Annie Ernaux’s History of Commodities in the 20th Century

In: Experience Reading Time: 5 min

It sounds rather moronic to want to write “the” history of consumption. If one takes the word at its word, consumption is such a fundamental activity that one might immediately ask about metabolism per se. But something must have happened when vocabulary like “consumer society” appears.

In her novel The Years, Annie Ernaux tells a story of consumption in which she tries to trace said something. From the pleasingly odd perspective of an “impersonal autobiography” that places individual experiences in the light of collective events, the author, born in 1940, crafts an account of the evolution of the commodity world in the second half of the 20th Century. This report is often tedious, monotonous, and not always original – one is familiar with many of the shocking sighs about the insanity of shopping.

But that doesn’t matter. First of all, it is simply superb to follow the commodity-technological leveling of the world in the course of a lifetime, including all the emerging disgust. Secondly, Ernaux provides a kind of prehistory of the “information society,” which replaces commodity consumption with that of signs to describe itself. And third, she concisely illustrates the relationship between scarcity, abundance, and social class.

The history of her perception of things can be roughly divided into 4 stages (all translations are from German with the help of DeepL and Grammarly):

  1. Scarcity and Magic (in childhood): “The products appeared as in a fairy tale, suddenly and unexpectedly.”
  2. Belief in progress: “People were full of confidence; they believed things would improve their lives.”
  3. Suppression of the political: “The abundance of things hid the lack of ideas and the wear and tear of beliefs.”
  4. Complete penetration: “There were no limits to the commercial imagination. It annexed all languages for its own profit… It was our morality, philosophy, and the unquestioned form of our lives.”

Ernaux’s narrative is one of social advancement. Coming from the notorious “humble beginnings,” she becomes a teacher by day while writing — sometimes more, sometimes less — on the side. Just how poor her parents’ home really is, we do not know — but it is clear that the question of wealth grips every villager. The atmosphere is oppressive, permeated by lack and the desire to eliminate it through social advancement. Things are few and precious, and thus serve as a yardstick for social status:

“How to describe the perception of a world where everything is expensive… Necessary exaggeration of things. And behind all the words, people’s, my own, scent envy and comparison… A persistent, bottomless lack.”

Annie Ernaux, The Square

General scarcity rules the gaze – the low quantity of things is in inverse proportion to their importance. Because they are precious, they not only lend themselves to measuring the wealth of individuals but, in direct juxtaposition, they light up the narrator:

There was time to long for the things, the plastic pencil case, the crepe-soled shoes, the gold wristwatch. Their possession did not disappoint. They were offered to the admiration of others. The things held a mystery that did not wear out, no matter how often one looked at them and used them. Even if one had owned them for a long time, one expected something specific from them, although no one knew what.

Annie Ernaux, The Years

What is charmingly compelling — or coincidental — about Ernaux’s story is that her “growth,” i.e. her coming of age and social advancement, is quasi-synchronous with that of society. She, like everyone, benefits from the continuously swelling prosperity. However, the optimism and progression associated with the goods are short-lived in the writer’s retrospect. In keeping with the cultural-critical stance of a typical left-wing writer, she begins to scold the increasingly rampant consumption. The arguments are both familiar and accurate: unbridled consumption becomes an intrinsic value that no longer asks about the use value of a thing. Moreover, consumption occupies the place of the political by replacing society’s self-understanding of what it wants to be with consumption’s “soft dictatorship.”

Ernaux’s rise, her move into a “higher” class, thus quasi-automatically changes her view of things. Only her prosperity enables the condescending view of the increasingly monstrous world of commodities. In the context of their lack, they were still a personal promise, while their mass availability becomes damnation for the collective.

So far, so expectable. There are, however, two movements that catch the drift into class conceit. First, there are reflections on the shame she feels for having left her place of origin – in both a local and an ideal sense. She suspects herself of having betrayed her parents’ class, of looking down on the less affluent, less educated with the arrogance of the arriviste (more on this in her book The Square).

Second, the book’s central narrative twist renders the distinction between the critically enlightened and the consumerist permeable. For in “what she conceives as an impersonal autobiography, there is no ‘I, ‘only a “one” or ‘we‘-now she also tells of the past.” Ernaux thus disappears into the collective narrative perspective of the We, avoiding for herself and the reader the impression of being an intellectual looking down on the rabble: “The mall, with its hypermarché and its myriad stores, became the most important place of our existence.” And because she is not a writer in her primary profession but a teacher and family member, her narrative gains additional credibility. The German conservative party CDU would say: she writes from the middle of society.

In the long run, the trick of the We comes across as a bit cheap, tiresome, and encroaching, but that passes for part of the strategy. Its constant repetition makes the assertion of a collective feeling real and effective. Thus it gleefully and agonizingly highlights what is necessarily true outside the book: with one leg, we are fully in consumption and enjoying it. With the other leg, we step on it — because the whole nonsense is unspeakably annoying.

What hardly occurs? Colonialism, planetary overexploitation, exploitation of cheap labor. Their bourgeois gaze is entirely fixated on themselves and their own experience of the world of consumption and concentrates on the taking up of space by goods in everyday life. One may criticize this, but you may be as well be grateful to have such a compact, thematically closed sub-plot in one’s lifetime (the book is from 2008, so Ernaux was 68 at the time of publication).

Another thing that is missing is the self-description of the “information society” that dawned towards the end of the 20th century. As the 20 years older Vilém Flusser writes in the early 90s:

Our existential interest is visibly shifting from things to information. We are less and less interested in possessing things and more and more interested in consuming information […] Things begin to recede into the background of our field of interest.

Vilém Flusser. The No-Thing I

The beautiful coincidence here is that Flusser applies the vocabulary of “consumption” to information. Consumption would thus be a practice that metabolizes not only goods but also signs. Ernaux’s observations thus open up a complementary reading that equates our desire for information with the desire to have things.

“Before the clothing racks of Zara and H&M, people weren’t so much concerned with possessions as with this feeling that buying new things gave them instantly and effortlessly: an increase in being.”

“Meanwhile, new products no longer evoked aversion or enthusiasm; they no longer engaged the imagination. They were simply part of life.”