Friday, 23 November 2012

Part XV – The Purpose of Parties

This is part of a series discussing The Theory of the Leisure Class, by Thorstein Veblen.  His fourth chapter is Conspicuous Consumption. 

Veblen acknowledges that a great deal of change has occurred over time.  However, he maintains that in the quasi-peaceable period, the gentleman of leisure may no longer just be successful, aggressive, strong and resourceful.  He must cultivate his tastes and develop a nice discrimination in consumable goods:  beverages, trinkets, apparel, architecture, weapons, games, dancers and narcotics.  The cultivation of this aesthetic faculty requires time and application, making it an arduous business to live a life of ‘ostensible leisure in a becoming way.’
Of course, consumption must be done in good form, hence the need for all those good manners we discussed earlier.  High-bred manners conform to the norm of conspicuous leisure and conspicuous consumption.

As a gentleman’s wealth accumulates, he will be unable to sufficiently put his opulence in evidence.  He will need the help of friends and competitors.  They rescue him by receiving valuable gifts and attending expensive feasts and entertainments, such as a potlatch (a new word for me) or a ball.  The competitor – the person whom the gentleman wishes to impress or show up – thus becomes a means to the end by consuming vicariously for his host at the same time he serves to witness the excessive consumption of goods provided by the host, who is also busy demonstrating his facility in etiquette.  Veblen concedes that such festivities probably originated with the motive of congeniality or religious purposes (or to raise money for charity), but maintains that they also serve an invidious purpose.

If all this sounds too cynical to countenance, I recommend the book Fortune's Children:  The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt (by Arthur T. Vanderbilt II). 
In the next post, we’ll consider the utility of wearing uniforms.


Beryl said...

Very well timed post for Thanksgiving. Potlatch is a common term in Seattle, but only used by Native Americans.

Revanche said...

Not weird to see narcotics on that list! ;)

Such a hard business it was, being of good fortune, hm?

Shelley said...

Beryl - So I understand, which is why, growing up in Oklahoma, I'm suprised not to have met the word before.

Revanche - I read not long ago how wealthy people feel they deserve to be rich, not just because they work hard for their money but because they work hard to keep up appearances. Wish I could find that article again, it was wicked!

Susan Partlan said...

Reading "he must cultivate his tastes and develop a nice discrimination in consumable goods" reminded me of some people we know who are very good at this. Sometimes it makes me feel bad, like I ought to work harder at cultivating my aesthetic faculty, but other times I find it boring. Like I just want to enjoy dinner with friends, not attend a lecture on the wine and cuisine.

Shelley said...

Susan - They call them 'wine bores' over here... I think it is useful to have some basic understanding of what works and doesn't work in terms of food and drink, but giving lectures doesn't sound like being good company at all! I generally try to avoid people who make me feel bad about what I have (don't have); know (don't know). Although I sound rather insecure, I generally think people who have to parade their knowledge (as opposed to have a joint conversation) are the ones who are really insecure.