#1 Consumption & Distinction

Conspicuous Consumption and Inconspicuous Distinction: Veblen and Bourdieu by Guest Blogger, Maddie Kornfeld!

On Tuesday, February 11, we’ll swap the rarefied air of aesthetes and aesthetic theorists for the nitty gritty sociological analysis of cultural consumption, and read excerpts from Thorsten Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions (1899) and Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (1979). Note the nod to Kant in the title of the latter work, and the gentle polemics Bourdieu does with The Critique of Judgment–not to mention, less directly, with Humean and Wildean standards of sensible perception.

Though eight decades and a couple of continents apart, Veblen and Bourdieu are often read together for reasons we’ll soon discover and discuss. As you get acquainted with the cultured and “pecuniary tastes” of fin-de-siècle and mid-century elite classes, please pay attention to the place of waste in the system of social distinction. Spectacular excess (and excrement) will surface explicitly in the queer-campy section of the syllabus.

That’s all I have to say by way of preface for your class preparation. And now I’ll pass the ‘mic’ to Maddie.

…and here’s her post!
“Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier” (pg.6). Such is the premise on which Pierre Bourdieu builds his critique on Taste (with a capital “T”). Taste, he asserts, serves a specific function — one of social classification and distinction, that separates the elite and refined from the common and uncultivated masses. Similarly, Veblen is deeply critical of the leisure class and their wasteful patterns of consumption. Unlike Hume, Bourdieu and Veblen maintain that aesthetic preference is not an innate, hereditary gift, but rather that it is shaped by social and economic power dynamics. Yet both authors definitely do not give Kant a free pass either, as their arguments refuse the Kantian view that there is the potential for a universal, subjective experience of taste.

Bourdieu is often read in conjunction with Veblen, even though these men are not of the same time or place. Yet some of their most famous works (Bourdieu’s “Distinction” and Veblen’s “Theory of the Leisure Class”) share common roots in sociological, economical, and anthropological study. This is not to say that their work should be read as a single conglomeration of social theory — rather, Bourdieu and Veblen both challenge the notion that Taste is an equally accessible and evenly practiced custom. Veblen, like Bourdieu argues that aesthetic judgement is an act of social distinction, wherein a person or group of higher socioeconomic status distances themselves from those of lower status.

As we consider the texts of these two thinkers, it is worthwhile to ground ourselves in some of their most fundamental theories. In a nutshell, Bourdieu theorized that people are social agents who develop a habitus (i.e. a combination of mannerisms, dispositions, and views) based on their positioning in society, and that these socialized norms legitimize the social hierarchy. He also drew upon the concept of cultural and social capital, referring to the non-monetary assets that contribute to our social position, such as dress, educational background, social networks and interactions — all of which serve to strengthen social inequalities. Veblen, while also a sociologist, critiqued the economic interactions of his society and is credited with some of the leading theories in behavioral economics. Like Bourdieu, he challenged the stratification of people based on class, and asserted that economic behavior was socially determined. And like Bourdieu, he has quite a lot to say about the ways in which we distinguish the good from the bad, the refined from the vulgar, and the beautiful from the ugly!

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8 thoughts on “#1 Consumption & Distinction

  1. I have been pondering how Taste is informed by distinction. After viewing “The Ugly and Beautiful”, and more curious how dominant notions of Taste relegate objects as kitsch. The music video left me feeling it was saturated in cliche kitschiness. To me, the video was a pastiche of kitsch, from cinematography to sound. I have seen backlights shining through the silhouettes of intimate lovers toward camera, or the trope of the lovesick man unfamiliar and lost in his environment reflects in song, or, most painful, the song’s mere beat indicative of some nauseating Frank Sinatra tune my mother would play over and over again.

    The video begs the question. What are ways an object or material or visual culture is deemed kitsch through Taste and distinction? To try and answer, I will need to flesh out some ideas.

    Possibly the mere prevalence of a particular object that possessed meaning in its “original” form (a meaning deemed significant due to its conception in elite culture), now devoid of such meaning based on easy access, positions something to kitschiness. These thoughts make me think of mass-produced mock Mona Lisas. When one views the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, not only the museum space, but the thought of viewing the original piece, for me, commands “tasteful” respect. That said, I do not think contemporary interpretations of the Mona Lisa’s importance are not derived from the historical interpretation that informed its initial importance. Rather, the rarity of viewing the original while mock images can be popularly viewed differentiates viewers of the original as having greater access to importance objects than the rest of the general public. Such affords the original importance.

    Concurrently, with the general populace only viewing mocks, the Mona Lisa is debased from its original form (the original piece) with the majority of engagements with it not being of the original. The Mona Lisa (both original and mocks) becomes popular due to its mere prevalence and popularity (from mass-production), thus interrupting the piece’s material form from its nature and original meaning. The form in itself becomes popular, yet recognized as the Mona Lisa in its entirety. No longer does the general public perceive the Mona Lisa as its original, but rather a cross-medium, cliche image. This process, with stripping the form of its original meaning while having a history where the form’s meaning is based in the original may make it kitsch, and thus not of “good taste”. Prevalence delegitimizing meaning through mass production makes the form cliche, and also meaningless (at least of its original significance).

    The object’s past significance still informs the importance in contemporary interpretation of its significance. Historical imagination informs the general public that the piece, in this case the Mona Lisa, is significant, based on it being historically significant. Yet, kitschy pieces in general tend to seem as though they are “trying” to be significant. If a certain piece was once rare to access, but now prevalent to see mocks of, the prevalence makes the general populace forget original significance, yet the mere positioning of the objects form as if it is still significant makes it seem as though the piece is “trying” to be significant. To clarify with the Mona Lisa, the image of it is associated with historical significance. Yet, since the general populace is not informed of its “original” significance, only its mere prevalence makes it popular. Yet, images of the Mona Lisa are still mass produced and marketed as though it is significant. With consensus being ignorance of its significance, the form becomes popular in-itself, destabilizing the form’s original meaning. Such debasing regards the form as important in-itself, and combining it with prevalence and popularity, makes the form (which is now more popularly recognized as “the Mona Lisa” over the original) kitsch, and of dissimilar taste that purely the original possessed.

    Possibly similar reasoning makes the music video kitsch. The forgotten significance of the overused tropes positioned as if to be taken seriously inform its kitschiness. The same goes for garden gnomes and pink flamingoes.

    I am sure this analysis is only a sliver to what kitschiness, but I thought it may be interesting to consider. Sorry for the wordiness, but maybe my stream of consciousness could be informative.

  2. Dan, thanks for the considered comment! For the record, the video was my addition, inspired by the final turn-of-phrase in Maddie’s post. Maddie herself has another bit of A/V to go with her presentation.

  3. I especially enjoyed the Veblen reading for today’s class. I am particularly interested in his assertion that regardless of whether a person is rich or poor, they will consume conspicuously and make an effort to be impressive. Women play a distinct role in this, which is worth taking note of. Although Veblen was writing in the 1890’s, I was reminded of American housewife culture of the 1900’s and the opposing “working woman” Soviet culture that began to take hold after the revolution. Veblen’s disdain for the “conspicuous waste” that accompanies excessive and showy consumption makes me wonder about his opinion of Soviet culture.

    p.s. Veblen’s childhood home is only about an hour away from Saint Paul. Field trip?

    • Yes to gender and to a field trip! We may have to organize it outside of official class time, but I’ll see what I can do it to make it a legit group outing–great suggestion!

  4. The subject of waste is particularly interesting to be in the context of Veblen and Bourdieu, and seems to be not so terrible as displayed in certain textual context. As Veblen says, “The use of the term ‘waste’ is in one respect an unfortunate one. As used in the speech of everyday life the word carries an undertone of deprecation…implying an illegitimate expenditure of human products or of human life.” (p. 37). The disapproval expressed in the use of the word waste lends legitimacy to certain types of waste, i.e. that there is an acceptable waste of labor or commodity. When we speak about waste an unacceptable it’s usually in regards to a consumable good like a sandwich or fabric scarp (do people even have fabric scraps anymore?). However, for the leisure class, all commodities are highly consumable because they have the financials means to do so. The use value (Oh dear Marx!) is completely malleable- those of the leisure class have less “use” for things because they can consume more. I think this is legitimized in this quote from Veblen: “Whatever form of expenditure the consumer chooses, or whatever end he seeks in making his choice has utility to him by virtue of his preference.” (p. 137). Waste (excess expenditure) is completely dependent on the use value the consumer applies to the commodity.

    To take the ideas of taste and consumption quite literally in a historical context, here is a great selection of historical menus from New York City’s gilded age (early 1900’s). Opulent and delicious.

    • Fabulous–we should certainly take taste–and waste–on its face, and get back to the non-metaphorical meaning of the term with which we’ve been working since Williams’s keyword entry on the subject. By all means, make menus part of our class conversation. I think they’re a terrific way to puzzle out a lot of these problems, especially, with a nod to Veblen, now that we’ve thought about the place of the private sphere in the role of publicly conspicuous consumption!

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