Since I’ve made such big changes to my syllabus, I decided to write Essay 1 along with my students, and I’m hoping for feedback from you, dear readers and colleagues.
The essay requirements posed to my students, further detailed here, are as follows: in a minimum of 750 words, and being (probably) a first-year student in a new environment, discuss how people perceive you here at UMass versus how you were perceived at home. Use the zip-code-generated demographic data from MSN.com’s House and Home Web site to expand your discussion and talk some about consumptive practices. Get off campus and do some situated shopping-related ethnographic research. Read a short essay (either Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Science of Shopping,” about retail anthropology, or David Guterson’s “Enclosed. Encyclopedic. Endured,” a nice bit of reportage on the Mall of America), and connect it to your experience.
Draw some theoretical conclusions that frame the particulars of your lived experience. Your audience for this essay consists of your classmates; consider this essay as one way of introducing yourself to them, since they’ll be required to read it.
So: for my essay, I’d be grateful for critiques, feedback, criticism, and any ideas about how to improve it. Along with the process work (giving students points for revisions made between drafts), I’ve told students that I’m grading their essays on content, structure, style, and their mastery of both innovation and conventions. I hope you might offer me comments based on those criteria, or, also, comments that might suggest useful alternative critera for grading essays. (It’s 1,701 words, more than double the minimum I required from them: what could I cut?)
Here goes, and my thanks:
Sweaters, Porn, and Experience Goods:
Considering the Grammars and Rhetorics of Consumption
Ten years ago, if I’d seen the demographic data for the zip code 92310 offered at MSN.com’s House and Home Web site, I’d have laughed. Not so much ha-ha funny, either; more shake-your-head funny. MSN.com describes the housing type common to 87.76 percent of the people in zip code 92310 as “Renters Multi-Unit”, the “Dominant Age Group” as “25-34, 35-54”, and assigns the zip code such “Lifestyle Preferences” as “Travel to Japan, Asia.” Average age, according to MSN, is 21.8 (as opposed to a national average of 36.5), and the average income is $14,548. The typical person in zip code 92310 “likes fast cars, bars, and action sports” (MSN.com House & Home). MSN.com gets a double use out of this demographic data: while the data now serves to draw prospective homebuyers to the House and Home Web site, it was originally harvested for marketing purposes, as a way to help retailers target the products in their stores and shopping malls to the consumers in their area.
Ten years ago, I was in zip code 92310, and the closest thing to a shopping mall for a hundred miles was the AAFES (Army and Air Force Exchange Service) Post Exchange. Zip code 92310 is just south of Death Valley in the middle of the Mojave desert: Fort Irwin, California; the U.S. Army’s National Training Center. One assumes that “Renters Multi-Unit” is the least inadequate way that MSN.com has of saying “Military barracks.” Or, in my case, “Tents and sleeping bags.” And as for “Travel to Japan, Asia”? Well, only if you get stationed in Okinawa or South Korea or Turkey or Saudi, or deployed to Iraq or Kuwait.
Today, I teach in zip code 01003; the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The average age here, according to MSN, is 19.7; the average income $4,978. Students, apparently, are likely to reside in “Renters Multi-Unit,” be “Under 24,” “Go to college footbal games,” and “Have a personal education loan” (MSN.com House & Home): no surprises there, really. In fact, I think that if you gave someone those four characteristics, their first guess about who was being described would be college students. Interestingly, though, MSN.com also suggests that college students are likely to “Buy 2+ swimsuits annually.”
Here in Amherst, there are several places where students are most likely
to go to for those two swimsuits, but the closest is the Hadley mall and shopping
in zip code 01035. People who’ve been here a while refer to the Hadley mall
as “the dead mall.” It’s bare-bones, or, to borrow the description offered
by ‘Laura’ in David Guterson’s essay “Enclosed. Encyclopedic. Endured.” (Harper’s,
August 1993), it’s one of those malls to “feel sorry for,” being “so small and
boring.” Movie-theater multiplex, Media Play, shoe stores, JC Penney, sporting
goods, kiosks with cell phones and cheap jewelry. I’m guessing the owners at
the dead mall have done
their research, and know what the students from the next-door
zip code are interested in buying, and how much of a disposable income they have.
At the dead mall, the owners know there’s no need for the Mall of America’s “polished
stone, polished tile, shiny chrome and brass, terrazzo floors, gazebos” described
by Guterson, or the brand differentiation among the Versace, Donna Karan,
and Ralph Lauren stores described by Malcolm Gladwell. The owners know who shops
and they know how much — or, more properly, how little — to give their clientele.
The scene is much the same at the AAFES stores at Fort Irwin: no frills whatsoever,
because they’ve got a captive clientele, and they know the needs of that clientele.
Boot polish. Paperback books. Portable CD players. Porn. There is a grammar
places, a set
of rules and behaviors understood by buyer and seller alike. At Fort Irwin,
the pornography corner is set apart from the rest of the store, so grimy soldiers
coming in from desert maneuvers — live-fire and tank tables — can flip through
the slick pages of the magazines in relative anonymity, the shelves going up
about five and a half feet, so everything except for the tops of their kevlar
helmets is invisible to the other shoppers. The viewing copy is placed atop
a stack of shrink-wrapped copies, and the stacks are well-spaced, so soldiers
don’t have to rub elbows when deciding which magazines to buy: much in the
manner of Malcolm
Gladwell’s “le facteur bousculade,” which describes the tendency of female
shoppers in narrow aisles to not buy an item if they are brushed on the rear
by passing shoppers, soldiers don’t want to touch or talk to one another when
The paperback fiction at AAFES stores was placed at the intersection of the
pornography zone and the rest of the merchandise, on flimsy rotating wire racks.
All the books were small enough to fit into a Battle Dress Uniform cargo pocket,
and all genres — western, mystery, action, science fiction, horror, an occasional
New York Times bestseller — were intermingled among the racks. Fiction was
fiction, the store seemed to say, and one cheap paperback was as good as another.
And — while I won’t say I never checked out the slick and glossy men’s magazines
— I tended to go through books the way some guys in my platoon went through
I still do. Yes, the dead mall in Hadley has a wretched and tiny little bookstore,
but right next door to the mall, in between the Wal-Mart and the Linens ‘n
a big Barnes and Noble, and shopping there feels somehow therapeutic to me.
Usually, when I shop, I’m one of retail anthropologist Paco Underhill’s “fickle
and headstrong” shoppers, “quite unwilling to buy anything unless conditions
are perfect” (Gladwell).
I like the description Gladwell offers of shoppers as “a moving target,” because
that’s how I feel when I need to buy clothes or shoes or gifts: I have a list,
a purpose, and I dive in and buy. Perhaps not search and destroy, but at least
seek and acquire. I’m not a browser, but rather more one of Gladwell’s
typical male customers, spending far less time in stores than the typical female
to the mall once, with a female friend, to shop for some fall clothes. She
was astounded at how quickly we were in and out. “Wow,” she said. “You mean
business.”) Here’s the thing, though: all that changes when I’m at a bookstore,
at that Barnes and Noble in Hadley, or at the used bookstores in Northampton
and Amherst. I slow down. I touch books, pick them up, flip through them, in
what Malcolm Gladwell describes as
the “petting” behavior and the reason that so many stores place their merchandise
on tables: “tables invite — indeed, symbolize — touching." He goes on to
quote his retail anthropologist, Paco Underhill: "’We eat, we pick up food,
on tables.'” For
me — an academic, a writing teacher, a scholar — books are fetishized in
same way that
sweaters are at a Gap store or an Abercrombie and Fitch.
But that’s not the whole story, any more than MSN.com’s zip codes are the
whole story. Sure, you can say that some people like shopping for books and
some people like shopping for clothes (and some people like both), just like
you can say that some folks like paperbacks and some folks like porn. You
might even talk about what kinds of people they are based on what they shop
that’s pretty much what MSN.com does, only in reverse — and sometimes you’ll
be right. But that’s only talking about the what, not the why.
That just gives you the data, not the analysis. Consider what Gladwell says about
Paco Underhill: “Uncovering the fundamentals of ‘why’ is clearly not a pursuit
that engages him much. He is not a theoretician but an empiricist.”
“Petting” a book doesn’t tell you what’s in it. The difficulty with buying
books is that they’re what’s called an experience good: you don’t know what’s
until you take the time and work to get through them. It’s not like a sweater,
when you know what you’re getting up front. Furthermore, I want to think that
reading a book changes you, it adds to your knowledge and your experience,
in a way that buying a sweater doesn’t. Many people, upon meeting in public,
will tell one another, “I love your outfit,” or, “Wow, you look sharp today,” and
some people will draw conclusions about one another based on their CD or movie
collections. (Ugh, you think to yourself. Why am I hanging out
with someone who liked Gigli enough to buy it on DVD?) When academics
get together, they’ll often check out the authors and titles on the bookcases
when the host is out of the room. (Hmm, you think. So he likes Thomas
Saunders, Vladimir Nabokov, Philip K.
Dick, and Don DeLillo.
I’ve got him figured. But wait — why all these economics texts, why all these
Latin Loeb editions, why all
these poetry books?) Again, it’s sort of MSN.com in reverse, attempting
to triangulate someone’s personality according to what they consume. Is it
any more accurate than Paco Underhill’s scant conclusions, or MSN.com’s too-broad
Perhaps. Perhaps not. But I think it’s important that, in thinking about experience
goods, one moves from the “what” into the “why.” In thinking about someone else’s
book collection, you’re not an empiricist but a theoretician. You move from compiling
data into analyzing data. Of shopping, Malcolm Gladwell writes, “We
know to put destination items at the back and fashion at the front, to treat
male shoppers like small children, to respect the female derriere, and to put
the socks between the cash/wrap and the men’s pants. But this is grammar; it’s
not prose. It is enough. But it is not much.” Understanding how, and why, people
consume experience goods might take us from the nuts and bolts to a more sophisticated
way of seeing; from a grammar of consumption to a rhetoric of consumption.