Book Review: Enrichment – A Critique of Commodities

Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre, Enrichment – A Critique of Commodities (Polity, 2020)

Reviewed by Peter Beilharz (Sichuan University)

(This is a prepublication version of this review. You can find the published version in Thesis Eleven Journal, on the T11 Sage website)

Luc Boltanski and his team are no strangers to the pages of Thesis Eleven (see for example #124, 2014). The earlier book, The New Spirit of Capitalism (1999), with Chiapello, is deservedly a classic, and there is much other work beside. Here is a newer volume, lavishly presented by the Polity Press. It is a beautiful book, which is indicative, as it addresses the world of beauty and, indeed, luxury. Purple, the colour of kings, its cover features a gilt frame, empty; more purple in the place where the artwork might normally be. The empty frame could be waiting to be filled; or it may just remain empty, an empty signifier, a joke, a tease. Overinterpreting? Book covers don’t always matter, but this seems suggestive. After the weight of the linguistic turn, we should beware being dismissive of the visual explosion that is so powerful elsewhere, in everyday life and interpretation. Value has become more elusive.

The book represents a dialectic between the deindustrialization of the old world, and the emergence of a new world of exclusive luxury goods , those desirable but less than necessary items like elite watches , pens , cars, iconic clothes and handbags . This message has immediate consequences for how we think about value, and about class. Who makes? Who buys? Who misses out? As others have observed, ours may resemble a new Gilded Age, where wealth is flaunted, and the poor are removed from the stage or from the city centres to the city limits, to be covered by tarps or blue plastic, an inconvenience for those with a finer eye or dibs on a Bugatti.

Readers of this journal know about commodities from Marx, of course, and about use-value. But this is no longer the world of Marx. The expanded form of value in Capital features items of everyday use, linen, a coat, tea, coffee, corn, whatever. Marx did not pawn his luxury car; re pawned his coat. Boltanski is interested in this new, which is complicated as it also plays on the old, as in the classic Rolex. The new world of enrichment calls up the ghosts of the prestige of the past; it summons up the world of collections and collectors, as in the rich dentist who can’t play guitar but has a 1958 Les Paul on his surgery wall, for looks and prestige and the pleasure of wealth. The world of value here has little to do with labour time, more to do with scarcity, collectability and desirability. As Charles Sabel puts it in his preface to this book, in this capitalism of enrichment, value is created through narratives that link buyers and sellers, the devil take the hindmost- they are not even in the narrative. It is the new world of the exception, of singularity, of the shift away from the standardization which was part of the utopia of solid modernity. It is the world of cryptocurrency and the virtual work of art. We are no longer happy with standardization, at least those of us with the means to shop bigger or better. It is a world after Walter Benjamin, and after Andy Warhol, though Andy would still be worth the purchase if your credit line is open.

If this is a world after Marx, it is also a world after Ford. For our authors’ claim is that in the last quarter century, in Western societies, mass production is no longer viewed as the only way, perhaps not even the principle way, to maximize profits and accumulate wealth. We can argue over the proportions of the economy which remain in mass production, or are Mc Donaldized; the claim made by Boltanski and Esquerre is future-oriented. The newer emerging modes of enrichment, in their way of thinking, represent the growth–trend, or the face of the future. They plug into and capitalise on the value of the old, and its nostalgia, and connect this into regional geography, this not least in France. Enter branding, and the culture of celebrity, exclusivity, exotica, claims to authenticity and aura. These are worlds of celebrity architects and chefs, and ‘gastronomic luxury’, even ‘gastronationalism’. Luxury brands have clearly discernable national roots, even if their mode of production is effectively rendered invisible.

But as traditions must be invented, so in these brave new worlds must heritage be created anew. Upscale tourism comes into play here, replete with ruins both classical and industrial and monuments; Arles and Van Gogh, the ‘French Bilbao’; Laguiole and the iconic knife, standardized and then personalized, new ‘traditional festivals’ and heritage creation around food. Not sushi, humbug! but Japanese knives!

These curiosities and interests in Enrichment are undergirded by strong conceptual work and even mathematical diagrams, as well as an ambit claim for what Boltanski and Esquerre offer as another new product, what they call a pragmatic structuralism. Intellectual tradition is also open to reinvention. New objects require new theories; more challenges for the intellectual creative class await us.

Is this new world truly upon us? Enrichment makes a powerful case for the possibility. It offers and invites application and testing across comparative scales, whether anecdotal or more analytical. In these days of speed reading and informationalization, it would benefit from a shorter version to help get these ideas around. At almost 500 pages, its own form straddles old worlds and new, as least when it comes to matters of the potential addressee. Perhaps reading, too, is now a luxury, as it was for Montesquieu, to sit with this big book and innerly digest. Maybe we need a YouTube version, or a graphic novel. Watch that space.

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