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“The Theory of the Leisure Class” the Book by Veblen Essay

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Updated: Sep 20th, 2021

The chapter of Veblen’s famous book “Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study in the Evolution of Institutions” under the name “Conspicuous consumption” presents a valuable contribution to the history of design, fashion and, what is most important for our current research, the social history of aesthetic culture. The book is written at the end of the 19-th century when the understanding of fashion and culture became a subject of theoretical evaluation. They were no longer considered as mere “beautiful things” but as a reflection of certain social relations between individuals, groups, and classes.

Thus, building his research on the premises of the institutionalist approach, Veblen seeks to find an explanation and analysis for the phenomenon he termed as “conspicuous consumption.” The main idea of this notion is that the upper-rich classes spend enormous loads of money not to satisfy their natural needs but to express their wealth. This type of consumption, according to Veblen, is absolutely wasteful and presents “predatory instincts” of expressing social status. Conspicuous consumption results from the extraordinary size of accumulated wealth and leisure lifestyles of the rich connected with it. A traditional for upper-classes rentier psychology, which is expressed in the passive, hedonistic way of life, leads to self-centered, lunatic consumption, which is absolutely harmful to the majority of the people in society. Moreover, it leads to impoverishment of the elite culture, in Lukacs’s (1972) words – “reification of the consciousness.” It becomes contaminated by fetishism, and itself diminishes to nothing. Moreover, Veblen has much to say about the relationship between consumption and gender.

Before we analyze the main arguments Torstein Veblen put forward to support his claim, it is important to note that his concept became really important for the description of the present state of culture. Today in the era of consumerism, more and more people waste their money and time on things that have no positive and even no aesthetic value. They seek consumption for the sake of consumption; it is a goal rather than a means. The commodification of culture represents a great threat to the values of Enlightenment, such as freedom, justice, and human dignity. But to be more concrete, it is time to analyze the main premises of Veblen’s concept.

According to Veblen, at the early stages of development of human culture:

“The consumption of choice articles of food, and frequently also of rare articles of adornment, becomes tabu to the women and children; and if there is a base (servile) class of men, the tabu also holds for them. With a further advance in culture, this tabu may change into the simple custom of a more or less rigorous character…” (Veblen, 1915, pp. 69-70). Here we see the gender dimension of consumption which presupposes consumption as a distinctive privilege of men.

Further on, during the development of social structure, these patriarchic features of consumption were transferred to the upper classes. The consumption for the sake of managing one’s living was now made the characteristics of such social groups as the peasantry, slaves. Interestingly, the reorganization of social structure was two-folded, as Veblen claims. Low consumption is at the same time characteristic of subaltern social classes and women as a gender role. Women are oppressed both as women and as gender. As Veblen notes about the use of alcohol, which was a main characteristic of indulgence then: “facts within easy reach of anyone who cares to know them go to say that the greater abstinence of women is in some part due to an imperative conventionality; and this conventionality is, in a general way, strongest where the patriarchal tradition — the tradition that the woman is a chattel — has retained its hold in greatest vigor” (1915, p.71).

In the industrial era, consumption becomes delinked from the traditional feudal constraints and becomes more open to new classes such as petty-owners, manufacturers, and traders. But its aristocratism becomes more evident and pronounced for the lack of consumption is now characterized as the attribute of personal “inferiority and demerit.” According to Veblen, this profound socialization of consumption which can be traced in the modern western capitalist countries of the West transformed it into the “aesthetic faculty.” Now it is not only about expressing own masculinity but is connected with the status-seeking marathon. The “leisure gentlemen,” as Veblen ironically names them, to be “diligent consumers” must know the goods and the market of consumption as a whole. It creates a specifically differentiated subculture of the upper-class, which organizes the process of “leisure life,” which includes spending money for luxuries, premium goods, pseudo-cultural entertainment, etc., elite amusement, etc. This subculture of the rich results in the emergence of institutionalized fashion, design, luxuries, architecture industry, and, as we can see now, every commercial product, be it an automobile or a writing pen.

The differentiation of consumption and its spread in the middle classes resulted in the change of women’s role in goods consumption. As Veblen notes, “as the latter-day outcome of this evolution of an archaic institution, the wife, who was at the outset the drudge and chattel of the man, both in fact and in theory, — the producer of goods for him to consume, — has become the ceremonial consumer of goods which he produces” (our italics) (1915, 83).

The evolution of the public sphere and capitalist economy, according to Veblen, resulted in understanding conspicuous consumption as a source of achieving social recognition and reputation. Not only superiors but “hang-on inferiors” embarked on leisure activities. As Veblen rightly suggests, “throughout the entire evolution of conspicuous expenditure, whether of goods or of services or human life, runs the obvious implication that in order to effectually mend the consumer’s good fame it must be an expenditure of superfluities. In order to be reputable, it must be wasteful” (1915, 96). Following this genealogy of conspicuous wealth, Veblen puts forward a successful classification of wasteful consumption. According to him, if one consumes something in order to express his social status but not satisfy his basic needs, he is a conspicuous consumer. But the utility of the product is not the only manifestation of wastefulness. It must be compared with other characteristics which are embedded in the greater structure of social relations and consumption. As Veblen notes, It would be hazardous to assert that a useful purpose is ever absent from the utility of any article or of any service, however obviously, its prime purpose and chief element is conspicuous waste; and it would be only less hazardous to assert of any primarily useful product that the element of waste is in no way concerned in its value, immediately or remotely” (1915, p.101).

In the other critical chapter of this book, “Dress as an Expression of the Pecuniary Culture,” Veblen tackles the issue of fashion’s role in the modern “commodity society.” This chapter must be considered as an attempt to apply the concept of “conspicuous consumption” to the specific sphere of life – dressing. The dressing is considered to be the most obvious sphere of conspicuous consumption, “It is not only that one must be guided by the code of proprieties in dress in order to avoid the mortification that comes of unfavorable notice and comment, though that motive in itself counts for a great deal; but besides that, the requirement of expensiveness is so ingrained into our habits of thought in matters of dress that any other than expensive apparel is instinctively odious to us” (1915, pp.168-169).

According to Veblen, the difference in dressing from other patterns of conspicuous consumption lies in the fact that it is not so about wastefulness and crudeness, as about status and social position. As Veblen rightly notes, “Our dress, therefore, in order to serve its purpose effectually, should not only be expensive, but it should also make plain to all observers that the wearer is not engaged in any kind of productive labor” (1915,170). The perfect “leisure apparel” must express the non-production type of the wearer’s lifestyle. Only then can it be highly regarded in his noble environment.

Women’s apparels are less convenient for productive labor (Veblen shows an example of wearing a corset). It is necessary to stress that this fact is not a coincidence but an objective projection of social tendencies to the realm of dressing.

Besides the tabu for productive labor embedded in “leisure apparel,” it is evident that fashion trends are another critical characteristics of pecuniary dressing. Changing fashion styles is, according to Veblen, a manifestation of the people’s rush for novelty. But notwithstanding this fact, there is something that is left untouched in fashion transformation, and it is namely expensiveness. As Veblen puts it, “the range within which innovation can take place is somewhat restricted. The innovation must not only be more beautiful, or perhaps oftener less offensive, than that which it displaces, but it must also come up to the accepted standard of expensiveness” (1915, p. 174).

Veblen asserts that fashions in some regions and cultures can be generally stable, as in the case of Japanese and Chinese civilizations. He claims that the more self-asserting is the imperative of wasting and conspicuous consumption, the more fashion trends are in permanent flux. Apart from the high speed of fashion changes, another phenomenon comes into play. If the dressing becomes deeply affected by the culture of conspicuous consumption, then those fashion styles that no longer prevail become offensive, and people who continue to wear outdated apparel may lose their reputation.

What concerns women’s dressing again Veblen claims that the “general disregard for wearer’s comfort” (1915, 181) can be interpreted as the continuous gender exploitation of women and their chattel’s function of man.

To summarize, the analysis of the conspicuous modern culture made by Veblen shows the sources of conspicuous consumption on two levels – firstly in terms of social relations that assert the imperative of wastefulness, secondly in terms of its practical implementation in fashion pecuniary culture. Veblen’s deep insight into the issues of design, consumption, and fashion makes his institutionalism a very critical theory for the analysis of modern trends in culture, architecture, and beaux-arts. We will attempt to apply his finding to the famous Barcelona Pavilion constructed by Mies Van der Rohe.

Barcelona Pavilion

The Barcelona Pavilion is an extraordinary phenomenon in the history of modern architecture. Being constructed in 1929 for the Barcelona International Exhibition, it was dismantled in 1930. The main purpose of it was to create a luxury space for the official opening of the exhibition conducted by Spanish King Alphonso 13 with German authorities.

The materials used for the Pavilion by its constructor Ludwig Mies van der Rohe were marble and travertine. The construction was placed on a huge podium alongside a water pool. The structure of the Pavilion was made of 8 posts supporting the totally flat roof, with glass walling and many partitions. Together this construction created an atmosphere of luxuriousness and nobility. Besides this, a Mies van der Rohe created a chair for the Pavilion comprised of leather up a metallic profile which was used as the royal throne.

The structure of the Pavilion and its function can tell much about it in terms of the Veblen analyses. Interestingly, is that the only purpose of the Barcelona Pavilion was to create an appropriate “noble atmosphere” for the monarchs. It was not designed as a permanent architecture site. Thus much luxurious material such as gold, marble, travertine was spent only to indulge the monarch’s “divine and noble” status. As Pawley notes, “The Barcelona pavilion…was without practical purpose. No functional program determined or even influenced its appearance. No part of its interior was taken up by exhibits: the building itself was the object on view, and the ‘exhibition’ was an architectural space such as had never been seen” (1970, p. 15).

Thus, the Barcelona pavilion must be considered as custom, proprietary, pecuniary and conspicuous design. This fact, of course, does not diminish the talent of its designer, Mies van der Rohe. The thought that wastefulness and the mere expression of “honorable guests” social status was a dominant feature of the Pavilion’s design can be supported by Mies Van der Rohe himself. According to Mies, the bulk of the furniture designed for the Pavilion was unused in the course of the opening ceremony. As he remarks, “To tell you the truth, nobody ever used them” (Spaeth, p. 63). The honorable guests were not so much bothered with Pavilion wastefulness and luxuriousness, but thus they made these features more pronounced.

But conspicuous consumption is not the only feature characteristic of the Pavilion. According to Rendell et al., “from the corporate towers of the wizards of the industry to the Emerald City of the Wizard of Oz, men have created the built environment in their own self-image” (2000). Masculinity, with its rush for wastefulness and ungovernability, reasserts itself in the forms of architecture designs. In the case of the Barcelona Pavilion, one can see the drive for freedom of space and movement, which are traditional meta-narratives of masculine culture. Rohe’s self-objectivation as a man is embedded in the Pavilion design. The superfluous use of such material as glass, marble, and steel, which are abound in Barcelona Pavilion, is in the view of Sanders the main characteristics of modernist architecture masculinity.

According to him, these materials “evoke the manly’ environments that produced them: wood conjures up a vision of a pre-industrialized, domesticated masculine wilderness, while steel invokes a picture of virile laborers shaping molten metals in foundries” (1996, p.23). The lack of ornamentation and strictness, which are so unique to modernist architecture, express men’s self-awareness as a ruler of the world. The description of the Pavilion’s structure gives more detailed information about its masculine features. This is a description of Schulze: “The roof rested on walls, or more properly wall planes, placed asymmetrically but always in parallels or perpendiculars so that they appeared to slide past each other in a space through which the viewer could walk more or less endlessly, without ever being stopped within a cubical area. This open plan, with its intimation of infinite freedom of movement, was at the same time qualified by two rows of equally spaced, cruciform columns that stood in martial formation amid the gliding walls” (1970,p.3). In this description, Barcelona Pavilion is presented as a geometrically strict construction, the main contours of which support Sanders’ view of the inherently masculine nature of this architecture site.

In sum, a combination between conspicuous consumption and gender forms embedded in the design of the Barcelona Pavilion represents the main diseases of Western civilization that must be cured in order to make culture more universal and nonrepressive.

References

  1. Schulze, F (1970). Knoll International exhibition catalog. New York: Knoll International.
  2. Lukacs, G (1972). History and Class consciousness. Massachusetts, Cambridge: MIT Press.
  3. Pawley, M. (1970). Mies Van Der Rohe: introduction and notes. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  4. Rendell, J., Penner, B., & Borden, I. (Eds.). (2000). Gender Space Architecture: An Interdisciplinary Introduction. London: Spon Press.
  5. Sanders, J., et al. (1996), Study: Architecture of Masculinity. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.
  6. Spaeth, D. (1985). Mies Van Der Rohe. London: The Architectural Press.
  7. Veblen, T. (1915). The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions. New York: Macmillan.
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