Thursday, June 30, 2011

Financial fictions (7 June 2008)

This comes from the three-part WSJ series on the last days of Bear Stearns:
At least six efforts to raise billions of dollars -- including selling a stake to leveraged-buyout titan Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. -- fizzled as either Bear Stearns or the suitors turned skittish. And repeated warnings from experienced traders, including 59-year Bear Stearns veteran Alan "Ace" Greenberg, to unload mortgages went unheeded.
Top executives resisted, in part, because they were concerned the moves would upset the delicate calculus of appearances and perceptions that is as important on Wall Street as dollars and cents. If Bear Stearns betrayed weakness, they worried, skittish customers would pull their money out of the firm, and other financial institutions would refuse to trade with it.

It's an uncontroversial point, but I'm still shocked whenever I contemplate how the world of finance runs on carefully constructed, necessary fictions. When I ignored the business world, I always assumed it was build on bottom-line numbers and empirically deduced decisions -- I thought it was far more technocratic than it actually is, and I totally overlooked such socio-psychological phenomena as the entrepreneurial "animal spirits" that Keynes posits, and the significance of inflation expectations, and consumer confidence, all of which can be ideologically sustained and manipulated. It makes me think there must ultimately be some renumerative use for the skills I learned as a literature graduate student, where we were taught precisely how to analyze carefully constructed fictions to reveal their carefully concealed presuppositions as well as their lacunae. It seems like the delicate calculus of appearances and perceptions requires a mastery of rhetorical skills required for building a believable picture of reality as well as a mastery of the tenets of risk management.

But the necessary fictions lead to problems like what Dean Baker details here.
Since the vast majority of economists failed to recognize two huge financial bubbles, the collapse of which had enormous consequences for the economy, it is reasonable to conclude that there is some inherent problem with the nature of the consensus within the economics profession. Either these economists hold views about the world that prevent them from seeing financial bubbles, or the sociology of the profession is such that they are unable to express independent opinions.
Perhaps economists are institutionally discouraged from promulgating opinions that might compromise the business built on fragile hopes.

Snakeskin Jacket Syndrome (6 June 2008)

The most recent Harper's has an interesting article about culture-bound syndromes (the fear of having one's penis stolen in particular, a Nigerian phenomenon). Culture-bound illnesses are society-specific mental illnesses that would seem to be an acute expression of some aspect of that culture's fears and preoccupations. It takes the pervasive ideology and renders it intimately and pathologically personal, employing it to explain away otherwise nebulous complexes of symptoms of dis-ease and anxiety. A culture's concerns find bodily expression; obviously this has something to do with the prevalence of eating disorders in Western society. In this overview of culture-bound disorders, we learn this:
In North America the incidence of anorexia nervosa increased dramatically since the 1960s, coinciding with a drastic change in the feminine body ideal towards thinness, as propagated by the fashion lords and publicized by the media [GARNER & GARFINKEL 1980; JONES et al. 1980; LUCAS et al. 1991]. It is of interest that the weight tables used by American physicians, supposedly objective scientific measures of "normal" standards of health, followed the fashionable downward trend in female body weight [RITENBAUGH 1982]. The increasing frequency of anorexia nervosa is associated with socio-cultural factors such as disturbance of intrafamily relations due to the nuclearization and limitation of Western families, and the penetrant influence of the mass media popularizing Hollywood-type life styles and beauty ideals. Since the 1980s, cases of anorexia nervosa have also become increasingly known in non-Western countries among young women in social strata exposed to heavy Westernizing influence, notably in Japan and Hong Kong [Di NICOLA 1990; LEE et al. 1993]. The epidemic spreading of anorexia nervosa among young females of all Western countries, and among certain Asian populations and immigrants under Westernizing influence, links this syndrome to socio-cultural emphases and developments in modern Western societies.

In The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi's overarching argument in the book is that the coming of the machine led to an extremely dislocating shift to a market culture in 19th century Europe that disoriented the populace and threw value systems into chaos. In the culture-bound disorders overview, the authors write: "The bouffée délirante reactions are sudden attacks of brief duration with paranoid delusions and often concomitant hallucinations, typically precipitated by an intense fear of magical persecution through sorcery or witchcraft. They are also characterized by a confusional state and by highly emotionalized behaviour and, after the attack, by amnesia, or rather disavowal." That is basically identical to the penis-thieving described in the Harper's article. The overview continues, "In its symptomatology, the bouffée délirante is reminiscent of the transient psychotic reactions occurring in the early phases of industrialization and mass-urbanization in 19th century Europe; described under such names as folie hystérique in Paris and amentia transitonia in Vienna" [empahsis added]. The reorganization necessitated when implementing a market system has the potential to unleash these strange social illnesses, which seem like pathological ways of expressing a personal resistance to the "creative destruction" of market culture that the conscious mind perhaps wouldn't bother with, knowing it is futile.

In many ways the Harper's article was reminiscent of this unforgettable Atlantic article by Carl Elliott about voluntary amputees (a phenomenon which, incidentally, is back in the news), but it culminates in the author wanting to enact an instance of hysterical penis theivery. Thankfully Elliott did not remove his own leg in the name of journalistic diligence. Elliott was preoccupied with the very frightening question of whether merely describing an ailment like wanting to have your limbs removed was enough to make people catch it. The author of the Harper's piece seemed to be trying to test that premise, seeing the ability to contract a culture-bound phobia as proof of having truly become acclimated to a foreign culture. This paragraph from Eliot's article nicely captures what is at stake:
Ian Hacking uses the term "semantic contagion" to describe the way in which publicly identifying and describing a condition creates the means by which that condition spreads. He says it is always possible for people to reinterpret their past in light of a new conceptual category. And it is also possible for them to contemplate actions that they may not have contemplated before. When I was living in New Zealand, ten years ago, I had a conversation with Paul Mullen, who was then the chair of psychological medicine at the University of Otago, and who had told me that he was a member of a government committee whose job it was to decide whether pornographic materials should be allowed into the country. I bristled at the idea of censorship, and asked him how he could justify being a part of something like that. He just laughed and said that if I could see what his committee was banning, I would change my mind. His position was that some sexual acts would never even occur to a person in an entire lifetime of thinking about sex if not for seeing them pictured in these books. He went on to describe to me various alarming acts that, it was true, had never occurred to me. Mullen was of the opinion that people were better off never having conceptualized such acts, and in retrospect, I think he may have been right.
I'm inclined to agree to, though I'm completely uncomfortable with the further implication that there should be limits on the freedom of thought; that some ideas are too dangerous to be expressed even in a putatively free culture.

But perhaps the notion of freedom needs more careful consideration in light of "semantic contagion." At SkepticLawyer, an Australian legal blog, this discussion, prompted by a Tyler Cowen lecture, of liberty and culture's interaction made me wonder if the fixation on personal freedom (the snakeskin jacket syndrome) was itself a culture-bound syndrome.
Finally, in language sure to gladden the heart of jurisprudes everywhere, throughout the address [Cowen] placed considerable emphasis on the rule of law and the benefits that flow from it. What poor countries need is not more liberty, but more law, law that is abstract, end-independent but - and this is the clincher - also enforced. He then moved into territory that is politically dangerous, but needs to be addressed: one of the things that helps promote both liberty and prosperity throughout the Anglosphere is citizens’ widespread ability to be loyal to a set of abstract concepts. Russia, he pointed out, is failing as a free society not because it is poor - Putin’s shrewed management of high commodity prices has put paid to much Russian poverty - but because Russians tend to privilege their friends and contacts above all else, leading to epic levels of corruption. Corruption, of course, is a signal rule of law failure.
He then asked, somewhat rhetorically, if liberty was confined (and defined) by culture: ‘We should not presume that our values are as universal as we often think they are’. What happens, he asked (also rhetorically), if - in order to enjoy the benefits of liberty and prosperity - societies have to undergo a major cultural transformation, including the loss of many appealing values? Cowen focused on Russian loyalty and friendship, but there are potentially many others. Think, for example, of the extended family so privileged throughout the Islamic world, or the communitarian values common in many indigenous societies.
Take that one step further -- perhaps the struggle to exchange communitarian values for market-based ones throws off pathological symptoms: What if individuality (and the consequent preoccupation with personal freedom) itself is a kind of sickness that the demands of a market society imposes on us, forcing us to surrender those other indigenous values. This, more or less, is what Polanyi argues in The Great Transformation. The labor market requires the end of paternalist protections extended by pre-market societies; to make this palatable, the destruction of the safety net is represented as the freedom from state intervention into personal life. Polanyi writes,
To separate labor from other activities of life and to subject it to the laws of the market was to annihilate all organic forms of existence and replace them by a different type of organization, an atomistic and individualistic one. Such a scene of destruction was best served by the application of freedom of contract. In practice this meant that the noncontractual organizations of kinship, neighborhood, profession, and creed were to be liquidated since they claimed the allegiance of the individual and thus restrained his freedom. To represent this principle as one of noninterference, as economic liberals were wont to do, was merely the expression of an ingrained prejudice in favor of a definite kind of interference, namely, such as would destroy noncontractual relations between individuals and prevent their spontaneous reformation.

So Sailor's fetishistic attachment to his snakeskin jacket in Wild at Heart -- "a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom" -- is perhaps emblematic of our need in general to cling to the consolation prize of individuality in the face of our loss of a more-organic value system, which roots our self-worth in a social system -- in a community's mode of functioning. But we are too far along the path of a market society to turn back; we'd experience that pre-market culture as unfreedom, the loss of possibilities, even though we rarely seize upon all those possibilities and are likely to feel oppressed by them. Yet we are haunted by these values, and perhaps our submerged longing for them causes us to pervert the freedom the market culture supplies us with, leading us to come up with wildly bizarre uses of freedom, like lopping off our limbs.

Avant-garde marketing (5 June 2008)

In the 1960s, Alain Robbe-Grillet was a proponent of the New Novel, whose purpose seems to have been to dispense with plot and characters, forcing readers to sift through a pile of description in search of what might be the writer's guiding purpose. A collection of Robbe-Grillet's essays, For a New Novel sheds less light than you would think on what he was up to, but I found it very interesting to read in conjunction with Rob Walker's book about contemporary marketing techniques, which are avant-garde in their own way, ignoring traditional limits and taking on unexpected forms and dispensing with its expected purpose of delivering an unambiguous sales pitch. It's no accident that Robbe-Grillet's most famous film, Last Year at Marienbad, has been a continual source inspiration to luxury marketers since it was released in 1961. It is hyperstylized but sufficiently empty, so that one can invest whatever significance one wants into the unresolvable situations depicted. It's a perfect approach for marketing goods like perfume -- conjure an aura akin to that which perfume is supposed to have, but make it indeterminate and "mysterious." The film is an encyclopedia of techniques for destroying the sense of time, place, contingency, and logic -- all things that marketing seeks to undermine in order to exert its illogical, free-associational form of persuasion that relies on consumers to connect the dots. The nature of the marketing is adaptable enough to inspire and then absorb a wide variety of wishes projected by consumers. Effective marketing coaxes us into doing the work of persuading ourselves. The goods have a chance of becoming placebos, that work because we believe.

This passage from Robbe-Grillet's "Time and Description" is about avant-garde fiction and film, but it seems like it applies strikingly well to any number of the "murketing" campaigns underway, or even to the nature of contemporary advertising itself:
Now, if temporality gratifies expectation, instantaneity disappoints it; just as spacial discontinuity dissolves the trap of the anecdote. These descriptions whose movement destroys all confidence in the things described, these heroes without naturalness as without identity, this present which constantly invents itself, as though in the course of the very writing, which repeats, doubles, modifies, denies itself, without ever accumulating in order to constitute a past -- hence a "story", a "history" in the traditional sense of the word -- all this can only invite the reader (or the spectator) to another mode of participation than the one to which he was accustomed. If he is sometimes led to condemn the works of his time, that is, those which most directly address him, if he even complains of being deliberately abandoned, held off, disdained by the authors, this is solely because he persists in seeking a kind of communication which has long ceases to be the one which is proposed to him.
For far from neglecting him, the author today proclaims his absolute need of the reader's cooperation, an active, conscious, creative assistance. What he asks of him is no longer to receive ready-made a world completed, full, closed upon itself, but on the contrary to participate in a creation, to invent in his turn the work -- and the world -- and thus to learn to invent his own life.
That strikes me as marketing's broader sales mission: draw consumers in, entice them to fantasize and narrate themselves into a slightly refreshed existence through a vicarious participation in the indeterminate fragments of experience the marketers supply -- and of course through purchasing the goods associated with the whole process, which come to seem like the catalyst for all that creativity.

The travails of the megawealthy (5 June 2008)

When you read the New York Times Styles Section, you get what's coming to you. I learned this lesson yet again when I encountered this gem of a story. The headline sums it up well: "It’s Not So Easy Being Less Rich." It's about how the supermegawealthy are concerned about becoming merely megawealthy, and it is worth remembering when someone wants to discount Veblenesque approaches to understanding social behavior.
THEIR spouses could leave them when they discover that their net worth has collapsed to eight figures from nine. Friends and business associates could avoid them as they pass their lunchtime tables at Barney’s or the Four Seasons. And these snubs could trickle down to their children.
“They fear their kids won’t get invited to the right birthday parties,” said Michele Kleier, an Upper East Side-based real estate broker. “If they have to give up things that are invisible, they’re O.K. as long as they don’t have give up things visible to the outside world.”
So New York’s very wealthy are addressing their distress in discreet and often awkward ways. They try to move their $165 sessions with personal trainers to a time slot that they know is already taken. They agree to tour multimillion-dollar apartments and then say the spaces don’t match their specifications. They apply for a line of credit before art auctions, supposedly to buy a painting or a sculpture, but use that borrowed money to pay other debts.

Is the conspicuous consumption and invidious comparison animating this article supposed to make us feel better or worse about being among the anonymous middle? And is it endemic to that strata discussed or simply manufactured through selective anecdote for the purposes of the article, which has other ideological fish to fry. After all, promulgating the notion that conspicuous consumption is a pervasive preoccupation makes good business sense for the fashion pages.

Rob Walker's Buying In (4 June 2008)

Each week, Rob Walker writes the Consumed column in the New York Times Magazine, which is sort of a thinking person's trendspotting report. Unlike most writers who cover consumerism, he's not interested in clarifying a marketing strategy worth mimicking (or browbeating readers into feeling ashamed about shopping) so much as tracing the ways consumer needs are identified, assuaged, manufactured, and dignified -- exploring the different ways commercial and personal values influence each other. The basic premise behind the column is essentially the same as the one behind this blog, that how and why we consume is closely bound up with how we view ourselves and want to present ourselves, and that brands and goods permit us (or force us) to speak a social language about identity. He is extremely adept at finding subjects to cover that reveal some subtle wrinkle of consumerism, and he lets the reader draw conclusions from his reporting. Sometimes the reticence frustrates me -- I want the implicit idea expanded into a more general theory about consumer behavior. Thankfully, his excellent new book Buying In, which frequently draws on material originally deployed in his columns and occasional NYT Magazine features, does just that.

The book's subtitle -- "the secret dialogue between what we buy and who we are" -- is a bit misleading, because this dialogue is not entirely secret. Often, it's rather explicit that we are consuming something to evoke a lifestyle and not for the product's inherent utility (which, if you believe Baudrillard, doesn't even exist anyway). We occasionally attempt to disavow this, and marketers certainly want us to overconfidently assume we are immune to advertising, as this makes us all the more vulnerable to it. And marketers generally search for ways to insinuate their messages so that we pre-endorse them before contemplating the ulterior motives behind such communication. If we find the marketing messages useful enough to our identity-construction project, the goods involved that mediate these messages won't be examined too carefully for their own actual usefulness. We buy into the socially constructed concepts, and the goods themselves are artifacts, souvenirs of this. We consume marketing, but console ourselves with the fiction that we are consuming some specific product. This helps us feel that we are still steering our own ship, that we haven't sold out, that we aren't rubes, that we are somehow generating our identity from the depths of our soul and not within the narrow confines of what the zeitgeist and the available tools permit.

The interplay between consumers, marketers and goods is less secret than it is contradictory -- as Walker explains in the introduction, consumerism is a means to resolve what he calls the fundamental tension of modern life: "the eternal dilemma of wanting to feel like individuals and to feel as though we are part of something bigger than ourselves." Another way to regard this is as the problem of securing social recognition in a competitive consumer culture, where one can easily be drawn into quests to be the first to own some desirable product or to be the first to devise some crafty use of a standard commodity, and so on. We want to be recognized for our individuality, which is itself a socially constructed ideal, the terms of which are not defined by individuals. The ideal is disseminated through brands and products (which are, as Walker points out, engineered to have maximum "projectability" -- meaning that they can represent different things for different consumers without dissolving into meaninglessness), which encapsulate the meanings we rely on to flesh out what we want our own lives to mean to others and, via that route, ourselves. Walker argues convincingly that we use goods to tell stories about ourselves to ourselves (and not merely to communicate status, as it can often seem), but they are only capable of convincing ourselves because we know they have social currency. Goods must become a language, with a common grammar and vocabulary, and marketing (for better of worse) is the means by which the language is fabricated and supported. As Walker recognizes, this is a matter of allowing brands to be flexible in their signification.

Saussure's distinction between the langue, the language system, and the parole, a specific instance of signification, is relevant here: Ads are generally incoherent at the parole level, but that helps establish the hegemony of the langue -- reinforcing the rules by which we can make and convey meaning out of brands and branded goods. A good example is how nonsensical TV commercials dissolve logic in the particular instance so that an illogical form of persuasion can reign in all of them. An individual ad that makes no sense is dismissable, but the climate of irrationality serves all of them well, leading us not to question the absence of causality in the ads and to use the free associational techniques promulgated therein in our own efforts to persuade others and ultimately ourselves. Only within the system is the idea that brands connote lifestyles not utterly absurd, and because the shorthand is so useful, we all become complicit in supporting it. We need the tools for making social meaning. "We are thirsty for meaning, for connection, for individuality, for ways to tell stories about ourselves that make sense," Walker writes. "Meanwhile, what brand makers generally have to sell is a pretty good product that is hardly equipped to fulfill those needs." So commercial persuasion is deployed to bridge that gap and conceal the inadequacies of consumerism as a means to quench that thirst.

"Secret dialogue" is a slightly-off way of getting at Walker's main preoccupation: what he calls "murketing" -- murky marketing. (It must be noted that Walker has a slight overfondness for coining phrases and capitalizing them; perhaps this is symptomatic of aiming to attract readership in the business community -- you are forced to manufacture buzzwords. It's especially weird to read a book that's in part about such techniques also employing them itself. I guess you can't spend as much time around marketers as Walker has without being infected with their disease.) And the book chronicles the many different ways marketers have come up with to create new means for getting their messages across, incorporating branding and advertisements into various unlikely corners of everyday life and making it the driving force behind all sorts of spectacles. Walker argues that our growing ability to click off ads and such (through TiVo, etc.) forces marketing to become murketing, but ads and entertainment were already in the process of merging, especially if you accept Frankfurt school arguments about the culture industry. Consumerism is a totalizing system, entertainment products reinforce the needs they purport to sate. They are ads for entertainment while being entertainment, just as ads are entertainment in their own right that people enjoy consuming as a means for being able to launch into vicarious fantasizing. Walker's point (I think) is that the more we are able to shut out advertising foisted on us involuntarily ("the power of the click" in his terminology), the more we invite advertising into our lives voluntarily on what we believe are our own terms. The power of the click doesn't decrease the amount of ads we consume; it just makes us believe we direct and control the flow. brands and marketing have no less force in shaping the public discourse. Paradoxically the technology for blocking ads only makes ads have a more powerful hold over us, as we take it upon ourselves to seek out the ads we want and grant them more currency in shaping our identities. We remain dependent on marketing discourse to make shopping meaningful in the way we have come to expect, in the way a consumer society (by suppressing or commercializing all other public discourses) forces us to respect. We are shifting from a consumer society to a promotional society.

Given that dependency, it's no surprise that consumers cooperate with marketers, as it affords us an opportunity to participate more directly in what is self-evidently one of the most pervasive public discourses in our society. When we collaborate with advertisers, helping spread their messages, we capture that elusive sense of being a part of something bigger, and we get to feel like we are behind the curtain, with our hands on the controls, rather than being the target. (It's like being on reality TV rather than watching it.) People want to participate in branding and marketing because the viable alternatives for shared sociality, social participation, have been disappearing, in no small part because of the marketing culture itself -- anywhere an alternative arises (say, aspects of the lost culture of clubs and organizations chronicled by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone, or an authentic grassroots lifestyle or organically developed subculture -- Walker highlights the skateboarding culture of Southern California detailed in Dogtown and Z Boys) marketing agents swoop in to co-opt it.

This is what murketing is all about, finding these alternatives, or any attempts to subvert the mainstream meaning of objects, and reassimilating them to consumerism. It is the ongoing way in which marketing preserves itself as the culture, as the space in which popular culture exists. As Walker notes, "the idea that shared consumer tastes add up to something like a community is a pervasive one." And the end of marketing, as it has evolved, seems to be to assure that shared consumer tastes is the only community possible, particular as old ties within communities dissolve under the pressure of globalization and virtualization and the delocalization of culture. In this atmosphere, the cooptation and the collaboration are mutually reinforcing, as both seem to enhance the significance of the original activity (because marketing is like a megaphone -- it seems to operate on the same scale as the mass culture we consume) even as they are cannibalizing its significance as an alternative.

His most provocative chapter, about the ad firm BzzAgent and its army of volunteer shills who spend their social lives spreading word-of-mouth advertising for companies, explores this in depth. That people are eager to volunteer to spread product gossip suggests the nature of the promotional society, in which the most respected public discourse (the sort that we spend money on and consume the most of) is marketing. To speak in that voice is to be speaking with the dominant voice of the culture. Its pervasiveness has detached it from its function; the climate of commerciality (which has become a proxy for a kind of popularity) overwhelms the specific promotion of any product, so the BzzAgents don't care what they are promoting as long as they are promoting, which gives them something to say that will be socially recognized as significant, relevant to everyone's lives as consumers in consumer society. Walker details a few BzzAgents overcoming their shyness through having some marketing pitch to dispense and a means to keep score of how social they are being (making social life into a competitive game). So ordinary conversation between individuals gets assimilated to marketing. "Even in the small orbit of your own social circle," Walker writes, "knowing about something first -- telling a friend about a new CD or discovering a restaurant before anyone else in the office -- is satisfying. Maybe it's altruism, maybe it's a power trip, but influencing other people feels good." So we get involved with trends for their own sake, for the sake of influencing itself, not because we have faith in the substance of what we are convincing people of. Marketing becomes the medium for social life, becomes the substance of public space. Promotion as an activity has supplanted promotion as a means. We have become a society of sophists.

Perhaps in the future, all people will learn to socialize primarily through having something to promote, since it supplies a reason for social interaction when technology is otherwise working to eliminate it in the name of convenience.

Even as our social activities get co-opted, we get to co-opt the methods of marketing to market ourselves. Hence in effective murketing, we become the subject of ads rather than the target. We invest ourselves in nebulously defined brands, which seem to be unlocking our creative self-fashioning potential, while at the same time we are basically enhancing a company's brand equity. It's not clear whether this is a fair exchange. It's hard not to see the shallowness and potential for corporate manipulation in commercial-made selfhood. The problem with all this identity-and-social-recognition consumption is that it negates the space for public action -- or rather it reduces all public action to a number of shopping choices. We don't build a public self through what we do so much as through what we buy and display.

With that point in mind, Walker explores the idea of people starting their own brands or conceiving of themselves as brands -- thoroughly depressing. But he avoids celebrating them, and doesn't make the reactionary mistake of regarding consumerism as a form of liberating production for consumers simply because people can derive their own meanings from the goods and marketing practices supplied. In that way, his book is a step beyond the futile debate over whether hyperconsumerism is good or bad and whether consumers are victims or not. (It's reminiscent of anthropologists Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood's The World of Goods, another book about consumption as a meaning-making practice, that way.) It eschews such evaluations and concentrates on elucidating what consumer society is becoming, the various ways it is adapting, how it twists technology to suit its values. He insists repeatedly that we collaborate in making brands powerful, but he is equally insistent in arguing that consumers aren't "in control" as a consequence, striking an important balance.

Walker tries to end on an optimistic note, evoking the ultimate privacy of the meanings we make of our belongings and how we "pull the wool over our own eyes" with regard to consumer goods to satisfy ourselves that way. And though he posits some alternatives to the dominant consumer culture in the craft movement and unconsumption, the overriding conclusion is that we have no choice but to fashion our sense of self "out there in the marketplace, acting in our own self-interest" -- constrained by the tenets of capitalism made universal.

Ostentatious gastronomy (3 June 2008)

I'm reflexively skeptical of elaborate menu copy -- the lush descriptions of the novel combinations of ingredients (often hyperspecified -- not just cucumber but compressed English cucumber) and unfamiliar modes of preparation for which loan words from French are required. Part of this is because this sort of language betokens expensiveness. I start to suspect I am paying for the sumptuous prose, which has set itself as mediating screen for the food, rather than for the food itself. Eating is inherently a democratic activity -- everyone has equal claim to being right about what they like -- but these menus are trying desperately to obscure that fact, make dining into a region of insecurity, identity formation, and class distinction.

But a larger part of my problem is that these menus make me feel stupid. I don't have the vocabulary necessary to understand them, and autodidact that I am, I hate to ask for explanations. Confronted with the incomprehensible descriptions that I can't really ignore, I often feel like a provincial rube, and I feel like this is by design -- I'm the sort of person the restaurant wants to feel excluded so that the target audience can enjoy their distinction a little bit more. I don't aspire to be sort of person who seeks that form of distinction, so I end up feeling completely alienated, annoyed at the existence of people who are impressed with ostentatious gastronomy; and my mouth refuses to taste what's there in the food as a way of expressing my very pointless protest.

I know that is mostly irrational paranoia, and that this is the sort of situation in which I should be applying Nassim Nicholas Taleb's dictum to reserve skepticism for the big questions -- not for the ulterior motives of small-time restaurateurs. They have the benign motive of wanting to make dining into an aesthetic experience and sharing the chef's artistry, but I don't want to eat aesthetically, so I get flustered by attempts to encourage me to do so. I don't want the chef to be an artist; I don't want to be able to discuss dining as I might talk about a movie or a well-written poem. Not only do I lack the discernment to recognize the chef's effort, but I almost feel negated by the chef's assertion of ego into my attempt to meet my fundamental need for nourishment.

Aestheticization of eating turns something primal into something that other people can judge you for -- if they can deem your ability to eat, to sustain your life, flawed, it is almost like they can reject your right to have any private sensations whatsoever. Shouldn't some aspects of life be beyond stylization? Shouldn't there be reserves of experience that remain direct, beyond the reach of self-consciousness, because they are so basic to our needs as humans? Do I have this backward? Are our fundamental needs the first to become complexly intertwined with society's need to fabricate and perpetuate hierarchies? (Maybe I need to read some Levi-Strauss or something on this point.)

One's tastes in food are extremely personal; they are perhaps the primary way to assert one's individuality. When one surrenders fussiness and learns to trust in the sophisticated concoctions of other self-appointed culinary artists, as expressed in menu copy, one cedes a huge territory on which one can establish identity. When you buy into the complicated menu, no substitutions, no longer can you say to yourself, "I choose what I will eat, for me and me only; my force of will alone will decide what's appropriate to stick in my body approvingly." You are trusting instead that someone else knows better than you about those extremely intimate and ultimately inexpressible and unsharable sensory experiences you will have in your mouth and your stomach.

I have a hard time making the leap, which in many ways feels like the leap to maturity. Instead I have this narcissistic view of food (it's all must be made personally for me, how I want it, because only MY ideas are valid about what I will eat), which requires those who make it to be anonymous, and that their methods be straightforward, transparent, and easily replicable. I want the food's deliciousness to be a reflection of my own ingenuity for choosing to eat it, not the special genius of the cooks who prepared it.

Turning goods into experiences (2 June 2008)

Taking off from a remark in the NYT foodie blog that "the same plate of pasta goes down a lot easier at $12 -- it even tastes better at $12 -- than it does at $16," Felix Salmon wonders why the same is not true of wine, which we think tastes better when we know it was more expensive (at least according to a study described here).
everybody has wine insecurities. If we know that wine quality is inversely correlated with price, then why do we feel guilty bringing a cheap bottle of wine to a dinner party? Probably because if it turns out not to be very good, the "but it was quite expensive" defense is a reasonable one. When navigating a strange and scary and unfamiliar land - which is how most people feel when they enter a wine shop - one grasps at anything one knows, which means that people (a) buy brands they recognize, and (b) navigate by price, in the absence of any other means by which to narrow down the selection.
Very few people, by contrast, are insecure when it comes to food. They know what they like, and while they might well be willing to pay a lot of money for a great meal, they're generally even happier when they pay very little money for a great meal. What's more, if there's one big secular trend in the restaurant world, it's away from the three-star gourmet palaces of old, where you dressed for dinner and were served ostentatiously expensive food like Lobster Thermidor on fine china by obsequious waiters, and towards much more low-key shops which concentrate on the food more than the theater and which pride themselves on doing great things with formerly déclassé ingredients.
Interestingly, it's the grander, more high-theater holdouts which still tend to have the magnificent wine lists full of really expensive bottles. Maybe the more casual places know that without the accompanying palaver, a great wine won't seem quite as magnificent.
By "accompanying palaver" Salmon may mean the Grand Guignol absurdity of fine dining, but it seems to apply equally to all forms of marketing copy for consumption goods of nebulous utility. In these instances, we consume the copy, not the good. With pricey wine, we consume the experience of ourselves spending on something extravagant. It's generally to retailers' benefit to transform goods into experiences, which are subject to a different emotional and economic calculus. With experiential goods, there's hardly any standard by which we could tell whether or not we were ripped off. So we feel safer spending on them, and the rewards they supply us are immeasurable. That's perhaps why Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of The Black Swan, says (in this Times of London profile) "Scepticism is effortful and costly. It is better to be sceptical about matters of large consequences, and be imperfect, foolish and human in the small and the aesthetic." Skepticism deprives us of the ability to fool ourselves into thinking our unique experiences are worth any price. We can't know with any confidence what the real value of the experience it is, only that it diminishes if we start doubting it. If it creeps into our head that the wine is a ripoff, we enjoy it less than we would if were thinking we were giving ourselves an expensive treat. Skepticism makes us aware of hype as hype rather than letting hype serve its role of amplifying our experience of our own time. We only get to live once, and there is little good in regarding that time as inadequate or inferior to some lost time we would have preferred.

Marketing is primarily an exercise in achieving the transformation of goods into experiences: trying to make a routine shopping trip feel like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; trying to make us think of ourselves and the kind of people we can become rather than the good itself and its limited capabilities; trying to convince us that a good confers distinction, making ownership of it into an accomplishment in its own right. (An antidote to this is the pursuit of scoreboard -- of bargains for their own sake.) Is it worth the effort to be skeptical of this sort of marketing? The danger is that these ersatz experiences with a price tag could supplant noncommercial experiences, which become devalued relative to those experiences being hyped. When experiences become purchasable in a market society, "real" experiences are only those with the imprimatur of the marketplace. Just as certain products seem more legitimate when they are bought in a "real store" (I'd rather get my socks from Macy's than from a random dude on the corner of 76th Street and Broadway), experiences may become subject to the same bias.

Why are oil prices so high? (29 May 2008)

Why are oil prices so high? The obvious answer would seem to be because we are running out of it. Peak-oil enthusiasts have argued this for years, but the idea is creeping closer to the mainstream. In the New York Times Paul Krugman argued that prices were based on fundamentals of supply and demand in this column from a week ago. He was responding to the idea that commodity speculators are wreaking havoc on the natural play of economic forces, an argument that fund manager Michael Masters recently presented at a Senate committee hearing. He blames "index speculators" among institutional investors, whose demand for oil futures rivals China:
According to the DOE, annual Chinese demand for petroleum has increased over the last five years from 1.88 billion barrels to 2.8 billion barrels, an increase of 920 million barrels.8 Over the same five-year period, Index Speculators' demand for petroleum futures has increased by 848 million barrels. The increase in demand from Index Speculators is almost equal to the increase in demand from China!
At his blog, Steve Waldman takes an elaborate look at Masters's view and asks this pertinent question: "But what if the price-setting speculators are not momentum-driven index funds, but 'traditional speculators', correctly predicting that prices are below long-term fundamentals? Then limiting commodity speculation would prolong the mispricing, and cause us to waste resources that are kept artificially cheap." In other words, we would keep wasting fuel because regulators would be keeping its price artificially stabilized (kind of like they do in Venezuela and Indonesia).

Of course, there are high political stakes in this argument: if it's speculation and not peak oil that's driving prices, then we needn't worry so much about conservation or build any expectation of permanently higher fuel prices into our economic decisionmaking. That would make American automakers happy, at least, and supply political demagogues with an easy target as Americans suffer through "the summer driving season" paying prices at the pump ($4+ a gallon) that they have never dealt with before. As Krugman points out,
Traditionally, denunciations of speculators come from the left of the political spectrum. In the case of oil prices, however, the most vociferous proponents of the view that it’s all the speculators’ fault have been conservatives — people whom you wouldn’t normally expect to see warning about the nefarious activities of investment banks and hedge funds.
Why? Because the conservatives want to pretend America, in its glorious exceptionalism, need not change a thing about its wasteful behavior.

The surprising shift Krugman notes could actually be seen as the return of the old alignment of economic liberalism with political liberalism on one side, and economic conservatism and government intervention on the other, as it was before the Industrial Revolution, when society's elites (if you accept Polanyi's thesis in The Great Transformation) attempted to forestall the market's overwhelming society and all its established mores. In this sociopolitical configuration, conservatism is not about guaranteeing a free market but about preserving the existing distribution of power. For a while, a free market served that end, but conservatives have never cared about freedom per se. Our coming energy problems may make then more than abundantly clear.

Anecdote of Boalsberg Memorial Day Festival (27 May 2008)

By coincidence, I spent Memorial Day in the town where the holiday was born: Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, which is in Centre County a few miles from State College. The town naturally tries to milk this designation for all its worth and holds a day-long festival with Civil War reenactments, a maypole dance, local school kids reading patriotic essays, folk music (we heard "Roll Out the Barrel," a Pennsyl-tucky favorite), and a parade that culminates at the cemetery where Memorial Day first occurred. (The festival also coincided with the Boalsburg Firehouse Carnival, where I played 25-cent Bingo and ate funnel cake. I steered clear of the deep-fried dill pickle.)

Along with the festivities were booths lining the town's two main streets from which people (local artisans mostly) sold a variety of tchotchkes. Much of this was what you'd expect -- quilts, soaps, candles, Penn State toilet-seat covers, homemade scrubbies, salad-dressing kits, wrought-iron garden ornaments, caricature drawings, hand-lettered wooden plaques with such slogans as "What happens in the Hot Tub stays in the Hot Tub" and "It's hard to be pretentious in flip-flops," bird feeders, wooden jewelry and whatnot. A lot of it was reminiscent of faintly discreditable stuff you'd see advertised on late-night TV or home-shopping channels, products that seem novel for a moment, before you realize how unnecessary or how unlikely to deliver on their promises they are. I end up feeling skeptical, thinking that the stuff would be sold in "real stores" if it were any good -- you see how the retailers have me right where they want me. (The aura of authenticity that retail stores cast over their merchandise is of course a carefully calibrated accomplishment akin to the brand equity produced for products through advertising.)

Craft fairs don't rely on bargain pricing, an approach the TV hucksters sometimes try. With the merchandise at craft fairs, room for bartering is typically built into the prices of the doodads on offer, but they also include what might be considered an anti-tariff, a fee meant to remind buyers that these are artisan-made goods, built by craftspeople and local artists and not Chinese factory workers (even when the goods are in fact Chinese imports, as was the case at a few booths). The extra expense (which in theory would drive consumers to choose cheaper foreign-made alternatives) serves as a kind of guarantee of that, it reinforces the feeling one gets in shopping at craft fairs in the first place: "I'm supporting local people, real people." Buying local goods is environmentally beneficial (saves on transport costs), but ethnocentrism seems to be the main feature of craft fairs, even when some particular kind of folk art is not specified by the occasion. Ethnocentrism and a chance to indulge pious nostalgia for hardy craftsmanship may even be considered the primary goods for sale at such events. More important than the good is the connection established with a particular artisan, the good becomes a souvenir for that good feeling of providing patronage.

What struck me most about my Boalsburg experience, though, was one particular booth that had some moody lithographs and spare, unsentimental prints -- a silhouette of birds congregated on a telephone pole, set at an ominous angle with the frame, for example. Nothing wildly original, but clearly an entirely different aesthetic sensibility than that embodied by the bedazzled teddy bears to be seen elsewhere. The booth's proprietor was not a middle-aged flea-market veteran, as with most of the others, but a woman in her mid-20s, probably a recent art-school graduate who made the most likely difficult choice to give an honest go at trying to sell her work to a paying crowd. In the past, I might have found her to be sad, sort of pathetic, and quite possibly would have considered her to be some sort of sellout. But I see that impulse now as a defense mechanism, because I know I lack the bravery to do something like that. I wouldn't be able to handle the rejection or the ego bruising that comes with general indifference to one's precious creativity when it's put on display.

The woman at the fair seemed to me more sincere about her work than, say, artists in established artists' neighborhoods in hipster districts, amid an audience of friends and fellow "artists" who won't bother to challenge their conceptions of what artists should do -- which seem to be to elect one another to an elite class of art appreciators and applaud one another's originality and distinct vision. They make art as part of a lifestyle, and teh lifestyle draws a circle around itself and wards away the outside world. The woman in Boalsburg confronted that outside world directly. It seemed to me that she wasn't out to be recognized as an artist so much as she was trying to send her work out into the world where it might do something other than serve as a testimony to her sense of self. There's a good chance that she probably didn't sell a thing all day, but for me, anyway, she was the jar on the hill in the Wallace Stevens poem.

Dead brands (21 May 2008)

As I was reading Rob Walker's feature about dead brands -- brands abandoned by their owners that firms are now acquiring and trying to reanimate -- I was wondering how long it would be before he got into what I think is the most interesting point about them, namely, that the product that goes out under these brands is ultimately superfluous to their value -- their "brand equity" seems entirely the product of their advertising and not at all of the original quality of the products. So the names can be purchased and a new product released under those names with no effort to simulate the original. The new Brim coffee probably won't taste the same as the old Brim but no one will care. As Walker points out, most people won't remember that it was decaf only. (I didn't.)
Earle [founder of River West, a zombie-brand clearinghouse] says that this imperfection of memory can be used to enhance whatever new Brim he comes up with. This is “a benefit of dormancy,” he says. The brand equity has value on its own, but it can be grafted onto something newer and, perhaps, more innovative. “Consumers remember the kind of high-level essence of the brand,” he says. “They tend to forget the product specifics.” This, he figures, creates an opening: it gives the reintroduced version “permission” to forget that decaf-only limitation as well and morph into a full line of coffee varieties.

Brand value seems to be a matter of how memorable the jingle is -- which points to the conclusion that branding has nearly nothing to do with guaranteeing specific qualities, as sometimes is claimed. If anything, it might remind consumers who to hold responsible if the product disappoints, but as the sale of brands from company to company shows, that now doesn't really apply either. Brands are a language in the Saussurean sense, a collection of signifiers, with no necessary relation to any signifieds, whose meaning is established through grammar and custom alone -- that is how they are used in the moment and what we collectively remember about their previous meanings. And our memory is very faulty.

Walker eventually gets into this through the way brands live on in people's memory in a different way than the utility of branded products does. The brands connote emotional qualities -- the bundles of characteristics of goods that economist Kelvin Lancaster argued (see Krugman's synopsis here) were more relevant to consumers than specific products. These bundles, as brands, compete in the marketplace, the specific products in their particularity recede from the picture. Best of all for marketers, the connotation of the brand is fairly malleable -- more so than, say, the taste of robusto beans. So marketers can bank on the brand's sheer familiarity as a kind of abstract notion -- not familiarity with some particular aspect, just familiarity in general. Brands, then, are like celebrities who are famous for being famous.

Having more money vs. buying cheaper goods (20 May 2008)

Prompted by James Surowiecki's most recent New Yorker column, the econoblogosphere has been discussing this paper about purchasing power and income inequality. Says Surowiecki, "In a recent paper on the effect of trade with China, the University of Chicago economists Christian Broda and John Romalis estimate that poor Americans devote around forty per cent more of their spending to 'non-durable goods' than rich Americans do. That means that lower-income Americans get a much bigger benefit from the lower prices that trade with China has brought." Broda and Romalis's University of Chicago colleague Steven Leavitt (of Freakonomics fame) chimes in, highlighting the counterintuitive idea that "Inequality has not grown over the last decade — at least not very much. What we think is a rise in inequality is merely an artifact of how we measure things." Which in turn delights Cato Institute scholar Will Wilkinson, who's anxious to rebut critics of rising income inequality: "If you think economic inequality matters, that’s because you think relative economic well-being matters. If you think economic well-being matters, then what you care about is consumption, not income. So what you’re worried about, my egalitarian friend, is consumption inequality. If the trend in consumption inequality is flat, will you please make a note of it?" That's all in line with the libertarian ideology that holds that we can't jeopardize the outsize rewards reaped from capitalism's "creative destruction" with any sort of regulation lest we hamper society's "dynamism." (That's also why unreconstructed Randians like Alan Greenspan don't want to do anything to forestall bubbles.)

Somewhat bizarrely, Leavitt argues (perhaps following the paper's argument, though the abstract draws few interpretive conclusions) that because the lower-income bracket's basket of goods has seen less inflation than the basket of goods typical for wealthier people, that inequality between the two groups has been mitigated. Felix Salmon questions the numbers here, but there seems to be a strange methodological assumption as well. Poor people haven't chosen to buy the cheapening goods before the fact; they by them because they have to, because they are already cheap and not because they prefer them. So they may experience less inflation, but their stagnant incomes mean they don't have the ability to price themselves into a different (and possibly more satisfying, more status conferring) level of consumption. I don't know about you, but wouldn't you want the rich person's basket anyway, assuming you could afford it? Would you prefer clothes from SoHo boutiques or from Factory 2 U? Leavitt's logic seems to be that you can enrich yourself de facto by buying cheap things, a la the Ernest and Julio Gallo commercial where the sybarite fat cat drinking cheap wine purrs, "How do you think I got so rich?" I don't feel particularly rich when I go to the 99-cent store to buy recycling bags and am surrounded by mind-boggling amount of cheap crap available -- instead I feel thankful that I don't have to do my ordinary shopping there. It reminds me why it's so comforting to be in luxury-retail zones, where clutter and sensory assault is minimized and precious retail space is wasted conspicuously. Less, in certain contexts, is much more. I'd suppose I would rather be in a position to enjoy fewer luxuries and revel in the experience they provide than be in a position where I couldn't even dream about buying such experiences at all.

As economist Lane Kenworthy argues
Consumption is worth paying attention to. But income is important in its own right because it confers capabilities to make choices. What matters, in this view, is what you are able to buy rather than what you want to buy. If a rich person with expensive tastes gets an extra $100,000, she can continue buying high-end clothes and gadgets. Or she can choose to purchase low-end Chinese-made products and save the difference. Suggesting that if she opts for the former there has been no rise in inequality is not very compelling.

The homeownership cult (19 May 2008)

Tanta at Calculated Risk does us the service of dismantling the bizarre recent NYT editorial fretting over the "psychological scarring" brought on by foreclosure by economist Robert Shiller, once a stern critic of "irrational exuberance" who seems to have become an apologist for the homeownership cult and the property buyers who went in over their heads.. Foreclosure is no doubt painful, but I vigorously disagree with the idea that people skeptical of bailouts are "cynics". And this preposterous piece of ownership society propaganda made my eyeballs melt: "Homeownership is fundamental part of a sense of belonging to a country." Really? "People instinctively understand that homeownership conveys good feelings about belonging in our society, and that such feelings matter enormously, not only to our economic success but also to the pleasure we can take in it." Owning a home is "instinctual"? Aarrrgghhh. Not only am I not a real citizen, but I have faulty human instincts. Perhaps I should be interred somewhere to protect the ownership society at large. Then, Shiller wries,
The psychologist William James wrote in 1890 that “a man’s Self is the sum total of all that he CAN call his, not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes and his house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his lands and horses, and yacht and bank account.”
Homeownership is thus an extension of self; if one owns a part of a country, one tends to feel at one with that country. Policy makers around the world have long known that, and hence have supported the growth of homeownership.
Apparently Shiller thinks we should adjust laws to help men's Selves feel sure of all their possessions, not just their houses but their women as well. If he owns her, he will feel at one with her, and isn't that a recipe for a good marriage?

As Tanta says:
I'm actually, you know, in favor of some sympathy for homeowners, but one thing that does get in the way of that for a lot of us is, well, the rather disgusting shallowness that a lot of them displayed on the way up. There is this whole part of our culture that has sprung into being since 1890 that takes a rather severe view of conspicuous consumption, unbridled materialism, and totally self-defeating use of debt to buy McMansions, if not yachts. We were treated to a fair amount of that kind of thing in the last few years. In fact, we had Dr. Shiller explaining to us last year that a lot of folks just wanted to get rich, quick, in real estate.
It is undeniably true, I assert, that not everyone was a speculatin' spend-thrift maxing out the HELOCs to buy more toys, and that part of our problem today with public opinion is that we extend our (quite proper) disgust for these latter-day Yuppies to the entire class "homeowner." But it is surely an odd way to engage our sympathies for the non-speculator class to speak of it in Jamesian terms as the man whose self is defined by his Stuff, and whose psychological pain is felt most acutely when he recognizes that he is now just like the riff-raff.
It's worse than odd -- it's downright reactionary -- to then go on to that evocation of homeownership as good citizenship and good citizenship as "feel[ing] at one with [the] country." This puts a rather sinister light on Shiller's earlier insistence that we need to make sure people don't get too "cynical."


At Naked Capitalism, Yves Smith also mocks this ludicrous editorial:
This piece illustrates much of what is wrong-headed about the "rescue the homeowner" concept. First, attempting to prop up assets at levels not supported by the underlying economics (in this case, incomes) does not work (see here for an illustration). The prices will in the end revert to a sustainable level, if not trade below them for a while in some (perhaps even many) markets. Japan is an extreme example of the consequences: low growth due to good capital being thrown after bad and delays in clearing out bad loans and recapitalizing the financial system so it could get back to its job of funding productive enterprise.
Second, keeping housing expensive hurts first-time buyers, such as the young and the lower income. It not only makes it more difficult for them to engineer a purchase, but in communities which participated in the housing boom, assures that their housing investment will be lousy, if not a loser. It's unlikely to appreciate from an inflated level; the best outcome would be for it to hold its nominal value for a long time while its real value gets eroded by inflation.

Then, in response to Shiller's call for a salve on the wounded psyches of distressed homeowners, she adds:
Moving if you are a kid sucks. But Shiller wouldn't argue that government intervention is called for to prevent family relocations due to getting a new job, divorce, deciding to be closer to aging parents. Note that other forms of financial trauma that might lead to a residential downsizing also fail to merit government subsidies, such as a renter having to move into even smaller digs (or moving in with parents or children) due to a job loss, high medical bills, or overspending. No, thanks to the sanctity of homeownership, giving up a house you can't afford is a tragedy deserving of Federal aid, while other forms of psychological or financial loss don't cut it.

That's it in a nutshell. Homeownership is seen as something we must protect at all costs, even for people who overreached; poverty, homelessness, health insurance, etc., etc., etc. -- not so much. The cult of homeownership has too many people brainwashed. Economist Tim Duy, looking at how out of whack home prices have become in Bend, Oregon, puts it succinctly in a very concrete context: "the magnitude of the misalignment in Bend is quite remarkable, and in my mind represents a complete failure of social policy. This is especially the case when policy has turned homeownership into a moral imperative, creating a culture that equates renting with failure and granite countertops with success."

Taste the music (19 May 2008)

The BBC reports on a study of how listening to music can affect our appreciation of wine.

The Heriot Watt University study found people rated the change in taste by up to 60% depending on the melody heard. The researchers said cabernet sauvignon was most affected by "powerful and heavy" music, and chardonnay by "zingy and refreshing" sounds. Professor Adrian North said the study could lead retailers to put music recommendations on their wine bottles.

This seemed a pretty random thing to be investigating -- at a certain level everything affects how we perceive everything else, so what's the use? (But it's interesting that this study was commissioned by a vintner, as if seeking a scientific imprimatur for a new line of marketing attack. People are bored with pairing wine with food; let's see if they'll bite for pairing it with music!)

Of course our judgments are affected by our environment. Consuming wine is already meant to evoke a kind of class-inflected gestalt -- the sort of thing that has political pundits contrasting the wine-track from the beer-track among American voters. Our subjective experience of both wine and music is so nebulous that they seem a perfect pair; we make unverifiable subjective claims about them both independently, so why not fuse them and enable a host of new pompous prescriptive declarations? Both have an edifice of connoisseurship built up around them, meaning that they are both especially suited for deployment as cultural capital. Bringing them together broadens the opportunity for such displays exponentially.

Basically, studies like these reveal what behavioral economists insist on, what Dan Ariely's book Predicatbly Irrational makes clear over and over again: that context shapes how we consume things. Most goods seem to have intrinsic value, but they turn out to be experiential goods. Oenophile propaganda aside, wine has no intrinsic quality -- we can't determine what it is "really worth" or how good it "really" tastes independent of what's going on when we are drinking it. We make the giids useful; they don't have some finite amount of value stored within them beforehand, in the abstract. But it's very difficult for us to break the habit of attributing our personal ability to give goods value to the goods themselves -- what Marx called commodity fetishism, basically.

There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things quâ commodities, and the value relation between the products of labor which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There, it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labor, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

So Marx attributes this phenomenon to the capitalist mode of production and labor exploitation and so on, but it may be exacerbated by our awareness of our own limitations, and our wish to augment the amount of value we are able to experience. If the goods have pleasure-giving qualities we don't, maybe we can better ourselves through them. So it is that we set ourselves for disappointment over and over again in consumerism, as we acquire a good and discover the pleasure we get from it is once again limited not by the good itself but by our imagination.

Manufacturing neuroticism (16 May 2008)

I am on the record as being against customer service. It seems to me a trick to get us overinvested in shopping as a place where we can exercise our will to power. So when Yves Smith asks, in this post about a few ideas for new consumer-service businesses, "Do we want to foster customer neurosis?" I believe the answer is yes. Of course we do. Retailing is essentially the art of making insignificant choices seem paramount, and getting people hooked on the "thrill" of making such discriminations. Total neuroticism is the art practiced at its highest form and is a state of mind marketing in general is always preparing us for, stoking our fantasies of omnipotence and our insecurities about not belonging to group of preferred customers or whatever. (That is part of the logic behind retailers' loyalty programs -- those stupid cards you have to flash to get the sale price on items, like you are part of some elite cadre of special shoppers. Though the main reason for them, I always thought, was to track what you purchased and use that to compile demographic data to sell to manufacturers and advertisers.)

Perplexed by services for helping customers get the best rooms or seats within a hotel or particular flight, Smith asks "Is this much information really empowering, or does having such fine grading merely make some people unhappy when they don't get what their little website says is the best?" It certainly supplies the illusion of power and an opportunity to discriminate. I think it allows for the pleasure of making petty judgments, becoming ersatz insiders, and scoring insignificant victories over peer shoppers on a scoreboard that the insecurity mongers conjure out of thin air. Basically, when we as customers become fussy children, the retailers become our parental authority figures, granting or withholding the love we crave, even as we foolishly believe we are in control because we are being fussed over.

In a consumer society, shopping isn't about satisfying some set of wants extrinsic to the market arena -- it is about entering the arena and having our wants stoked and then satisfied, with our competitive juices stoked and our fantasizing mind fully engaged. Shopping is itself an experiential good; anything we take happen to take home from us is often just a souvenir.

Like Vaughn at Mind Hacks, I'm generally skeptical of neuroscientific research of the brain-lights-up-therefore-it's-true variety, but for what it's worth, this WSJ piece today explains that shopping is like crack smoking:
Research shows that people often do get a high from shopping -- the brain releases chemicals such as dopamine or serotonin when a person is stimulated by discovering something new, such as a handbag. Sometimes, aspects of the shopping experience such as friendly sales clerks, eye-catching displays or aisles that are easy to navigate can trigger brain activity that brings about these "euphoric moments," says Dr. David Lewis, director of neuroscience at Mindlab International, a United Kingdom-based consultancy whose clients include athletes, retailers and advertising companies. "The brain is turned on by novelty."
The writer sums up that "For the consumer, such studies serve as an important reminder that these euphoric moments do exist but they aren't necessarily triggered by the desire to own a particular item." I'm starting to believe that we convince ourselves we want some specific thing as an alibi so that we can enjoy the shopping experience as a whole. Like when I would sit down for some "writing" because I knew that would lead to cigarette breaks.

To a larger and larger degree, the wants occur after we have already decided to go shopping; they are not the impetus. So we don't start by wishing we could be "getting a better room" but we enter the sphere of services and discover that we can and then want to. The key for marketers is to keep us in that sphere -- a mental space more than a physical space -- where we are searching for things to buy, with buying becoming how we remind ourselves of our being.

The end of record stores (14 May 2008)

On the internet, displaying our musical taste has become easy to the point of being virtually automatic. Social networking sites, with searchable lists of our preferences, seem expressly designed for the purpose. And if we so choose, we can let people eavesdrop on what we are listening to through our computer at any time, or broadcast it like we are our own personal radio station. But in the real world, our options are more limited. We can drive around with our car stereos blaring, wear conspicuous T-shirts, spend a lot of time in clubs. Or we can hang around in the right record stores.

I used to go to record stores a lot -- nearly every day, in fact. But then slowly my visits tapered off, and finally I stopped going altogether. Internet distribution and home-digital-copying technology is part of the explanation for this, but it's not what I think of. Instead, I remember the last time I was in a real record store: in 2001, a place called the Sound Garden in Baltimore. Surrounded by the posters for bands I hadn't heard of, and struggling to concentrate while atonal music blared through the loudspeakers, I skulked in the aisles, hyperaware of the clerks' scowling stares and frequently jostled by the much younger customers around me. Intermittently I would flip through rows of discs, but it was a rote gesture to make myself feel less conspicuous. I had no particular hope of finding anything, and beyond that, I felt like I wasn't supposed to.

The extreme discomfort I was experiencing didn't seem accidental. Rather, a nondescript guy in his thirties like me in the store probably jeopardized its appeal with the younger, more spendthrift demographic it was after, so it had concocted the perfect blend of sensory irritations to drive people like me out -- like that device that emits a high-pitched squeal to repel teenagers, only in reverse. So in other words, like any luxury retailer, the record store was shopping for the right sort of customer and sought to discourage those who would compromise the image the store sought to convey -- that it was place where young, cool people congregated, traded information, and escaped from the plastic mainstream represented by people who looked and felt like I did. On that day in Baltimore, it dawned on me that record stores don't sell music, they sell a lifestyle.

Of course, the same is true not just of music retailers, but consumer capitalism as a whole. Virtually every company tries to associate its products with intangible desires and aspirations a consumer might have, as these are inexhaustible and are only temporarily sated by the act of shopping. No amount of Newport cigarettes will make you feel "Alive with pleasure" once and for all. You have to keep buying them in search of that elusive jouissance.

So regardless of what we buy, the process of buying itself may be where we derive the most satisfaction, the moment where we indulge most deeply in the fantasy of who the product will allow us to become. This makes where we buy crucially important, which is likely why we are often so sentimental about places like independent bookstores and record stores. Where we buy something supplies a lasting context for how we consume it. When I graduated from the Listening Booth at the local mall to Sounds, on St. Marks Place in New York City, I felt as though my tastes had matured and become more sophisticated overnight. Even though chances were good that I could have found that same XTC record at the mall, buying it downtown felt completely different, and it certainly changed how much I enjoyed it and even what it sounded like to me. (How else could I have found Oranges and Lemons to be edgy rather than derivative?)

What we were after in buying records at record stores was the lifestyle embodied in them; when they disappear, as they have begun to (as this New York Times article notes), it will be harder to recapture that feeling. But then, if that feeling was important enough in the first place, the stores wouldn't be threatened now, I guess. But I think the confusion between the supposed integrity of the product -- the alleged greatness of the music itself, stripped of context -- and the ephemeral nature of trying to capture a piece of a trend-driven lifestyle by shopping led customers to believe that it was worthwhile, a bargain even, to get the music without the context by downloading it online. They were confused about why they were buying music in the first place.

Only when it's too late for record stores will customers realize what they have lost -- that they don't want a mountain of music; they want recognition for being in a certain place vis a vis the zeitgeist.

Perhaps consumers have moved on already and are purchasing their lifestyle experience from some other outlet. Music-as-identity-indicator may have ceased to be relevant to them. Perhaps henceforth, subcultures will be formed along other lines.

Where does that leave "true music fans" who profess to want music as music? When record stores are gone and perhaps replaced with subscription services, will music itself be easier to appreciate in and of itself? Or stripped of its context, will it seem emptier than ever, each song seeming even more interchangeable with all the other songs out there waiting to be downloaded.

The conserver society (13 May 2008)

Yesterday in the New York Times, Paul Krugman opined that oil prices are high not because of speculation but dwindling supply: "A realistic view of what’s happened over the past few years suggests that we’re heading into an era of increasingly scarce, costly oil." He's not panicking about this, but seen in light of our looming problems with global warming, and reports of fertilizer shortages and the possibility we have maxed out our food production capacity, it makes one wonder if the developed world is ready to give some consideration to John Stuart Mill's idea of the "stationary state," an economy that dispenses with growth and works to achieves intensive rather than extensive gains for its populace.
It is not good for man to be kept perforce at all times in the presence of his species. A world from which solitude is extirpated, is a very poor ideal. Solitude, in the sense of being often alone, is essential to any depth of meditation or of character; and solitude in the presence of natural beauty and grandeur, is the cradle of thoughts and aspirations which are not only good for the individual, but which society could ill do without. Nor is there much satisfaction in contemplating the world with nothing left to the spontaneous activity of nature; with every rood of land brought into cultivation, which is capable of growing food for human beings; every flowery waste or natural pasture ploughed up, all quadrupeds or birds which are not domesticated for man's use exterminated as his rivals for food, every hedgerow or superfluous tree rooted out, and scarcely a place left where a wild shrub or flower could grow without being eradicated as a weed in the name of improved agriculture. If the earth must lose that great portion of its pleasantness which it owes to things that the unlimited increase of wealth and population would. extirpate from it, for the mere purpose of enabling it to support a larger, but not a better or a happier population. I sincerely hope, for the sake of posterity. that they will be content to be stationary, long before necessity compel them to it.

In his 1976 book The Limits to Satisfaction, environmental studies professor William Leiss updates that ideal and bills it as the "conserver society" that rejects the "doctrine of the insatiability of human material needs" -- a postulate of neoclassical economics -- and the idea that "nonhuman nature is ... nothing but a means for human satisfaction." (This reminds me also of Michael Pollan's argument from a few weeks ago that we should garden to lose out "cheap-energy mind" and dreams that someday "not having things might become cooler than having them" -- I am not holding my breath for that.)

According to Leiss's diagnosis, our wasteful society emerges from a process which has systematically confused people about the nature of their needs -- not by implanting false needs (as it is so tempting to argue when we see what other people are buying, or we contemplate the goods in the average 99-cent store) but by making them ever divisible and ever more ambiguous. "Each aspect of a person's needs tends to be broken down into progressively smaller component parts, and therefore it becomes increasingly difficult for that person to integrate the components into a coherent ensemble of needs and a coherent personality structure." We lose our moorings as needs are refined by the persuasion industry, with the consequence that "personal identity becomes a supple mold reshaped daily by the message mix." (Thus, I am a product of my RSS feeds.) Individualtion doesn't guide us to our particualr preferences; rather, an awareness of our individuality is itself a product of our consumer practices. Leiss argues that "the integration of the components tends to become a property of the commodities themselves" -- we become reliant on consumer goods to integrate our self-concept: "The fragmentation of needs requires on the individual's part a steadily more intensive effort to hold together his identity and personal integrity. In concrete terms this amounts to spending more and more time in consumption activities."

Then the problems incipient in the "attention economy" come into play. It takes time to use the goods we are amassing, but time is limited. So we will be motivated to choose activities that allow us to use our goods over ones that don't require things. We won't want to walk in the park when we have a stack of DVDs to watch. Incidentally, This problem is exacerbated immeasurably by the ability to download massive amounts of media for "free." Of course, it's not free; we pay in time, which we seem ill-equippped to properly value in relation to consumption. That is economist Staffan Linder's insight in The Harried Leisure Class, what Leiss calls a Gresham's Law of consumption -- "wants for ever greater numbers of commodities tend to depreciate all types of desires that are not dependent upon the consumption of things." This erodes "craft knowledge" (in Leiss's terminology) or what I think of as a kind of happiness biofeedback -- we lose touch with how to use goods efficiently to satisfy ourselves and concentrate instead on simple maximization. Hence iTunes library with 10,000 songs, many unplayed. Nothing rings more true for me than this comment of Leiss's: "The simple want for larger and larger numbers of things means that the individual must pay correspondingly less attention to the particular qualities of each want and ech thing itself. In other words, the individual must become increasingly indifferent to the fine shadings and nuances of both wants and the objects which he pursues in the search for satisfaction. (Explains a lot about pop culture, I think.) And this process of trying to achieve "increased goods intensity" (as Linder calls it) entices us to incorporate more and more gear into any activity, so that use of the gear preempts the activity itself -- we go camping to make use of all our camping supplies, not because it's fun to sleep in a tent.

Contemplating the situation we find ourselves in, Leiss sounds a lot like Al Gore before the fact: "There are some tolerance limits in the biosphere; the industrial production systems of the developed world are now testing those limits; we do not know what these limits are at present; it is unwise to continue along our present path until we reach or overshoot these limits, since by that time it may be impossible to mitigate the adverse effects or to do so only at the cost of catastrophic social disruptions." He then suggests we might limit our economic development by extending legal rights to nonhuman life and considering the "needs of nonhuman nature," to my mind a terrible way of putting the important concept of considering externalities and the mounting problem of environmental destruction. The phrase suggests I should care about environmentalism because the trees have feelings too, and despite what some believe about the secret life of plants, I remain skeptical. The reason it is imperative to reform our environmental practices -- the only reason that can resonate universally -- is the debt we owe to one another, to other humans who inevitably suffer from the damage we cause and to posterity. A tree can't advocate for itself; only humans can do so on its behalf, and that's when it becomes especially slippery, because who is to say that what the human advocate does is not simply on that specific human's behalf, at the expense of other humans.

"The Hype Cycle" (12 May 2008)

I referenced this n+1 article about the "hype cycle" in the previous post, but it's worth, well, hyping. Mocking the odious New York magazine-style approval matrices, the author compares the fluctuating social capital of cultural goods to asset bubbles, lamenting that media hype "transforms the use value of a would-be work of art into its exchange value." In other words, we don't judge art by its underlying fundamentals; instead we trade on their momentum. I'm skeptical that those things can be separated. The degree that pop culture is enjoyed privately isn't going to be expressed in the public sphere, where opinions become hype because they become part of one's identity posturing. The private enjoyment can simply be experienced; the direct pleasure of listening to a song need not be mediated to be felt. What does need mediation is the pleasure of being culturally relevant, being part of the zeitgeist or ahead of it.

So how we "use" culture depends a great deal on how we regard it contextually. Without context, there isn't much there to consume -- it's not as though the intrinsic qualities are so deep and sophisticated. That private pleasure goes only so far, and if we were after that private pleasure alone, we'd consume something other than the culture that's mainly relevant because it is contemporary. Rather, with pop culture, we are consuming context in object form; we are choosing to engage our times through an artifact, be part of the cultural conversation. This may be why most people don't mind hype and, in fact, respond positively to it. Hype gives us a reason to consume, an opportunity to get something beyond the things' intrinsic qualities. We can passively consume things that were once required activity: participation, a sense of belonging to something larger, a sense of being excited. Hype sucks primarily when you have a lot of free time to discover things to be excited about on your own -- a luxury for most people who are not pop-culture connoisseurs. For everyone else, the vicarious excitement of hype is welcome -- an efficient solution for not having enough leisure (or imagination) to become excited from scratch, entirely on our own.

The main use value of popular culture -- what makes it popular -- is its ability to signal one's personality in the public sphere. (The n+1 article limits what one might signal through culture to the reputation of connoisseurship, but most people don't seem to care about that. They want to belong, not be singled out as snobs.) What gives popular culture that capacity is its widespread distribution and its malleable substance, and often it's made with that kind of negative capability in mind. It is intentionally indeterminate, or in other words, "shallow." Hype, then, does reinforce the generic, insubstantial qualities of pop culture by expanding the base that can relate to it, creating network effects and magnifying the feelings of participation it conveys and communicating potential it has. A feedback loop is created: the shallower culture is, the more useful it is to us in the ways hype amplifies, and more hype proliferates and highlights cultural superficiality. This cycle tends to abrogate pop culture for those who want to experience it as connoisseurs (the brunt of the n+1 complaint). Hype makes us (happily, for many of us) have to consume culture as zeitgeist; it ceases to be an occasion to express our refined tastes. Instead, it liberates us from having to worry about tastes at all.

Of course, there is still public discussion of culture that is not hype, but it happens on a parallel track, only among parties that have established their bona fides with one another. Often, that means talking to oneself.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Protest branding (12 May 2008)

In his upcoming book, Buying In (which I plan to review more thoroughly in a few weeks), Rob Walker, who writes the Consumed column for the New York Times Magazine, discusses protest brands: brands consumers latch on to to try to flaunt to the world that they are indifferent to brands or too knowing to subscribe to them. His main example is Pabst Blue Ribbon, the lousy beer that has become a staple for a certain breed of hipsters. It's likely that the beer's popularity has a lot to do with its being the cheapest option in bars too cool to stock Miller or Bud, which is precisely Walker's point -- PBR seems like an alternative to the majors not because it is a substantially different product but simply because the makers don't advertise. PBR has a vaguely authentic-seeming legacy, so its name resonates and allows consumers to attach their own sets of meanings to it while still tapping into the reach that national brands seem to have. According to this view, co-opting a brand is sort of like seizing control of a radio station or something; but really it's a matter of consumers doing the marketing for a company that can't afford to -- this way they can broadcast their belonging to a "creative" niche. Walker argues that brand owners are doing this deliberately, masking their overt marketing efforts and instead doing "murketing" that recruits consumers in doing the meaning making for them. Since there was a void where the national message for PBR might have been, consumers were able to fill it by making the beer signify a rejection of the brands that advertise heavily. It's one way of rejecting the fog of hype we live in (as this n+1 essay details) without simultaneously foreclosing the chance to participate in our culture -- which is made up primarily of brands and whatnot. Of course, the protest brands are parasitic and derive their resonance from the mainstream brands; thus, protest brands are a kind of extension of the mainstream brands and don't really do much to undermine their strength.

Having once experimented with smoking moribund brands of cigarette (Tareytons, L&Ms, Larks), I could relate to this, though eventually I became a Marlboro smoker (in the soft pack only; still needed some distinction) before I quit. And when I read this BusinessWeek article about Li Ning, a fledging Chinese athletic-shoe brand, I had a twinge of the same feeling that had me smoking Tareytons. Athletic shoes are much like beer and cigarettes in that for all the supposed qualities that separate the various makes, they are, for most ordinary consumers, indistinguishable beyond the branding. So they are a fertile field for a nascent protest brand, as no one will get confused and think you chose the protest brand because its goods are of superior quality.

The important thing for a would-be protest brand is to be a brand with some scope -- it needs to be recognizable on a broad scale in order to bear the message. That's why identity-conscious anti-brand folk seem to find it insufficient to protest brands by simply using nonbranded goods. There needs to be an idea, a focal point -- a name, a logo -- around which a community can coalesce, something others can copy (or maybe just something we could imagine others registering and possibly copying if they thought we were cool) when they understand and appreciate the message a person has used a brand to communicate and want to send the same message about themselves. The unavoidable presence of advertising and brands in the public sphere make us feel deeply that brands are part of an internationally recognized language of self-fashioning that we need to be speaking. Otherwise our identity-making gestures will likely go unheard, and alternatives for garnering public recognition -- for publicly communicating a sense of ourselves -- are not so obvious as brands.

So consider Li Ning's logo:
Looks pretty familiar, doesn't it. This blunt, clumsy appropriation for me signals that the company is not trying too hard to be original, that it knows it will be seen as a copy-cat and basically doesn't care. It hasn't made a fetish of its own fictitious independence from the brands that already exist.
Li Ning makes no bones about admiring its bigger rivals. Its gleaming corporate campus near Beijing, complete with indoor swimming pool, basketball courts, and a climbing wall, seems like a page out of Nike's play book. Ads feature the slogan "Anything is Possible" (which the company launched before Adidas came out with "Impossible is Nothing," but long after Nike's "Just Do It"). And its logo is strikingly similar to the Nike Swoosh. "They just dusted off a Nike marketing plan, took bits and pieces, and said, "Voilà!'" says Terry Rhoads, a former Nike China executive who runs Shanghai sports consultancy Zou Marketing.
The article calls Li Ning a paper-tiger brand, because it is trying to use the Olympics and non-Chinese endorsees to foster the illusion that the brand has greater international reach than it actually does to appeal its national market. It wants the same credibility Nike has in the eyes of its domestic market.

But these same moves may give it a reverse appeal internationally. The aura of not caring about aping established brands seems a good one for a protest brand, which after all is supposed to allow its consumers to demonstrate a knowing superiority (that verges on irony) to the desperate cool seeking of straightforward brands. Openly proclaiming "We're a lame knockoff" somehow mitigates the fact of being a lame knockoff. Wearing the lame knockoff brand proudly has a similar effect with regard to the identity one is trying to display: "I don't care what people think of me. I am going to wear these shoes that say just how little I care." Or "I don't need to try that hard to distinguish myself with brands. I'm going to take this lame brand and invest it with my credibility." And wearing Li Ning serves the fundamental purpose of saying, "I resist and reject all the marketing of the big athletic-apparel companies. I don't need their cachet to feel good about my sneakers."

At the same time, Li Ning is obscure and novel enough to make its wearers seem exotic. At this point the brand's consumers can feel like innovators, discoverers rather than followers. You can't wear Nike without feeling somewhat like a follower, unless you are doing some counterintuitive rationalizing. In order to wear Nike in a hip anti sort of way, you must make the case to yourself that its ubiquity has made it invisible. You can signal an indifference to brands by selecting the überbrands, trying to suggest a laziness that led you to pick the most widely available option.