- The Utopianism of Luxury
In A Philosophy of Luxury, Lambert Wiesing, chair of Image Theory and Phenomenology at the Friedrich Schiller University, makes the case that luxury is what makes us human and that if we were to entirely abandon the world of the luxurious we would find ourselves cast into either a state of nature inhabited by beasts or a computational dystopia of hyper-rational barbarians. Starting with the work of Friedrich Schiller, Wiesing explains that there are moments when humans become acutely aware of their own humanity. He explains that Schiller links these moments of self-consciousness to play, which fuses the sensuality of the beast and the rationality of the barbarian in a third state that is more than either animality or computation, by virtue of the way in which it opens out onto the uncertainty of the future. In these moments of play, when instrumental action takes on a joyful symbolic form, the self-reflexive human is free from both biological law and the iron dictates of reason. This is, in Wiesing's work at least, the utopianism of luxury.
Moving beyond Schiller's work, Wiesing refers to Gotthold Lessing's essay on the Greco-Roman statue, Laocoön and His Sons, in which Lessing explains the idea of the pregnant moment that reflects the whole in synecdoche form. The idea here is that the pregnant moment, the playful moment in Schiller, represents the moment of self-conscious clarity, that is, the moment when we realize our own humanity. In the case of the Laocoön sculpture, this moment is a moment of struggle that represents the condition of life itself balanced over the abyss of nothingness. Wiesing explains that it is possible to find similar moments of clarity, in which the human becomes aware of their own humanity, in Martin Heidegger [End Page 270] (anxiety, dread) and Ernst Jünger (adventure, the battle). Although these moments seem to represent opposed experiences—while play is joyful, anxiety is dreadful, and war is terrifying—Wiesing's point is that these experiences similarly suspend biological law and rational causation. In other words, they open out onto the future. What, then, is the connection to luxury?
To answer this question we must start with another problem that Wiesing poses and solves. How are we to understand the shifts between play (Schiller), anxiety (Heidegger), and war (Junger)? If Lessing's pregnant moment captures the meaning of these different experiences of the transgression of the law, how are we to explain the relationship between its diverse expression in play, anxiety, and war? Wiesing's response is that cultural context is everything. The particular form of the moment of transgression changes, depending on cultural context. This is why in the contemporary neoliberal society in which instrumental rationality and economic calculation are everything, Wiesing suggests, the concept of luxury represents a way to capture the pregnant moment of transgression. In other words, in neoliberal society the luxurious enables us to rise above the quasi-natural law of the global economy in which we are simply beasts of burden and everything is an object, a commodity. In this respect, the luxurious enables us to experience our humanity and represents our existential freedom from the nightmare of necessity, through the extreme, excessive, and transgressive commodity form.
There is no doubt that the first part of Wiesing's book develops a powerful and convincing theory for understanding the cultural politics of luxury, but the second part is more problematic because this is where Wiesing could have drawn on the works of Marcel Mauss and Georges Bataille, who writes about his own "accursed share" (1991) as a study of luxury. Closing part 1 of his book by writing about luxury as economic transgression, Wiesing might have drawn on Mauss and Bataille to explore the anthropology and philosophy of the concept, before moving on to examine what he calls the Dadaism of possession. The related value of turning to a consideration of Bataille in particular is that it would have enabled Wiesing to...