Compensatory chocolate & Valentine day

I always enjoy reading Rob Horner’s posts at www.popmatters.com. This post, the comment and the reflection is strongly recommend. Food for thought and probably a good appetizer. Great to see how a vieuw is constructed and author and Rob really connect!

And because it is almost Valentine’s Day a good consideration in case you are wondering to buy chocolate!

Artist Sven Duzont
Artist Sven Duzont

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Rob Walker’s latest Consumed column in the Sunday NYT magazine looks at criminally overpriced chocolate as a vehicle for “compensatory consumption.” Professors at Northwestern University found in a study that “subjects who had put themselves in a powerless frame of mind were willing to pay measurably more than the other group for high-status items” and that “individuals who felt less powerful showed a preference for clothing with larger and more conspicuous luxury logos.” In other words, our status anxiety may register to us as a lack of autonomy, as powerlessness, and we may compensate by exercising the sort of autonomy with which we are all familiar—making a wasteful shopping choice to prove that we can. Hence, spending $8 on a chocolate bar.

If this phenomenon of “compensatory consumption” holds, there would be seem to be incentive for marketers to make us perpetually anxious about our status, in good times and bad, and to make sure that status remains a meaningful social category with as much salience as possible. This implies that there can be no end to the social barriers derived from class as long as there is a robust advertising industry. That industry, of course, is not so robust currently; unfortunately, its services in making us anxious about our future are not especially necessary right now.

Could the chocolate taste so good that it would be worth that much? That question is irrelevant, as it is for wine as well. The causality must be reversed; it tastes better because we spent the extra money on it, because we are eating our own sense of power.

Because I live in a neighborhood where cheap imported chocolates from Eastern Europe are readily available, I have a different relationship with chocolate. I get to enjoy not the ersatz thrill of pseudo-luxury spending but the ersatz cosmopolitanism of consuming unusual imported goods. Apologists for consumerism tend to celebrate this sort of access to goods as a kind of “power,” but really the variety of goods is not improving my life so much as it is further articulating the status hierarchy. In this case, the status boost I get comes not from my sense of extravagant spending on an overpriced chocolate with a fancy brand name but from a different sort of privilege: the undeserved sense of superiority that comes from living in the sort of neighborhood where I can find Bulgarian and Croatian candy bars that other Americans can’t get so casually. Nevertheless, I can’t give you an honest appraisal of whether this chocolate tastes better or worse than Hershey’s for the same reasons mentioned above. On the level of relative obscurity, they rate highly. What I worry about is the way the status value masks the flavor; it becomes hard for me to tell the relative “objective” worth of things in the ordinary course of life. I would have to go through life blindfolded to really taste anything as it is.

Rob Horning

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“I get to enjoy not the ersatz thrill of pseudo-luxury spending but the ersatz cosmopolitanism of consuming unusual imported goods.”

The Irish playwright John Millington Synge was an enthusiast for Gaelic culture and this led him to live, from time to time, in a fishing community on the Island of Aran. But he complained (already a century ago) that it was “only in the intonation of a few sentences or some old fragment of melody” that he caught “the real spirit of the island … For in general the men sit together and talk with endless iteration of the tides and fish and the price of kelp in Connemara.”

Wouldn’t you agree that it would have been better for all concerned had he stayed in Dublin and “enjoyed the ersatz Gaelicism” of whatever crass, romanticized fantasies he could have conjured up in his mind about the islanders? My point here being that, if whatever it is whose pathological form is “ersatz cosmopolitanism” has as its healthy form the modern-day equivalent of listening to “talk of the price of kelp in Connemara” (and it has), then even the ersatz compares favourably, and indeed stands out as a welcome release. You really have to be some kind of Adornoesque superman if you set the price of enjoying imported chocolate without guilt feelings at having in-depth knowledge of the chocolate’s culture of origin. (Does one have to major in astrophysics before one can enjoy how the night sky looks?)

“… the status value masks the flavor; it becomes hard for me to tell the relative ‘objective’ worth of things in the ordinary course of life …”

Well, this seems to entail that the flavour must be at least somewhat good. Only recently I tried an expensive Belgian chocolate that tasted very bad indeed, and the status had no chance whatever of masking the flavour.

As a long-time admirer of your blog, I have to admit to being somewhat uncomfortable with several of your similar recent posts, which seem to me to adopt a version of status symbol theory that was already demolished pretty definitively by Jon Elster in his 1981 review of Bourdieu’s “Distinction”:

http://www.geocities.com/hmelberg/elster/AR81S.HTM

Consequently I would naturally be very interested to see you discuss some of the points Elster raises…

Comment by T. P. Uschanov from Helsinki, Finland — February 9, 2009 @ 3:19 pm

Thanks for reading—

That’s an interesting question: I wonder if the ersatz is preferable when the “real” is inaccessible in its totality (knowing astrophysics to enjoy the sky) or stultifyingly mundane. I fear that the release of the ersatz becomes a compulsion to consume shabby simulacra once we acclimate to that release and require it. And I think the nature of and our need for that release are subject to systematic manipulation at the hands of marketers—our energy can be derailed into those pursuits to a disproportionate degree.

I am definitely prone to oversimplification when drawing on Bourdieu-style arguments about relative status, and consumption as status display. Sometimes that is for rhetorical effect, other times it is out of hasty reasoning. I’ll read the Elster review and let you know what I think.

Comment by Rob Horning — February 9, 2009 @ 3:37 pm

Okay, I’ve read Elster’s review—I think I’d read it before, or some of that material was incorporated into his book Sour Grapes. Anyway, as you probably know, Elster comes from the analytical Marxist school, aka the “no-bullshit” Marxists. He vehemently rejects functionalist arguments and insists on a methodology that traces all phenomena to the actions of individuals. This is a pretty persuasive critique, particularly in unison with Thomas Schelling’s Micromotives and Macrobehavior. But it means throwing out dialectical reasoning (Elster would probably put reasoning in quotes) and curtailing attempts to analyze phenomena that seem to have no subject but instead emerge the way prices do in Hayek’s vision of spontaneous order.

Often I’ll lapse into functionalist arguments frequently for speculative, provocative purposes, but also because I think a dialectic is at work where outcomes that are initially unintended feedback into behavior and shape it, and that we also have too many contradictory motives governing our behavior. An inversion of cause and effect can sometimes reveal a surprising and compelling proposition that one may then try to substantiate later in its microfoundations. (But alas who has the time when there is always some new blog post to write?)

As for Elster’s critique of Bourdieu’s notion of the social hierarchy articulated by consumption practices: I agree with Bourdieu that taste has no universal reference point but instead is generally a working out of social relations in veiled form. Often the relation being worked out is identity within the social matrix, one part of which is class. Often the process is only partially conscious (a notion that Elster rejects for methodological reasons). Having to devise ways of keeping ourselves from being conscious of this process may be the source of much of our existential angst—this is actually what Hipster Runoff, the site I was ruminating about last week, deals with monomaniacally, the infinite regress of self-consciousness as we perform identity through cultural consumption. Symbolic action is always in the process of being denied as we act it out. The reasons for this, I think, lie in historical notions of what it means to be authentic.

Anyway, Elster begins his critique with the premise that we face “choice within constraints”—I would modify that and suggest that we are now typically confronted with too much to choose from when it comes to identity, and our “habitus” shows through the artificial limitations we impose for ourselves on the surfeit of culture.

Comment by Rob Horning — February 9, 2009 @ 7:31 pm

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Artist unknown
Artist unknown