Nineteenth Century French Studies 31.3&4 (2003) 367-368
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Tiersten, Lisa. Marianne in the Market: Envisioning Consumer Society in Fin-de-Siècle France. Berkeley: U of California P, 2001. Pp. 236. ISBN 0-520-22529-5
Mass consuming, according to Tiersten, was a greater cultural problem in France than in the other great powers because the ideology of individualism was weaker. Republicanism occupied the political space that liberalism did in Britain, Germany, or the United States, with the result that virtue and self-sacrifice were more important values than self assertion. Consuming by women, whose idealized role was limited to republican motherhood, was particularly problematical. At the same time, Tiersten acknowledges, the expression of taste was an extremely important feature of Frenchness. In this fascinating study, Tiersten works out how Third Republic France became ideologically reconciled to women shoppers in department stores. The route was through the acceptance of aesthetic individualism.
Tiersten explores, first, shopping as a political and moral problem and, then, the solution, cleverly labeled "civilizing consumption." Suspicion of consumerism as a diversion from more appropriate engagement emerged well before the Third Republic. What made the culture of department stores particularly objectionable during the 1880s and 1890s was a sense that it was undermining the French economy - and Frenchness - by promoting shoddy goods and a decline in taste. Republicans, along with conservative critics of modernity, were convinced that the vulgar bourgeois consumer favored the production of inferior products, with deleterious consequences for France on world markets.
These misgivings, however, were ideologically troublesome in a bourgeois republic that had accepted, or was accepting, market forces and material prosperity as its foundation. Discursive strategies not just to defend consumerism but also to redefine it as civic responsibility had to be found, and they were. The key was the construction of what Tiersten calls "marketplace modernism." This vision of consumerism reconfigured consuming from vulgar materialism to an art form that was also an [End Page 367] exercise in individualism. The acceptance of marketplace modernism transformed the chic Parisienne from an aristocratic femme du monde to a bourgeois wife and mother. Rather than emphasizing the frivolity of spending, republicans accepted shopping as a the practice of artistic discernment and as a matter of self-discipline. Finally, republicans, assured that even workers would one day earn enough to be shoppers, took the department store as a symbol of the social solidarity and transcendence of class barriers that was the regime's long term promise.
Tiersten's study is a noteworthy contribution to our understanding of an evolving republican political culture. We know that in 1878, on the verge of France becoming a republic, the most ardent advocates of the regime traveled to Geneva to commemorate the centenary of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, father of French republican civic ideology. Yet, the political leaders of France for the next three decades were not faithful to Rousseau's spirit. The Third Republic quickly became friendly to big business, welcomed the free play of market forces, and gave the rich carte blanche. Tiersten offers valuable clues about how the regime reconciled individualism with virtue without abandoning non-liberal republican rhetoric. Her study also contributes to gender history in showing how - despite the fin-de-siècle "crisis of masculinity" - women were taking on more of the attributes of autonomous individuals and acquiring new ways to function constructively as citizens.
As a study of political culture, this book is noteworthy in drawing so much material from fashion journals and treatises on design, from which Tiersten intelligently teases out the political meanings. The conceptual framework is original and stimulating. However, precisely because her work is about the politicized discourse on consumerism, she might have attended more to the agents of reconciliation. The problem is that republicans and culturally conservative enemies of the Third Republic shared many views. The section on "civilizing the market" depends heavily on vaguely identified "taste experts," presumably of diverse political persuasions. This is a minor quibble about book that sheds much new light on discourses that made shopping imaginable as...