Discussing David Brooks’ Bobos in Paradise in Chronicle 208 led me to some further reflections on the distinction between the post-millennial bobos or “bourgeois bohemians” and their predecessors, the yuppies (“Young Urban Professionals”), who dominated consumer society in the postmodern/baby boomer generation.
But the story begins a couple of generations earlier. Thorstein Veblen (The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1899), the first theoretician of consumer society, defined it as the realm of “conspicuous consumption.” His central insight was that a significant portion of the outlays of the wealthy went neither for utility nor investment but was expended in the mode of the Kwakiutl potlatch. Veblen’s analysis of consumption was revolutionary in its understanding that the system of exchange was used for purposes other than rational economic gain. But his conception of this phenomenon was essentially one-dimensional. Just as, in the potlatch, prestige is measured by the volume of blankets burned, what matters in conspicuous consumption is the quantity of money visibly expended rather than any particular characteristics of the objects purchased. Whether the robber-baron’s money bought diamonds and furs–the austere capitalist generally delegated his wife as conspicuous consumer–artworks, or racehorses, their only role in Veblen’s model was to display his wealth. The socialist Veblen used the consumerism of the “leisure class” as an argument against the scandalous wastefulness of the market.
What Veblen did not predict, although it was anticipated by Flaubert and Baudelaire as early as the 1850s, was the semiotic consumerism defined by Jean Baudrillard in Le système des objets (1968) and illustrated in Georges Perec’s nearly contemporary novel Les choses (1965). Consumption was not just unprofitable expenditure that signified the consumer’s power to squander his resources; it was a disciplined procedure designed to generate specific meanings communicable to other members of society. Each object of consumption possesses a nuance of meaning and reflects a specific level of social awareness. If Veblen’s notion of consumption belonged to the day when Ford would sell you any color car you wanted so long as it was black, Baudrillard’s corresponds to the postwar “affluent society” where all but the poorest can use consumption to define their attitude or “posture” toward the social order.
With the maturing of this era, the yuppie becomes the defining figure. Young and professional, hence as a rule not (yet) wealthy, the yuppie is particularly careful how he spends his limited disposable income; unlike Veblen’s magnates, he needs to maximize bang for the buck. Whence the yuppie’s insistence on the signs of up-to-date, sophisticated taste. Yuppies know the best wines and where to buy them, the best shops for clothes and household goods, the best restaurants and night spots, and what to buy and order there.
The yuppie is the exemplar of the creative consumer; that is why I think of Des Esseintes, the hero of J.-K. Huysmans’ 1884 novel A rebours (Against the Grain) who taught the decadents self-definition through refined consumption, the first yuppie. (See Chronicle 208.) But the yuppie’s creativity remains passive; however original his personal style in clothing, home furnishings, food, and so on, his only activities are purchase and arrangement, and he expends his energy demonstrating awareness of ever-changing trends rather than in creating new ones. The only narrative one could construct from his activity is that of discovering new things to buy and new ways of making them chic–the substance of Perec’s novel. On this point, the bobo represents a new departure whose generational implications I would like to examine.
Bobos need not be older than yuppies, for the “y” in the latter word refers to career stage more than chronology. Living in a more volatile and prosperous era than his predecessor, the bobo, whatever his age, is presumed to be well beyond the lower-middle rungs of a professional salary scale. Thus he is less concerned with maximizing the semiotic return on his consumption dollars than with defining himself as a unique individual through his avocations. Whereas the yuppie had no idiosyncratic hobbies, his consumption pattern being determined by a lifestyle held in common with his rivals, the bobo defines himself precisely by such activities. Where the yuppie worked out to stay fit, the bobo runs marathons or triathlons as material for a life-narrative. The bobo wants to tell, and have told, a unique story about himself. His “bohemian” activities are designed to make him an unforgettable character for whom the drudgery of wealth-creation is a mere instrument for personal fulfillment. This insistence on the narrative element is the key distinction between the bobo and the yuppie.
Dealing with wealth means dealing with the resentment of others with which, in modern times, the wealthy person himself cannot help but identify. Even Donald Trump-like flaunting of wealth is a defensive reaction not unlike that of the macho nervous about his masculinity. The core of popular culture is the expression of this and similar resentments, and since the beginning of the bourgeois era, the wealthy have flirted with the art that denounces them. What is new about the bobos is that their full-time participation in the economy does not preclude their active participation in this culture; they seek to defuse its victimary thematic by taking part in it. This in turn forces what remains of the avant-garde who insist that their art be incompatible with the bourgeois ethos to make violent and/or offensive behavior its essential criterion. In a world where businessmen and women wear earrings and pierces, this means the kind of self-mutilations described by Dawn Perlmutter in Anthropoetics V, 2.
Can we really speak with Brooks of an “end of the culture wars” when Western society still has large differences in wealth and access to the possibility of wealth? Surely there will be no end to the cultural expression/deferral of social conflict. The bobo’s sufferings as he climbs cliff faces or endures the g’s of hang-gliding do not balance out the rage of the boyz in the ‘hood. There will always be a culture war of sorts–and there had better be, unless we would prefer a real war. What has changed is the nature of the cultural terrain on which the war will be fought. At the same time as the bobos are draining the last traces of oppositionality from the vie de bohème, Christian and Jewish fundamentalism are on the rise, and it appears likely that within a generation the majority of African-Americans will identify themselves as Muslims. (See Daniel Pipes, “How Elijah Muhammad Won,” Commentary 109, 6 [June 2000]). As the tension is evacuated from secular culture, it reappears in the less tractable form of religion.
The most interesting question posed by the end of the battle between artiste and bourgeois is that of the future of secular culture itself. I received a bit of flak for claiming in Chronicle 208 that the death of high culture corresponds to a final disillusionment with utopian closure as the expression of our ethical intuition. No doubt it is the openness of the masterpieces of high culture that distinguishes them from archaic, sacrificial cultural forms. But this openness does not extend beyond psychological identification; the artwork as traditionally understood is a closed world of representation.
The postmodern era is a time of retrenchment in reaction to the failed utopias of the 20th century. Cold-War agnosticism toward capitalism’s superiority over socialism produces agnosticism in the cultural domain. The only guarantee of meaning is provided by victimage. The postmodern story is the revelation of the victimary constitution of the self, which is its obliteration as an active, goal-seeking self. The yuppie’s activity, goal-directed as it is, shares with the postmodern esthetic its minimalist conception of selfhood. In contrast with his “bourgeois” parents, the yuppie avoids excess ornamentation, unnecessary symbolism, and all other signs of vulgar self-assertion. He is minimalistic in his search for “pleasure,” “beauty”–in everything but his use of information; yuppie minimalism involves an immense and hard-won knowledge of details.
In distinction to the modernist minimalism of the Bauhaus, postmodernism has no bedrock ideological notion of the minimum. The first (1972) manifesto of postmodernism, Ken Venturi’s Learning from Las Vegas, defines it as citational, treating previous styles as material for new combinations that convey new information less as deliberate constructions than as chance collocations. It is here that we observe the gap that still remains between the postmodern artist and the yuppie. The yuppie’s consumptive activity is esthetic only in a passive sense; he remains a bourgeois content to let the artiste play his independent role and anxious to avoid his contempt.
It is only by repudiating all signs of highness that what still passes for the high art of the victim-centered postmodern era maintains the claim of superiority that it increasingly feels the need to justify. The shadow of political utopia that haunts the age parallels the shadow of esthetic utopia that haunts its art. Postmodernity’s fundamental model of human interaction as persecution generates a praxis of de-victimization that, however lacking in a clear positive goal, cannot help extrapolating from its negative one to a utopian hope akin to that of Marx in the “classless society.” Abolish all domination and something perfect must appear. But from the elimination of colonialism and apartheid to homosexual marriage and animal rights, this praxis (d)evolves away from revolutionary inversion toward diversification, which is to say, away from socialism and toward the continual expansion of exchange as the solution to the problems of market society. It is into this configuration that the bobo enters.
The bobo, in contrast to the yuppie, rejects the very idea of specialized esthetic creation. He wants his own life both to be and to tell a story. If high art begins with the Homeric division of labor between the hero who acts and the rhapsode who weaves his tale and broadcasts it to the world, it ends with their conflation in the contemporary bourgeois, aware of the unlikelihood in an ever-differentiating society of finding a bard other than himself. The bobo belongs to a world in which everyone wants to be significant. It is a world dominated by celebrity rather than fame, one that trivializes public significance out of a secret resentment that this significance has become its sole value. Here it is not enough to consume, however “creatively”; one must be a hero in at least one’s own tale.
It is a reflection on post-millennial culture that a children’s book has broken all sales records. If culture once addressed adults, then adolescents, now its center is on pre-adolescents; the core readership of the Harry Potter books is younger still than the core audience of Britney Spears. This has usually been explained, if at all, by the fact that (increasingly) young(er) people expend more money on culture than their elders. But this fact is itself more cultural than economic. It demonstrates, in the first place, that the young need culture more than their elders, that the nurturing metaphor of culture is real; a similar conclusion may be drawn from the increasing prevalence of the post-colonial world in literary studies and in literature itself. The child’s need for cultural self-definition reflects his lack of a mature consciousness of desire. The young are still unaware of the shame of the mimetic; one ceases to be young when one realizes that, in the modern world, passionately desiring the same thing as everyone else is not a way to achieve significance. In our era of designer diapers, the age at which one matures in this sense is continually reduced.
But, you may object, adults too buy the Potter books. Yes, of course. Mediated by those who truly desire, they reach for the same object. This stands on its head our “Rousseauian” propensity to equate the unmimetic with the natural–Rousseau himself was, as Jeff Spisak’s Anthropoetics VI, 1 article demonstrates, quite aware of children’s susceptibility to the mimetic. Our children are more “natural” than we only in that they display with less reticence our mimetic nature.
What propels human history–what makes us historical beings in the first place–is mimesis and the resentment it generates. We need culture because we cannot afford to let this resentment descend into violence. The age of Harry Potter and the bobos succeeds the age of Madonna and the yuppies when Internet-driven adult communication becomes too interactive to tolerate passive consumption and even teenie-boppers become too jaded to focus their desire on a product of culture (whence, for example, the ecstatic “rave” phenomenon). Ours is also the age of “Survival” and other life games that allow arbitrarily chosen ordinary people to realize the fifteen minutes of Warhol’s prescient prophecy. Celebrity is the passion and the curse of the post-millennial age, blinding us to its nature by its ubiquitous, obnoxious presence. I will pursue this point in the next Chronicle.