In “Two Cheers for Materialism,” James Twitchell posits that “We live through things, we create ourselves through things and we change ourselves by changing our things.” When we look at this claim by the author, it sounds like a veiled criticism of a materialist culture. But through numerous apt examples and nuanced explanations, Twitchell comes around to acknowledge the power of consumerist impulses and seeks to explain what drives them. He also argues that capitalist consumerism is not something that is imposed on people as academic critics often claim.
Instead, the continued thriving of consumerism is due to our own innate needs, desires and aspirations. The article by Randall Patterson titled ‘Profiles in Splurging’ complements Twitchell’s core thesis. This essay will qualify the aforementioned working thesis by considering all the facts and arguments presented in these two articles.
To a great extent, the claim in the working thesis can be viewed as a logical one and there is evidence all around us that validates and supports it.
The acquisition of property and goods is often used as a hallmark of success where the ones who have the “best”, “biggest” or “most” of something are considered most successful. To appreciate that, one only needs to observe the mass media, especially television, magazines as well as online polls. Every year Forbes comes out with a list of the richest in the world. There are surveys to show, for instance which footballer owns the biggest car and art enthusiasts and collectors often strive to have the most extensive collection of paintings, books and many other ostentatious goods.
For example Bill Gates is ranked as the richest man in the world, this ranking being based on our perception of money as an indirect endorsement for the man as the most successful businessman alive. These measurements do not take into account what he has achieved, how many people he has helped or even how happy he is. All that counts are the possessions he has accumulated. Thus the rest of America works tirelessly to acquire as much as they can and often forgetting to enjoy them since their primary goal is to be viewed as successful in their circles. The most direct route to that is to buy and flaunt. It is as if most Americans would pick money over happiness if they had a chance.
Twitchell is not blind to the obvious flaws of consumerist culture. Going by the centrality that society offers material possessions it would then appear that the poor lack meaning and inevitably faces exclusion from society. A look at the social stratification will confirm that the more one owns the higher they are to climb the ladder of status and prestige. For instance, I imagine the guards in an exclusive hotel are more likely to open the gate for an expensive looking top of the range car than they are for a homeless man or generally disheveled individual. Likewise most Ivy League educational institutions are meant to groom the next generation of political and business leaders at the exclusion of the poor. This discrimination transpires into the workplace as well, where graduates from Ivy League institutions are hired into managerial positions while the economically disadvantaged compete for entry level positions. This is because the consumerist society in which we exist sustains itself by excluding anyone who does not conform to the culture of endless buying and since human beings are social creatures, most of us try to keep up with the consumerist trends (Twitchell). The ‘cool’ and successful individuals and groups at the top of the chain who are the subject of the collective admiration from the less successful are extremely dynamic. This must be so otherwise the materialist culture would come up even if they were to remain static for others to keep up with them. For instance when technology devices such as the new iPhone are unveiled, there are those who can afford to purchase them immediately notwithstanding the price. The rest will save until they can afford the device; however, some months down the line, when they are almost achieving this end, a new more expensive model is unveiled and quickly grabbed by the rich as the rest are left in second place as always. This cycle of changing trends and fashions is what ultimately drives consumerism and manipulates many Americans to keep buying items not for the items own sake but to enhance their identity. In other words, by flouting the possession of fashionable gadgets and accessories, consumers implicitly send out the message that they ‘belong’ or they are ‘successful’. But this identity is superficial and lacking in substance. It is based on an aspiration for vague attainments such as ‘status’.
While conceding that materialism causes inequity and encourages superficiality, Twitchell shows how consumerism is part of human nature. Nevertheless, the issue of using material things to create an identity is a two sided coin and there are circumstances where this reasoning would not apply. In addition, to take his claim to be fully logical, one must assume that indeed all acquisitions of property are driven by the desire to create an identity; this assumption would however be quite fallacious. When one buys a car for instance, they may consider it ostentatious value but the main reason they buy it is for the functional vehicular role. This also applies to the purchase of big houses and extensive property. For some people, property and wealth are not by itself an end but a means. One could extend the same reason and claim that consumerism is not behind Bill Gates’ enormous wealth. According to popular opinion he is most notable because of being the richest in the world. However it is quite possible that he did not set out to make money but to create computer products such as Windows which came to be greatly demanded globally and as such, for him to meet the needs of billion users. He makes his billions too, but as a by-product and a necessary part of his business. In addition, wealth is used to make distinctions in achievements and it can be viewed as a scale through which human beings can distinguish achievements for effective competition. Thus the more successful one is, say in business, the more money they make and this increases their potential to spend on things that may seem to others as luxuries but with more money one’s definition of necessities changes.
Support for Twitchell’s central thesis is found in the article by Randall Patterson for the New York Times. Titled ‘Profiles in Splurging’, the article is a composite sketch of four individuals whose stories serve as testimony to consumerism. Dispelling conventional wisdom that ‘money cannot buy happiness’ the author narrates stories of four Americans who found meaningful happiness through consumption. Whether it is buying a versatile lawn-mower or a Mercedes car or a grand picturesque house, these are profiles of individuals who achieved their American Dream through consumerism. Hence the claim made in the working thesis is not merely true but also leads to benign consequences.
Ultimately the statement “We live through things, we create ourselves through things and we change ourselves by changing our things” in a sense is incomplete by itself since there can be two opposing sides depending on the context. It would be impossible to reconcile both sides of the argument considering that each side provides logical arguments. As such one can conclude that the extent to which materialism defines or does not define individuals or society is dependent on the circumstances under which one acquires or fails to acquire wealth. Evidently some pursue consumerism in pursuit of material objects so they may use them to give their lives meaning. On the other hand others require these things simply so their lives may progress smoothly or they just acquire them as a means to a greater none-material end.
James Twitchell, ‘Two Cheers for Materialism‘ Adapted from Lead Us Into Temptation: The Triumph of American Materialism, 1999, retrieved from
Randall Patterson, Profiles in Splurging, The New York Times Magazine, October 2000, retrieved from < http://partners.nytimes.com/library/magazine/home/20001015mag-patterson.html> on 12th September 2013