Virginia Postrel‘s The Substance of Style is a book that argues we have entered an “Age of Aesthetics” in which mere utility is no longer enough: we care passionately about the sensory pleasures we get from the “look and feel” of everything that surrounds us, from our home interiors to our computers (witness the success of the iMac) to even our toilet brushes (“Every day, all over the world, designers are working to make a better, prettier, more expressive toilet brush for every taste and every budget” — 56). The Industrial Age was all about uniformity; but now, we live in an age of abundant choice, where every taste can be satisfied, and everyone is free to express their own sensibility. “Look and feel appeal directly to us as visual, tactile, emotional creatures” (171). Surfaces are important, and we should not devalue them in favor of hidden depths; “by experimenting with surface, we may also reinvent ourselves, emphasizing and developing previously unknown or subordinate aspects of our personalities” (117).
Sounds great, doesn’t it? So au courant and postmodern? Then why do I find myself so dissatisfied with Postrel’s arguments? After all, I too have been arguing for a new aestheticism, emphasizing singularity, opposing essences, denying that taste can be governed by objective, universalizing criteria, celebrating novelty and opposing purist claims for “authenticity.” I could say, as she does, that “aesthetics is prerational or nonrational, not irrational or antirational” (171). And I am as uncomfortable as she is with the puritanism that all too often crops up in leftist social critiques. (She particularly targets Stuart Ewen and Naomi Klein).
Nonetheless, there’s something in Postrel’s aesthetic hedonism that really rubs me the wrong way. Let me try to put my finger on what it is.
For one thing, Postrel’s incessant Pollyannaism, or Panglossianism, sets my teeth on edge. She really seems to think we live in the best of all possible worlds. The most negative thing she can bring herself to say about style and aesthetics is that “anything in which we invest so much significance, of from which we draw so much pleasure, inevitably becomes a source of conflict” (121). But she doesn’t seem to think this “conflict” is a serious problem. If you don’t like one alternative that is offered to you, there’s always another choice somewhere that might be more to your liking. If you don’t like the homogeneity that’s imposed by the restrictive building codes and homeowners’ association bylaws of one gated community, you can always buy your home instead in that other gated community down the road, with different bylaws meant to appeal to a different sensibility. “If you don’t like the green-dominated Starbucks,” she writes, “you can go to the blue-dominated Starbucks two blocks away — or to the bright-green-and-orange tea bar or the Populuxe diner down the street” (147).
Isn’t Postrel defusing conflict merely by trivializing it? “Choice,” for Postrel, is never anything more pointed than deciding between coffee and tea, or green and blue. Part of her argument — and with this part I agree — is that we shouldn’t dismiss such alternatives as being merely trivial and unimportant, just because they are superficial (taking this word in the literal sense of having to do with surfaces). Since we are sensuous beings, who see and feel and touch, rather than disembodied brains, these aesthetic considerations are deeply meaningful and worthy of attention. But still, it seems disingenuous to reduce disagreement and conflict to differing “preferences” among items that could all be listed on the same (restaurant or computer) menu.
Now, I’ll admit to being someone who goes to Starbucks frequently. I know this will destroy my credit with all those who think one should always patronize independent businesses in preferences to international mega-corporations; but both here in Midtown and Downtown Detroit, and formerly when I lived in south Seattle, I found the independent coffeehouses lame and with atmospheres that were boring and uninviting — I simply like Starbucks better than the alternatives. When necessity strikes, I will take the drug to which I am addicted — caffeine — anywhere. Given the opportunity, however, I will go for more pleasant surroundings in which to imbibe, just as Postrel suggests large numbers of consumers do. But I would never think of going so far as to praise Starbucks, as Postrel does, for “delivering a multisensory aesthetic experience,” or to extol the way it “employs scores of designers to keep its stores’ ‘design language’ — color palettes, upholstery textures, light fixtures, brochure paper, graphic motifs — fresh and distinctive” (20). That all seems a bit over-the-top, more in line with corporate propagandaspeak than with anyone’s actual experiences.
Philosophically speaking, the problem with all this is not that Postrel overvalues aesthetics, but rather that she fails to take it seriously enough. Say that I like chocolate ice cream the best, while you prefer pistachio. That isn’t anything to fight about; all we have to do is go to Baskin-Robbins, or some other place that serves both. But really, aesthetics is about more than such personal preferences. As Kant says, the difficulty of aesthetic judgment comes from the fact that we demand universal assent for our aesthetic claims, even though we also know that these claims have no objective basis. (Yes, any serious discussion of aesthetics inevitably comes back to Kant). What this means is that we do argue about aesthetic differences, in a way we never would about mere “personal preferences.” It would be idiotic for me to try to convince you that you ought to like chocolate better than pistachio; while it makes perfect sense that we should argue endlessly about the relative merits of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash.
Of course Dylan and Cash, like chocolate and pistachio, are commodities; but the argument over the first pair is very different from the “choice” between the second. Their common nature as commodities cannot, in itself, account for this difference. And indeed, it’s not in the marketplace that the argument over Dylan vs. Cash gets fought out. I have purchased CDs by both artists; I suppose this means that I “prefer” them both to Celine Dion, whose CDs I wouldn’t accept even if they were given to me for free. (Chalk this up to misogyny or anti-French sentiment if you wish, though I would dispute you on both counts). But the point is that, if you refer only to “revealed preferences” in the marketplace, you leave out aesthetics altogether, along with anything else that’s interesting and important. Postrel, as a free market economist, can’t see beyond the “choices” we make “on the margin” in our purchasing decisions; which is why her presentation of the Age of Aesthetics is so relentlessly banal.
Actually, there is something important going on here — more important, perhaps, than Postrel realizes. It has to do with the very nature of Capital, as the atmosphere that entirely surrounds us, in which we are immersed, without which we could not breathe. As Zizek likes to point out, global capitalism today is (contra Naomi Klein) not about imposing uniformity and homogenization, but precisely about niche marketing and expanding consumer “choice”: “Is not the latest trend in corporate management itself ‘diversify, devolve power, try to mobilize local creativity and self-organization?’ Is not anticentralization the topic of the ‘new’ digitalized capitalism?” I do think this is a legitimate question (even though I do not endorse Zizek’s employing it to score points against Deleuze; but that is the subject for another essay). In a certain, very real sense, “choices” are homogenized by being coded exclusively in terms of money value, or commodity exchange; but this should not be confused with homogeneity of content. Indeed, it is only because content is more and more heterogeneous and diverse, all the time, that it can be homogenized on another level: by making consumer “preference” the only arena in which differences can be negotiated. The point here is not to call for some sort of higher value system, or collective frame of reference, that would supersede the merely quantitative values of the market; but precisely the reverse, to insist that the “aesthetic” marks an aspect of things that cannot be captured and decided by any such “objective” system of values, whether economic or religious or moral or communitarian. This excess, this singularity, is what is left out of Postrel’s account.
For instance: Postrel argues strongly in favor of plastic surgery and (in the future) genetic self-manipulation; there’s nothing wrong, she says, with wanting to look more attractive than we “naturally” are. “The more power we achieve over how our bodies look, whether through genetics, surgery, drugs, or other means, the more we will alter our outer selves to match our inner selves” (187). She adds that, since people are different, there is no worry that this might lead to everyone looking the same, or “want[ing] the same color eyes” (188). Nonetheless, all the examples she gives move in one direction only: towards the most cliched conventional definitions of beauty. She writes of women who move from a more androgynous look to a more conventionally “feminine” one (117-118), or who realize that they love the gorgeousness of Rodeo Drive fashions after all (77-78); she can’t seem to imagine that anyone might ever “choose” to move in the opposite direction (from the stereotypically dominant mode to a less socially sanctioned one).
So, the problem with Postrel is not merely that she writes as if everyone in the world had the living standard of the top 10% of the American population (a group in which she and I are both certainly included); it is that, even if everyone were to attain such a standard in some utopian-capitalist future (which I very much doubt is possible, given the differential way capitalism operates), nothing would be resolved. There would still be an excess that Postrel’s smugly reductive “aesthetics” wouldn’t be able to account for.
But this opens out on questions of temporality, and of the logic of a gift economy (in contrast to one of commodities), that I no longer have the energy to deal with in this (already lengthy) post…