Consumer Chronicles: Cultures of Consumption in Modern French Literature

Consumer Chronicles: Cultures of Consumption in Modern French Literature

Consumer Chronicles: Cultures of Consumption in Modern French Literature

Consumer Chronicles: Cultures of Consumption in Modern French Literature

Excerpt

The aim of this book is to examine aspects of the socio-economic history of modern France as depicted in literary texts of the period between the end of the nineteenth century and the second half of the twentieth. This study takes as its specific subject patterns of behaviour pertaining to shops and shopping, spending money and acquiring merchandise. The centrality of such activities in modern culture can hardly be overstated. As a recent commentator has remarked, shopping ‘is now, arguably, the defining activity of public life’. Already in André Gide’s Les Nourritures terrestres of 1897 the marketplace exemplifies an existential dilemma and the financial transaction is a means of self-discovery: ‘La nécessité de l’option me fut toujours intolérable; […] N’importe quoi s’achetait trop cher à ce prix-là […] Entrer dans un marché de délices, en ne disposant (grâce à Qui?) que d’une somme trop minime. En disposer! choisir, c’était renoncer pour toujours, pour jamais, à tout le reste.’ The choice and exhibition of an identity inherent in the selection of commodities is concisely highlighted by the ethnographer Pierre Mayol, who points out that ‘acheter est un acte public qui engage, non seulement par le prix que ça coûte, mais parce qu’on est vu par les autres en train de choisir […]. On dévoile donc quelque chose de soi, de son secret.’

The fact that we shop for meaning as well as merchandise makes it appropriate to speak of ‘cultures of consumption’. The term ‘culture’ as applied to consumption here is used in its widely accepted sense of practices that enact meaning and whose significance can be ‘read’. Consumption, on the other hand, is for Jean Baudrillard ‘un mode actif de relation (non seulement aux objets, mais à la collectivité et au monde), un mode d’activité systématique et de réponse globale sur lequel se fond tout notre système culturel’. It might be argued that the French language lends itself to large claims in respect of consumption because the word consommation carries a sense it lacks in English, where the term consummation has diverted one set of meanings away from its etymon. And it is a fact that for the economist Charles Gide, writing towards the end of the nineteenth century, just as for Jean Baudrillard, almost a century later, la consommation can be seen as the high point and culmination of the economic process: ‘La consommation est […] la cause finale et, comme . . .

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