Satisfaction / Affluence / Luxury

While working on my paper for the Philip Johnson symposium, I have been looking through a number of magazines from the 1980s such as New York or the New Yorker. In the case of the former, I went into the bookstacks at USC’s Doheny Library, for the latter I have the wonderful complete New Yorker on DVD.

As I was working with these documents, I noticed how ads in these magazines that aim squarely at the upper-middle-class market are for lower end goods than they would be today. Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein appear, but that’s a far cry from today’s Prada and Gucci. Where automobiles are shown, magazines in the eighties generally showed American models with a smattering of conservative foreign models thrown in. The Hummer would be, as yet, utterly unimaginable.

But these are not just changes in advertising, they are changes in culture. Consumption of luxury items””?not just designer items, but luxury designer items””?is more and more widespread. Pierre Bourdieu, of course, argued that these markers of distinction exist to legitimate social difference. True to be sure, but we live in an increasingly clustered world and things have changed greatly since the simple class structure of his day. Forms of luxury consumption can be found in many clusters, especially urban-dwelling clusters. Even clusters that express disdain for Hummers and Prada have their own forms of luxury consumption. Earth mamas dig their organic cotton clothing, for example.

I’d like to suggest, then that what we’re seeing is a further affirmation that network culture is distinct from postmodernism. Where modernism aimed to satisfy needs, postmodernism introduced a culture of affluence in which people could search out objects of desire, while in network culture luxury consumption and highly specific markers of distinction have spread widely.

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While working on my paper for the Philip Johnson symposium, I have been looking through a number of magazines from the 1980s such as New York or the New Yorker. In the case of the former, I went into the bookstacks at USC’s Doheny Library, for the latter I have the wonderful complete New Yorker on DVD.

As I was working with these documents, I noticed how ads in these magazines that aim squarely at the upper-middle-class market are for lower end goods than they would be today. Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein appear, but that’s a far cry from today’s Prada and Gucci. Where automobiles are shown, magazines in the eighties generally showed American models with a smattering of conservative foreign models thrown in. The Hummer would be, as yet, utterly unimaginable.

But these are not just changes in advertising, they are changes in culture. Consumption of luxury items””?not just designer items, but luxury designer items””?is more and more widespread. Pierre Bourdieu, of course, argued that these markers of distinction exist to legitimate social difference. True to be sure, but we live in an increasingly clustered world and things have changed greatly since the simple class structure of his day. Forms of luxury consumption can be found in many clusters, especially urban-dwelling clusters. Even clusters that express disdain for Hummers and Prada have their own forms of luxury consumption. Earth mamas dig their organic cotton clothing, for example.

I’d like to suggest, then that what we’re seeing is a further affirmation that network culture is distinct from postmodernism. Where modernism aimed to satisfy needs, postmodernism introduced a culture of affluence in which people could search out objects of desire, while in network culture luxury consumption and highly specific markers of distinction have spread widely.

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One thought on “Satisfaction / Affluence / Luxury

  1. inconspicuous consumption
    FYI The Economist had a piece (link here) in the Dec 20th issue on exactly this phenomenon… although in my opinion, the most interesting section was the last paragraph, which pointed out the parallel emergence of “conspicuous non-consumption” among the super-rich. Don’t know yet how (or if) this plays into the whole modern-postmodern-network culture thing…

    looking forward to hearing about how Philip Johnson relates to all this…

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