Friday, 5 October 2012

Part VIII - Leisurely Occupations

This is part of a series discussing The Theory of the Leisure Class, Thorstein Veblen.  His third chapter is on Conspicuous Leisure. 

In the last post we saw that the 'characteristic feature of leisure class life is a conspicuous exemption from all useful employment'.  This didn’t mean complete indolence, however.  Appropriate occupations were limited to government, war, sports, and devout observances.

Although these occupations may be ‘incidentally and indirectly “productive”’ it is widely understood that the  motive in taking them up is not to increase the wealth of the post holder.  That is to say,
At this as at any other cultural stage, government and war are, at least in part, carried on for the pecuniary gain of those who engage in them; but it is gain obtained by the honorable method of seizure and conversion.  These occupations are of the nature of predatory, not of productive, employment. 

The number of ‘home truths’ I found in Veblen fairly took my breath at times. 

Veblen explains that the nature of hunting changed at this stage, becoming two distinct employments.  One for trade and for gain; the other a sport, an ‘exercise of the predatory impulse’ which retained an element of exploit.  The latter alone belongs in the lifestyle of the leisure class.  Think of fox hunting:  no food results, just the exploit and adventure of the chase, with the riddance of nuisance foxes given as a justification. 
As a community develops, it is eventually no longer practical to accumulate wealth by seizure.  Since, for the high minded man, labor is impossible there emerges a secondary, spurious, leisure class, abjectly poor but unable to stoop to gainful employment:  the decayed gentleman and lady who have seen better days.  In this discussion we get a Latin quote which translates as "Think it the greatest impiety to prefer a disgrace to the soul, And for the sake of life to lose the reasons for living."

This idea about work being indecent is hard to comprehend in this present day - at least for someone of my class - but most of what I know from history and literature bears out this explanation.  The writings of Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott spring to my mind.  No doubt better read persons could come up with a wider range of authors.
Now, because conspicuous leisure doesn’t mean doing nothing, and as the whole of one’s life is not on parade, the gentleman of leisure has to find a way to demonstrate that when not on show, he’s still being leisurely.  If the lasting evidence of productive labor is its material product and the evidence of exploit is the trophy or booty, then the evidence of leisure takes the form of ‘non-material’ evidence. 

Veblen gives examples of these evidences of leisure.  They include the knowledge of 
   the dead languages,
   correct spelling (!)
   syntax and prosody (the rhythm and sounds in poetry)
   the various forms of music and art
   the latest properties of dress, furniture, and equipage (ie carriage, horses and attendants)
   games, sports, and fancy-bred animals, such as dogs and race-horses

Also, the knowledge of what is known as manners and breeding, polite usage, decorum, and formal and ceremonial observances.   He says these sorts of accomplishments have survived because they provided useful evidence of an unproductive expenditure of time.  This is also the period of the elaboration of the system and use of rank, titles, degrees and insignia (ie heraldic devices, medals, and honorary decorations) as a substitute for the former trophies won by exploit.

In the next post, we will talk about why good manners are so important.


Terri said...

Hm, it sounds like this chapter might explain why someone could be an English teacher and call it work!

BigLittleWolf said...

As you say, it is extraordinary to compare this approach and attitude toward work versus leisure with today's excessive self-importance (and self-image) tied to the very opposite.

We (in America especially) value the appearance of effort at least as much as the actual work (in my opinion), and of course, we value (or envy?) those with money - regardless of how it was gained.

I'm looking forward to the "good manners" section. Now that, if you ask me, is something we could do with a bit of returning to.

Shelley said...

Terri - Yes, I can see what you mean. Strange ideas, some of Veblen's are.

BLW - I found Veblen's book fascinating because it explained a lot of things I've observed. On the other hand, some ideas of his are clearly well out of date and well may have been by the time of his writing. He may only have been referring to historical customs. He puts no time frame of reference in his descriptions of 'savage' or 'barbarian' or 'quasi-peaceful' periods. He's quite snide and I think perhaps sarcastic about some of his observations. His views about 'good manners' isn't altogether in harmony with what we think today. Then again, he's really talking about an exaggerated style of self-presentation that would get up most of our noses these days.

Susan Partlan said...

Terri's comment made me laugh :).