Social Sciences: The Big Issues

By Kath Woodward | Go to book overview

Chapter 4

Buying and selling

Introduction

The great afternoon rush-hour had arrived, when the overheated machine led the dance of customers, extracting money from their very flesh. In the silk department especially there was a sense of madness … In the still air, where the stifling central heating brought out the smell of the materials, the hubbub was increasing, made up of all sorts of noises - the continuous trampling of feet, the same phrase repeated a hundred times at the counters, gold clinking on the brass cash-desks, besieged by a mass of purses, the baskets on wheels with their loads of parcels falling endlessly into the gaping cellars.

(Zola 1995:108-9)

What is this about? It is a description of a shopping experience which has resonance with many in the contemporary western world. The reference to the silk department might be a giveaway of earlier times, as might the mention of gold and purses. Nowadays it would be more likely to be ready-made designer label clothes and the swiping of credit cards! However, Emile Zola's novel The Ladies' Paradise captures a historical moment and, with the arrival of the department store, the modernization of commercial activities. The historical moment is the middle of the nineteenth century when the Bon Marche department store opened in Paris. There were parallel developments in the United States and in England. Although the advent of such large-scale shops meant the demise of traditional family stores, as recorded in the novel, Zola's novel is a celebration of the activity of modernity and in a sense a 'hymn to modern business, a celebration of the entrepreneurial spirit' (Nelson 1995: xi). The department store is the signifier of the promise of capitalism as experienced in the life of the city and for the middle classes. The store is a model for the capitalist economic system, based on the exchange of goods for profit. It is characterized by the principles of speed of turnover, circulation, commodity exchange and the rapid renewal of capital in the form of commodities.

The store and its surrounding arcades presented spaces for the display and sale of commodities, dreams and desires. These commodities which had initially promised to fulfil desires, now created them. This is an important shift in the

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Social Sciences: The Big Issues
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Illustrations ix
  • Acknowledgements x
  • Chapter 1 - Introduction 1
  • Chapter 2 - You and Me, Us and Them 19
  • Chapter 3 - Citizenship 51
  • Chapter 4 - Buying and Selling 77
  • Chapter 5 - Where Do You Come From? 103
  • Chapter 6 - Globalization 131
  • Chapter 7 - Conclusion 157
  • Glossary 169
  • Further Reading 175
  • Bibliography 177
  • Index 183
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