Thorstein Veblen hates my lawn

25 Feb

Hello there readers -I began this post on a cool fine day where I live in New Zealand, having just emailed my new novel to what are called “beta readers”. These are people who are meant to read your work and if you are lucky, savage it so that you can make it good or at least improve it, rather than totally embarrass yourself. Partial embarrassment is better than total embarrassment apparently.

“Why Steve your left ear is red!”

So I was waiting with the proverbial breath for their verdicts and comments.

While doing that, I mowed my lawn. When I do this steam percolates from my spirit into the ether and adds to the planet’s global heating misery. My unhappiness at mowing sends me to thinking about Thorstein Veblen and how he would sneer at doing anything at all relating to a lawn.

If you don’t know about Thorstein Veblen you can do worse than slip out of this wee blog to Wiki and have a read. What a dude!

Veblen came to the world’s notice with a book, Theory of the Leisure Class, and it was a cracker. He wrote heaps of other books but none of them has ever had the cachet of that one. Its significant contribution was to consider our modern society in the same light as one would consider a tribe of jungle dwellers. It was both hilarious and embarrassing at the same time. No one can read Leisure Class seriously without feeling very uncomfortable. The things we do! The habits we have that we think are “cultured”  are explained by Veblen in ways that are at once convincing and devastating.

Veblen coined a number of expressions to colour in his thesis, the most famous being “conspicuous consumption”. The idea is that people with real money – the leisure class not needing to work – are compelled to show off their wealth by spending what they don’t need to spend. While others might decry the waste involved in this, as if it is accidental and inefficient, Veblen realised that the waste was the point.

Turning his exacting eye on fashion, he traced the evolution of the bustle of his time from a wee bump on the bum to an exaggerated promontory capable of hosting a luncheon by the unfortunate wearer’s companions. This article actually created new architectural features in homes so that the bustler could get from one room to another.

The point of this torture device was to display to any and all the fact that the wearer did not need to do any physical work. The woman was thus a symbol of the man’s wealth, and an appendage to him, like something in a museum. And to show that a man had more of everything than a rival, the bustle needed to be a bit larger, and then a bit larger still, until finally. . .*

Tribal people use similar devices to make women of the wealthy and powerful immobile – for example by putting gold necklaces layer upon layer around the unfortunate woman’s neck until she cannot move, thus showing how much wealth the owner (literally) possesses, making the female a sort of display cabinet, and a challenge to a rival: If you want the gold, get the woman. Or die.

Veblen didn’t stop there. He argued – persuasively say I – that the waste of the leisure class was emulated by those beneath them, who couldn’t actually afford waste, but could manage to represent it. Workers’ cottages, to take another example, could have little pointless features like wrought ironwork over the porch, serving no purpose but display. Clothing was similar – if  a man couldn’t afford to have his wife immobilised all the time, perhaps she could be movement free some of the time. And if that wasn’t possible, how about putting something on the clothing that showed the desire to do it, or at least to waste something, somehow. . .

Once seen in this way, fashion becomes completely new. To be fashionable involves being wasteful. Pointlessness is the point!

The women among my readers may wish to reflect on the otherwise pointless decoration of their underthings. I have asked a large number of women if they wear “frilly knickers” – they do, and they don’t really know why until there is a discussion about dear Thorstein.

Veblen’s insight is at best a  guilty secret in the fashion world. His name is never mentioned by those supposedly in the know about this exotic arena. The “experts” have probably never heard of him, or of Quentin Bell, the nephew of Viriginia Woolf who wrote an admiring account of Veblen’s fashion expose, On human finery.  But once you, dear reader, know the truth, looking at clothes will never be the same again.

Veblen wrote at the time of a global revolt by women against the slavery of their clothing. The “rational dress” movement punctured the fashion balloon, but society’s unending demand to keep up with Mr and Ms Jones won out. . .today, our clothing is more reasonable if not rational. Women still however imprison themselves in bizarre contraptions, especially for “special occasions”, when they adorn themselves in ways that are pointedly pointless. Men are less susceptible to this demand but still affected. The time when men and women wore very similar clothing – a kind of dress that went down to the ankles, as in renaissance Italy – has gone, though it may return. Nonetheless, for men the point of “formal wear” is partly that it is uncomfortable as the “need” to wear a tie in many occupations attests. “I am doing this to show that I am willing to humiliate myself to be here.” The tie is now thankfully in retreat.

Where was I? Ah yes, my lawn. For most people, the lawn is something that has always been there, a bit of grass surrounding a house. This is a  delusion. The lawn is a relatively recent invention and the man responsible, or most responsible, was one Lancelot “Capability” Brown. Brown was an 18th century landscape architect who transformed the British sense of space with close to 200 estates and parklands. Many of these still exist. Working for the new rich of his time, whose wealth included landed property, he produced the wonderful “natural” and graceful vistas we associate with Jane Austen novels and films.

Brown was a genius and his gardens beautiful. He cannot be held morally responsible for the ripple effect that created, for example, the grass around my house that I have to mow when it gets too long. But it is his doing. Brown’s wealthy patrons liked these vast open spaces that showed they did not need them. By the time they arrived at my humble cottage on the edge of the central city of Palmerston North, New Zealand, they no longer are vast, not spacious, but very definitely pointless. They show, that the occupant – myself – has the time, the energy, the equipment, and the self-abasement to cut it.

Veblen’s sneer is justified. As I push the mower along, I ponder, every single time, what I can do to avoid this humiliating extravagance. I would like to put the whole thing into shrubs producing fruit, and just may. Sadly there is a kerbside border belonging to the council that I will not be able to do that with, but the rest.

Meanwhile as I go along I still beat myself up, thinking of Veblen and my own miniature replication of conspicuous consumption. One day: cranberries. Or something. . .

Thanks for reading.

*An adjunct of Veblen’s analysis is that a fashion trend starts small and gets extreme before collapsing. The bustle reached extraordinary size and then disappeared. In the 1960s the miniskirt became very, very mini before dropping down to the ankles. Bell’s account says that we are fortunate to live in a time where fashion is less demanding and people can wear what they like more or less. There is definitely something in what he says.











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Posted by on February 25, 2016 in Uncategorized


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