The ambiguities of luxury

Pусский 中文
February 2012

In a recent article entitled “In Japan, a desire for luxury to counteract the tsunami,” the newspaper Le Monde explained that, after a few months of “self denial,” the Japanese are again rushing to purchase luxury goods. “In the Louis Vuitton store in Sendai,” writes the journalist, “the usual clients —having just received their insurance payouts—quickly returned ‘to treat themselves’ after the earthquake, to console themselves.”

Interestingly, while a strong decline in purchasing habits would have been expected, the Japanese luxury market (valued at €18 billion, making it the second largest luxury market after the United States) should see a slight rise of 2 per cent in the year of the tsunami and the nuclear disaster. If we look only at watch sales, Japan registered in 2011 an increase of 11.2 per cent in its imports of Swiss timepieces (based on statistics from January to November 2011).

While these figures might surprise us, this type of behaviour is in line with the notion of “luxury”. The justifications touting luxury as an investment are not really valid, since the nature of luxury is primarily that of excessive squandering and gratuitous “celebration”, which “immoderately consume the resources accumulated during the hours of work,” as explained by the French author Georges Bataille. In his opinion, this excess is a “sacred” part of us, a part intrinsically linked to the other “excesses” of eroticism or war.

The ambiguities of luxury

The custom of potlatch—a ritual celebration during which the Indians of the North American Pacific coast destroyed their essential wealth, such as canoes, blankets, and precious objects, which had just been offered to them by a rival tribe—is often reported and commented upon, with more than a little astonishment. This deliberate destruction of material goods is not done quietly but rather in a flagrant and ostentatious manner, right before the eyes of the gift-givers. More interestingly, what follows this ritual is a sort of one-upmanship, where the rival tribe —a question of prestige—shows that they are “on the same level” by destroying even more things.

When we look at this “gratuitous” expenditure, this deliberate destruction of value, this pure loss, which in exchange receives, a “currency of renown and reputation”, can we compare it to our modern extravagant spending?

Considering that the Japanese people have been moulded by millennia of a culture of frugality, this burning desire for luxury, kindled by the recent collective hardships, stands out all the more. While conventional wisdom deals only with the productive and accumulative parts of the economy, it ignores another part, which is the “luxurious destruction” side of the economy.

It is easy for us to look scornfully at the strange potlatch custom, but isn’t today’s luxury spending merely a contemporary reflection of this tribal ritual? It is what Georges Bataille calls the “generalised economy,” in opposition to the work economy—a generalised economy that integrates destruction and gratuitous spending as “sources of value.”

Luxury is, in its own way, the peaceful and ritualistic continuation of war, its mad expenditure of energy, and its enthusiastic abundance of wealth. (According to the estimates of Joseph Stiglitz, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics, the war in Iraq cost the government of the United States some $3 trillion, a price that has no relation to the hoped-for “benefits” and does not even take into consideration the incalculable price paid in human terms.) To ward off the perils and uncertainties of the future by permitting spending at a “pure loss” is definitely one of the “sacred” functions of luxury.

Photo: “On 26.08.06, I am going to gather every branded possession of mine into a warehouse, douse them with petrol and burn the lot. Jacobson chairs, Christian Dior shirts, a Louis Vuitton bag; I’m too frightened to calculate the financial cost of this action, but I know it’s a lot. Far more unsettling than the money is the emotional cost I’m going to suffer.” – William Bowles

Source: Europa Star February - March 2012 Magazine Issue