This article, grounded in long-term ethnographic research among producers of contemporary luxurious embroideries and fashions in Lucknow, a North Indian city famous for its golden age as a powerful cultural center of opulence and excess, shows how anthropological knowledge can enrich current critical discussions of luxury and inequality. Since the 1990s, anthropology has seen a boom in consumption and material culture studies coterminous with the rise of identity politics and its celebration of diversity. In anthropological theory, as well, linking consumption to identity has stolen the limelight. In the process, questions of production, inequality, and reproduction of social structures have been overshadowed. Critical reappraisal of luxury in anthropological theory can paradoxically show us a way out of this identity trap, since luxury, unlike other consumer goods, demands that we think about inequality. Luxury also forces us to think beyond luxury brands, goods, and commodified experiences, pushing us toward more fundamental questions about what constitutes a good life, morality, and social order. The ethnographic case presented here, which reveals how structural violence can go hand-in-hand with paradoxical luxuries facilitated by fatalist attitudes, points to what such an anthropology of luxury might look like. In a village near Lucknow, women embroider luxury pieces for fashion ramps and celebrities, while being fed meritocratic dreams of individual progress and success by fashion designers and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) who try to convince them to work ever harder in the name of empowerment. But the women laugh at luxury goods, designers, and middle-class activists and, instead, insist on an antiwork ethic and a valorization of leisure—on wasting time over working; they prefer to “luxuriate” rather than indulge in luxury goods. However, this perception of luxury is connected to hierarchical inequality and a sense of social fatalism that has been reinvigorated through new experiences with competitive inequality, neoliberal pollution, and the false promises of meritocracy.
Fatalist Luxuries: Of Inequality, Wasting, and the Antiwork Ethic in India
Tereza Kuldova is a social anthropologist, fashion curator, and postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Archaeology, Conservation, and History at the University of Oslo, Norway. She has been working extensively on the Indian and global fashion industry, socioeconomic relations, structural violence, material and popular culture, and ideology. She is the author of Luxury Indian Fashion: A Social Critique (2016) and editor of Fashion India: Spectacular Capitalism (2013).