The topic of todays blog: the new, troubling, rationality of the economic actor.
But first, the fashion news. Todays New York Times says that young women are:
‘turn[ing] their backs on track suits, tank tops and bling, putting their money instead on the seed-pearl-studded camisoles.
Bling is out, elegance is in.
This is continuous with a trend noted in this blog a month ago (7/11) on the decline of the bare mid riff. I noted that young women were moving away from the sexuality of Christina Aguilera and the later Brittany Spears towards the polish of Reese Witherspoons character Elle Wood (in Legally Blonde) and the women of Sex in the City. Flash is out, poise is in.
This represents one of those sudden shifts of taste and preference that now routinely transform our culture and our commerce. A trend gathers like a wave at sea. And then it comes ashore. Without good forecasting (and a sturdy “marine band radio), its upon us before we know it.
And it has force of impact. Lots of people, and especially economists, regard fads and fashions as so much fluff, epiphenomenon that comes and goes, signifying nothing. But in fact, this change in fashion makes (and marks) a change in what Greenblatt calls “self fashioning. These young women will become substantially different people, moved to make substantially different life choices. They will pursue different movies, men, colleges, and careers (until the next trend comes). Fashion might once have been superficial (a thing of the surface). Now it comes ashore like something out of The Day After Tomorrow.
Things change. And we change with them. Were a proverbial cat on a hot tin roof. We must be economic actors who practice commitment and release. (I am now evoking terms similar to the ones proposed by Hirschman: loyalty and exit.)
We must commit to new trends. We must give up the old and embrace the new. Those who fail to do so are scorned. (Recall the contempt we had for hippies when disco arrived, and the contempt we had for disco enthusiasts when preppies arrived. “Snap out of it!) We practice loyalty, but it is a rolling, contingent loyalty.
There will be slow pokes. When I was in Redmond this week, I heard a 12 year old girl asking her mother if she (the girl) could buy something “saucy. The Pacific Northwest has always been slow to get the news, and chances are this little girl will win the argument only to discover that, mysteriously, Christina isnt saucy anymore. One of us will overhear her at the mall begging her mom for a seed-pearl-studded camisole.
But then we have to leave. The all-clear signal sounds. Trends change. Time to move on and embrace something new, as women who invested heavily in raccoon eye liner, saucy clothing and a candid sexuality are now redeploying. (The stars will have to redeploy as well and it will be interested to see whether Christina Aguilera can make the shift.)
It is a double, contradicted, rationality. On the one hand, we must commit well and thoroughly. Boomer readers will remember people who did not quite commit thoroughly enough to the hippie revolution. The price? The price was to foreswear “cool and all the benefits of credibility, membership and sex it made possible. On the other, we must move when the trend does (or pay the price of “uncool and all the costs that come with that).
This means the rationality of the actor depends upon two conflicting impulses. We must commit with perfect “loyalty. We must then release and “exit. How the hell do we do this by keeping two internal sets of books, one hidden from the other? By practicing a cultural mandated amnesia? How does the rational actor avow and disavow with such perfect intermittent sincerity?
There is a credibility problem. The world is likely to say to Christina Aguilera: “Sorry, you cant do elegance, not when you did rauchy so very convincingly. But do we say this to one another? Forget the external dialogue, what about the internal one? Why dont we put our heads in our hands and say, “you know what, I am the worlds biggest hypocrite?
Economic actors in a dynamic society have an adaptive problem. They must “lock on and “lock off continually. Under the force of necessity, they have apparently crafted a solution: cultural amnesia or intermittent sincerity. This might also by one of the places irony came from in the 1990s. This is a useful adaptive position, because it allows us to play out anything and everything with a wink. We are not “really doing this. Perhaps this is the new adaptive response we would expect from the economic actor.
But try telling that to a teen girl in 2004. Irony was someone elses cultural moment. This generation is rather more sincere. Her persona is rather more earnest. Maybe it’s wrong to say that youth is wasted on the young. They’re going to need it.
Greenblatt, Stephen. 1980. Renaissance self-fashioning from More to Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Hirschman, Albert O. 1970. Exit, voice, and loyalty: responses to decline in firms, organizations, and states. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
La Ferla, Ruth. 2004. Less Bling, More Elegance. New York Times. August 8, 2004