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“The Error of our Ways: Historians and the Birth of Consumer Society” - page 10 / 19





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If leaping from acts of consumption to consumer consciousness is a non-starter, what about the move from acts of consumption to consumer society?   There has been a tendency in the historical literature to assume that the definition of consumer society is self-evident, or that it is a thing with a series of characteristics – disposable and discretionary income for a significant number of people, availability of goods that permit consumer choice, the practice of self-fashioning through goods often understood as a desire for the new, novelty and fashion – that can be checked off like items on a shopping list.  In fact, most definitions of consumer society do consist of or at least include a shopping list; it is more often than not defined by the density of things – furnishings and fabrics in the eighteenth-century – cars, televisions and household appliances in the mid-twentieth.  In much of this literature the presence of goods and commodities overshadows the presence of consumers themselves, for it is the plenitude of goods rather than the plethora of consumers that conveys the sense of abundance with which consumer society is so often associated.    It is the consumed good rather than the consumer who speaks in this story.

In all such accounts there is a gap between consumer practices and the notion of consumer society, one that is more often than not filled by some general characterization of ‘the consumer’, which is needed to explain why they consume.  In McKendrick’s case he welds Veblen to the eighteenth-century luxury debate to produce the emulative consumer.  In other accounts of consumer society we are offered the manipulated consumer, whose tastes and preferences are given to him or her (this a favourite of the Left from the Frankfurt school critics onwards), the dreaming, fantasist consumer (often invoked in analyses of the department store), the marginal utility rationalising consumer of most economists, and the identity-creating consumer and the resisting consumer, found

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