U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Books that Changed Their Minds: Veblen’s Iconoclasm

Thorstein Veblen seemed from the first like a good place to begin this series on “Books that Changed Their Minds.” His most famous work, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) was the oldest of the books featured in Malcolm Cowley’s 1938 New Republic forum that I’m using as my springboard,[1] and, along with John Dewey, he was the only author to have five titles on the longer list that Cowley assembled. (For the curious: Walter Lippmann, Bertrand Russell, Alfred North Whitehead, and Beatrice & Sidney Webb were the only others with as many as three titles listed.)

But as I discovered while reading more of the essays in the New Republic forum, and while thinking and reading more about the reception of Veblen during these years, 1900-1940, I recognized that Veblen is a fine place to start not just because of the prominence of his ideas and his texts, but because he can truly be taken as typical of a shallowness in the circulation of intellectuals and their texts during this time, and more particularly in the way they articulated what a “change of mind” entailed.

Initially, I had thought that the keyword in the forum’s title “Books That Changed Our Minds” was “mind”—how was the “American Mind” or even just “Our Minds” defined—who was included, who was excluded, how was it contrasted or connected to a “European Mind” or a “Communist Mind” or a “Fascist Mind?” But I now realize that the definition of “change” might be equally significant.

When I charge Cowley et al., with shallowness, it may well be that shallowness is intrinsic to curated lists and symposia like The New Republic’s (not that a blog post is going to be any deeper!), but I think it is also a feature especially marked during this time in the way “iconoclasts” like Veblen or Dreiser were elevated to sainthood, to a kind of exemplary irascibility and a holy, higher foolishness. In other words, what makes Veblen so vital to a project like Cowley’s is his paradigmatic status as a cause of minds changing upon contact with a text, or more accurately, upon contact with a kind of vital personal force that can be felt behind a text. This changing of one’s mind is most generally described as a liberation or an emancipation, a very odd locution given that what is being described is not just a throwing off of a previous intellectual “master,” but the eager self-indenturing to another.

Readers of Veblen like Rexford Tugwell, who wrote the New Republic forum’s essay on Veblen from late March 1939, or James Rorty or Stuart Chase were proud acolytes; acknowledging the extent to which his ideas molded their own was a badge of honor rather than an admission of unoriginality. That hardly seems like a “liberation.”

The paradoxical use of the language of emancipation to describe this breaking of a former intellectual subordination in order to form a new one directs us to think about how far this dynamic departs from the master-slave relationship of Hegel, how undialectical their idea of iconoclasm really is. What really marks most of this kind of autobiographical account of the “books that changed our minds” is the absolute linearity of their conception of change: readers jump from one intellectual master to another, like a cowboy performing a rodeo trick, leaping from horseback into a new saddle on the next horse.

Veblen is a perfect case study for this dynamic—or at any rate his readers make him into a perfect case study. Their accounts of Veblen emphasize four things: his martyrdom, his resolute defiance of his martyrdom, his resistance to writing in a way that courted comprehension, and his ultimate vindication by the course of events.

Effectively summarized, this was the story: Veblen was a stubborn man—made stubborn by circumstance but remaining stubborn by choice. Tugwell writes “he remained a stranger; when conciliatory gestures were made in his direction he chose to ignore them… secretly he had no doubt of his own superiority, although unpleasant experience had taught him the folly of revealing it. Indeed, it was the fear of ridicule that caused him to adopt the mask of irony and indifference he wore throughout his life.”[2] He was seldom if ever given a hearing among the established social scientific journals and elites of his day (and he was even driven from two universities for his heterodox personal conduct), but he refused to acknowledge the utility of a little careerism, and his indifference won him an audience among a younger generation. Here’s John Dos Passos:

Veblen /  asked too many questions, suffered from a constitutional inability to say yes. / Socrates asked questions, drank down the bitter drink one night when the first cock crowed, / but Veblen / drank it in little sips through a long life in the stuffiness of classrooms, the dust of libraries, the staleness of cheap flats such as a poor instructor can afford.

The greatest sign of Veblen’s “constitutional inability to say yes” was his constitutional inability to write invitingly. His prose was legendary for its opacity and its demandingness; Dos Passos described it as “long spiral sentences, reiterative like the eddas. His language was a mixture of mechanics’ terms, scientific latinity, slang, and Roget’s Thesaurus.” At one time, a professor at Amherst suggested that the requirement of Greek and Latin be supplanted by a course in Veblen: the students would still get the discipline of translating something difficult into English, and they might learn something relevant.

Comprehensible or no, what his acolytes had gleaned from his works was amply substantiated by events taking place only a couple months after he had died in August 1929. Veblen was remembered by many of his students as one of the few believers in the business cycle; Joseph Dorfman, one of his first biographers, quotes Stuart Chase’s glee at the vindication of Veblen’s morose prophecies: “Day by day, as the depression deepens, the soundness of his analysis, the awful import of his prophecy, becomes more apparent. It is a pity that he should not have been spared to witness, a faint, sardonic smile upon his lips, the brood of black ravens which have come to roost.”[3]

Throughout, what I think we see is that Veblen’s “iconoclasm” is praised not for the vigor of its engagement with the leading ideas of his time, but for the purity of its aloofness. Opposite to the master-slave dialectic, recognition is never even struggled over, but is disdained; what is desired is not really victory but vindication, not self-consciousness but self-justification.

I’m obviously being very hard on the Veblenites here, and I’d be very happy to hear some more charitable readings, but it seems to me that the “change” that is indicated in the “Books that Changed Our Minds” is a pretty airy one, so insubstantial that I have trouble seeing where the “change” actually occurs.

[1] Frederick Jackson Turner’s essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” was published in 1893, but it was not collected in a book until 1920, and that book, The Frontier in American History, is technically what Charles Beard addressed in the New Republic forum. An interesting side-note: The Nation’s review of The Frontier in American History ran side-by-side with its November 1920 review of Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street.

[2] Tugwell’s explanation for the origins of this stubbornness leaves much to be desired: “His smoldering animus is easily understood if it is kept in mind that he came of foreign peasant stock and that he grew up in the Midwest of the seventies and eighties.”

[3] This was written in June 1932, when over a third of non-farm employees were out of work. A great time for gloating.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Great stuff, here. Do you know Colin Campbell’s The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism? He goes in hard against Veblen’s love of tautology and the strange phenomenon of TV readers not seeming to notice that TV just shifts the sociological dynamic over one column, without penetrating deeper into structure or motivation:

    E.g.: “Veblen assumes that changes in patterns of visible consumption derive from an attempt to aspire to higher social status simply on the grounds that consumption is a form of behaviour which has significance as an indicator of status, but those who use his theory often write as if he had proved that modern consumers act out of emulative motives. Veblen did not, in fact, provide much evidence of people’s motives.”


    “His theory of conspicuous consumption -which intriguingly seems to have been inspired by a traditional ritual in the first place – applies with equal force to all human communities, members of tribal, non-literate societies being just as prone to engage in intense status-competition as any individuals in contemporary society, whilst all communities encourage people to live up to ideals.

    Why then is it commonly thought that Veblen’s theory provides an answer to the problem of the dynamic of modern consumerism? For the truth is that his approach only appears to offer an explanation for the extraordinary insatiability which is such a marked feature of this pattern. In so far as Veblen’s theory rests upon the assumption that modern consumers are all committed to a policy of aggressive conspicuous consumption, then *one form of insatiability is only ‘explained’ in terms of the problematic assumption of another;* in this case the claim that *people are motivated by an overwhelming desire to get the better of their fellows,* a *psychological reductionism *about as useful (and convincing) as the older explanation of *insatiable consumption as motivated by greed.*

    If, on the other hand, ‘defensive’ conspicious consumption is assumed to be widespread, then some other factor must be invoked to explain how change is introduced into the system.”

    (emphases added)

  2. This was a fun read, Andrew. Your description of Veblen’s mystique reminds me a little bit of contemporary buzz over Zizek. There is — or maybe was — a definite bad-boy vibe to Veblen’s “vital personal force” coming through in or behind the prose (and, as you noted, some real-life bad-boy behavior to go with it).

    I have enjoyed reading Veblen, and don’t find him off-putting on the page — good intellectual company, and often very funny, though not unfailingly so. But the idea of acolytes aspiring to be “Veblenesque” strikes me as a little sad. It’s like Potsie and Ralph mimicking the Fonz or something. Yeah, the Fonz is performing his coolness (his coolness being nonchalantly performed nonchalance) — but mimicking someone else’s performance of coolness is the very opposite of cool. Alas, being ironically aware of the uncoolness of their mimicry of coolness wouldn’t make the Veblen (or Zizek?) acolytes cool. I think it would just make them hipsters.

  3. I’ll attempt just a brief bit of a more charitable reading, putting aside his personal temperament and idiosyncrasies.

    Thorstein Veblen, unlike his contemporaries involved in the ideological “reconstruction of American liberalism” (in the face of unprecedented corporate power), like Walter Weyl or Herbert Croly, proffers a full-fledged social theory with normative assumptions about human nature and motivation derived from his beliefs about human evolution and “instinctive” propensities and behavior shaped by social norms, customs, and habits. Veblen focused largely on three major instincts: “workmanship, the parental bent, and idle curiosity.” So if we’re interested in his theory of motivation, we need to look at his social theory in toto, not just the Theory of the Leisure Class (1899). His theory of social change is a species of technological determinism softened by “the institutions and instinctive proclivities of a people.” A nice introduction to his insights into the use of credit, the nature of corporate capital, and the dynamics of business crises or depressions, is found in Scott R. Bowman’s The Modern Corporation and American Political Thought: Law, Power, Ideology (1996). In the end, as Bowman points out, we’re left with a rather unsatisfying Liberal apologia for technocracy (a ‘soviet of technicians’) and an “indictment of business enterprise from the standpoint of efficiency” (the latter concept being notoriously slippery and vague in meaning).

    While it is true that is notion of pecuniary emulation has geo-historical antecedents in “ancient liturgies or the potlatches of northwest coastal Indians” (Nicholas Xenos) and should be read alongside Georg Simmel’s sociological treatment of fashion, Veblen did attempt to identify what was unique about “conspicuous consumption” in the early twentieth century in the U.S. and modern urban societies generally (it’s rather remarkable how prescient he was here). In Scarcity and Modernity (1989), Nicholas Xenos has a useful discussion of Veblen’s work in this regard. The “utility of the purposive destruction of wealth…in the struggle for social recognition” is indeed not unique to modern period. Our age (the bourgeois era), however, is distinguished from its predecessors by
    “the universal character such expenditures assume in a nominally egalitarian age without fixed boundaries to social status. The other is the bad conscience that exists in relation to these displays…[rooted as it is] within the logic of the accumulation of wealth. On the one hand, the modern age spawns an ethic of saving in accordance with the accumulation of wealth necessary to challenge aristocratic social domination. Often, this ethic entails the notion of a moral superiority. Such a self-conception corresponds to the one made familiar by Max Weber’s influential Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. On the one hand, as Adam Smith and David Hume emphasized, conspicuous display plays an important functional role in generating wealth in a commercial society, spurring social emulation and inspiring everyone to accumulate wealth in order to spend it on their own display [Cf. Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees… in which there is a keen appreciation of the transformation of the deadly sin of “envy” into modern virtue]. Under such circumstances, the two imperatives –the one toward accumulation, the other toward expenditure—are bound to come into periodic conflict. As a result, the bourgeois age is never entirely comfortable with the universe of conspicuous consumption it has engendered.”

    Xenos proceeds to point out that that “it is not the scarcity of certain objects that determines their status as luxury items; it is their status as luxury items that renders them scarce objects.” Post-industrial or turbo-capitalism both creates and sustains the propitious conditions that fuel the social underpinnings of the relentless preoccupation with fashion and corresponding conspicuous consumption as “a search for something new in order to set the fashionable apart from everyone else. [….] The thing’s value does not lie in its scarcity, but only in the social significance its scarcity has for its possessor [of course actual ‘scarcity’ would only enhance such value]. [….] For a brief moment, an object that exists in great quantity may attain to the level of fashion when it is incorporated into a particular style that transforms it, makes it no longer ordinary. When this occurs, it makes no sense to say that the object has a scarcity value—although once the fashion has caught on there may be a temporary lack of available supply of it to satisfy an unexpected fashion demand. What does have a scarcity value is the transforming style itself: the object in its fashionable surrounding becomes scarce because only some people have the stylistic acumen to display it in a particular way. In this sense, the stylish always possess a scarce resource independent of the things themselves that they make fashionable. The emulation that is typical of modernity and is institutionalized in fashion can be characterized as an effort not only—or not at all—to possess what others possess, but to imitate their style. [….] Fashion advertising, like much advertising in general, is selling a style of consumption, not only the particular good contained within a photograph.”

    Xenos notes how difficult it is in our time in place to create a “unique” personal identity because the anonymous quality of modernity “nudges the individual toward external signs in order to be recognized, which necessitates the development of a common sign system. That means that the individual’s choice of signs is circumscribed, limited by available permutations of the social code. Within that code, individual differentiation is always relative, being established through distinction form some other person or group. So the identities of individuals, transmitted through external signs, are a function of the sign system itself….”

    An artist like, say, Andy Warhol, is able to distinguish himself “because he is adept at manipulating an existing code,” not because the persona we see expressed in his style is represents “some genuine or authentic self that is unique,” in other words it is not product of the creative self-discovery or self-expression that is associated with moral, psychological, and spiritual individuation or creative regression or sublimation. This clever or stylistic manipulation of the code of signs would appear to deny the possibility of a periodic transcendence through art of the brutalism, the hedonic sensualism, the crass commercialism, and technocratic utilitarianism of (post) modern society (see Donald Kuspit’s The End of Art).

    Both Simmel and Veblen understood how the acceleration of changes in fashion are “attributable to the instability built into the fashion code as a result of the relative character of positions within it. The struggle to establish one’s identity and position is ceaseless because there are no objectively fixed statuses, but the struggle tends to reproduce the de facto statuses that do exist. The wealthier find it easier to shift their consumption from one set of objects to another than do those with less wealth. A competitive hierarchy is established, with no rest for anyone but with real upward movement forestalled—the dynamism of individual and group aspirations is thus institutionalized into a form of social stasis.” Xenos here and elsewhere provides us with a taste of the value of Veblen’s work for those seeking to understand the struggle for competitive identity, the cultivation of style, emulation of the objects of elite consumption, the construction of scarcity, the precarious status and anxieties of a middle class “poised uneasily between relationally defined extremes and where catching up to the styles previously adopted by those above instantaneously results in the debasement of those same styles….” I suspect Veblen might also enable us to see how an ethic of “transgression for transgression’s sake” might be symptomatic of a futile attempt at an egalitarian (or democratic) and novel code manipulation, of yet another feeble attempt at individual differentiation and distinction through signs.

  4. Thanks so much to all three of you! I am very grateful for the citations of Campbell and Xenos, especially, but there is a great deal here to chew over.

    I read Veblen as a bit more of a materialist than Campbell seems to be allowing for here: I’ll have to read Campbell, but I tend to see Veblen’s tautologies as matters of bad style rather than a genuine conceptual error. (Bad style indicates bad thought, but maybe not that kind of bad thought). And while it’s certainly easy to see why essentially everyone (especially the Veblenites) has read Veblen as a psychological reductionist obsessed with motives, because I see him as a materialist, I think he is more interested in habitual strategies, in patterns of behavior that are irrationally consistent not because they keep coming from the same motives, but because they are path-dependent means of coping with very slowly changing material conditions. There are undeniably ideas about a human nature present, but I don’t think Veblen traces a straight line from these “human nature” factors to manifested motivations. I may try to say more about this in a future post, but for now I’m really grateful that you’ve pointed me to Campbell!

    I definitely have a greater appreciation for Veblen than for the Veblenites, but what’s unusual, I think, about the relationship between Veblen and his disciples is that they seemed to enjoy his outlawry vicariously: most of them actually had really successful careers, with a lot of early, rather easy recognition. In other words, they fetishized Veblen’s outlawry, but never had to emulate it, and certainly didn’t choose to. Not that they should have, but there is a certain irony to Brain Trusters finding Veblen’s professional marginalization to be one of his most glorious achievements.

    Thank you very much for these quotes and for your explanation and defense of Veblen. I absolutely agree that Theory of the Leisure Class is not the last word on Veblen’s ideas–interestingly, Tugwell focuses on Theory of Business Enterprise–but I wasn’t trying so much to call Veblen into question as shallow: just his first forty or so years of readers!

  5. Well, judging Veblen by what a bunch of biographers once said is never going to be very satisfying. “Throughout, what I think we see is that Veblen’s “iconoclasm” is praised not for the vigor of its engagement with the leading ideas of his time, but for the purity of its aloofness.” Veblen very much did engage the “leading ideas” of his time, but he mostly did so in articles rather than in his books. For instance, he vociferous critique of his former teacher John Bates Clark would qualify as exactly the sort of “engagement with the leading ideas of his time” you are looking for. Today, Michael Hudson probably provides one of the best summaries of the great theoretical insights Veblen offered. http://michael-hudson.com/2012/07/veblens-institutionalist-elaboration-of-rent-theory/

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