They are building an artificial, palm-shaped archipelago off the coast of Dubai. Palm Jumeirah, the first island to be completed, features theme parks, high-end shops, restaurants, spas and nightclubs. A stay at the luxury resort Atlantis, where guests are invited to ‘check into another world’ starts at around $500 bucks a night. Other islands are still in construction. You can buy one if you have a line of healthy credit.
The islands rise up out of the Gulf of Dubai just as surely as smaller, meeker islands sink into the Gulf of Mexico. From the sky, the Palm Islands look like an alien conspiracy theory; the headquarters for a hybrid super-species breeding program. In some ways that’s not far off. Private jets fly back and forth. Inside, someone is taking a selfie, captioning it #richkidsofinstagram and #oilmoney. In the 21st century, luxury has reached cartoonish proportions.
If you can’t afford to buy an island or stay the night on Atlantis, don’t worry. The experience of wealth is in such demand that there are industries catering to mass-luxury and psuedo-luxury. In Bali, Indonesia, a $40-a-night resort comes replete with concierge and rooftop pool where waiters attend to drunk and sunburned guests. Indonesian teenagers flock here from other parts of the country to train in one of the luxury hotel schools, or learn on the job at one of hundreds of luxury or mid-range properties.
What is taught is the performance of indulgence. Painting nails, administering to shoulders and calves. Listening sympathetically as tourists, red-nosed as garden gnomes, talk about how ‘we just couldn’t afford this kind of holiday in Queensland.’ The markets of Seminyak and Kuta are crammed with luxury knock-offs made in Thailand. Tourists can affect a luxury shopping spree on less than the cost of a tank of petrol at home. Today, middle class westerners outsource luxury to the developing world. We can island hop on private boats, sip mai-tais by the infinity pool lip-synching to Kanye. ‘I am a god/hurry up with my damn massage/ in a French-ass restaurant/ Hurry up with my damn croissants.’
In the 21st century, luxury is the ultimate aspirational word. Luxury transmogrifies life into ‘lifestyle’. It quantifies success and competence in a culture where both have become hard to measure and impossible to describe. Nothing signifies competence more clearly than lying around at a resort doing nothing for yourself. In a world in which consumption has already overshot available resources, luxury is waste as a sensuous act. Polystyrene cups on private jets, gold facials, private clubs, bags as expensive as cars. Wasting time. Wasting money. Waste: the ultimate statement of ownership.
Far off and unknown cultures, precious stones and metals, fine craftsmanship, unusual design: traditional luxury is rare, unique, expensive. Mass-luxury gives the impression of these qualities and compensates by making a fetish of waste. The dialectic of rarity and wastefulness churns up the soil of Bali. The Bukit peninsula, south of the popular district of Kuta, is ravaged by development begun and abandoned. There are too many resorts already. On the small beach, young tourists from Indonesia, China and Australia snake the shore, their gazes locked not on the landscape but on screens as they take thousands of selfies. Today, a large part of luxury is about being seen.
We have always had a voyeuristic need to gaze at the rich and famous. The first gossip magazine, Broadway Brevities and Society Gossip, dates from 1916. Before the printing press, the rich were described in song and dance. We want to know what rich people wear, what their furniture looks like, what tasteful or elaborate patterns adorn their china.
In 1962 Jackie Kennedy hosted a groundbreaking TV-tour of the White House. Today, we peer compulsively into a sphere of dubious privilege and conspicuous consumption via shows like Real Housewives and The Hills. Online, an infinite void of gossip websites profile and dissect spending habits and pitch luxury goods at an aspirational audience. Rich kids of instagram is only one example of searchable images of wealth and luxury. #Oilmoney is real. You can use any number of crass catch-cries to access images of rich twentysomethings sunbathing on yachts or pouring French champagne all over their facials. The newest innovation is the option to participate by uploading the decontextualized shreds of our own psuedo-luxe. Stand beside your neighbours BMW. Rent a VIP room for your hen’s night. Upload these moments, but leave out the empty toilet rolls piling up in your bathroom, or the tiny red minus sign that precedes your bank balance. Finally, we are left with a networked zoetrope in which ironic mimesis is impossible to distinguish from legitimate imitation and celebration. ‘Ironic mimesis is not a critique’ reads a badge produced by an L.A. art collective. ‘It’s the mentality of slaves.’
I think about that slogan all the time.
This piece appears in full in The Lifted Brow #26. Get your copy now.
Briohny Doyle is a regular contributor to The Lifted Brow and has published fiction and criticism in Ampersand, Meanjin and Going Down Swinging. She likes to write about movies, the end of the world, and ideology in popular culture. In 2014 she completed a PhD on apocalypse. Adult Fantasy, her first nonfiction book, is due out in 2017 through Scribe Publications.