|Jan Steen (1625/1626–1679), In Luxury, Look Out. Via Wikimedia Commons.|
I used to be kind of in love with luxury. I loved beautiful clothes and I figured when I had enough money I would buy some. I daydreamed about owning a Ferrari or some other absurdly expensive car. I grumbled, silently, about the ugly buildings in the big public universities I've long been affiliated with, vaguely imagining that someday maybe I'd be walking some beautiful ivy covered halls and feeling a rightful place in the world.
I don't want to overstate anything. I've never thought luxury was unproblematic, and I've always been very aware of both the practical problems of luxury, e. g., fancy stuff made in horrible working conditions, and the abstract problems of luxury, e. g., the fancier your stuff is the worse everyone else feels. Luxury is often non-sustainable, elitist, whatever. I've always known that. So it's not like I had some plan to get rich and surround myself with luxe. I just had a certain kind of love. Probably unrequitable, but love nonetheless.
As I get older, though, that love of luxe is rotting away.
I think the first sour note was introduced between me and luxe when I started to have enough money to buy an actual purse. As a young person I just carried a backpack, and when I got to grad school I found a Coach bag in a thrift store for thirty dollars which I used for years. After a few years of having a real job, I thought: I could get a proper bag, something nice.
I don't know if you've ever shopped for a woman's purse, but the situation out there is pretty out of control. Coach, it turns out, is actually seen as the poor-woman's-nice-bag, even though the purses are a few hundred dollars apiece. A proper "nice" bag, like from Prada, you're talking a few thousand. Something luxe, like a Birkin bag, you're talking many thousands of dollars. (In case you need help, Forbes has an article for you: "How To Buy Your First Hermès Birkin.")
I don't know if this is just me or whether you have it too, but seeing all those bags, it makes the "nice" but reasonably priced bag seem a little ridiculous. Like, am I really going to spend serious money and get something way inferior and not even something considered proper luxe?
I wrote about this problem before, where I called it the "hedonic stairmaster." Once you're in consumer goods mode, how do you settle for 3, or even 7, on the ten-point luxe scale? You just keep climbing. I can't stop.
So our my relationship with luxe was already strained. And then we had the economic crisis and sudden focus on inequality and poverty and things started to be tough on everyone. Then things that were too luxe started to feel weird to me. Not just in the cognitive way I'd understood before, but in a more visceral level. I started to emotionally connect those beautiful Birkin bags with something that felt bad, something I didn't want to be a part of.
Weirdly, the financial crisis doesn't seem to have had this effect on many people. Everyone's all about the luxe now. High end malls are doing better than ever, while J. C. Penney can't catch a break.
Anyway, lately I've come to appreciate even the ugly buildings I work in. It feels like they form a suitable and appropriate venue for the discussion of ideas. Honestly, at a time that feels like a financial struggle for a lot of people, it starts to feel like there's something odd about the whole sitting-around-in-beautiful-buildings-talking-about-stuff thing. What are we, priests?
In some ways the intellectual thing works best when the status aspects are ratcheted down as much as possible. And there's nothing like utilitarian architecture and crappy lighting to quietly ratchet down the status aspects of what you're doing.
Just a couple of months ago I taught Rawls in my Introduction to Philosophy class, and we were talking about inequality. As I walked back from class, I passed through the quite elegant new addition to our building which is part of the Accountancy program, through the double doors, and into the dim and grim hallway that my office is in. Don't get me wrong: my office is book-lined and has a window and I've got zero complaints about it, but drabness-wise, our building is up there.
And suddenly I found myself so happy to be leaving the luxe Accountancy space, with its huge windows and fancy staircase, to pass back into the drab. I remembered how much harder it is to shake things up and be a rabble-rouser if you're spending a lot of money -- especially money that came from someone else. I remembered how the ivy halls of my daydream connect the physical space to a history in which some pretty unsavory elements, like racism and sexism and classism and all kinds of other things -- were even worse than they are now. I remembered how the drab physical space could help put me and my students on a more equal footing, could be welcoming and non-intimidating to them -- with both of us having to acknowledge that even a Starbucks has a more luxe interior than the space we're in.
Bag-wise, I never did buy anything nice. I've gone back to wearing a backpack. For fancy occasions, I bought one of those standard nylon Longchamp bags. And, of course, I've still got my thrift-store Coach.