Thursday, April 05, 2012

James Raven's Judging New Wealth; contradictions in the commodity form of the book

Raven examines the British book business in the second half of the 18th century, explaining how the book became more of an everyday commodity as the reading public expanded. The growing market led to a streamlined product to meet it, which in turn grew the market further. With books, this meant genre formulas were refined and generalized so audiences would know what they were getting. Critics of the period recognized this; one likened fiction to a "drug" engineered to be addictive through its standardized tropes and stereotypes.

But Raven's main concern, as the title suggests, is the prominence of stories about the nouveau riche, the demand for which was inexhaustible in the period -- unsurprisingly given the middle class makeup of the new reading public. The fiction of the era catered to a need in readers to disavow their own dubious origins and established a different means for establishing character than bloodlines, namely the sensibility to appreciate fiction and respond emotionally to it.

Part of what happens is that taste stops meaning aristocratic discrimination and starts meaning the ability to be ahead of the fashion curve. Those are often the same thing in practice, if you think fashions emerge from hierarchical emulation. But the shift in emphasis indicates a shift in imagined possibilities -- the new commodities allow one to believe that taste can be achieved. No longer a matter of blood but a matter of wise consumer choices. The book market is microcosm of the larger democratization of taste through open markets in fashionable goods. This has destabilizing effects throughout the class hierarchy, prompting an acceleration in the cycling through of signifiers of status. This acceleration with urgently spun as freedom by capitalism's ideologues, and who knows? Maybe they were right. We can't project backward and know whether we would have enjoyed the "ontological security" of being consigned for life to a particular social caste. Perhaps Gilles Lipovetsky is right and fashion is a small price to pay for social mobility (even uneven and imperfect mobility). But this is certainly an important basis of emerging consumerist ideology — the right to have Meaningful Taste and to find life's purpose in it rather than upholding one's place in the Great Chain of Being.

In 18th century England, the "new definition of social awkwardness" promulgated by novels of manners, Raven argues, drove an impulse for a standardization in fashionable objects, an orderly process for their passage through fashionability. This helps allow for the emulation that preserves the status hierarchy by making it legible. Commodities as a form, as a symbolizing medium, become a stable ground or field within which status can be derived and measured. (Books are just one salient example of this process of making goods, creating markets for them, and tolerably embedding those markets into existing social relations.)

Raven notes the apparent contradiction in the substance of commoditized books: They promise to inculcate proper social conduct, but their form is engineered to teach one simply to become addicted to reading more books. The form says "consume more," regardless of content -- this is basically true of all commercial media products. The worship of novelty is built in, so the allegedly permanent, always true ethical advice or aesthetic taste these early books could offer was always compromised. They offered the experience of having learned the "last word" about some moral or aesthetic question as something you could consume again and again -- moral certitude as a commodity. Experiencing morality (or connoisseurship) vicariously as entertainment replaces the need to act morally in the world to demonstrate that one has learned and understood some precept.

The new reader's yearning for permanence is leveraged into an appreciation for the exhilarating experience of ephemerality. This is how commoditized books, commercial fiction reproduce their market, making these contradictory desires cohere, coexist. Media consumption in general perhaps performs this work, manufacturing a necessary illusion for capitalism, that one can consume one's way to solidity, that one can experience stability serially, as a string of vicarious consumption experiences.

No comments:

Post a Comment