Books

Crapification Syndrome: When Hilarity Slides into Nausea

No one living in America today can escape the blast radius of the questions raised in Wendy A. Woloson's Crap.

Crap: A History of Cheap Stuff in America
Wendy A. Woloson

University of Chicago Press

September 2020

Other

Wendy A. Woloson is the kind of history professor who makes a subject come alive. Drawn to read her newest book, Crap: A History of Cheap Stuff in America, on the oddly pointed strength of its title alone, I'm already looking forward to going back to what seems a good companion to this project, her 2010 book In Hock: Pawning in America from Independence through the Great Depression.

In Crap, Woloson expertly combines her interest in popular Americana with her expertise in American economic history to create an interpretation of consumption in America that is as compulsive and propulsive as our consumption habits themselves. This straight-shooting history book will enliven classrooms in many disciplines but is also well-suited for basically anyone—because literally no one living in America today can escape the blast radius of its questions.

Here we all are, sitting at home during coronavirus quarantine surrounding by our mountains of crap. What exactly is crap? The scope of Woloson's undertaking is enormous. She attempts to circumnavigate the entirety of the "white noise" of our materialism: "consumer goods that are typically low priced, poorly made, composed of inferior materials, lacking in meaningful purpose, and not meant to last. Such crap has insinuated itself into just about every aspect of daily life, filling countless kitchen 'junk' drawers and clotting garages and basements across the nation" (1).

When I look around my home and feel those trendy urges to clean up the worst and most often overlooked piles of stuff I have collected over many years of blessedly living in one place, Woloson's Crap is a much more motivational guide to thinning out my piles of useless things than a strategy like Marie Kondo's method of asking whether a thing sparks joy. Yes, acknowledges Woloson, of course much of your crap sparks joy. That is part of the challenge.

Across eleven chapters divided into six sections, Crap considers the entire spectrum of goods we've been sold and how we came to be sold on them. Part One examines how Americans came to love things that are cheap, and how cheapness gave birth to retail chain stores. Remember Woolworth's? A Dollar Store by any other name is still full of crap.

Part Two is focused on "Better Living through Gadgetry". Remember the Thigh Master? Admit it: your mother was dead serious about that when she bought it. Or how about a Shake Weight? OK, you only bought that because it was under ten bucks and you needed a gag gift for your office holiday party. Hmm…how many parts of that sentence start to feel gross if you really reflection on them? The trendy thing was just so cheap we couldn't resist. There are so many items we've bought because of some weird and useless gift-giving conventions in our communities.

One of the genius things about Woloson's approach is that the chapters are stacked in such a way that they reveal each historical development as more insidious than the last. Sure, we can laugh about the endearments of some cheap junk that didn't work properly. That doesn't add up to an apocalypse, but the deeper one reads into Crap, the more icky and dangerous crap begins to seem.

Part Three discusses "Getting Something for Nothing" and "The Price of Loyalty". Newsflash: "free shipping and handling" is not free; it's already rolled into the cost of the item being shipped. Also: it's called "swag" because it's Stuff We All Get, and the business is getting much more out of it than we are because their logo is stamped all over it and we're now a walking advertisement.

Racism arrives in Part Four, in a chapter on "Buying Heritage". Remember your grandma's collection of black-faced cookie jars? Ugh. Here the author moves from the messaging that passes between business and consumer to the messaging implicit within crappy objects themselves, persuasively arguing that the revival of Colonial Americana is in large part a whitewashing of cultures and history.

The chapter that follows is about how the personalization of items contributes to their encrappification. Think about all the unnecessary, unasked-for items you have received as gifts that you would simply toss on the re-gift pile (admit it: you do have a re-gift pile), except you can't because those items have your initials etched onto them in fancy typeface.

Direct commodification arrives in Part Five. Somewhere in every auntie's house is a commemorative plate that she won't use because it's a collectible and yet it wouldn't fetch even the modest price she paid for it if she tried to sell it. Heck, maybe she even has the complete set and is just waiting for us to help her set it up to sell on eBay. Uh, good luck with that. See also:Franklin Mint coins, Precious Moments figurines and Ty beanie babies. And then in Part Six we add a dash of sex and violence. What does our love of whoopie cushions, exploding cigars, and fake vomit really say about us as Americans?

Crap is wonderfully exhaustive in its breadth of research and it's filled with a large number of graphics. Not unlike flipping through the Sky Mall or Shaper Image catalogues, just scanning the huge number of ridiculous illustrations and overhyped descriptions in Crap can provide a couple hours of hilarity that gradually slides into nausea.

Woloson's analysis is an indictment, tugging at the roots of 200 plus years of American obedience to the consumer psychology strategies deployed by a Crap Industrial Complex that have congealed into what we now shorthand as "late capitalism". It begs the fundamental question: if Americans are what we purchase, are we…crap? If historical knowledge of our own commercial habits can become power to shift these habits toward a more sustainable future, Woloson's Crap is a must-read to move us in the right direction.



Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Books

A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.

Music

The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Music

Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.

Music

Kathleen Edwards Finds 'Total Freedom'

Kathleen Edwards is back making music after a five-year break, and it was worth the wait. The songs on Total Freedom are lyrically delightful and melodically charming.

Television

HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' Is Heady, Poetic, and Mangled

Laying the everyday experience of Black life in 1950s America against Cthulhuian nightmares, Misha Green and Jordan Peele's Lovecraft Country suggests intriguing parallels that are often lost in its narrative dead-ends.

Music

Jaga Jazzist's 'Pyramid' Is an Earthy, Complex, Jazz-Fusion Throwback

On their first album in five years, Norway's Jaga Jazzist create a smooth but intricate pastiche of styles with Pyramid.

Music

Finding the Light: An Interview with Kathy Sledge

With a timeless voice that's made her the "Queen of Club Quarantine", Grammy-nominated vocalist Kathy Sledge opens up her "Family Room" and delivers new grooves with Horse Meat Disco.

Books

'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.

Film

'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.

Music

Max Richter's 'VOICES' Is an Awe-Inspiring and Heartfelt Soundscape

Choral singing, piano, synths, and an "upside-down" orchestra complement crowd-sourced voices from across the globe on Max Richter's VOICES. It rewards deep listening, and acts as a global rebuke against bigotry, extremism and authoritarianism.

Music

DYLYN Dares to "Find Myself" by Facing Fears and Life's Dark Forces (premiere + interview)

Shifting gears from aspiring electropop princess to rock 'n' rule dream queen, Toronto's DYLYN is re-examining her life while searching for truth with a new song and a very scary-good music video.

Music

JOBS Make Bizarre and Exhilarating Noise with 'endless birthdays'

Brooklyn experimental quartet JOBS don't have a conventional musical bone in their body, resulting in a thrilling, typically off-kilter new album, endless birthdays.

Music

​Nnamdï' Creates a Lively Home for Himself in His Mind on 'BRAT'

Nnamdï's BRAT is a labyrinth detailing the insular journey of a young, eclectic DIY artist who takes on the weighty responsibility of reaching a point where he can do what he loves for a living.

Music

Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few Play It Cool​

Austin's Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few perform sophisticatedly unsophisticated jazz/Americana that's perfect for these times

Music

Eleanor Underhill Takes Us to the 'Land of the Living' (album stream)

Eleanor Underhill's Land of the Living is a diverse album drawing on folk, pop, R&B, and Americana. It's an emotionally powerful collection that inspires repeated listens.

Music

How Hawkwind's First Voyage Helped Spearhead Space Rock 50 Years Ago

Hawkwind's 1970 debut opened the door to rock's collective sonic possibilities, something that connected them tenuously to punk, dance, metal, and noise.

Books

Graphic Novel 'Cuisine Chinoise' Is a Feast for the Eyes and the Mind

Lush art and dark, cryptic fables permeate Zao Dao's stunning graphic novel, Cuisine Chinoise.

Music

Alanis Morissette's 'Such Pretty Forks in the Road' Is a Quest for Validation

Alanis Morissette's Such Pretty Forks in the Road is an exposition of dolorous truths, revelatory in its unmasking of imperfection.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.