Conspicuous Consumption

It is, I suppose, a comfort in a sort of roundabout way. According to Thorstein Veblen's theory of the leisure class, pretty much everything that I do--reading or writing books, learning dead languages, having a dog, practicing yoga or fencing, being an intellectual--is a form of conspicuous consumption, i.e. "wasteful," "not serving human life or human well-being on the whole," taking up the time that, if I were actually economically productive, would be involved in growing food or making clothes or building buildings. Of course, thanks to the time that I spend in such conspicuous leisure, demonstrating thereby that I am not obliged to spend my time providing for the essentials of my bodily existence, I accrue social status (such as it is) and spiritual fulfillment ("spiritual" in the sense of everything other than bodily), but (by Veblen's definitions) it does mean that I am never, in fact, being anything other than parasitic on all those who are actually engaged in producing things useful "as seen from the point of view of the generically human."

So there. There isn't really any point in worrying about whether I'm writing or not; it's not as if even the most runaway bestseller puts food on the table or clothing on anyone's back. I might as well spend my days reading novels or practicing my lunge as tending to my professional responsibilities or "producing" something for publication. Nothing of what I do partakes of the instinct of workmanship that "disposes men to look with favor upon productive efficiency and on whatever is of human use." Nor could it, given my social class and the prejudices that I have therefore inherited concerning reputability and status. I am, thanks to my education, more or less obliged to spend my days effectively lolling about, employed in such non-menial activities as "government, war, sports, and devout observances." You know, like fencing or prayer.

I'm not quite sure what to do with this. It is possible that Veblen was being satirical, classing even his own occupation (he was a professor at the University of Chicago--enough said--when he published his most famous book) as "wasteful," but his is a satire whose barbs are difficult to escape. On the one hand, he is right: in strict economic terms, there is no need for such things as books, sports, dogs, arts, higher learning, devotional exercises or prayer. But, on the other hand, it is surely the case that human life would be impoverished in more than just socially invidious ways if such activities did not exist. I can't be the first one to say this; I'm absolutely positive that I'm not. But it is nevertheless surely interesting that, even as we as a culture would tend to insist upon the importance of leisure (in Veblen's terms) for our spiritual if not economic health, we persistently do so metaphorically in his terms of material productivity.

To wit: I am anxious because I am not producing more books, at least, not at any currently appreciable rate. It is my job as a professor to produce books, the more, it is generally assumed, the better. And yet, why it is better is a question often left somewhat opaque. After all, it is not as if anyone has any hope of actually reading the majority of books produced even in one's own, relatively limited, if self-defined academic field. Does anyone actually need me to write another book? Certainly, academic publishers rarely hope to make very much, if any actual money by publishing a given academic book. Nor does the act of reading academic books contribute materially to the well-being of the human race, however much we as academics may crave citations as indices of our status relative to one another. To be sure, some books have an appreciable economic (that is, market) effect, but most, quite frankly, are just so much paper, a burden to be borne by libraries and the few colleagues in one's field who will actually be marginally interested in reading them.

So, it would seem, the only real reason for writing a book--any book--is for one's own spiritual fulfillment. The same reason, in fact, for reading a book or taking fencing lessons or training a dog to come when she is called. These are the kinds of things that human beings do when they are not involved in eating or sleeping or otherwise caring for their physical well-being, that is, in activities actually economically significant. With such a yardstick, is it any wonder that so many of us feel like our life is a waste?


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