Culturematics, choice, and identity construction now

iStock_000008619686XSmall I was reading Katie Welch’s RT of a Seriouseats post about a Japanese restaurant.  What’s interesting about the restaurant is that it serves you what the last patron ordered.  It’s a kind of circle then.  You eat according to the tastes of the last patron.  And your choice defines what appears on the table of the next patron. 

It’s a funny little experiment.  And it reminded me how much we like things that happen in controlled accidents.  It posits a social interlinking, the cooperation of strangers.  And it makes us go “hmm.”  (See the post on culturematics below.)

Then I fell to thinking about being in a supermarket recently and listening to a mother interrogating her child.

She wanted to know that Bobbie wanted.

And because Bobbie was, like, 4, he really didn’t know what he wanted.

His mother pressed on. 

"Do you want the red one?  Or the green one?  Bobbie, listen to me.  The red one or the green one?"

Mom was insisting that Bobbie make a choice.  It sounded like cruelty.  But of course it isn’t.  It’s the way we rear our children. 

Because making choices is the way you are inducted into our culture and it is a good deal of what you do as a member of this culture.  (Assuming you have the good fortune of a disposable income.)

By our choices, consumer, spiritual, political, shall you know us.  It is the way we find, fashion, express and constantly tune selfhood. A good deal of our ideology of selfhood is tied up in the possession of preference and the exercise of choice.  (See Virginia Postrel’s excellent Substance of Style for more on this theme.)

Unlike most American social scientists, I actually believe respondents when they say these choices are meaningful and constructive of who they are.  Most intellectuals are way too skeptical to fall for that one.  You see, they have identity claims of their own to think about.  And believing the respondent on this one has the potential of making you look like a fool.  Better that you protect yourself from ridicule than make contact with the culture in which you are supposed to be expert.  (Bitter, oh, a little.)

Being a culture of choice has its consequences.  This is one of the reasons a single brand can generate so many SKUs (Stock Keeping Units).  It’s why in some restaurants people are expected to order off the menu…the better to show their individuality.  Even the exquisite choices of a large menu would be confining in a world where selfhood really flourishes (aka California).  Yes, it can look a little silly, and especially when it comes to tormenting Bobbie it can look a little cruel, but it is the way we do things.  It our thing.  Cosa Nostra. 

Back to that Japanese restaurant. It’s good fun.  It makes our meal a surprise.  It creates a little machine for making disorder out of order.

But I wonder if it isn’t also a little troubling, evidence perhaps of a cat amongst the pigeon. 

For we take these truths to be self evident:

that identify and selfhood matter

that identity and selfhood are about having preferences

that preferences are expressed, enacted, sharp-ended through choices,

I choose therefore I am.  (Or as I think Virginia puts this, “I like this, I’m like this.”)

So what does it mean that we are now prepared to forsake choice for accident.  (Check out the culturematic posts for more evidence of our love of accident.  I am not just resting this argument on a retweet about an ancient post about a single restaurant.  Honest.)

Accident might be the enemy of individualism.  If we are forsaking choice, we are forsaking the very apparatus we use to craft the self.  No?  Clearly, accident is better than ennui but I can’t help wondering whether it isn’t also the end of empire, a certain cultural regime that is.  If we cease making choices might we not begin to grow ever more faint, ever more Cheshire.   What happens to our individualism without choice?

Or maybe, and this is the more interesting anthropological possibility, we are finding new ways to invent the self.  It’s less about the choice we control and more about the accident we embrace.  And that would be really interesting. 


McCracken, Grant.  2009.  Culturematics: a device for making culture in two easy steps.  This Blog.  here.

McCracken, Grant . 2009.  Culturematic, media and marketing.  This Blog.  here.

Postrel, Virginia.  The Substance of Style.  On Amazon here

See the Serious Eats post here

2 thoughts on “Culturematics, choice, and identity construction now

  1. David


    Are you familiar with Barry Scwartz’s Paradox of Choice book? He argues that while some choice can be positive and increase satisfaction, we are way beyond that: we have so many options available at the moment that picking up a salad dressing can be a paralyzing challenge. Maybe it’s time to let go a bit, in order to cope with the overwhelming supermarket/restaurant environments.

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