January 6, 2012

books, capitalism, and christmas

I realize most of us don't really want to think about Christmas for another 12 months, but I can't resist posting this brief digression from the introduction to Ted Striphas' The Late Age of Print. I wish I'd read it prior to the holiday season, but I don't imagine that it would have changed my gift-giving habits. As per usual, my gift of choice comes in the form of a book, whether it's for the coffeetable or the nightstand. Whenever I return home to stay with my family, I feel as though I'm re-inhabiting the ever-expanding library that conditioned my childhood; and the feeling is only intensified at Christmas, when the strength of our bookshelves is tested yet again by an influx of new reading materials waiting to be consumed. As Striphas observes,  such gifts have already fulfilled an overlooked historical function:
Consider the fact that books were among the very first commercial Christmas presents. Not only that, but they were integral to the development of a modern Christmas holiday primarily organized around familial gift exchange. In the second quarter of the nineteenth century there emerged in the United States a new genre of books: gift books. These special anthologies, which publishers released on the cusp of the Christmas season, consisted of poetry, prose, illustrations, and, typically, a customizable bookplate. The popularity of gift books as Christmas presents is attributable to many factors, chief among them their status as mass-produced merchandise. Indeed, industrial production not only facilitated their availability en masse at the appropriate moment but, even more important, provided for their reception as tokens of intimacy and affection in at least two ways. First, a gift giver had to select from among many editions the one that best suited the recipient. Making the correct choice wasn’t easy since publishers produced a range of volumes, each targeted to individuals belonging to a particular social set. Selecting a mass-produced consumer good, in other words, became a meaningful expression of one’s consideration and goodwill in no small part through the popularity of gift books. Second, the bookplates allowed the gift giver the opportunity to further personalize his or her selection, for they generally included a small amount of blank space upon which to pen an inscription. These pages, however, were preprinted at the factory, again suggesting a blurring of boundaries between mass industrial production and personal sentiment. In any case, these examples illustrate the crucial role that books played in turning Christmas into a consumerist holiday. “Publishers and booksellers were the shock troops in exploiting—and developing—a Christmas trade,” writes Stephen Nissenbaum, “and books were on the cutting edge of a commercial Christmas.”
Books not only helped give rise to what’s become the capitalist holiday par excellence but they also “were on the cutting edge” of a broader and more fundamental economic transformation that occurred as the nineteenth century flowed into the twentieth. By this I mean the gradual transformation of capitalism from a form in which agriculture and intracapitalist exchange were primary engines of economic accumulation to one in which economic vitality increasingly hinged on working people’s consumption of abundant, mass-produced goods. Books—along with sewing machines, pianos, and furniture—were among the very first items that people purchased with the aid of a resource newly extended to them toward the end of the nineteenth century, namely, consumer credit. Although the practice of buying consumer goods on credit harbored negative connotations at the time of and even well after its introduction, an attractive set of books was considered by many to be a more or less acceptable credit purchase. Much like a sewing machine, it was assumed to be a productive investment rather than a frivolous purchase. Clearly, the moral value many people attribute to books provided an alibi for their existence as mass-produced merchandise. Books consequently became a test case for debt-driven purchasing, an activity that’s proven to be a lasting and even prosaic aspect of contemporary consumer culture.
I also can't resist posting another related quote that was circulating closer to Christmas. It comes from late queer theorist Eve Sedgwick. Consider it a companion to the previous passage.
The depressing thing about the Christmas season—isn’t it?—is that it’s the time when all the institutions are speaking with one voice. The Church says what the Church says. But the State says the same thing: maybe not (in some ways it hardly matters) in the language of theology, but in the language the State talks: legal holidays, long school hiatus, special postage stamps, and all. And the language of commerce more than chimes in, as consumer purchasing is organized ever more narrowly around the final weeks of the calendar year, the Dow Jones aquiver over Americans’ “holiday mood.” The media, in turn, fall in triumphally behind the Christmas phalanx: ad-swollen magazines have oozing turkeys on the cover, while for the news industry every question turns into the Christmas question—Will hostages be free for Christmas? What did that flash flood or mass murder (umpty-ump people killed and maimed) do to those families’ Christmas? And meanwhile, the pairing “families/Christmas” becomes increasingly tautological, as families more and more constitute themselves according to the schedule, and in the endlessly iterated image, of the holiday itself constituted in the image of ‘the’ family.
The thing hasn’t, finally, so much to do with propaganda for Christianity as with propaganda for Christmas itself.

No comments:

Post a Comment