“Values count far more than economics or geography” — Eric Kaufmann, Whiteshift
The latest Vanity Fair (March 2019) shows its readers a “messenger bag” with a flap on which “Christian Dior” is spelled out in all caps. It’s a $3,200 US bag, so you’d want the world to know that “name,” and the capitals scream the wearer’s intention. This way of speaking/screaming through our things is so common that it’s almost impossible to buy clothing, for example, that doesn’t have some kind of logo or brand name in a conspicuous place. It looks as if the practice is so common that people have ceased thinking about it. No one thought it odd months ago that the First Lady wore a jacket with an unmissable message on the back. I wondered at the time whether anyone was going to resurrect Fran Lebowitz’s essay about “clothes with pictures.” Lebowitz writes, “Frankly, I for one would not be unhappy if most people expressed themselves by marching en masse into the nearest large body of water but, barring that, I wish they would at least stop attempting to tell all by word of jacket. I mean, be realistic. If people don’t want to listen to you, what makes you think they want to hear from your sweater?”
Fran Lebowitz’s piece suggests the equation: My Character = My Things. More and more people have commodified themselves, made their character the equivalent of the accumulated brands surrounding them, a version of the post-human the post-human theorists seem to have missed.
An acquaintance remarked a few years ago that she was worried about maintaining payments on her Infinity SUV, because driving that car showed her to be “a quality person.” Whether the Infinity was a good vehicle, i.e., reliable, fuel-efficient, meant nothing juxtaposed to what an Infinity accomplished for her status. She had absorbed the capitalist message that by osmosis, or some other magical process (like “provenance” on “Antiques Roadshow”), a brand transfers its alleged qualities onto the person associated with the object, or vice versa.
Part of this phenomenon is not peculiar to our time. Some readers might recall “Colombo,” a detective series started in the 1970s that played on the same effect described above from the opposite direction. The characters interacting with Colombo would misread his intelligence, his worth, because he dressed in shabby clothes, drove a dilapidated 1959 Peugeot, and claimed to be stumbling through his job. Yet, Colombo’s success as a detective did not seem to cause people to want to duplicate those lessons about economic life from the show (say, in the way Nero Wolfe has a Wolfe Pack). Colombo wannabes never reached a level anyone would label “trending.” Few want to be on Colombo’s side of the status divide.
Colombo knows how to rub people’s noses in the emptiness of value, to undermine, for instance, the importance of the original/copy distinction, so precious to Plato:
Status is the buzzword in the recent university admissions stories. An “admissions consultant,” a title that’s a clue to how putrid things have become in higher education, published a piece in The Washington Post in which she confirmed what the “Colombo” series teaches about the thoughtless craving for status.
One brilliant programmer I worked with had been recruited by Google more than once after winning several online code jams; the company didn’t realize he was still in high school. But he also had a C on his transcript from an ultracompetitive private high school in the Bay Area, which supposedly meant he couldn’t get into the universities his parents wanted him to attend. “I’m already a failure,” he told me. “I don’t even think I can get into college.”
Moments like these, equally frustrating and heartbreaking, were common. I tried to reassure students that there was a school for everyone and often asked them what it was about elite universities that they believed would make such a difference in their lives. Most couldn’t tell me, and it seemed to be that getting in was what mattered, along with the instant status that comes with a brand name school.
It’s worth going over again that Abby Mims asked students to explain why admission to an elite university mattered, and most had no response. Thinking takes time, the kind of time not involved in instant status. It would be like asking why someone spent $3,200 US on a bag with big letters on it. The answer is right there on the bag in capital letters. Claude Shannon himself couldn’t have introduced less noise into the communicative system.
The point of admission to an elite university is not to take advantage of the possibilities for learning at such places; it’s simply to tell others that you attended “X.” We have a person in a position high up in the U.S. government who went to an “X,” but has gone to extraordinary lengths to hide how he performed at “X.” To question that is to miss the point of value, which rests in the uttering or the seeing of a name with magical properties. “Abracadabra” takes too long to spit out anyway. “USC” is shorter and gets the job of status done much faster, almost instantaneously. Ask Anna Sorokin.
You will be better off leaving the literalists to themselves, those people who see “Christian Dior,” or “Infinity,” or “USC,” and conclude the person they associate with that name is a “person of quality.” Think how fun it would be to hang around someone non-literal-minded, like Colombo, who tells this kind of story:
“There was this lady walking down Beverly Drive, and coming the other way, this flasher guy in his overcoat. When he gets up to her, he whips open the coat. She looks at him and says, ‘You call that a lining?'”
Detective Colombo’s car