Thorstein Veblen, from "The Theory of the Leisure Class":
"The gentleman of leisure becomes a connoisseur in creditable viands of various degrees of merit, in manly beverages and trinkets, in seemly apparel... This calculation of aesthetic faculty requires time and application and the demands made upon the gentleman in this direction therefore tend to change his life of leisure into a more or less arduous application to the business of learning how to live a live of ostensible leisure in a becoming way."
Canadian philosopher Mark Kingwell elaborates:
"The gentleman is in fact a prisoner of his preoccupations, owned by rather than owning these outward tokens of position. And there is no escape for him or anyone else."
A one-two punch from two tart social observers, reminding me that the feverish pursuit of "the best" wastes life energy in a particularly soulless fashion, pun intended.
After forty years of full time work, I'm not exactly of the "leisure class", but had enough free time over the holidays to fake it. On New Year's day, I spent several hours trolling Esty for a pair of earrings. Ninety some pages of listings yielded one outstanding designer, a half-dozen so-so offerings, and eighty-nine pages of scary or overpriced dreck.
In those two hours, I could have babysat a friend's newborn, made biscotti, gone skating, or enjoyed a good movie. I had the vague, dispiriting sense of misuse of time. (I'll post on the one standout soon.)
Then I read Kingwell's "Ways of Not Seeing, On the Limits of Design Fetishism" in the November 2009 Harpers, and considered my trolling from a philosopher's perspective. This is Kingwell's enlightening book review on Deyan Sudjic's "The Language of Things: Understanding the World of Desirable Objects".
I wondered, Does all this stuff-knowledge really matter? Is life better if you can identify Manolos from Maddens at 500 yards? How vulnerable am I to status spending?
My worst sheep-like behaviour is elicited when I'm having a business meeting to pitch my services with someone who prizes status, which is common in the corporate world. I want to be chosen, and fitting in increases my chances.
If my client is a woman, I often get the full-body scan, that head to toe once-over, and I fall short of perfection. No Pink Tartan jacket, no Jimmy Choos. But because of my age (not expected to pack into a Prada mini) and quality of attire (unrecognizable brands but well-made), whew, I pass.
In private life, I would not carry a conspicuously logoed bag if you gave me one. At the meeting, my briefcase flaunts its schmantzy name.
Unmasking the desperate game of status signals is only part of the endeavour. I no longer want to hunt so avidly. I want to shop at a few good shops and patronize several beloved artisans whom I respect for the beauty and quality of their work. That would not be Coach.
Finding those exemplary few takes research. Several treasured sources have not survived the recession; that's why I was earring-hunting on Etsy.
I don't deliberately chose my purchases to elicit envy. But I have not renounced buying, either. I'm still lifted by the joy of a well-chosen necessary object. OK, mostly necessary.
Maybe connoisseurship is not the issue; being insecure or anxious enough to require the security blanket of status objects is a sadder state. I'd like to get completely free of the desire to impress anyone through my possessions.
When, if ever, do you buy to impress others? Do others' possessions impress you?