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!