Reviewed in 1997
The first book I bought this summer is Daniel Roche's Histoire des Choses Banales; naissance de la consommation, XVIIe-XVIIIe siècles. Awed by the masterful control of many different types of sources, the generosity in acknowledging help from those who work with him, and the personal 'voice' he has always had in his work, which I admire enormously, I looked forward with a certain amount of excitement to reading this book. I have reviewed Roche's books on Paris, except the Culture des Apparences, which I would have loved to review, but no one asked me to do so. This book is no doubt his chef d'oeuvre (modern sense). Roche was not happy with my review of the first Paris book; he wrote me that we seem to differ on, was it 5 points?, and in listing them they were all obviously so minor that I knew I had upset him. I had written in my usual manner--trying to attract readers to the book, but such minor matters as the point that fireplaces provided light as well as heat were obviously not in good taste in my review. A deeper issue, clearly, was his interpretation of literary sources, notably Mercier, whom he read quite literally. This was, I suppose, quite understandable for a historian who had done social and institutional history (the academies) in a quite quantitative manner. The second book on Paris reveals a remarkable evolution in Roche's reading of Mercier; he sees him for the moralist he was, and understands the need to frame what he says.
The Culture des Apparences marked a brilliant move toward a new sort of histoire totale, with very careful and original work in social history, particularly about seamstresses, related crafts, and clothing consumption, invention (the dress) and advertising. The parts on domestic servants as cultural go-betweens is brilliantly convincing. I could go on and on about this book, but I am reading Les Choses Banales, so must turn to it after noting that Roche has also published a general history of l8th-century France, a book full of learning and maturity of reflection. No one has greater control over l8th century general social and cultural history than Roche, and who writes so clearly, interestingly, and personally.
The Histoire des Choses Banales disappointed me at first. I had to think about it, and figure out why I was disappointed. It is not like the Culture des Apparences, with its brilliant new problématique. Trying to write a general history of consumerism, Roche starts from the economic history of rural France--reaching back often to E. Labrousse, P. Goubert, et al. In principle this would seem to be a very strong place to start, but the result is musty and reductionistic. The old problematique about the plus grand nombre, and those lacking resources, used to seem so important as history from above had to be beaten down. Here, however, the commonplace prevails over the carefully chosen example, or statistic.
The "Conclusion" gives the dates l98l-l996, thus it is evident that Roche has been working on the problems of consumerism for a long time, and without abandoning the known, almost structural history of rural society. This is a difficult task. Here culture has not the analytical force it has in Apparences, and the larger questions posed about the older economic history, notably by Landes on Labrousse, are not integrated. It is as if Roche has slipped back in time, or that he wishes to give us a good old Left litany (with occasional aperçus owing to micro-history). I repeat--in principle this is excellent history--all of this introductory matter should be learned by the young, but, and it is a big but, it does not easily yield a convincing analytical framework for work on consumerism. In Apparences Roche destroyed the meaning of elite by demonstrating the remarkable roles artisans and printers and domestics played in creating a new l8th-century culture. To be sure, Roche cites the l982 and l993 Brewer (et al) volumes, but he does not seem to accept that the history of consumerism has developed its own problematic. Goldthwaite, for example, is not cited, yet for many of his themes, Roche reaches back to the Late Middle Ages. This is not to say that all that is recent is sound--there is often an antiquarian dimension to it--but getting from the vast rural population of the Ancien Regime to consumerism without careful and formal analytical clarity yields commonplace history. Roche may not wish to face the argument about luxury goods consumerism as a major source of change, and that, in it can be a driving force in empire- and state-building. To be sure, this argument can be put in favorable terms, but it can also be kept quite compatible with moral economic presuppositions. I am not one who is particularly happy with the findings about the relation between technology and productivity that Landes discerned in The Unbound Prometheus, largely because there is almost a Spencerian inevitability built into these relations, but it is evident that a study of consumerism without considering how a luxury can become a necessity is going to miss a lot of what happened in the l8th century. Roche grasped this superbly over the creation of the dress, but here he steps backward analytically, and with dissatisfying results.
This said, the principal themes, ordinary and luxury consumption, housing, rural and urban, lighting, heating, water and its uses, furniture, objects, clothes, and apparences, bread, wine, and taste, contain very interesting aperçus, but the scattershot choices of examples from north, south, east, and west, center, and so on, make generalization more platitudinous than historical. This is particularly the result of the fading of the meaning of culture in the analysis. The thing about truisms is that they are true (J. Barzun, Columbia College Class Day, l968) but they really do not make history. Economic history just cannot offer an interesting frame for the history of consumerism, and yet the subject is so obviously part of economic history.
But let's not forget, Roche has a remarkable eye for the significant fact. He draws on his immense reading to present what can only be considered important and curious, indeed, extremely interesting details about the quality of life in the Ancien Regime, a period when the 'empire of things' had not yet been established because of the still low, low level of expendable income beyond the necessities of food and shelter for the vast majority of the French. In the end, the historiography of consumerism has become quite elitist, and this Roche has refused to accept, and thus his work here is an important corrective grounded on much research, reflection, and 'classic' thought about the relations between society and productivity.