Media, status anxiety and advertising (history)

“The burgeoning of the mass media from the late nineteenth century helped to raise expectations even higher. At his newspaper’s launch in 1896, Alfred Harmsworth, the founder of Britain’s Daily Mail candidly characterised his ideal reader as a man in the street ‘worth one hundred pounds per annum’ who could be enticed to dream of being ‘tomorrow’s thousand pound man.’ In America, meanwhile, the Ladies’ Home Journal (first published in 1883), Cosmopolitan (1886), Munsey’s (1889) and Vogue (1892) brought an expensive life within the imaginative reach of all. Readers of fin de siècle American Vogue, for example, were told who had been aboard Nourmahal, John Jacob Astor’s yacht, after the America’s Cup race, what the most fashionable young ladies were wearing at boarding school, who threw the best parties in Newport and Southampton and what to serve with caviar at dinner (potato and sour cream).

The opportunity to study the lives of people of higher status and forge a connection with them was also increased by the development of radio, film and television. By the 1930s, Americans were collectively spending some 150 million hours per week at the cinema and almost a billion hours listening to the radio. In 1946, 0.02 percent of American households owned television sets; by 2000, the figure stood at 98 percent.

The new media created longings not only through their content but also through the advertisements they imposed on their audiences. From its amateurish beginnings in the United States in the 1830s, advertising had by the end of the nineteenth century grown into a business worth $500 million a year. In 1900, a giant Coca-Cola sign was erected on one side of Niagara Falls, while an advert for Mennen’s Toilet Powder was suspended over the gorge.”

Northrop Frye on “progress” and mortality

“The conception of progress grew up in the nineteenth century around a number of images and ideas. The basis of the conception is the fact that science, in contrast to the arts, develops and advances, with the work of each generation adding to that of its predecessor. Science bears the practical fruit of technology, and technology has created, in the modern world, a new consciousness of time. Man has doubtless always experienced time in the same way, dragged backwards from a receding past into an unknown future. But the quickening of the pace of news, with telegraph and submarine cable, helped to dramatize a sense of a world in visible motion, with every day bringing new scenes and episodes of a passing show. It was as though the ticking of a clock had become not merely audible but obsessive, like the tell-tale heart in Poe. The first reactions to the new sensation-for it was more of a sensation than a conception-were exhilarating, as all swift movement is for a time. The prestige of the myth of progress developed a number of value-assumptions: the dynamic is better than the static, process better than product, the organic and vital better than the mechanical and fixed, and so on. We still have these value-assumptions, and no doubt they are useful, though like other assumptions we should be aware that we have them. And yet there was an underlying tendency to alienation in the conception of progress itself. In swift movement we are dependent on a vehicle and not on ourselves, and the proportion of exhilaration to apprehensiveness depends on whether we are driving it or merely riding in it. All progressive machines turn out to be things ridden in, with an unknown driver.”

“…for most thoughtful people progress has lost most of its original sense of a favourable value-judgement and has become simply progression, towards a goal more likely to be a disaster than an improvement. Taking thought for the morrow, we are told on good authority, is a dangerous practice. In proportion as the confidence in progress has declined, its relation to individual experience has become clearer. That is, progress is a social projection of the individual’s sense of the passing of time. But the individual, as such, is not progressing to anything except his own death. Hence the collapse of belief in progress reinforces the sense of anxiety which is rooted in the consciousness of death. Alienation and anxiety become the same thing, caused by a new intensity in the awareness of the movement of time, as it ticks our lives away day after day. This intensifying of the sense of time also, as we have just seen, dislocates it: the centre of attention becomes the future, and the emotional relation to the future becomes one of dread and uncertainty. The future is the point at which ‘it is later than you think’ becomes ‘too late’. Modern fiction has constantly dealt, during the last century, with characters struggling toward some act of consciousness or self-awareness that would be a gateway to real life. But the great majority of treatments of this theme are ironic: the act is not made, or is made too late, or is a paralyzing awareness with no result except self-contempt, or is perverted into illusion.”

Bonus: Marshall McLuhan

“When you hear the word progress, you know you are dealing with a nineteenth-century mind. Progress literally stopped with electricity because you now have everything at once. You don’t move on from one thing at a time to the next thing. There is no more history; it’s all here. There isn’t any part of the past that isn’t with us, thanks to electricity. But it’s not thanks to print, it’s not thanks to photography, it’s thanks to electricity. Speed, huge speed-up, means there’s no more past. Now, there is no more history.”

Commodification, a 19th century case study

“…the emergence of large-scale grain markets in Chicago during the middle of the nineteenth century.

Before 1850, grain was bought and sold in large, open air marketplaces near the waterfront of Chicago. . . . Grain was sent by the sackful from a farm to a merchant, who would haggle face-to-face with buyers in an effort to obtain the best price. The merchant acted as a middleman for the farmer, who retained ownership over his grain and paid the merchant a commission for each sale.

“…the rise of the railroads transformed this mode of exchange and ‘transmute[d] wheat and corn into monetary abstractions.’ Railroads allowed crops to be efficiently transported from outlying farms into Chicago, rapidly increasing the amount of grain that entered the city’s market. When it became clear that bulk grain was more efficiently sold at market, traditional grain sacks were abandoned and farmers pooled their crops into freight cars. But combining grain from different farms raised the question of how to deal with the ownership of the grain that each farmer contributed to a given carload.

A private industry consortium, the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT), eventually solved the problem through standardization. The CBOT designated three categories of grain and four levels of quality (‘Club,’ ‘No. 1,’ ‘No. 2,’ and ‘Rejected’). Farmers putting grain into a train car re ceived a receipt indicating a quantity of grain and a quality level. The receipt was redeemable for an equal quantity of the same quality grain-not the same grain, but its func tional equivalent.

Once standardized, grain became abstracted into a commodity. The receipts could be bought and sold with out regard to the specific identity of the farmer who originally produced the grain. People with no interest in grain production could make a profit by buying and selling receipts. Famously, the CBOT also facilitated the rise of a vigorous trade in ‘futures,’ speculative contracts betting on the future price of grain.”

The late 19th century “New Woman”

“One of the most important and most visible threats to traditional masculinity was the New Woman. As described by John Tosh in A Man’s Place, the term was coined in 1894 but the phenomenon which it described “had been discernible since the 1880s.” These New Women, emblematic above all of feminine independence, smoked cigarettes, rode bicycles, and spoke their minds. Many took on jobs, postponed or eschewed marriage, and renounced familial obedience. As Tosh demonstrates, traditional male elites found their authority questioned in every aspect—as fathers, husbands, teachers, and representatives as the state. Not only did allegedly rogue women put men on the defensive, so too did new laws that eroded male privilege in matters from parental prerogatives and property rights to access to education and the vote.”

Gail Bederman in Manliness and Civilization

“Immigrant and working-class men were not the only ones challenging middle-class men’s claims on public power and authority. Concurrently, the middle-class woman’s movement was challenging past constructions of manhood by agitating for woman’s advancement. “Advancement,” as these New Women understood it, meant granting women access to activities which had previously been reserved for men. Small but increasing numbers of middle-class women were claiming the right to a college education, to become clergymen, social scientists, and physicians, and even to vote. Men reacted passionately by ridiculing these New Women, prophesying that they would make themselves ill and destroy national life, insisting that they were rebelling against nature. As one outraged male clergyman complained, feminists were opposing “the basic facts of womanhood itself.. We shall gain nothing in the end by displacing manhood by womanhood or the other way around.” Yet the New Woman did “displace manhood by womanhood,” if only because her successes undermined the assumption that education, professional status, and political power required a male body. The woman’s movement thus increased the pressure on middle-class men to reformulate manhood.”

German nationalism vs. France in the 19th century

Quoted from Jugendstil and Racism: An Unexpected Alliance by Angelika Pagel

“…hostility grew strong as a result of Napoleons occupation of Germany. The hoped for unification of the many petty German states under the leadership of Prussia and with the help of the French Revolution had not been achieved. The Vienna Congress of 1814-15 failed to establish a sovereign German nation-state with unified national politics and France, though defeated, even managed (through Talleyrand’s diplomacy) to emerge from the talks with its hegemony in Europe re-affirmed. Germany’s struggle for national unity would continue throughout the 19th century while the other major European powers had long since achieved this status. Disappointed and envious, Germans turned inward and backward, to ideas of tribal nationalism, of common ancestry in a shared Germanic past. Gradually, this idea of an integral German nation and people (Deutsche Nation und Volkstum) degenerated into the myth of blood-and-soil; antisemitism emerged as a “logical” consequence of this tribalism and the Nazi battlecry “One People, one Empire, one Leader” (Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer) epitomized the desire for national unity spanning the entire 19th century. Even after the Vienna Congress, the “glorious power of French nationhood” was experienced by the Germans in painful contrast to their own lack of national unity.”