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FROM MORAL THREAT TO SYMBOLIC PROMISE: SHIFTING VIEWS OF POPULAR CULTURE

  • WILFRED M. MCCLAY (a1)
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Some twenty years ago, the American sociologist Robert Wuthnow found in an opinion survey that his subjects consistently expressed extraordinarily conflicting attitudes toward money, proclaiming in one breath that Americans are too materialistic, and then in the next breath unashamedly affirming money's central importance, and wishing they had more of it. At the time, Wuthnow argued that these strikingly contradictory results probably reflected something in the national mood during a time of economic stagnation. But I think we are safe in guessing that his findings are not too different from what a similar survey of Americans would find at almost any time in the recent past. The ambivalences he detected in his survey have about them the ring of truth, the feel of something enduring. Even conspicuous comets of material ambition may be trailed by long tails of moral misgiving; and something like the reverse, conspicuous rectitude veiling grand acquisitive passion, may also be the case. Prosperity generates an “embarrassment of riches,” as Simon Schama put it, which is why “the tensions of a capitalism that endeavoured to make itself moral were the same whether in sixteenth-century Venice, seventeenth-century Amsterdam, or eighteenth-century London.”

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1 Robert Wuthnow, “Pious Materialism: How Americans View Faith and Money,” Christian Century, 3 March 1993, 238–42.

2 Schama, Simon, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (New York, 1987), 49.

3 Seldes, Gilbert, The Seven Lively Arts (New York, 1924).

4 Horowitz, Consuming Pleasures. page references hereinafter are provided parenthetically immediately following the passage being quoted.

5 Fitzgerald's article is accessible at www.esquire.com/features/the-crack-up. See Leuchtenberg, William, The Perils of Prosperity, 1914–32 (Chicago, 1958).

6 Sandel, Michael, What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (New York, 2013), 56.

7 , Robert and Skidelsky, Edward, How Much Is Enough? Money and the Good Life (New York, 2012), 217.

8 Hunter, James Davison and Yates, Joshua, eds., Thrift and Thriving in America: Capitalism and Moral Order from the Puritans to the Present (New York, 2011), 5.

9 Ibid., 15.

10 Ibid., 82–3.

11 Livingston, James, Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture Is Good for the Economy, the Environment, and Your Soul (New York, 2011).

12 See e.g. Kuttner, Robert, Debtors’ Prison: The Politics of Austerity versus Possibility (New York, 2013).

13 Ross, Andrew, No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture (New York, 1989).

14 An additional value of this example is the fact that Horowitz pays scant attention to popular music in his book, which may well reflect a relative paucity of sophisticated theoretical writings on the subject, but is itself a matter worthy of note.

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Modern Intellectual History
  • ISSN: 1479-2443
  • EISSN: 1479-2451
  • URL: /core/journals/modern-intellectual-history
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