Capitalism and American Culture

Capitalism and American Life, ca. 1850–2000:
Encounters with the Market in its Many Guises
Oral examination list
Examiner: Professor Jean-Christophe Agnew
Exam administered March 2005

It’s a truism that capitalism affects all aspects of our lives in American culture. But what does that mean, exactly? How does a market mentality crop up in our cultural environment? Does its manifestation change according to setting? Where, and in what ways, can we see the economic in the everyday?

In this list, I attempt to pin down the ways that a market mentality interpolates itself into our lives over time and space. By dividing the list into modes of encounter, I’ve tried to draw the focus to the ways in which Americans have come in contact with capitalism-inflected settings in tangible and meaningful ways. I also hope that by pinning each mode of encounter to a particular space, I can indulge my interest in the corporeal aspects of life in a capitalist culture, in the way that bodies physically move through space.

By “market mentality” I mean a tendency to assign market-driven values to those objects, people, or interactions that surround us. In my view, these values could be specifically monetary (as in, for example, the practice of selling blood). Or they could be part of a self-enclosed system that mimics an economy (as in, for example, a bookkeeping system of energy expended and consumed).

As I’ve composed and thought through my list, I’ve had (loosely) in mind Bourdieu’s notions of “habitus” and “practice.” By keeping track of the ways that people have interacted with their cultural environment, I’ve tried to model the horizons of Americans’ perceived possibilities at different points in time.

At the store
Of course, we expect to find a market mentality at the store. But what happens to us when we shop? Do we lose ourselves or find ourselves? Do we become subjects of hegemony or do we play subversively with identities? What role does shopping play in our lives, and how has this changed over time?

Agnew, J-C. “Coming Up for Air: Consumer Culture in Historical Perspective,” in J. Brewer and R. Porter (eds.), Consumption and the World of Goods. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Curti, M. “Changing Concept of ‘Human Nature’ in the Literature of

American Advertising.” Business History Review 41 (Winter 1967).

Fiske, J. “Radical shopping in Los Angeles: race, media and the sphere of consumption.” Media, Culture and Society: Relations of Consumption 16: 3 (1994).

Manring, M. M. Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998.

Strasser, Susan. Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market. New York: Pantheon Books, 1989.

At home (and at play)
What space does capitalist society allot to the home? Do we see ourselves differently at home and away? What distinctions do we make between public and private and between work and play?

Garvey, E. G. The Adman in the Parlor: Magazines and the Gendering of

Consumer Culture, 1880s to 1910s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Belk, R. W. “Possessions and the Extended Self,” Journal of Consumer Research 15 (1988).

Clarke, A. “Tupperware in the 1950s: Gender and Consumption,” in R.

Silverstone (ed.), Visions of Suburbia. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Dannefer, D. “Rationality and Passion in Private Experience: Modern Consciousness and the Social World of Old-Car Collectors,” Social Problems 27 (1980).

Gelber, S.  “A Job You Can’t Lose: Work and Hobbies in the Great Depression,” Journal of Social History 24 (1990).

Rosenzweig, Roy. Eight Hours for What We Will: Workers and Leisure in an Industrial City, 1871–1920. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Strasser, S. Never Done: A History of American Housework. New York: Pantheon, 1982.

Zelizer, Viviana A. Morals and Markets: The Development of Life Insurance in the United States. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.

­——. Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.

At work
What has work asked of us, what have we brought to it, and how does that affect our “private” selves?

Brown, Elspeth H. The Corporate Eye: Photography and the Rationalization of American Commercial Culture, 1884–1929. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

Glickman, L. B. A Living Wage: American Workers and the Making of Consumer Society. Ithica, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.

Hochschild, Arlie Russell. The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

Johnson, Walter. Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Rabinbach, Anson. The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue, and the Origins of Modernity. New York: BasicBooks, 1990.

Thompson, E. P. “Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism.” Past and Present 38 (1967), 56-97.

In our bodies
Does capitalism have an effect on the way we see our bodies? What about different modes of capitalism — can we identify corresponding conceptions of the body? Do we keep parts of our bodies sacrosanct from the market, or are our entire bodies subject to economic factors?

Bathrick, S. K. “The Female Colossus: the Body as Facade and Threshold,” in J. Gaines and C. Herzog (eds.), Fabrications: Costume and the Female Body. London: Routledge, 1990.

Birken, L. Consuming Desire: Sexual Science and the Emergence of a Culture of Abundance, 1871-1914. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1981.

Falk, P. The Consuming Body. London: Sage, 1994.

Featherstone, M. “The body in consumer society,” in M. Featherstone, M. Hepworth and B. Turner (eds.), The Body: Social Process and Cultural Theory. London: Sage, 1991.

Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York; Routledge, 1991.

Lowe, Donald. The Body in Late-Capitalist USA. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.

Meyerowitz, Joanne. How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Sklansky, Jeffrey. The Soul’s Economy: Market Society and Selfhood in American Thought, 1820-1920. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Titmuss, Richard. The Gift Relationship: From Human Blood to Social Policy. New York: Vintage Books, 1972.

Turner, B. “Recent Developments in the Theory of the Body.” In M. Featherstone, M. Hepworth and B. Turner (eds.), The Body: Social Process and Cultural Theory. London: Sage, 1991.

In public
Is the public sphere, too, colonized by market forces? If so, how does that affect how we see ourselves as citizens? As members of a collectivity?

Cohen, Lizabeth. A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America. New York: Knopf, 2003.

Crawford, M. “The World in a Shopping Mall,” in M. Sorkin (ed.), Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space. New York: Hill and Wang, 1994.

Livingston, James. Pragmatism, Feminism, and Democracy: Rethinking the Politics of American Democracy. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Ryan, Mary. Women in Public: Between Banners and Ballots, 1825­–1880. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

Storrs, Landon. Civilizing Capitalism: The National Consumer’s League, Women’s Activism, and Labor Standards in the New Deal Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

4 Replies to “Capitalism and American Culture”

  1. There is no real thing such as society under Capitalism. The super rich establishment do everything in their power through the media they own and the governments who they play like puppets to make sure there is as m,uch division as possible amongst ordinary people so as they fall for their brainwashing through their Capitalist media( which only tells people what they want them to hear, never publisize the most embarrassing stories about them or certainly any that would cause a real revolt by the public or put their system in danger). Divide and conquer although they usually do well to brain wash enough to suppress most peoples thoughts of rebellion or not believing their lies about freedom and democracy.That is the way of the super rich establishment and how Capitalism works.They only tell us it is a society as one of their ways of trying to keep us on side and stop us rebelling against their system.They do everything to cause division amongst the general public and are obviously not democratic so them speaking about society is just another lie to keep as as their good little sheep (sorry if anything I’ve said has upset anyone but talking about society under capitalism is not on when they do all they can to not let true feeling of society exist and when hardly anyone talks to their neighbor etc)

  2. the environment of work, place, traditions are different according to country. yes you are right that capitalism affects all our lives in America but whenever we live this things matter. thanks for sharing your thoughts with us and eagerly waiting for your next update.

  3. Dear sir,
    Can you elaborate more on influence on capitalistic culture on individual mindset in USA. On day to day activities , co ordination of workplace and home , behavioral changes related to stress and aggression if any? Is there any relation between the aforesaid and what is happening in emerging economies.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *