Books October 2003

Material Girl

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

Today we're a long way from the nutball strictures of proto-modernist Adolf Loos, whose 1908 essay "Ornament and Crime," castigating all decoration as degenerate, could have forced Cotton Mather to change his first name. Still, the urge to equate asceticism with virtue dies hard. When Anna Quindlen, quoted in Postrel's introduction, laments the "depressing" sight of "Afghan citizens celebrating the end of tyranny by buying consumer electronics," you're amused to realize that Newsweek's Mother Discourage—presumably tapping away on the only PC ever powered by a treadle—never considered that celebrating tyranny's end via a chaste contemplation of their inner light might smack to Afghans of what they'd had a bellyful of. Quindlen was also resorting to a false dichotomy, since wanting consumer electronics doesn't prove your values are debased; it may even mean that you want to listen to the news.

Postrel is at her best tackling the issue of "authenticity," by now aesthetic authoritarianism's last resort. The problem with this "rhetorical club to enforce the critic's taste," as she calls it, is that it's a club in more than one sense, with an unmistakable aura—if I can mischievously borrow a Walter Benjamin term—of an in-group determined to keep its experiences privileged. The anguish of Benjamin's famous 1935 essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" is obviously genuine, and his abbreviated life makes it poignant, but that doesn't make him right. He's simply expressing the aesthete's version of a bourgeois fear of perks lost to the mob, which is why he's now the stuffed Eeyore propped on the dais at countless academic conferences.

To demonstrate how fungible authenticity can be, Postrel brings up southern California's non-native palm trees—imported by early-1900s realtors to simulate paradise, but now as indelibly "Californian" as the Alps are Swiss. Her definition of authenticity as a subjective "match between form and desire" will horrify purists, not least because they'll be put out of a job by her insistence that "we can decide for ourselves what is authentic for our purposes" (aggressive italics hers). Early on, she describes a Johannesburg casino that replicates a Tuscan village in every detail, which does sound bizarre. But how would objecting to such artifice on moral grounds be less antediluvian than Benjamin's fear of photographically reproduced artworks? For whatever it's worth, Postrel reports that Jo'burgites have a blast in their fake Tuscany—and they're under no more impression that they're visiting the real one than postcard recipients are that they now own the actual Mona Lisa.

The danger in refuting anti-materialism is in swinging to the other extreme, embracing consumerism and fabulist contrivance with a mindless Tom Wolfean "Yippee!" (Of course, when Wolfe does it, it's not mindless; it's calculated, though no one has ever figured out to what end.) Postrel is too intelligent not to preserve—or affect—a sense of proportion, but she's still a cheerleader. Like most writers who praise dawn, she makes the night before too dark. As conformist as she thinks the fifties were, all those bullfight posters and Scandinavian coffee tables surely expressed "the desire to be different but not too different," her modest appraisal of current consumer goals.

More off-putting, however, is Postrel's peculiar disregard for the human element, paradoxical as that may sound in a book hailing the age of identi-kit materialism. Even though she pegs the social factors that helped generate today's smorgasbord—women's new economic clout, the mainstreaming of gay sensibility, the rise of subcultures whose sartorial symbolism inspired epigones—they don't seem to interest her much. As a rule, she's much too eager to congratulate the keen designers (and nifty corporations: man, does this woman love Starbucks) who gave us our world of wonders, while slighting the inventive consumers whose creativity with what they had induced capitalism to offer them more. When she appreciatively notes that shopping malls are now designed as attractive social environments, she never thanks those lowly agents of change, America's much maligned mall rats—who turned shopping emporiums into community centers because they needed them.

Postrel's heedlessness turns into something worse when she hauls off at one Jennifer Portnick, a 240-pound San Francisco woman who sued Jazzercise Inc. for refusing to hire her as an aerobics instructor. Such cases often give people like me mixed feelings, since there's equal opportunity and then there's kidding yourself. But Postrel isn't ambivalent; she's stupefied that media commentators, who mostly sympathized with Portnick, were indifferent to Jazzercise's "aesthetic strategy." In fact, she can't contain her disgust that "outside observers"—uninvited, ignorant, and probably ugly too—"second-guessed the company's judgment and identity." While that's bad enough, what's truly atrocious is that this occurs in a chapter called—no kidding—"The Boundaries of Design," which otherwise is devoted to legal wrangles about inanimate materials: annoying zoning restrictions, excessive design review, and the like.

Aerobics instructors aren't much better paid than most service-sector workers, making me guess that Portnick fell victim to the biggest mote in Postrel's eye: class, a subject her approach elides at every turn. Or almost, since she's no elitist if you've got the MasterCard; it's part of her purpose to hail the "democratization" of consumer aesthetics, and she applauds the way affordable luxuries now let untold millions enjoy aesthetically gratifying lifestyles once reserved for the rich. Nonetheless, when this author writes "people," she almost invariably means "middle-class Americans and Europeans with disposable income to burn." Through the smoke of flaming checkbooks, they appear to be white; most are brandishing college degrees.

Postrel's one direct mention of a "two-tiered society" is a quotation from Pat Buchanan, whose trepidation she quickly pooh-poohs. In virtually the lower tier's only other appearance, she quotes a female journalist's amused recollection of the day she realized that, what with cook, housecleaner, colorist, dog walker, personal shopper, and so on, "it must have taken sixteen or seventeen other people to help me do all the things I needed [sic] to get done in that 24-hour period." Although Postrel concedes that "most of us" don't need a team of seventeen, she's delighted that, "if trends continue," more and more busy doctors, TV costume directors, magazine stylists, and even graduate students—a list that appears to be her idea of the human caravan on display—will enjoy a system that delegates the grunt work to anonymous peons. She doesn't seem to realize, or care, that she's implying such lesser sorts are our day's equivalent of what convenience foods were to the Eisenhower era.

You'd hardly expect a writer with her priorities to protest this state of things very vigorously, but does she have to be so damned euphoric about it? Since I'm not an ascetic, I'm all in favor of Postrel's praise of the material world's attractions. I'm even prepared to go along with her hints that our age of artificial marvels, teeming with new expressive possibilities accessible to almost all, may be the Renaissance, Part Deux—a parallel she can't quite bring herself to state bluntly, but we get the drift. But I'd like her better if, just once between Starbucks and Tuscany-in-Africa, she'd had the grace to recognize that lots of people during the Renaissance had it just rotten. Good luck, Ms. Portnick, wherever you may be.

Tom Carson writes the Screen column for Esquire and is the author of the novel Gilligan's Wake.
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