Start analyzin'

by Rob Horning

10 October 2005


I’ve mentioned before how disappointing I find Rob Walker’s “Consumed” column in the New York Times Magazine. Given a weekly column to explore the conundrums of consumption, Walker routinely simply points to some marketing fad and shrugs his shoulders. I keep expecting a Roland Barthes-style exegesis of the cultural mythology that has allowed a product to rise to prominence, but what I get instead is an interview with someone who’s been taken in or someone’s who exploiting the phenomenon. There’s just reporting and never any analysis—I suppose that the analysis is being left to me, the reader, but are readers willing to bring that much concentration to something like this? Minus analysis, the reports seem to reinforce the sense that these fads are interchangable, devoid of specific meanings and histories; the message becomes that the mythology behind all consumer fads is always the same thing—the “aren’t consumers whimsical” explanation, or rather, “what will they think of next to make a buck?” 

The column linked above is a typical example. The opening paragraph feints at a cultual analysis, linking the “Stop Snitchin’” T-shirts to a longstanding American fascination with outlaws. But then that subject is dropped in favor of an unenlightening interview with the maker of the shirts, a rehash of the debate over whether things like this shirt reflect or create bad attitudes (with no attempt to resolve it), and an unsurprising conclusion that product placements in rap videos work to reach suburban kids, selling effluvia them effluvia that they then associate with inner-city authenticity.

The subject is rich with analytical opportunity—the link between outlaws and would-be-infamous celebrities, the sources of uncooperative attitudes in advertising that celebrates rebelliousness, the conformity of silence that the shirt intends to enforce and how that mirrors the way fads work, with no one questioning the rationality of them, the historicity of the anti-snitiching phenomenon (why now? from whence?) and much more of this could have found its way into the story if the writer (or his editor) was more analytically minded and less interested in tallying facts and brandishing reportage.

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