These indices and others which resemble them in point of the boldness with which they point out to all observers the habitual uselessness of those persons who employ them, have been replaced by other, more dedicate methods of expressing the same fact; methods which are no less evident to the trained eyes of that smaller, select circle whose good opinion is chiefly sought. The earlier and cruder method of advertisement held its ground so long as the public to which the exhibitor had to appeal comprised large portions of the community who were not trained to detect delicate variations in the evidences of wealth and leisure. The method of advertisement undergoes a refinement when a sufficiently large wealthy class has developed, who have the leisure for acquiring skill in interpreting the subtler signs of expenditure. "Loud" dress becomes offensive to people of taste, as evincing an undue desire to reach and impress the untrained sensibilities of the vulgar. To the individual of high breeding, it is only the more honorific esteem accorded by the cultivated sense of the members of his own high class that is of material consequence. Since the wealthy leisure class has grown so large, or the contact of the leisure-class individual with members of his own class has grown so wide, as to constitute a human environment sufficient for the honorific purpose, there arises a tendency to exclude the baser elements of the population from the scheme even as spectators whose applause or mortification should be sought. The result of all this is a refinement of methods, a resort to subtler contrivances, and a spiritualization of the scheme of symbolism in dress. And as this upper leisure class sets the pace in all matters of decency, the result for the rest of society also is a gradual amelioration of the scheme of dress. As the community advances in wealth and culture, the ability to pay is put in evidence by means which require a progressively nicer discrimination in the beholder. This nicer discrimination between advertising media is in fact a very large element of the higher pecuniary culture.Thorstein Veblen not only had the most killer mustache of any influential contemporary social theorist; he also worked out a surprisingly robust, if polemical, framework for the study of culture. Today he is referenced (more often than he is read) chiefly in the service of arguments about the corruption of America's bloated upper classes. But the fashion for Gilded Age retro is only of limited use if the object is to understand society rather than simply to polemicize about it--and, moreover, it does little justice to Veblen's considerable prowess as an analyst. Theory of the Leisure Class, in fact, offers us an explanation for all forms of consumption--including cultural consumption--based firmly on the competing priorities of different social classes. The leisure class consumes those goods which are most overtly disconnected from material ends and seeks to justify that consumption with all sorts of spiritual and aesthetic value-judgments.
- Thorstein Veblen, Theory of the Leisure Class (1899)
Since Veblen as a theorist has been largely forgotten, the credit for this line of thinking has fallen to a much later scholar--Pierre Bourdieu. The correspondences between their work are striking. Bourdieu also thinks that aesthetic value-judgments are ultimately the products of class self-differentiation, a process driven and catalyzed by the ceaseless pressure of cultural leveling. For Veblen, like Bourdieu, the notions of "vulgarity" and "beauty" are grounded in an aesthetics of class:
The superior gratification derived from the use and contemplation of costly and supposedly beautiful products is, commonly, in great measure a gratification of our sense of costliness masquerading under the name of beauty. Our higher appreciation of the superior article is an appreciation of its superior honorific character, much more frequently than it is an unsophisticated appreciation of its beauty. The requirement of conspicuous wastefulness is not commonly present, consciously, in our canons of taste, but it is none the less present as a constraining norm selectively shaping and sustaining our sense of what is beautiful, and guiding our discrimination with respect to what may legitimately be approved as beautiful and what may not.Neither Veblen nor Bourdieu, however, can simply align "cultural capital" with economic capital; the two axes are at least partially independent from one another. (Veblen rather ostentatiously identifies the intellectual habits of the leisure class with those of unproductive, lumpenproletarian "delinquents.") It thus becomes possible for both thinkers to isolate the converging or diverging paths of two different sets of class-based aesthetic values.
What makes these two thinkers so alike, despite the massive historical and geographical gulf that separates them? The most significant contributing factor seems to be the fact that they both were outsiders in their academic milieus. Veblen was a Norwegian Wisconsinite who spent his whole life trying to fit in with elitist coastal university culture and ended his days in a shack in the California woods; Bourdieu, as one of those autodidacts he himself criticized so harshly in Distinction, remained marginal in French academia until he married his professor's daughter. The former makes his contempt for the prevailing ideology of "higher learning" obvious in his thundering conclusion, while the latter inserts well-aimed barbs against intellectuals at every opportune moment in his text.
Outsider status meant for both of them an inability to resolve the gap between the restricted social basis of intellectual culture and its universalizing pretensions. Of course, they, like all of us, came with a specific habitus that made true "objectivity" impossible. But the constant confrontation between their culture of origin and that of their academic setting, which would never have appeared as antagonistic to someone reared among the native intellectual classes, could not but have undermined any possibility of treating "pure" universal judgments as unproblematic. Uneasiness proved to be destiny.