Volume 6, Number 1 (January, 2009)
If Barbey d’Aurevilly Had Known About Virtual Reality: Dandyism Revisited
Dr. Thorsten Botz-Bornstein
(Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Tuskegee University, Alabama, USA)
Beau Brummelll to his servant: 'Which lake do I prefer?' (in Baudrillard, 1990:98).
In this article I want to show that the dandyist procedure of subsuming life into style creates something that is very similar to what we call today “virtual reality.” Further, given the particular nineteenth century constellation that permitted dandyism to evolve through its opposition to careerism and snobbism, it is possible to draw conclusions concerning corresponding patterns of behavior in consumer society at the time of the dandy and in the contemporary world. Jean Baudrillard’s ideas about consumer society and simulation will be deployed for this purpose.
Contemporary philosophical and sociological texts present virtual reality as an alternative type of reality not produced through the simulation of a preexisting reality but as an independent quality existent within an autonomous or even transcendental space (Botz-Bornstein, 2008; Granger, 1995). First I want to show how nineteenth century dandyism, by reacting against modern careerism and snobbism, developed an ontology of the virtual. Second, I want to show how dandyism managed to assume a particular position within an emerging consumer society by using the element of the virtual. At the end of the article I will reflect upon possibilities for contemporary dandyism.
II. Careerism, Snobbism, Dandyism
The dandy is a literary figure that haunts English and French novels of the nineteenth century. In “reality,” there were also numerous dandies, from Bath to Paris, who invested much in the imitation of a dandy-like lifestyle. However, few of those dandies can be considered genuine: The only ones who ever really existed (at least many of the greatest specialists of dandyism agree on this) were George Brummell, Baudelaire, and Barbey d’Aurevilly. All the others, including the Count d’Orsay, are more or less cheap imitations of Brummell. A certain “dandyist” attitude can be extracted from novels like Barbey d’Aurevilly’s L’Amour impossible, Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Pelham (1840) or Adventures of a Gentleman or Thomas Lister’s Granby. Most useful for the understanding of a more abstract idea of the concept of dandyism is Barbey d’Aurevilly’s book Du Dandysme (1889).
Philosophically, dandyism cannot be pinned down to a stable attitude or some other objective characteristics except, perhaps, that of mockery and provocation. Virginia Woolf wrote about Brummell: “That was his style, flickering, sneering, hovering on the verge of insolence, skimming the edge of nonsense” (Woolf 1930:4), and Barbey summed up the essence of dandyism thus: “If he wants to, a dandy can spend ten hours making his toilet; but once it is done he forgets about it” (Barbey d’Aurevilly, 1889:311, n.22). In principle, the dandy is interested neither in truth nor in reality but in those things that are new: “I hate normality so much that I find truth boring and disgusting,” said Barbey (cited in De Liederkerke, 1986:3). The dandy is disgusted because he knows life too well. Curiously, this gives him a certain amount of piece of mind: “The piece of mind of dandyism is the pose of a spirit which needs to have come across many ideas and which is too disgusted to get animated,” said Barbey (Barbey d’Aurevilly, 1889:309, n.11). The dandy displays a peculiar spiritual attitude that includes disinterest and quiety but also a large amount of anarchic protest.
Dandyism’s intrinsic anarchic component requires the constant reinstatement of a paradoxical situation: in order to be constantly new, dandyism cannot be allowed to be simply “itself” but has to be established through a constant difference from itself. When Brummell died, William Pill Lennox wrote: “He was anything but a dandy. The term “dandyism” never could be applied with justice to him; it would be a profanation to couple his name with such an offensive distinction” (Melville, 1924:46).
In general, it is the French dandy who misunderstands dandyism and interprets it rather as a project of simulation. Thackeray noted that the French dandy “has a wondrous respect for English “gentlemen-sportsmen”; he imitates their clubs, their love of horse-flesh, he calls his palefrenier a groom, and wears blue bird’s-eye neck-cloths” (Thackeray, 1840:101). Apart from Barbey, only Baudelaire sticks out as a real French dandy when he claims (in a letter of March 5, 1866) that “I like those things that one never sees twice” (Baudelaire, 1946:304). Baudelaire understood dandyism in the first place as “an institution beyond laws [which] has strict laws to which all subjects are submitted” (Baudelaire, 1889a:84). Sartre described Baudelaire’s dandyism as the “the fundamental impossibility to take itself seriously” (1947:94) and put forward that Baudelaire “is neither entirely there, nor entirely visible, he lingers suspended between nothingness and being” (Ibid.:200). In the end, Baudelaire’s dandy-like charm is founded on nothing more than on the consciousness of the player:
This consciousness without rime and reason, which must first invent the laws to which it wants to obey – utility looses here all its meaning; life is not more than a game, and man has to chose his aim himself, without commandment, without notice, without advice. And once he is aware of this truth, that there is no other end to this life than the one he has deliberately given himself, he does not really want to look for any further truth. Life, writes Baudelaire, has only one true charm: the charm of play. According to Sartre, “Baudelaire neither can nor wants to live being or existence” up to the end (1947:90) because his existence is “retained, fugitive and similar to a scent” (Ibid.:204).
In imposing his own style on the way he “follows” rules, the dandy follows and does not follow. On the one hand he follows the rules perfectly (so perfectly that his act of rule-following becomes a parody or a mockery). On the other hand, through his style of following rules he makes clear his disdain for the rules of decadent aristocracy as well as for the bourgeois world of money. The dandy could never refuse a high military honor but, according to Jacques Boulenger, his style of receiving it comes close to mockery: “With what haughty contempt, for example, could [the dandy] accept the grade of officer in one of the first regiments of the army, a grade that any other boor of his birth and his age would have considered a dream” (Boulenger, 1907:7).
Since the dandy neither follows nor rejects rules but does not suggest alternative rules either (dandyism itself has no rules), the dandy leads his life in an unreal sphere of non-rule. This sphere is opposed to both the careerist’s reality and the snob’s universe of simulation and dissimulation. Since the dandy does not, like the careerist, acknowledge reality as a binding factor, nor simulate, like the snob, an imaginary reality, the dandy must be considered as a “virtual” person.
In the nineteenth century, modernity is invaded by two characters: the careerist and the snob: “Snobism consists thus in accepting only those who submit to the rites of integration” noted Jean d’Ormesson (1963:450). Confining the premodern aristocrat to a less important role, the careerist and the snob monopolize a large part of the modern cultural environment. Dandyism arises as a curious alternative concept of life that manages to survive within the triangle formed by careerist, snobbish, and aristocratic lifestyles.
First, careerism, snobbism, and dandyism are each based on different conceptions of reality. The careerist takes reality for granted. He is a realist who does not question existing structures but only his own place within these structures. His logic is what Baudrillard has called a “class logic” which recognizes the democratic “welfare through objects and deeds” (salut par les objects et les oeuvres) (Baudrillard, 1970:78). as the only principle of social success. The careerist considers the aristocratic welfare that is dependent on election and grace as decadent.
The careerist’s opponent, the snob, is, in fact, not so different from the careerist. What distinguishes him from the careerist is that he aspires to link aristocratic attributes to his otherwise thoroughly careerist profile. He advances this project by deliberately integrating elements of “non-realist” imagination into the real world in which he is living. In the end, however, this approach turns out to be fatal. Creating an imaginary universe of what he would like to be, the snob ends up confounding shadows and appearances with reality.
Though the careerist and the snob hate each other for understandable reasons, they still do share another very essential characteristic: both suffer from a tragic sense of life in which – finally – certain rules cannot be transgressed, neither through work nor through imagination. The careerist decides to remain in the dark Platonic cavern, being happy to occupy a higher position within its limited space. At times he might take the relativistic stance that the deceptive darkness of the cavern is as real as “outside” reality. However, deep down he knows that this is not true.
Likewise, the snob remains in the cavern but he does not cease sympathizing with the shadows that are passing by the window. Both the careerist and the snob suffer from their own insufficiency because they are unable to fully reach what they consider to be the highest form of “reality,” which is that of aristocratic “election and grace.” In this sense, the lives of both are marked by a tragic loss.
The dandy lives, materially speaking, in conditions similar to those of the careerist and the snob because also he is a parvenu and in no way established in society. However, the dandy finds an extremely original way of dealing with his initially underdeveloped social status, managing to escape both the careerist’s realism and the snob’s fabulationism. His position can be resumed like this: he willingly acknowledges that he will never reach the cultural world of election and grace, be it real or imagined but at the same time – and to the annoyance of the snob – he constantly is already there, in the space of the aristocracy as if he were an aristocrat himself. The point is that he gains a “real” existence only through the “as if.”
The snob also produces many “as ifs,” but he wants them to be real in the way of a careerist project. For the dandy there is only the “as if” which represents the ground of his precarious reality. To the dandy, who abandons all ethical questions about reality and illusion and attempts to function solely within a situated reality, Plato’s timeless and imperceptible reality no longer matters. This does not mean that he has become realistic in Plato’s sense. The dandy is convinced that ideas of a “reality out there” and “ideas in there” should be neither accepted nor inverted but simply abandoned. The dandy’s reality is one of perfect simulation.
Underlying the dandyist paradox is a certain attitude towards rules. The dandy suffers much less from rules than the careerist and the snob whose life turns into a tragedy almost every time a rule is mentioned. The dandy’s life, on the other hand, cannot be tragic because he has decided that rules do not matter. Not that he would have decided to break them; they simply do not matter. In a paradoxical way, the dandy makes fun of rules by respecting them or, as Lister’s dandy Trebeck puts it, “I laugh at them while I laugh with them” (Lister, 1826:198). Barbey explains that the dandy “suffers from the rule and he takes revenge by tolerating it. He refers to the rule and at the same time he escapes it. He masters the rule and is at the same time mastered by the rule” (Barbey d’Aurevilly,1889:16).
The dandy combines the careerist’s pragmatism with the snob’s imagination in order to create a precarious form of reality that, being founded on nothing other than itself, constantly negates itself through its own scandalous procedures. Wearing fashionable clothes he obtains also a high degree of individuality; but because he wears these clothes like a uniform he also melts into the group.
Since the dandy does not want to be anything except what he is (a dandy), his “reality” is neither real nor imagined but played or mimed. This reality is deprived of all binding standards (of beauty, of elegance, etc.) because, according to the dandyist ideology, standards are only made in order to be destroyed. “One can be a dandy in ragged clothes,” has said Brummell (Ibid.:12) and a player like Barbey wants to “rompre avec des airs encravatés et graves” (Barbey d’Aurevilly, 1980:90). Clothes do not matter – what matters is rather a certain impertinence, and this impertinence is immaterial. As they scrape them with a sharp glass, their clothes are almost absent. What counts are not the clothes but the attitude. The dandy needs calmness and a kind of majestic frivolity. “Never have something like passion – it will make you too real to be a dandy,” explains Brummell (Barbey d’Aurevilly, 1889:30-31) and d’Aurevilly notes that “they wanted to walk in their cloud, these gods” (Ibid.:13).
The dandy is constantly “revolted” but bears no revolutionary projects. His “revolution” is neither actual (a reality) nor non-actual/imaginary (a project) but subsists within an ungraspable sphere that can be called the sphere of “revolutionary style”. This particular aspect becomes perhaps more obvious within the development of Russian dandyism than in its English and French counterparts because here it bears an interesting link with “real” revolutionary attitudes. Russian “Futurist dandyism” stemmed from the first Russian urbanist poetic movement, so-called Ego-Futurism, and was developed by the Ego-Futurists and members of the Mezzanine of Poetry, Vadim Shershenevich and Constantin Bolshakov. The link between Russian Futurism and French Dandyism was established by Mikhail Kuzmin (1871-1937) who wrote a preface to a Russian edition of Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly works (Markov, 1968:181). No tragic shifts from imagined possibilities to real outcomes can perturb the dandy’s life; in a way, the tragedy of life is always “present” – but only in the form of a virtual reality. The dandy’s life, with all his ambitions, projects, and ideas, constantly transcends the parameters of actuality and non-actuality and his entire being exists only in terms of a virtual quality that can best be described as style. The man who is constantly révolté has recognized, as Camus said, that in the end “la société capitaliste et la société révolutionnaire n’en font qu’une dans la mesure où elles s’asservissent au même moyen, la production industrielle, et à la même promesse” (1965:675-76).
The dandy’s reality is spiritual: though taking place within a social and cultural sphere (and not, like science, in a seemingly abstract sphere) the reality of the dandy is – like that of dreams – based on surprises, distortions, and unlikely behavior. The dandy transcends (in Barbey’s words, “il dépasse”) reality not because he constantly destroys it but because he obeys its rules by following them ad absurdum. By stylizing the rules he has to follow, he creates a reality that is complete and self-sufficient. While the careerist aspires to move to the top of the only reality he knows, and the snob desires to penetrate the reality he imagines, the dandy knows several kinds of realities only all too well but he does not accept them as realities. Instead, he decides to transform them through his provocative actions into his realities.
Modernity creates, according to Baudelaire, a cultural realm that emphasizes the “transitory, fugitive, and contingent” (1889a:695). The dandy does not aspire to wake up from this dream but transforms it into his own dream that contains its own rules and its own logic. Baudelaire noted that modernity attempts to reify this transitory quality by turning it into its own “eternal and unchanging” (éternel et immuable) kind of reality (Ibid.). It is precisely this snobbish or careerist reification that the dandy works against. In a way, by dissociating himself from the modern dream of his époque he invents his own dandyist modernity. This modernity is no reality and no dream but a virtual reality.
The dandy refuses the attribution of “sense” to any of his acts, be it the sense of a presence or of a certain form of being. As a literary figure, he refuses the sense of any historical, narrative, or simply existential reality that a “real” or literary figure should normally have. The reason is that the dandy is neither a real nor an imagined person because he considers both imagination and reality as vulgar visions of a society made either by hypocritical snobs or by equally narrow-minded careerists. “My entire life was an influence, that is, something that cannot be related (raconté),” admits Brummell, and Barbey adds that “what Brummell lacks is a historical explanation” (1889:18). Dandyism remains a “natural” phenomenon – natural in the sense of “naturalism.” The dandy is neither a hero nor an anti-hero but simply an anti-tragic character that can be described all over again but that does not function very well within the framework of a narrativity of (tragic) events. For the “superb and fatal” couple in Barbey’s L’Amour impossible love is reduced to an “awful comedy,” because all the dandy Maulévrier will give or receive are “some empty kisses, some gloomy and vain caresses in compensation of missed happiness and impossible enthusiasm.” (1926-27:147).
In other words, the dandy’s life is pure interiority. It cannot be grasped from the outside with the help of historical methods but, like a dream and like purely stylistic actions, the dandy’s life absorbs the people who watch him. By transcending the distinction between the careerist’s actual reality and the snob’s non-actual imagination, the dandy throws himself (and those who admire him) into the absolute reality of style that, by its nature, comes close to the virtual. Though the dandy’s reality is not more than a quantity of thoughts and appears, just like virtual reality, only as a reality in the form of a result, it cannot be considered as an imagined fiction. In the dandy’s reality everything reproduces itself with the lightness reminiscent of games and of dreams and one will never find anything substantial.
III. Dandyism and Consumer Society
The 19th century snob’s and careerist’s environments come remarkably close to that of a contemporary department store. In department stores, too, nothing exists as such but all objects – because they are inserted in a coherent environment of consumption – are culturalized. In Huysman’s A Rebours, the objects, as they create an eclectic culinary environment propelled by a unique snobbish exoticism, become playful substances: “From dishes lined with black borders we ate turtle soups, Russian rye breads, ripe olives from Turkey, caviar, fish eggs from mules, smoked sausages from Frankfurt, game with liquorice juice and shoe-polish colored sauces, truffle custards, amber chocolate creams, nectarines, grapes, blackberries and sweet cherries” (Huysmans, 1955:40). Baudrillard’s comment on modern shopping applies almost perfectly to this environment: “Through their number, their redundancy, their superfluity, their prodigality of shapes, through the play of fashion, through everything in them which exceeds pure and simple function, objects do nothing but simulate the social essence – the status – this grace of predestination which is only given to very few and which most, by means of inverse destiny, will never attain” (1970:77).
All three of them, the snob, the careerist, and the dandy are consumers. While the careerist enjoys consuming openly, the snob might prefer to hide his consumption from others or even engage in a sort of under consumption through which he attempts to distinguish himself from the careerist. The dandy also consumes, but he leads consumption ad absurdum. Pushing provocation to extremes he constantly risks being eliminated from high society. While all three consume objects, the dandy consumes also his social status. The careerist and the snob consume (conspicuously or inconspicuously) in order to receive social recognition and are not tempted to consume an item as precious as their social status (in the snob’s case this is in fact impossible because his social status is only imagined). The dandy, however, does not expect a surplus of prestige from his consumption; in a cannibalistic way he is constantly on the brink of consuming himself. In this way the dandy consumes the elegant life of aristocracy without being a victim of the consumerist social project that such a society suggests. In a paradoxical way he acquires distinction through consumption.
Apart from that, the dandy consumes with an unbelievably low degree of enthusiasm and is equally incapable of enthusiasm about the idea of distinguishing himself through under consumption. Under consumption is part of the typical behaviors of the snob. Baudrillard puts forward the millionaire who drives a little old Citroen 2-CV because he is looking for something more subtle than simply consumption: “He over-distinguishes himself by his way of consuming, by style. He still absolutely maintains his privilege when he switches from ostentation to (over-ostentatious) discretion, from quantitative ostentation to distinction, from money to culture” (1970:65).
What the snob is lacking is the dandy’s indifference, in particular, his indifference towards consumption. Neither the possession of a Citroen 2-CV nor that of a Rolls Royce would make the dandy proud because for him both cars are exactly the same: they are simply cars. Still, the dandy is no anti-consumer. On the contrary, the dandy enjoys the “functional inutility” that Baudrillard singled out as the main characteristic of consumption (1970:169). Things that are entirely useful cannot be consumed; consumerism turns, by principle, objects into gadgets, that is, into objects of play without use and function: there is no dandyism without gadgets. Also the dandy consumes and turns all kinds of useful objects into objects of play. However, in addition he is also able to take the reverse procedure: He can treat a useless object (a Rolls Royce) as if it were not more than useful. For the dandy the Rolls Royce, too, is a gadget and this takes the thrill out of “gadgetization.”
The dandy’s realism consists in saying that all things that exist are gadgets. This is the kind of cynical “realism” that the careerist and the snob are absolutely unable to assume because for them things are never simply what they are but always sign-loaded objects constantly asking to be analyzed with regard to possible or impossible personalization. If we define consumption (as well as under-consumption) as a relation between humans and objects mediated by signs instead of being based on a natural and spontaneous contact we have to state that the dandy consumes. However, he does not consume (or under-consume) in a realistic context established by signs, as do the careerist and the snob; in the down to earth context of the cynical reality he has created for himself things are simply what they are. The dandy refuses to strive both after “welfare through objects and deeds” and after welfare dependent on election and grace; as a result, the objects he acquires are emptied of all semiotic significance; and because they do not exist within a careerist, snobbish or aristocratic semiotic web of significations they are simply “real.” The dandy lives with all objects as gadgets even if “in reality” they might be luxury objects. Of course, this is only possible because, on a much larger philosophical scale, the dandy does not obey the most important imperatives of consumer society: the imperatives of enjoyment and satisfaction and of choosing one’s own happiness.
At the same time the dandy does not obtain any “real” qualities like beauty or charm. Why? Because for him everything is the same. When the dandy has made a tasteful invention he deliberately and mockingly pushes it towards non-taste and provocation. This goes completely against the grain of any careerist or snobbish rationalization of reality. The careerist’s and the snob’s ways of consuming are real because they consider consumption as a way of obtaining a better status within the cavern or of getting out of the cavern. For them “to consume” is an (illusionary) means of approaching the real aristocratic reality. The dandy does not maintain such projects. He believes neither in the cave nor in the shadows that are passing by the window but makes fun of both as consumerist illusions. The objects the dandy chooses are only part of a play with reality because his life does not have the substance of “real” aristocratic life, which, as he perfectly well knows, he will never attain. As a result, he consumes the aristocratic reality by miming it through an “as if” and turns it into something virtual.
Like modern consumers, the snob and the careerist “ape forms and combine them disparately, [they] repeat fashion without having lived it,” to use the words of Baudrillard (1970:168). While the careerist and the snob remain in the realm of often kitsch-like simulation, the dandy reaches a degree of virtuality not because he has overcome kitsch but because he has elevated his provocative kitsch to the level of an autonomous reality. In the end, the dandy produces, like the careerist and the snob, not more than a function that lacks a concrete link with reality. For the dandy any reality has become superfluous because his simulation has created a new reality. This reality is based on “nothing” which makes it different from that of the “real” consumers. For consumers the “nothing” appears only once everything has been consumed (which is the experience they try to avoid most). The virtual type of reality of the dandy is “nothing” from the beginning.
IV. Contemporary Dandyism
It remains to ask, who are the contemporary dandies. Who are those who consume today in a detached way, making fun of consumption and at the same time of themselves? What comes to mind is a certain youth culture, most popular in East Asia but also in the West, which practices a form of “resistance consumption” that seems to comply with at least some of the principles of dandyism. On a second look, however, this attitude developed by this youth culture turns out to be not dandyist at all. The sociologist Brian McVeigh, has listed the main traits of a peculiar Japanese “resistance” youth culture which he calls “resistance consumption:”
Resistance consumption does not forcibly question, it raises doubts; it does not directly challenge, it playfully provokes; it does not deride, it humorously mocks; it does not threaten, it ignores; it does not attempt an overthrow, it briefly displaces; it is not insurgent, it is carnavalesque; it does not subvert, it diverts attentions (if only temporarily) from the dominant structures; it does not stage a political revolution, it encourages participation in hedonistic agitation. Practices associated with the consumption of cuteness are not anti-state or anti-corporation in any organized, explicit or obvious sense; they are not self-conscious “political statements (McVeigh, 2000: 158).
In East Asia but also in Western countries, a certain kitsch-culture of the “cute” has become particularly popular among young people. Kitsch as a “large scale” phenomenon becomes particularly obvious in the proliferation of the culture of the “cute” which is generally defined as childlike, sweet, innocent, pure, gentle and weak. The aesthetics of cuteness developed since the 1980s in countries like Japan and Korea is more than an aesthetic style but appears as a full-fledged way of articulating a subjective attitude that can become manifest in design, language, physical behavior, gender relations, and in perceptions of the self. Today, in Japan, not only middle-aged women have fluffy stuffed animals dangling from the bottom of the cell phones, but male office employees, too, wear Pikachu on key chains (Allison, 2002: 3) and truck drivers “display Hello-Kitty figurines on their dashboards” (Augier, 2006).
A solid amount of mockery can here appear as dandyist, especially when it combines the use of cheap kitsch fashion with luxury items and brand names. Young Japanese girls walking around with expensive Louis Vuitton bags as if they were gadgets are indeed in a paradoxical way integrated in and at the same time resisting capitalist consumer society. However, if this really turns them into dandies is not certain at all. On the one hand, these girls follow the rules of dandyism as their consumerism has adopted traits that clearly transcend the classical models of careerist and snobbish consumption. On the other hand, this attitude cannot be considered as genuine dandyism at all, the main reason being that something has changed since the times of the dandy. In late capitalism, “dandyist consumption” has become a product in itself, sold side by side with those of classical consumption. “Resistance consumption” might still be due, at least partly, to real resistance of the individual consumers; at the same time, however, it has become a product and a style marketed just like any other product and this becomes particularly obvious in the case of the Louis Vuitton girls. These “resistance consumers” are no dandies but practitioners of a new form of consumerism that is an invention of late capitalism: an apparently “dandyist consumption” that, in the end, turns out to be not more than “anti-snobbish” and “anti-careerist” consumption. The sphere within which these girls act remains a simulated sphere in which the tragic sense of real life is all too perceptible. These new consumer “dandies” never reach the levels of indifference and quiety that are so essential to real dandyism. “Anti” as they are, they still remain closer to the snob than to the dandy: they do not manage to escape the tragedy of life and to inscribe their lifestyle in the domain of the virtual.
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