On the Tuscan Promise in Consumer Culture

The appeal of Tuscany is recent years was more than a motif, lifestyle choice or market trend. It took form as a collective representation shaped and summoned by social forces, one that had been anointed by consumers and producers (for different causes) as a means to escape crises hanging over the political economy. The weighty promise of Tuscan themes gave rise to a social process that can be called Tuscanization, one made visible not only in the admiration of Tuscan living in the media, but in the construction of Tuscanesque spaces, textures and flavors in architecture, home design and in all manner of foodstuffs. The Olive Garden is one node in a great proliferation of Tuscan inspired commodities popular in first decades of the 21st Century, that ranged from Tuscan baby cradles to Tuscan caskets, from Tuscanesque fine wines to Tuscanoid pet foods and trinkets. So called Tuscanesque gated-communities stretched across California, Florida, Texas, as well as the Philippines and China. Even Tuscany experienced a Tuscanization. Its villages and farmhouses became parodies of themselves. As Tuscany sought to profit from its global attention, the ideals that gave it its contemporary renown, its balance of nature and art, and its marriage of avant-garde design and time-tested tradition, withered under the pressure to redeem an unsustainable and increasingly volatile aesthetic economy.

The Dialectic of Taste interrogates the attraction of Tuscany by questioning how depictions of the province as a kind of arcadia have prefigured the contemporary global interest in the Tuscan imaginary and set in motion the multi-billion dollar industry that came to support it.  If earlier writers looked to Tuscany as a place of cultural rebirth, if they saw in its art and way of living a salve for their own damaged romantic ideals, ideals vanquished from their own communities, the Tuscan imaginary of recent years have evoked these relations once more. Only, most recently, the Tuscanesque is expressed less as a means to satisfy a nostalgic longing for a romance departed, and more as a compulsion. At once proto-political, regulatory, and powered by the friction between these functions, Tuscanization takes form as the troubled reconciliation of an  aesthetic movement and a style driven to form as an economic necessity. It is activated by the material conditions of everyday life rubbing against the bare expectations of human will.

While the far-flung Tuscan images in our society may at first appear as tokens, symbolic of lifestyle choices picked by way of random selection from a sales catalog, the latest Tuscan trend, which was initiated in the 1980s and survives until today, is shaped by concrete forces. More of a political/cultural economic stage of development than a ornamentation, the Tuscanization of consumer culture is examined in The Dialectic of Taste as a movement that arose within the economic crises of the 1970s, expanding sharply with the rise of the aesthetic economy and its relation to rationalizing processes such as McDonaldization.

There is a strong and continual current of McDonaldization present in the Tuscanesque, especially in places like the Olive Garden or in the myriad examples of Tuscanoid commodities available. Tuscanization, however, differs from McDonaldization in important ways.

  • In place of the principle of efficiency, one of the core attributes of McDonaldization, the Tuscan way endorses a deliberate slowing of activity, one that allows for contemplative attention to features of production and consumption.
  • In the place of calculability, another core attribute of Ritzers schema, Tuscan style privileges intangible values based on spirituality and traditions.
  • Against predictability and uniformity, the Tuscan mode of living promotes chance encounters and fortune, based in the power of combinations, often divined from syncretic symbols and objects.
  • And as a counter to the processes of systemic technical control put in place to measure and evaluate production and consumption, the Tuscan lifestyle asserts the superiority of craft and artisanal expertise, as well as the sovereignty of home-making and community participation.

These counter-positions do not trump the principles of rationalization, in fact, they press rationalization forward on a new finer or intimate level. The represent enhancements to the late stages of rationalization, that found itself in crisis. They have been drawn up, by productive and consumptive forces to enchant (and add value to) systems and lives which have been deemed overly rationalized. Still, as enchantments, they provide a challenge to the principles of McDonaldization by marking their limits and by offering alternatives to them.

The appeal to intimate and personal forms of consumption found in the Tuscanesque promise to enact a kind of repair. They compel a romantic exploration of feelings, and claim to offer a salve for the psyches damaged by McDonaldization. Tuscanization does not replace what George Ritzer has called McDonaldization, but it is a response to it, in the sense that it was born as a reaction to the crisis of McDonaldization, and that it represents a new way of organizing and activating the social body. Tuscanization can be said to sublate McDonaldization. It resolves some of problems inherent to it, but it also rescues, preserves, and carries forward McDonaldizations central purpose: to help Capital realize Value in a period when the extraction of profit through mass production is endangered.

If the Tuscan promise appears only as decay, it does so in the process of testing the limits of our economys ability to achieve these balances. The problems of our overly rationalized society may have been treated by a Tuscan solution, but in each case, the Tuscan therapy worked to more resolutely express the deep affliction it was summoned to heal:a crisis of Value, a crisis set in motion by a the socially constructed collective challenge weighing on our times: How is one to taste in an economy that is compelled to regulate, instrumentalize, and usurp value from such efforts?

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