In this article, I seek to explore the psychopolitical significance of the contemporary idea of luxury through reference to the Roman concept of luxus, which means excess, extravagance, indulgence, and debauchery. In the first section of the article, I examine the politics of the idea of luxus in the Roman context through a discussion of the relationship between the emperor Nero, who pushed luxury toward its psychopathic limits, and the Stoic philosopher Seneca, who championed mos maiorum, the moral life of moderation, and a utopia of balance and proportion. In order to further my analysis of the pure experience of luxus, which exceeds any object that is always too base and objective to be truly luxurious, I seek to psychoanalyze Nero’s pursuit of the orgy of luxus through reference to Sigmund Freud’s discussion of Thanatos in his Beyond the Pleasure Principle. In that work, Freud suggests that the luxurious excess of pleasure, hyperpleasure beyond this or that incarnation of pleasure, resides in the endless repetition of pleasure we find in the experience of addiction, which eventually leads the user to overdose into luxurious space where the user dissolves into a kind of universal substance beyond life itself. It is this psychoanalytic concept of luxus, which describes the experience of luxury beyond its objective limits, that I take forward in the final section of the article. Here, I seek to move beyond Nero and Freud to show how we can understand the concept of luxus, which is beyond the relative luxury we might associate with the possession of this or that object, in the contemporary context of global capitalism. I explore neoliberal capitalism, where consumption is endless, through reference to Georges Bataille’s The Accursed Share, where economy is less about balancing the books and more about the production of excess that eventually dissolves into what Bataille calls “continuous being”—the universal state of luxury.
Luxus: A Thanatology of Luxury from Nero to Bataille
Mark Featherstone is senior lecturer in sociology at Keele University. He works on the topics of utopia and dystopia and specializes in social and cultural theory and psychoanalysis. He is author of Tocqueville’s Virus (2008) and Planet Utopia (forthcoming) and a number of articles on a range of topics relating to the utopian and dystopian imagination. He is currently working on a book on the cultural politics of psychoanalysis under conditions of globalization.