Books by James B. Twitchell

Released: June 3, 1999

A pop-science, impressionistic examination of the American lust for all things material. Twitchell (Adcult USA: The Triumph of Advertising in American Culture, 1996, etc.), like Marshall McLuhan and Camille Paglia, has made a career of spinning commonplaces into avant-garde theses, fortified by a battery of examples taken from popular culture. His critique of the frenzy of modern American materialism opens inauspiciously with an offhand analysis of Carl Reiner's 1979 comedy The Jerk, in which Steve Martin plays an idiot savant who bumbles his way into a considerable fortune—and a massive collection of things. Reiner's film affords Twitchell a starting point: "No other culture," he intones, 'spends so much time declaring things don—t matter while saying, "just charge it." " He goes on to pillory a succession of easy targets, such as the self-help movement, the yuppie shame-fueled Voluntary Simplicity movement, the contemporary penchant for wearing clothing with the labels sewn on outside, the academic trend called cultural studies, and the idiotic fare that passes for television entertainment. Below Twitchell's superficial readings of these phenomena, however, lie some interesting observations. "We live," Twitchell writes, "in a culture in which almost everyone can have almost everything——and a time in which the real prices for most consumer goods, from carrots to airplane tickets to personal computers, have fallen to record low levels. With so much stuff to consume so cheaply, he reasons, it's no wonder that we surround ourselves with gewgaws, gadgets, and throwaway goods. "The great vice of Americans is not materialism but a lack of respect for matter," wrote W.H. Auden half a century ago. Twitchell rejoins, "What sets American culture of the late twentieth century apart is not avarice, but a surfeit of machine-made things." That surfeit is everywhere, and, Twitchell writes, the rest of the world wants to share it. Racing from one datum to the next, Twitchell concludes that we get the material culture we deserve—in our case, a culture of abundant junk. Read full book review >
Released: Nov. 13, 1997

``I prefer polemic to precision,'' notes Twitchell (Adcult USA, 1996). This bigoted and shameless tirade proves him correct. Twitchell's title cuts two ways: ``for shame'' implies ``for the promotion of shaming,'' as well as his disapproval of the rise of ``shameless'' behavior since the 1960s, which he views as the crucial turning point in American attitudes toward shame. While he begins by cautioning that he is not a proponent of the life-ruining variety of shame, clearly he intends to cause just such shame, as his polemic quickly descends into uninformed sallies against everything he finds personally offensive. Unfortunately, his Christian chauvinism serves as the primary basis for his judgment, exiling him to a variety of untenable positions. For instance, Twitchell states that Roman Catholicism, with its strict codes governing sexuality, is ``one of the longest-lasting and most stabilizing religions.'' But in fact, with the exception of Islam, Christianity is the youngest of the major world religions—and if the Crusades or present-day Northern Ireland are any indication, the faith is not particularly stabilizing. To claim, as Twitchell does, that sexual codes ``separated Christianity from its earlier competitors'' is just plain wrong; equally strong codes can be found in Judaism. Beyond such matters of history and orthodoxy, the author often displays a failure to grasp simple cause and effect. He attacks the rise in illegitimate births, arguing that the Church's previous dogmas had protected against such lapses, yet he fails to address the Church's present stance against birth control. Ultimately, Twitchell betrays himself as the academy elitist that he is, aligning himself with Allan Bloom and Charles Murray. He even has the nerve to attack the tenure system in universities as one of the causes of shamelessness. Will he surrender his own tenure to prove his point? Shame on Twitchell for this diatribe disguised as cultural critique. Read full book review >
Released: Jan. 5, 1996

A virtuosic survey of advertising in America, this book is a romp through the land where you (and your wallet) are the most desirable, sought-after creature in the world. As a Zen understanding of life would have us all partaking equally of Buddha nature, so Twitchell (English/Univ. of Florida; Forbidden Partners, 1986, etc.) here casts advertising as the very air we breathe, the very life force of our culture. In versatile, caffeinated prose that mirrors perfectly the attention-getting high jinks of his subject, the author states his thesis—that advertising, ``Adcult,'' is culture—and then spends 250-plus pages illustrating it. It is not a sophisticated critique; Twitchell leaves moral and Marxist explorations to others. As a simple chronicler, however, he delivers. Adcult is best mined for its nifty facts: how mass production of soap made from vegetable oils changed the face of advertising; how Mother's Day began; when coffee became a morning rather than an evening drink; how the five- day work week evolved; how Saturday attained its tremendous significance to consumer and reveler. Especially entertaining are accounts of scary but real modern inventions: the Voxbox, which counts TV viewers at home by monitoring body heat and mass, and the Tachistoscope, an ultrafast strobe light that made possible the infamous ``subliminal advertising'' (``Eat popcorn!'') planted in movies in the 1950s. The book concludes by informing us that even the most popular commercials nowadays don't sell the product so much as themselves, that advertising's success and likability an sich has led it, ironically, to reduced effectiveness. For what is next, the authors says, we can only stay tuned. Like advertising's favorite medium, TV, Adcult rivets attention powerfully, even brilliantly, but edifies little. (181 illustrations, not seen) (Author tour) Read full book review >