Skip to main content
SearchLogin or Signup

Introduction to the edition: James Rorty’s Voice

Published onApr 29, 2020
Introduction to the edition: James Rorty’s Voice

Introduction to the edition of James Rorty. Our Master’s Voice: Advertising. New York: John Day Company, 1934.


Introduction to the edition: James Rorty’s Voice

James Rorty announced his working knowledge of the trade in the opening paragraph of Our Master’s Voice. Thirty years before, he took a job as a copywriter at an advertising agency in New York City, he reports. Though he preferred poetry and journalism, Rorty would continue to work intermittently in the ad business through the 1920s. Our Master’s Voice, among the most penetrating critiques of advertising ever published, is an insider’s account. “I was an ad-man once,” Rorty confesses.1

The book is Rorty’s coming-to-terms with an institution he knew. But it’s nothing like a chronicle of his career, nor an accounting of his impressions. It has a different, and surprising, character: Steeped in Rorty’s leftist politics, Our Master’s Voice presents advertising as the linchpin of a capitalist economy that it also helps justify.

Our Master’s Voice was published by the New York firm the John Day Company, which had—amid a steep, Depression era drop-off in books sales—published a series of 45 pamphlets notable for left-wing topics and authors.2 Our Master’s Voice was in this spirit, though dense and promiscuous across 26 chapters and nearly 400 pages in its original printing. There are fictional interludes, detours through New Deal regulatory skirmishes, and a chapter devoted to Gillette’s campaign against the beard.

Rorty made no apologies for the book’s undisciplined format. Indeed he disclaims any academic purpose on the first page. Our Master’s Voice is presented, he wrote, as journalism, “not as sociology.”3 Thus he granted himself license to code-switch, with what amounts to a short story slotted in as the fourth chapter, and another devoted to composite portraits (“names, places and incidents have been disguised”) of ad workers he’s known. The book is, nevertheless, filled with dense and sophisticated analysis that is, by any measure, academic. One especially lengthy, chart-filled chapter, co-authored with his wife and another colleague, reports on a major empirical study of magazines. Throughout the book Rorty spars with the country’s leading social scientists, quoting and then lacerating their work in what is, or should be counted as, academic debate.

More importantly, and despite its pastiche quality, the book presents a coherent and original theory of advertising. Its main tenet is that the ad business can only be understood within the totality of the country’s economy and culture. The alternative—to treat the business of publicity as a “carbuncular excrescence”—is to miss its centrality, its foundational place in American life.4 So Rorty insisted on a holistic approach, in conscious contrast to the bounded inquiries of his analytic rivals in the university system.

Rorty’s thesis is that American society—its capitalist economy, its culture of competitive emulation—is propped up by the ad-man and his persuasive copy. The argument is made, in effect, at two levels. The first is economic: All the billboards and radio spots, according to Rorty, are the fuel that keeps people buying—the coal powering the country’s merchandising juggernaut. American business would collapse without the ad-man’s ventilation.

The book’s second, complementary point is that the system—an exploitative one, in Rorty’s view—relies on advertising for its ideological warrant. The claim is made with more subtlety, or at least erected around a series of sub-arguments, in the book’s first few chapters. But the key takeaway is that advertising serves to ratify the prevailing American regime of class-stratified consumption. Rorty’s former co-workers are, as it were, the master’s voice.

Published into the Depression in 1934, the book agitated an already wounded publicity industry. It generated spirited reviews in the popular press, too. But social scientists—the sociologists and psychologists taking up the study of media and their audiences in small but growing numbers—ignored Our Master’s Voice. They paid the book no heed when it was published, and media scholars have scarcely noticed it since.

He Was an Ad-man Once

One reason for the neglect, then and since, is Rorty himself. He was no academic, and didn’t write like one. He was an intellectual—a poet, essayist, and political journalist—in the orbit of the New York literary world. Like many of his peers, he embraced a radical worldview that, over the 1920s, became more explicitly Marxist.

Rorty was born in 1890 to an Irish immigrant, himself an aspiring poet, and his schoolteacher wife, in Middletown, New York. They ran a struggling dry goods business.5 After graduating from college in 1913, Rorty took a copywriting post at the New York advertising agency H. K. McCann, before joining the Army ambulance corps in 1917.6 He briefly returned to New York after the war, then moved to California, where he wrote poetry and covered the San Francisco literary and artistic scene for The Nation. In need of funds, he resumed work for advertising agencies, including a stint at McCann’s San Francisco office.7 A first marriage collapsed, and Rorty soon met Winifred Raushenbush, then a research assistant to Chicago sociologist Robert Park.8 Rorty and Raushenbush, the daughter of a prominent social gospel minister, fueled each other’s radical politics on their return to New York in the mid-1920s.9 Both were steeped in the city’s little-magazine intellectual culture, including Marxist organs like The New Masses.10

It was in this period, working from a rural Connecticut cabin, that Rorty reluctantly picked up advertising work a third time. Daniel Pope quotes Rorty’s unpublished memoir: “I returned to my advertising vomit, prodding my fair white soul up and down Madison Avenue and offering it for sale to the highest bidder.”11 With the economy’s collapse, Rorty was laid off in 1930.12 Like many other intellectuals in the wake of the Depression, Rorty turned to Marxist politics with new avidity. He even worked on behalf of the Communist Party’s 1932 presidential slate, though soon fell out with the Party, which he never joined. His politics took on an anti-Stalinist cast, in the cause of the recently exiled Leon Trotsky.13 As Rorty and Raushenbaush’s only child, the future post-philosophical luminary Richard Rorty, recounted in a memoir, “my parents had been classified by the Daily Worker as ‘Trotskyites,’ and they more or less accepted the description.”14

Rorty’s anti-Soviet posture was stiffened by the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939. By then his radical ardorhad also cooled, and he endorsed, for the first time, New Deal interventions like the Tennessee Valley Authority. In the war years his writing shifted to health, nutrition, and consumer topics in the freelance work he continued to produce, assiduously, for a variety of popular and literary magazines.15 And he became, by the 1950s, an aggressive Cold Warrior, penning anti-Soviet scripts for the Voice of America, and clamoring for the American Communist Party’s legal shuttering.16 His 1954 McCarthy and the Communists, co-authored with Moshe Decter, faulted the Wisconsin senator for botching the anti-communist cause—for discrediting the otherwise urgent campaign to purge Reds.17

Rorty wrote on a range of other topics through the early 1960s, including technology, race relations, food culture, and, notably, ecological issues—the last a topic he had addressed, precociously, all the way back to the early 1930s.18 Even as he drifted right, he remained a critic of the country’s acquisitive culture. In an unpublished reflection—a decade before his 1972 death—he looked back on his Depression era critique of advertising:

I wrote Our Master’s Voice with the object of curing surgically what I considered a malignant degeneration of culture: Advertising. Not only did I not cure it; the disease like a cancer increased not only relatively to the total culture but absolutely so that one might well say that the American culture is dying from this malignancy.19

Systematized Illusions

It was Thorstein Veblen, not Marx, who supplied for Rorty the book’s argumentative anchor. Rorty acknowledged his debts to the splenetic economist-cum-social critic with such regularity, and with such reverence, that the book can be read—at one register—as an extension of Veblen’s scattered remarks on advertising. Though Veblen treated “salesmanship” as an important constituent of the pecuniary culture, he never devoted a treatise to the business of selling. One of just two sustained meditations on advertising appeared in a late work, the 1923 Absentee Ownership, and it’s this chapter (on “Manufactures and Salesmanship”) that animates Rorty’s analysis.20 But the imprint of Veblen is sunken deeper than that. Rorty’s scabrous ironizing, for example, is an explicit homage to his one-time teacher. And the concept of emulation—the dynamic of prestige and consumption that Veblen outlined in The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899)—is the real engine of Our Master’s Voice.21 Rorty notably refused to isolate selling from the wider “pseudoculture,” opting instead for a fisheye-lens approach. In that respect Our Master’s Voice is an enlargement, even a gentle overhaul, of Veblen’s critique of advertising.

Rorty was already familiar with Veblen’s work when he attended his classes at the New School for Social Research in the early 1920s.22 According to Rorty’s unpublished memoirs, he and Veblen struck up a brief friendship while living in the same New York City boarding house. Rorty and the building’s owner detailed to Veblen their experiences in the ad business—testimony which, Rorty later claimed, informed Veblen’s analysis in Absentee Ownership. Wrote Rorty: “What he got out of us was transmuted into the refined gold of the long footnote” on religion in the book’s advertising chapter.23 If Rorty was right—that Veblen’s excursis on the “propagation of faith” reflected their conversations from the early 1920s—then the compliment was returned in Our Master’s Voice. He singled out Veblen’s “footnote”—really a six-page addendum to the chapter—as the key to grasping the resonance of Christianity and the “modern Church of Advertising.”24

Rorty dedicated Our Master’s Voice to the “memory of Thorstein Veblen,” and quoted him in one of the book’s three epigraphs.25 Veblenian lacerations—phrases like “doctrinal memoranda” and “creative psychiatry”—pockmark Rorty’s pages throughout.26 And sentences like “Again, Veblen furnishes us with the essential clue” are typical.27 He is mentioned more than three dozen times, or once every seven pages. Thus it is fair to conclude, at first pass, that Our Master’s Voice is the book Veblen would have written had he devoted himself to the task.

Rorty certainly encouraged that inference. He lavished particular praise on Absentee Ownership. Veblen’s “brief treatment of advertising” in the book, Rorty wrote, “remains today the most exact description of the nature of the advertising phenomenon which has yet appeared.”28 Late in Our Master’s Voice, Rorty admitted that Veblen’s volume, “in general, has supplied the framework of theory for this analysis.”29 Thus it’s easy to get the impression that Our Master’s Voice is a book-length elaboration of Veblen’s penetrating but brief reflections on advertising.

This isn’t quite right. Rorty, for all his borrowings, departed from his teacher in a handful of significant ways. He placed advertising at the center of things where Veblen was, if anything, deflationary about its importance. For Veblen, advertising didn’t change much; its main effect was to shuffle the allotment of sales among firms all vying for a fixed, zero-sum buying capacity. What Rorty realized, writing in the wake of the Gatsby-esque 1920s, is that advertising had helped change the economy itself, to expand (together with popular credit instruments) the role of everyday consumption. Without using the phrase, Our Master’s Voice articulated the idea of demand stimulation—the ad-fueled fanning of consumer desire that helped remake the country’s economy and culture. Rorty’s reflections on the interlaced economics of publicity and consumption were, to be sure, tempered by the brute fact of the Depression. But the blueprint of an advertising-stimulated consumption economy—an answer to over-production and slack demand—is there in Our Master’s Voice. The book anticipates, more than Veblen’s own work, the fuller postwar articulation of advertising’s Keynesianism-through-desire.30

Veblen’s own treatment of the “business of publicity” is, crucially, embedded in his broader analysis of the U.S. economy.31 The core idea, from The Theory of Business Enterprise (1904) on, is that businesses deliberately scale back production to protect their profits—to prevent prices from falling below costs. Veblen called this “sabotage,” with profit-hoarding “business” hallowing out “industry.” Since the “market is not to be overstocked to an unprofitable extent,” the captains of business turn to the “strategic withholding of productive efficiency.”32 The slackening, to Veblen, was deeply offensive—an affront to the country’s productive capacity, a deplorable and selfish waste, one that underwrites a parasitic leisure class.

Veblen applied this sabotage framework—including its Norwegian asceticism and producerist ethic—to advertising itself. The result is an analysis that’s strikingly autarkic. Spending on “salesmanship,” Veblen’s preferred term, is growing rapidly, leading to higher prices for consumers. But all those advertising outlays, he concluded, are merely to reshuffle a deck whose size, in the last instance, is capped: “the total volume of sales at any given time is fixed within a narrow margin.” Salesmanship is all about winning customers from competitors—“the art of taking over a disproportionate share of this run of sales.”33

Yes, advertising matters; after all, it’s taking a growing share of the economy, running up production costs (and therefore prices). But it’s ultimately waste, professionalized waste, since what’s at stake is market share among big profit-protecting firms. The proportion of the economy given over to consumption, to Veblen, was a zero-sum game.34 Salesmanship is like trench warfare, with small, meaningless gains made at great expense. The whole sector, then, is irrational, if also explainable: Firms ramp up publicity spending as a competitive necessity, since otherwise their competitors will drive them out of business with their own campaigns.35 This arms race has generated a sprawling, even routinized advertising industry—staffed by “publicity engineers” trained (to Veblen’s disgust) in the country’s most august universities.36

Thus salesmanship, to Veblen, was a wasteful cog in a system characterized, even defined, by business sabotage. Modern capitalism was the story of business deliberately holding back the country’s productive capacity. This claim was the bedrock of Veblen’s economics, and his analysis of advertising was erected on its foundation. Advertising, in fact, was just another layer of business sabotage in Veblen’s terms—indeed a symptom rather than a cause. He called it “salesmanlike sabotage.”37

The closest Veblen got to conceding advertising’s broader ventilation of desire—its stimulus to an emerging consumer culture—is in passing reference to the production of customers. If salesmen make anything, it’s the buyers for their clients’ products. Advertisers manufacture consumers, wrote Veblen; they write copy, design billboards, and the rest, but they’re really all about the “fabrication of customers.”38 This is, indeed, in the territory of demand stimulation—and it’s a claim, however fleeting, that Rorty ran with in Our Master’s Voice. But Veblen pulled back from the full production-of-desire implications, on the same autarkic grounds that animate his wider analysis. “There is, of course, no actual fabrications of persons endowed with purchasing-power ad hoc”—even if ad agencies like to claim otherwise. The reason? The economy is a closed system, with a fixed customer base. “Viewed in the large, what actually is effected is only a diversion of customers from one to an other of the competing sellers, of course.”39 So salesmen manufacture customers, but only within the economy’s existing enclosure.

Rorty’s claims notwithstanding, the debts that Our Master’s Voice owes to Veblen are more protean. There is the cutting moralism itself. Salesmanship, to both men, was tragic and farcical—the practice (in Veblen’s words) of getting “a margin of something for nothing, and the wider the margin the more perfect the salesman’s work.”40 Veblen’s writerly mode, his caustic comedy, is the prose-style that Rorty adopted too. Phrases like the “blandishments of the huckstering salesman” could appear in the paragraphs of either writer.41 A handful of the Veblenian witticisms are, indeed, cited repeatedly in Our Master’s Voice, and these are the real register of the senior scholar’s influence. Such arguments-in-a-phrase, moreover, are often rescued from Veblen’s footnotes—mined and polished by Rorty, then expanded into chapter-length meditations.

Consider a single, high-density footnote in Absentee Ownership:

The production of customers by sales-publicity is evidently the same thing as a production of systematised illusions organized into serviceable ‘action patterns’—serviceable, that is, for the use of the seller on whose account and for whose profit the customer is being produced. It follows therefore that the technicians in charge of this work, as also the skilled personnel of the working-force, are by way of being experts and experimenters in applied psychology, with a workmanlike bent in the direction of what may be called creative psychiatry. Their day’s work will necessarily run on the creative guidance of habits and bias, by recourse to shock effects, tropismatic reactions, animal orientation, forced movements, fixation of ideas, verbal intoxication. It is a trading on that range of human infirmities which blossom in devout observances and bear fruit in the psychopathic wards.42

Our Master’s Voice, to a remarkable extent, is a 400-page meditation on this single passage—one relegated, by Veblen, to the small-type depths. The paired-word phrases—“systematized illusions,” “action patterns,” and “creative psychiatry”—supplied, for Rorty, the key insight. He invoked the terms, quoted them with reverence, and then unspooled them with a sustained concentration that exceeded (or delivered on) Veblen’s fleeting mentions. Even the footnote’s last sentence, with its “human infirmities” and “psychopathic wards,” registers in an outsized way, featured as one of the book’s three epigraphs.43

Veblen’s footnote, and the other bits of Absentee Ownership that drew Rorty’s attention, center on the psychology of advertising’s appeal. The business of publicity, in Veblen’s phrase, is “applied psychology,” the calculated exploitation of human irrationality. Veblen’s treatment of the theme was, again, brief: This footnote and two additional, probing pages.44 The advertiser’s “raw material,” to Veblen, was “human credulity,” and his product was “profitable fixed ideas.” The main strategy, he continued, is to prey on fear in general, and fear of losing prestige in particular.45 The prospect of embarrassment, the shame at falling behind one’s peers, is the target of the ad-man’s “intoxicating verbiage.”46

Here Veblen had re-entered the territory of his early and most famous work on competitive emulation, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899). It’s this Veblen that animates Rorty’s book, more than the later works’ economist of business sabotage. To Rorty, advertising’s fundamental mechanism was to exploit the emulative yearnings of consumers. Publicity, indeed, is the main prop to a wholesale culture of acquisitive emulation, in the thick, pervasive sense of “culture.” For Rorty, more than for his teacher, advertising cut deep.

He was quick, for example, to grant some autonomy to advertisers themselves—to their aesthetic pretensions and professional self-regard. As “advertising craftsman,” we (Rorty included himself) are motivated not just by money, but by “an obsessed delight in the materials of our craft.” Thus business may indeed sabotage industry in the broad sense. “True,” Rorty wrote. But as creative workers, “we were and are parasites and unconscious saboteurs too.” The ad-man’s artistic self-image comes in for relentless mockery, but at the same time Rorty carved out a certain space—and considerable sympathy—for his peers in the ranks of copywriters and graphic artists. He even went so far as to suggest that capitalism’s “exploitative functionaries,” in their craft-driven sabotage, may yet bring the system down from within.47 This, at least, is the implication of the book’s first-page encomium to Veblen:

Dedicated to the memory of Thorstein Veblen, and to those technicians of the word whose ‘conscientious withdrawal of efficiency’ may yet accomplish that burial of the ad-man’s pseudoculture which this book contemplates with equanimity.

The quoted phrase, the “conscientious withdrawal of efficiency,” had been invoked by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the radical union, as a tactic of sabotage. Veblen, beginning in 1921, had repurposed the expression as an arch shorthand for his theory of business sabotage.48 And so it’s fitting that Rorty, in the book’s dedication, restored the phrase’s IWW meaning, calling on his fellow ad workers (“technicians of the word”) to sabotage their own cultural machinery.

The broader point is that Rorty took advertising far more seriously than his teacher. He conceded to Veblen that salesmanship is a form of “economic parasitism.”49 But for Rorty, the institution of publicity extended far beyond the economy, to the “culture considered as a system of values and motivations by which people live.”50 Thus when he brushed up against Veblen’s portrait of advertising—as a closed system of allocative waste—Rorty gently pushed back. He noted that in the early 1920s, when Veblen was writing, the salesman was still an “upstart and a parvenu”—a mere cog in the businessman’s self-sabotaging gear-works. “But times have changed,” Rorty wrote. Advertising has since became an industry “no less essential than coal or steel.” It is not merely an appendage to business, moreover: In the decade since Absentee Ownership, the ad-man had become the “first lieutenant of the new Caesars of America’s commercial imperium not merely on the economic front but also on the cultural front.”51 And by culture Rorty meant the whole American belief system, one increasingly fixed on status competition—on emulation and oneupmanship, fueled by advertising’s appeal to human infirmity.

The Theory of the Leisure Economy

Our Master’s Voice was published at the Depression’s nadir, so it’s surprising that Rorty’s attention was otherwise occupied. The book does occasionally nod to the economy’s free-fall, often in service to the claim that capitalism would soon collapse. There are other moments of notice, including five phantasmagoric pages on advertising as a giant machine—a “coldly whirring turbine” that emits life-draining “jabberwocky,” even as its human fuel runs down in the Depression’s fourth punishing year.52 But the book, to a remarkable extent, is focused on the fulsome 1920s and its “endless chain of selling.”53 The Depression itself comes off as a late-arriving character, granted a few short lines. The spotlight, instead, is on advertising’s success, via emulation and “style-terror,” in manufacturing new desire.54

Rorty’s claim was that the economy, weighed down by surplus production, requires an artificial stimulus of demand. The problem, in the “‘surplus economy’ phase of industrial capitalism,” is over-production.55 The solution is advertising. On this point Rorty was blunt and repetitive: The engine of the economy needs the “ad-man’s foot on the throttle, speeding up consumption, preaching emulative expenditure, ‘styling’ clothes, kitchens, automobiles—everything in the interest of more rapid obsolescence and replacement.”56 The economist’s account of supply and demand in natural harmony, in self-regulating equilibrium, is itself obsolete. The crucial function of publicity, then, is to rescue capitalism—to animate, or even create whole cloth, customers to consume the system’s excess capacity. Any lingering “puritanism in consumption” in the populace is “intolerable,” and must be snuffed out.57 Here is Rorty’s key departure from Veblen: Where the teacher saw deliberate slackening of supply—sabotage—the pupil saw ventilation of demand.

This is advertising’s indispensable role, and it’s the basis for Rorty’s otherwise startling claim that newspapers, magazines, radio, and the cinema are, at their core, “advertising media.”58 All the column-inches of newsprint, the radio dramas, the latest Hollywood release amount to “filler,” whose real purpose is to entice readers or movie-goers to consume the ads.59 If the commercial media has an overriding objective, it is to “nourish and stimulate the buying motive.”60 The point of the media’s editorial or narrative trappings, in other words, is to package and deliver audiences to advertisers.61 It’s a striking argument, partly because it anticipates, by a half century, the claims of scholars like Sut Jhally and Dallas Smythe that the “audience commodity” is the real product of commercial mass media.62

The mechanism for making buyers out of citizens, for Rorty, is induced emulation. Advertising preys on the anxieties of comparative social worth to spur consumption, in the spirit of Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class. If advertising at core is the “competitive manufacture of consumption habits,” its technique (in Rorty’s favorite Veblenism) is “creative psychiatry.”63 The populace is driven to buy in order to forestall social slippage: This is the governing logic of a consuming culture fanned by the agencies and the media businesses they underwrite. “Advertising,” Rorty wrote, in one of many equally vigorous summations, “… is a doctrine of material emulation, keeping up with the Joneses, conspicuous waste.”64 Rorty’s shorthand for all this, the ad-man’s “pseudoculture,” is also the book’s key term, its indictment by neologism.

For Rorty the further irony was that advertisers turned, for their source material, to an older, organic culture that they were, at the same time, busily dislodging.65 The acquisitive social psychology demanded by the economy, that is, feeds off the country’s past—its pastoral humanism and small-town craftsmanship. The relationship of advertising to the country’s organic culture is, in short, parasitic. The problem for advertisers is that the pseudoculture has only a shallow appeal, since the population “wistfully desires” the “older more human culture.”66 As a result, the editorial recipe for the advertising-dependent media must—if it is to draw Americans to watch, read, and listen—include ingredients from the country’s half-displaced organic past.

The argument is developed in the book’s remarkable sixth chapter, a sprawling, chart-filled report on a study of 13 mass-circulation magazines that, by Rorty’s own account, was “almost wholly” the work of his wife, Winifred Raushenbush, and a colleague.67 The chapter is a self-contained, empirically rich treatment of the country’s stratified magazine market, tailored to specific “class cultures.”68 Only those titles targeting the wealthy, like Harper’s Bazaar, bathe readers in undiluted snobbism. In the rest—those outlets aimed at the poor and middle-class—the acquisitive culture “battles” with an “older tradition and culture.” Some titles lean emulative, while others favor the “organic.” Either way, they present a “considerable admixture” of the new and old—and by necessity. “One may say, in summary, that the acquisitive culture cannot stand on its own feet,” the authors wrote. “It does not satisfy.”69 Hence the need for parasitism.

There was, to Rorty and his co-authors, a measure of hope in the population’s implicit rejection of raw emulation: “the American people do not like this pseudoculture, cannot live by it, and, indeed, never have lived by it.” Here and elsewhere in the book there is a residue of Romantic nostalgia, a plaintive register of displacement—this despite its many professions of forward-facing radicalism.70 The Depression-ravaged country is yearning to “discover by what virtues, by what pattern of life, the Americans of earlier days succeeded in being admirable people, and in sustaining a life, which, if it did not have ease and luxury, did seem to have dignity and charm.” If that sounds like an endorsement, the authors were quick to pivot to more radical prospects. Yes, the organic past is the population’s “main drift of desire,” but there are “other drifts”: “Some editors and readers even envision revolution”—a substitution of a “new culture” for the organic and acquisitive alternatives.71 This last point, however, is delivered in haste. It comes off, indeed, as limp and conviction-less—a forced incantation of radical faith that the book, in the end, seems to doubt.

It Could Happen Here

The ad-man’s pseudoculture resembles a living thing, but it is, to Rorty, devoid of all life—inorganic and artificial. His prose turns purple on this point. The pseudoculture

is a robot contraption, strung together with the tinsel of material emulation, galvanized with fear, and perfumed with fake sex. It exhibits a definite glandular imbalance, being hyperthyroid as to snobbism, but with a deficiency of sex, economics, politics, religion, science, art and sentiment. It is ugly, nobody loves it, and nobody really wants it except the business men who make money out of it. It has a low brow, a long emulative nose, thin, bloodless, asexual lips, and the receding chin of the will-less, day-dreaming fantast. The stomach is distended either by the abnormal things-obsessed appetite of the middle-class and the rich, or by the starved flatulence of the poor. Finally it is visibly dying for lack of blood and brains.72

It’s the last line’s claim—that the publicity regime would soon collapse under its own diseased weight—that Rorty had trouble sustaining in the balance of the book. The demise of advertising was, in Rorty’s holistic terms, the same thing as the end of capitalism. At the center of Our Master’s Voice is the claim that capitalism and advertising share a common fate. The publicity industry is an effect of, an emanation from, the market economy, but indispensable all the same. Behind the ad-man is the “whole pressure of the capitalist organism,” Rorty proclaimed, “which must sell or perish.”73

So the question of when, or whether, advertising and its enfolding economy would, in fact, perish haunts Our Master’s Voice. One thread in the book is hopeful: The system is edging, inevitably and soon, over the cliffs of history. American capitalism cannot maintain itself for long, because its “underlying economic and social premises are obsolete in the modern world.”74 So too with advertising: “One needs but little knowledge of history, or of the movement of contemporary economic and social forces, to know that it can’t last.” Its tower, Rorty added, is tottering.75

Is it possible to rehabilitate the ad-man’s pseudoculture? The answer, to Rorty, is the “same answer which must be given to the question: ‘Is it possible to rehabilitate the capitalist economy?’” No. Both the economy and its acquisitive culture are in late-stage decadence—“very frail and ephemeral,” primed for revolutionary toppling. And so, in this thread of the book, Rorty was dismissive of reform efforts. Liberal social critics, some of them social scientists, get relentlessly pummeled. Their carefully targeted interventions—their calls for ethics and standards in the profession, for example—are like the snake oil ads they aim to eradicate. The competitive pressures of advertising require mendacity; codes and reforms, “under our existing institutional setup,” would either deprive stockholders or inflate consumer costs. The alternative to bad advertising isn’t good advertising; it’s “no advertising.”76

The effort to isolate the trade from its economic enclosure, then to rub away its most appalling stains, is an act of self-congratulatory futility. Criticism of advertising’s corruption of journalism, for example, is “beside the point,” since its roots sink so deep: “the objective forces of the competitive capitalist economy.”77 Likewise, draft New Deal legislation to stymie the publicity industry’s most egregious charlatans will leave the machinery of advertising whirring. “Congress can and probably will legislate itself blue in the face, without changing an iota of the basic economic and cultural determinants.”78 The industry’s mendacity cannot be burned off; it is elemental, impervious to the starchy meliorism of liberal do-gooders.

Rorty took the anti-reformist position to its logical conclusion, refusing the commonplace distinction between propaganda and education. For post–World War I critics of propaganda, education stood as the salutary other—an antidote to manipulation, inoculation in the classroom.79 Rorty would have none of that. He lumped in schools and universities with the most shameless propaganda factories: the “purpose and effect of these combined institutions” is “rule”—by which he meant “their shaping and control of the economic, social and psychological patterns of the population in the interests of a profit-motivated dominant class, the business class.”80 The defenders of education are themselves engaged in acts of propaganda, in contrast to the advertising man, who is at least unblinkered about his art’s pervasive reach.81 Schools and colleges, in their way, are more insidious than the overt persuasion industries, since educators cloak their fealty to the “interest and prejudices of the ruling class.”82 There is, at any rate, nothing redemptive about schooling in a capitalist order:

Advertising is propaganda, advertising is education, propaganda is advertising, education is propaganda, educational institutions use and are used by advertising and propaganda. Shuffle the terms any way you like … all three, each in itself, or in combination, are instruments of rule.83

The reformist road to social change, to Rorty, was an accommodationist dead end. Reporters’ codes of ethics and truth-in-advertising regulations make things worse, by applying a patina of legitimacy to a corrupt order. That position, of course, presumed that revolution was possible, even likely. And in his dismissal of evolutionary, step-wise change, Rorty—no doubt knowingly—joined a debate between Marxists as old as the movement itself. If the system’s collapse is imminent, and guaranteed by its own contradictions, aren’t reformist palliatives just delaying the desired inevitable? It’s a view fueled by confidence, that the revolution is coming and that its results will be good.

A second strand of Our Master’s Voice, sometimes awkwardly juxtaposed to the first, questions both postulates. The thrust of much of the book is that American capitalism is resilient—and that the system’s staying power is grounded, to some large extent, in advertising itself. That’s the premise of the volume’s title. The ad-man’s systemized illusions and creative psychiatry are what saves an exploitative system from those it exploits. This role, this ideological role, is no less important than its economic priming: Advertising is the “shaping of the economic, social, moral and ethical patterns of the community into serviceable conformity with the profit-making interests.”84 This is nothing less than “American rule-by-advertising.”85 By promoting a culture of acquisitive emulation, the New York firms proffer a service to the “real rulers” in business and finance.86 They, and the media they underwrite, are the master’s voice:

The point of view adhered to in this book is that of regarding the instruments of social communication as instruments of rule, of government. In this view the people who control and manage our daily and periodical press, radio, etc., become a sort of administrative bureaucracy acting in behalf of the vested interests of business.87

Here Rorty had tapped into another, more pessimistic current in Marxist thought. Forced to confront the thwarted European revolutions after World War I—and anomalous success in Russia—a number of Marxist intellectuals sought to explain capitalism’s durability. Theirs was the problem of consent: Why do the working classes accept, even tighten, their own chains? The answer of figures like Antonio Gramsci and Georg Lukács, in a tradition often labeled “Western” Marxism, was that the masses take on the system’s values—internalize its principles as common sense.88 The organs of mass communication, in many such accounts, are the principal means of cultural reinforcement. Our Master’s Voice is an installment in that Western Marxist project, seeking to explain—like the others—why the revolution is always deferred.

There’s a third, and final, thread in the book, an unholy mix of the first two: fear that radical social change, all too imminent, will bring fascism rather than socialism. The Weimar collapse, and the sudden visibility of homegrown fascists, weighs on the manuscript, tempering its optimism that something better is on the way. Casual references to the average American’s susceptibility to demagoguery appear with surprising, and discordant, frequency. In the magazine chapter, the authors observed that “it is clear that the typical American Magazine reader would go fascist.” Whether another magazine’s readers will “go fascist or communist” is, they added, an open question.89 The chapter’s conclusion announces that the “democratic dogma is dying if not already dead.” The poor are “oriented toward crime, and potentially at least toward revolution,” while the middle classes are “oriented toward fascism.”90 The book elsewhere deploys “Italy” and “Germany” (and “Russia” too) as shorthands for the possible American future.91

Even before Our Master’s Voice was published, Rorty had set out on a seven-month road trip around the country, writing magazine dispatches and a chronicle of his trip. Appearing in 1936 as Where Life is Better, this second volume registered Rorty’s dissipating confidence in the country’s workers—their failure to recognize capitalism’s fundamental flaws.92 He fretted about Americans’ likely embrace of fascism instead—a theme foreshadowed in the haunting conclusion to Our Master’s Voice, whose last page recounts a conversation with a “very eminent advertising man.” He was, as Rorty realizes with a “sudden chill,” praising the new Nazi regime. “I venture to predict,” Rorty wrote in the book’s closing sentence, “that when a formidable Fascist movement develops in America, the ad-man will be right up front; that the American version of Minister of Propaganda and Enlightenment Goebels [sic] … will be both numerous and powerful.”93

A Master’s Voice

The book, despite its unrepentant leftism and fretting over fascism, got a good press. Newspaper and magazine reviews were generally positive, and occasionally rhapsodic. By telling contrast, Our Master’s Voice was ignored by academics. Not a single review appeared in any social science journal, and the first citation to the book, in the journal literature at least, came 14 years later, in a late-1940s law review article.94 A thorough but non-exhaustive search of 1930s scholarly books on media uncovered a smattering of references. Rorty’s book, for example, warranted a listing in political scientist Harold Lasswell’s 1935 bibliographic project, Propaganda and Promotional Activities—though Our Master’s Voice, one among hundreds of references, was annotated with a single line: “Criticism of advertising as a handmaiden of American ‘pseudo-culture.’”95 There was, in the book literature, a handful of additional mentions, some dismissive and none of them substantial.96

The popular and literary press was far more attentive. The New York Times granted the book a full-page review, including a respectful summary registering Veblen’s influence alongside Rorty’s indictment of the media industry at large.97 North American Review, the literary magazine, called Our Master’s Voice a “fiery discussion of the advertising racket”—“superb” on the “debunking” but hobbled by the author’s revolutionary politics.98 The New Yorker described the book as a “[v]igorous, athletic, witty, and in parts profound analysis of and attack upon the advertising game in its broadest aspect…. Highly recommended.”99 Syndicated treatments in the country’s newspapers were at least grudgingly favorable. Rorty “takes advertising for a good humored but rather rough ride,” read one. Another noted Rorty’s “Socialist tendencies” but admitted that the “author has worked hard with his material” and praised the book’s “mass of facts.” A third syndicated review, after a taut summary, concluded:

If all that sounds like quite a mouthful, you will find it worth your while to read Mr. Rorty’s book… all in all, this is a serious and instructive book. Some advertising men will denounce it; others, I suspect, will welcome it. And the general reader will find it exceedingly informative.100

The popular reviews—some of them flattering, none dismissive—are ironic testimony, perhaps, to the limits of Rorty’s monovocal theory of the press. They stand, regardless, in striking counterpose to the silence from academics, then and since.

In retrospect, it’s not hard to explain media scholars’ neglect of Our Master’s Voice—its disappearance from the field’s collective memory. They ignored Rorty’s fusillade, after all, in its own time. The book, when it was published, was already weighed down by its peculiar form—its manic eclecticism and rhetorical overspillage, page by relentless page. There was, too, its author’s radicalism, out of step (unblushingly so) with the performance of detachment demanded by the reigning academic norms.101 Reformist commitments, when tempered by professions of value freedom, were permissible—but not the Marx-quoting pyrotechnics of the book’s prose. Rorty’s status as a journalist was its own reception liability, made worse by the itinerant, topically promiscuous, fiction-tainted character of his other work. Since the 1920s, American social scientists had been avidly professionalizing, a campaign with gathering momentum. So mere journalism, social criticism worse still, was primed for spurning by scholars who’d only just won a fragile legitimacy.

There was, too, the book’s venom-tipped attack on social science itself. In the spirit of Veblen’s 1918 polemic The Higher Learning, Rorty castigated social scientists for abdicating their assigned role as free-thinking analysts.102 He lit into the “dozens of Greek-porticoed” business schools, staffed by a “new priesthood of ‘business economists’” who translate the “techniques of mass prevarication into suitable academic euphemisms.”103 The whole economics discipline, meanwhile, “stood aside” while advertising proceeded to “play jackstraws” with “orthodox economic doctrine.”104 Rorty even devoted a whole chapter to psychology’s prostitution to advertising, citing the for-profit Psychological Corporation and behaviorist John B. Watson’s move to a big-time ad agency.105 The “prestige of business dominates the American psychology,” Rorty wrote, “not excepting the psychology of American psychologists.”106 And all the disciplines come in for repeated reprimand for claiming objectivity while propping up the status quo.107

Given the upbraiding, social scientists had plenty of reason to look away.108 The result, though, was the loss, a premature burial, of a trenchant book. In re-publication Our Master’s Voice joins a well-established literature on consumer culture, some of it critical—though nothing so vigorous, athletic, and witty as Rorty’s forgotten study. A book about advertising, he reminded us, is inevitably a critique of the society. His example is worth emulating.


Introduction to the edition of James Rorty. Our Master’s Voice: Advertising. New York: John Day Company, 1934.


No comments here