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  • Between Words and Things:“La Querelle du luxe” in the Eighteenth Century
  • Michael Kwass (bio)

Historians understand the importance of language. In the 1980s, the discipline took a sharp linguistic turn, as many social historians trained in the 1960s and 1970s renounced cherished ideas about social class and material life, and moved boldly toward a language-centered cultural history. This shift toward linguistic analysis was particularly notable in my own field—the French Revolution—where self-described “revisionist” historians abandoned Marxian social interpretations of the Revolution to pursue the study of political culture. The result was a highly creative body of work, which claimed that what was modern about the French Revolution was not the seizure of power by a rising capitalist bourgeoisie (this was the old Marxian interpretation) but, rather, the dynamic ways in which revolutionaries constructed a radically new political culture. Much of that culture was the product of novel discourse, as words like “la nation,” “le citoyen,” and “la révolution” took on new, highly charged political meanings. As Roger Chartier argued at the time, the systematic redefinition of such words reflected an intellectual process by which revolution became thinkable and therefore possible.1 [End Page 771]

Today, the pendulum of French revolutionary historiography is swinging back to social and economic history—back to questions of capitalism, trade, property, and finance.2 The financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent Great Recession, I would argue, have encouraged historians to return to concrete economic problems. This apparent return to the socio-economic has not, however, heralded the end of the linguistic turn. To the contrary, a new generation of economic historians are adopting the linguistic methods of intellectual and cultural historians to chart a methodological route forward. It is now widely understood that the study of the economic past must encompass the language historical actors used to talk about and classify the material world in which they found themselves. Today, all but the most unreconstructed social historians acknowledge the extent to which language mediates thought and behavior. Words and things, therefore, must be studied together.

One of the most notable examples of this methodological transformation comes from the literature on the so-called consumer revolution of the eighteenth century. Building on the work of British historians, Daniel Roche and others have claimed that well before the age of the Industrial Revolution France experienced a “revolution” (small “r”) in consumption that fundamentally altered material culture.3 From 1650 to 1800, elites, the middling sort, and, to some degree, the laboring classes began to consume goods on a previously unthinkable scale, particularly clothing, home furnishings, and exotic colonial products. Everything from kitchenware to underwear, tables to tea sets, and wigs to watches began to circulate as never before, irrevocably changing the relationship between people and things. The economic question of how this happened before the advent of industrialization continues to be debated. But of equal interest is the cultural question of how people came to understand this expanding world of goods, and it is here where the exploration of the French language has proven to be extremely useful. For if the consumer revolution was part of a larger [End Page 772] cultural transformation whereby the traditional values of a stationary economy gradually ceded to a modern culture of commodification, as Roche has claimed, that transition must have been reflected in, and shaped by, linguistic change. To illustrate how historians have turned to French to gain insight into the cultural and intellectual ramifications of the consumer revolution, I’ll discuss an example that comes from my own research on the eighteenth-century luxury debate.

The proliferation of goods during the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century prompted a furious debate about the meanings of the French word “le luxe.” Alarmed by the spectacular growth of the world of goods, many writers, including two of the most widely read authors of the eighteenth century, François Fénelon and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, sharply criticized luxury consumption as inherently excessive and morally dangerous. Drawing on centuries-old moral critiques, they lamented the rise of luxury and the corruption that inevitably followed in its wake. Proponents of luxury, on the other hand, attempted to...


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