This is my first time posting to a blog of any sort. But as this site and its participants come highly recommended by my advisor/director, Laura Rosenthal, I figure it must be the best place to start.
I’d like to discuss a few of the main tenets and implications of Berg’s argument in Luxury and Pleasure in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Oxford UP, 2005). The book centers around the question of what happens when the history of consumption is considered in tandem with the history of production. In Berg’s hands, this revised history shows how manufacturers, merchants, philosophers, and consumers adapted production processes, shopping experiences, and goods themselves to promote values of the “middling class.” As a result luxuries formerly negatively associated with ostentation, excess, and foreign imports, gave way to consumer goods conveying modernity, novelty, fashion, ingenuity, and national identity. Berg distinguishes her history from McKendrick’s “consumer revolution” by confining her consumers to only those that qualify as middling (frustratingly, it is not until chapter six that she defines this group) and by extending her analysis to include regional patterns of consumption (and production). I’d like to first pose the question of how integral defining this group of consumers is to the argument outlined above. Although she does not say this, is Berg invoking discourses that posit the middling class as the moral center of eighteenth-century society? I’m thinking along the lines of Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments and of Addison and Steele’s efforts to effect reform in taste and consumption (à la Erin Mackie). I’m also particularly confused by the word “modernity,” a quality which Berg does not define but does suggest these consumers value (195, 247). How should we understand modernity in an eighteenth-century context? How does modernity relate to taste and politeness? and by extension to the positioning of the middle class as the new leading consumers and new arbiters of taste?
Finally, I want to consider one specific phenomenon of shopping that Berg raises through the voice of William Hutton. In 1785 Hutton claimed, “Not a corner of [London] is unlighted…the sight is most beautiful” (262). Wolfgang Schivelbush (Disenchanted Night 137-154) suggests that the lighted street, with its dark borders functions as an interior space and as a theater, a place where a variety of goods and people are staged. Can we discuss more the space and activity of shopping as they relate to the construction of an interior self? What kind of education does shopping provide? How does this education relate to the construction of personal as well as national identities? What role does performance play in constructing these identities?
I have not even touched on the ways I think Berg’s argument makes a poignant critical intervention into studies on the development of British identity. But this should be enough (too much?) to get us started
– Lisa B. Higgins