"This market, this bazaar of life": Markets Imagined and Remembered
by David Thorburn

On the principle that limbering up is as important for mental exercises as for physical ones, and before we settle in for an extended, deeply pragmatic discussion about the emerging markets of the Internet, I want to begin by alluding briefly to the idea of markets, to the marketplace in history, imagination and metaphor. For all of human history, markets have been central spaces for transactions and encounters beyond commerce. For the ancient Greeks, the agora or marketplace was a civic and political space containing the very soul of the city. The great French historian Fernand Braudel understood markets to be the essential ground, the necessary precondition, for the growth of towns and cities.

That the teeming markets of the early modern period were spaces of cultural interaction and moral and aesthetic discovery, is the argument of many writers and painters and historians.

In an early chapter of Don Quixote, for example, Cervantes recounts his fortuitous recovery and rescue of some "old notebooks and documents" written in Arabic that turn out to be the rest of his great novel. The place for this monumental (fictional) discovery: the Alcaná (marketplace) in Toledo -- Spain, not Ohio, American readers -- a bazaar of such cultural diversity and plenitude that the author has no difficulty finding a translator who accepts payment of fifty pounds of raisins and three bushels of wheat "to translate carefully and well, using no more words than absolutely necessary" (Burton Raffel translation, 1995).

Early modern scenes of barter and market-life in the woodcuts and paintings reproduced in the first volume of Braudel's The Structures of Everyday Life, even some centered on a single commodity -- for instance: "Butchers' stalls in Holland" -- often register something of the diversity of Cervantes' marketplace, showing us men, women and children, fashionably-dressed town wealth, burger and peasant all interacting at market. In some of these scenes the market degrades to a space of addiction or drunkenness, suggesting chaos and the ugly extremes of appetite.

The fairs and festivals in Shakespeare and Ben Jonson and the early modern carnivals, described by Natalie Davis and other recent historians, are even more evocative: trading space metamorphosing into something wider and richer -- an environs of mixing and danger, of vulgar display and greed and appetite and, of course, works of art.

Will the markets of cyberspace achieve such "thickness," such diversity and cultural centrality? Michael Dertouzos thinks this is inevitable:

An image flashed before me -- the Athens flea market. I knew it well. As a boy I had spent nearly every Sunday in its bustling narrow streets packed with people selling, buying, and trading every conceivable good. I was looking for electronics, especially illegal crystals with which you could build your own small radio station. Almost all of the people were friendly and talkative, tackling every conceivable topic between deals. They formed a community that stretched beyond its commercial underpinnings. There was no central authority anywhere; all the participants controlled their own pursuits. It seemed natural and inevitable to me that the future world of computers and networks would be just like the Athens flea market -- only instead of physical goods, the commodities would be information goods. (What Will Be, 1997)

Too optimistic? Probably so. Yet considering how the computer itself and then the Internet in their short short lives have colonized our time and attention, considering the demonstrable complexity and chaotic variety already planted in cyberspace, we have reason for plausible hope.

But, of course, markets may narrow and trivialize life as well as enable and enlarge it. The advertisements are already overgoing the margins of Internet discourse, oozing into the center of the screen like horror-film algae. And our travels through cyberspace even today, in the early dawn of computing, exact a sacrifice of privacy whose consequences are not yet known.

Christ's admonition against hypocrite scribes who love "salutations in the market-places" assumes that markets are corrupt and teach deceit (Mark 12:38). He is not alone in these suspicions.

In an old Persian tale we encounter our very destiny in the marketplace:

Once long ago, in the great city of Ispahan a rich merchant sent his servant to the market on an important errand. But the servant returned too soon and, breathless, begged his master to lend him a horse so he could flee immediately to the distant city of Samarra.


"What trouble?" asked the merchant.

"Oh master, as I entered the market square I spied the figure of Death, who made a threatening gesture toward me."

The merchant instantly dispatched his servant to the stables for the fastest mount, and after learning of his safe departure, proceeded to the market on the errand his servant had begun. Entering the square, he saw the figure of Death. "Why did you threaten my servant this morning?" the merchant demanded.

"Ah, sir," replied Death with a grave smile. "I did not threaten. My gesture was one of surprise. I was surprised to find your servant here in Ispahan this morning, when later this evening we have an appointment in Samarra."

As this mordant fable reminds us, we need to keep aware of how markets, for good and for ill, prove out the law of unintended consequences.

But for all the admonitions, including those of Marx and the New Deal Democrats, abundance and diversity are a key to our Idea of markets. In many songs, stories and pictures we find life's energy in the marketplace, a crossing of classes, a poetry of plenitude and choice.

This last mythic and also historical space is invoked with memorable force in the grand final sentence of E. L. Doctorow's 1989 novel, Billy Bathgate:

. . . and what I think of now is how we used to like to go back to the East Bronx and walk . . . on a sunny day along Bathgate Avenue, with all the peddlers calling out their prices and the stalls stacked with pyramids of oranges and grapes and peaches and melons, and the fresh bread in the windows of the bakeries with the electric fans in their transoms sending hot bread smells into the air, and the dairy with its tubs of butter and wood packs of farmer's cheese, and the butcher wearing his thick sweater under his apron, walking out of his ice room with a stack of chops on oiled paper, and the florist on the corner wetting down the vases of clustered cut flowers, and the children running past, and the gabbling old women carrying their shopping bags of greens and chickens, and the teenage girls holding white dresses on hangers to their shoulders, and the truckmen in their undershirts unloading their produce, and the horns honking and all the life of the city turning out to greet us just as in the old days of our happiness, before my father fled, when the family used to go walking in this market, this bazaar of life, Bathgate, in the age of Dutch Schultz.
-- E.L.Doctorow, Billy Bathgate (1989).

Alas, at least from the perspective of the cyber market, a salient feature of this remarkable praise-song is that it invokes a space so palpably physical, even olfactory: an entangled sentient actuality not to be replicated on any screen.

But maybe to be conjured there, respected and re-imagined there, as Doctorow's great sentence conjures Bathgate Avenue in the ancient and now eternal medium of print.