Veblen and the Handmade

Posted by: on Mar 28, 2012 | One Comment

Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class is one of the great books on the role of “things” in our lives. In fewer than 300 pages, Veblen articulates a clear theory of material culture and coins more than a few commonly used terms. Here are just a few thoughts on one of his very small ideas.

One of the many evocative images Veblen draws upon in his treatise is a simple pair of spoons. One is handmade and rough while the other is an exact machine-made copy of the imperfect spoon. The former expensive, the latter cheap; the one desirable, the other expendable.

Veblen tells us “the hand-wrought spoon gratifies our taste, our sense of the beautiful, while that made by machinery out of the base metal has no useful office beyond a brute efficiency.”

Beautiful. Now, Velben will go on to use this to explain how we construct notions of beauty which are directly opposed to utility in order to rarify the beautiful and assign regard to those who possess it. But while he is completely right, that’s not where I’m going with this. Excuse me while I take his words completely out of context.

If the spoons look identical and function identically, this “sense of the beautiful” lies not in physicality of the object, but rather in its spirituality. The creation is beautiful, not the created. It is the fact that when you sip soup from the handmade spoon you are reminded of the craftsmen who shaped it, the tradition of silversmithing, the trouble you went through to obtain it, and the duration for which you will possess it. You are not simply “using” a spoon.

Sure this is a highly romanticized notion of material culture and craftsmanship, and I’m glossing over Veblen’s real argument, which illuminates many of the problems lying beneath this romantic surface, but this romanticism is a reality nonetheless.

I can’t help but think of bespoke tailoring when reading about Veblen’s spoons. A suit off the rack might fit just as well and be made of beautiful cloth, but you leave the shop with nothing but a suit in tow. No relationship, no process, and no romanticism. It is just a thing.

At the end of the day, all our things are just that – things. But any opportunity we have to give those contrivances meaning is an opportunity we should seize. To give beautiful little meanings to the otherwise utilitarian is one of life’s greatest, and most necessary, pleasures.


I highly recommend you check out The Theory of the Leisure Class if you don’t already have a copy.

1 Comment

  1. David V
    March 28, 2012

    There is an older idea that all natural and mam-made objects possessing a “soul”.

    This fits in here somehow.


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