Friday, 24 August 2012

Part II - Veblen's Definitions

This post is part of a (rather ambitious) series on The Theory of the Leisure ClassLast week I outlined Veblen's views on what he called 'savage culture', a concept used to contrast with the barbarian culture he says developed after. 

In describing how the institution of a leisure class came about, he uses words in a way that I initially found difficult.  Even Wikipedia says his writing style is archaic.  If you decide read this book for yourself, and even if you only read my posts,  some of these definitions may help.

The dictionary definition of this adjective refers something living rather than non-living, ie a dog is animate but a car is inanimate. As a verb, animate means to 'impart motion or activity' or 'give life to'. Veblen uses the term in a slightly different way. The term 'animate' in his discussion doesn't mean ‘living’ so much as 'formidable' or 'baffling', not your everyday plants and small animals, but thunderstorms, mighty waterfalls or deadly diseases; the sorts of things almost assigned as having a malevolent will by primitive superstition or pagan lore. I found myself gradually building up a picture of the 'medicine man' or shaman when I re-read those sections. 

I always thought of this term as rather positive, as in when I try to emulate - ie imitate or live up to - some person or some ideal I admire. It does mean this, but it also means to equal or excel. The context in which Veblen uses this word - nearly as often as 'invidious' - makes me think he more often means excel. Think 'Keeping up with the Joneses' and one-upmanship.

Current use of this word is more often as a verb (to exploit), however Veblen's use is as a noun: a bold or daring feat. Think of the big stag slain, the battle won, the risky business coup pulled off.  Think of something after which one can swagger into the pub and brag.

I was thinking of this word a rather positive, respectful way, as in the usual dictionary definition. You may or may not be aware that Honorable (abbrevated Hon.) is also used as a title of respect for certain high government officials; as a courtesy title for the children of barons and viscounts and the younger sons of earls; in the House of Commons as a title of respect when speaking of another member. Veblen explains his interpretation of this word.  For him, honorable is assertion of superior force; formidable; prepotent. An honorific act is a successful act of aggression, meaning conflict with men and beasts. The taking of life is honorable in the highest degree.

"Arms are honorable, and the use of them, even in seeking the life of the meanest creatures of the fields, becomes an honorific employment."
industry / industrial
In popular books and films concerning class divisions there is a great fuss made about whether someone's money comes from 'trade' or 'industry'.  When I initially began reading Veblen, I thought in terms of this or of machinery and factories, but it didn't always make sense.  I went to the dictionary and found the definition that did fit Veblen's initial use:  energetic devotion to a task or an endeavor; diligence.   Veblen says that this sort of work, even the handling of the tools of industry, falls beneath the dignity of able-bodied men in the barbarian culture.  Think 'women's work'.

Veblen uses the term 'inert' as a contrast to animate. Inert things are 'brute materials', everyday commonplace things like fruit or bunny rabbits perhaps. Inert, according to Veblen, describes the sort of phenomenon that doesn't have any mystical or bewildering element, doesn't require strength or cleverness to overcome, things that don't need to be conquered through exploit.

One of Veblen's favourite words, and not initially part of my vocabulary.  Adjective:  1. (of an action or situation) Likely to arouse or incur resentment or anger in others.
2. (of a comparison or distinction) Unfairly discriminating; unjust.  I suppose one could argue that the class system is simply Darwinian, but in Veblen's barbarian culture, the whole point is to make people envy your position, power, possessions, etc.  It's not enough to have these things; others must recognise it and be resentful.

The dictionary defines this as a 'product of effort or skill', which Veblen says this is 'a taste for effective work and a distaste for futile effort, a sense of the merit of serviceability and of the demerit of futility, waste or incapacity.  He imputes this inclination not just to the savage culture, but later in his book he says women have this instinct. 

In my next post on this topic, I will attempt to explain Veblen's introductory material concerning the "barbarian culture".  It is in the highest stage of this culture that one finds the most developed institution of the leisure class.


Susan Partlan said...

Fascinating. It sounds like a lot of trouble though, getting into this text. Thank you for making it accessible!

Terri said...

Whoa, I can see that the common meaning of several of these words have changed significantly since Veblen's time. I appreciate you doing this "work" for us!