the Logic of Luxury (2008)

Heaven has a new address, and apparently it’s in the CenturyCity district of LA. Buy a ten million dollar condo and those precious views of downtown and the ocean will be yours. So you move in, look at the view, charter a yacht, put on some purple shoes and move straight back out to a place called the New Curve of Paradise, which is a) in Panama, b) designed by Donald Trump and c) looks like a penal colony. In Paradise you run around with six buddies in identical white suits, pimp your ride, buy a helicopter, check the time on a chronometer which you think of as a racing machine on your wrist, stare at a movie actor in a hotel lobby, embrace the allure of true perfection, swap your chronometer for another chronometer, manage your wealth, protect it, grow it, pass it on, initiate yourself into the culture of time, put on the finest garment for men in the world (which appears to be a shiny blouson jacket), swap your chronometer, take sanctuary in the sublime, have the best of both worlds, arrive, stay different, live more, seek more, expect more, drive more…

Luxury - at least as depicted in the ad pages of the magazine on my desk, a publication distributed to the wealthy clients of a concierge company - is an exhausting pursuit. It’s also fraught with anxiety. According to its crocodile-skin logic, my individuality is under threat. My very selfhood could be snatched away without warning. Perhaps I once naively imagined I could trip through the cornfields of life without paying much heed to my chronometer. Turns out it’s not so simple. Now I’ve been inducted into luxury, I discover I’m going to have to spend an unbelievable amount of money on timepieces just to stand a chance of carrying on being a person. What may have once appeared to me as a pleasurably-frivolous purchase (luxury is by definition without use-value) is actually a last-ditch attempt to save my soul. It’s not just the risk of tumbling down into the purgatory of mass consumption, the fear that I might wake up to find myself eating a kebab on a night-bus, wearing a Swatch. It’s more the creeping suspicion that everyone else on that night-bus would be just the same as me. Not just dressed the same; not listening to the same music; not even physically looking or speaking the same, but actually identical in every respect: repetitions, clones with no original.

The terror that underlies luxury - that unless I buy a Tag I will forfeit my humanity - is merely a highly-strung version of the suggestion made by all consumerism, that the main project of life, its highest end and noblest goal, is individuation. Hostility to the mass is engrained in the post-Enlightenment Liberalism that dominates Western political culture, and has only been exacerbated by a century of vicious totalitarianism. The modern cult of luxury is the bastard child of that bleak history. It’s fundamentally misanthropic, profoundly scared, snarling at the dollar-a-day world from behind a Fendi fence. Because it hates the mass, it hates the masses, whose consumption patterns are insufficiently distinctive (they are ‘faceless’, ‘teeming’), whose insectoid presence is a reminder to the luxury consumer of the appalling anonymity of poverty, the destiny that awaits them if they fail to individuate themselves through their purchases. The luxury sector, which spins fantasy worlds out of perfume and leather goods, is merely a symptom of a general cultural tendency to confuse political liberty with material sufficiency, the pseudo-freedom to choose from a predetermined array of consumer goods.

Self-fashioning through shopping is a perfect pastime for the modern control society – non-threatening and solipsistic. Unfortunately money is a poor tool for making yourself distinctive, as evidenced by the fact that most rich people look and behave – well, just like rich people, a repertoire of behaviour that in essence is as stereotypical and limited as that of any poverty-stricken prole. Money is of course a tool of equivalence, of exchange, for making one thing (or person) commensurate with another, so perhaps its not surprising that the central promise of consumerism turns out to be so hard to fulfill. It’s difficult not to laugh when cars, the paradigmatic objects of mass production, are sold as a way of standing out or signalling non-conformity. Luxury recognises the hollowness of mass consumerism’s promise of distinctiveness and trumps it by claiming that if the product is sufficiently exclusive, it will perform the work required.

However, the logic of luxury heads in the direction of singularity, and the very success of its claims may be leading to its decline. Luxury is slipping down-market, as the techniques of branding and the diffuse promises of lifestyle become ever more globally pervasive. The recent emergence of ‘super luxury’ or ‘uber premium’ brands is an attempt to recapture lost ground. It’s likely to be futile, because if one is aiming for the metaphysical goal of full self-presence through shopping, the knowledge that there is more than one of any given product will always nag at you, threaten you with equivalence, replicability. Your personal uniqueness can only be guaranteed by a unique object. This, more than anything else, explains the unprecedented boom in the art market. Art is not just an ‘uber premium’ product. Even if you have enough money, you can’t always walk into a gallery and buy the work you want. One needs contacts, reputation, insider knowledge. Ownership of a key piece by a sought-after artist is a badge of selfhood (taste, eye, soul, social network) that no luxury item can provide. The Situationists understood that culture is the product that sells all the others, and increasingly it’s only culture’s aura that allows luxury brands to keep their claims afloat, as they associate themselves with areas of experience that still hold out the promise of individuation – artists and sportspeople being presented in our culture as individuals par excellence. So while we will continue to buy into the threat of luxury brands, that in order to live a full affective life, to give and receive love, to form relationships and to feel valued, we need to go to Selfridges, we may find it’s an activity with diminishing returns.

This article originally appeared in The Drawbridge. With apologies to Ms. Sophie Walker.