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