The Hipster Labor of Conspicuous Leisure

Thorstein Veblen’s greatest conceptual achievement was conspicuous consumption, a term that has passed into general common sense. But on my reading, his discussion of conspicuous leisure resonated more with the contemporary moment. These terms are, of course, interrelated: for Veblen, conspicuous consumption serves to indicate one’s conspicuous leisure time, and therefore the absence of any need to produce. Both amount to displays of waste:

“…the utility of both alike for the purposes of reputability lies in the element of waste that is common to both. In the one case it is a waste of time and effort, in the other it is a waste of goods. Both are methods of demonstrating the possession of wealth, and the two are conventionally accepted as equivalents” (53).

Veblen saw conspicuous consumption of goods eclipsing conspicuous leisure: as goods grew more numerous, and as the “instinct to workmanship” mitigated any advances in noble indolence, conspicuous leisure would be overtaken by conspicuous consumption. But he overstated the case, particularly when consumerism is as full of “experiences” as objects. From paintball to cooking classes to luxury cruises, 21st century leisure is a fully documented, and therefore comparative, pursuit. Curated on Flickr and Facebook for public display, they are, to use Veblen’s characteristically caustic mode of understatement, conspicuous wastes of time all of them.

The need to re-evaluate conspicuous leisure emerges at a point where consumption is being rebranded. Under the weight of negative broadsides against alienation, wastefulness, and exploitation, conspicuous consumption, particularly among the 21st century leisure class, has slid into its dialectical complement: conspicuous underconsumption. Efficient cars, low-carbon diets, vegan muffins – these goods vaunt not their waste but their conspicuous lack of it. The regime of self-abnegation of the contemporary ruling class, its desires to simplify lifestyles, return to authenticity in the form of natural, recycled, and otherwise “ethical” products, is transparently the same old madness in new clothes: Steve Jobs’ simple and casual turtleneck.

Leisure, a social practice and not an object, underpins this kind of conspicuous ethical consumption. But rather than take leisure at Veblen’s word, we should bring a few more points of view to the table to enrich our understanding of leisure. A series of radical critiques of leisure emerged in the century after Veblen, with analysis sharply at odds with his own pronouncements. Leisure, rather than waste, was understood as an actual part of the labor process, an essential function of workers under consumer capitalist economies. In a late essay, Theodor Adorno dubbed free time “a continuation of the forms of profit-oriented social life” (189). Industries commercialized leisure, making free time “nothing more than a shadowy continuation of labour” (194). The Situationists similarly pointed out that leisure exists “in an uneasy and admiring submission to the requirements and consequences of the production system”: “Thus, what is referred to as a ‘liberation from work,’ namely the modern increase in leisure time, is neither a liberation of work itself nor a liberation from the world shaped by this kind of work” (Debord 26). Leisure is an empty fetish, an impoverished, alienated husk of what it promises to be, and what it once was for the privileged few.

What is interesting about Veblen’s take is how little the essential content of leisure matters to his analysis. Whether an alienated commodity or a fully authentic creative experience, the relevant measure of leisure is that it is comparative, competitive – it therefore must be conspicuous. Adorno, remarking upon the “hobbyist” artist that “What they create has something superfluous about it,” which for him indicates “the inferior quality of the product” (193). For Veblen, this superfluity is precisely the point, as a demonstration of the measure of one’s independence from productive work.

And so a tension between the two positions emerges: what is the nature of the “productivity” of leisure that so disturbs Adorno and Debord, and appears as leisure’s competitive aspect to Veblen? It is a specific kind of work itself. Veblen’s division of labor is a primarily a performative one. Certain occupations lend themselves particularly well to displays of inutility: cultural ones such as religion, artistry, and, with a dose of self-reflective irony, scholarship. Productivity in these cases is measured by “immaterial goods”:

“The criteria of a past performance of leisure therefore commonly take the form of ‘immaterial’ goods. Such immaterial evidences of past leisure are quasi-scholarly or quasi-artistic accomplishments and a knowledge of processes and incidents which do not conduce directly to the furtherance of human life” (29).

In other words, knowledge of trivia, connoisseurship, and endeavors into art-making take on the characteristic of goods used in performative display. Other personal attributes — “manners and breeding, polite usage, decorum, and formal and ceremonious observances generally” – work in a similar fashion. Knowledge of the obscure, a distinct bend towards the artistic, a mastery of codes for social interaction – what Veblen describes sounds uncannily like the 21st century figure of the hipster.[1] As Mark Greif describes it,

The hipster is that person, overlapping with the intentional dropout or the unintentionally declassed individual—the neo-bohemian, the vegan or bicyclist or skatepunk, the would-be blue-collar or postracial twentysomething, the starving artist or graduate student—who in fact aligns himself both with rebel subculture and with the dominant class, and thus opens up a poisonous conduit between the two.

What is crucial for Greif, for all his begrudging affection, is that the hipster appropriates the practices of oppositional cultures in ways that open them up to the kind of commodification bemoaned by Adorno and Debord. And similarly, Greif concludes his essay with a yearning for hipsters to pursue this opposition authentically, via politics, rather than through consumption. But we should push his description in another direction, and see hipsters not merely as conspicuous consumers, as Greif does, but also as workers engaged in productive activity. Rather than classify hipsters as a form of consumer, we might appropriate another definition: that of the “creative class” of culture workers described by Richard Florida, whose chief function is developing new avenues of consumption, including leisure.

Take, for example, a work from the poster child of hipster literature, Tao Lin. The plot of Shoplifting From American Apparel, whose main character Sam is clearly autobiographical, is certainly suffused with apparently non-productive consumption of time. The book opens with Sam awaking at 3:30 PM and chatting online with a friend. “You know those people that get up every day, and do things,” the friend muses. “And like get things done, and never quit their jobs. Those people suck” (14). Here is a clear echo of what Veblen identifies as the leisure class’s “sense of the unworthiness of productive work” (28). “We get shit done too,” Sam protests, “Look at our books.” “I know, but that brings in no money.” This ambivalent relationship to productive labor lurks in the background of Lin’s book. Sam gets a job at a vegan restaurant, but doesn’t do any work outside of showing up to a company party. He shoplifts, less out of need than from boredom. The rest of the plot floats listlessly between beds and parties in an ether of flat affect.

Shoplifting ends with Sam in Florida, watching bands at a house party. He has been invited to give a reading. In the book’s last lines, a girl asks him what he wanted to be when he grew up. “Marine biologist,” he replies. And so a book of leisure is bookended by commentaries on work. Indeed, Sam’s life of idleness is a kind of work itself, the labor required of artists who must also be hipsters, who must conspicuously consume leisure in order to produce valuable immaterial goods in a competitive marketplace. Sam’s voluminous online chatting occurs while he pecks away at some poetry; the parties he attend raise his profile among celebrities and cognoscenti; his trip to Florida one of business, not pleasure, at least not exclusively. The autobiographical nature of the book works along these lines as well: Sam’s exploits in petty thievery are lifted in exact detail from Lin’s own life – shoplifting becomes the groundwork for the plot of Lin’s novel, a kind of creative labor. Sam is an updated version of Paul Auster’s author-characters, but rather than emphasizing the isolation of writing, Sam shows the transformation of cultural work into that of conspicuous leisure.

In the dialectical transformation of leisure into labor, the hipster becomes worker by way of conspicuous, compulsory, wastes of time. The creative class is one that is perpetually on the clock, the collapse of the distinction between labor and leisure that the Situationists demanded realized in perverse form. But if indeed the hipster works, then in what sense does the term “leisure class” actually apply?

Here Veblen’s account of vicarious leisure is most instructive. According to Veblen, “there arises a subsidiary or derivative leisure class, whose office is the performance of a vicarious leisure for the behoof of the reputability of the primary or legitimate leisure class” (37). He is describing the servant classes of the wealthy, who engage in non-industrious pursuits such as gardening and taking care of animals, often in an ostentatious uniform. Today they are known as the service sector. “[T]he leisure of the servant class exempt from productive labour is in some sort a performance exacted from them, and is not normally or primarily directed to their own comfort. The leisure of the servant is not his own leisure” (38). So in effect there are two leisure classes: a legitimate ruling class and its low-paid near-parodic imitation. And so we might consider two types of hipster: those trendsetters who have no need for remunerative work – think of the billionaire Olsen twins as style icons, Seagram’s heir Ben Bronfman starting bands and record labels. And then there are the less-well-off creatives consigned to the service sector until they “make it”: waiting tables until their acting career takes off, doing graphic design work until the DJ gigs pay the rent, sponging off credit cards and student loans during the rough patches. Their leisure is their work, and their (poorly paid) work is leisure, and this all stems from the necessity of pecuniary emulation of the true leisure class. It’s a sad state of affairs — for Veblen, nothing more than advanced barbarism.



[1] Veblen even refers to the fad for “limited edition” books among the leisure class (99), which echoes the similar hipster craze for limited edition books, records, clothes, etc.


Work Cited

Adorno, Theodor. “Free Time” in The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture. Trans. London: Routledge. 2001. pp. 1987-197.

Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. New York: Zone Books, 1995.

Lin, Tao. Shoplifting from American Apparel. New York: Melville House, 2009.

Veblen, Thorstein. Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Dover Publications, 1994.

Gavin Mueller is a Doctoral Student in the Cultural Studies Program at George Mason University.

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