A University of California
Multi-Campus Research Group

Director: William Warner, UC Santa Barbara

"I shop therefore I am:" the new scholarship on 18th century consumption ;

William B. Warner English, UC Santa Barbara
I would like to begin with Erin Mackie's characterization of 18th c consumption, from her book Market a la Mode:
"…more and more things were being offered up to the hungry gaze of the consumer. The search for pleasure, status, identity, knowledge, and meaning through consumption was accompanied by a growing consciousness of the seductions of advertising and the perils of reification." Makie, 56.

In this talk, I will be looking at a cluster of recent books focused upon the consumption practices of the 18th c. I hope to develop a few of the critical issues raised by this scholarship. Which cluster of books? It seems to have started with the books associated with the Clark Library series on consumption and culture edited by John Brewer and others: Consumption and the World of Goods; Early Modern Conceptions of Property, and The Consumption of Culture. I include my own book, Licensing Entertainment, as well as four other recent books: Erin MacKie's Market a la Mode, Paula McDowell's The Women of Grub Street, Beth Kowalski-Wallace's Consuming Subjects, and Deidre Lynch's The Economy of Character. I am sure there are others I have not yet discovered. I won't try to survey or synthesize these diverse studies; instead I will pursue one huge question: what is the relationship between the market in things and the forms of subjectivity it enables?

All these studies suggest that by the 18th century the "market," and the consumption practices it enables, is far more than the local, folksy, open air place to buy food and other commodities. The word "market" is already indexes something very large and complex (3 functions):

  • a network of humans and non-humans, who/which move and communicate across vast distances.
  • a central factor in producing mediations between nature (imagined as all that is prior to and different than the human) and culture.
  • As such it has been a force for modernization: the market and the consumption practices it supports and incites help produce an ensemble of persons and objects/commodities, changing in tandem with one another, which creates the illusion that time is a vector and that now everything is different from what it was, and if we consumers want to "keep up" and be modern we must buy into those object/commodities, and adorn our lives with them (Latour)

Since at least the 18th c, cultural critics have been troubled by this question: what does the market, this increasingly powerful ambient reality, do to culture? 20th century scholarship carries the burden of 2 centuries of response to this question: Marxist answers are strongly biforcated: the take-over of the market by Capital produces the dystopic analysis of the Frankfurt School (commodification of leisure, the insinuation of market values into everyday life) ą consumers become robots and shopping a form of willing subjection. By contrast the Birmingham school rejoins: the market enfranchises buyers, commodities can improve one's life, shopping is a central leisure activity, and finally, the market enables the triumph of the popular culture over high culture. Books by Kowalski-Wallace, Lynch and Mackie suggest that one of modern feminism's founding impulses may be the rejection of ornament and finery and a systematic denunciation of the discourse of fashion for the way it subjects women to the male gaze. One thinks for example of Wollstonecraft on her use of an-anti-ornamental style and her urging women to stop dressing in order to seduce intriguing men; of course in the 20th c, feminists have produced the strongest critiques of advertising's sell of commodities to adorn the body. New scholarship on 18th consumption challenges the assumption that underlies these Marxist and feminist critiques of the market: that there can be an exteriority between the market, with its mechanisms for fixing value, and human culture. The new scholarship upon 18th century consumption studies the market, reading, fashion, and shopping, so the circulation of things, persons, and the desires that link them, can be opened up to new ways of thinking.

In my book Licensing Entertainment I describe how writers as different as Haywood and Richardson respond to the opportunities provided by the market in printed books. My story begins when the novel circulates within market culture, where consumers buy into novel reading by buying print commodities: it this way they exercise their monetary franchise to designate value. (The importunity and autonomy of buyers has everything to do with the invention of the modern category of the literary, as a value that is supposed to elude determination by the market.) In publishing Pamela in 1740, Richardson seeks to elevate the novel reading practices the market has sponsored. I would like to describe that project somewhat differently than I did in LICENSING ENTERTAINMENT: as a three-fold movement involving: the act of denunciation, the project of purification and the production of a hybrids.

  1. First, denunciation. Observing the popularity of the novels of amorous intrigue, Richardson denounces the popular novels of Behn, Manley and Haywood for being too like the market that sponsors them: self-interested, repetitive and superficial. He does so in the name of that which is supposed to be original, prior to the market, and valuably human: virtue, the value he invokes in the subtitle to his first novel, Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded.
  2. Second, Richardson aims to purify those books read for entertainment. In Pamela Richardson tells the story of a pure and innocent girl and a non-novel reader; as replacement and antidote to those novels so alluring to Richardson's target audience (the young readers of both sexes), Pamela's narrative is intended to be a non-novel and an anti-novel. By fashioning Pamela as the last novel reformed readers would want to read, he hoped to cleanse media culture of the novels and romances he denounced.
  3. Thirdly, and paradoxically, Richardson's attempts at purification have the effect of inducing mediations that produce new hybrids. Pamela's inventive relationship to its precursors makes it a hybrid: Richardson's absorption and overwriting of the novel formulas developed with so much success by Behn and Haywood depends upon an ingenious mixing of intriguing amours and conduct discourse. This produces a new mixed form of reading practice: it hybridizes the absorptive reading of novels with the ethical labor of the conduct books, the body hooked by the novel and the mind engaged in reflection. The success of Pamela on the market induces new hybrids-sequels, rip-offs and travesties (like Shamela, Anti-Pamela, Joseph Andrews). Appalled by the way his text has been given a life of its own, by the way others have marred his creation and gotten it all wrong, Richardson re-enters the market with new products: Pamela in her elevated condition, Clarissa, Sir Charles Grandison, and finally a purifying collection of the moral sentiments found in all three.

The mid-century shift in novel reading practices involves a fusion of the market of products with the culture of practices; here books-products made of matter and words-are hooked into the bodies, hearts and minds engaged in reading. It is this intense linkage of market and culture that produces the empathic identification of readers with characters so remarked upon at the time: it gives fiction the ethical potential Diderot describes in his Eulogy to Richardson and Rousseau exploits in Julie. By the end of the 18th century, reading novels could now become part of self-formation.

But novels are not the only commodities that inflect subject formation. In Consuming Subjects, Beth Kowalski-Wallace shows how 18th century women are constructed as subjects in relationship to the commodities they consume: tea and coffee, sugar, china, and the very activity of shopping. By reading poems, plays, novels and conduct discourse, Kowalski-Wallace documents a long tradition of setting up women as consumers par excellence, and then scape-goating them for the consumption indulged by the whole society. For example, in her fascinating chapter on the collection of china in the 18th century, Kowalski-Wallace shows how china and women were habitually linked so they can serve as a screen for a semiotic operation: "society projected its own ambivalence about consumer culture onto women." (54) By this interpretation, there is a locus of meaning construction different than women (society, discourse) that "constructs" women as "china-like": fragile, shapeable, beautiful, potentially flawed, expensive, and the focal point of display.

The conceptual framework Kowalski-Wallace develops for women's shopping reminds me of Foucault's account of the prison in Discipline and Punish: women don't have much more role in elaborating the discourses of consumption than the prisoners placed in the panopticon have in its design. It is part of the bleak rigor of Kowalski-Wallace's book that she does not attempt to say what women "really are" when they sit at the tea table or go shopping. Perhaps it is inevitable that Kowalski-Wallace begs the question of agency her own conceptual framework makes most urgent: how do you stop women's artful labor at the tea-table from turning into a spectacle for others? women's shopping from turning into pornography, and women's business from turning into prostitution? In social spaces conceptualized this way, there is not much creative room for women to write, play and work. It is true that Kowalski-Wallace's analysis does document moments when women may offer a momentary subversion of the system devised to contain them: as when Mrs. Mittin scandalizes the shop-keepers in Camilla by rifling through their wares, passing from shop to shop with impunity, without buying a thing. Throughout her analysis, Kowalski-Wallace also suggests that women have an excess and surplus that cannot be contained by the 18th century discourse on consumption. However, this "freedom" is an after-image of a certain form of discursive enslavement.

One alternative to the impasse defined by Consuming Subjects is suggested by Paula McDowell's book, The Women of Grub Street: Press, Politics and Gender in the London Literary Marketplace 1678-1730. Her account of women printers and writers of the period suggests the many direct and active ways that women participated as producers in the market place of early modern print culture. Most strikingly, McDowell reinterpret's Habermas' account of the public sphere-as male, rational, and well-mannered-as a belated theoretical construction that erases the salient public role of early modern women. Deidre Lynch's new book, The Economy of Character, focuses like Kowalski-Wallace upon the consumption side of the market; but she offers a very different way to negotiate the issue of female agency and subject-formation. Firstly, Lynch offers a different trope to explore the relationship to the market: not the subject constructed or free but the subject negotiating between surfaces and depths. Most crucially, instead of making surface and depth an "either/or" proposition, Lynch suggests that the market promotes both the alluring surface of commodities and what she calls "the business of inner meaning."

Lynch's account of market culture develops an explicit critique of the strict polarization familiar from some feminist accounts of consumerism-where the self is "a pre-social, pre-discursive entity located well outside the marketplace," and the individual "who seeks opportunities for self-production within the market are portrayed as consumer culture's unwitting products."(169) By offering sustained readings of the scenes of shopping and consumption in Burney's Camilla, Lynch argues that the deep subject is not the antithesis of the commodity but that which is released when, after returning from shopping, the subject feels the gap between the commodity one may have "bought" (or refused to buy) and "me." In other words, shopping is an activity that takes us into the vexed game of social representations, but also provokes a recoiling back into a deep self supposed to be prior to its adornments and public postures. Lynch's detailed reading of Camilla shows that self and object, consumer and commodity, the deep meaning of the self and the network of the market are not simple oppositions. They are in fact mutually constitutive. [I don't have time to discuss Lynch's alignment of this topic and argument with another technology of the self: the deep reading for character that is the central focus of Lynch's book.]

The dynamic Lynch finds in Burney relates to those efforts of denunciation, purification and mediation I described above. The effort to denounce shopping as a system for turning female subjects into objects (whether it is marshaled from the patriarchal right in the 18th c or from a "pessimistic" feminist left in the 20th c) seeks to purify the locus of cultural value (the self) by separating it from those objects (clothes as things) that represent the self in public. But, in fact, ironically, this denunciation of the market, and effort to purify culture, helps to link, by mediating between, the self supposed to be deep and the one that goes shopping. Since society demands that we each produce a visible self-articulation, one is always shopping for the objects that will never measure up to the self one can never finally define. The result in the modern period is a proliferation of hybrids: mixtures of persons and non-persons, an ever-expanding repertoire of fashions and styles, as well as the ever-evolving practices of dress and subjectivity. The impossible project of self-display elicits a self that remains inner, private, hidden and inexhaustible.

I want to end with a big "BUT": A few years ago most of us were talking a most ascetic line; when we went shopping we courted the charge of hypocrisy. But now I think I can hear the "cackle" of the capitalists in my ear: "Isn't this pure! While tenured radicals used to send their students to the barricades, now they are working up intellectual rationales for shopping at the mall." Or to pose the issue in less sweeping terms: is there a way to incorporate into our discussion of the market the difference in value between the two activities Lynch's book analogies: shopping and reading for character? Can we take account of the difference in value between different activities so we can, on the one hand, give full weight to the power of the market, and still sustain a critical reserve about its tendency to accelerate the commercialization of ever larger segments of modern life.

Latour: perhaps, in our exchanges with the market, we seek purification, but produce mediationsą that is, our literature, our bodies, our styles are the hybrids of market and culture which can no longer be purified of those exchanges.
  • Latour offers a global critique of the modernist project which began in the Enlightenment: to move beyond the mystified mixtures of nature and society (such that an earthquake could be a sign of divine displeasure with human action): the modernist project set out to develop a critical knowledge of nature by separating nature and society, object and subject, non-human and human-and made that difference fundamental and radical. Then knowledge of each could be divided: with science directing its energies at knowing nature, and the humanities and social sciences "getting" society.
  • Fashion offers a particularly fruitful self-reflexive window into the exchanges between market and culture (Mackie?): the promise of fashion-to make us new-is also a way of removing ourselves from outmoded customs that have begun to seem premodern (and thus too linked to necessity and natural limitations); old fashion is a custom one needs to surpass.

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Created 4/6/01 | Last Modified 3/12/03



 Director William WarnerWebmaster Jeremy DouglassModified March 12, 2003 12:33