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Splendour and Horror: Agnes Callard on shopping, Zola, and the birth of consumerism

I hope this snippet makes you go and read the whole thing.

In his Theory of the Leisure Class … Thorstein Veblen explains that “conspicuous consumption” is a way of signalling that one is above engaging in productive labour: “A detailed examination of what passes in popular apprehension for elegant apparel will show that it is contrived at every point to convey the impression that the wearer does not habitually put forth any useful effort.” In The Affluent Society, Kenneth Galbraith lays out what he calls “the dependence effect”, which is that capitalism reverses the relationship between production and desire. Instead of producing things in order to satisfy people’s antecedent desires and needs, a wealthy capitalist society has an antecedent commitment to production, which means: “It accords to the producer the function both of making the goods and of making the desires for them.”

All of that made some sense to me, but I was unsatisfied, feeling that phrases such as “conspicuous consumption” and “dependence effect” obscured as much as they revealed. They didn’t explain the powerful drive that animated me in the toy store, versions of which I continue to feel to this day when I shop. But then I read a novel by Émile Zola.

The Ladies’ ParadiseAu Bonheur Des Dames — is named for the department store that is the novel’s true protagonist. It is described alternately as a monster, a machine, a colossus, a cathedral, and over the course of the novel it grows — in power and influence, in financial success, and in physical size, as it expands along the street to swallow up the small businesses that had flourished in the neighbourhood for generations.

It is very hard not to be a moralist about capitalism. Veblen and Galbraith fall into the trap: one can hear the distaste in a phrase like “conspicuous consumption”. And these days, we are so accustomed to the word “capitalism” being followed by moralism that it comes as a shock to encounter Zola, who wants to talk to us about economic growth, about the lust for luxury goods, about the power of advertising and the many guises it can take, about the mannerisms of rich shoppers and the working conditions of the poor people who serve them — and yet doesn’t want to preach to us about any of those things.

He wants to show you the splendours and the horrors of something; he wants to help you understand.

The novel is filled with lavish descriptions of stuff, ecstatic prose poems to fabric — silk, in particular — to colour — white, in particular — that awaken the reader’s own acquisitive impulses…

Agnes Callard – Zola understood our lust for shopping in Unherd


1 thought on “Splendour and Horror: Agnes Callard on shopping, Zola, and the birth of consumerism”

  1. Stu, some time ago a TV series was made on The Ladies Paradise. Fun! Can’t recall who carried it, but we didn’t fall asleep watching it.


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