tags: capitalism, health care, medicine, cancer, cultural history, consumerism, consumer culture, pinkwashing
Wendy A. Woloson is Professor of History and Chair at Rutgers University-Camden. She has written extensively on American material and consumer culture, the history of capitalism, and secondary economies. Her books include In Hock: Pawning in America from Independence through the Great Depression (2009) and the co-edited volume, Capitalism by Gaslight: Illuminating the Economy of Nineteenth-Century America. Her most recent book is Crap: A HIstory of Cheap Stuff in America (2020), which will be out in paperback soon. More info can be found at: https://sites.rutgers.edu/wendy-woloson/.
In May of 2021, I had my worst day ever. Sitting in a doctor’s office, I received a grim cancer diagnosis. Since then, I have submitted to a series of tests, procedures, and treatments ranging from the mildly inconvenient to the slightly invasive to the utterly humiliating. “Doesn’t it make you angry?” my friends often ask. The reality of my medical condition actually doesn’t—I mean, what are you going to do? But what does make me angry is that, even in this dire context, I cannot escape the world of crap.
I at first enjoyed a wry detachment from useless, throw-away, and shoddy consumer goods because I wrote an entire book about them, called Crap: A History of Cheap Stuff in America (2020). Through that process I developed what can only be described as a love-hate relationship with my subject. The book considers absurd products such as Baconizers, monogrammed trashcans, plastic patties of novelty dog vomit, and a whole host of other useless things—Banana Dogs, boob-shaped beer coozies, hydraulic potato peelers—that have often done little beyond contributing to the garbage patches that swirl in the sea. Crap details Americans’ centuries-long conflicted feelings about cheap stuff, as they at once welcomed the democratizing forces of mass consumption and decried the corrosive effects of nihilist materialism.
In the book, I define “crap” as an object’s existential state of being rather than by the thing itself. While some qualities of crap are relative and historically-contingent—what is crappy to me might not be crappy to you, and certain kinds of once-lavishly unnecessary things (like answering machines) have become essential now—crap is fundamentally dishonest, as are the advertising appeals that make it so attractive. Gadgets, for example, tend to over-promise on functionality—what I refer to as “extravagant futility”—and often create more rather than less work for us. Low-priced goods found at the dollar store are often no bargain at all because they are cheap in both price and quality. Once these goods stop working or fall apart, they are sent to the landfill and must be purchased again. The success of mass-produced “collectibles,” which will never appreciate in value, relies on cadres of passionate collectors who assume they are making wise investments. Freebies that we receive through product purchases are not gifts at all, but rather expedient ways for faceless companies to insert themselves into our lives and create a false sense that they really care.
At heart, crappy things promise more than they deliver. They are inherently dishonest in the ways they are made and promoted. I chose this word out of dozens of potential others—junk, trash, stuff, kitsch, tchotchkes—because “crap” alone both suggests the full scope of this kind of stuff and also succinctly captures the cynical, degraded, and often degrading aspects of these things—as well as the false sentiments inherent to them.
Now, post-cancer diagnosis, I am awash in a sea of medical-related crap.