The anthropological nature of luxury : interview with french essayist Gilles Lipovetsky

The anthropological nature of luxury : interview with french essayist Gilles Lipovetsky


One of our female readers (yes, more and more women read PG every day) has forwarded us this Pierre-Henri Tavoillot interview with Gilles Lipovetsky conducted in 2003 following the release of his book “Le luxe éternel”.

Of course, the concept of luxury is not our first priority in these pages, but the interview is interesting for two main reasons:

- First, it reflects on our relationship to the “superfluous” or to things that convey a sense of dream and transcendence to which today’s ultra-materialistic society otherwise doesn’t give much space, despite the clear fact that it remains one of the traits that separates us from animals.

- Second, it seems interesting to us to put the words of the author, spoken almost 10 years ago, in perspective against the strong “emergence” of masculine luxury, in clothing and other areas.

This beautiful interview brings on some thoughts which we found “useful” - of all things - to publish on our site.

At first glance luxury is a quintessentially futile subject matter, but what does luxury reveal about us and our times? That is the subject of Gilles Lipovetsky’s book (with collaborator Elyette Roux), “Le luxe éternel” (Gallimard). A captivating account on the history of luxury, throughout which the superficial unveils something deeper : the sacred, the relationship to time and to the self.

Interview conducted by Pierre-Henri Tavoillot


What leads to a reflexion on luxury? Nothing seems more futile and insignificant, especially in the dramatic times of today.

GILLES LIPOVETSKY: Humans are not exclusively engaged in deep and serious pursuits! And the modern man cannot be reduced to an obsession with efficiency. We also deal with excess, dreams, frivolousness, and beauty. Greeks, then the philosophers of the 18th Century, considered essential to reflect on this dimension of infinite desire. I agree with that. In addition, common interpretations of the subject have evolved very little: the moment has come to refresh this line of pondering. It is true that it could seem insignificant or even indecent. In his time, La Bruyère already expressed it: “There is a certain shame to be happy in the face of certain miseries”. Some have nothing, others have everything, or too much: controversy is always near. But my book doesn’t justify luxury.

P.-H. T: From this point of view, we can identify two main rationales for criticism: the moral critic, who views luxury as the proud expression of insatiable desire that dooms man to a miserable existence, and the social critic, which views luxury as the ostentatious display of a class struggle.

G. L : Of course. But critics forget an essential aspect: the universal, anthropological nature of luxury. It is impossible to envision humanity without luxury. Indeed, through luxury, humans affirm their superiority to mere animals, and that their destiny cannot be reduced to survival, conservation and need. Shakespeare himself said that removing what is superfluous to a man and you will annihilate his humanity.

P.-H. T.: It is this dimension that you call “eternal luxury”. But why, in our democratic world, passionate about equality, does this historical luxury seem to be getting a new youth while always remaining genuinely legitimate?

G. L.: Can humanity be without dreams? Great scientific or political utopias have drained: we no longer have faith in a mechanically better and fairer future. What is left for individuals is the hope for greater welfare, sensory celebrations, and the expectation of beauty emerging from everyday grisaille. Luxury is no longer the cursed part, but the dreaming and journeying part, the part of excellence and superlative that no human can live without.

P.-H. T.: While it is eternal, luxury has its history, and this “human, too human” dimension has taken a variety of configurations throughout time. You cast impressive light, first by breaking a common belief according to which luxury is specific to developed civilizations. Even so-called subsistence economies, said to be closer to nature, are familiar with this depraved taste for wasting.

G. L.: Indeed, as far as we can go back, luxury has existed. Anthropologists have proved it: even Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers who have nothing, or almost nothing, know excess: self adornment, feasts, celebrations, etc. The spirit of luxury –meaning the spirit of spending - starts even before the object of luxury. Such sumptuary practices are not without meaning.

In primitive societies, they are governed by a deep necessity, first social with the trading of gifts, the earning of honours and titles, the building of community relationships and the replacement of hostility by alliances. There is also a cosmic necessity, insofar as ritual gifting and festive extravagance restore the bond with invisible forces and the spirit of the dead. Against a form of materialism, religion must be seen as a condition of the emergence of primitive luxury.

P.-H. T.: A second era begins with the invention of States and the new hierarchy through which it divides individuals, rich and poor, powerful and the servants, as well as the realms of reality: down here and up there.

G. L.: Exactly. With political and theological hierarchy, visible distinctions are set in the way of living, of dressing, even of dying. It is the era of grandiose palaces and temples built as “eternal dwellings”, as the Egyptians say. In this context, luxury expresses cosmic inequality, human or divine. The essence of some beings is more than ordinary: luxury is meant to materialize that difference, hence it cannot be superfluous, but rather a symbolic necessity for an unequal order.

It is truly an ostentatious logic at work, but then again, luxury belongs to a cosmic and religious vision, which explains that luxury is rarely criticized. When it is, the target is private luxury, notably feminine private luxury, as woman’s propensity for artifices is perceived as treason of natural truth! Public luxury, on the other hand, like that of Euergetes (Greek and Roman patrons) deserves celebration, even if any philosopher can denounce the pride and vanity of megalomania.

P.-H. T.: This ancient social device starts to peter out in the renaissance, which marks the beginnings of modern luxury.

G. L.: Towards the end of the Middle Ages, two sets of phenomena start to emerge. First, luxury merges with a taste for culture through a love for antiques. All princes have their own collection of books, statues, etc. Its final purpose is nor economic nor religious, but aesthetic: the enjoyment of beautiful things. Luxury becomes a form of sensualism that is not reflected by the distinctive passions of social recognition. In parallel with this craze for antiquity springs fashion in its strictest form, with its cult for the fleeting.

Contrary to luxury, fashion is not eternal. To appear, novelty has to have become a positive value, which is of course unimaginable in the realm of tradition. Fashion establishes the first great figure of a decidedly modern, superficial and gratuitous luxury, loveable and free from past and invisible powers.

P.-H. T.: It is from that time that luxury enters a phase of democratization, which you match with the beginning of couture in the second half of the 19th century. It still seems far from egalitarian.

G. L.: Until the 19th Century, the world of luxury had followed an aristocratic and artisanal model. The luxury object exclusively glorifies the aristocratic client and, if you know the artists, the artisans remain anonymous. It is the materials that set the value of objects. Couture induces three deep changes.

First the couturier becomes a creator with a recognizable name, prestige and gains independence from clients. Couture appears like a compound of artistic creation and industrial production (the limited edition). Secondly, Semi-luxury, more easily accessible, imposes its presence, displayed in large stores. Lastly, the third element of the democratization of luxury is the arrival of the famous “simple luxury”. So far, luxury had always obeyed an ostentatious aesthetics. With the age of equality, luxury will becomes a euphemism, as a democratic way to avoid overpowering the other. It must be discreet and sober. For men, it is the black suit that, in principle, levels all differences. Women will have to wait another century for the aesthetics of Chanel.

P.-H. T.: How have we moved away from the modern phase and entered the phase you have called “hyper modernism” of luxury?

G. L.: Since the 90s, we have seen two great transformations. On the offer side, luxury has moved to a marketing and financial logic. Humongous international conglomerates are constituted to acquire and sell prestigious brands without any family or semi artisanal origin. In addition, we see the world of luxury becoming involved in practices not unlike those seen in mainstream consumption (inflated launches, megastores, advertising, porno chic, and humour)

On the demand side, luxury is no longer viewed like a social constraint imposing a mandatory way of being. The bourgeois bohemian, unlike the aristocrat of yesteryear, has no fear of losing his rank when he buys both at Tati (a large French popular chain that sells clothing and housewares) and Dior.

The strict separateness of the class culture has vanished. Everything that used to be “high class” is now seen as a universal right. The mass consumption society has generalized a desire for leisure, well-being and quality: there is less democratization of luxury than mass democratization of the desire for luxury, since the entire society aspires to what was once emblems reserved for a small minority. The taste for brand names has spread throughout all groups. One European out of two has purchased, in the last year, at least one luxury brand.

Meanwhile, luxury has ceased to be the mere expression of a desire for social recognition. One of the first sales arguments for a luxury car is security… When a woman visits a salon, she is not expressing her social superiority, but rather seeking a feeling of well-being. That is what I call “emotional consumption”.

Does it mean that we are engaged in a complete subjectivism of luxury that eliminates its elitist dimension? Not at all. Elitism remains but it has changed: purchasing a luxury piece brings a sort of enjoyment that is associated to what Nietzsche calls the pleasure to know one’s difference, the feeling of one’s own exception. “Because I’m worth it” says L’Oréal. Whether others know it or not: I know!

P.-H. T.: When analysing luxury, the pattern of the symbolic class struggle has often concealed differences between the sexes. Luxury still seems dominated by feminine consumption, even though some are expecting that men will soon catch up to them.

G. L.: Feminization of luxury is relatively new. Premodern luxury is masculine, and synonymous with power. Things change in the 18th Century. Around 1700, in all social castes, the wardrobe of women is twice as full as that of men. Women, confined as they were to a blossoming private space, are cast in parallel roles as members of the beautiful sex (decorative) and homemakers (consumer). The two roles earn women a privileged place in the world of luxury. Are we seeing, though the equalization of roles, a sexual uniformization? I don’t believe so. Despite the movement of liberation of women, the beautiful sex remains feminine. All studies show that the home remains the privileged domain of women. Even with her professional life outside the home, even if her companion participates more to household chores, she remains the head of the household. That is what I have called the “third woman”: female independence is based on fundamentally traditional standards. If my interpretation is accurate, the feminisation of luxury still has many glory days ahead of it.

P.-H. T.: How does luxury remain a dream in our disenchanted world, apparently doomed to focus on the frenzy of the present moment?

G. L.: From its earliest beginnings, luxury has had an essential link with time. We give to the sacred to earn eternity. Antique patrons spent fortunes to immortalize their memories. Nowadays, luxury brands are doing just the same, even if they use paradoxical means to do so. On one hand, there is a constant need for innovation: that is the logic of the present and of fashion. On the other hand, brands still have to celebrate the legend of their foundation, their original myth, ancestral traditions and skills.

The same ambivalence is seen in consumption: to be in the know, but also enjoy what has temporal substance. The luxury object cannot be consumed thoughtlessly. Ritualization is part of the pleasure, along with duration, memory, and eternity that can be purchased and enjoyed. In the Kleenex society, luxury counterbalances, through time, death by giving us back a temporal depth. Paradoxically, there is a metaphysic dimension at the heart of the most materialistic passions.

P.-H. T.: In a recent article published in Le Débat (Gallimard, March April 2003) you put this analysis of luxury in a wider context. We have supposedly entered a new age of the consumption society, which you have named “hyper consuming society”. How do you describe it?

G. L.: Here are the three main traits of the hyper consuming society: the emergence of a much more experience/emotional based, rather than honour based, consumption. Then: the erosion of old class boundaries and the development of a volatile, fragmented, unregulated consumer. And lastly: the new “world consumption” in which even non-economic factors (family, religion, politics, unions, school, procreation, ethics) are permeated with a Homo Consumericus mentality.

However, the reign of the hyper-commercial society is far from entailing a complete annihilation of values and sentiments. The taste for sociability, volunteerism, moral indignation, the value invested in love, all are perpetuated, even reinforced. The threats on hyper consuming society do not lead to completed nihilism, the devaluation of all ideals. It is mostly the decline of the lightness of being, the vulnerability of personalities, psychopathologies, and the spiral of a difficult existence. We still consume more, but joy no longer seems like a part of the equation.

Cheers, HUGO

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