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  • Golden Places, Aesthetic SpacesAn Introduction to the Cultural Politics of Luxury
  • John Armitage (bio)

While the term cultural politics of luxury may be employed, generally, to denote all cultural and political features of the study of luxury, and as such may be taken to include the varied cultural and political ways in which luxury is comprehended and examined, for instance, in Continental philosophy, anthropology, phenomenology, and aesthetic criticism, it can also, more accurately, be taken to signify a distinctive and recently defined field of academic investigation. In this second usage, its contemporary origins can be traced to the work of Joanne Roberts and me, and therefore to the establishment of “critical luxury studies” (Armitage and Roberts 2014; 2016a; 2016b). From this initial body of cultural and political work, there is now arising a multidisciplinary critical approach to luxury, drawing not just on the conventional approaches originating in the humanities and business studies but also on more radical approaches suggested by, for example, critical theory, semiotics, and sociology. This assortment of approaches enables the posing of new questions and the reconceptualization of what is indicated by the concept luxury. This special section on the cultural politics of luxury is less about setting itself against the presumptions about luxury found in the traditional disciplines, such as cultural history (Berg 2005; Berry 1994; Dalby 2000; McNeil and Riello 2016; Sekora 1977) and luxury brand management (Kapferer and Bastien 2012), [End Page 51] than about setting itself for a different conception of luxury, one that is innovative; culturally, historically, and politically informed; and, above all, critical. While such traditional disciplines discuss luxury products as cultural objects or mere luxury goods and services that can be reasonably studied separately from, for instance, the colonial, place-bound, philosophical, and aesthetic contexts of their production and consumption, advocates of a critical luxury studies seek to position luxury products unequivocally with respect to other cultural practices and, particularly in this special section, regarding political structures and cultural hierarchies, such as precious metals, elites, play, and gender (see also, for instance, Featherstone 2016). A consequence of this approach is that the luxury products studied are not just those designated and praised by the super-rich economic and cultural, political, and leisured elites of contemporary global capitalism (Freeland 2013; Hay 2013; Sombart 1967; Veblen [1967] 2009) but those material and symbolic luxury products encountered in all layers and branches of culture.

In “Gold,” the American philosopher Alphonso Lingis argues that the study of luxury is inevitably bound up with cultural politics because of the issues of colonialism, ransom, and treasure this study involves. Lingis points out the difference, however, between the luxurious character and influence of gold on the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro (1471–1541)—who led the expedition to South America that conquered the Inca Empire, claimed the lands for Spain, and captured and killed the Incan emperor Atahualpa—and the ritual aims of gold objects such as plates for the Inca. Lingis describes this in terms of the “wonder of gold.” The cultural politics of luxury comes into play in his study insofar as it is explicitly devoted to a critique of historical and contemporary cultures of conquest. This puts Lingis in a position both outside and within given luxurious, punitive, and value structures, most immediately those of the economic system and contemporary gold jewelry. Given, also, the different forms of transcendence associated with gold, in South America and Southeast Asia alone—from temples, statues of the Buddha, the domes of pagodas, and so on—its cultural politics of luxury will be differentiated through, for example, Inca Peru’s dedication to the sun and frequently varied in purpose and appearance, as in the addition of diamonds to stupas in Southeast Asia.

The American anthropologist George E. Marcus’s “Luxurious Emplacement: Elite Enclosure, as Far as the Eye Can See . . . ” is a theoretically informed cultural politics of luxury that is concerned with questions of location, choice arenas, and visual consumption, along with ideas about the enclosed conditions of elite existence and countless luxurious dreams of self-immersion. In Marcus’s contemporary cultural politics of luxury, the theme of exclusive environments that deliberately set boundaries on vistas of experience...


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pp. 51-54
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