“If you have the leisure time, education and inclination to read this book, you are obviously a member of the elite.”

June 19, 2009

conspicous consumption.jpg
Still reading Spent and the chapter I hit this morning before getting up sparked some interesting thoughts to kick off the day with. The chapter is titled “Conspicuous Waste, Precision and Reputation” and deals with the way humans demonstrate fitness in different ways.
This all based on the concept of “costly signaling” – basically the evolutionary advertising technique of showing that you are so evolutionarily fit that you can afford to waste energy on visible but useless attributes like a peacock’s tail or overly elaborate nest of a bower bird. Such signaling is indirect – the peacock’s tail doesn’t actually indicate intelligence or high fertility or fill-in-the-blank item on a peahen’s wish list – it merely shows that the peacock is so competent at finding food for itself, fending off opponents and generally managing his life that he can do all that and still carry around that ridiculous fan all day long. (90-111)
Humans use a lot of costly signaling to let everyone else know how fit we are. The thrust of this chapter is to break down the different types of signaling that we choose to make use of. Miller cites Thorstein Veblen’s book The Theory of the Leisure Class, in which he coined the term “conspicuous consumption” and proposed that the main human purpose in buying costly items is not to make the purchaser happy but to display to everyone else that they are able to. His theory is that “animals, including humans, often show off the most expensive signals they can afford, whether those signals are peacock tails or Hummer H1s.” And that such those signals are made costly through “conspicuous waste” of the individual’s available resources. (114-115)
Miller’s point though is that there are multiple types of cost demonstrations. Human signals costs can include time, attention, diligence, physical risk or social risk. As he breaks it down; conspicuous waste, conspicuous precision or conspicuous reputation. (115-119) Where I really got sidetracked was his comparison of the moral and efficiency of these three forms. “Aristocrats differ from the nouveaux riches not in their freedom from consumerism, but in their preference for conspicuous precision and reputation (‘the finer things in life’) over conspicuous waste (‘the crass and vulgar’).” (120) And he warns that people are always least likely to recognize their own preferred type of display as cost signaling. Conspicuous waste is easy to recognize and deplore and for my purposes I’ll call it the McMansion school of display. The most square footage with the fanciest facade and very little attention to genuine quality or provenance of material and workmanship. I have always identified this as conspicuous consumption and (therefore) bad. But conspicuous precision is also a fitness signaling tactic. We can call this the Not-So-Big-House school of display. As Sarah Susanka created the idea – not-so-big-ness means reducing overall space, both by making individual spaces more efficient and compact and by eliminating unnecessary traditional spaces from the house altogether, but also increasing the quality of each part of the house, in design, materiality and craftsmanship. Finally conspicuous reputation in housing choice is an historic, or better yet, famous house. Frank Lloyd Wright would be the obvious choice but I’ve rejected his works in favor of the Farnsworth house for my little triptych at the top of the page because he annoys me today (and most days). Each of these three types obviously involves some degree of both of the others but the point of living in a house designed by Wright isn’t that you are so rich you can afford to heat it despite the notoriously leaky windows or pay for emergency room treatment every time the low lintel gives you or your guests a concussion but that you are rich enough to afford something quite rare that most people have heard of. So it still falls under the category of conspicuous reputation rather than waste.
Breaking expensive housing types down into these three categories was enormously helpful for me because it identifies the underlying unrest I’ve always felt about the Not-So-Big-House movement. It seemed like it was indicating a move away from conspicuous consumption and yet still the homes Susanka featured were still enormous in comparison with those of any other country and filled with costly features that still seemed somewhat superfluous. The fact that it is simply a shift from one type of fitness signaling to another makes it much more understandable. We’ve been making that shift consistently through the twentieth century, as Miller puts it, we have “shifted status away from the engineers of the very large (trains, battleships, skyscrapers) to the engineers of the very small (electronics, biotech, nanotech).” (122)
To conclude, “it seems unlikely that people will ever relinquish their runaway quest for self-display, as the failures of communism and hippie utopianism showed all to clearly. (Note that Mikhail Gorbachev of the USSR and Kiety Richards of the Rolling Stones are now both appearing in ads for Louis Vuitton luggage.) Yet, people’s modes of self-display are quite flexible, … [and] … may one day be shifted from our current antisocial, irresponsible unreliable forms of conspicuous waste, precision and reputation to more pro-social conscientious, reliable forms that still let people make a living.” (127)


One Response to ““If you have the leisure time, education and inclination to read this book, you are obviously a member of the elite.””

  1. Anonymous Says:

    This is very thought provoking stuff!

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