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Diderot effect and your new chair: Regrets for my Old Dressing Gown

October 19, 2011


Anthropologist, ethnographer Grant McCracken, coined the term “Diderot effect” (1988:128) in his book entitled Culture and Consumption: New Approaches to the Symbolic Character of Consumer Goods and Activities (1988). When Diderot replaced his old, shabby but comfortable dressing gown with a newer more elegant and eventually ‘imperious” scarlet robe, he changed not just a piece of clothing but by trading up he unsettled, interrupted and changed his established consumer patterns and began moving towards upward mobility. His old shabby study left unchanged exerted an inertia. McCracken calls these newly acquired items like the new gown, bridging goods. With the acquisition of a new fridge, sofa, rug, etc the consumption mechanism seeks to rebalance itself. Diderot redecoration project left him feeling compelled to acquire new things even though they made him less comfortable.

McCracken used Diderot’s brilliant description of this behavioural phenomenon to enhance understanding of connections between cultural anthropology and consumer behavior.

Our possessions tend to have an internal consistency that follows from their cultural meaning. The inertia exerted by familiar possessions preserves that inner meaning. Familiar objects and sets of objects contribute to conserving one’s self-concepts and self-definition so that the consumer maintains a consistent, unchanging pattern of consumption. Diderot unities then insulate this consumer from marketing influences.

However the radical Diderot effect can lead to a consumer surrounding himself with new sets of objects that bear no relationship to his concept of the self and the world can alienate him from himself (McCracken 1988:128).

Selected Bibliography

McCracken, Grant Culture and Consumption: New Approaches to the Symbolic Character of Consumer Goods and Activities. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1988 ISBN 0-253-31526-3; pp. 118–129.

Diderot, Denis (1875-77) (in French). Regrets sur ma vieille robe de chambre [Regrets on My Old Dressing Gown]. Paris: Garnier. Wikisource. [scan]

Pantzar, Mika “Domestication of Everyday Life Technology: Dynamic Views on the Social Histories of Artifacts” in Design Issues, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Autumn, 1997), pp. 52–65
unity of consumption patterns, consumer researchers, striving for conformity, “Diderot effect”, Domestication of Everyday Life,

Diderot. 1875. “Regrets for my Old Dressing Gown, or A warning to those who have more taste than fortune (1769).” Oeuvres Complètes, Vol IV. Paris, Garnier Fréres, 1875; Trans for marxists.org by Mitchell Abidor; CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) marxists.org 2005.


In the end Diderot was willing to give up all of his new acquisitions except his Vernet and the love of his life.

Joseph Vernet [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Shipwrec-vernet

Claude Joseph Vernet (1714-1789). 1759. “Shipwreck.” Oil on canvas. 96 x 134.5 cm. Groeninge Museum. Bruges.

Oh holy prophet! Raise you hands to the heavens and pray for a friend in peril. Say to God: If you see in your eternal decrees that riches are corrupting the heart of Denis, don’t spare the masterpieces he idolizes. Destroy them and return him to his original poverty. And I, on my side, will say to the heavens: Oh God! I resign myself to the prayer of the holy prophet and to your will. I abandon everything to you. Take back everything, everything except the Vernet! It’s not the artist, it is you who made it. Respect your own work and that of friendship.

See that lighthouse, see the adjacent tower that rises to the right. See the old tree that the winds have torn. How beautiful that masse is. Above that obscure masse, see the rocks covered in verdure. It is thus that your powerful hand formed them. It is thus that your beneficent hand has carpeted them. See that uneven terrace that descends from the foot of the rocks to the sea. It is the very image of the degradation you have permitted time to exercise on those things of the world that are the most solid. Would your sun have lighted it otherwise? God, if you annihilate that work of art it will be said that you are a jealous God. Have pity on the unfortunates spread out on these banks. Is it not enough for you to have shown them the depths of the abyss? Did you save them only to destroy them? Listen to the prayer of this man who thanks you. Aid in the efforts of he who gathers together the sad remains of his fortune. Close your ear to the imprecations of this madman. Alas, he promised himself such advantageous returns, he had contemplated rest and retirement. He was on his last voyage. A hundred times along the way he calculated on his fingers the size of his fortune and had arranged for its use. And now all of his hopes have vanished; he has barely enough to cover his naked limbs. Be touched by the tenderness of these two spouses. Look at the terror that you have inspired in that woman. She offers you thanks for the evil you did not do her. Nevertheless, her child, too young to know to what peril you exposed it, he, his father and his mother, takes care of the faithful companion of his voyage: he is attaching the collar of his dog. Spare the innocent. Look at that mother freshly escaped from the waters with her spouse: it is not for herself that she is trembling, it is for her child. See how she squeezes it to her breast, how she kisses it. O God, recognize the waters you have created. Recognize them, both when your breath moves them and when your hand calms them. Recognize the black clouds that you gathered and that it pleased you to scatter. Already they are separating, they are moving away; already the light of the day star is reborn on the face of the waters. I foresee calm on that red horizon. How far it is, the horizon! It doesn’t end with the sea. The sky descends beneath it and seems to turn around the globe. Finish lighting up the sky; finish rendering tranquility to the sea. Allow those seamen to put their shipwrecked boat back to sea. Assist in their labor, give them strength and leave me this painting. leave it to me, like the rod with which you will punish the vain. It is already the case that it is no longer i that people visit, that people come to listen to: it is Vernet they come to admire in my house. The painter has humiliated the philosopher.

Oh my friend, the beautiful Vernet I own! The subject is the end of a storm without a harmful catastrophe. The seas are still agitated, the sky covered in clouds; the sailors are busy on their sunken boat, the inhabitants come running from the nearby mountains. How much spirit this painter has! He needed but a small number of principal figures to render all the circumstances of the moment he chose. How true this scene is! With what lightness, ease and vigor it is all painted. I want to keep this testimony of his friendship. I want my son-in-law to transmit it to his children, his children to theirs, and these latter to those that will be born of them.

If only you saw the beauty of the whole of this piece, how everything there is harmonious, how the effects work together, how everything is brought out without effort or affectation. How those mountains on the right are wrapped in vapor. How beautiful those rocks and superimposed edifices are. How picturesque that tree is and the lighting on that terrace. How the light there fades away, how its figures are laid out: true, active, natural, living. How interesting they are, the force with which they are painted. The purity with which they are drawn, how they stand out from the background. The enormous breadth of that space, the verisimilitude of those waters. Those clouds, the sky, that horizon! Here the background is deprived of light, while the foreground is lit up, unlike the usual technique. Come see my Vernet, but don’t take it from me!

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