Books October 2003

Material Girl

For Virginia Postrel, the only thing wretched about the culture of consumerism is the excessive criticism of it

Artifice has somewhat traditionally been humanity's best bet for making our surroundings more congenial, but a daunting wad of highfalutin opinion tells us that what was fine for the Medicis turns wicked once Dubuque gets in on the act. Nine tenths of the critical writing about commodity culture could be anthologized under the title Killjoy Was Here; whether the point of view is Marxist alienation or post-structuralist hauteur, it's a given that the critic is monkishly immune to the gratifications involved. Yet that's just why, tested against everyday life as most people experience it, the bulk of all this intellectual hectoring is inhumane rubbish—contemptuous of desires that aren't necessarily as unworthy or manipulated as charged.

It's in debunking materialism's Gradgrinds that Virginia Postrel's brightly argued, maddeningly blinkered The Substance of Style is most provocative. A consumer advocate of a distinctly novel sort, Postrel defends our right to follow our bliss to the mall, pursuing beauty however we see fit; she also celebrates the vastly expanded options for doing just that in today's varied marketplace. Even when you want to quarrel with her, you're exhilarated by her challenge to preachy notions about the spuriousness of all manufactured delights. From Walter Benjamin to Thoreau wannabe Bill McKibben, we've never gotten a break from hearing that the contrived, sensational world we live in is a travesty. But after a century-plus of mass communications and mass manufacturing, can't we at least agree that the shock has worn off a bit?

Because it's groundbreaking, The Substance of Style is likely to annoy people both for what Postrel is saying and for what she omits (and I'd disagree with the second complaint far less than the first). But it deserves to be taken seriously, because it's the kind of book that crystallizes attitudes and assumptions that have pervaded contemporary life without much intellectual rationale. If sixties counterculture was—as critic Robert Christgau once called it—"that unprecedented and probably insupportable contradiction in terms, mass bohemia," today's cultural keynote, though a contradiction only to snobs, is something weirder: mass aestheticism, sought not in museums or concert halls but in practical everyday objects, home and commercial décor, hairstyles and costume.

Postrel, an economics columnist for The New York Times, is marvelously informative about two related phenomena that educated, moderately affluent Americans simultaneously enjoy and deride: first, consumer items, from tchotchkes to whole environments, now cater to pretty much every conceivable taste; and second, all sorts of items formerly peddled (and purchased) on strictly utilitarian grounds now emphasize design and sensual appeal. Even when Postrel's examples are familiar, the specifics can be eye-popping; it's one thing to know that architect Michael Graves designs household items for Target, but another to learn that the chain now sells over 500 Graves-designed products. In one of her funniest set pieces, Postrel lists the currently available models of the lowly toilet-bowl brush, from Rubbermaid's choice-of-seven-colors $5.00 version to the eight-buck Michael Graves one at Target to designer Philippe Starck's $32 Excalibur model and up.

One reason this gambit has a nervy side is that Postrel isn't using designer toilet-bowl brushes to send up ridiculous excess. While you wish the $400 gold-plated version gave her pause, she's trying to bring her readers around to recognizing the contrasting absurdity of thinking we're more virtuous if our brush stays spartan, ugly, and generally unlovable. In this case, her claim that aesthetic pleasure is the only conceivable motive—because prestige can't be involved, she says—is fairly shaky, since every hausfrau and most hausherrs know that bathrooms are the acid test of gentility. Yet she's right that there's no reason to keep toilet-bowl brushes unattractive, and so long as we need 'em, why shouldn't Graves design them? He's making himself of use to the public—a good thing for an architect to do, even if Frank Gehry will go to his grave believing otherwise.

On a cultural level, Postrel's larger contention is that today's let-a-hundred-flowers-bloom proliferation of aesthetic options is liberating, not debauching. As she sees it, consumers' pleasure in those options, besides being valid in its own right, involves meaningful self-expression. It's no longer about keeping up with the Joneses, if indeed it ever was, but about declaring either independence from or tribal kinship with them.

The book's best chapter, "Meaningful Looks," elucidates the workings of what Postrel calls (I'm assuming it's her coinage) "aesthetic identity," putting a name to human construction projects you can't walk a city block without encountering a dozen examples of—and may well be busy at yourself. Because the values and affinities asserted by everything from wearing dreadlocks to buying green iMacs are now subjective, rather than hierarchically imposed, she's excited by people's freedom to make their outer lives describe their inner ones—to, in one of her favorite formulas, turn "I like that" into "I'm like that."

This, of course, is exactly the transference—identity defined through material correlatives—that consumer-society critics deplore. Yet they're often impressed when folk societies make every bauble a complex emblem of identity. If the purpose is similar, which it is, and we don't live on the banks of the Amazon, finding something pernicious in people's buying their emblems from Target instead of hacking them from trees is sheer humbug. Postrel's most moving example of how much these accoutrements can matter to people is Charles Paul Freund's account of the Soviet Union's stilyagi, or "style hunters"—Stalin-era kids so desperate to mimic American culture that they chewed paraffin wax when they couldn't get gum and, Scarlett O'Hara-style, cut up curtains to make gaudy ties. The stilyagi would never have improvised this stuff if they could have bought it; do they get more moral credit because they had to resort to a folk version?

Closer to home, Postrel's most delightful proof that all subcultures are sisters under the skin is a Web site called Gothic Martha Stewart, whose founder perceived that her fellow Morticias were no less obsessed with presentation than Stewart herself. "Little did Martha realize how easily her elegant eggshell blues and seafoam greens could be turned to black and burgundy!" her parodist cackles. In The Substance of Style's brave new world, however, Westport's glue-gun queen—now doing unjust penance for Ken Lay's sins; my own "Free Martha" bumper sticker is chartreuse, thanks—is something of a throwback. Postrel thinks it's overwrought to ascribe all aesthetic consumerism to status-seeking, and it does seem incredible that sociologists keep marching past the most obvious hypothesis, which is that having stuff gives people pleasure. Stewart, however, was put on earth to prove Vance Packard right. That assault-on-Everest clank of social climbing is unmistakable.

Thanks to her old-style class insecurity, the faux-waspy Stewart also feels compelled to present herself as Authority—improvisation is not encouraged—and in this she's adhering to a tradition of dictated taste that The Substance of Style argues is moribund. All the same, she might be astonished at the company she's in. Postrel's well-chosen samples showcase the arrogance of the modernist belief that people had to be taught what was good for them, an attitude epitomized by Walter Gropius's crazed remark that if any students didn't like his arrangement of the furniture in a new Harvard dorm then they were neurotic. Swallowing the Bauhaus whole, British authorities during World War II felt that the austere furniture imposed by rationing offered a great chance "to accustom the public to a better standard of design." At least they didn't think that about wartime food, or maybe they did.

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