Luxury, Glamour, and Power

Politics as logic is scrupulous and tough-minded. Nothing gets past the gatekeeper that is not scrutinized, tested, and proven. Politics as rhetoric on the other hand is handsome and charming, and it’s only later that we realize our wallet is missing.

This is our traditional understanding of the role of glamour in politics: it is the friend of trickery and the demagogue. Virginia Postrel goes straight at the usual logic vs. rhetoric distinction with a broader, more sophisticated view.

In point of fact, we can accept the truth of certain propositions, even worthy, noble ones, without being the least bit interested in embracing them. The trouble is these truths do not make the world more thinkable or habitable, and these conditions are for many political purposes the important ones. As Postrel puts it, “Logic does not make us long for prosperity, freedom, equality, or security.”

The digital community, and especially the gaming community, talks casually about “world building.” This makes the anthropological heart race, not least because the process of building a world is no simple matter at all. Indeed, that’s the mystery. How do we build a world that’s bigger and more lasting than a mere consensus among men and women?

A suspicion presents itself. Politics as logic, politics without rhetoric, is possible but underwhelming because finally it is incapable of eliciting the acts of belief and loyalty on which the state depends. Or to put this another way, all political agreements, however logical, are slender until substantiated. And substantiation is to some extent the work of rhetoric and, yes, glamour.

We sometimes wish it were otherwise. When Nancy Reagan spent $2 million on Lenox china for the White House, the temptation to object was strong. Surely, this was only china and serious minded people believe china can’t matter…and that if it does matter, something must be wrong with the republic. But china, especially because precious and delicate, helped make a presidency and a republic formidable where low and middle church predecessors had made them insubstantial

Tony Blair could use the theater of state so effectively that he could persuade even grumpy Brits to embrace a new idea of what Britain could be. No small accomplishment when most of the members of the body politic embraced cynicism as the fashion of the day.

Other politicians resort to other messages, sometimes even riding shirtless on horseback. Whew. Again, as outsiders we fail to grasp the builder or the built. But then, it’s not meant for us. (And glamour is perhaps not the mot juste here.)

As Postrel points out, logic talks at us whereas rhetoric speaks to us. Logic lectures. Rhetoric communicates. And this means glamour cannot work unless it resonates with the culture and context in place. Well, let’s not go too far. Glamour will not plead or wheedle. No, but it can bully, less democratic than monarchical. Consent? That’s nice, says glamour, but we prefer admiration and occasionally awe.

Ironically, glamour cannot achieve this arrogance unless it knows quite a lot about us and our deeper sense of the world. And this means it is obliged to learn things about us that logic treats as extraneous. Thus does glamour stoop to conquer, kneel to rise. Glamour is grand but wily, a dangerous combo.

It turns out glamour is not a reliable friend to power. It can be treacherous, willful, uncontrolled, removing desire from the service of the state and putting it in the hands of the dissident.

This makes glamour quite different from luxury. Oh, luxury. So obedient to the state. Slavish even. Luxury obeys the distribution of status. As Georg Simmel pointed out, it sets in train the imitation of the high-standing by the low-standing. It makes us want what our betters have, commandeering our aspirations, even our imaginations. Luxury takes an impression of power and preserves it faithfully.

Glamour, on the other hand, can be a rogue quantity. Here it defines itself against power. A suit may be obligatory uptown, but try wearing it to an event downtown: it draws sneers and, worse, giggles. Glamour in one community confesses cluelessness in another. This downtown glamour is designed to repudiate the language and logic of power, to help create an oppositional set of values. And we’re tempted to say this glamour is designed to console the marginal soul, to compensate for their marginality. But this is what people always say, especially when their world has been scorned.

The best example of rogue glamour is Beau Brummell, a man so powerful he dared make fun of the Prince Regent. (Encountering a friend with the prince in tow, Brummell asked, “Who’s your fat friend?”) Brummell was the most powerful man in London precisely because he understood glamour as no one else did. He had only to smile on someone’s fashion choices to elevate them in the social scheme of things. Strictly speaking this had been a monarchical function. You might say, “Oh, but Brummell was forgiven this breach because his abrogated power didn’t matter.” And you’d be wrong. Brummell helps us see that glamour is a staging area of the new as surely as luxury remains the sad little friend of privilege. It is a laboratory in which new social arrangements and cultural codes are proposed. Power rushes to certain kinds of novelty. The masters of glamour manage to get out ahead of the rest of us and occupy a future we are eager to join. Glamour makes a vacuum and this confers majesty, real or metaphorical, legitimate or pretending.

Claude Levi-Strauss identified science as a rogue element in Western, first-world societies, issuing messages unanticipated by the standing code, messages that must eventually run back into the code and transform it. Indeed, in the restless West several things play this role: technology, markets, immigration, innovation. Why are we so reluctant to see that glamour might do so too? There it is at the center of things, a constant, relatively tidy bouleversement that disrupts convention and conventional thinking.

The French geographer and historian Fernand Braudel asked,

Can it have been merely by coincidence that the future was to belong to societies fickle enough to care about changing the colors, materials, and shapes of costume, as well as the social order and the map of the world–societies, that is, which were ready to break with their traditions? There is a connection.[1]

There’s much to do to understand the rhetorical aspects of the state, and the way glamour helps fashion political understanding and consent. Let Virginia Postrel be our guide.



[1] Braudel, Fernand. 1973. Capitalism and Material Life, 1400-1800. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, p. 323.



Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Virginia Postrel argues that it’s a mistake to excise visual appeals from politics. The truth is out there, and yes, we must ultimately rely on empirical work to find it. But to persuade may after all take more than facts and figures. To fight the undeniable glamour of bad public policies, good public policies must respond with a glamour of their own.

Response Essays

  • In the realm of visual persuasion, Grant McCracken distinguishes luxury from glamour. The former, he finds, is the tool of political power: Luxury is obedient to, and intimately connected with, the state. The state’s messages are its own, more or less. Glamour, though, can come from oppositional groups as well as from the center. Quite often, the state’s attempts at glamour backfire, particularly when it misjudges the public mood, or when its messages reach the wrong audience.

  • Autumn Whitefield-Madrano looks at the attractiveness of political officeholders. She connects it to scientific research showing that composite faces, made up of the average of many different people, tend to be rated more attractive than most real-world individuals. She suggests that many people seem to look for a similar kind of average when they choose their representatives. And it shows: Politicians tend strongly to be just kind of nice-looking — neither unattractive nor stunningly beautiful. Is this any way to choose a nation’s leaders?

  • Martin Gurri suggests that the world’s elites have lately lost control over the visual. Anyone can publish images today, and it’s changing the world. Images legitimize, because they help to tell stories, and no social order can sustain itself without stories that justify its existence to the people. But when the people themselves can circulate competing images, they can also circulate some very effective competing stories. It’s not a coincidence, then, that trust in government is at a low ebb around the world today.

    Warning: This essay contains images of graphic violence.