As a scholar of daily life in a consumer culture, I am committed to the importance of intimate subjects. We wear, eat, sit on, and clean our houses and bodies with consumer goods. We use intimate language to talk about them—I love my new car, my new shirt, that new cookie. We employ manufactured goods to express emotions, and to create family and ethnic solidarity, aspects of life we understand as personal and private. Ours is a consumer culture in the anthropological sense of “culture” that I learned about by reading Malinowski at Reed; its artifacts and rituals are for sale, or designed to get us to buy other things. Literally consumers rather than producers, most of us do not sew clothes, build houses, or make music; we cook less than ever. And as shoppers and media consumers, we are the constant objects of persistent, well-crafted indoctrination, created in the interests of concentrated economic, political, and cultural power.
Despite the critique implied in that sentence, the genesis of my work in the history of housework reminds me that the transformation to a consumer culture has also represented significant liberation, especially for women. I have written these books fully mindful of how little research and writing I could have accomplished if I had been washing my clothes using water heated over a woodstove, let alone on rocks by the river. I began a chapter of Waste and Want with a discussion of sanitary napkins, in part for the mischievous satisfaction of taking that taboo out in public, but also because it seemed important to come to grips with disposable products that are not easy to dismiss, and tampons were at the top of my personal list.
I started thinking about consumption as part of a political critique that developed in college and became more sophisticated during graduate school. At Reed I first grappled with the feminist idea that the personal is political; I was influenced, too, by the hippie ethic of dropping out and spending little, though I never seriously contemplated hippiedom and my limited spending was mostly due to limited funds. Creating, with others, that Reed food co-op, I thought about how to connect my abstract understanding of capitalism with the realities of modern food distribution. In grad school I used my Reed-honed analytic skills to think explicitly about the relationship between consumerism and women’s oppression and the function of unpaid household labor, and while I did not personally slap “This ad degrades women” stickers on billboards, I mentally applauded those who did.
After all these years, and despite substantial changes in women’s lives, feminist arguments about advertising are still potent. Regionalist and aesthetic critiques of a homogenized culture have become global in scale. It matters ever more that consumerism elevates personal needs and desires over values of community and nature. And the arguments against social injustice still stand: the rich have more stuff, and buy it with money that could go to charity, be taxed for public use, or, while we’re dreaming, be shared with the workers. In contemporary culture, consumption helps define inequality, a task accomplished in traditional cultures by birth and caste.
As global climate change becomes more obvious and we settle in to a lifetime of wars over oil, the environmental critique of consumerism raises bottom-line issues. Consumers don’t know how to get clean water or make gasoline; we barely comprehend how our lives impact the earth because the systems that comprise daily life are too complex for most of us to grasp at all, and for anybody to understand completely. It is reasonable for people outside of first-world consumer culture to want an equivalent level of convenience and comfort, and reasonable to question whether the planet can provide sufficient resources for all of us to live as I do.
History provides no straightforward solutions. In fact, embracing the concept of change over time—doing history—complicates the issues. But it offers a viewpoint from which we may observe that people in the past found other ways to be human, and from which we may ask important questions. Is everything for sale? Should it be? How might we go about reassociating ourselves with our bodies and the planet? What costs are incurred when commercial values frame all facets of life? To think in new ways about fundamental issues requires breaking silences and taboos; I have hoped, in my work, to stimulate discussion about doing the dishes, to make readers conscious about their trips to the supermarket, to interrogate what’s in the trash, and thereby to add a layer of perception, understanding, analysis, and critique to everyday life.
There wasn’t much room for that kind of thinking at Reed in the ’60s. But sitting in conferences, and staying up all night talking with my friends about Hesiod or Machiavelli for the paper we had due the next day, gave me a sense of what it meant to generate ideas as part of an intellectual community. Writing a thesis taught me the pleasures and pains of individual intellectual work. Coming to understand hard books gave me a lifelong confidence about reading other hard books. Spending four years in a universe of proudly unconventional smart people enabled me to become one, too. Being assigned more work than I could do perfectly, more work than I could even complete, taught me how to deal efficiently with a lot of material, to set priorities, to let go of perfectionism while maintaining serious standards, to discipline myself to work hard. Most fortunately, at Reed I learned to cultivate ideas that could keep me interested, and the train of thought I boarded then has kept me interested for more than 40 years.
In applying to Reed, my main apprehension was about signing up for another four years as Judy Strasser’s little sister. As in high school, I managed to make a place for myself that respected the shadow she cast without getting lost in it. At her deathbed we were still talking about our lifetime of competition and how it played out during the year we were both at Reed, what it might mean for me to live without my competitor, and how I might help her sons with their sibling rivalry. I flew home after she died, to find a stack of mail that included the invitation to write this essay.