A conversation with Anat Rosenberg

By Kristof Smeyers, 6 October 2022

Anat Rosenberg is a Senior Lecturer at the Harry Radzyner Law School, Reichman University.


00:07 Kristof

Dear friends and fellows of the research network Enchantment in the History of Capitalism, welcome to another podcast episode in which I talk to scholars who work on the crossroads of the history of capitalism and the history of enchantment. Do check us out on our website economic-enchantments.net, where you will find a wide range of exciting resources and tools.

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My guest today is one of the founding members of our research network, actually. Anat Rosenberg is a Senior Lecturer at the Harry Ratner Law School at the Reichmann University in Herzliya, Israel. Anat works on the cultural legal history of capitalism, liberalism and consumption, primarily in Britain. In 2018, she wrote Liberalizing Contracts, which was a book about contracts, about binding agreements in in the 19th century.

But still hot from the press, actually, and the main reason she's my guest today is Anat’s latest book, The Rise of Mass Advertising: Law, Enchantment, and the Cultural Boundaries of British Modernity, which I think is recommended reading for all the members of our network.

So, first of all, congratulations Anat, welcome. I hope the advertising campaign of your book is going well. Perhaps the first question that I think relates directly to the central theme of your book, which I haven't read, so this is an educated guess, but also it relates to the aims of our network… And I think when people look at our website, they can already see that advertising has featured quite regularly in previous roundtables, for example, either as a form of enchantment, or maybe as a medium for enchantment as well… Without asking you to give too much away about your book, how does enchantment work in mass advertising in the period you study?

And maybe related to that as well, how do you historicize something like enchantment for the period you study?

00:02:40 Anat

Yeah, these are great questions. This is where I begin in the book. So, assuming enchantment is a historical phenomenon which doesn't look the same in different places and times, it becomes a question of what enchantment means in the context of advertising, in the context of the 19th century, and how it actually operated.

We do of course have a huge literature on enchantment and advertising, right? And on the advertising and consumerism, I mean, we could start with Marxist commodity fetishism and go through the entire critical literature, and later the new literature, the new materialism and other work which takes a more positive approach to enchantment.

But all this literature talks a lot about theories of enchantment, which imply different things, they imply whole ontologies of possibly magic, possibly mythological thinking, possibly mystery and wonder in the face of market structures, efforts at transfiguration within economic relationships.

But what does this actually mean in history? How did it look on an everyday, mundane basis for people like you and me?

So what I've tried to do at the beginning of this book is use reception evidence in order to analyze how people interacted with advertising, with advertisements, with mass advertising. And what experiences of enchantment looked like. There is of course no single experience that we could generalize, but there are symptomatic recurrences that have become interesting to me.

One thing we should point out at the beginning is that enchantment in the context of advertising was actually an effect of the accumulation of advertisements. We tend to make what I have come to view as a mistake or an unsatisfactory approach when we look at single individual adverts, and try to generalize from their content or form about effects. I think we should look at the way people encountered them, and they encountered them in their accumulations.

So accumulation itself as a form, of course, there’s histories or philosophers like Walter Benjamin or [Georg] Simmel who have written about accumulation in capitalism. And I think this is where we should start. The idea of encountering mass advertising and thinking about it as a revelation of unseen worlds, of unseen possibilities and relationships, and energetic everyday occurrences that you could enter imaginatively and practically by responding to an advert. So that's one element of it.

And then there are of course the specific fantasies that we could start to unravel if we look at reception evidence. For example, you know, the all-encompassing fantasy of reconfiguring social class, right, by engaging with economic relationships, but then also reconfiguring the self, reconfiguring the way we look, the way we feel. Who we are. So, a lot of different kinds of small magic, of modes of play and imagination, that are involved in responses to mass advertising.

00:06:52 Kristof

That's a great answer, actually. It also makes me wonder, it's a refreshing take on the history of advertising more generally. There hasn't really been a rich historiography of the reception side of things. I was wondering if you could say a bit more about the challenges of taking that perspective, maybe also elaborate a little bit about what kind of sources you use to uncover that perspective.

00:07:24 Anat

Yeah, sure. You’re right that it's not too prevalent. Part of the reason is, and a good reason is, that advertisers have left archives in abundance, but getting to the encounters of regular people in their mundane lives is not that easy because these are not usually recorded interactions. They're just too small, too banal, in a way.

And yet there is evidence. There are the immediate suspects, I've used everything I could put my hands on… There are diaries and autobiographies. There are newspaper reports. I've used artworks as well, which have been interpreted in relation to their responses to mass advertising. There are literary works…

But perhaps one thing which is slightly less familiar. I've used a lot of court records, particularly Old Bailey records, at the Central Criminal Court in London, which heard cases from all across the country. So long as the advertiser was from the London area, they could be sued there.

The good thing about the records there is there, is that there are very good records of testimonies—more than the legal argument. They're not that strong, actually, on legal analysis and legal argument. But they are very good, well, as good as it gets, which is never perfect, about the recording of testimonies.

I have looked at two things. First, I've looked at what consumers… so these are mostly fraud cases where someone was complaining about an advert which deceived them, or an advertiser who deceived them. I've looked at the stories people told, why they came to an advertisement, how it came about that they read it, and then I was also interested in how they read, and often, on a recurring basis. I've tried to look at the kind of linguistic gestures that people make about advertising.

An obvious trope is that people said, “I saw an advertisement.” And most of the time they meant a text, actually. Most adverts were still text. Even though the image was on the rise and was becoming important, the majority of adverts were still text, and to understand the effects of advertising in the period I'm looking at, which is between the 1840s and 1914, the 1^st^ era of mass advertising in Britain, we need to look at the way people interacted with the banal, with the textual advertisements which were not necessarily by leading brands.

And so people say, “I saw an advertisement” and I find that interesting. This privileging of sight over reason, over intellectual engagement, and also the implication of an unplanned encounter, which was usually the case.

I've looked at other elements, for example, where people use the passive voice for themselves and the active voice for the advert, and so when these things recur on a significant scale, you can begin to see some form of interaction that you can theorize with. You know, the active power of adverts as matter over minds.

00:11:31 Kristof

So, it's about the materiality of the actual thing that is printed as well, I suppose.

00:11:36 Anat

That has mattered to me a lot. Some of the encounters, you know, materiality is important there—we cannot entirely privilege the intellectual over everything else. I don't want to privilege materiality over intellectual, and reasoned, and emotional engagement. But I think they are inseparable, and we cannot tell this story if we don't hold them together.

00:12:07 Kristof

What I like about your book as well as far as I could see, is the way you've used illustrations as well, because so many of the illustrations are illustrations of text, so it feeds into what you just said about seeing an advert. By putting the text advert in your book, it invites us to see the advert as well, rather than to read it.

00:12:28 Anat

Yeah, part of the story in this book is the way law in all its varieties was mobilized by many, many different actors and participants in cultural debate in order to deal with advertising, to understand it. I've been interested in interpretations of adverts. Often the way the visual encounter with the text, the way the text appears, the way it is part of a page, for example, and part of a particular medium, and part of a particular cultural context gets lost when legal analysis kicks in.

So that's been part of my interest, and I have tried in the images in the book to include textual adverts as well as visual ones, depending on the chapter in context.

00:13:25 Kristof

Circling back to law and your interest in legal history as well, I know that you define law more as an organizing principle of social order rather than the legal institutions more narrowly.

I was wondering, because part of your subtitle is also about the cultural boundaries, is that part of this legal framework? Or what do you mean specifically with cultural boundaries?

00:13:54 Anat

First about law, you're absolutely right, I take a cultural approach to law, by which I mean, I don't look at law as a profession or institutions, but as an emergent and dispersed phenomenon which is mobilized by different people on the levels on which it is available to them.

So, industries might self-regulate in particular ways, local governments might use law in other ways. Consumers, readers, viewers mobilize what they can, in and outside courts, they are property owners, contract parties, and so forth.

I look at all of that, in order to think of law as a cultural force which is not above culture, but rather inseparable from a concept of culture.

What does that have to do with boundaries? Well, one of the greatest challenges of advertising to a prevalent sense of what British modernity meant at that moment, was that advertising undermined the sense that modern culture was structured according to recognizable fields of authority. And which have their own rationalities which are somehow in cultural charge of particular values.

What advertising did is tread on the authority of other fields. For example, news, which was becoming very important with the advent of the commercial press and was assuming an ideology of informational value… Advertisers were saying, well, we are the news of commerce, and we're providing information just like journalists are providing information on other areas of life. And of course, commerce is inseparable from the rest of life, and so we are part of the news.

They were claiming continuities with art and with ideals of aesthetic progress in line with, by the way, the public museum movement. They were claiming continuities with science, claiming to bring applied science and the knowledge of applied science to the masses. They were claiming affinities with common morality.

So, they were creating boundary anxieties. What are the boundaries between advertising and other fields? Law, in all its varieties, was mobilized in order to do boundary work. In order to preserve a sense of boundaries in a reality of very blurry distinctions, and so the chapters proceed according to different boundary anxieties. So one is about advertising and news, and another about advertising and science. And in each case, I look at the role of law in maintaining boundaries. This all ties back into my interest in enchantment because the entire boundary preservation project, if you will, was committed to rationalist discourses and logics.

Advertising was being discussed in terms of its attempts to live up to a variety of rationalist values and its failures, so failure was very much part of the story. But all of this discussion of rationalist values and their failures was really evading a discussion of the non-rational, of enchantment as a significant part of what was happening to the economy, of how the economy was developing at this point and so… There's a legal project of disenchantment, a legal disavowal of enchantment, which is the other side of legal boundary work. This is how it all ties together.

00:18:16 Kristof

That actually answers the question I was going to ask you as well, so I can move on to maybe the last question that our time allows. It also links back to the whole idea of a reception history of advertising.

I'm myself quite interested in the vernacular or the “popular” culture of disenchantment. So how people in the 19th and especially in the 20th century started making those paradigms their own. And the way you approach mass advertising seems to me like a very good way to get into a reception history of those kind of paradigms as well, and I was wondering if you came across such expressions of disenchantment through this prism of mass advertising from people in the lower middle classes, for example.

00:19:08 Anat

Yes, absolutely.

This whole history actually is a history of how a culture tells itself that it is disenchanted while actually letting enchantments become an organizing principle. So there's an attention or a paradox at the heart of these events where people are pursuing revealing a will, what I've called in the book ‘a will to enchantment,’ and they are actively pursuing it. It is not a manipulation of advertisers over innocent people, it is an active search for enchantment.

But at the same time, on the level of social story, right, how do we describe the social order? There's a joint denial of the role of enchantment and an insistence on disenchantment which cuts across classes and in which people from high and low, and different genders, and different backgrounds participate and cooperate. So consumers are no more interested in describing themselves as enchanted than, say, upper class judges are interested in describing them as such. They're all willing to inhabit languages of disenchantment. So rationality or ignorance, but not dreamworlds, right?

You can see this in a variety of cultural expressions. You can see you know the self-description of witnesses in courts who explain how they rationally in recent ways, how they analyzed and understood adverts and what they describe is actually quite imaginative, but the framing is very much pushing toward disenchantment.

You can find it toward the end in a novel which has kind of disappeared from the history of advertising. Maybe because it's not a great novel, but I think it's important for this history.

It’s by Oliver Onions. It is so disappeared from history that I haven't found new reproductions, it's actually not found online, where all Victorian and Edwardian novels are now online… It is called Good Boy Seldom: A romance of advertisement, and it is about a professional advertiser. It builds on a lot of real events in the history of advertising and also on common high and low classes responses to advertising and their efforts to describe themselves as disenchanted, so I think that might be a good place to start.

00:22:02 Kristof

It's a lovely call to end our conversation as well, for people to go and read a novel that's not very great from the Victorian period.

00:22:15 Anat

Worth a read, I would say. I mean, he has a lot of insight, the philosophy is good… the execution, you know, he has better ones. Onions is known much better for his ghost stories. But I think he's interested in enchantment of a different kind, it's explicitly present in this novel about advertising.

00:22:42 Kristof

Well, I'll get reading.

00:22:45 Anat

Yeah, it's from 1911.

00:22:47 Kristof

Thank you very much, Anat, and it was lovely to talk to you.

This podcast was generously funded by the Department of Digital Humanities, King’s College London.
Musical intro is Sleepwalking by airtone.