Discussion of Berg’s Luxury and Pleasure

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

23 responses to “Discussion of Berg’s Luxury and Pleasure

  1. Laura Rosenthal

    My copy is out on loan so I’m just commenting from memory, but I remember being thrown a bit whenever she was distinguishing herself from McKendrick as she seemed to be making a similar case. I think she wants to back off a little from the idea of a full scale “revolution” but still capture the incredible range of production and consumption in the period–and also, as you point out Lisa, show the importance of the middling classes in this. The book is one of those amazing works of research and synthesis that offers a wealth of detail about eighteenth-century commodities. One connection I really liked was the way she showed how so much of English commodity production was based initially on imitating “exotic” imports.

  2. Lisa, welcome to the Long 18th. We’re glad to have you on board.

    I only know Berg’s edited collection with Eger, which I liked a great deal, but let me throw out a few suggestions, anyway.

    The significance of luxury in modernity in B’s argument lies in its role as agent of modernization, does it not? In other words, luxury begins to feed perceptions of modernity as processes that are no longer resisted, but in fact welcomed by consumers, who can now enjoy values like “novelty” and “curiosity” and “ephemerality” for their own sake.

    The focus upon the middle class is part of this shift towards a normative subject in modernity, one who “consumes.” Ths gets caught up in Mandeville’s displacement of luxury from moralistic to economic discourses. (I’m rehearsing Hundert again)

    These displacements, however, took place under the radar of religious and moral discourse, until Mandeville brought them into the open, and scandalized everyone with his arguments about the universality of hypocrisy and dissimulation under such conditions of modernity. This, anyway, is how I understand Hundert’s argument.

    So, for starters, I’d think about Mandeville’s role in all this, as a diagnostician of the modern subject.


  3. Laura Rosenthal

    That’s right about Hundert:
    Mandeville “introduced into the heart of European social understanding a series of arguments designed to sustain the radically unsettling conclusion that the moral identites of his contemporaries had been permanently altered by a previously unacknowledged historical transformation.” (14)

    But I’m not sure it was entirely under the radar of moralists. The Societies for the Reformation of Manners did not articulate these issues nearly as clearly as Mandeville but, arguably, this is just why they were so frantic.

  4. I wonder if it might be fruitful to push on the declaration of “modernity” as evidence against the consumer’s feeling of participation in the modern. That is, to purchase something because it is modern demonstrates the consumer’s self-identification as being outside the modern, and (sincerely or insincerely) trying to obtain the accoutrements of the modern.

    That is, there’s something dreadfully old-fashioned about someone concerned with “modernity,” just as there’s something hopelessly middle-class about someone trying to obtain “luxury” items. Concerns with luxury and with modernity seem to be signifiers in novels of the period of someone’s anxieties about not meeting social standards of fashionability.

    For a current example, you should have heard me talking right after I finally bought an iPod a few months ago. After years of entrenched musical Ludditism, I went and bought one of the special edition ProductRed Nanos, and wasn’t I the cat’s meow? Look how cool, how hip and with-it I am! –all signs of my being anxious about being labelled as either low-class or technologically backward. (Wait until I finally ditch dial-up!)

  5. That said, I obviously haven’t read the Berg and am just speculating.

  6. Right, but I think that the scandal that Mandevile provoked lay in his suggestion that his clerical opponents were inconsistent in their attitudes toward modernity. They accepted the social or commercial benefits of modernity and modernization, but not the erosion of their inherited religious and moral codes. (surprise!)

    This is what McKeon would call an “explicitation,” where spelling things out and making certain causal linkages actually hardens disagreements.

    So BM and Sherlock, say, would both be cognizant of the destructive processes of modernization, but BM would have a wayof talking about the contradictions between modernization and the inherited discourse of Christian austerity. This is one way to understand, for example, the disappearance of the sumptuary codes that had once been in effect throughout England.


  7. Laura Rosenthal

    I like your idea of wanting to be modern as already old-fashioned! But I think Berg is distinguishing between a time when valuable inherited objects carried great prestige and an emergent prestige in the 18th century around new things because they are new, a phenomenon that she argues is, well, new. The prestige of the new is so pervasive that it’s hard to imagine a world without it, but I think this is what she’s getting at when she writes about 18th century people wanting to feel modern. I wonder, though, if there are scenes in 18th c novels parallel to the one you describe with the iPod.

  8. Carrie, if I understand you correctly, you’re talking about the way that modernity forces us to internalize that incompleteness of identity that comes from an endless round of social emulation (of people cooler than we are) and consumption (of goods that never quite satisfy us).

    We are never quite up-to-date enough to satisfy ourselves under such a regime of expectations. Mandeville’s point would be that this is a historically novel set of circumstances, wherein emulation and consumption are both taken for granted, and granted normative status. Your point, though, points up why this is not the happiest of states to be in. Read Rousseau, or better yet, Gawker.



  9. I think definitely by the time of Evelina and Belinda, there are clearly scenes in which someone interested in appearing modern are clearly coded as embarrassingly low-class, though perhaps not yet signifiers of being out of fashion. (That is, their desire for modernity is criticized as crass, not damning against a standard of “actual” modernity.)

  10. And that incompleteness is interesting because the promise of C18 consumerism is that, rather than always being beyond some uncrossable boundary of social acceptability, the middle class could, theoretically, buy their way into society if one isn’t born into it. And one can, in a passing way. To remain “modern” then requires an upkeep with fashions that is impossible for those with limited resources. Once one begins participating in an economic system that offers the promise of class mobility through consumerism, one has to keep it up or fall back through the cracks. I wonder if that’s where the demands of “modernity” in consumer culture come from, as a way of marking a line between those who “really” belong and those who are just visiting.

  11. Laura Rosenthal

    Burney came to mind when I was writing that comment, as did *Northanger Abbey.* But I agree that the alternative is not being even more modern, so it’s not quite the same. But what about Sir Foping Flutter in *The Man of Mode*, who looks foolish compared to the way cooler Dorimant? The alternative to FF’s faux cosmopolitanism seems in this case to be Dorimant’s mastery of modishness. The unfashionable bumpkin is a staple of Restoration comedy, but this appears before Berg would place modern consumerism (although I’d have to look again on this point).

  12. For old-fashioned fashionables, I’d try Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion, or the superannuated dandies based on Brummell and others in the Regency period, or maybe Lord Steyne in Vanity Fair. (mining my book for examples), based pretty well on Chesterfield.

    The fop’s transformation into the macaroni and eventually the dandy is all about the center of fashionable gravity moving from court to town, isn’t it? Fops are intially courtly figures, and are symptoms of a competitive, courtly ethos, which gets muddied up by emulation from folks like Burney’s Mr. Smith, who try to mingle with the real thing.


  13. What I really pulled from the monograph was the ways in which Berg incorporated Britain into world economic history. Sure, we know that the late eighteenth century is particularly important for Britain’s new imperial attitudes, but her discussion of imitation of Asian techniques (porcelain, textiles, etc.) as a way to reconstruct a British world market (the Atlantic trade) was particularly fascinating for me. It was the demand for commodities that pushed the change in British processes of commodity production, which moves away from the old idea of processes reflecting simple ingenuity. The ingenuity here is a practical necessity driven by consumer demand.

    I really like the book, but there are elements of the “whiggish” about it; and while she juxtaposes her work to McKendrick, I would have liked to have seen far more discussion of how her approach interacts with other scholars’ work.

  14. Laura Rosenthal

    I agree with you. By “whiggishness,” I take that you mean the way the book delineates these developments without fully placing them in tension with, for lack of a better phrase, the postcolonial critique, which has explored their human costs. But it’s also one of the best histories of the period’s consumer practices that I’ve seen.

  15. Carrie, Dave, and Laura,
    Your discussion of modernity is very insightful. It seems that, properly defined, this term could be used to reframe the consequences of obsessions w/ novelty – e.g. Sir Fopling Flutter, as well as Loveless and Sir Novelty Fashion in Cibber’s *Love’s Last Shift.*

    On nationalism: as I see it, Berg’s argument offers a revision to other work that has examined the relationship b/w the development of British identity and consumption. For example, in *The Rise of English Nationalism* Gerald Newman argues [and this is an oversimplification] that England develops a national identity grounded in sincerity, frankness, and originality – an identity that is directly opposed to France and the perception of the French as dishonest, effeminate, and excessive consumers.

    Berg, on the other hand, shows how consumption (and even luxury!) was brought into rather than rejected from British identity.

  16. Laura,

    Yes, on both accounts. I too believe that this is an excellent book on the period, and in fact have an upcoming review that looks incredibly favorable on the monograph.

    With regard to the “whiggishness”, I noted a certain propensity to glorify the new “modern” sensibility of Englishness without carefully detailing the problems of an “Atlantic world commodity.” In the end, I didn’t see this so much as a problem that undermined the monograph’s substantive arguments.

    To Lisa, I will revisit Newman’s work, but it seems that Berg does indeed juxtapose the British sense of identity as a “type” of consumption–clearly there were bad models, and it wasn’t so simple to simply incorporate consumption into the British world-view. It was a long internal process going back to before the Glorious Revolution; but it was also an external process built around privateering and the necessity to control goods brought in from Asia (and therefore undermine Asian economic monopoly of particular goods).

  17. Elizabeth Veisz

    I happened to be reading Katie Trumpener’s _Bardic Nationalism_ at the same time as _Luxury and Pleasure_ , and their juxtaposition actually provides a very interesting way into questions of modernity and national identity. Trumpener details the vogue for antiquities, particularly among Celtic nationalists and regionalists, and the ensuing debates about authenticity, the relationship between art and landscape, art and “native” place, etc. While anitiquities can indeed be consumer objects in their own right, it seems that the distinction between valuing something because it is “old” and has been (allegedly) derived from its original source, and valuing something because it is made with the newest production values and in the newest style, is one way to look at the uneven development of cultural nation-building in the eighteenth century.

  18. I hadn’t thought of that juxtaposition before, but that antiquarian/novelty tension captures the late 18c spectrum of tastes pretty well. Think about the fake antiquarianism and literary novelty of the gothic in Walpole, for example, or the antiquarian dimension of Sterne (something I’ve presented on).

    Does Trumpener present these strains as a dialectic, Elizabeth, or is that your observation? Either way, it seems a good way to talk about the late 18c.



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  20. Laura Rosenthal

    An interesting play at the crossroads of those issues that Elizabeth brought up is Foote’s *Taste* (1751), which is about the auctioning of (fake) antiquities and of course the whole issue of “taste.” But Foote also seems to be defending a more genuine antiquarianism that he distinguishes from the commodified antiquarianism of those who lack “taste” but think they have it : he says he “was determined to brand those * Goths* in Science, who had prostituted the useful Study of Antiquity to trifling superficial Purposes.” Trumpener has yet another contribution: that nationalistic antiquarianism could function as a form of resistance to imperial domination. Thus she distinguishes between Enlightenment antiquarians and nationalist antiquarians:

    “Thus where Enlightenment histories stress the necessary discontinuities of culture, nationalist histories stress the survival of cultural memory from one epoch to the next . . . if the Enlightenment impulse is scientific–an attempt to expand, by experiment and by catalog, the scope of the knowable world–the nationalist project is recuperative. What separates nationalist antiquaries from their Enlightenment counterparts is their motivation and their partisanship, their identification with their subject matter and their sense of temporality.” (29)

  21. Laura, it’s interesting how those two aspects of the late 18c fall into dialectical play, and the Foote play does indeed seem to be an interesting document of those two impulses.

    The Trumpener passage is also intriguing, though I wonder how tenable her distinction between nationalist and Enlightenment (or cosmopolitan) antiquarians really is.

    For one thing, pre18c antiquaries are always intensely concerned w/local histories and tales, but obviously collect these with some kind of ambition of constructing national histories, e.g., Camden. Maybe she would include Camden in the nationalist category, I dunno. I’ve got a post that I started but couldn’t complete from weeks ago that talks about “chorography,” local histories, that I’ll try to put up as soon as my deadline frenzy this week ends.

    Her distinction feels overdrawn to me, though, because I think that both types are equally “scientific” and “recuperative.”

    I do agree, though, that antiquarian activities were a way of multiplying histories that could give alternative perspectives to official narratives of conquest and assimilation.



  22. Laura Rosenthal

    Her emphasis is on the last point you make about alternative perspectives to official narratives. She has less on Enlightenment antiquarians in particular than Enlightenment ideals in general, such as “progress,” and the internal colonizing practices justified by the idea of progress, such as bog drainage. So it’s an interesting question that you raise: ie, is there something at the heart of * all* antiquarianism that potentially complicates the 18th-c project of internal colonization, even if unwittingly? Certainly antiquarians were endlessly ridiculed on stage (*Three Hours after Marriage* among others), so perhaps there is something about what they were doing that made everyone a little nervous.

  23. I’ve got to get back into Trumpener, whose book I looked into years ago but couldn’t finish. I like it better, actually, when you discuss it in these contexts.

    As for antiquarians and antiquarianism, see my latest post on chorographers and merchants.