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Opinion

The essence of consumption

Jan 20,2007
The “nude handbag” made of see-through material is the latest trend among foreign luxury products. One must pay attention to the contents of the bag, as they are visible, joining the ranks of the luxury generation or “L Generation.” It suggests that there is a hierarchical system in the L Generation, a type of consumption parade to view wealth.
Jean Baudrillard viewed ostentatiousness and waste as the distinguishing characteristics of modern consumption. He refers to the modern hero as “wasters.”
The standard of the modern hero is determined by the quantity of waste. People observe the grandiose lifestyles of rock, movie and sport stars with a sense of envy and surprise. Marcel Mauss wrote, “The waste of wealth provides the wasteful with special privileges and authority.”
According to Bourdieu, consumption serves as a demarcation of the social tiers. Buying luxury products is a voucher that shows one belongs in the upper class; the original meaning of “distinction,” which connotes noble grace, refers to difference or discrimination. One can rise in social standing when adopting the spending style of the upper class; withstanding the economic strain, one buys luxury products or imitates the unbounded spending habits of the upper class. Woefully, there are fake products, as well. All this proves that the essence of consumption is ostentatiousness.
A dilemma forms: as society becomes wealthier, people pursue the upper class by mass consumption, which leads to the popularization of luxury products. When everybody carries around high-end products, the hierarchical distinctions of consumption become blurred, so the highest class chooses a strategy of “anti-consumption” or “underconsumption.” Millionaires ride in compact cars or visit commonplace restaurants. Professor Park Chung-ja of Sangmyung University slams this in her book “Robinson Crusoe’s Extravagance” writing, “If carrying a Luis Vuitton handbag is a sign of accession for middle class women in their 20s, class distinction for the owner of a jaebeol (large conglomerate) is eating sundubu (tofu soup), which costs 5,000 won ($5). This kind of underspending is an extreme display of power.” Riesman makes a similar indictment: “The established upper class underspends to distinguish itself from the nouveau riche.”
The phenomenon of intellectual anti-consumption exists. Professor Park said, “Korean intellectuals enjoy “miserabilisme,” which refers to people who enjoy a bourgeois lifestyle while pretending to be interested in the miserable conditions of society.

*The writer is a culture and sports desk writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Yang Sung-hee shying@joongang.co.kr
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