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Possession: Luxury, Scarcity, Consumerism

Page history last edited by Angela 6 years, 5 months ago

Justifying Usefulness

Bedap spoke more gravely: “They can justify it because music isn’t useful. Canal digging is important, you know; music’s mere decoration. The circle has come right back around to the most vile kind of profiteering utilitarianism. The complexity, the vitality, the freedom of invention and initiative that was the center of the Odonian ideal, we’ve thrown it all away. We’ve gone right back to barbarism. If it’s new, run away from it; if you can’t eat it, throw it away!”  

--The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed   p.104



Did you play with toys as a child?

Are toys 'fake' and play a 'waste of time''?  

Is imagination important to self-reflection and self-realisation?


How do you justify the economic burden of the arts? 

What is 'useful' to a human being?


What does it mean, to say that someone is a 'real' adult?  



The Christian Construct: Severity is Moral & Spiritually Rich, Decadence is Spiritually Impoverished

For the Austrian architect and theorist, Adolf Loos, ornament was crime; on Le Guin’s Anarres “Excess is excrement”. Throughout the novel Shevek observes the “excremental” waste of the Urrasti, their excess of ornament and decoration, as symptomatic of their inner poverty. Like their fellow consumers on Earth they know “no relationship but possession.” By contrast the citizens of Anarres are materially impoverished but rich in humanity. The austerity and asceticism of Anarres is a material necessity, but one given a virtuous moral gloss.


But Le Guin introduces a third position to upset this apparently reasonable equation:

People in the small towns wore a good deal of jewelry. In sophisticated Abbenay there was more sense of the tension between the principle of nonownership and the impulse to self-adornment, and there a ring or pin was the limit of good taste. But elsewhere the deep connection between the aesthetic and the acquisitive was simply not worried about; people bedecked themselves unabashedly.

--The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed   p.104


Do you wear nail polish?   Does it seem beautiful or disgusting to you?

Do you wear jewelry?   Does it seem enjoyable to you or do you feel it's too much?


Is decorating the body spiritually impoverished?   

Is there a naturally superior moral position on decadence, possession?


'Restraint' in decoration is often depicted as 'being in good taste'

Does having good taste imply morality?  Does it imply superiority?  Does it mean you're a better human being?   Does having good taste imply being better at community? 



Aesthetics and Possessions, Luxury and Scarcity, Consumerism

Le Guin suggests that … it is only the conditions of material scarcity on Anarres that produce a corresponding ethical and aesthetic opposition to waste and excess. But there is nothing either “natural” or necessarily superior about these positions. On the contrary Shevek has to learn to curb the instinctive “propertarian” drives that come before he is taught Odonian communitarian ethics. …  The desire to possess appears to be a naturally consequence of aesthetic stimulation. 


At Oiie’s home we find Shevek approving of his host’s taste:  "A relative absence of furniture pleased Shevek’s eye at once: the rooms looked austere, spacious, with their expanses of deeply   polished floor. He had always felt uneasy amidst the extravagant decorations and conveniences of the public buildings in which the receptions, dedications, and so forth were held. The Urrasti had taste, but it seemed often to be in conflict with an impulse towards display—conspicuous expense. The natural, aesthetic origin of the desire to own things was concealed and perverted by economic and competitive compulsions, which in turn told on the quality of the things: all they achieved was a kind of mechanical lavishness. Here, instead, was grace, achieved through restraint."


What is striking in this passage is the suggestion that the desire to own things might be “natural.” This statement is at odds with the equation of possession with alienation and a provocation that upsets the notion of renunciation as liberation; it is a seemingly audacious claim that could not have been reasonably made within the broadly Marxian framework of anticonsumerist discourse or radical design theory. Yet placed within the discourse of science-fiction on a distant planet it enables a reframing of Utopian approaches to objects and aesthetics. … Whereas renunciation [is sometime equated with] with salvation and freedom, some of Le Guin’s characters achieve real aesthetic pleasure, satisfaction, and self-realization through their relationship to objects, even their possession, and against the dogma that would label them “propertarian.” 

--The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed   p.105


Is the desire to own things 'natural'?

Does the appreciation of beauty lead to the desire to own things?


Can you be enslaved by luxury?  

Can you be enslaved by scarcity?


Does luxury necessarily mean consumerism?   

Does consumption automatically imply luxury?


Does taking pleasure in owning objects make you a 'propertarian'?

Does renouncing ownership make you 'virtuous'?

Is aesthetic pleasure consumerist or anti-consumerist, or something else?


Is dispossession deprivation or liberation? 

Is possession bewitchment or ownership?



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