‘Empire of Things’ Is Both an Epic and a Necessary Look at Consumer Culture

Trentmann's historical analysis of consumption manages to be both depressing about our habits and hopeful about change.

As a grad student writing on branding, a large proportion of my reading focused on consumer culture. What did it say about Western culture to be so focused on consuming? What did the goods we chose and display say about us? How have we evolved (or devolved) into a “throwaway” culture, constantly tossing the slightly used for the brand new? What is the environmental and social cost of consumer culture? These were just some of the questions asked numerous times by authors such as Pierre Bourdieu, Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood, and Stuart Ewan.

It’s not that Frank Trentmann’s masterwork, Empire of Things either ignores or claims these question are unimportant. What Trentmann does throughout his lengthy and well-researched treatise is simply indicate that that these aren’t the only questions worth asking. Most importantly, he debunks two aspects of the aforementioned works’ focus: that consumer culture and its attendant consumption patterns are a modern/postmodern phenomenon, and that they are limited to Western culture.

This broadening of scope in both place and time allows Trentmann to examine “the life cycle of consumption as fully as possible, from demand and acquisition through to use, collection and, ultimately, disposal” (Trentmann 4). In doing so, it allows him to trace the passage of these “things” from multiple aspects — from sumptuary laws in Renaissance Europe, colonialism and the slave trade, to the concept that consumption itself is a moral failing that’s weakening society isn’t an invention of the 20th century, but can be traced back to Roman philosopher Seneca.

He begins this study by considering three different “cultures of consumption”: Renaissance Italy, China [late Ming dynasty], and Britain and the Netherlands in the 17th and 18th centuries, all of which were “dynamic, but in different ways” (23). The increase in trade routes, the social structures of these countries, and the interaction (or not) with other societies drove an increase in consumption beyond those with the most power and wealth. But even in Europe, such things did not happen easily or simultaneously across even their close borders.

One fascinating insight Trentmann provides, which links these three cultures both with one another and with certain contemporary views of consumption is the idea that there is something morally or ethically wrong with a passion for “things”. At the start of the 500-year period Trentmann explores, this “wrongness” is tied directly into failures of both morals and masculinity, a charge made by commentators from clergy to social scientists, and one that’s never truly disappeared.

Most importantly, perhaps, is that Trentmann focuses on an undertheorized area of this type of study: the ways in which the transit of goods, as they shifted from cities to homes, were affected by the various geopolitics of these regions. As per example, following the Revolutionary War, when Britain cut off the US from its colonies, the US shifted focus to France and its Caribbean colonies. This became a major factor in why US citizens consumed more coffee (a Caribbean export) than tea (which England exported from its colonies). As Trentmann writes: “Trade in and consumption of coffee became a patriotic act” (165), indicating that the ties between consumption and patriotism was encoded into the United States’ DNA from its literal inception.

Like the trade routes he writes about, part one of Empire of Things moves forward, from the 15th to 21st centuries, providing an historical basis and foundation for his analysis, while part two returns in a different direction across the same passageway. Offering both an historical view and considering the ways in which that history informs the present is itself a political act; to not, through either ignorance or disinterest, limit that criticism to the cultural West is vital to both understand and change.

So too is Trentmann’s exposure of the limitations of our thinking with regard to waste. The last two chapters of Empire of Things focus on the concept of the “throwaway society”, broadening his examination beyond the private habits of consumers to manufacturing and distribution of goods. How do they move, from creation to purchase to disposal? How has the nature of those goods changed, both in composition (paper vs. plastic) as well as in weight? The most important insight, in my view, is that Trentmann questions the contemporary recycling, upcycling, and freecycling movements as the answer to the environmental concerns of wasting, pointing in the direction of energy use, e.g., “the home has morphed into one giant energy socket” (674), as an area that hasn’t been sufficiently addressed by these various environmental movements.

As Trentmann himself acknowledges, this historical view of global patterns of consumption, and the half-millennium these patterns have had to solidify, have a certain level of pessimism baked into them. The possibility of reversing these now hard-wired styles of living and consuming seems dim. He doesn’t end on that note, however; rather, Trentmann suggests that, “Our lifestyles, and their social and environmental consequences, should be the subject of serious public debate and policy, not left as a matters simply of individual taste and purchasing power” and arguing that there are several “opportunities for intervention” (690), from the individual (house-sharing, shifts in heating and cooling use and methods), to the government (public information campaigns, investment in sustainable initiatives).

This challenge Trentmann offers requires bold debates and commitment to change, for “people to remember that, as consumers, they are citizens and not just customers” (690). In other words, if we can convince consumers that taking care of our environment is a better expression of patriotism than how much stuff you can cram into your house, both the global culture and the planet will be better off.

I’m with Trentmann on this: knowing the global history of consumption allows for the possibility of change. Trentmann’s meticulously researched but readable treatise is an excellent start.

RATING 9 / 10