Thursday, November 8, 2007

The New Semantics of "Conspicuous Consumption"

Last August I reported that the "front line" in the war against the poor could be found in Manhattan. More specifically, it was on the eighth floor of Saks Fifth Avenue, the venue for designer shoes so exclusive that it was assigned its own ZIP code, where just about everything on the floor embodied that motto, "If you have to ask, to don't wanna know." Well, according to a report that Vivianne Rodrigues filed yesterday for Reuters, the front line is still in Manhattan and is being waged (pun intended) at an extreme that recalls the Battle of Richmond recently depicted in the new opera, Appomattox. Here is Rodrigues' lead:

A day after New York City came up with a $1,000 bagel, a local restaurateur unveiled a $25,000 chocolate sundae on Wednesday, setting a Guinness world record for the most expensive dessert.

For those who missed the bagel news, Rodrigues was kind enough to provide a recap:

On Tuesday, New York chef Frank Tujague of The Westin New York hotel at Times Square unveiled the $1,000 bagel, topped with white truffle cream cheese and goji berry infused Riesling jelly with golden leaves. Sales will help raise funds for culinary school scholarships.

The question of whether or not the beneficiaries of these scholarships will learn a thing or two about feeding the poor can be left for another time. For now it is more important to concentrate on the new dessert:

Stephen Bruce, owner of Serendipity 3, partnered with luxury jeweler Euphoria New York to create the "Frrozen Haute Chocolate," a blend of 28 cocoas, including 14 of the most expensive and exotic from around the globe.

The dessert, spelled with two Rs, is infused with 5 grams (0.2 ounces) of edible 23-karat gold and served in a goblet lined with edible gold. At the base of the goblet is an 18-karat gold bracelet with 1 carat of white diamonds.

The sundae is topped with whipped cream covered with more gold and a side of La Madeline au Truffle from Knipschildt Chocolatier, which sells for $2,600 a pound.

It is eaten with a gold spoon decorated with white and chocolate-colored diamonds, which can also be taken home.

No mention is made of anything like scholarships associated with this particular item. Rather, Bruce is more interested in supply and demand:

Bruce said he has received inquiries about his latest creation, mostly from Europeans planning to visit New York.

"I wouldn't be surprised if soon we get a call from a Middle Eastern prince or Shah willing to give something sweet to his many wives on his next trip to the city," Bruce said.

Given the rather pathetic state of the dollar, there should be no surprise that demand is coming from Europe; but that quotation is really telling, since it speaks to just the sort of stereotype that has inflamed attitudes about the extreme bimodal distribution of wealth to a level that is best captured by that "war" noun. Does Bruce realize that he has reduced the metaphorical meaning of "conspicuous consumption" to its rawest literal foundation? Perhaps he should read up on the history of the anarchist movement in Paris, whose practices included throwing bombs into establishments not that different from the one he owns. This would definitely be a counterexample to Marx' observation about history, since any repetition would be far from farcical. Nevertheless, at a time when we read about bomb-throwing on a daily basis, it almost seems as if establishments like Serendipity 3 and Saks Fifth Avenue are deliberately thumbing their noses at those who throw bombs, perhaps out of that same sense of security we read about in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" (which turns out to be entirely false).

The operative noun in that last paragraph may be "attitude." It is not that wealth is bimodally distributed as much as it is the arrogance of the one mode, in its position of comfort, towards the other. The thing about attitude, though, is that it tends to reflect; and, in this case, it reflects back in extremely inflammatory ways, whether they are rap lyrics or the video manifestos of Osama bin Laden. Furthermore, the latter example reminds us that the reflection may not be limited to the verbal: Names may never hurt us, but the wounds of 9/11 are still open and festering. Unfortunately, such aggression is not going to lead to any much-needed attitude change up there on the "comfortable mode," which means that, if we continue to let things play out along their current course, the language of "war," like that of "conspicuous consumption," will ultimately bottom out on a tragically literal foundation whose consequences are too horrifying to try to imagine.


America Jones said...

I had something really clever to say, but this is just plain sick. These sophisticates fancy themselves educated I imagine; do you suppose they've read much Dante?

Stephen Smoliar said...

If they fancied themselves educated, they would probably shower at least some of their wealth on their favorite institutions of higher learning. True, those places are not as bad off as the homeless; but, in the absence of other support, they are compromising their curricula by cutting all sorts of deals with the private sector. So, no, I do not think they fancy themselves educated (nor do I think they have much time for Dante, at least until it becomes a Rome-like miniseries on HBO, possibly with the title Vile Florentines).