similar comment in an interview given in 1998 in which he reflected on the early Church’s posture toward its cultural surroundings. Wilken pointed out that the principal way in which the early Church leaders sustained cultural influence was by discipling its members, by conveying to them that the call of the Gospel was a call to embrace a new way of life. The Church was less interested in transforming the disorders of the Roman Empire than in building “its own sense of community, and it let these communities be the leaven that would gradually transform culture.”

Christians can best serve the health of American culture by striving to be deliberate about and faithful to a way of life that Church historian Robert Wilken has called the “culture of the city of God.”

If congregations in America were deeply and creatively committed to nurturing the culture of the city of God in their life together, I think it would have an inexorable effect on the lives of our neighbors. But I fear that too many churches are shaping people to be what Kenda Creasy Dean calls being “Christianish” – or not deeply Christian at all. The more faithful we are in living out the ramifications of a Christian understanding of all things, the more out-of-synch we will be in American culture. But why should we wish for anything else? What can we offer the world if we are just like the world?

Drive-in Theaters and Megachuches

Over at The Atlantic, Megan Garber has a fascinating piece about how Robert Schuller used to preach at a drive-in movie theater in Orange County, California.  Those who came to hear him would stay in their cars and Schuller would climb to the top of the theater snack bar and deliver his weekly message.  Later he would move to a new venue where he was able to preach to people sitting in traditional pews and cars (see photo).

Here is a taste:

In 1955, the Reformed Church in America gave a grant of $500 to Reverend Schuller and his wife Arvella. The young couple were to start a ministry in California; for that, they needed to find a venue that would host their notional congregation. While making the trip from Illinois, driving on Route 66, the reverend took to a napkin and listed 10 sites that could host his budding ministry. Researching the matter further, however, Schuller discovered that the first nine of those options were already in use for other purposes. So he set his sights on the tenth: the Orange Drive-In Theatre.

The efficiencies of the venue were obvious: For cinematic purposes, the drive-in was useful only in the darkness, which meant that it could play an effortlessly dual role, theater by night and church by day. The architecture and technological system built for entertainment could be repurposed, hacked even, to deliver a religious ceremony for the golden age of the car. An early advertisement announced the new ministry’s appeal: “The Orange Church meets in the Orange Drive-In Theater where even the handicapped, hard of hearing, aged and infirm can see and hear the entire service without leaving their family car.”

Darren Grem Receives Woodward Prize

Congratulations to Darren Grem, the 2011 recipient of the C. Vann Woodward Dissertation Prize from The Southern Historical Association.  Grem recieved his Ph.D at the University of Georgia in 2010 and is currently doing a post-doc at Emory University.

Paul Harvey of “Religion in American History” fame (and one of our finest historians of southern religion) will be in Baltimore to present Grem the award.  Here is a snippet of the remarks that Harvey will deliver on Friday:

Dr. Grem’s dissertation “follows the money” of American evangelicalism through the twentieth century, focusing on the relationship between corporate capitalism, southern entrepreneurs, and the rise of evangelical institutions. Individual chapters trace the innovations in funding and Christian entrepreneurship from figures as diverse as Billy Graham, R. G. LeTourneau, the founder of Chic-Fil-A and Hobby Lobby, and evangelists such as Billy Graham and the Wycliffe Bible Translators. The result is a rich and complex analysis which places corporate capitalism squarely within the world of southern evangelicals through the twentieth century, much like C. Vann Woodward himself did with the world of the “Redeemers” and the New South movement. It’s one of the finest and most important works in American religious, intellectual, and economic history that I’ve read in a considerable time, and the fact that it combines all three of those fields I’m sure is one of the things that made it so attractive to Oxford University Press. 

Congratulations!