The Practice of Misuse
Rugged Consumerism in Contemporary American Culture
Raymond Malewitz


Contents and Abstracts

The Practice of Misuse: Rugged Consumerism in Contemporary American Culture

Author(s): Raymond Malewitz

1 Misuse: From Aesthetics to Practice
chapter abstract

This chapter provides a conceptual bridge between contemporary thing theories, which champion the aesthetic products of the creative misuse of objects, and new materialisms, which use the same activities as a means of understanding and resisting the negative effects of consumerism under late capitalism. The thing theories of Martin Heidegger, Bill Brown, and Ken Alder maintain that the aesthetic "thing" comes into being when an object breaks down and can no longer fulfill its standard function. Through an extended reading of the failed Apollo 13 mission, the chapter shows how this idea was redirected to critique what Evan Watkins calls the "technoideological" culture of late capitalism. While a similar shift from aesthetics to political practice informs twenty-first-century maker communities and environmental activist groups, the chapter shows how the practitioners of these activities often operate instead as champions of late capitalism and clear manifestations of its dominant politics.

2 Theaters of Rugged Consumerism
chapter abstract

This chapter shows how Utopian versions of American rugged consumerism emerged from the material limitations of the nation's counterculture theaters during the late sixties. In keeping with left-libertarian DIY projects such as the Whole Earth Catalog and Adhocism, off-off-Broadway playwrights such as Sam Shepard drew inspiration from their financial limitations and wrote plays to accommodate the discarded objects that they re-appropriated on walks around New York City. Drawing upon a number of autobiographical accounts from off-off-Broadway playwrights collected in the New York Public Library's theater archives as well as important historical studies by Stephen Bottoms and David Crespy, the chapter show how both within and beyond the magic circle of the stage, off-off-Broadway's rugged consumers transformed commodities and their waste products (including the commercial spaces of American theater) into renewed sites of creative production.

3 The Garden in the Machine
chapter abstract

This chapter positions Thomas Pynchon's encyclopedic novel Gravity's Rainbow alongside recent models of human-object interactions such as biomimetics, actor-network theory, and new vitalism. Pynchon's characters view the social histories of two important objects in the novel—the V-2 rocket and celluloid plastic—as either linear or circular. In the case of the former, objects are designed to maintain their structural integrity over time, which completely separates producers and consumers and, for Pynchon, catalyzes the environmental crisis of the late twentieth century. In the case of the latter, commodities, like natural materials, operate in a constant state of flux and thus have no singular use-value. This ecological model of an object's social life destabilizes the producer-consumer divide, reclaims the commodity as a site of creative re-production, and partially ameliorates the environmental crisis unleashed by industrial design procedures.

4 The Rugged Consumer Bildungsroman
chapter abstract

This chapter examines the shift from left-leaning libertarian countercultures of the 1960s and 1970s to the neoliberal libertarianism of the 1980s and 1990s. The chapter begins by positing that accounts of Simon Rodia's Watts Towers, like Franco Moretti's description of the prototypical bildungsroman, proceed by a principle of ideological containment that Moretti calls "the interiorization of contradiction" between an individual's formless creativity and the conservative social constraints that redirect this energy to serve normative ends. This same principle of "interiorization" constitutes the central plot of Don DeLillo's Underworld and Chuck Pahlaniuk's Fight Club; both novels' protagonists seem to rebel against but ultimately reinforce the structural conditions that they purport to combat. These bildungsroman plots thus testifies to the ways in which the earlier countercultural possibilities of rugged consumerism become integrated into the dominant institutions and formations of late-century America.

5 Ritual, Play, and Neoliberal Rugged Consumerism
chapter abstract

This chapter presents two historical perspectives on the neoliberal restructuring of rugged consumerism in the 1980s. The chapter begins with a discussion of the popular 1980s television show MacGyver. Debuting at the start of Ronald Reagan's second presidential term, the program celebrates the United States' neoliberal turn by championing the putative self-reliance of private male citizens and by denigrating the work of governmental agencies, non-Western militaries, and women through creative acts of object repurposing. In contrast to this comic jingoism, Cormac McCarthy's 2005 novel, No Country for Old Men, returns to the early 1980s but frames its rugged consumerism as a matter of desperate survival rather than a matter of choice. This novel and McCarthy's earlier historical novels present a much gloomier vision of frontier mythology that illustrates the devastating effects of free market individualism upon American citizens.

6 The Commodity at the End of the World
chapter abstract

This conclusion examines the relationship between post-apocalyptic art and the economic and geopolitical crises of the late 20th and early 21st century. The chapter begins by arguing that Midwestern American art installations such at The Heidelberg Project and The City Museum show how post-industrial discards can gain new life and forge new communities in site-specific settings. It concludes by setting the rugged consumerism of Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake and Cormac McCarthy's The Road within the context of the Great Recession of 2007 and the post-9/11 War on Terror.