Monday, June 28, 2010

I have good taste

Good taste, in other words, is a positional good. One person can have it only if many others do not. It is like belonging to an exclusive yacht club, or walking to work downtown, or hiking through untouched wilderness. It has an inherently competitive logic. Thus any consumer who buys an object as an expression of her style or taste is necessarily participating in competitive consumption.

Whenever goods serve as a source of distinction, it means that at least part of their value stems from their exclusivity. Because not everyone has them, these goods identify the owners as members of a small club (those who are in the know) and distinguishes them from the masses (those who do not have a clue). Conformity and distinction thus always go hand in hand—one conforms to the habits and standards of the exclusive club in order to distinguish oneself from the great unwashed. Critics of mass society, unfortu­nately, have focused on the wrong side of the equation. It is not the desire to conform that is driving the consumption process, but rather the quest for distinction. The value of a good comes from the sense of superiority associated with membership in the club, along with the recognition accorded by fellow members. Yet once the word gets out and more people begin to acquire the good, the distinction that it confers is slowly eroded. The quest for distinc­tion is therefore collectively self-defeating—everyone strives to get what not everyone can have.

Of course, the result of this competition is that consumers all windup with roughly the same commodities at the end of the day. But this sort of conformity was never part of their intention. Con­sumers are like crabs stuck in a bucket, each one trying to escape but getting pulled back in by the others. It's not that the crabs want to stay in the bucket. It's just that as soon as any one crab makes any progress toward the rim, the others try to crawl over it, using its progress as a way of furthering their own escape. As a result, they all wind up back where they started.

Ultimately this shows how naive it is to think we can opt out of consumerism. The sense of distinction permeates all of our aesthetic judgments: what is beautiful or ugly, charming or tacky, cool or uncool. Any­one who cares about style is so committed to competitive con­sumption. The only way to opt out is to refrain from allowing any such judgments to inform our purchasing decisions.

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