Vol. 28 No. 13 · 6 July 2006

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Planet Wal-Mart

John Lanchester rightly concludes that we seem to have lost any way of discussing the public good that is not framed in terms of economics (LRB, 22 June). The Wal-Mart case also illustrates the paucity of discussion about the modern capitalist state’s social role. Wal-Mart is subsidised by a state that gives its workers welfare support, allowing the store to depress wages and increase profits; it is no accident that in the last twenty years (and not only in the US) the share of generated surplus that goes to owners and managers has risen and the share drawn by workers has fallen. While an absence of regulation and state activity can be useful to companies, they are quick to run to the state when things don’t go their way: think of US steelmakers or international agribusiness.

As Joel Bakan pointed out in The Corporation (2004), states should recognise that companies are incorporated through law for the wider social good. When they stop serving this, as Wal-Mart has done, the privileges of limited liability and corporate personality (which shield them from legal claims against their managers and shareholders) should be withdrawn. Ethical shopping may not be quite as hopeless as Lanchester suggests, but only state action can halt the rapacious extremes of contemporary capitalism. This is a politics that has always been missing from New Labour. The failure of political parties to return to the successful regulatory intervention of the late 19th century tells you more about the sources of their funding than the beliefs of their members. The supposed marginalisation of the state by globalisation is not an empirical fact, but a presentational victory by the private sector.

Christopher May
Lancaster University

John Lanchester says that ‘Wal-Mart is the biggest company in the world.’ Measured by market capitalisation (that is, market value, the usual method for judging company size), Wal-Mart comes eighth on the Financial Times Global 500 list, with a value of $196,859.90 million. The largest company is ExxonMobil at $371,631.30 million. The next six are General Electric, Microsoft, Citigroup, BP, Bank of America and Royal Dutch Shell. Wal-Mart’s turnover, however, is second only to ExxonMobil’s.

Alex Smith
Saffron Walden

John Lanchester says: ‘Google “should I shop at Wal-Mart?" and you will find a cool 12 million hits.’ If I Google ‘should I buy the London Review of Books?’ I get 19 million hits. This doesn’t have much to do with ethical-shopping dilemmas, but quite a lot to do with misunderstanding Google searches: if Lanchester had put his search terms in double quotation-marks, to find instances of that specific phrase rather than instances of each individual word within the phrase, he would have got 27 hits.

Jonathan Baines
Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire


David Simpson writes that the value of the Twin Towers ‘as symbols of the national life has been multiplied by their destruction’, and alludes to Walter Benjamin’s claim that ‘a state of distraction in which we function ordinarily without noticing the buildings around us’ is also ‘a state of happiness, of not needing to pay attention to what we have made as something other than natural and routine’ (LRB, 25 May). I have been struck, watching American films made before 11 September 2001, by how regularly the camera pauses on the Twin Towers, making a point about American power and wealth. I hadn’t noticed this before, and that I have noticed it now says something about the way our responses to US potency were constructed by such iconography before as well as after 9/11. I have noticed too that the view of the Twin Towers from the Jersey shore has been dropped from the opening sequence of The Sopranos. Is this a gesture of respect or the result of a desire not to offend? Are we likely to see pre-9/11 movies doctored in order to remove the reminder, a disconcerting one for American audiences, that their nation’s global hegemony, literal and symbolic, is no longer perceived as either absolute or uncontested?

Stan Smith

Like San Michele

Tom Shippey asks if there was ‘ever a real medieval, or classical, library which was anything like’ Umberto Eco’s San Michele (LRB, 8 June). He plumps for the great library of Alexandria, but could have saved himself a journey: there was at least one collection in medieval Iberia whose holdings are said to have numbered more than 400,000. It is no more clear in this case than in those cited by Shippey what this number really means – rolls, or codices, or works, or what – but it certainly beats Alexandria’s 80,000, which Shippey cites as ‘certainly the pre-modern record’. In this library, that of al-Hakam II in Córdoba, all the volumes were in Arabic.

David Wasserstein
Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee

Do euphemisms help?

Ian Hacking’s description of the autistic child as an ‘alien’ is obviously meant to shock (LRB, 11 May). But to what end? There is nothing more ‘alien’ about children with autism than those with other severe developmental disabilities. However, because these children have difficulties with social communication and engagement, a profound state of alienation between such children and their parents and others can develop. This can be reversed once parents learn to understand the nature of the difficulty and adapt the way they communicate with the child. Although this does not magic away the disability, it is brought back into the realm of human meaning.

In fact, far from being applied only to ‘alien’ children, the notion of autism is currently overgeneralised. ‘Autism’ is now invoked to explain everything from intellectual distinction to artistic innovation to a football fan’s obsession with statistics. The seductive (but unproven) theory that autism is an extreme form of ‘male brain-ness’ doesn’t help in this respect. Maleness has, historically, always been associated with increased neurodevelopmental vulnerability of just about every kind. Why this should be so is undoubtedly of interest, but even though some aspects of personality (including those we associate vaguely with gender) appear to have something in common with traits associated with autism, it would be a mistake to equate them. ‘Sociability’, like any distributed trait, has a high and a low end: in a culture that privileges ‘sociability’ so highly it isn’t surprising that the ‘low’ end is scrutinised and even denigrated. States of pathology and disability, not least the notion of ‘madness’ itself, have often been used for spurious cultural ends, and it would be nice to avoid doing that in this instance.

Jonathan Green
University of Manchester


David A. Bell implies that I intended The Age of Conversation to be a comprehensive history of French salons in the 17th and 18th centuries (LRB, 11 May). Rather, as I state in the book, my purpose was to trace the development of sociabilité – the ‘art of living in society’. This concept was already considered to be what I describe as a ‘characteristic of French identity’ in the age of Montesquieu and Hume, and the salons were only one of its many expressions. I explore how the protagonists themselves reflected and wrote about their inherited codes of conduct; and how they perceived the ethical and aesthetic dimensions of their own public image. My account was informed by close analysis of historical sources; it was not, as Bell argues, a retrospective projection of an idealised vision of my own.

Bell accuses me of ignoring themes and problems that have preoccupied scholars, although I make explicit reference to this research in my 109-page bibliographic essay, which he does not appear to have read. He writes, for example, that my book resembles a ‘fable’ about France’s ‘proud noble caste’, and goes on to declare that ‘the French nobility was never a caste.’ It is true that I occasionally used, for want of a better term, the word ‘caste’, alternating it with the (equally imperfect) word ‘class’. But I also made clear in my bibliographic essay, that ‘if the word “class" is used, it is because social mobility existed within the society of the three orders, making the use of the word “caste" unsuitable for the nobility.’

He also suggests that I ignore the king’s constant bestowal of new titles, which had ‘the result that by 1789 a large majority of title-holders could not trace their noble ancestry back beyond 1600’, although I explicitly discuss ‘the process of integration between the nobility and the bourgeoisie’, citing, among others, Guy Chaussinand-Nogaret’s La Noblesse au XVIIIe siècle. Bell also claims that my ‘fable’ does not address the nobility’s ‘almost bourgeois dedication to profit’, although I refer to Daniel Dessert’s 1984 study, Argent, pouvoir et société au grand siècle, ‘which records the intense financial activity in the highest reaches of society … and points out a “congenital" contradiction between the financial organisation under the Ancien Régime and caste morality.’ Bell objects too that ‘the word “salon" was not used to describe gatherings like Madame de Rambouillet’s until 1794’; a point I made both in my introduction and in the entry on the salon in my bibliographic essay. Before criticising my use of sources, he should have read my footnotes. The description of Madame de Rambouillet’s Blue Room, which Bell deems ‘perilously close to the style of Mills and Boon’, is not in my own ‘narrative mode’. The passage paraphrases ‘Emile Magne’s scholarly imagination’, as I make clear both in the paragraph concerned and in an accompanying footnote.

Bell is entitled to criticise writers such as Hippolyte Taine, but Taine’s account of the Ancien Régime remains one of the most interesting and authoritative. To attribute to one of the great writers of the 19th century ‘prose worthy of The Scarlet Pimpernel’ is troubling. As for the unflattering comments he reserves for my own prose, I am somewhat consoled by his comments about Taine.

Benedetta Craveri


Doctor Who, old-style, according to Jenny Turner: ‘With 40 minutes a week to fill, in runs that were, in the early years, 42 weeks long’, it ‘quickly filled up with in-jokes, puns, bendy storylines, sci-fi metaphysics, futuristic design, references to B-movies, naughty nods to all manner of paraphernalia over the children’s heads’ (LRB, 22 June). Doctor Who, new-style: ‘The key to syndication is making stuff that is clever and dense enough to stand up to repetition … dense nets of plot and sub-plot, clever-clever intertextual jokes, characters and stories that arc with the elegance and complexity of drawings done with a Spirograph set.’ Either two completely different sets of pressures have had very much the same result, or Turner is missing a simpler explanation. The audience for Doctor Who – like the audience for Marvel comics or Star Trek – takes convoluted plotting, metaphysical bricolage and intertextual playfulness for granted: they’re defining characteristics of the genre.

Phil Edwards
University of Manchester


John Lanchester nominates Steve Waugh’s Out of My Comfort Zone as ‘the longest book written entirely in pen since A Suitable Boy’ (LRB, 8 June). Not so. This award should go to Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle (2003-2004), whose three pen-written volumes amount to more than 2600 printed pages and leave even Vikram Seth behind.

Karel Thein
Charles University, Prague

Quite So

‘All this rich evidence begs questions,’ Maya Jasanoff writes (LRB, 8 June). Evidence may invite questions, but only unwarranted assumptions may beg them.

Eric Brewer
Arlington, Virginia

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