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Thorstein Veblen

So I know it’s a little late to be writing a blog post on Clarissa, and that probably we’re all so busy doing our finals and projects for anyone to read this, but as i was doing some more research for my final project on comestibles in Georgian consumerist society, particularly with regards to tea, and I found the work of an Economist from the late 19th century called Throstein Veblen who writes on the leisure class.

 

If anyone found the theoretical framework for this class interesting and wants to read further about comestible theory, I would definitely take in some Veblen. In his essay “conspicuous consumption” he talks about the necessity of luxuries in establishing a power differential between classes. He writes: Unproductive consumption of goods is honourable, primarily as a mark of prowess and a perquisite of human dignity.” This is a super insightful comment, and I think that it applies to the entire range of our discussions throughout the course. Our earlier discussions about big and little T taste, and the philosophy of aesthetics tie into it because these more ‘refined’ and ‘purposeless’ indulgences are differentiated and privileged because they are luxuries and not necessities, so consuming these things is a mark of status and power. This insight also reflects on British imperialism and slavery in establishing Britain as a global power. This can also be seen as being relevant in terms of the centrality and significance of trade to British imperial expansion.

 

All of this is great and interesting, and there is TONS more in his collected works, but one particular part of his theory struck me as particularly interesting in regards to Clarissa and our class discussion from yesterday. Part of his discussion of privilege and the leisure class relates to patriarchy and goes back to ancient times to attribute the privileging of the male gender to the physical restrictions of a hunter-gatherer society, which allows for men to usurp the higher power position as a result of conspicuous consumption because as they gather/hunt, women prepare the goods for consumption. (he articulated this a lot better in the text, which is available here: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1902veblen00.asp in case you need to clarify)

 

In any case, he established a background for a power differential between the sexes, which privileges men, and is based on conspicuous consumption. He then goes on to explain some of the strange self-perpetuating results of this privilege. Because indulgence in luxuries is a mark of power, it becomes associated with the upper-class/powerful, making the consumption of luxuries associated with virtue. He then extrapolates even further, saying then that the excessive consumption of these things and any afflictions which come from this over-indulgence are necessarily also marks of power and class and therefore are construed as virtues.   Veblen writes: “It is only at a relatively early stage of culture that the symptoms of expensive vice are conventionally accepted as marks of a superior status, and so tend to become virtues and command the deference of the community; but the reputability that attaches to certain expensive vices long retains so much of its force as to appreciably lessen the disapprobation visited upon the men of the wealthy or noble class for any excessive indulgence.”  I was thinking that this was particularly relevant to our discussion of Clarissa, and more specifically Lovelace and his representation of the Rake. We talked in class a lot about the Rake as a character of Georgian society and how men were, to some degree, allowed to be totally promiscuous and horrible, and women were required to be hyper virtuous. I feel that this was a kind of relevant explanation of this dichotomy. 

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