The construction of desire

The construction of desire

Reflections on luxury

Article published in Want Magazine

Contrary to the commonly held belief, the etymology of the word luxury, "LUV" in Greek, refers to what is loosened, separated, dislocated or out of joint—and which, moved thus, finds itself in excess; an instance of disorder and debauchery. Nothing throws luxury back to light (Lux, Greek root LEUK- or in Latin LUC-)…nothing except an imaginary construction into Western culture--especially in Europe where it is associated with the luster of that which shines.


Today, luxury, generates its attraction from what is “sub-lime” (past the limit) in it: what is illegitimate to portray, what the social norm excludes from representation, and therefore invites the representation of. By definition, what is beyond the range is distance, unattainable.

The industry of luxury is based on the sublime, meaning the artificial creation of a distance that signifies that something is hard to attain, which therefore makes it rare, and exclusive. It is however, a dialectic; luxury isn't unattainable, since it can be bought, and the desired objects can be obtained. Luxury creates the conditions for a perpetual tension between what is possible and what isn't, between what is unattainable but at the same time, procurable. In the same way, luxury plays with what it hidden to all but a select few, but at the same time shown, because it must be staged, offered to view, known by all, to attain its luxurious status in the eyes of society.

Indeed, in luxury, what is desired is the desire of others, the manifestation of one's singularity, one's difference, displayed publicly. The communication campaigns where stars and celebrities are shown as icons surrounded by luxurious objects constitute one of the best examples of this rarity, shown to the masses.


Luxury in folks form of eternal/Free of the constrictions of time desire which final goal is to defy the rules of its time, even today when the economy of exchange is (over which fashion is superimposed) has become instantaneous. In luxury, the image of the past and of the future, therefore coincide; its representations turn it into a signifier of the past, idealized as something that will never be again; and its opposite and dialectically equivalent, a vector of Utopia, moving along the image of an unprecedented future, which without fail reveals itself aligned with the longed for-past.

The representations of luxury, through and beyond the surface of appearances then sends back to a being of uber- or meta humanity, to stories and characters, to affects and sensibilities that impose the idea that to paraphrase the famous series, luxury "comes from the beyond." Inspired by luxury, the past itself becomes alien, as is exemplified by the museographic representation of luxury, shown vacuum-sealed, independently of the superannuated poetry of the materials, and the reality of the social customs, without any anthropological, or ethnographic, or even political, concern that would risk giving the objects an historical dimension. Similarity, cataloging on the glossy paper of the luxury press gives the object additional material density while denying any real point of comparison. The fictive landscape of the page extracts it from the web of time.


While luxury is relative and varies according to different people--to some: it's a Cartier ring, to others: a few leisurely hours wrestled from a day of intense work--the nature of the desire for luxury is universal. Because luxury creates, above all, a break from normality, from dailyness, what Mircea Eliade called “The Profane,” as opposed to the sacred. Through their desire for luxury, people manifest their need to experience new, rare and different situations--extra-ordinary ones. To create desire, the luxury industry uses a process of sacralization of objects that causes individuals to believe that they will, transform their existential regimen/ diet through that desired object. To live in luxury, where a rare watch, the unique bag, a designer dress, is placing oneself in the realm of a rare and exceptional kind of life.


In our civilization, the luxury industry, and the culture of luxury, are closely linked to possession and therefore to the object. Yet we now live in the era of information where the Internet, particularly, has become one of the principal medium of communication. The Internet, and more generally the information industry, only produce immaterial goods, goods which move further and further away from the traditional principles of the economic value, while their symbolic power only increases. They are the one that today, require the consumer's desire, because they are synonymous with socialization, recognition, but also knowledge and mastery of existence. The immaterial goods transform the notion of possession, since one’s access is obtained through a mode of appropriation without ownership. This lateral translation of the object of desire, which to simplify this idea, moves from the realm of reality to the immaterial, is a significant stake for the luxury industry which has built desire and its fantasies/ myth imaginary world/ connotations on material goods.

What Jeremy Rifkin calls the “Age of Access,” modifies the space and time of perception, creating a "here" that is "nowhere" and a real-time in which we travel without having to move. The paradigm of access also influences the relationship between perception and knowledge of the other. We know each other without seeing or hearing each other. In other words, we are developing new modes of  representing reality. As a consequence, new imaginary worlds whose concept of presence, sensuality, embodiment are excluded. The aesthetic exits the frontiers of the sensory manifestation. The affects and the emotions links to these modes of representation are still unknown, but one could bet they are evolving as well. Thus, the conditions of identification of what Europe calls 'luxury" become uncertain. The perceptual tools that allow us to perceive something as "luxurious" are on the verge of being replaced by a sensitivity defined by these. Information-communication technologies for which the experience of the sensory quality will most likely be different.


Lionel Ochs