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Getting the goods in John Brewer's course on commerce and luxury

The last thing John Brewer wants to do in his course Commerce, Luxury, Consumption is package a few neat concepts for student consumption. "Substance isn't what matters for undergraduates. What matters is that they learn to think," says Brewer, the John and Mary Sullivan University professor in history, English, and the College.

The ten undergrads who braved this history and English course's graduate-level listing are thinking about some weighty topics: "excess, luxury, necessity; consumption as a form of manipulating desire or as a mode of establishing or expressing identity; what we mean when we say consumer, consumption, consumer culture, consumer society."

Brewer has organized the course into two parts. The first is historiographical and methodological, with readings from recent literature on consumerism in early modern Europe. "We're looking at methods from economic, social, and art history, literary studies, anthropology, sociology, and cultural studies." Texts include Don Slater's Consumer Culture and Modernity and Acknowledging Consumption by Daniel Miller-an anthropologist whom Brewer calls "just brilliant on shopping."

After the readings, the class turns to case studies: the love of worldly goods in Renaissance Italy, Dutch still-life painting and the perishable "empire of things," dress and fashion in the ancien régime, the British empire's taste for exotic produce (especially sugar), the birth of manufacturing, and the female consumer and the male fop.

Students are graded on participation, which includes a presentation on a topic of their choosing. At the quarter's end, a 12- to 20-page paper is due.

What is Brewer's goal for his young critical thinkers? "If there is one thing I want them to learn about consumption, it's that neither the jeremiads nor the eulogies about it give a complete account of the phenomenon."-S.A.S.


 JUNE 2001

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