This little piggy went to market

The Consumption of Culture 1600-1800 - Acknowledging Consumption - Consuming Habits
March 29, 1996

While academic presses thunder into the night producing edited collections under the proud midwifely eye of the Research Assessment Exercise, even those of us praying for the speedy and safe delivery of our own progeny are apt to turn scornfully away from the chapters produced by others, decrying their opportunism and eager to spot the premature arrival, lacking in evidence or arguments.

This is partly because of our acute anxiety at the distortions such a wave of overproduction has placed on the market. How can we possibly digest this material, respond to it, incorporate it into our own teaching and research, before the presses turn again and the next wave washes over us? How can we act as consumers in such an age of excess?

Reflection on the contents of the books under review will help the reader's orientation into the world of "mass" higher education, and its concomitant, a necessarily fragmentary but still interconnected postmodern scholarship, of which the exercise is such an important part. These books are not, then, to be confused with the mass of exercise material: on the cusp of a crucial change of direction in several disciplines, and an encouraging tendency to work across those disciplines, they provide a crucial register of new academic work.

The concern with consumption raised by these three collections is particularly timely for an academic subjectivity not yet accustomed to the outrageous swings and arrows of the market. We are still, whatever our subject or faculty, committed to inculcating some version of the liberal education with which many of us grew up. But we are used to providing this enlightenment within the bounds of the subject areas produced by, precisely, Enlightenment rationality. One such area is political economy, whose descendant - economics, in variants used by both left and right - has shown very little ability to deal with the world as structured by demand and consumption.

We are therefore, argues Daniel Miller in the powerful and deliberately polemical introduction to Acknowledging Consumption, unable to see clearly that "consumption has become the vanguard of history". In a world in which the western shopper's demands, instantly registered at point of sale, have abolished seasonality and (for most) scarcity in food, power has shifted, and we have to find a language of "consumer citizenship" that will encompass the change and enable this demand-led revolution to remain that. Miller's optimism is refreshing.

The rest of Acknowledging Consumption fails to live up to the excitement of the introduction, though one author's citation of a meagre 42 items under his own name in a bibliography of 305 entries exemplifies a rather more oldfashioned, producerist heroism. The book provides a thorough and very useful guide to work on consumption. Anyone wanting a basic textbook for consumption courses, or needing to grapple themselves with this new consensual object of study among the disciplines of the social sciences, should start here.

However, it is perhaps in history that the new consumerism has had its greatest impact. Not because all historians have turned to consumption, but because the turn has transformed the study of the preindustrial West, and preindustrial Britain in particular. This is, then, for good or ill, an Anglocentric or, at best, a Eurocentric view; its importance to the history of global relations, usually only implicit here, has still to be (and must be) developed.

Since the publication of J. H. Plumb's pamphlet on the commercialisation of leisure, and its expansion in The Birth of a Consumer Society, a book jointly written by Plumb, Neil McKendrick and John Brewer, the study of consumption and demand has been part of a new stress on the 18th century as crucial in the formation of modernity precisely because of this take-off into self-sustained consumption.

The project initiated and overseen by Brewer while at University of California at Los Angeles, "Culture and Consumption in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries", has already provided a massive contribution to the reassessment of the early modern. The Consumption of Culture 1600-1800 is the final volume in this valuable series. As you would expect from its cover price, it is well produced, with copious black and white plates. Inside, it delivers living history: well-researched working papers rather than final thoughts, constructing new debate rather than asserting new authority. But at times, the reader feels the need for a firmer editorial hand. Another nagging absence is that of popular culture: the 18th-century society depicted in The Consumption of Culture is altogether too art-historical, too polite.

One of the major transformations of the early modern move to a consumer society was precisely the democratisation of imperial goods such as tobacco, tea, coffee, chocolate and sugar, which became mass commodities rather than luxury items. Realising the implications of all this - the creation of dependency through the desire for goods which could not be locally produced - William Cobbett railed against the "corrupt effeminacy" of tea drinking. Too late. By this time, as Jordan Goodman, Woodruff Smith and Jacob Price show in their contributions to Consuming Habits, the folkloric use of plants like mandragora and valerian had been replaced by substances that were industrially produced, administered by shops rather than neighbours - and taxed.

The purpose of Consuming Habits, another interdisciplinary collection drawing together work in anthropology and history, is to demonstrate the importance of such "soft drugs" to all the past and present cultures. Steven Hugh-Jones, Eric Hirsch and Paul Lovejoy discuss the chewing of kola nuts in the Sudan, coca in South America and betel in Papua New Guinea, showing in each case how drug use is an important aspect of the generational and gender structures of those societies. Reference is also made to the ways in which "traditional" uses have been commodified, outlawed and transformed into "narcotic drugs" in the contemporary West. Kathryn Meyer tells of opium trading by interwar Japanese with the shadowy aid of their state, prefiguring the Irangate scandal of recent times in which the American state dealt in cocaine while proclaiming a "war on drugs".

This deep-rooted hypocrisy is proclaimed rather than analysed in Consuming Habits. The book consists of well-informed empirical studies, framed by editorial comment that reflects all too briefly, and without theoretical speculation, on the omnipresence of drug use. Consumption is acknowledged: but we are offered no convincing reason as to why such habits are "consuming".

However speculative, more work, including more theorised work, on this aspect of consumption is needed if the world is to escape the impasse in which so many resources are dedicated to such a pointless "war" without addressing the question of demand beyond "saying no". This aspect of our consuming selves above all others needs examination. Routine as drug use is, as a form of consumption it remains the love that dare not speak its name, as MP Clare Short discovered not long ago.

These three books throw a great deal of light on our consuming selves, but so much more remains in shadow.

Andrew Blake teaches cultural studies at the University of East London.

The Consumption of Culture 1600-1800: Image, Object, Text

Editor - Ann Bermingham and John Brewer
ISBN - 0 415 12135 3
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £120.00
Pages - 548

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