Express the Century

We tend to think we live in exceptional times, with unprecedented and thus frightening phenomena such as economic disruption. History and literature can help us think differently. Take Au Bonheur des Dames for instance. Published in 1883, it talks about fabrics and clothes, about human relations – and about progress and disruption. The book is part of a grand writing programme, Les Rougon-Macquart, with which the French author Emile Zola aimed to address modernity.
In the 11th novel of the series, The Ladies’ Paradise or The Ladies’ Delight (the translations sound different, I’m not sure why “happiness” wouldn’t do), the scene is modern commerce.

To be sure, the novel enfolds the reader in delightful descriptions of clothes and fabrics in all their splendid variety. Set to paint the novelty of a Parisian department store, the rhythm, balance and detail of the many descriptive passages successfully evoke a highly attractive drapery world. It’s impressive how Zola transports the reader by ‘mere words’ into a world of colour and texture, the rich textile language is certainly one of the reasons that make reading this book worthwhile. Consider the following sentence: “Littering the counters were the fancy silks – watered silks, satins, velvets, looking like beds of mown flowers, a whole harvest of delicate and precious materials.” You can see the textile abundance, can’t you?

The fabric riches delights but what really awes me, is the centrality of modernity in the book. The Ladies’ Delight’s owner, Octave Mouret, is the personification of innovative business methods and the economic potential of progress. He’s unashamedly obsessed with continual growth and expansion. In his own words, “he was a man of his own time. Really, people would have to be deformed, they must have something wrong with their brains and limbs to refuse to work in an age which offered so many possibilities, when the whole century was pressing forward into the future.” Zola himself was most explicit about the purpose of his novel:

“What I want to do in The Ladies’ Paradise, is write the poem of modern activitity. Hence, a complete shift of philosophy: no more pessimism, first of all. Don’t conclude with the stupidity and sadness of life. Instead, conclude with its continual labour, the power and gaiety that comes from this productivity. In a word, go along with the century, express the century, with is a century of action and conquest, of effort in every direction.”

This sounds like a hymn to modern economics, a celebration of the entrepreneurial spirit – that aims to ‘invect’ all its readers with the same modern, progressive attitude. In fact, The Ladies’ Paradise is a more ambiguous symbol of progress.

The model for Zola’s Ladies’ Delight was Au Bon Marché, the first grand magazin in Paris and the largest in the world before 1914. The new department stores which sprang up all over the city lay the basis for commercial capitalism and mass consumer society (although in reality they were of course long limited to the upper middle classes). The grand architecture, great attention to window and shop displays, fixed prices, advertisements and sales, all these innovations colluded to establish the grand magazin as a new temple of commerce. 

Contemporary illustration of the grand architecture of the grand magazins.

In fact, Zola repeatedly depicts the shop as a “cathedral” with a “church-like atmosphere”. Zola thus evokes a new kind of devotion, one that elevates the emerging consumerism to a new ritual, a cult even. The machine-imagery, which the author employs even more frequently, conjures up both the “monstrous” as the beneficiary characteristics of progress.

With the arrival of the department stores the Parisian textile retail world was shocked into English and American economic methods. With an estimated 100.000 traditional shops closed and the loss of work for thousands of artisans and their families, this is economic disruption on a “monstrous” scale indeed. In the novel it’s Monsieur Baudu, himself owner of a small drapery shop right opposite The Ladies’ Delight, who expresses the resistance against the innovation: “Do you think it’s right that a simple draper’s shop should start selling everything under the sun? In the old days, when trade was trade, drapery meant materials, and nothing else. Nowadays their only aim is to expand their business at the expense of their neighbours and to eat everything up…” Baudu in Zola’s depiction belongs to a disappearing world, he simply doesn’t understand that the world has changed. But his analysis is rather accurate – and universal. Replace “drapery” with any other kind of business and I’m sure you recognize very contemporary practices.

On a more positive side, the department store gave women a transitional social, quasi-public space that did not affect their respectability. No wonder they were delighted. But such aspects of modern urban life threatened patriarchal authority – which responded with new systems of control and manipulation. Not only was the aim to “awake new desires in her weak flesh”, the grand magazin drew women into temptation, seduction, overspending and – and this was a new phenomenon – kleptomania. “Get the women,” Mouret was convinced, “and you sell the world!” With ample descriptions of women succumbing as planned, Zola also points to the social disruption: full-blown consumerism came into being through the mobilization of the illusions of freedom, fulfillment and “the public’s well-being”.

It is Denise, niece of Monsieur Baudu and subject of Mouret’s affection, who voices Zola’s own dubiety most scrupulously:

“Was it really true then that death must fertilize the world, that the struggle for life propelled people towards the charnel-house of eternal destruction? […] Yes, it was the necessary sacrifice; every revolution demanded its victims […] the inexorable workings of life require the seed of death for its continual renewal. She no longer fought against it; she accepted this law of the struggle; but her woman’s heart was filled with compassion […] for the whole of suffering humanity.”

It’s significant that Zola turns to the organic language of life, growth and death to conclude his judgment on economic disruption. It allows him to express his empathy for “the painful birth pangs of each new generation” while at the same time embracing and advocating modernity.

We are many generations farther. And we too are surrounded by disruption. Zola expressed his own century yet remains relevant for our own. He can for instance make us aware of the fact that economic disruption also disrupts social systems – and that its perception of exciting modernity suppresses that fact. The Amazons, Googles and Ubers of our own time are often embraced as champions of innovation but it’s unclear whether all their users are aware of the simultaneous subversion of our social security system that is based on solidarity – including the fair payment of taxes.

Or to give a more local example: the Neutral Syndicat for Independent Entrepreneurs has launched a campaign to encourage local shopping “before it’s too late!”. In the last five years 7000 independent shops have closed in Belgium, a decline of 9%. Many lament this decline and blame it for the failure of what is called the social fabric of society. Call me suspicious but many of these plaintiffs are probably not consistent and don’t shop independently. Presumably they aren’t even aware of the fact that they themselves can support the social fabric in many ways – like helping a neighbour now and then, being courteous in traffic or more generally treating people with respect. To put it differently, the economic and social systems are of course connected but they also have their own dynamic. It’s important to examine the connections, think about which parts we want to salvage – and act to do so.

Zola also points to another aspect of disruption: change is intrinsic to modernity. Think of the “restlessness” Ignace Devisch talks about and Peter Frankopan’s globalization: change is a fact of life – which also means it doesn’t in itself have good or bad implications. As Zola put it: there is action “in every direction”. He himself realized the danger of sinking into pessismism yet decided to “go along with the century”. There may be a twinge of determinism in his account but above all he wants to emphasize the possibilities of modernity. The point thus is to accept change as given and think about which direction we want “to press forward into the future”. Change in short presents us an opportunity to think about the good life.

The American philosopher Susan Neiman also sees us “in transit” and recommends philosophy to guide our thoughts about that good life. And to my delight (I’m an Enlightenment historian after all), she goes even further back in time than Zola: because the 18th-century Enlightenment was committed to understanding the world in order to improve it, it can inspire us to achieve our own, 21th-century “growing up”.

The starting point for Neiman’s account is Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s (1712-1778) claim that “we were made to be men; laws and society have plunged us once more into childhood.” More specifically the French philosopher introduces the idea of false needs and shows how the systems we live in work against our growing up. For the American philosopher it’s above all the omnipresence of trivial products that keep us too busy making silly choices to remember that the adult ones are made by others. As we saw earlier, Blaise Pascal would call this divertissement: we allow ourselves to be distracted in order not to have to cope with the hard facts of life. Neiman rather talks about immaturity.

With consumer goods as focus of our culture, we have created (or acquiesced in) a society of permanent adolescents. According to Neiman consumerism diverts us to the point that we have also internalized what she calls “TINA fundamentalism”: when we go along with the ideological claim that there is no alternative, we also accept the world as it is. Hence no need to think for yourself, let alone act.

It is the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
who inspires Neiman to an alternative, more attractive model of adulthood. With his 1784 essay Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment Kant aimed to express his own time – which was very much characterized by change and disruption. His conclusion is clear – and still very powerful:

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without guidance from another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere Aude! [Dare to be wise!] Have the courage to use your own understanding.”

Kant’s recipe for adulthood is in fact very simple: we must think for ourselves. When we are courageous enough to trust our own judgment, we know that the world is not how it ought to be. The next step in Kant’s call for courage is agency: we must act upon our judgment – to make the world more in line with it. This is not naive utopianism: Kant mentions “the horizon”, Octave Mouret would say “the future”, that must be the point of direction for our efforts – and one which we must accept we’ll never reach. In between the resignation that nothing can be done and exaggerated optimism that everything is possible, lies Kant’s concept of adulthood. Both our experience of the world and our ideals make claims upon us and the balance between them can only be permanently precarious. To acknowledge all that and continue the endeavour nonetheless, that‘s maturity. 

As Neiman acknowledges, this is not the recipe for an easy life. Consumerism’s call is strong, our judgment may be weak, imbalance will very much be part of the experience. But life is forgiving – if we let it: there is always a chance to try again. And trying in a truly adult way means having the courage to act upon our beliefs. And thus change the world, in whatever small way. Viewed in this way adulthood is exciting precisely because it’s demanding. Or, as I argued before, courage is not beyond us.

Neiman also acknowledges that Kant’s recipe of thinking for ourselves, the expression of his century, is rather vague. But it’s equally still relevant for our age. And it cannot be more specific without violating the message itself. She herself points to the three domains of learning, travelling and work in order to enlarge our minds and improve our judgment. The latter is also Neiman’s ultimate argument to persuade people “to grow up”: judgment is an ability that normally requires age to improve. In sum: keep practicing, you will get better.

This is also the summary of craftsmanship – which Neiman mentions in passing as an alternative for consumerism. I think it worthwhile to stress in more detail the potential of that alternative. Craftsmanship cultivates slow time, delayed gratification and an appreciation of quality, among many other benefits. It also distinguishes the crafts(wo)man as the author of their products which in turn fosters properties such as dignity, respect and connectedness.

All these qualities are relevant when we consider the notion of meaningful work. They’re also important to guide our thoughts on the good life. For when we too search for an expression of our century we have the choice whether we do that in terms of doom and gloom – or turn to more positive models to “press us forward into the future”. 

For the sceptical reader it’s worth highlighting one ‘sector’ that already focuses on the positive potential of change, namely social innovation. The collective term classifies innovative efforts that are geared towards new forms of work and cooperation, towards a sustainable future. Organizations and enterprises that commit themselves to social innovation take society, large or small, as their focus in both ends and means. They are in other words ethically driven: they develop the capacity to address social needs that traditional policy or companies seem increasingly unable to tackle, they empower individuals and groups and they demonstrate a willingness to change social relations.

Such organizations thus also disrupt but they do so with the firm commitment to use the transit phase of society to change things for the better. They focus on human needs, on the power of communities and on the urgency to bring back a sense of dignity in work activities. To me they are the hopeful expression of our century: they look to our collective future and they inspire and practice agency to give it direction.

The range of social innovative initiatives is, thankfully, wide and varied. Let me conclude with just one textile example, spotted at the Fair Fashion Fest organized last October by the Museum of Industrial Archeology and Textile (MIAT) in Ghent. The Fest inspired me because it brought together so many different, often local, examples of social innovation in practice.

My favourite is Carpet of Life, a fair design brand based in Ghent. The idea is simple and very attractive: people take clothes that have an emotional meaning to them – and shred them into rags. They choose a pattern. And the women of M’hamid, a small oasis town in Southern Morocco, knot the rags into a beautiful carpet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is recycling of a higher order. It starts from the acknowledgement that clothes can have an emotional value: here no dogmatic condemnation of consumerism but focus on what adds meaning to our lives. There is the important empowerment of craftswomen who experience the valuation of their skills, providing them with meaningful work to support themselves and their communities. Instead of victims, they thus become participants in globalization.  At the same time they become the preservers and innovators of their cultural heritage. And diversity enriches ours for the delightful end results enhance our lives with meaningful beauty.

I covet such a carpet of the good life. And cherish the hope that this and other such social disruptive initiatives will indeed come to be the dominant expression of our century.

1 thought on “Express the Century”

  1. Thank you, Greet for sharing, with such beautiful words, the story of Carpet of Life. Totally agree if you say that such disruptive initiatives should color our century! Warm regards, Marion (projectmanager/entrepreneur Carpet of Life)

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