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“The Error of our Ways: Historians and the Birth of Consumer Society” - page 8 / 19





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goods, sophisticated retailing, public controversy over the virtues and vices of commodity consumption, and the use of goods in identity formation.    Why not treat the presence of all of these to question or interrogate the ways in which we have equated certain aspects of  consumption with ‘modernity’?   But because the concern of this historiography has been to say – “look, we were there first” – no such critical commentary has been forthcoming.  The object is simply to extend modernity back in time, flattening our sense of the distinctiveness of different historical periods.  Its as if we want to invert Bruno Latour’s controversial thesis of ‘we have never been modern’ with something like the formulation, we have always been modern.    

One reason why consumer society gets pushed back further and further in time is because of our expectations about ‘traditional’ or ‘pre-modern’ societies.   We fantasize about a pre-lapsarian, edenic world, where men and women had simple needs, not complex wants, related to objects functionally rather than through irrational desire, and enjoyed a coherent and stable rather than fragmented and labile sense of identity.   When we look back into the past and find instead what I’ve called signs of modernity, we see first consumerism and then consumer society.

But – and this is my second question -  how do we get from acts of consumption or consumerism to ‘consumer society’?    As Ben Fine, one of the most persistent (and telling) critics of this literature has pointed out, the tactic (in which often one swallow really does seem to make a summer) involves what he calls a horizontal understanding of consumption: “whatever factors are taken to be of importance [in an individual case] are presumed to apply generally across the economy or society as a whole”.   If it works like this for pottery or automobiles, then it works like this in consumption as a whole.  In fact much of the literature on early modern consumption (and this is also often true for

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