FreshMeat #19: Livin’ La Vida Luxa

FreshMeat #19 from Steve Portigal

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The necessity of luxury; the luxury of necessity?

James Twitchell is professor of English and advertising
at the University of Florida. He also writes wonderful
books about culture, consumption, advertising and so on.
His books are very readable, very provocative and explore
these issues from a myriad of perspectives. Titles include
Adcult USA, The Twenty Ads That Shook the World, and
For Shame
. His latest book, Living It Up: Our Love Affair
With Luxury
has just been released in paperback (although
the subtitle is now “America’s Love Affair With Luxury”).
While he was on vacation in Vermont, I spoke with him by
telephone about his work.

Steve Portigal: I read in your books…you study culture
and develop theories and explain them and integrate all
this stuff, and then you talk about being a professor of
romantic literature, so I was curious when you are at a
cocktail party and you are introducing yourself to
someone, what do you say about what it is that you do?

Jim Twitchell: Well, what I’m interested in is stories.
Most of the stories that people who do what I do talk
about are stories that are under the category literature,
but since the beginning of the 20th century there’s this
new category of stories, and that’s brands. Those are
stories told about objects, manufactured objects. And
it’s clear that that category of story is really what we
know and that the other category of stories, the high art
stories, the stories about ancestry and politics and
abstract concepts, those stories are progressively less

SP: Is that heretical?

JT: I think it’s self-evident! If you ask people to fill
the blank of one of the most famous lines in the 19th
century: “My heart leaps up when I behold a in
the sky” most people of the 19th century, most educated
people would have said “Oh yeah, it’s a rainbow, my heart
leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky.” It was a
very famous line from Wordsworth, but it was also famous
because it had overtones of Christianity and stories from
the Bible, namely that the rainbow was a promise by God
that this wouldn’t happen again. But you couldn’t do that
today. If you asked somebody how to fill the sentence in,
they couldn’t do it. But if you asked them what’s in a
Big Mac, they might very well be able to tell you, two
all-beef patties, special sauce, sesame-seed bun. So
clearly, what we know, what we share, what we’re literate
in is not – it’s self-evident – is not anthologized
stories from the past, but are instead highly repeated
stories of commercial culture. So if you want to
understand the world, you’re probably better off looking
serious at commercial stories, brands, than you are at
this other series of stories which has pretty much lost
their audience.

SP: You don’t dismiss those. In your books you make
reference to The Rake’s Progress and things like that
that are maybe not in the same category of anthologized
works but they hearken back to some of those same eras.

JT: Well, I don’t dismiss them, absolutely not. I mean,
part of me is kind of melancholy that those stories are
being squeezed aside, but melancholy or not, the fact
that has to be dealt with is that we’re living in a world
which is rapidly contracting and it’s rapidly contracting
because simple stories are moving around the world at the
speed of television. And it’s those stories that we
share. I mean, I may have more in common with someone
right now in Tokyo or Johannesburg or Montreal. I may
have much more in common with those people who are buying
and listening to the same stories that I’m buying and
listening to than I do with my next-door neighbor. So
clearly, these stories are simple and they are shallow
and they are ahistorical, but they are also incredibly

SP: Has this approach to stories made it into your

JT: Well, no, because really I teach two very different
subjects. I still teach English Romanticism, and I teach
a course in Advertising in American Culture, and they are
really arms-length studies. So, no. I’m interested in the
Advertising Course, of course, in explaining how
advertising essentially has become modern literature. But
in the English Romanticism course, I don’t say anything
about advertising.

SP: I know from lots of people when they have what seem
to be from the outside diverse pursuits that maybe play
out in very different arenas, like for example your two
classes or your writing, you get them to talk about it
and in their own heads it’s all very much intertwined. Is
that how it is for you?

JT: Yes. In my head they are all part of the same
subject. The subject is: who’s telling stories, who’s
listening to stories and what are the stories about?

SP: I’m curious if you have a sense of purpose in these
books. I noticed that in “For Shame” specifically, it
seemed like the book was almost in two halves, and the
first half was very descriptive of these relationships
between these cultural factors, looking back at history
and seeing how it’s evolving, very much how “Living It
Up” was structured, but towards the end there seemed to
be sort of a, I don’t know, social critic that emerged.
What’s your own sense of your mission, or your goal in
putting these kinds of things out there to the broader

JT: Well, I think you’re right. The first thing is just
to explain it, to show what it is that you think is
there, and then you’re also right, the second part is to
make some observation about it: is it good, is it bad?
And I think in the material world, here probably I am in
the extreme. I am very forgiving, relative to my
colleagues of the world of getting and spending. It seems
to me to be making life better for more people, more of
the time than other supposed improvements in the
condition of being human.

When I was interested in luxury, the one thing that kept
coming back was that almost everything that we take now
as being a necessity comes into the world and is
criticized for being an unnecessary luxury.

SP: In the book you quote Voltaire, as Voltaire mocks
those that made fun of nail trimmers. It’s a great

JT: Just take the simple instrument that we’re using now,
the telephone, which end of the 19th century was
criticized for taking people away from each other. It was
going to ruin community. It was also going to ruin the
lives of women who would not be doing their chores, but
who would be talking on the phone. Now, the phone really
is, thanks to the answering machine, an almost unalloyed
improvement in life. You don’t have to talk on it. It’s
very efficient, and yet, coming in as a luxury, it’s now
a necessity. Ditto almost everything from knee
replacements to the computer. Luxury consumption is a
category that you really have got to be very suspicious
of. Very often what seems to be extraneous soon becomes
an important and necessary part of our life.

SP: I liked how you had some great examples of
advertising in the book, a lot of very contemporary
stuff. I pulled one that I thought was – I pulled it a
long time before I even saw the book – but I wanted to
mention it to you. It’s an ad for Hummer, they probably
have many in this series, but this particular one shows
the Hummer on what looks like a desert floor with a big
blue sky and the copy says “Need is a very subjective

JT: And very often I use that word when I’m trying to
criticize something that you’re doing, and I say “well
you don’t need that.” Very often it’s really something
that I’d like to have but for whatever reason I don’t
have and hence criticizing you for having it.

SP: That’s interesting. That goes back to the Voltaire
thing, he described how people might have been
criticizing others, that they didn’t need to be trimming
their nails, where of course in Voltaire’s time it was
already taken for granted that you would do this. It
makes me wonder, as Hummer’s gone on this campaign and
really pushed their product out there, certainly where I
am you see them fairly frequently on the streets, and I
wonder what the driver is thinking as they drive in that
vehicle and what the rest of us are thinking as they see
them drive by.

JT: Well, I wonder that too, because I know what I’m
thinking is “what an absolute jackass you are to be
driving this ridiculous car.” I have no idea if he is
thinking to himself “Well what a jackass you are for
thinking that I’m a jackass.” But it’s a very powerful
product. It does stir up all sorts of deep feelings.

SP: I share the same reaction. Why do we think that
person’s a jackass?

JT: Well, whatever the meaning of that brand is, clearly,
it’s a story problem for us. The object itself is of
course incredibly aggressive. It’s essentially saying
“Screw you. I’m here, I’m on the road, you move over, you
move away.” I just think it’s such an aggressive object,
and then it has an advertising campaign that is
especially in your face, that I think that is clearly
what makes the reaction to it so strong. It may be also
what makes the allegiance to it so strong.

SP: There was a great article a while ago about how
Hummer owners were feeling during the days leading up to
the conflict in Iraq. I don’t have the article at hand,
but it was amazing and that it kind of talked about –

JT: Bring it on?

SP: There was a patriotism play, that sales were going up
and people that owned these vehicles felt by driving
their vehicle to the mall that they were kicking Arab
ass. Amazing power of that brand.

[In Their Hummers, Right Beside Uncle Sam, New York Times,
April 5, 2003, By DANNY HAKIM — SP]

JT: Yes, and of course it’s typical of how we now use
commercial objects and their stories as ways to
communicate with each other.

SP: Can you give another example?

JT: Well certainly in all luxury goods, where the brand
display is obviously in the face of whoever is moving
towards you. I’m thinking of Prada or Gucci or Louis
Vuitton. These are all badge goods, but the badge clearly
is saying “I’ve got it, you haven’t.” They’re
demonstration goods. Like the Hummer, they are impossible
to pass by without observing, without reading them.

SP: So a component here is that someone else doesn’t have
it. I think you actually went into this in the book in a
fair amount of detail but your example is bringing it to
life here: “I have this and you don’t.”

JT: What makes it difficult is that there’s very little
that can be generated over, because anything that you
have, I can get some of it too. That is one of the
peculiarities of modern life. If you have a Lexus, I can
go rent one. If you go to Aspen for the season, well, I
can go for a weekend. If you can fly on the Concord,
well, I can upgrade to first class. In other words,
there’s very little in the material world that you can
have that I can’t have. And that’s what makes it all in
some ways – in some strange way – a house of cards
waiting to fall down. How are you going to find something
that everybody else doesn’t have?

SP: You get into these vectors on the “latest and
greatest” or the “hottest” or the “coolest” – there’s a
certain cachet in being ahead of the curve. That same
pleasure in having something that someone else doesn’t
have that luxury supplies, the cool community has that as
well, but they are not consuming luxury to get that, they
are consuming new and undiscovered to get that “I have it
and you don’t.”

Another aspect of luxury that you talked about is this
notion of having bounty, of having more than you need.
Maybe – there’s a lot that we talk about now about
supersizing, the excess consumption at McDonald’s. Do you
think that’s McDonald’s way to offer luxury? You can
afford now more than you need, and yeah your neighbor can
afford that too…

JT: Well, actually where you really see that is not
McDonald’s, you really see that at Hardee’s. Hardee’s,
which is squeezed by Burger King and McDonald’s, is now
coming out with an absolutely overwhelming hamburger,
which very few people can actually eat all the way
through. And that I think you’re absolutely right, that
now becomes surfeit, becomes the way you separate
yourself. This is more than you can handle.

SP: What’s the public display we are making when we
consume or we attempt to consume more than we can

JT: Well that’s a great question. Some of it is just “I’m
worth it.” I’m not so sure that it’s just the public
display, very often I think a lot of that is the
solipsism of thinking that “well, whatever this is, it’s
more than I need” but it’s also a demonstration that I’m
at whatever that level is that doesn’t have to be
concerned about habits confining desire. Some of it’s
ridiculous, clearly.

SP: Habits confining desire.

JT: Well, it’s essentially not observing this as waste,
but observing this as the necessarily overflow of objects
coming my way.

SP: So, even the frame that I’m putting on it, “more than
I can possibly consume,” that’s not necessarily the right
frame of reference.

JT: Well. I don’t know what the right frame of reference
is, all I know is that when you start seeing on menus for
adults, you start seeing children’s meals that have
nothing to do with children but have to do with people
who are not comfortable with that overflow, something
intriguing is going on.

SP: The way that we assess how much and what quantity is
right for us is breaking up.

JT: Yes.

SP: Your descriptions of some of the accommodations in
Las Vegas and the square footage of some of those places
was a great example of “more than we need.”

JT: Yeah, and that’s the story. That’s part of the brand,
is that you take some ordinary space and you luxurify by
expanding it to a point where we think we’ve never seen
it before.

SP: I did some businesses travel at one point last year
where we arrived late at the hotel and they were forced
to upgrade us to a suite, whatever the next level up was.
I was excited and when I got to the room, it was fine. It
had two televisions in different spots, of which I could
only watch one at a time. The distance I had to walk to
the bathroom was astonishing. It was actually
inconvenient, and made me think what bonus did I exactly
get here for getting a “suite.”

JT: And, that’s a function of what happens whenever you
get to a truly interchangeable object, such as a hotel
room. The only way to separate a hotel room is to do
something mildly ridiculous to it. Make the bed
supersized, or in Hollywood, transform the bathroom,
because essentially a hotel room is like an airplane
seat. It doesn’t make any difference if you are sitting
in the seat of United or American Airlines or Southwest,
the seat is all the same. So however you can change the
actual thing, especially if you can make it in the
process luxurious is absolutely crucial in changing the
narrative, changing the story, making the object somehow
different. If you look at how these luxury high-end hotel
chains work you can see whatever that process was that
you went through to get to the suite, it’s an absolutely
central part of their marketing.

SP: Do you think that this is something that companies –
are they becoming more competent in how they handle this?
How is the producer side of this changing?

JT: Something like Marriott will have five or six
different subsets but essentially they are all selling
the same product, but in the path down from Ritz-Carlton
to Marriott to Courtyard by Marriott they take the same
“airplane seat” andifferently. How do
you respond to those concerns or criticisms of the
wastefulness of the efforts we’re supporting?

JT: Oh, I give in. I think it’s true.

SP: Is it an ethical dilemma for you?

JT: No, it’s not. I think it’s self-evident that it’s an
incredibly wasteful process. It has other wonderful
aspects to it, but its ahistorical nature and its
wasteful nature can’t be denied. It has other redeeming
aspects; it’s much fairer than other systems, but why
deny the fact that it’s filled with redundancy and
superfluous objects? It’s true.

SP: If one hotel bedroom is the same as the next hotel
and a lot of resource goes into differentiating those
two, when really all that we need is a room…

JT: Exactly.

SP: That’s fair enough. Are you working on your next

JT: I’m working on a book on cultural branding. On how
universities and other cultural institutions, how they
use marketing techniques to separate themselves.

[Branded Nation: How Americans are Sold Religion,
Education and Art
will be published by Simon &
Schuster — SP]

SP: Is there a continuum that your books are all – is
there a thread that you’re weaving with these?

JT: No, this one seems to have grown out of the previous
one. I don’t know where the shame one came from, who
knows. But the ones on advertising sort of fit together,
and the one on luxury fitted with advertising, and I
guess this one sort of fits with the luxury. Yeah, they
do sort of fit, and then there’s the other part of my
life that makes no connection at all.

SP: What’s the process you go through to determine a
topic and begin to create the content that’s going to be
the book?

JT: I don’t know. I find something that I find intriguing
or difficult and then I just try to think about what is
it about it that everybody seems to be missing. That
essentially is what I do is, I try to find something that
if my colleagues were going to be discussing it, they
would say “ooh – not very complicated, here’s how it
works.” Whenever I find that, that’s when I think “Oh
boy, maybe there’s something here for me.”

SP: What’s your relationship with Columbia Press to go
about doing that? Are they supportive of where you are
taking the next topic?

JT: Yeah, they don’t really care. I get along very well
with them. No, they don’t care.

SP: In “Living it Up” you used a great participant-
observation technique. I haven’t read all of your work,
but that seemed to be something new.

JT: Yes, it was, and I really enjoyed it. Actually going
out and looking at it rather than sitting on my can and
pontificating was a trip.

SP: Well, you did more than look at it – you thrust
yourself right into it. You used your family members as
participants and then had everyone reflect on what their
own experiences were and you described what you were
thinking and feeling when you were considering consuming
or looking at other people consuming. It’s a great
experience, I think, to do those types of things.

JT: I’ve almost got to go, to go out for dinner, but I
hope that I’ve covered some of your subjects.

SP: Yeah, it’s great. Any other comments you want to make
or any questions for me?

JT: No, I think you’ve got it!

SP: I think you’ve got it, I just ask questions!


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