Reaction Paper to Memorial Mania

Michelle Davison
February 10, 2014

Review of Memorial Mania

Erika Doss’ Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America describes and analyzes the relatively new desire in the US to memorialize events. She argues that these memorials are intended to evoke emotional responses in those who visit them. They are conceived by those who feel the emotional response to the events they are memorializing should be remembered. In Doss’ view, memorials can tell us a lot about those who create them in that they expose who and what is deserving of commemoration, and who and what is either subsumed or ignored. The best memorials, according to Doss, are those which are able to show multivalent interests and serve a wide public.
Doss acknowledges that this mania for memorials is tied to a mania for statues that existed from the mid-19th century until the early 20th century. This mania was decidedly top-down, and was an attempt by the powerful to create a consensus about what it meant to be an American in the wake of the Civil War and Reconstruction. It is no accident that most of these statues celebrate white manhood, and immigrant groups used memorials to their men to assert a claim to their equality to non-immigrant white men. African-Americans, too, erected statues honoring important figures, but these were mostly self-funded endeavors, while white men were commemorated with public money. Martial manhood was especially celebrated, and many of these depicted an abstract war participant rather than an individual. It took a questioning of what it meant to be an American, and the allowing of competing views, to quell the enthusiasm for commemorative statues.
Today Americans have taken this statue mania and modified it to fit the need to create “the symbolic expression of particular concerns.” There are key differences between statue mania and memorial mania. First, statues were usually figurative while memorials can be figurative or more abstract. Second, the top down nature of statue mania is mitigated by the fact that diverse groups seek to memorialize, and this is not to necessarily gain consensus, but instead is meant to legitimize their concerns as being worthy of memorializing. Doss argues that the term “memorial” is preferred over “monument” today precisely because monuments are meant to be seen only one way, while memorials allow one to evaluate their own place and feelings in the events being memorialized.
The rest of Doss’ book is divided into sections based on the emotions various memorials are meant to inspire. In the chapter on “Grief,” Doss argues that “unexpected, violent, and televisualized death” results in the phenomenon known as the “temporary memorial.” Doss finds these memorials fairly formulaic in composition, with teddy bears, flowers, and hand-written notes being ubiquitous, and for that reason are the contemporary method of communal mourning. Doss seems skeptical of the ability of things purchased to deal with grief. Her emphasis is on loss, not remembrance. In Doss’ view, the purchase of items to place on temporary memorials encourages remembrance in an unhealthy way. This critique of the way the contemporary public deals with tragic events seems particularly harsh, as Doss comments on the cheapness and availability of items typically used in these memorials. That they are so typically used does seem to point to the effectiveness of the cultural work that temporary memorials to tragedy does.
Doss is critical of the cooption of tragedies by certain groups, but the religious right in particular. She believes that “grief’s affective potential in America lies in its ability to mobilize social and political action, and to orchestrate productive change.” When the religious right wields this power, however, it is not considered by Doss to be an acceptable action. The 20th century has witnessed the rise of conservatism, and in some instances conservatism’s adherents have the cultural authority over certain circumstances. Yes, there is contention when it comes to sudden, unexpected tragedy, but many who are Christians look to faith to reassure them. While one may not agree with the political agenda put forward, one cannot dismiss the people who are true believers. Are they not entitled to their feelings and identities?
Doss is also critical of the pressure put on some institutions to catalog and preserve the consumer goods that make up temporary memorials. Since these goods are cheap, mass-produced consumer goods, and are not made of “precious materials,” she does not think them worthy of the bother of a “museum-trained archivist.” One wonders if she would find consumer goods worthy of museums at all, in any circumstance, since most things contemporary Americans value and base their identities on are mass-produced and usually cheap. The cheapness and widespread availability of digital media is also critiqued. The 9/11 Digital Archive is called out for particular criticism, as it is not concerned with verification of stories uploaded to the site. Doss calls this “critically vacuous” and goes on to say, “by refusing the risk of interpretation it fails to interrogate how and why (and which) experiences and feelings constitute self and national identity.” But this does not seem to be the project of the 9/11 Digital Archive, which seems to be more interested in discursive possibility than the making of identities.
Doss’ concerns about cheapness call out her belief in the power of consumerism to memorialize, but she does not seem to think memorials are valuable unless they are expensive to produce and require a Herculean effort to realize. It is the DIY ethos that she seems to have trouble with, yet it is this very sense of belief that the individual is important that pervades contemporary American culture. That digital methods are fairly cheap and easy for individuals to produces is called “narcissistic” by Doss. Again, if these methods did not serve a cultural purpose, they would not exist. These DIY methods showcase the range of identities that can be made of tragedies and give power to those who may never have it in institutionally mediated settings. Yes, some of these responses will be trite or downright ugly, but they exist and that is what matters. If you are looking for one, simple answer to the way people should feel about tragedy, this diversity is a problem, but the solution should not be to dismiss these efforts, rather it should be to explore the meaning behind it.
In her chapter on “Fear”, Doss points to the meaning of many memorials related to terrorist attacks. She argues that these are designed to remind citizens of their vulnerability, and the result is that Americans feel the need for more security, and that Americans are unified in this. Minimalist designs are used in this type of memorial “because of its theatricality, its emphasis on felt experience and audience engagement.” These traits are necessary to unify Americans. The stories of terrorism tend to leave out the terrorists, which makes nuanced thinking about terrorist acts impossible. Even putting the names of victims on these memorials is a political act according to Doss, designed to convey “a deceitful narrative of national consensus.” Again, Doss is critical in this chapter of those who respond to trauma by consuming souvenirs and memorabilia. But it is in this way we are conditioned to respond. By owning a souvenir, we are able to show that we identify with others who are feeling loss.
Memorials to war are analyzed in Doss’ chapter on “Gratitude.” She critiques most of these memorials, the World War II Memorial in Washington D.C. is the subject of particular criticism, on the basis that they make war seem like a noble sacrifice for which the public should be grateful. Again, this message intends to unify feelings about war, but later in the chapter she gives examples of war memorials that attempt to show the scale of loss in a real, public way. The narrative of war is contentious, which is why erecting permanent memorials only reflects the needs of some in the present, and these meanings will be diminished over time. Just as we are able to historicize statue mania, so will our future selves historicize various war memorials.
In her chapter on “Shame,” Doss finds some memorials that do nuanced work representing some aspects of the past that many would like to forget, and some others that miss the mark. Duluth’s memorial to three men who were lynched there gives these men the dignity they lost when a mob killed them and used their mangled bodies as spectacle. Other attempts at using memorialization to acknowledge America’s ugly, racist past have been less effective.
In the final chapter, Doss covers “Anger” by showing how communities resist narratives they feel are being imposed on them via memorials. This becomes a problem especially when there are multivalent histories that could be memorialized. The solution is not more memorials because “commemorative accrual must be accompanied b a critical reconsideration of historical memory itself.” But this political reconsideration is in itself a political act that can inspire contention. Reacting to anger about inclusion is where Doss feels real progress can be made, as long as contentious groups can discuss matters civilly.
Doss’ work attempts to show how “memorial mania” has worked in our culture in a political way to try to drive unity and common feeling. This has washed away any discussion about why the things being memorialized happened, leading instead to sanitized narratives. She sees hope in memorials that show many perspectives at once, while at the same time disparaging the importance of the individual’s response to events being memorialized. Consumer responses are also looked down upon for their supposed cheapness and inability to convey feeling the way that Doss feels art can. Yet each memorial is a consumer choice. The difference is those funding the projects make these choices, be they national or local governments, or private donors. Yes, memorialization is inherently political, but the belief that large, expensive memorials are more meaningful and useful to the public than individual responses, even if they are standardized responses, conveys elitism on the part of the author that seeks to limit the range of acceptable responses and feelings.

Reaction Paper to A Generation Divided

Rebecca Klatch argues in A Generation Divided that the generation of people who were young adults in the 1960s were not a monolithic entity. She shows that there were a variety of political stances young people could adopt, including traditional conservatism. These young conservatives were able to create the conservative movement that has dominated American politics since the 1970s. People who identified with the other two groups she covers, libertarians and leftists, have largely left high politics behind, instead focusing on their own personal politics through their lifestyle and career. It was divisions amongst these latter groups that caused them to fall apart as organized political causes. Only traditional conservatism survived the tumultuous movements of the late 1960s.

Klatch acknowledges that not everyone in this generation was political, and she seeks to find out what set the young people who did base their identities largely on politics came to choose that method of identity formation. She shows how parents and other adults encouraged political activism by modeling it themselves, but later implies that it was peers who helped set an individual’s political identity, and then still later says that political identities could change. This line of reasoning is very confusing, and seems to apply causation to group dynamics, rather than larger cultural opportunities. This is possibly the result of Klatch’s training as a sociologist rather than a historian.

The author’s use of oral histories, and her obvious respect for her subjects, makes the tone of this work uncritical. The privilege of these subjects is never addressed, even though she does note how many entered graduate school at elite institutions after finding themselves adrift in the 1970s, while others easily obtained jobs with powerful politicians. Some of these people discuss with great earnestness the most correct flavors of Marxism, and the irony of this is never addressed. The conservatives wish to preserve traditional families and defend property rights, but Klatch never talks about what they thought might be threatening those rights.

Many of these elites, particularly the leftists and libertarians, made up the anti-war movement. These are the people that the young men coming back from the war in Vietnam could not find common ground with, and Klatch’s description of their motives makes this disconnect seem obvious. It seems the elite protesters had political litmus tests the returning soldiers would never be able to meet, and they seem to have their own ideas about why the war was bad that would be problematized by the input of actual soldiers.

Klatch’s work is a detailed account of the political movements she covers, but it could have been vastly improved by placing these movements within the larger culture. For example, she talks about how some of the politically-minded young people embraced the counterculture while others consciously rejected it. Klatch seems to think that the counterculture, because of its messy, contradictory nature is outside of politics. But it was another way for young people to create an identity, and even though this identity did not always match the ideologies tied to “left” and “right,” it is still a political identity in that it is a rejection of conventional values.

A Generation Divided is a useful book in understanding the motives of young people who joined organized political movements to create identities. The author’s desire to place these people into categories, even self-conceived categories, makes this work less useful when it comes to understanding how these people influenced, and were influenced by, the larger culture.

Reaction Paper to Stayin’ Alive

Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive describes the differences between the idea of a working class in the 1930s and the 1970s. In the 1930s class-based identity, especially among the working class, was an acceptable and attractive one. The people who fought for working-class rights then did not just want increased incomes and job security, but also a better quality of life both in and out of the workplace. By the next economic downturn in the 1970s, the post-War boom had changed working-class identity profoundly. Race had long been used as a tactic by industrial employers to divide workers in order to better control them, but by the 1970s, the failure of the white, male working class to see themselves as having a common interest with black workers helped to end the idea of the desirability of a united working-class identity.

This book has ties to Lizabeth Cohen’s A Consumer’s Republic in that labor union members in the 1930s did not yet create identities through consumption. It was only through the War and Post-War eras that consumption became all important to identity. Thus the change in labor union demands in the 1970s for consistently higher wages, with no mention of changes to what were repetitive assembly line jobs that did not present much mental challenge. This points to fundamental cultural differences between workers of the two eras; one defined himself by his work, the other by his ability to consume. Consumption is an inherently individual process, whereas work is a group process. The latter obviously lends itself better to the ability to create an identity based on class rather than trying to assert individual rights.

The intersection of race and class calls to mind Kevin Kruse’s White Flight. With the advent of integrated workplaces, white workers no more wanted to bond with black workers in class solidarity than they wanted to share public facilities and neighborhoods. The belief that blacks might have been taking jobs away from better qualified whites through Affirmative Action programs further exacerbated intraclass tensions. This also caused some white workers to claim reverse discrimination as individuals who were turned down for specific jobs. This is profoundly different than the Civil Rights’ contention that an entire group encountered discrimination. The fact that the economic crisis of the 1970s and the forces of deindustrialization meant that the economy was bleeding jobs only made the situation seem worse for white workers. Rather than pointing to corporations, and the economic policies that favored them, they pointed to Affirmative Action as being the source of their woes.

This misplacement of blame is remarkable – Cowie speaks directly to the illogic of the arguments that workers themselves were to blame for downsizing and offshoring – but falls in line with the movement away from class identity to one of individual agency. Workers blamed themselves for demanding too much and believed in the argument that they were less efficient than foreign workers. They turned to union excesses as the beginning of this deindustrialization process, and thus class cooperation became synonymous with job loss for individuals.

Cowie shows how this turn away from class identity was not a foregone conclusion, and there were glimmers of hope in some union activities that seemed to emphasize quality of working life over higher wages and conspicuous consumption. But these glimmers faded as cultural forces demanded workers see themselves as individual actors in contention with one another, rather than a class of people. This ultimately hurt workers in everything from demanding living wages to quality of life issues.

Reaction Paper to White Flight

In White Flight, Kevin Kruse describes the process of desegregation in Atlanta, the “City Too Busy to Hate,” from the postwar era through the 1970s. He argues that resistance to this process created many of the principles on which our contemporary conservative movement is grounded, such as individual rights, distrust of government, and strong rights to private property. This process was not a simple, straightforward movement from segregationist to Reagan Republican, rather whites of different classes came to hold these ideals of the rights of private citizens in different ways, and for different reasons. By the end of the period covered, the majority of whites of all classes had abandoned the city, and moderate politics, because of what they perceived as infringement on their rights. The poor and working classes were the first to oppose integration when African Americans began integrating their neighborhoods. Many Atlanta whites favored this integration, as it gave Atlanta a progressive image, and it did not yet affect the sensibilities of middle and upper class whites. This moderate coalition of whites, led by the popular mayor Hartsfield, would soon fall apart as pressure was put upon them to integrate the spaces they claimed for themselves. The middle class was affected when public parks, pools, golf courses and finally schools were integrated. These people reacted to these developments by abandoning the public spaces and calling for the defunding of public spaces. Like the working class whites before them, middle class whites fled to newly-founded all white communities in the suburbs, where rather than risk potentially having to share these spaces again, they built private versions. The wealthy had never relied on public spaces or schools to meet their needs; they had always preferred private versions, but when young Civil Rights demonstrators insisted that their businesses be integrated, the rich balked. Already living in wealthy enclaves of the city, which were uniformly white, they nonetheless withdrew their support for cautious integration in the face of an understandably impatient young black population who wished to have equal rights in all public places. Kruse argues that all of these whites finally found common ground in their resistance to integration and the rhetoric of segregation was the direct predecessor to the principles of today’s conservative movement. This argument is very similar to Thomas Sugrue’s in The Origins of the Urban Crisis. Where the arguments differ is that Sugrue used political and economic structures as explanatory reasons, while Kruse sees the changes as coming from the grassroots. It is from these grassroots where many conservative political stars were born. The conservative movement, which often claims to be colorblind, has its roots simply in white’s racist fears of mixing with black people. Kruse could not have foreseen the election of an African-American president, but the conservative backlash at his election would not have surprised him considering the racism at the heart of the movement. Kruse effectively argues his point, that the origins of the conservative movement in racial fears and shrewd reactions in resisting integration, must be acknowledged if we are ever to have a united country.

Reaction Paper for A Consumers’ Republic

Lizabeth Cohen’s A Consumers’ Republic describes how competing visions of people as consumers, and the relationship between consuming and citizenship, deeply affected the entire culture over the course of the 20th century. The longest running of these visions was the “purchaser as citizen” concept where people consumed not only out of self-interest, but because it was good for the country. Cohen argues that this “purchaser citizen” was borne out of contention between “citizen consumers,” who used their power as consumers to affect change, and who often turned to the government to protect their rights, and “purchaser consumers” who saw their purchasing power as contributing to the greater good through the power of the market. Late in the 20th century, Cohen describes the shift moving even further into the concept of markets with the marketing of political candidates and people’s envisioning their tax dollars as being another way to consume. She calls this the “Consumerized Republic.” Her conclusion hints at a possible backlash against the excesses of the market-based consumption model, and a return to a governmental role in consumer protection.

Cohen’s analysis does not leave out race, class, or gender. She shows how blacks, women, and the working class have all found power in their ability consume, and at different times to varying degrees, marginalization because of their status. Power is utilized by boycotts, and when marketing became segmented, by the desire by marketers to please them. Marginalization shows itself particularly in the availability of credit in the case of women, housing in the case of the working class, and access to goods, credit, and housing in the case of African Americans.

This argument dovetails nicely with the arguments of Sherry, Sugrue, and Kruse. Sherry describes the post-war fear of recession that prompted both the government and citizens to consume and create a “good life” that needed to be protected by the militarized state. Sugrue’s argument, that white people felt more entitled to jobs, housing, etc. shows that they felt that they were the only people who should be considered citizens, and this was often demonstrated in their fears regarding consumption and purchasing power. Kruse shows how white people began to defund the government and trust more in privatization because they felt that they were the people paying taxes. They wanted to be able to pick and choose where their money went, just as they did in the marketplace.

Cohen’s description of the possible backlash against the market is interesting, but if it had a real chance to catch on it might have been after the 2008 financial crisis. Instead many have gripped even tighter to market ideals, blaming the government for forcing lenders to give home loans to those who could not repay, who are often seen as poor blacks. Government bailout money went to corporations instead of consumers, because they were seen as institutions worth saving if the market were to continue. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was created in the wake of the crisis, but its ability to protect has been minimized by Congress. We are clearly still in the grip of the “Consumerized Republic” exacerbated by the belief that only certain people should have the right to participate.

Reaction Paper to The Origins of the Urban Crisis

In Thomas Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis the author argues that the deindustrialization of cities and the impoverishment of city residents did not happen because black populations increased, rather that structural changes in business and politics compelled industry, and poor and middle class whites, to leave cities. Sugrue chose Detriot as his exemplary city when describing a larger trend that occurred all across the North’s Rust Belt. There were many things that affected the structural changes: the post-war housing shortages, the move away from public housing to the fetishization of private home ownership, employment discrimination and a general move toward automation and suburban factories, and white resistance to integrated neighborhoods. Efforts to integrate neighborhoods and jobs in particular met with working- and middle-class white resistance, leading these whites to support conservative political movements.

This book goes far in explaining why poor and middle-class whites have beliefs that seemingly go against their best interests – they support things like factory automation, minimal business regulation, and a low tax low service government. Using class as the sole basis of analysis would not explain these views. In fact these views hurt their class as a whole. Sugrue explains all of this in the context of race and class, and shows how these whites fought to perpetuate black separation and poverty, and then used that status to essentialize blacks as lazy and shiftless, and violent when they actively resisted the status quo. The concept of rights for these whites shifted from “freedom from” to “freedom to” as they moved from the ideal of community/public rights to that of individual rights.

Sugrue’s work is largely social history. His focus is on the structures that made the urban crisis possible, and allowed for the change in momentum from New Deal liberal ideals to Reagan conservatism amongst whites. His discussion of factory automation was of particular interest to me, as my work often involves automating business processes. Sugrue argues that the push for automation was in part a response to the gains the labor movement had made in previous years. Automation cannot be seen as a gain for workers when this motive is considered, yet many contemporary conservatives laud automation and technology as a wonderful thing, and those workers whose jobs are lost due to this process should education themselves for jobs in the tech industry. Sugrue shows that these arguments were being made when automation was in its infancy, and that educating people for jobs that embrace automation fails more often than not. People have convinced themselves that the fault for their failures is individual and ignore the structural changes that make it easier than ever to fail.

When poor and middle-class whites experience greater success than blacks, again aided along by structures, they can convince themselves that black people are responsible for their own failures. When they see entire swaths of the black population facing poverty, they can convince themselves these failures are essentialized in race.

Not much has changed since Sugrue wrote this book in the mod-1990s, and the political rhetoric is the same. What had changed is that the country has experienced the worst economic downturn since the 1930s, based largely on the rapid devaluing of housing. In Sugrue’s analysis, whites insisted that they had a right to homeownership, and to protect home values against decline perpetuated by integrated neighborhoods. The real threat to home values is apparently the bankers and businessmen these white homeowners valorized as working hard for their success. Yet conservatives have again managed to blame African-American communities for having the temerity to purchase homes with variable interest rate mortgages, which to highlights the stranglehold conservatives have over the discourse of race in this country. Sugrue’s work shows us the origin of the problem; in order for real change to happen the structures must be changed.

Response Paper for In the Shadow of War

Michael Sherry’s In the Shadow of War is a history of the militarization of the United States. He defines militarization as “the process by which war and national security became consuming anxieties and provided the memories, models, and metaphors that shaped broad areas of national life.” (Sherry, xi) Sherry argues that the process of militarization began during the Depression, with a combination of New Deal programs that were touted using war metaphors, and the increase in the build up of weaponry that Roosevelt ordered in preparation for a possible war in Europe. The militarization process continued through World War II, the Cold War, the wars in Vietnam and Korea. The process was messy and non-linear, and sometimes led to unexpected outcomes, such as the military allowing African American men to serve on an ostensibly equal footing as white men. Sherry argues that the militarization process has entered the culture completely. When demilitarization was called for in the 1970s and more powerfully after the fall of the Soviet Union, people began to call for wars on internal foes, such as drugs, pornography, and the decline of 1950s cultural unity. Finally, Sherry argues that the militarized culture was made possible by the construction of the idea of “national security,” which was contested and reasserted in congruence with the militarization of the culture.

This book is a political history, relying on official presidential papers as its sources, but it also touches on cultural change, pointing out where popular culture reflects the militarized state. Sherry also touches base with what historians were saying during the many years covered, which allows the main audience for his book to fully understand how historians do not operate in a cultural vacuum. Being a political history, it focuses on presidential personalities to the detriment of analysis of how and why those personalities were discursively acceptable during their time periods. A book with a more cultural focus might analyze the relationship of the culture to the state in a way that Sherry does not. A more cultural focus may also allow capitalism to be more closely seen as a component of militarization, as both something to protect and something to make the process “efficient.”

A cultural touchstone for Sherry is how militarization affected the call for civil rights for African Americans, the women’s movement, and the gay rights movement. He sees losses and gains for all of these groups coming directly from the militarization process. For example, the idea of women serving in the military not only legitimatizes women as full citizens, but also offers the culture the opportunity to contest or reiterate the role of women in the culture.

Sherry necessarily ends his book in the mid-1990s, but if he were to update it he would find militarization still being deployed both culturally and politically. Culturally the United States still has the same old conservative arguments calling into question the diversification of the culture. For example, conservatives contend each year that there is “War on Christmas” that they are fighting against. Our national security depends on our homogenous Christianity after all. Technology, once developed to ensure that weaponry would be capable of defending the nation, is now deployed culturally as both a means of bringing people together and as a way to conduct surveillance on people’s activities. Politically there is the revelation that the NSA is collecting the data of citizen Internet use and phone calls, which is defended by the idea that these steps are necessary to protect the nation. Very recently there has been talk of going to war against the government of Syria. After Sherry’s analysis, one can surmise that this war will have the effect of bringing a splintered nation together in support of the war, and the president. As with all wars, hot and cold; internal and external, since militarization began, it will have the effect of both reiterating the need continue on the path of militarization and calling that path into question.

Male Consumerism and Identity Formation

In the 18th century American men were the primary household consumers. Outfitting their homes in a manner befitting their rank, these men sought to show their power as patriarchs through consumer goods. The 19th century’s placement of the home as women’s purview changed this. Women became those who bought the things that would show the world how genteel they and their families were.[1] This image of women as consumers and men as producers has colored our thinking about consumerism ever since. The 20th century saw the emergence of a mass consumer culture based on advertising. Many historians have taken it for granted that women were the main targets of the ad men’s efforts. Historians are discovering that men were also consumers and the target of advertisers. Scholars of masculinity in the 20th century find that consumption by men was a way of expressing masculinity, and some historians have focused on it as a particular locus of identity formation.

Kevin White’s The First Sexual Revolution explicitly ties the advent of modern masculinity to consumer culture. White is interested in mapping the change in heterosexual masculinity from Victorian ideals of character and restraint to the modern incarnation of the man who performs his masculinity through his body and personality. Consumer goods were important to this performance. He explains that after the turn of the century the culture became more visual, and men were expected to be as compelling visual as women were. Concomitant with this new visual culture was a change in advertising.[2]

In the 19th century advertising was seen as “a little dubious, not entirely respectable.” By the early century, ads were ubiquitous and lost their stigma. White says that “ads were, then, arguably more widely diffused than any other artifact of the culture of personality, yet their effect on meanings of manliness has been entirely missed by historians.” He goes on to show how ads drew on both the desire for youthfulness and the related desire for “sex appeal” in men to promote goods running the gamut from sports equipment to toothpaste. White argues that this pressure to perform a version of individualism and personality that conformed to advertisers’ visions instead led to “wholesome, crass, corn-fed, clean-cut conformity.” The Victorian, according to White, was a true individual. Early 20th century men were the conforming puppets of marketers.[3]

This argument shows that White believes that heterosexual men in the early century had less room to perform variant masculinity than the Victorians, and consumer culture explains it. Pushed to the background are other pressures, such as those Gail Bederman described in Manliness and Civilization, where middle class white men felt they needed to perform a vigorous masculinity in order to successfully fulfill their imperial destinies.[4] White does talk about how a change in the parameters of acceptable, normative sexual expression allowed marketers to seize on an opportunity to make men feel insecure in order to move products, and he argues that advertisers became part of a set of hegemonic experts on the new stress on “instant gratification and fulfillment through consumption.”[5]

White identifies the dance hall as a consumer space where men and women could enjoy heterosocial socializing and be part of the youth culture.[6] George Chauncey in Gay New York also shows how consumer spaces were the site of gay socializing. He argues that these spaces allowed those interested in gay life, in varying degrees of visibility to the straight world, to find one another and form communities. His object is not to show that consumer culture imposed a standard of homosexual performance on his male subjects, rather he shows how men used these spaces for their own purposes. Unlike White’s dance halls, Chauncey’s cafeterias, bathhouses, and entire neighborhoods were not built with a gay male consumer in mind. These places became gay spaces after men saw opportunities to both be visible to each other, and somewhat hidden from those not in the know, in them. When their visible presence became intolerable to the public after Prohibition, they continued to use the spaces in ways that were necessarily less open.[7] This view gives the power back to the individuals making identities for themselves from White’s powerful marketers.

Moreover, White argues that it was sexual success with women that defined the modern heterosexual man, thus it was women who determined acceptable masculinity. In Chauncey’s New York, it is other men who recognized one’s identity as a gay man. Women were not part of the equation. The commonality, of course, that one’s identity as a man was determined in both instances by recognition by the objects of sexual desire. In both studies, consumer goods and spaces were used in order to find and attract those who had the power to recognize one’s masculinity.

Consumer spaces, consumer goods, and being the object of sexual desire are also themes in Martin P. Levine’s Gay Macho. Writing about gay culture in New York in the 1970s, Levine’s argument is much like White’s in that Levine shows how gay men’s choice of spaces and goods resulted in a stultifying conformity to the extent that men in this culture were termed “clones.” However, unlike White’s argument, Levine does not contend that it was marketers who played on gay men’s insecurities to create a market for their products. It was instead gay men themselves, wishing to assert their masculinity, who took their cues from straight male working-class culture to create their identities.[8] This is as much a commentary on the extremely limited acceptable straight masculine performance as it is on gay masculine performance. Gay male “clones” needed to differentiate themselves from the straight men they emulated, and they did this through both the careful use of consumer goods and by congregating in spaces coded as gay.[9]

While all of these authors talk about masculinity performed through consumer culture, Mark A. Swiencicki in “Consuming Brotherhood” shows that men’s consumerism started long before White’s modern man shaped by advertising came into being. Writing in 1998, Swiencicki argues that historians had “done a remarkable job of investigating the impact of consumerism on women and femininity,” but that “American men’s experiences with consumption and consumerism have been left virtually unexplored.” He finds that consumerism has often meant the consumption of household goods, which women actually did more of. He argues that consumer services should be included in analyzing consumerism, and he finds that men actually spent a lot of a families’ disposable income on leisure services such as saloons and fraternal lodges. When he finds that when historians research male consumption it is often tied to a “’new’ male consumerism” that supposedly emerged in the 20th century. Swiencicki’s research found male consumerism was nothing new. In fact it had been around “since at least the 1880s.” The result of this neglect is the reinforcement of “the dichotomy of productive males and consuming females.” Part of the blame for this lies with advertisers, who often marketed to women.[10] Historians have perhaps taken their claims that women were consumers at face value, and not recognizing that they believed in the consumer/producer dichotomy.

Interesting in Swiencicki’s findings are that men spent their money in the 19th century in homosocial spaces. Chauncey and Levine’s gay men also did this, showing that gay men were repurposing normative male behavior for their own community building. White emphasized that heterosocial spaces where heterosexual men could test out their “sex appeal” on women became important as the 20th century progressed. Thus straight men lost the desire to consume in homosocial spaces.

Howard P. Chudacoff also finds a male consumer culture in the 19th century, and he argues that it was the bachelor who created a space for marketing to men. Bachelors in the late 19th century were considered “an ever visible social problem.” They were also envied for their ability to “freely roam the city and enjoy the new commercial and consumer culture.” These are Swiencicki’s 19th century consumers, although he included married men in his analysis. Chudacoff states that “a new kind of male mass consumerism” that began in the late 19th century “emerged to link males of all social classes through joint consumption.” Thus bachelors who had been a problem were classed merely as men and consumed the same services as married men.[11] The bachelor lifestyle became normative, with some backlash in the 1930s and to a greater extent in the 1950s.

Stuart Cosgrove explores how masculinity was performed differently based on class and ethnicity in “The Zoot-Suit and Style Warfare.” The mostly black and Hispanic zoot-suiters ignored wartime proscriptions on the amount of fabric that a suit could contain, thus making themselves overt outsiders. This defiance of normativity was met with violence as white servicemen at home battled with these men, literally stripping them of the markers of otherness. Showing how problematic masculine performance is when it crosses with class and ethnicity, Cosgrove notes that women participated in zoot culture as well.[12] But as the 19th century has shown, masculine performance has been appropriated across class lines before, and it is not impossible to imagine the zoot style becoming normative.

Kenon Breazeale’s “In Spite of Women” deals only with bourgeois masculinity, and he too questions the male producer female consumer dichotomy. Looking specifically at Esquire magazine, he calls it “the first thoroughgoing, conscious attempt to organize a consuming male audience.” Arguing against the idea that Playboy created the “male socio-sexual identity,” Breazeale finds that the Depression brought the “marketing industry to new levels of influence” and set the stage for the production of the creation of the male marketing target. Esquire used its non-fiction content and images of eroticized women “to represent women in order to negotiate its relationship with the feminine.” Since its mission was to create a consuming male, it needed to distance that man from both the housewife and the homosexual. It accomplished this by saying that men were superior consumers and denigrating women’s consumption skills and presenting images of heterosexual men’s sex object choice, eroticized for their easy enjoyment. Breazeale argues that Esquire laid the groundwork of creating the consuming male and putting women in their place as servicers of men years before Playboy, allowing Playboy to enjoy the received truth of women’s inferiority without contention.[13]

While male consumption has been shown to exist pre-Esquire, especially in spaces of consumption, the magazine allowed heterosexual men to find a virtual homosocial space they could enjoy without actually being in a homosocial space. When they consumed in public, they preferred heterosocial spaces, as White has shown. The trend of differentiating men from women as consumers, and casting women as objects on which one could test one’s personality and sex appeal based on display of consumer products surely influenced the heterosexual migration away from homosocial spaces.

Tom Pendergast’s Creating the Modern Man, like White, shows that there was a break between the Victorian and Modern Man. Pendergast uses the content of early century magazines to illustrate the change. Pendergast dives into intersectionality as well when he shows how magazines marketed to African American men retained the Victorian ideals of manhood much longer than magazines that were marketed to white men. He argues “the very nature of the commercial magazine mitigated against the expression of Victorian masculinity.” Nonetheless, the early men’s magazines “were so indebted to the Victorian cult of character that they celebrated the old styles of masculinity regardless.” He, like so many other historians, believes that the modern masculine role was a creation of “modern corporate consumer culture” that brought more and more “groups of men of every race and socioeconomic group” into “the embrace of an ideology that celebrates self-creation through enlightened consumption.”[14]

His view differs notably from White’s in that he finds the relationship between consumption and masculinity as being successful because it was meeting the needs of the men doing the consuming. White’s argues that the relationship was more hegemonic with corporate interests imposing advertising techniques on otherwise unwilling men. Pendergast has a far more positive view stating, “the rise of consumer culture invigorated emerging notions of masculine selfhood with largely positive consequences.” He also uses the example of black men’s magazines as one in which consumerism was gladly embraced once they were able. The ever-shifting consumer market does create insecurity for men in Pendergast’s view, but this insecurity “is common to all people, a part of the human condition.” What is unique is the contemporary willingness to discuss this private insecurity.[15]

John Kasson’s Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man offers a further complication to the idea that consumerism was hegemonic and corporate controlled. Eugen Sandow was a very successful businessman who marketed himself as the perfect man. As Kasson argues, Sandow’s success was based on the fact that he helped bridge the gap between the Victorian and Modern man. Kasson states, “he adroitly tapped antimodernist sentiments and fears of an emasculating civilization” while e “raised a new, potentially more punishing ‘scientific’ standard against which to measure one’s inadequacy.” Kasson credits Sandow with taking the male body away from being a site of productive labor to one where men could express individual desire and pleasure. The male body became a place where consumerism could take hold. Houdini’s escape abilities showed how men could remain free in an age that felt very confining, and his disrobing, or throwing off the markers of consumerism, showed men that they were not bound by consumer goods, that they could leave anytime they wished. Edgar Rice Burroughs created a character that was both white and wild, which personified masculine freedom and innate qualities. What he created as a consumer good that men could use to create their own masculine selves.[16]

While other historians have credited magazines and advertising with creating the modern man, even if the break was contested, Kasson shows that it took an interest in the male body as a site of modern masculinity to allow room for marketers to move in. A Victorian who thought of his body as a site of production would not be swayed by the bodily insecurity that the marketers promoted. But men concerned with presenting their masculinity with the perfection of their bodies would be very interested in finding, privately, what their faults were. That is what is so brilliant about magazines as a virtual replacement for homosocial spaces. With a magazine one could be alone to search out insecurities based not on comparing oneself to peers, but with comparing oneself to idealized bodies, marketed for consumption. The intersection of masculinity created by fears of imperial defeat with a new corporate culture that wished to make men consumers created the modern man.

The male body as a site of production was further complicated by the blurring of the line between work and play that Woody Register outlines in “Everyday Peter Pans.” Childlike impulses were a key to success in the early 20th century’s consumer capitalism. Men who claimed boy-like qualities were on the defensive, according to Register, since vigorous manhood and even Victorian manhood were higher on the masculine scale than boys. But these men marketed a childlike freedom to consumers eager for pleasure and escape. Their chosen personas as boy-men were “new kinds of consuming men who used the concepts of play and eternal childhood to remap the coordinates of manliness to defuse the emergent associations of consumerism with women and femininity and to reconcile their expectations – social, political, and cultural priority – with the destabilizing, carnivalesque tendencies of the new economic world.” Register has found yet another masculine performance that needed to distance itself from women when it necessarily consumed. These men “blurred the boundaries between work and play, production and consumption, masculine civilization and feminine disorder, needs and desires.” They were the incarnation of the change from staid Victorian manhood, to vigorous manhood, to a man who self-consciously pursues pleasure through consumer goods.[17]

These men were both the producers of the goods with which a man could create a type of free masculinity and performers of a new masculinity that valued play over work. Enjoying every moment of life was the new goal, and this fit right in with the new male consumerism. But in order to enjoy this life, men had to be sure they did not appear too feminine or homosexual. This is where Esquire et al fit in. Enjoyment of manhood meant constant reassurance that consuming was manly and women were in their place. These men were the future consumers of Playboy magazine. They did not insist too much on embodied vigorous masculinity.

This denial of the homosexual into normative masculinity is evidenced by the late-1970s backlash against disco. Gillian Frank outlines the events in “Discophobia.” He calls the backlash “anti-gay” and argues “The attack on disco was informed by the general perception that disco was gay and elitist, and the discourse surrounding disco was highly sexualized and framed by ‘homo/heterosexual definitions.’” The backlash was violent, not only symbolically, but threats were made to people who appeared to enjoy disco, as coded by their consumer tastes. Heterosexual men, who it has been noted, enjoyed expressing their sex appeal in heterosocial spaces. Frank argues that disco’s gay roots threatened heterosexual men’s access to women and “privileged an inauthentic masculinity.”[18] The type of heterosexual masculinity that was described by White and others had come under threat by the 1970s, and the idea that anyone other than normative men could be cultural leaders was so intolerable that the backlash was violent and lasting.

Access to women as sex partners is important to modern heterosexual masculinity, and threating that access met with punishment. As Breazeale argued, Esquire and Playboy are examples of magazines that allow men to consume and put women in their places in service to men. A couple of female historians have recently looked at Playboy magazine and tried to turn back the idea that the magazine objectifies women. In Bachelors and Bunnies, Carrie Pitzulo argues that  “Playboy’s renegotiation of postwar heterosexuality was more pro-woman, even quasi-feminist, than previously acknowledged.”[19] Elizabeth Fraterrigo’s Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in Modern America concedes that “the magazine and its founder fell back on essentialist assumptions that men and women were naturally endowed with different characteristics that gave them a corresponding place in the social order,” but notes that Playboy had a “distaste for traditional domestic roles” and was against the double standard and for birth control, thus making Playboy something of a liberating force.[20] Both authors support Breazeales idea that the magazine was a way of getting men to consume a lifestyle, they differ with him in their interpretation of the meaning of the nude women in the magazine. To Fraterrigo she represented a willing, liberated partner.[21] For Pitzulo, the opportunity for women to do something other than enter into marriages made Playboy a liberating force.[22] Both books tend to see Playboy in its context of the 1950s, where opportunities for women were few indeed, whereas Breazeale traces Playboy to its predecessor Esquire and shows how eroticized women were part of the project to make male consumption safe and decidedly masculine.

Stefan K. Cieply’s “The Uncommon Man” looks at Esquire magazine in its 1950s incarnation. Cieply identifies a problem with the historiography of male consumption, arguing that most historians treat the male consumer as a rational being, unlike the female consumer who is treated as both rational and irrational. His argument is that desire and “the channels that sanction, regulate and reproduce acceptable consumer longing and fantasy” shaped men’s consumption. He shows how one of these channels, Esquire, changed in the late 1950s to appeal to men who wanted to perform as the “Uncommon Man.” These men were considered a niche, and differed from the Intellectual in that they understood that to be sophisticated one needed to “become a better-informed and more discriminating consumer.” This consumption was used as resistance to post-war conformity; a man could only individuate through his discerning consumption. There was an obvious tension between the critique of conforming consumption and the needs of advertisers that this “Uncommon Man” sought to smooth over. Cieply’s goal is to show that consumerism is “a productive site where the gender order is enforced, contested and secured.”[23]

Identity formation through consumerism is a theme of David K. Johnson’s “Physique Pioneers.” Johnson argues that a national gay community was formed via common consumerism before there was a gay political community. Like Cieply, Johnson finds that “consumption mediates the production of social identities.” Where Johnson differs is that he argues that even though the consumer goods the gay community used in identity formation were not explicitly “gay,” gay men repurposed them. Johnson finds that this consumer-based community led directly to the later formation of the political community.[24]

It is interesting that the male body as displayed in the physique magazines that were popularized by the forces driving male identity that Kasson outlines was one of the consumer goods that gay men later used for community formation, much to the consternation of the magazine editors themselves. The tension between heteronormative viewing of the male form and the homosexual use is one of the classic tensions in the history of male consumerism. Male consumerism was acceptable as long as it did not seem feminine or gay. When gay men appropriate your masculine consumerism it becomes less usable in heterosexual male identity formation.

When gay men formed a political community, it did not impinge on the consumer community. Alice Echols’ Hot Stuff shows how gay men embraced disco and that this music, and the spaces in which it was played, gave these men a way to perform both Levine’s “Gay Macho” and a reemerging effeminate style. Like the late-1950s readers of Esquire who wished to buck conformity through consumption, a segment of the gay community wanted to reclaim effeminate style from a gay macho conformity they saw as stultifying. Disco gave these effeminate men room as performers even as disco’s gay consumers were most often “clones.” Gay men took the lead, as they did in Johnson’s article, by offering the spaces and goods that gay men could use for identity formation in discos. And the music, style, and spaces came to become popular throughout American culture, until the backlash that Frank outlines occurred.[25] For perhaps the first time, straight men were encouraged to consume like gay men in heterosocial spaces if they wished to exercise their sex appeal towards women.

The ability for gay men to teach straight men how to consume in order to appeal to women is a theme of “Masters of Their Domain” by C. Wesley Buerkle. He points out how “changing tides of capitalism” resulted in a very recent change in gender ideology from one “grounded in modern/industrial ideals to one directed toward neoliberal/consumerist ends.” As an example of the former, he uses an episode of Seinfeld in which the characters have a contest to see which of them can refrain from masturbating the longest. Buerkle traces masculine restraint back to the Victorians, and notes that the neoliberal pleasure seeking performance is concomitant and in contestation with the Victorian restraint performance. In the Seinfeld episode, the winners of the contest are punished feeding into the idea that restraint is not rewarded. In the second part of his analysis, Buerkle shows how the gay men of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy “instruct men in the precise means of perfecting their bodies and behaviors to meet aesthetic standards.” He argues that this utter abandonment of older, restrained masculinity signals that the cultural transformation to neoliberal consumption is complete. Consuming as masculine identity formation is trading one set of regimented masculinity for another, but what is interesting is it is gay men who teach straight men to consume in order to be successful sexually with women. This is a real break with early-20th century consumption, which had to distance itself from homosexuality in order to be seen as acceptable.[26] While other historians have noted the break between the Victorian and Modern Man, Buerkle is unique in showing how the Victorian ideal of restraint still resonated a hundred years after the Modern first contested it.

Historians of 20th century masculinity have necessarily shown that male consumerism not only existed, but was essential in creating the Modern Man. At first needed to distance itself from female consumption and associations with homosexuality, and later fighting against the conformity that consumerism necessarily creates in rationalized markets, consumerism has now become an absolutely acceptable way for men to perform their masculinity. As in the late 1970s, straight white men may again backlash against those who are aesthetic leaders (gay men and straight women), but even they are performing a type of masculinity through their choice of consumer goods. As scholars continue to study male consumerism it will be interesting to see how the tension between consumption as a cage and consumption as a liberating force plays out.



[1] Richard Bushman, The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities, 1st Vintage Books ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 441.

[2] Kevin White, The First Sexual Revolution: The Emergence of Male Heterosexuality in Modern America, American Social Experience Series: 27 (New York : New York University Press, c1993., 1993), 9–10, 19.

[3]  White, The First Sexual Revolution, 19, 27.

[4] Gail Bederman, Manliness & Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

[5] White, The First Sexual Revolution, 13.

[6] White, The First Sexual Revolution,  80–105.

[7] George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (Basic Books, 1995), 224–225, 176–177, 227–267, 347–348.

[8] Martin P Levine and Michael S Kimmel, Gay Macho: The Life and Death of the Homosexual Clone (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 28–29.

[9] Levine and Kimmel, Gay Macho, 59–61, 67.

[10] Mark A. Swiencicki, “Consuming Brotherhood: Men’s Culture, Style and Recreation as Consumer Culture, 1880-1930,” Journal of Social History 31, no. 4 (1998): 773–775.

[11] Howard P. Chudacoff, The Age of the Bachelor: Creating an American Subculture (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1999., 1999), 47–48, 227–228.

[12] Stuart Cosgrove, “The Zoot-Suit and Style Warfare,” in The Gender and Consumer Culture Reader (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 342–353.

[13] Kenon Breazeale, “In Spite of Women: Esquire Magazine and the Construction of the Male Consumer,” in The Gender and Consumer Culture Reader (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 226–227, 230, 232, 239.

[14] Tom Pendergast, Creating the Modern Man: American Magazines and Consumer Culture, 1900-1950 (Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 2000), 27–29.

[15] Pendergast, Creating the Modern Man, 262–265.

[16] John F. Kasson, Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man: The White Male Body and the Challenge of Modernity in America (New York : Hill and Wang, 2001., 2001), 19, 75–76, 154–155, 218, 223.

[17] Register, Woody, “Everyday Peter Pans: Work, Manhood, and Consumption in Urban America, 1900-1930,” in Boys and Their Toys? Masculinity, Technology, and Class in America, Hagley Perspectives on Business and Culture (London: Routledge, 2001), 203–205, 223–224.

[18] Gillian Frank, “Discophobia: Antigay Prejudice and the 1979 Backlash Against Disco,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 16, no. 2 (May 2007): 280, 306.

[19] Carrie Pitzulo, Bachelors and Bunnies: The Sexual Politics of Playboy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 7.

[20] Elizabeth Fraterrigo, Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in Modern America (Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2009., 2009), 10, 210.

[21] Fraterrigo, Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in Modern America, 132.

[22] Pitzulo, Bachelors and Bunnies, 178–179.

[23] Stefan K. Cieply, “The Uncommon Man: Esquire and the Problem of the North American Male Consumer, 1957–63.,” Gender & History 22, no. 1 (April 2010): 152–153, 161, 165.

[24] David K. Johnson, “Physique Pioneers: The Politics of 1960s Gay Consumer Culture,” Journal of Social History 43, no. 4 (2010): 867–871, 887–888.

[25] Alice Echols, Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010), 132–133, 141–143, 150–157.

[26] C. Wesley Buerkle, “Masters of Their Domain: Seinfeld and the Discipline of Mediated Men’s Sexual Economy,” in Performing American Masculinities: The 21st-Century Man in Popular Culture (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2011), 9,15, 23, 25, 30.

Wikipedia’s Diversity Problems and Consensus

The Wikipedia article for “Disco Demolition Night” was promoted to a featured article in March 24, 2013. This designation means that it was identified “as one of the best articles produced by the Wikipedia community.” In September of 2012, however, there was an edit war on the lede. One editor was adamant that the anti-disco movement that Disco Demolition Night exemplifies be identified as racist and homophobic, but there were several other editors who thought this was a fringe view and violated the Neutral Point Of View policy of Wikipedia.
After much back and forth, someone called for a Request for Comment to resolve the issue. The person who wished to include it in the lede (who I cannot identify because they logged on with their IP address – If you see this please contact me!), faced a barrage of people who disagreed. Many of them cited personal experience with the event when objecting. In the end, consensus was reached that the racism and homophobia claims would be left out of the lede.
This illustrates some of the problems with Wikipedia: first-hand claims are supposed to be forbidden as sources, but that does not stop them from being used for arguments about consensus; that well-sourced views that are not popular will be labeled fringe by the consensus process and therefore marginalized; and that since it is straight white men who make up the vast majority of Wikipedia editors, their perspectives will always dominate. I know Wikipedia is trying very hard to have a diverse pool of editors, but it must be disheartening for someone trying to cite sources that see events in historical perspective to bump up against those who participated in an event and cannot see it objectively.

How Video Games Found a Place in the Art Museum

In March of this year the Smithsonian launched an exhibit on video games. This exhibit was not part of its Museum of American History where one normally finds pop culture objects such as Archie Bunker’s chair and Julia Child’s kitchen. Instead it was put on by the American Art Museum. New York’s Musuem of Modern Art (MoMA) added several video games to its permanent collection this year as well. Some contend that video games have no place in the art museum. The museums themselves have defended their inclusion, acknowledging that this is a departure from what has been considered art in the past. In fact, what is considered art and therefore deserves a place in an art museum has long been in flux.

Steven Conn’s Museums and American Intellectual Life, 1876-1926 dedicates a chapter to the change in art museums in the late 19th century from a place where industrial art and design could figure prominently, to one where only fine art, which was easily identifiable as “authentic,” was allowed.[1] The fear of the inauthentic, and learning how to identify a fake, was a major cultural concern in the 19th century, and it makes sense that museums in this era would want to avoid them.[2]

What is troubling some about the current trend toward considering video games art is that they cannot be considered fine art because they are by nature not only pieces of craft, but also reproductions and mass produced reproductions at that, cheaply available and understandable to all.

Walter Benjamin in his influential “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” argues that reproducible art lacks the “aura” that surrounds a work of fine art that has a specific history to the one original copy. MoMA in particular seems cognizant of the importance of having an original, with their ideal objects being “copies of the games’ original software format (e.g. cartridges or discs) and hardware (e.g. consoles or computers) whenever possible.” The also have original source code, annotated by the author, on their wish list. This is analogous to wanting the original negative to a photograph or film, which, if I am not mistaken, most art museums do not require to consider a film or photograph an object of art that can stand alone in its collection. These requirements also preserve the market value of the games as most of them are available on the web. Having the original packaging and hardware not only helps give the game a history, but also values it higher on the market vs. reproduced games played on emulators.

Video games are very much like film and photography in that they are massively reproducible, and the context in which the art is consumed is widely variable. Much of Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay discusses film as a form of art that enables “tactile appropriation” that is “master gradually by habit.” The messages are given and reinforced without a contemplative effort by the observer. This was at a time when film was still fairly new, and its status as an art form under contention. Video games fill the acculturation purpose too, only more so because the observer is not just an observer but feels as if he is a participant in the world the video game has created. Ian Bogost argues that these immersive worlds educate players in “procedural rhetorics,” which are shaped by the structures of computers and software. In this way players are taught to anticipate events based on rules and constraints.

Benjamin wrote about certain forms of art (film and architecture) as being integral to aiding “the tasks which face the human apparatus of perception at the turning points of history” which echoes James Cook’s contention in The Arts of Deception that art served the cultural purpose of allowing people to adapt to new ways of seeing necessary in the nineteenth century urban world.[3]  Both authors argue that art, both high art and popular art serve to help people habituate to new ways of seeing. Eventually, these new forms are accepted into the temples of high art, as video games are now gaining acceptance.

While some purists may bemoan the fact that video games are finding their way into art museums, the idea of only singular works being valued as art has not been around long, and it has been challenged since its inception by the introduction of mechanically reproduced objects that do cultural work.

 



[1] Steven Conn, Museums and American Intellectual Life, 1876-1926 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 216-217.

[2] James W. Cook, The Arts of Deception: Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 103-104.

[3] Ibid., 248.