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From waste to collectibles: Boltanski and Esquerre’s sociology of enrichment

About : Luc Boltanski, Arnaud Esquerre, Enrichissement. Une critique de la marchandise, Paris, Gallimard, coll. « NRF Essais », 2017.
Lilian Mathieu (English translation)
Traducción de Josselin Poiret, Zoe Wechler y Lucy Zorzano
Este artículo es una traducción de:
Du déchet à l’objet de collection : la sociologie de l’enrichissement de Luc Boltanski et Arnaud Esquerre
Enrichissement
Luc Boltanski, Arnaud Esquerre, Enrichissement. Une critique de la marchandise, Paris, Gallimard, col. « NRF Essais », 2017, 663 p., ISBN : 978-2-07-014787-8.

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Notas de la redacción

Review essay translated by Josselin Poiret (ENS de Lyon) and Zoe Wechler (Columbia University, Barnard College), Lucy Zorzano (Columbia University, Barnard College) as part of the Transatlantic Collaborative Translation Workshop between Barnard College-Columbia University and the École normale supérieure de Lyon. Supervised by Professors Laurie Postlewate (Barnard-Columbia) & Layla Roesler (ENS de Lyon).

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1Raymond Hurlejaume, the owner of the only department store in the small town of the Charente region in France where Femmes blafardes –a detective novel by Pierre Siniac – takes place, advertises his merchandise by maintaining that the goods are the very ones sought by high society (“a model of the most chic pieces first worn last September by princess Caroline of Transylvania at the Miami regattas”). Though a fictional character, Raymond Hurlejaume is a capitalist trailblazer. From the beginning of the 1980’s, this character anticipated what can be described as one of the most powerful strategies of contemporary capitalism, consisting of enhancing the value of goods through a narrative, in this case a narrative of exceptional beings with whom the consumer can associate through the product. Raymond Hurlejaume made use of this modality of value-enhancement called the “trend form” (detailed below) that Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre introduce in Enrichissement.

2The term enrichment (enrichissement) takes on several meanings throughout the book. One of them describes the way in which merchandise is allotted a price as it is exchanged through a commercial transaction – a process that is fundamental to economics, but to which Boltanski and Esquerre bring sociological reasoning. Enrichment also denotes the process through which the rich build and maintain their wealth by increasing the value of the material goods they possess. In a context of growing wealth inequality, this is a theme worthy of attention. In both cases, the central problem is the value of possessions owned and exchanged: far from being the inexorable result of impersonal economic mechanisms, that value mobilizes complex social processes, which today relate to an economy of enrichment. The book aims to describe them in detail.

An investigation into the trading of goods

3Enrichissement presents a systematic theoretical structure supported by the same innovative conceptual vocabulary that can be found in other works co-authored by Luc Boltanski, most notably Le nouvel esprit du capitalisme, to which Enrichissement is a complement. And yet, Boltanski and Esquerre’s model is neither abstract nor speculative: it is substantiated by extensive quantitative and qualitative data, including a study of the transformation of industrial buildings into heritage sites in Arles, and another investigation into the value enhancement of Laguiole knives in the Aveyron region. Enrichissement, like Le nouvel esprit, sets out to provide elements to help understand the ongoing transformations of capitalism. But where the latter focused on the realm of production, the former focuses on that of trade.

4However, the issue of production is not neglected. Rejecting the thesis that our societies have already become post-industrial, Boltanski and Esquerre remind us that we remain, more than ever, in a commodified world. The most commonly procured goods in the Western Hemisphere are now manufactured abroad at a lower cost. This cost-lowering method was capitalism’s way out, following the crisis of the 1960s and 70s, which forced it to grant new rights and benefits to workers. Offshoring, as we know, helped disable labor activism, by replacing western workers (doomed to unemployment) by non-unionized workers from low-wage countries. Some goods are still produced and exchanged in our societies, however, they exhibit prices that are unusually high, considering the way value creation is traditionally viewed. It is this peculiarity that Boltanski and Esquerre attempt to dispel by identifying a new form of market assessment based on narrativization. In this way, the prices of some goods are increased by a value attributed to them through a narrative of exceptionality that highlights their historic importance, the originality of their creator, the rarity of their place of origin, the reputation of their previous owner, the specifics of their “career as an object”, etc.

5It is important at this stage to present the principal axes of the theoretical model developed in Enrichissement. The price of a commodity is a sign established during an exchange based on a certain metric (most commonly, currency). As such, the price of an item differs from its value, which is multifaceted and refers to the “being” of the thing (when, for example, it has an emotional value, for example, which distinguishes it from other identical things and which is not reflected in the monetary price). The value of the product under consideration is determined from its “meta-prices”, that is, the various perceptible forms that the value assumes before the exchange. These can include the price one is prepared to pay for the coveted thing, the price at which one could potentially resell it, the price fixed in relation to a formal valuation, or the price determined by whether one wishes to acquire it for practical use or to include it in a collection, etc. A meta-price appears above all during the process of the actual exchange, which is different every time, whether to justify the price or to challenge it.

6The existence of multiple meta-prices shows there are coexisting ways to evaluate the price of goods on the market. Boltanski and Esquerre call them forms of value-enhancement, of which they identify four types. The standard form has been the most common since the beginning of the industrial age. This form applies mainly to interchangeable items whose prices are low because of the reduced costs inherent in mass production. The price of the commodity corresponds to its wear: maximal when it is new, and diminishing with use (used cars are a good example), until it becomes unfit for resale. The collection form gives or restores lost value by placing items within a set, and is most effective when stimulating the feeling of incompleteness: “this beer bottle cap may seem like a piece of garbage but I am prepared to pay a pretty penny for it because it is precisely the one that is missing from my collection”. Favored by Raymond Hurlejaume, the “forme tendance” gives value to items by connecting them to a form of exceptionality in those who produce or use them, but also by inscribing them in a specific temporality: the same goods can be transferred from trendy avant-garde to mass distribution, going out of fashion before eventually being rediscovered and revalued as vintage. Finally, the active form concerns items bought for resale, either in the short-term or in the distant future as part of an estate. These are, of course, idealized situations, as, in reality, most transactions are compromises between these four forms - when objects sold in the standard form pass from the status of trash to that of sought-after object (the junky old car becomes a collector’s car, the house in shambles gains charm and character), or when works of contemporary art (whose status and exchanges are amply studied in Enrichissement) are acquired both as part of a collection and as assets.

Enrichment through narrative

7In the standard form, goods allow for a small margin on each unit sold, but a huge margin is possible when items are distributed in very large quantities. This profit-logic has not disappeared, but it was displaced at the end of the 20th century by a delocalization of production units, facilitated by the increased mobility of capital. Though in some instances dated, the other forms of valorization have indisputably seen a recent and considerable development (the authors notably refer to the character Cousin Pons, the archetypal art collector depicted by Balzac in his eponymous novel). Boltanski and Esquerre join these forms by the same logic of enhancing the value of singular objects, whose elevated price is justified through a specific narrative, often through the angle of nostalgia or heritage. Hence, it is not the newest object that is given the highest price, on the contrary, it is rather the object’s age, and more precisely how it exists in a memorialized past, that justifies the elevated price at which it is sold. This old farmhouse is not simply a discarded building: it is typical of its region with unrivaled landscapes and the house’s atmosphere transports you to a forgotten past under its old beams. This watch is not an interchangeable mass-produced item that indicates the time of day; it is an extremely rare collector’s model now worn by a movie star. Although these forms of valorization are most often reserved for a wealthy clientele, it is clear that marketing strategies often make use of these forms as well to promote everyday consumer goods by underlining certain factors: the prestige associated with the endurance of a brand through its date of establishment, its roots in tradition (“prepared using an ancestral recipe”, etc.), its consumption by celebrities who are paid to support the brand through advertising, etc.

8These new value-enhancing forms hinge on the participation of different narration specialists such as historians (able to reveal the rich history of a particular region, the glorious past of a particular site, etc.), journalists, advertisers, and those who are generally referred to as “creators”, who bring originality to the products that they (re)invent or promote. The book sheds a critical light on what is often hastily referred to as the “creative class” by underlining both their vulnerability in terms of their status (freelancers, temporary workers, etc.) and their internal heterogeneity. It also intends to elucidate the fragile social conditions of graduates subjected to self-exploitation by this economy of enrichment. Making use of the goldmine that is nostalgia for the past opens up new potential income sources – for instance when a flat located in a historical district is rented out to tourists – and contributes to one of the main concerns of this book: understanding the ways in which the wealthy continue to increase their net worth and how their purchases do not impoverish them but add to their wealth, as their very status adds value to their own purchases.

Understanding the enrichment of the rich

9Enrichissement is a key contribution to the understanding of many ongoing economic and social transformations. The book sheds light on numerous objects and domains of research including the process of gentrification, the transformation of industrial wasteland into heritage property, the transformation of rural spaces (including the transformation of “peasants” into “farmers” and then into “landscapers”), the propensity of wealthy patrons to invest in contemporary art, fashion phenomena/trends, advertisements, tourism, the social usage of history and culture, collections (of stamps or of anything else), and, as mentioned, professionally (financially) unstable “intellectuals”. The authors must also be applauded for their ambition – evident since Boltanski’s Le nouvel esprit du capitalisme – to dispute the economy’s privileged objects and to discuss its canonic approaches (both neoclassical and Marxist) through a sociological lens. As such, the seemingly oxymoronic notion of pragmatic structuralism, outlined in the conclusion of the book, opens up to an invaluable explanation of the sociological approach, concerned with articulating the competencies of participants and structural constraints, an approach which has inspired Boltanski’s work for several years.

10This sociological ambition is not without normative input and includes a critique of contemporary capitalism intended to supplement the book by taking apart the mechanisms of growing inequalities. This book dissects the new reasoning of a system of valorization that relies on the value-enhancement of a legacy of material goods, rejecting a denunciation of neoliberalism exclusively focused on financial capitalism and its speculative downfall. Similarly, this work underlines the extent to which the contempt (frequently underpinned by a reactionary nostalgia for the “real” industrious people) for those involved in this value-enhancement and stigmatized as “hipsters”, misconstrues the forms and consequences of their instability.

11The systematic nature of Boltanski and Esquerre’s argument is undoubtedly counterbalanced by a certain simplification. For example, the relocation of standard form production will not necessarily be as massive as they assume. Inversely, the ecological stakes, which are mentioned, but barely included in the analysis, seem underestimated, whether from the point of view of the recycling of objects that have become waste, or from the occupation of rural areas which, in many regions, remain places of production (including in standard form) and are not limited solely to their dimension as heritage sites. Finally, one might have expected a closer, or more head-on, discussion of the Bourdieusian theory of distinction which, on these issues, constitutes a major point of reference. The minor reservations expressed here, for the most part inherent to the form of the subject, do not in any way lessen the necessity of a text such as this one: Enrichissement is a book from which one emerges sociologically enriched.

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Referencia electrónica

Lilian Mathieu (English translation), « From waste to collectibles: Boltanski and Esquerre’s sociology of enrichment », Lectures [En línea], Notas críticas, Publicado el 21 enero 2021, consultado el 03 agosto 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lectures/46870 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/lectures.46870

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Redactor

Lilian Mathieu (English translation)

Research head at the CNRS and member of the Max Weber Centre at the ENS of Lyon.

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© Lectures - Toute reproduction interdite sans autorisation explicite de la rédaction / Any replication is submitted to the authorization of the editors

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