SHOWING OFF IN AMERICA: From Conspicuous Consumption to Parody Display by John Brooks

SHOWING OFF IN AMERICA: From Conspicuous Consumption to Parody Display

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Veblen lives,"" says veteran society-watcher Brooks--so this uneven, arch-but-serious study (something of a cross between Christopher Lasch and Stephen Potter) sets out to test the ideas of Theory of the Leisure Class against current US practices. And, though Veblen's double-barreled, moralistic terminology (""predatory invidiousness,"" etc.) makes for somewhat heavy going, Brooks does well enough when spotting Veblenesque behavior in today's leisure class (""nobody and everybody""): designer jeans fit Veblen's explanation of fashion perfectly; the how-to-intimidate manuals of Korda et al. are ""books of invidiousness training""; California real estate is the nth degree of ""competitive display""; lawn care remains a classic case of Veblen's ""display and emulation."" But Brooks sees more than mere Veblenism at work today: the murky thesis running throughout is that, after the Veblen-heavy 1950s and muted-Veblen 1960s, a ""more complex display system"" developed--""parody display."" Intriguing? Perhaps. Unfortunately, however, Brooks' documentation of this supposed trend is skimpy, inconsistent, and simply unconvincing. His definition of ""parody"" is constantly shifting--from intended irony (Pop Art); to a situation seen from the outside as parodic (philanthropy, with all the bargaining now involved, has become ""a parody of commerce""); to activities where ""parody"" doesn't really apply at all. He reads in much more irony than seems to exist--among joggers, designer-jean wearers, etc. He oversimplifies and jargonizes complex material: the Episcopal Church's flirtation with radical politics was ""a masochistic form of parody display""; anorexia nervosa is ""parody display carried to the point of madness."" And though Brooks admits that mainstream society is still plainly Veblenian, he winds up (after presenting the ""life parodies"" of Bernie Cornfield, Jerry Brown, and George Plimpton) with the dubious claim that ""irony is ascendant in the land."" Strained and haphazard theorizing, then--delivered with insufficient tongue-in-cheek; but when just observing and reporting, Brooks offers enough stylish shrewdness here to engage, intermittently, his following.

Pub Date: July 15th, 1981
Publisher: Atlantic/Little, Brown