Despite all the ways in which our culture celebrates the lifestyles of the rich and famous, Americans retain a residual suspicion of luxurious excesses that somehow “go too far.” Even a mainstream columnist such as David Brooks can lament a cultural ethos of “mass luxury” that encourages “retail therapy” and “designer goods” for all.
Thus, defenders of luxury must appeal to the supposed social benefits of this spending. The need for frequent rehearsal of this argument indicates how deeply rooted suspicion of luxury is in Western culture: Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian sources condemn it in unison. It was only in the eighteenth century that Montesquieu developed the ideal of doux commerce, the notion that commerce was an alternative to war, both within and between states. David Hume, luxury’s great philosophical champion, insisted that its pursuit leads to “an increase in humanity” because of the shared pleasures of conversation fancy goods produce, not to mention how they stimulate in those not yet wealthy a civilizing “desire [for] a more splendid way of life than what their ancestor enjoyed.”
A more wasteful faith could hardly be imagined.
Paul Bloom offers a new elaboration of this defense: luxury is not about crass sensuality or conspicuous status signaling, but about history, and especially a history of touch. True, he dubs his position “anti-anti-luxury,” but nevertheless, his account argues for “the depth of the pleasures” provided by fine watches, fine art, and other fine objects.
Bloom analogizes briefly to relics, and a scholar of religion can hardly ignore how much his case looks like veneration. Like objects touched by saints, sports jerseys, celebrity’s used socks, and handcrafted cars are all worth something because they have been endowed with a holiness of touch. Given that one’s Porsche and one’s Red Sox jersey may equally occasion the building of a shrine and frequent visits filled with pious acts, it is hardly a stretch to suggest that such luxury constitutes a religious system. The marketer Jean-Noel Kapferer insists luxury brands are not “perfect” but “affecting,” exemplified not by Lexus’s pursuit of perfection but by Ferrari’s promise of maintenance checks at the “holy of holies”: their production facility at Maranello, Italy. Luxury products “correspond to a dream” rather than to functionality, and a part of this dream is a sense of communion with fellow enthusiasts and the manufacturer itself. Of course, Ferraris and Rolexes may still be a bit unseemly, so it is no surprise that Bloom’s final appeal is to high art. As religion scholar Regina Schwarz has argued, art is where “sacramental poetics” has been migrating since the Renaissance. Static art—more than music or theatre, performance-bound as they are—is the pinnacle of the magical luxury object of touch collected for the quasi-religious reasons Bloom cites.
But is this imbuing of religious character really a defense of luxury? If it is, then it is also clear why the political and religious philosophers of our civilization condemned it: a flimsier, more wasteful faith could hardly be imagined. Plato and Cicero saw that this false piety endangered the truly noble human project: the city. The Jewish prophets and Jesus recognized in luxury the antithesis of the prescribed worship of God through sacramental almsgiving to the poor. After all, today, these pseudo-sacramental transactions are built upon a much larger foundation of economic exchange in which cheap survival goods are “touched” by the hands of exploited workers manipulating materials wrenched from the earth unsustainably by other hands. The latest prophet of our civilization’s tradition of opposing luxury, Pope Francis, calls all this “an economy that kills.” Bloom himself notes that the inherently scarce nature of these goods means that the miracle of human productivity simply cannot provide them for all.
They are sacramentals restricted to the few—and most Americans are, in global perspective, “the few.” Nearly all of us make some act of piety toward this veneration of magical objects, but at a real cost that hampers realization of genuine human goods for the many. What about the hands that build the iPhone, sew the shirt, harvest the strawberries? These are the touches that matter; they are our suffering neighbors, whom we deprive of livelihoods in order to preserve resources that we fork over for the magic of the celebrity or the luxury brand.
In a culture shaped by the Jewish and Christian affirmation of the goodness of creation, the history of objects is inseparable from questions of worship and adoration. Thus, Bloom is not wrong to point to the importance of valuing the history of objects, nor to our cognitive tendencies to do so. But the question is always, which objects? And which human bonds are strengthened by this veneration? Which histories are neglected? Whose hands are the holy ones?