Lines of luxury by Sam Leith / TLS


A gold ring with Bellerophon, Pegasos, and the Chimaera, c.350–300 BC, J. Paul Getty Museum, from the book Luxus

I love these first four paragraphs from author Sam Leith’s reviews of four different books for the Times Literary Supplement concerning our consumerism because of the way it speaks of our commonalities :

“Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends.
So Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz? ”

The opening verse of Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz” neatly compresses a whole complex of themes involved with consumerism. Here is the social anxiety that Thorstein Veblen invoked when he minted the term “conspicuous consumption”. Here is the ghost of Max Weber and his Protestant work ethic – that lifetime of individual striving for which a flashy car is no more than just deserts. And here – in the bizarre-seeming address to the Lord – is the admixture of religious feeling. To put it in historical context, Joplin’s song was recorded three days before her death in 1970, just as American televangelists were really getting under way with the prosperity gospel. Joplin was being ironic, of course – in her wan and self-undermining way. But nonetheless, she touches those chords.

Getting and spending, acquiring and consuming has always – sometimes covertly; more often expressly – been a moralized area of human behaviour. It is hedged about with ideas of entitlement (in both its positive and negative senses), competition (both senses), waste and excess. The history of consumption is also the history of the resistance to consumption. Consider some of the penumbral associations. Consumption is a fatal wasting disease. Luxury is – in historical theology – a vice. Spending is the petite mort. Possession is the loss of yourself to an evil spirit. Goods, as often as not, aren’t. There’s a sort of pivot in the dual meaning of the word “want”: want as lack; want as desire. How much is too much?

That the past century or so has seen what most people regard as some sort of step change – certainly in degree; arguably in kind – only sharpens that debate. The “goods society”, in one account of it, is counterposed to “the good society”; we trudge away on the “hedonic treadmill”, striving to satisfy material desires that are no sooner satisfied than they are supplanted by new ones pushed on us by the very profitable late capitalist dissatisfaction machine. Or, if you take the other position – a relative historical novelty – the sovereign power of the consumer in the market is an analogue for the power of the voter at the ballot box: we are all citizen-consumers, and that hyphen is umbilical. But then again, do we really want what we think we want? Are we entitled to want it? Will it make us happy?

Source: Lines of luxury | TLS

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