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The Toothpaste of Immortality

, 448 pages
August 2006



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The Toothpaste of Immortality

Self-Construction in the Consumer Age

This lively and insightful account reveals the profound ways in which everyday acts and artifacts of consumer civilization shape our sense of self.

Elemér Hankiss shows how human beings act simultaneously in two plays. On the "trivial" surface of their everyday lives they work, make money, raise children, build houses, and do a lot of other things. At the same time, they also act in the "existential" drama of their lives—even if they are not aware of doing so. They construct and reconstruct their selves each day by striving for authenticity, the intense experience of being, dignity, meaning, and the hope of immortality.

Hankiss explores this interaction between the trivial and existential, in the process unfolding its context in "consumer civilization." This concept is brilliantly illustrated in a section entitled "the toothpaste of immortality":

"If we watch enough commercials, we believe that this or that special brand of toothpaste preserves our teeth, and— per metonymiam—ourselves, young and beautiful indefinitely. And then, for a fleeting moment, there, in our bathrooms, we experience the sweet and melancholy illusion that we may stay young and beautiful forever; that we may defeat mortality; we may defeat decay and death."

First published to great success in Hungarian, this entertaining and compelling book reveals surprising insights into the challenges and possibilities of self-fulfillment.

Elemér Hankiss is professor of sociology at the College of Europe in Bruges, Belgium. He has taught in European and American universities and has served as senior scientist for the Gallup Organization, chairman of Hungarian Public Television, and managing editor of the English-American Section of Europa Publishing House. He has published books in French, English, German, Polish, and Hungarian. His most recent book is Fears and Symbols: An Introduction to the Study of Western Civilization. He was a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in 1987–88 and 2003–4.

"Offers an extensive overview of the psychological and philosophical literature concerning the self."

"A surprisingly entertaining as well as revealing examination of consumer habits essential to any college-level collection strong in sociology."

"A nuanced portrait of the search for identity and significance in the consumer age."

"Draws an interesting and balanced parallel between the dawn of modernity in the Renaissance and the postmodern age of consumerism."

"The magic of Hankiss's exposition is found in his capacity to elevate the small things into their larger, sometimes cosmic symbolic meanings. His style is that of a virtuoso, often playful, almost always insightful and convincing. He is a shrewd observer and interpreter of life."

"The book is humorous and is certainly good fun to read... it may make the reader briefly pause and ponder the significance of their daily oral hygiene practices!"

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