Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Lears - From Salvation to Self-Realization

Lears, T.J. Jackson. “From Salvation to Self-Realization: Advertising and the Therapeutic Roots of the Consumer Culture, 1880-1930.” From Fox, Richard Wightman, and Lears. The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History, 1880-1980. New York: Pantheon Books, 1983.

Lears pushes the rise of the therapeutic back slightly, and argues that therapeutic sensibility can be identified throughout history. For example, Victorian self-denial was often argued not as a requisite for salvation but as a recipe for good health, physical and mental. But the therapeutic sensibility surged at the turn of the century as people dealt with the "weightlessness" of modern culture. (Lears frequently cites No Place of Grace.)

Lears' thesis is that the consumer culture was fostered by advertising and rooted in the therapeutic sensibility. He disputes Boorstin for his lack of attention to power relations, crediting Ewen for raising power relations in advertising history, but doing so in a way that suggests a diabolical conspiracy created by the dominant hegemony on a passive population. Lears argues for a far more complex relationship between advertisers and citizens. Like Marchand and Franks, Lears explores the motivations of the advertisers themselves, offering a more complex explanation for why they promoted consumption in the manner they did.

The Therapeutic and transfer from inner-directed to other-directed society led advertisers to focus on emotional and physical health as key factors in the way a person was perceived by others. Halitosis, for example, was one of many invented ailments designed to cash in on social anxieties - social anxieties CREATED by the advertising culture.

All of these developments are exemplified by Bruce Barton, the son of a preacher who attempted to rationalize his therapeutic turn along side his religious faith. Like No Place of Grace, Lears is here interested in the inherent contradictions of the age, particularly among those confronted by a crisis of faith even as they embraced modernity.

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