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  • La pièce et le geste: Artisans, marchands et savoir technique à Londres au XVIIIe siècle by Liliane Hilaire-Pérez
  • Arnaud Orain (bio)
La pièce et le geste: Artisans, marchands et savoir technique à Londres au XVIIIe siècle.
By Liliane Hilaire-Pérez. Paris: Albin Michel, 2014. Pp. 464. €24.

Jonathan H. Zeitlin has revealed how the British engineering industry, with its principles of product differentiation, adaptation for use, and design, was different from its nineteenth-century counterpart in the United States. But the birth of such principles and practices, their legitimization, and the roles played by craftsmen and traders (and philosophers and economists) was a story still to be told. Now, this has been admirably told in Liliane Hilaire-Pérez’s new book focusing on technological knowledge in eighteenth-century London. Her study is part of the historiographic rehabilitation of the “industrial revolution,” in which demand, colonial markets, cultural and institutional changes play a crucial role in any discussion concerning “growth.” This approach sidelines mass production and machinery, while exploring technology as a “science of the particular” (p. 32). In other words, the economy examined here is based on quality, skill, talent, and [End Page 752] ingenuity. Where better than in London—with its nearly one million inhabitants, large middle class, aristocratic residences, shows and fashions, and, therefore, its countless gold- and silversmiths, jewelers, watchmakers, coach builders, etc.—could such a study be carried out? Through the city’s markets, networks, and businesses, Hilaire-Pérez tells a story of success based on both variety and analogy, differentiation and imitation, specialization and de-compartmentalization.

The book’s first great contribution is to highlight the role played by the sensationist “principle of pleasure” as a source of technological change. Doing so leads Hilaire-Pérez to differentiate the coming classical theory of value (of David Ricardo and Karl Marx), which would be based on the quantity of work and capital accumulation, from Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), which was more focused on the pleasure-giving properties of objects and the functional usefulness of machines. This combination of emotional and functional dimensions of objects is embodied in the notion of toyware—things at the crossroads of curiosity and utility, belonging to the rational entertainment culture, epitomized in optical sciences, and shaped by the drive to differentiate, i.e., how “to suit” consumers’ expectations. Hilaire-Pérez convincingly demonstrates that toy-ware products only acquire meaning within networks. Therefore, classifying arts and crafts according to their material use (Diderot) tends to fade away toward a new nomenclature based on production processes and products, in metallurgy for instance, which the author covers brilliantly.

With this notion of an “economy of pleasure,” Hilaire-Pérez’s book provides a great contribution to the history of technology—no less than a redefinition of “work” and its organization in Enlightenment craft businesses. Differentiation and specialization require a growing need for sub-contracting and producers working in association. In the same way, the social division of labor has been intensified. One example of that trend is that tasks in carriage building were divided between workers and designers. The end of such a process is materialized, for instance, by the Vulliamy & Son clockmakers, who no longer had a workshop since they came to act as sold-to contractors. This new work organization encourages “breakdowns and rearrangements between professions” (p. 326). A consistent transversal system of components, semi-finished products, spare parts, and assembly operations emerges.

This movement needs (technological) language to be reconfigured, and the study of this new language is a third great contribution of the book. Here, Hilaire-Pérez demonstrates the analogy between philosophers’ (such as Étienne de Condillac or Adam Smith) “analytical” science—the decomposition/re-composition of ideas in a sensationist process—and the development of a new “science of tables” (p. 372) in craftsmen’s books—a new language for actions and gestures, distributed according to their functions and operations. [End Page 753]

From the history of consumption to that of gestures, this study of technology combines the history of political economy, markets, material culture, and aesthetics into a very convincing perspective...


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pp. 752-754
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