How a Minneapolis consulting trio discovered the "iconogasm," and other tales from the trendspotting business.

iconogasm: cultural climax, marketing opportunity. "Jump out of the melting pot and into the salad bowl as Americans choose to segregate themselves."

iconogasm: cultural climax, marketing opportunity. "Little things say a lot. How about reducing your annual report or corporate mission into a statement of vision and love?"

What Iconoculture promise--and their trade depends on it--is to show the right cookie or koan to the right client, to tie the trend to the brand. And to sell this skill they claim to perform a deep, talmudic study of the market--the lexicon of Lexus, the infinite behind the Infiniti. They can decipher the matte-stock catalogs with the demure line drawings, and parse the daffy paeans to the perfect undies for a night in Tunisia. They can testify to the acoustic miracle that is the Bose Wave radio. They know Victoria's Secret.

Derek Brigham

But chasing the zeitgeist can be as tiring and mystifying as hunting snark, and sometimes the bloodhounds of trend seem to circle around to the scent of their own asses. In these daft hours a Minnesotan must turn to the wisdom of a dour, forgotten Norseman.

Meet Thorstein Veblen, the sixth of 12 children born to Thomas and Kari (Bunde) Veblen, raised in the 1860s and 1870s on a frontier farm in Wheeling Township near Nerstrand, Minnesota. Erratic, lazy, backwards, and brilliant, Veblen arrived by buggy at Carleton College, where he distinguished himself as a taciturn and surly scholar. Next, he tried his hand as a journeyman graduate student, and although he eventually secured a Ph.D. in philosophy, no academic appointment followed.

And so he returned home. There, Veblen moped and brooded, dismissed as a rustic "Norskie" within the Americanized academy, while dismissive himself of the stolid farm life of Nerstrand. (At age 30, he would marry Ellen May Rolfe, a local woman of higher social standing. But she suffered a form of infantilism--she'd never fully reached puberty--and the marriage ultimately failed.) Even Veblen's moustache, a dark, drooping horsetail, seemed implicated in a sour conspiracy to keep his mouth hidden and shut.

But when Veblen finally secured an economics fellowship at the newly founded University of Chicago (for the princely sum of $520 a year), a bold and scabrous political voice emerged in a series of journal articles: "The Economic Theory of Woman's Dress," "The Instinct of Workmanship and the Irksomeness of Labor," "The Barbarian Status of Women." Drawing on studies in anthropology and psychology, Veblen sought the oblique, behavioral motivations behind the folly of mechanization and the barbarian ways of the businessman. In 1899, the work culminated in his first and best-known book, The Theory of the Leisure Class.

It's a strange, satirical work, erudite and densely argued. At its (elusive) core is the notion that social status originates in one's refusal to participate in productive enterprise; the archaism and uselessness of one's possessions serve as evidence of such genteel obsolescence.

Unlike his colleagues of the period, Veblen didn't pin his schema to the reliable arcs of supply and demand. Instead he addressed the significance of the spoon, the corset, the narcotic, the house pet. "Apart from the birds," he wrote in The Theory of the Leisure Class, "which belong in the honorific class of domestic animals and which owe their place in this class to their non-lucrative character alone, the animals which merit particular attention are cats, dogs, and fast horses." And so Veblen went on for several pages about the temperamental deficiencies of the feline, which he considered "less reputable because she is less wasteful; she may even serve a useful end." Except for "the Angora cat, which may have some honorific value on the ground of expensiveness."

Meanwhile the dog, though "the filthiest of the domestic animals in his person and the nastiest in his habits... has advantages in the way of uselessness." There's also the canine's "gift of an unquestioning subservience... a slave's quickness in guessing his master's mood... and a readiness to inflict damage and discomfort on all else."

Veblen would go on to write a half-dozen-odd books and would teach in Missouri, California, and New York. Legend has it that he was repeatedly ousted by administrators for inveterate philandering; Veblen maintained that his ideas threatened the dim university boosters of the business class. No one debates that he shambled at the lectern, mumbled through class after class, and graded papers arbitrarily, if at all.

Yet after this singular, strident career, Veblen, arguably the greatest intellect of his home state, is now remembered solely for a single phrase from The Theory of the Leisure Class. It's a formative reckoning with the connection between what we own and who we are, with the wastefulness of the former conferring status on the latter...

A life in two words: conspicuous consumption.

Or, as the case may be, a century in two words. Set the Movado Museum Watch forward to a few ticks shy of 2000, and examine the following selection from Faith Popcorn, the pre-eminent trend spotter of our time and a plastic bookend to Veblen's colloquies. "America is a consumer culture," she says matter-of-factly in the best-selling Popcorn Report, "and when we change what we buy--and how we buy it--we'll change who we are."

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