The Ethics of Luxury

Ethics of Luxury: Materialism and Imagination, Jeanne Randolph, Ihor Holubizky and Anthony Kiendl, Toronto, YYZ Books, and Winnipeg, Plug In Editions, 2007. 142 p.

It is important that this book is a book, with a specific material presence that I can describe. It rests softly in the hand, its black cover embellished with a decorative border that makes reference to Ryan Arnott’s Untitled (Lead Diamond) repeated inside. Lines radiate from the diamond, indicating “sparkle”, anticipating the wit to be found in Susan Chafe’s careful handling of the book’s material presence. The perfect binding and creamy paper set the table for this mobile repast. Black and white reproductions of artworks placed throughout the volume do not sit in passive illustration of their text companions, but are curated, salon-style. These photo-documents are memorable traces of suggestive ideas that entice in prepared counterpoints like bourbon, mint and sugar.

It is importantly a book, because a book has a capacity for intimacy, it is convivial in Randolph’s usage, to a playful conversation between writer and reader, one in which words rush out, pause pregnantly and may double back to confirm or reconsider. The Ethics of Luxury is a paradoxically loose and well-planned programme to a feast in which we may entertain some ideas about luxury, about the surpluses in which we struggle.

Laid out like a series of courses, with a non-precious, punchy syntax, Randolph investigates reason—not the opposite of imagining but combining with it—in an “admixture” of conversational play. Dense and rhythmically complex sentences curl and twist as Randolph frets about reason and the forced labour it is subjected to within advertising. Reason is marched through consumer culture, via logic, as “justification”, economically illustrated by the quoted pitch: “Cherry, Strawberry. Grape. Three reasons to buy Fruit Loops.”

Randolph imagines the “philosophers of the fifties bumping their heads on the ceiling of logic.”, and brings to mind the fullest expression of subsequent evasive twisting gestures: “Love is an idea we invented to sell nylons”. This punch-line from the teaser for HBO’s series Mad Men is uttered by Don Draper, the Philosopher Executive, as he claims the supremacy of marketing in contemporary culture.

Randolph hungers for the possibility of sustaining a practice of reason, to remember its genesis in conversation, in imagination and in ethics. In doing so she reiterates the terms reification and objectification, and other important words we haven’t heard lately. Her ethical imagining, part of the bounty of our “enclaves of luxury” is sketched out as necessarily imprecise, an illusion sustained by a community as a cultural practice, one that is vulnerable under materialism. Our enclaves, distinct groups operating together within surrounding, larger communities, contend with the avalanche of goods around us. The interpretation of the meaning of these accumulating objects is difficult, due to both their proximity and their volume. An immediate impulse is to sort by hierarchy—and Randolph points out that “our propensity to hierarchy is primate”, a reminder that resonates through this election year. A thoughtful disentangling of theories of abundance through Galbraith and others aims to detach material luxury from the most valued of civilized practices: reason and imagination.

Randolph brings to the table, as she must, the chroniclers of Ethics: Spinoza, G.E. Moore, Mary Warnock along with Aristotle’ Good, and those, such as Deleuze and Guattari, for whom ethics is implied. For me, Brecht is remembered fondly through her appetite for suspending disbelief; Braidotti’s notion of as if, Bettleheim’s suggestion that we need to acknowledge and maybe even offer hospitality to the gruesomeness found in imagination, like Goya’s Monsters clipping their toenails. She toasts these absent friends, and roasts others with saucy comparisons, such as seating Freud’s “Man is a wolf to Man” next to the familiar reality of “baby care”. Randolph raises imagination into an ethical atmosphere using “illusory experience” as a support. She saves her most beautiful language for D. W. Winnicott, as she honours the existence and necessity of communal experiences or “working fictions” that do not aim for material outcomes. Such intangibles, surplus to the requirements of survival, are valuable experiences rather than valuable commodities.

Membership of these enclaves is undetermined, and the artists and other thinkers who explore the economies of gifting and generosity would benefit from her rigorous menu. We, the “over-rewarded” can suspend our guilt in the space created in ethical imagining. It allows for playing out an idea to its truly, properly logical conclusion, until it, like my banquet metaphor, become troubled and goes lax, and is relayed to a newer, tauter concept of what is to be done.