Packaged Pleasures. How Technology and Marketing Revolutionized Desire
by Gary S. Cross and Robert N. Proctor.
University of Chicago Press, 2014.
Hardcover, 351 pages, $35.

Reviewed by Gerald J. Russello

The age of industry was—is—also an age of addiction. We like the luscious apple or the beautiful sunset or the rush of sugar or alcohol, not to mention stronger substances; the problem is we can’t get enough of them. Throughout most of recorded history, pleasure (except perhaps that of sex, and that usually of males at the expense of females) was sufficiently unavailable such that no one, not even the rich, got too much of it. This was especially true of intoxicants, which were generally preserved for ritual or ceremonial occasions; when they were not, different societies have gone through spasms of addiction, from opium dens to gin-soaked England.

That balance has changed radically over the last two centuries. Pleasures once obtainable only rarely and typically only by the upper classes now have a much broader reach. Massive factories churning out ice cream (one of the “packaged pleasures” of the title) are not necessary if only an elite can purchase their wares. This broad reach is possible because of a series of improvements in the way humans can preserve and package sights, sounds, and tastes. The ability to preserve pleasure indefinitely and release it on command has become an often-overlooked feature of modernity, in the shadow of equally impressive achievements in areas such as medicine or farming.

Now we—all of us—can have pleasure almost any time, anywhere, in multiple forms. But our bodies have not changed: our desires for pleasurable sensations have not lessened and the risk of addiction, and indeed harm, is thus ever present. The evidence of such addiction has been voluminous even if we sometimes have not seen it, from obesity and substance abuse to endless porn. Whether our obsession with technologically assisted pleasures has reduced our ability to enjoy and take part in unenhanced experiences is a question left to the end of this scholarly yet engaging book.

Gary Cross and Robert Proctor characterize our age as one of “packaged pleasures” because it is defined to an almost unimaginable degree by the ability to carry around and use a variety of manufactured and preserved products and experiences. A beautiful song was once something never heard again, and known only to the people who had heard it directly; it was an immediate, non-replicable engagement. Now that song can be relayed millions of times and shared easily, becoming no longer unique in the process. At the same time, this deep penetration of pleasure into ordinary life allows an unprecedented individualism to occur; where feasting, listening, and watching were communal events, now they need not be and often are not. This democratization of pleasure can be dangerous, the authors imply; our bodies may not be meant for the constant availability of sensory overload.

Technology has always been used to extend what the authors call “the power of the human sensorium.” But in the modern age such technologies have been combined with industrialization, that set of techniques, innovations, and inventions that enabled mass production and distribution of those power-enhancers. After a brief survey of how early humans tried to extend pleasurable experience through techniques such as the fermentation of alcoholic beverages and curing meat, Cross and Proctor, both academic historians, focus on specific improvements in how certain pleasures have been targeted to individuals (called now consumers) over the last two hundred years. In that time period, “[m]odern people learned how to capture and intensify sensuality, to preserve it, and to make it portable, durable, and accessible across great reaches of social class and physical space.” The cellophane wrapper and the pressurized tin can, the record player and the pop-top allowed previously unimaginable access to tobacco, the flavor of soda, the blast of sugar, and the repetition of sound.

One way to tell the story of pleasure is through the growth of industrial corporations that took advantage of the human desire for sensory pleasures and grew fat from it, without regard for consequences. And there is some of that in Packaged Pleasures. But another way to tell this story of the packaged-pleasure revolution is one of liberation from tradition, hierarchy, and the cycles of planting and harvest, to say nothing of space or time. Although religion- or class-based laws restricting pleasures to certain groups or times have existed throughout history, massive technological changes rendered them unenforceable beginning in Europe and the New World beginning in the early modern era. Because the desire for sensory pleasure is a human constant, people choose, and have chosen, these pleasures as freely as they could. Mass-produced sugary drinks and high-calorie, high-fat foods satisfy, for a time, and are economically affordable. Listening to music on your phone is cheaper than going to a concert or trekking out to a nature preserve to hear “natural” sounds. Yet as Cross and Proctor note, the very success of the “package revolution” has been an increase in health problems and social dislocation; it disrupted “the traditional relationship between scarcity and desire,” of which more later.

But the packaged revolution did not simply preserve pleasure. The new technologies also created new pleasures. The candy bar is not just a sugar-delivery device, though it is that. Thanks to repeated innovation and increased sophistication, candy bars hit several pleasure centers of the brain at once, in a combination of smells, colors, and tastes. Such combinations do not exist “in nature,” and unlike a song or even a natural substance like alcohol, there is literally nothing else like it. In an analogy repeated several times here, the carrot, with its monocolor and subtle taste, is no match for the candy bar.

The concept of “tubularization” acts throughout the volume as a connecting thread. The mass production of cheap tubes was a revolutionary innovation. As syringes, they could deliver medicine (but also refined forms of opiates such as heroin); as cigarettes, they delivered tobacco; and tubes of a thicker and fatter shape—cans—tubes preserved foods indefinitely. Although many such packaging types have been known for a long time, their consistent and popular use is remarkably recent. Paper, for example, was made from cotton or flax until the middle of the nineteenth century when manufacturers found ways to make paper from wood pulp instead. The paper bag was introduced only in 1844. “Paper packaging solved a host of problems for manufacturers, reducing handling costs and waste (from vermin) while also saving retailers time.… Paper packs and cartons also allowed goods to be distributed more easily more cheaply, and over greater distances to people who usually had no idea who had made them to where they came from.” These advantages only increased in the twentieth century with the advent of plastic; cellophane dates from 1914.

Although Packaged Pleasures is not a work of political theory, the book does much to undermine two prominent understandings of the individual, the libertarian and the liberal. For the libertarian, the individual is sovereign; the market exists to satisfy individual desires and will self-regulate to maximize that set of desires. The liberal self, too, is sovereign, a “mind” that chooses freely and that should be free of all coercion or impediment to that free choice. Philosopher Charles Taylor has called this the unencumbered self. It is a product of the modern age, even as the technologies that have emerged also seem to serve that conception of the individual.

But both of these selves are an illusion. To an extent ignored by libertarian and liberal alike—but not by corporate public relations departments or scientists—the self is an enfleshed mind. Our choices cannot be separated from our physical bodies. This, as Proctor and Cross note, is the unstated gap in the championing of consumer choice. Yes, a person chooses to smoke. But that initial choice is made in the context of advertising, government approval (or disapproval), and marketing. Later “choices” are constrained by the design of the product itself, which is created with extreme care to heighten sensation, and in some cases to encourage physical dependence.

It is the fiction of unconstrained choice that clouds what is in certain cases really occurring. The libertarian would trust to the market to regulate our (insatiable) natural urges, perhaps, by providing “low calorie” or healthful alternatives. But that only ignores the brute facts of our physical existence.

The liberal self fails for similar reasons to grapple with the implications of packaged pleasure. Although it is more skeptical of the market, the liberal view shares with its libertarian counterpart the idea that there is an “I” that can see through marketing and resist harmful temptation; early forms of liberal thought also believed there could be no wrong choices for this “I,” only uneducated ones. It too ignores the physical dependence such substances or experiences can cause, at least in some circumstances.

And liberalism’s reliance on governmental supervision also posits a disinterested state that is more ideal than reality. Regulation, at least in the American tradition, is understood to be broadly reflective of the desires of the electorate. If the voters want sugar-rich drinks of any size, government will, eventually, allow them. Moreover, government involvement is not always beneficial. The American addiction to fructose, for example, has much do with the political power of the corn lobby. And government sales of alcohol to native Americans (for example) in the course of our colonial history does not speak well of placing the power over pleasure in the hands of the state. As the authors note here, government power was used to overcome initial consumer resistance to packaged goods. Americans preferred and trusted the local merchant rather than the far-off manufacturer, so companies went to work, lobbying for laws meant to place them at an advantage, such as inspection regimes that could be best met only by larger firms.

The risk of a combination of market and state power to control pleasure comes through in their chapter on the amusement park, “Packaging Fantasy: The Amusement Park as Mechanized Circus, Electric Theater, and Commercialized Spectacle.” That last clause is the critical one. The modern amusement park has three main sources. First there are the medieval festivals and fairs, in which traditional roles were reversed and people celebrated a brief period of abundance amidst ever-present scarcity. Second are the eighteenth-century pleasure gardens, largely restricted to the wealthier parts of society. And the third source Proctor and Cross identify is the most recent, the international exhibition or world’s fair. The modern amusement park ride—to say nothing of the organizational and efficiency innovations of behemoths like Disney—overlay all of these sources and make the modern park possible. Like the other technologies Packaged Pleasures details, the park heightened and intensified experience. The experience of the park, however, moreso than other pleasures, also infantilizes us.

The modern amusement park is geared toward adults as much as children, to let us relive the intense experiences of childhood. They combine “the saturnalian intensity of the traditional festival, the sensual relief of the pleasure garden, and the dense clustering of display and spectacle of the world’s fairs—all in a technologically dazzling and commercial form.” That is to say, the modern park is a commercially defined space sanctioned by the state, indeed assisted by the state. As the history of the late medieval fairs illustrates, the modern state does not like spaces that permit or celebrate unrestrained subversion of authority. The state destroyed those spaces and helped create limited commercialized space. Political and hierarchical subversion was broken, and the space for amusement and distraction was removed from the traditional cycle of seasons and of scarcity and plenty. Rather like Vauxhall in London or Coney Island in the 1890s, self-expression and sheer intense experience, untethered by context or culture, was to become the defining paradigm.

The packaging of pleasure is easy to understand when it comes to eating and drinking (or smoking or injecting), but less so with seeing or hearing, for example in the cases of pornography or video games. There is not insubstantial research (alluded to here in passing) that such images can hit the same pleasure centers in the brain as other kinds of stimulants. Their chapter on visual imagery, “Packaging Sight: Projections, Snapshots, and Motion Pictures” begins by acknowledging the importance of the visual to us as human animals. In some ways, it is the most pervasive of the packaged pleasures. To get to consumers, advertisers have to catch their eyes; thus the explosion of advertising and marketing in the nineteenth century. The legendary Madison Avenue ad man was only a stage in a long process.

It is hard to understand modernity without understanding a kind of obsessive exploitation of visuality. Technologies for extending the visual for elites were developed in the seventeenth century—think telescope and microscope; later these technologies gave the less-than-wealthy similar visual enlargements.… A new age of intensified and extended imagery liberated people form the visual constraints of the past and brought much of the world—or at least its appearance—into immediate experience in ways never before even imagined.

As Susan Sontag noted, photographs “package the world” even as they are themselves packaged into albums, books, or films. Proctor and Cross take us through the succession of visual stimuli from the camera obscura and magic lanterns through the photograph and movie. These innovations moved the visual image in two opposite directions. The initial appeal of early photography was its uniqueness; the daguerreotype, for example, was more like a portrait. Its cumbersome development process made its products one of a kind. But the technology could not be stopped, and the rise of easier and less expensive methods of photography led to what we now think of as its defining trait: the limitless reproducibility of images, a trait only accelerated and magnified in the era of Instagram and YouTube.

People no longer understood photographs as making them closer to a unique event. Instead, and unexpectedly, photography now emphasized the distance between the thing itself and the thing photographed. As Jacques Rancière has noted in his treatise, The Future of the Image, photography, like other arts, does not simply re-present is original. Rather the arts produce an “alteration of resemblance.” For Proctor and Cross, the important thing about photographic technologies is that they enable people to experience the visual in new and more exciting ways. Moviemaking techniques allow us to see things that previously could not be seen, but they worry that this visual “wow” has “dulled our sensibility toward the greens, browns, and grays of nature and the pace of a gathering storm or a sunset …”

Of the two ways to tell the story of packaging pleasures for mass consumption, Proctor and Cross, as the above quotations indicate, lean towards the liberal view of the person, but only mildly so. They place different experiences into different categories based mostly on what we now think of as their health effects Tobacco should likely be banned, for example, and they seem favorably disposed toward proposals such as the “Twinkie tax,” imposed on high-sugar and caloric foods. This is a paternalistic liberalism, trying to protect those who perhaps cannot protect themselves. But unlike the most dominant form of liberalism, which assumes adult rational decision makers, Proctor and Cross recognize that a lot of the packaged pleasures are directed at children, not just through sugary foods but also diversions like video games. Unlike perhaps in traditional societies, which had specific activities reserved for children, the cultivated tastes for these pleasures are to continue through adulthood.

And they are concerned about waste; as the ease of amassing pleasures has increased, “this amassing raises the obvious questions about how much any person, class, or nation should possess, especially when the packaged pleasure emerged in a context of growing inequality, resource depletion, and seemingly unstoppable carbon pollution.” Because they do not want to seem censorious, their suggestions are mild and more to inspire discussion than agreement. The story they tell is complicated, which they acknowledge, and includes a range of good and bad results. If more people gained access to the same pleasures, more local or unique experiences were lost. “Items came to be desired as much for their labels and associations as for their flavors and nutritive value. Old taboos disappeared, but so did seasonal, ritual, and festive foods and drinks.… The packaged pleasure may even have made us more hedonistic, with consequences we have not really though about, even today.” We can now live in self-enclosed bubbles of pleasure, but these bubbles have costs, both social, and personal, that we are just beginning to acknowledge and which, for their own reasons, neither the liberal nor libertarian perspectives can fully address.

Perhaps the rise of the “artisanal” or organic food movements, although not discussed here, represent a hopeful opportunity to address some of the issues Proctor and Cross identify. Those pleasure are by definition more ephemeral than mass-produced alternatives. The locally sourced grains can travel only so far, or the preserved foods that are produced only in small batches by definition limit their reach. Those are elitist pleasures, not yet packaged and distributed to the masses. And like the sacred ceremonies or sumptuary laws of the past, which connected access to intoxicants or rich food to a priestly caste or the wealthy, these movements implicitly connect such pleasures with virtue. Yet perhaps these movements, with their rejection of homogenous uniform packaged pleasures, can be joined with the technological innovations described here to generate a new interest in what lies outside the package.  

Gerald J. Russello is Editor of The University Bookman.