Unproductive consumption of goods is honourable.
I recently finished this little, but powerful, book [OWC]. Actually, I believe it is an excerpt from a much larger work, The Theory of the Leisure Class, edited and introduced by Robert Lekachman (Penguin Classics, 1994) [OWC].
I bought this book in the Penguin Books . Great Ideas series. This is a series of excerpts, extracts, abridgements, etc. And while I generally loathe such things, this may be a good idea in this case; some of them for some people anyway. Would I have really ever read 400 pages of The Theory of the Leisure Class? Probably not.
Some of the works in this series include Sun-tzu’s The Art of War, Plato’s Symposium, Rousseau’s The Social Contract, Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, Marx & Engels’ The Communist Manifesto, among others.
While I would only read several of these titles in their entirety, some might be more useful to me in a shorter version. I imagine the same applies to others, just differently. For instance, although I see no need to read a short version of the Symposium, I would recommend the full-length version to very few people.
All in all, this edition seemed like a good one. The book is small–18×11 cm.–and costs only $8.95 retail. Type is a reasonable size, although not large, and there is a decent use of margins. The publisher provided information about which edition this “extract” came from, and the birth and death years of Veblen. What they did not tell me, and I consider this to be the major flaw of this manifestation, was when the first edition of this book (or its whole, actually) was published. That information seems just a bit useful to place the work in context!
There were a few points where I was trying to decide if something being described was during the interwar years or earlier. It turns out the book was originally published in 1899; almost 20 years before the interwar years. There have been many editions and manifestations of this book. It is possible that it had been edited over all those years and that the things I was questioning had been added later. I’ll just have to do a bit more research into the actual editions of this book if I want to know.
The contents include: The Leisure Class; Conspicuous Leisure: Status and Servants; Conspicuous Consumption: Women, Luxury Goods and Connoisseurship; Canons of Taste: Greenery and Pets; Admission to the Leisure Class; Survivals of Primitive Male Prowess: Fighting and Sports; and Conspicuous Uselessness of Education.
Now I’d like to highlight some passages I found particularly “important” to me:
The ground on which a discrimination between facts is habitually made changes as the interest from which the facts are habitually viewed changes. Those features of the facts at hand are salient and substantial upon which the dominant interest of the time throws its light. Any given ground of distinction will seem insubstantial to any one who habitually apprehends the facts in question from a different point of view and values them for a different purpose (8).
This should be common sense, especially in library work, but is it? How many people in our society, or even our profession, really honestly believe— and more importantly, live by— this idea?
The early development of tools and weapons is of course the same fact seen from two different points of view (19-20).
See also: “Every tool is a weapon if you hold it right.” Ani DiFranco. my iq. Puddle Dive.
[The] term ‘leisure,’ as used here, does not connote indolence or quiescence. What it connotes is non-productive consumption of time. Time is consumed non-productively (1) from a sense of the unworthiness of productive work, and (2) as an evidence of pecuniary ability to afford a life of idleness (21).
A knowledge of good form is prima facie evidence that a portion of the well-bred person’s life which is not spent under the observation of the spectator has been worthily spent in acquiring accomplishments that are of no lucrative effect (26).
Unproductive consumption of goods is honourable, primarily as a mark of prowess and a perquisite of of human dignity; secondarily it becomes honourable in itself, especially the consumption of the more desirable things (43).
But a base service performed for a person of very high degree may become a very honorific office; … (53).
No class of society, not even the most abjectly poor, forgoes all customary conspicuous consumption (58).
The enthusiasm for war, and the predatory temper of which it is the index, prevail in the largest measure among the upper classes, especially among the hereditary leisure class (77).
Now ain’t this just the damn truth? And what are we to finally do about it?
It is only the high-bred gentleman and the rowdy that normally resort to blows as the universal solvent of differences of opinion (79).
Sports shade off from the basis of hostile combat, through skill, to cunning and chicanery, without it being possible to draw a line at any point. The ground of an addiction to sports is an archaic spiritual constitution – the possession of the predatory emulative propensity in a relatively high potency. A strong proclivity to adventuresome exploit and to the infliction of damage is especially pronounced in those employments which are in colloquial usage specifically called sportsmanship (85-6).
The addiction to sports, therefore, in a peculiar degree marks an arrested development of the man’s moral nature (86).
The slang of athletics, by the way, is in great part made up of extremely sanguinary locutions borrowed from the terminology of warfare. Except where it is adopted as a necessary means of secret communication, the use of a special slang in any employment is probably to be accepted as evidence that the occupation in question is substantially make-believe (87).
Hmmm. What does this second sentence say about librarianship?
The chapter entitled “Conspicuous Uselessness of Education” is particularly damning of the humanities. While I tend to agree with Veblen’s analysis, I do think that there are some countervailing issues that bring their value (of which Veblen admits) more to the fore. There have also been further changes in higher education (or education, period), along with the demographics of students, professors, and so on, which impact his analysis. All in all, though, a very interesting chapter; especially since it was written so early in the history of public higher education.
The presumption that there can ordinarily be no sound scholarship where a knowledge of the classics and humanities is wanting leads to a conspicuous waste of time on the part of the general body of students in acquiring such knowledge. The conventional insistence on a modicum of conspicuous waste as an incident of all reputable scholarship has affected our canons of taste and serviceability in matters of scholarship in much the same way as the same principle has influenced our judgment of the serviceability of manufactured goods (99).
A breach of the proprieties in spelling is extremely annoying and will discredit any writer in the eyes of all persons who are possessed of a developed sense of the true and beautiful. English orthography satisfies all the requirements of the canons of reputability under the law of conspicuous waste. It is archaic, cumbrous, and ineffective; its acquisition consumes much time and effort; failure to acquire it is easy of detection. Therefore it is the first and readiest test of reputability in learning, and conformity to its ritual is indispensable to a blameless scholastic life (102).
I may just have to read Veblen’s whole work one of these days. I’m also interested in seeing some critiques from over the past 100+ years of its issuance. It is very insightful, although I imagine some of the ideas could be couched differently, also more scholarship in areas which Veblen uses for support has been done. If things have changed in these areas, it might affect his arguments.
Anyway, highly recommended short read. As for the series, you might consider it for your library if you have patrons that need an “easier” or, at least, shorter introduction to assorted “classics” of Western lit.
And as “good Americans,” as I have no doubt most of my readers are, remember, “Conspicuous consumption of goods is honourable.” Even our president urged us to consume in the wake of 9/11; so it must be honorable.
Hey, Iris, Veblen is a Carleton
geek, er, I mean grad.