Category Archives: Economics, Culture and Commerce

New life for the independent bookstore

401_richmond_westDavid Michaelides is the owner of Swipe Books in Toronto.  I was chatting with him the other day and he offered what I thought was a dazzlingly good idea for the independent book store.

As we all know, the independent book store is struggling.  The rise of more and better TV, independent film and new media, and a rich, ever more interesting internet, these put books at risk.  The advent of and puts the bookstore at risk.  The advent of Amazon’s Kindle and other digital delivery vehicles put the very idea of the book at risk. Even if books and bookstores survive, advantage goes to the large chains that can buy in bulk.  It’s tough running in the independent book store.

But it may be that bookstores create value that we don’t appreciate. David points out that book stores have a magical effect on the social world around them.  They work as magnets for pedestrian traffic.  They manufacture an invitation to enter.  They endow the visitor with a permission to browse.  They give the visitor a reason and a right to be out and about.

This is important because two things are true about the North American city. 

1) The prohibition against being at large but unoccupied in public, while diminished, continues to haunt us.  There are lots of things that helped create this prohibition.  One of my favorite causes: that Northern European hostility for idleness.  Anyone in public not gainfully employed, without purpose or pretext, was clearly "loitering" and this must indicate an intellectual or moral deficit from which only bad things could come.  We are a little less preoccupied by this prohibition.  And thanks go to several things, including urban renovation, the new urbanism, the rise of distributed commerce, the creative professionals passion for city life, the fall of crime.  Starbucks with its creation of a "third space" contributed mightily.  Now it was ok actually to exist in public without a warrant, to sip coffee without an excuse.  (Of course, I still look at my watch occasionally to make it clear that I am waiting for someone.) 

2) buildings and neighborhoods that do not have pedestrian traffic become pallid, even hostile places.  Their decline, the very death, is not impossible.  As a result, some economic interests of the city depend upon the kindness of strangers.  Without pedestrians walking to and fro, the emotional temperature begins to drop, the welcome of a place begins to fade. 

We have robust virtual evidence of this effect.  This is precisely why Second Life, so extraordinarily promising for some purposes, proved finally a space people did not wish to occupy.  There was no one about.  Neighborhoods were ghost towns.  Second Life was itself a kind of vapor ville.  If this is not evidence enough, consider downtown Detroit on the weekend.  We like the presence of other people, even if we have no interest in them as people.  We are pleased to treat them, perhaps, as walk-ons in our own personal dramas.  They give a certain, pleasing effervescence to the world around us. 

Clearly, these two problems belong in tandem because the solution to one becomes the solution to the other.  As and when we lift the prohibition, people occupy buildings and neighborhoods in great number for longer times and hey presto both buildings and the neighborhoods come alive.  And when this social and emotional change takes place, an economic event is set in train.  Property values begin to rise.  Commerce flourishes.  Cities become safer and more habitable. 

Very good.  Back to independent bookstores.  There is no point in special pleading.  These bookstores are deeply interesting place but we cannot made a place for them on these grounds alone.  They must pay their way.  They must extract their own value from the world to bless this world with their presence.  But it’s now clear that value narrowly defined is not going to sustain them.  If they are to survive we must show that they create value of another kind. 

And this is where David’s argument comes in.  Bookstores are very good at breaking the prohibition against public loitering.  They attract people to neighborhoods, into buildings.  They endow the visitor with a permission to browse.  They give the pedestrian the right to be out and about.  And they do this just as well as the "third space" coffee shop, perhaps better.  What is called for then is an expanded appreciated for the value that bookstores create and we need property owners and managers to begin to factor this value into their calculation of the rent they demand of their tenants.  (Margie Zeidler might be an inspiration here.)  Something tells me Richard Florida could do a more elegant job of rendering this argument, but until he weighs in, this will have to do.  Bookstores, independent bookstores, especially, create a value over and above the supply of printed materials and we must understand and act of this value, before it’s too late.  As David  Michaelides points out, many more of North America’s bookstores will go out of business this year. 


The Swipe bookstore here

Peter.  2008.  Memory Lane Lined With Bookstores.  Collecting Children’s Books.  March 5 2008. here

Teich, Jessica.  2008.  Eulogy for an Independent Bookstore.  The Nation.  March 10, 2008. here

For more on Margie Zeidler here

American Booksellers Association here

culture studies and capital markets: parallel or converging?

Railroad_1Yesterday I had drinks with a friend from Toronto. We talked about the crisis that besets cultural studies. Once the new kid on the academic block, the field is now in steep decline, losing both students and credibility at an impressive clip.

The crisis was played out recently in the pages of Time Magazine. Several people were asked to identify the formative trends of our time. David Brooks, Mark Dery, Esther Dyson, Malcolm Gladwell, Moby, Tim O’Reilly, and Clay Shirky took up the assignment and several of them distinguished themselves.

Things did not turn out quite so well for Mark Dery, author and "cultural critic," as Time describes him. He piped up early but his contribution was ill advised and off target. He was to speak 3 more times and then fall silent. (It is impossible to say whether he spoke infrequently or that he was edited out, but then these outcomes are, perhaps, symptomatic of the same problem.)

Dery rolled out the idea that technology has separated us. "More and more, we’re alone in public." We were just putting away the hankies when he piped up again to say "the 18-year-old with a modem is just a click away from a universe of fellow travelers." Now we were obliged to wonder whether he did, or did not, mean to imply that ‘more and more, we’re together in private.’

It may be that Dery wished to evoke both ideas, as bookends for his argument, but in these the last days of the paradigm, it is more likely that he is merely reproducing one of the chief problems of the field: the use of fixed piece, pre fab analysis when something bespoke is called for. The cultural theorists look for a target and fire at will. The discourse is found to be totalizing, essentializing, fetishizing, epistemologically presumptious, ideologically deplorable, or otherwise insufficiently scrupulous. And the cultural studies crew believe themselves to be deeply scrupulous.

Scrupulous to a fault because they are now intellectually incapable. The Time debate was as close to a fair test as we are likely ever to have. A cultural critic now called upon to compete with a musician, several journalists and a couple of technological savants. It turned out he had almost nothing useful to say. Indeed, as we have seen, confronting the big issues of the day, he was almost completely silent.

Dommage, ca. But not surprising. Denis Dutton gave us fair warning of the problems here more than a decade ago. But the infatuation was intense and certain scholars made life long committments from which intrication will be tricky. (Chances are no one thought to insist on a prenup.) How appalling it must be to see this discourse now under challenge and so widely. We may expect to see the cultural theorists hauled before Judge Judy any day now. ("Your honor, I believe these people stole my college education.")

The cultural studies shelf at the book store grows more slender with each passing year. The conditions of knowledge are so scrupulous that it’s hard to construct an argument, and almost impossible to sustain an entire book. Most discourse is now a recitation of the verities and even Routledge cannot recycle these forever. (They will of course try.)

Students are now bailing out. Were it not for the fact that cultural studies was for awhile the only corner of the campus in which students could pursue their interest in contemporary culture, this defection might have happened long ago. (And this might be part of the problem. Cultural studies are better represented on campus, and with alternatives come choices, and with choices, come winners and losers. As long as cultural studies were sole source, they could misbehave themselves…which is to say, I guess, that the cultural studies frankenstein had several accomplices on campus.  Those who staged the embargo against the study of contemporary culture must share some of the responsibility.)

Then there was the Sokal hoax. A physicist persuaded the journal Social Text to accept for publication a paper entitled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" as a contribution to "liberatory post modern science." Professor Sokal revealed that his paper was designed to show the limitless credulity of Social Text, to demonstrate that Social Text was, in effect, incapable of simple acts of scholarly discrimination. The effects were devasting. The culture studies crew had brought ridicule upon themselves.

Mind you, this community of scholars doesn’t always need intervention. A lot of prose is so bad, so self indulgent, that Denis Dutton staged a contest to honor its excesses. Professor Dutton notes,

Thus in A Defense of Poetry, English Prof. Paul Fry writes: "It is the moment of non-construction, disclosing the absentation of actuality from the concept in part through its invitation to emphasize, in reading, the helplessness – rather than the will to power – of its fall into conceptuality." If readers are baffled by a phrase like "disclosing the absentation of actuality," they will imagine it’s due to their own ignorance. Much of what passes for theory in English departments depends on this kind of natural humility on the part of readers. The writing is intended to look as though Mr. Fry is a physicist struggling to make clear the Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. Of course, he’s just an English professor showing off.

Finally, there were the defections. Marjorie Garber, William R. Kenan Jr. professor of English and American literature and language at Harvard, is widely known for Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety (1992), Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life (1995) and Sex and Real Estate (2000). Talk about an English professor showing off. But recently Garber published what she called "an old fashioned kind of book" entitled Shakespeare After All. From someone like Garber, this is nothing less than a recantation, and, for the cultural studies crew, a terrible loss.

Fine, that was drinks. I then proceeded to a dinner hosted by Pip Coburn, a guy who runs Coburn Ventures a company that sells data and perspective in capital markets. To be honest, Pip is a little disconcerting. I once shared a 50 minute limo ride with him. All the while he was on the phone and never once did I guess what he did for a living. (This is a very good way to initimidate an anthropologist. If you can give up 50 minutes of spoken testimony and not give the game away…well, we like to think you just can’t.)

Pip asked me to say a couple of words and I decided to regale the 15 Wall Street types in attendance on the topic of "cultural literacy." I had about 12 minutes to speak. I suggested that a deeper and entirely current knowledge of contemporary culture was important for fund managers and stock brokers because a) this culture shaped consumer taste and preference and b) was itself shaped by a steady stream of innovation and discontinuity, c) early warning was the road to profit, and d) no warning was the road to ruin.

I offered two examples: that Levi-Strauss missed hip hop in the middle 1990s and managed to lose $1 billion dollars in sales that year. The money manager who knew that this trend was on the way, and that Levi-Strauss was "unresponsive," would be in a position to trade accordingly.

My second example had to do with the "great room" trend in North American homes. My argument was that this trend must tell us that there is a change in the North American notion of the family and that early warning of this trend would serve as fair warning of developments that would one day run through the capital markets. 

It was only while I was going to sleep that I thought of a third argument. It’s a bit "house that Jack built" but then these things sometimes are. I have argued that Levitt might be wrong when he explains the drop in violent crime in the American city. A competing or additional explanation is that the new cultural authority of hip hop helped to broker a massive transfer of esteem from the suburban teen to the urban one. As long as hip hop prevails, the urban teen is well compensated (even when his socioeconomic status remains asymmetrical), but the moment the trend moves on, we might expect urban crime to rise once more. And this must have consequences for property markets and eventually capital markets.

Someone disputed my argument with conviction and skill, and I began to think that in fact the capital markets may not need cultural literacy after all. It is an open question.

If we decide that the capital markets need this kind of knowledge, we would then have an extraordinary incentive to develop our stocks of cultural knowledge and the indicators with which we track changes in consumer taste and preferences. One of my dinner companions told that he spends the day monitoring 8 monitors. I am guessing that these are Bloomberg-type data sources.

If the capital markets decide to embrace cultural literacy, Bloomberg is going to have to add a terminal or two. More to the point of this over long blog entry, the cultural studies are going to find themselves confronted with a very worldly problem, playing host indeed to the very capitalists they now so disdain.  That is, if they are still in business. 


Brooks, David, Mark Dery, Esther Dyson, Malcolm Gladwell, Moby, and Clay Shirky. 2005. What’s Next Forum: The Road Ahead. Time Magazine. October 24, 2005, pp. 80-86.

Dutton, Denis. 1992. Delusions of Postmodernism. Literature and Aesthetics. 2: 23-35 and here.

Dutton, Denis. 1999. Language Crimes: A lesson in how not to write, courtesy of the Professoriate. Wall Street Journal. February 5, 1999. here.

McCracken, Grant. 2005. Rap and the esteem economy. This Blog Sits Athere.

Smith, Dinitia. 2005. A scholar of the outre returns to Shakespearean Basics. Wall Street Journal. January 11, 2005.

Stearns, Peter N. 2003. Expanding the Agenda of Cultural Research. The Chronicle Review. Chronicle of Higher Education. 49 (34): B7. here.

Vans go shoe gazey

Customized_vansThe long tail promises endless multiplications in the world of goods.  My favorite: this custom pair of Vans now selling on line for $348.00.

These appear to offer a map of the wharves and north end of downtown Boston. Just the thing for absent minded bloggers trying to find their way home.  “Ok, so I must be somewhere around my little toe, and if I go right here…”

The well dressed blogger will want to commission a pair for every perabulation he  intends to take in every city he intends to visit.  (Excellent for cheating in Geography class, as well.)  Now that’s multiplication.

References and Acknowledgments

A tip of the hat to Core77, to the Barcelona-based customizing firm of Espaipupu  (ok, so it’s not Boston),  and Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail.

anthropologist overboard

SupermarketThose fellas at PSFK  keep earning our admiration. 

See the post by Piers on mixed tapes and webites like TinyMixTapes that solicit themes for which they then supply play lists.  An example:

A request someone posted at TinyMixTapes:

I need unapologetically cheerful music, perfect for dancing around the kitchen while baking cookies and forgetting that I am very, very alone.

The response:

requested by: M
compiled by: little cola wong

Side One:
01. The Partridge Family – "Come on Get Happy" (Partridge Family: Greatest Hits)
02. Billy Bragg & Wilco – "I Guess I Planted" (Mermaid Avenue)
03. Cookies – "Girls Grow Up Faster Than" (Complete Dimension Sessions)
03. James Brown – "I Got Ants in My Pants (And I Want to Dance)" (Make It Funky – The Payback)
04. PJ Harvey – "Good Fortune" (Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea)
05. Pizzicato 5 – "We Love Pizzicato Five" (The Sound of Music)
06. K-OS – "Fantastique" (Exit)
07. Le Tigre – "Tres Bien" (Feminist Sweepstakes)
08. Jill Scott – "Golden" (Beautifully Human)
09. Bjork – "There’s More to Life Than This" (Debut)
10. Cibo Matto – "Sci-Fi Wasabi" (Stero Type A)

This summons the idea of an exchange in which we program culture for one another.  Blogs already serve this sorting function.  ("Hey read this.  Consider that.")  But what’s especially interesting is that there could exist large banks of playlists or playlist creators which could deliver playlists that are very carefully chosen to fit a very particular moment.  Now the playlists become "sound tracks," as exquisitely appropriate for our lives as they are for a movie.

And this makes me think of the discussion that just took place on the Wharton site: Wikis, Weblogs and RSS: what does the new internet mean for business.  Janice Fraser, Ross Mayfield and Philip Evans are interviewed by Kevin Werbach, and Janice talks about

a shift from what I call host-provided value — such as CitySearch (where publishers provide local events listings in different cities) — to user-provided value in websites such as (a global events calendar managed by users).

As we see it being played out at the moment, it works precisely as an exchange in a quite  literal sense.  You and I engage in several reciprocities, and, as I result, I can reasonably ask you to program music choice  for my drive to the Cape in July.  (I will reciprocate with a list of the 10 best novels about Elizabethan England to read on your vacation.)

But unless we are living on a Kibbutz, filled with fabulously smart and well informed people, chances are we are going to want some cultural programming for which no friends exist.  And this is, I believe, the reason we have a marketplace (and something liquid called "money" to make non reciprocal exchanges possible)!

So how about it?  When is the internet going to create a marketplace inwhich intellectual, social and cultural capitals trade hands in exchange for money.  When are we going to grow up and move on?  The problem, to use Weberian language, is that we have made most of the cultural exchange that takes place on the internet "enchanted."  It is shot through with larger meanings and governed by larger reciprocities.  And yes, he said, wiping away the tears, I think there is something touching about all of us, and especially me, doing all this programming for free. 

But until we monitize this exchange, we systematically exclude from possibility some of the cultural productions we will care about most.  (I would love a mix every fortnight of current music from several genre, complete with intelligent commentary and a little cultural GPS positioning on the cultural map.  And, yes, I would pay for it.) 

Put it this way.  The informal, enchanted, reciprocal exchange of cultural productions has been great.  It has been an honor and a privilege, that is to say, to live on this Kibbutz.  But, ladies and gentlemen, we must someday come to our senses, move to Haifa, and live in the real world.  Ok, Tel Aviv. 

It can’t read! (Microsoft’s PMC illiterate?)

ebook II.bmp

We’ve all been waiting for a killer appliance for digital text.

Surely, someone would do for text what iPod did for music: create an exquisite “must have” piece of hardware and software that made reading on the screen the pleasure it is on the page.

The eBook from Gemstar was so bad, they gave up. Tablet PCs are too big, and PDAs are too small. Sony is launching the EBR-1000 Librie eBook reader. A fellow blogger says, ‘this product will go down in Sony’s vault for stupid, expensive ideas. At least it’s so small it should fit.” A second blogger says, “a great innovation trashed by an idiotic implementation rendering it practically useless.”

Microsoft might have used its deep pockets to make a difference. But depressing news today from the NYT. It reviews the Personal Media Center from Microsoft. Apparently, the PMC can’t read.

To make sure, I went to the Microsoft website:

Portable Media Centers put all of your favorite video, music, and pictures at your fingertips wherever you are. Take digital entertainment from your computer with you on the go, including recorded TV shows, downloaded videos, home movies, music, and photos.

Really? Everything but text? Nice going. The iRiver appliance (above) looks like it could handle text. Too bad, it won’t be able too.

I do appreciate that Microsoft does not make appliances, killer or otherwise. And I appreciate that the PMC software is designed to run on cell phones, not perhaps the best place to read War and Peace. I also understand that Microsoft created Reader, which is smarter and better than Adobe’s Acrobat, and that they gave us Clear Type which was welcome too.

But this is a huge market opportunity. We all want print made available to us with iPod grace and simplicity. Clearly, more people need to carry text than music. The numbers are staggering. Last year 15.3 million students attended college classes.

If Apple and IBM won’t step up, perhaps it’s time for Microsoft to show a little leadership. It wouldn’t be hard to insource the hardware design and outsource the manufacture.

An opportunity is a terrible thing to waste. Especially this one.


Pogue, David. 2004. From Microsoft, A First Take. New York Times, September 2, 2004 here (subscription)

The Sony review from dottocomu here

The second Sony review from cinquero here

PMC info from Microsoft here

college attendance stat here

With apologies to Beggin’ Strips.

Canada Day

Canada Day final.jpg

Who said that the right believes in the liberties of the marketplace but not in those of culture, while the left believes in the liberties of culture but not the marketplace?

Canada, it turns out, believes in neither one. The marketplace is regarded with suspicion. Its dynamism is feared, and, when possible, controlled. Culture, especially commercial culture, is regarded with discomfort. Canadians prefer their markets regulated by governments and their culture mediated by experts (Margaret Atwood, take a bow).

At the moment when commerce and culture have a newly provocative relationship, one funding, and driving, the other to new heights, new intensity, new dynamism, this is a bad place for a country to be. This is not the fount of the “wealth of nations.”

Canada never struck out on its own. It managed a seamless transition from being a colony of the UK to being a dependent of the US. Caution always seemed the better part of valor. Actually, caution seemed a whole lot better than valor.

This opportunity for independence came and went again this week when Canada went to the polls in a federal election. It looked for a moment that voters might declare their independence from the old order and the long standing Liberal Party, that champion of cowardice. But, no. It the last days of the campaign, frightened by Liberal scare tactics, the nation lost its nerve…again.

It’s actually there in the words to the national anthem. Oh, Canada, my home and native land. I stand on guard for thee.” “Standing on guard” is good and noble, but it is not the path to dynamism.


I believe the person who gave me the lovely little logical package in the first paragraph was Charles Paul Freund, Senior Editor at Reason Magazine. Thanks, Chuck!

Dr. O’Neill, may I present Dr. Boudreaux?

In Santa Fe recently, Don Boudreaux was speaking extemporaneously. At one point, he paused, looked down, touched the table before him deliberately, and said something like, “I don’t presume to know what’s best for other people [on this topic] or that I could possibly ever know such a thing.”

It was a simple, matter of fact, acknowledgment of the limits of his moral authority and it struck me like a thunder bolt. It seemed to me to reveal an essential difference between two camps of social scientist: those who believe they know the moral order of things, and those who are prepared to defer to the arrangements the world works out on its own.

When I listen to many social scientists these days, they are plumping for their preferred order of things. They take this to be the point, the very obligation, of their scholarship. It is this presumption of moral authority that has shifted their teaching in the liberal arts from a dispassionate engagement to a partisan one, provoking, in the process, the “culture wars” of the 1990s and the present day.

I was reminded of my Boudreauxvian illumination yesterday when I came upon a review of The Market: Ethics, Knowledge and Politics (Economics as Social Theory), a book by John O’Neill. (I have not yet seen the book itself, and you will forgive me, I hope, if I rely upon the review.)

Apparently, O’Neill laments ‘the rejection of the Enlightenment project of a rationally ordered social life.” In the words of the anonymous reviewer:

O’Neill presents the market as having encroached too far upon non-market associations: … [T]he market corrodes conditions of human well-being, the commitments of personal relationships, social bonds and loyalties, social identity and the narrative order of human life, the norms of recognition that are vital to the internal order of the sciences, arts and crafts, skills and social esteem; and the public nature of the sciences and arts. … At the very least, markets need boundaries, ‘so that non-market associations and relations can flourish.’

The debate is joined. Dr. O’Neill believes that the moral order of world comes from non-market associations and an Enlightenment project in which men and women decide what their world shall be. It comes from ideas thought. Dr. Boudreaux, if I may speak for him, believes that the world emerges from the activities of many diverse groups and individuals as these activities emerge to shape the world. In this case, the order of the world comes from choices made. In O’Neill’s view, the market place is an enemy of moral order. For Boudreaux, it is order’s source.

Many social scientists treat Boudreaux’s position as an abandonment of responsibility and a willingness to “damn the consequences and let the market rip.” But what you could hear in Boudreaux’s remarks was not an eager abdication of responsibility, but a sober, scrupulous willingness to accept the world’s choice over the intellectual’s idea. For Boudreaux, I think, the world is, in a sense, imponderable. It is driven by an evermore active marketplace which in turn drives new social, cultural, and economic forms. The result is almost impossible to think. It is increasingly impossible to judge. To use the phrase ironically, the world is too much with us.

The debate is clear. O’Neill holds to the old mission of the intellectual. Powers of scrutiny and rights of judgment, these, he says, remain with us. From this perspective, Boudreaux and his like are barbarians who accept that, now to use the phrase ironically, “what ever is is right.” Scholar to the barricades! O’Neill takes up the defense of “non market associations.” He shouts the market back.

O’Neill does not see what was clear to the great American anthropologist, Marshall Sahlins in the 1970s. “[W]e have a kind of empirical society which precipitates organization out of the play of real forces. Ours too may be a culture, but its form is constructed from events, as the system gives people license to put their means to the best advantage and certifies the result as a genuine society.”

He does not see what was clear to Hayek in the 1940s, that ‘through the market [we are] made to contribute ‘to ends which [are] no part of [our] purpose.’”

What O’Neill does not see is that his intellectual mission has been displaced by the sheer force of the culture that capitalism creates. But I wonder if other intellectuals do. Sometimes, I think I hear, in the work of Frank and Klein, a burst of bad temper that the world should have dared displace them. Their traditional hostility for the marketplace has been redoubled by the inkling that “idea elites” are outstripped not just politically but intellectually. They glimpse, I think, the mortal wound dynamism has inflicted on their self appointed place of usefulness, and the result is outrage. (My favorite text here is Carey).

In such a world, things change for “idea elites.” It is not for them to say, because it is increasingly difficult for them to see. Their moment has passed. Like it or not, our culture will come from ‘the play of real forces.” It will produce “ends which are no part of our purpose.” O’Neill believes, evidently, that the moral game is still in play. Boudreaux demonstrates that it is time for the intellectual to take a position of new modesty, of new integrity.

A question remains. Is the world imponderable? Is the world impossible to think? (I accept that it is impossible to judge; that we are, to use the phrase ironically, obliged to “let a hundred flowers bloom.”) Where does order come from, if not idea? If it comes from choice, how do choices “add up” and order emerge?

In a pluralistic intellectual world, we will have many points of view. For my own purposes, I think we can see things anthropologically and posit: 1) a new multiplicity of cultural forms (plenitude), 2) a new presumption of the right of individuals and groups to reinvent themselves (transformation), 3) a new loose boundedness of individual and group that makes them newly responsive to plenitude on the one hand and transformation on the other. (My favorite text here is Postrel.) Or, we might put this in the language of complexity theory, and observe a culture that has become ever more like a Complex Adaptive System, prizing “heterogeneity,” “diversity,” “a network of interactions” and “non linearity.” (My favorite text here is Clippinger.)

In a pluralistic world, there will be many more and better ways to think about dynamism. But the first order of business is to leave off the favorite inclination of the old order intellectual: to mistake provincialism for integrity. The new position is the Boudreauxvian one. Let us all pause, look down, touch the table before us deliberately, and repeat after him: “I don’t presume to know what’s best for other people or that I could possibly ever know such a thing.”


Anon. n.d. Review of The Market. (lightly edited.) Available here.

Boudreaux, Donald. Café Hayek. A blog to found here.

Carey, John. 1992. The Intellectuals and the Masses: pride and prejudice among the literary intelligentsia, 1880-1939. London: Faber and Faber.

Clippinger, John Henry. 1999. The biology of business: Decoding the natural laws of enterprise. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Hayek, Friedrich A. 1948. Individualism and Economic Order. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 13-14.

McCracken, Grant. 1997. Plenitude. Toronto: Periph: Fluide. (available on this website for downloading.)

2001. Transformation. Toronto: Periph. :Fluide. (available on this website for downloading.)

2004. Our New Porousness. Entry on this blog. May 24, 2004.

O’Neill, John. 1998. The Market: Ethics, Knowledge and Politics. (Economics as Social Theory). London: Routledge.

Postrel, Virginia. 1998. The Future and Its Enemies: The growing conflict over creativity, enterprise and progress. New York: The Free Press.

Sahlins, Marshall David. 1976. Culture and Practical Reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 52.

Stark, David. 1999. Heterarchy: Distributing intelligence and organizing diversity. In The biology of business: decoding the natural laws of enterprise. editor John Clippinger, 155-79. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

With nods to Wordsworth, Pope, and Mao.

Mother’s day

Tyler Cowen has a very interesting post today on Mother’s day.

He notes that people will spend an average of $98.64 on Mother’s Day this year. Last year they spend $97.37. In 2000 and 2001, the average spending per customer was less than $65.

Three things jump out:

1) That we have a national holiday is itself striking. Imagine trying to persuade people who live in a traditional society, or even an agricultural one that they should take a day to celebrate their mothers. There would be puzzlement all round.

Is there an “owl of minerva taking wing at dusk” thing going on here? We think to celebrate institutitions only when they are in some way under challenge or at least open to transformation. And we might then wonder what happens to “motherhood” in an intensely individualistic tradition like our own, where children are supposed to take the maternal impress and rework it, with or without due acknowledgement and gratitude. In a culture where people are free and forced to engage in continual acts of self invention, the relationship between mother and child must have some interesting tensions and contradictions.

There are plenty of other questions. In the anthropological way, they start little and scale up in a hurry. Why is “father’s day” a lesser occasion? And why no occasions called “sister’s day” or “auntie’s day?” Surely, our sisters mean more to us than our secretaries who do have a day. Before you know it, you are obliged to account for the whole damn thing.

2) Culture, in this case, a ritual event called Mother’s day, obliges people to acknowledge, to make manifest, things that are otherwise “simply there.” Commerce goes much further. It asks not just for acknowledgment but a quite precise rendering. To mark the event, consumers must make visible whether, how much, and in what ways they care about their mothers. The numbers begin to tell a story that changes over time. In the place of vague but heart felt declarations, we get very particular measures.

3) We can particularly observe the measure changing after 9/11. This seems obvious in a general way. But imagine everything we would have to say to give a comprehensive and incisive (all but only) account of the connection to someone from a different century or planet. (This is a hell of a pachinko machine: from a terrorist attack on the one side to what you buy for your mom on the other. Connecting the dots could take a book or two.)

Cultures have an interesting way of choosing whether and when and how to make its inventions manifest. Commerce is often more forthcoming.

anthropologist and economist

In sum:

One of the places that anthropology and economics must intersect has to do with the question of cultural meaning. If value in anthropology comes from meaning and meaning is not in any sense constrained, then as we shall see in this post, an economic point of view is difficult to sustain. Thanks to Steve Postrel for his comments and participation. (It’s worth emphasizing, I think, that these remarks from both me and from Steve are experimental and exploratory.)

In total:

I asked Steve Postrel of SMU to look at yesterday’s post and he was kind enough to give me a detailed reply, to which I then replied, as follows


Your comment was really helpful:

I think an economics of meanings is possible as long as we can identify what the source of scarcity is. Economics only works when there is choice under constraint, so meaning generation would have to be costly for some reason in order to get any traction.

I am trying to think about how to think about it. In a Schneiderian strategy, I am just going to follow this line of thought wherever it takes me. Don’t hesitate to say this makes no sense. It really is a space probe. We don’t expect survivors.

Meanings qua meanings are not scarce. In the material world and especially in the artistic world, I can attribute any meanings to any object.

Credible, shared meanings are more scarce. I can only hope to get your assent to my attribution of meaning, if I conform to the “periodic table” of meanings.

This doesn’t have to make for scarcity. The meanings of public culture are there for the asking. My use, say, of a war memorial to contemplate sacrifice does not diminish its value or meaning to you.

But credible, shared meanings begin to take on scarcity when the meanings of the private domain are exposed to public scrutiny. I can claim any meanings for myself that I want. (And this is a growth industry with individuals empowered to make larger and more various claims in a kind of solipsistic vacuum. Maybe people now cherish the notion that they are the king of France. I believe history will one day show me to be the one true claimant. But that’s another topic.) But if I want these meanings to be publicly ratified, I am obliged to display, perform, variously present them to public scrutiny.

This becomes one of the reasons I go to the marketplace. It is, among other things, a market of meanings in which I must make a choice under constraint. A Mercedes gives me a claim to certain kinds of meanings. It allows me to present, perform, display a bundle of meanings to do with status, age, sophistication, etc. It allows me to lay claim to these meanings in a manner that the world can recognize and ratify. (“We know who you are.” “We accept who you are.”) I have surrendered economic value to get cultural value.

This is fine (though probably addled) as far as it goes but it cannot account for the significance of the Gillette razor (not to lose our valuable talking point). This gives me a claim to certain gender meanings. But there is no public audience. The audience is myself. But the thing still works. Here the brand contains meanings that allow me to declare and perform certain notions of myself that I am then more prepared to recognize and ratify in myself. What starts private, stays private. But the rest of the argument holds. I go to the marketplace and surrender value for the best brand/product for this private definitional purposes. (And I am ignoring here that my public performance of my social identity will draw some of its force from my private recitation of the identity. So the private and the public do connect, eventually.)

So there is scarcity in two places. The economic producer can lay claim to meaning if and as they build it into their brands and products through design, marketing, advertising, etc. We can speak of brands and companies “making meanings” in this way. [This doesn’t quite work, does it?] They must risk investment, resources, effort to secure meanings that they then hope to sell “at a profit.” [hmmm.] The economic consumer is also choosing. To the extent that brands compete by claiming different meanings and claiming the same meaning more or less successfully, the consumer is in a position to choose between alternatives.

Does this work at all?

Steve’s reply (and the first real acknowledgment of my claim to the throne of France):

Grant: I think you’re on the right track. That’s pretty much the kind of thing I had in mind. BTW, it reminds me of your essay on why clothing is not a language–infinite number of meanings possible with language, but not an infinite number of social identities possible in an anthropologically realistic society.

I’m not sure about this, but I think we can classify different kinds of meanings which have different sources of scarciy. Virginia convinced me that most, if not all, consumption-based meaning is really about identity, but within that there are subtypes. For example, social status claims are inherently constrained by the zero-sum nature of relative superiority (although various well-established self-delusions enable most people to think they are above average on some attributes). So any status competition immediately operates in a condition of scarcity.

Private meanings are constrained by your inner bullshit detector in combination with your true qualities and abilities. If I own a set of weights then maybe I am physically fit–but if I don’t use them much, I rely upon a delusion that I use them more frequently than I do or maybe just that thinking about using them makes me more of a fitness-conscious person. (I think private meanings of this kind should be distinguished from fantasies, although one set should be somewhat predictive of the other).

And of course, there is the role of competition among those trying to provide you with ready-made meanings (e.g. Gillette and Schick). Not only is Gillette’s ability to make you feel manly by buying a Mach III constrained by the social fact that lots of obvious wimps use the product and by the private fact that you don’t feel especially tough while shaving (and bimbos don’t appear to lather you up like they do in the commercials), but by the competitive fact that Schick interferes by saying “Real men use 4 blades” or something. Only one product can be the most macho at a time, which constrains the meanings that can be generated.

There’re probably other categories or classification schemes that might apply; these were the first that came up in my mind. Anyway, apres vous, le deluge, Your Highness.


Gillnets for the internet

An interesting story today in the New York Times “What’s On Your Playlist.” It notes that the iTunes Music Store is now selling celebrity playlists. Selling, mind you.

This is interesting, because it suggests a solution to one of the great problems created by the Internet: too many content creators and not enough mediation. Even when a “power law” helps organize this community, it is almost impossible for any of us fully to canvass all the things going on out there. Even if it were static, this would be true. But of course it is anything but static. New music, new art, new blogs, new everything arrives daily.

This is especially true for music. There are now so many producers working in so many genres that it’s impossible to figure out what’s going on. Clearly, this is a special problem for an anthropologist who has chosen contemporary culture as his “beat,” but it is, I think, a problem for us all. We all wish to remain in touch with what is going on in our culture. (There are indications that some of us are tempted by the possibility of secession from this culture. See Virginia Postrel’s comments yesterday about like minded people chosing to live together as one possible indication of a larger movement of this kind.)

The way the market typically solves this problem is by incenting some people to act as mediators. (This is the new dynamic model. The old one was to have an elite appoint guardians of taste, and this was one of the first casualities of the Internet and contemporary culture.) These mediators audition all the novelty taking place “out there” and they recommend some of it to the rest of us. They act, in sum, like magazine editors or DJs drawing up playlists. They serve as our early listening devices.

Clearly, magazine editors and DJs continue to play this role. But there is way too much invention out there for them to serve as authoritative or even modestly exhaustive mediators. The new system is so voluminous that it will take a hierarchy of mediators, dividing the labor, some of them out there on the bleeding edge of contemporary culture with an array back to those of us who live in the middle. (This is not a new elite. Consumers will vote on who they find useful and who they do not.)

The trouble so far has been that there is been no way of monetizing the process. Some of these editors can do their work part time, but this community will not create real value until people are able to work full time. And this can’t happen until they find some way to recover some part of the value their efforts have created in and for the world.

So back to the New York Times piece. It suggests that iTunes will sell celebrity play lists and this says that we know have a business model. We will surrender value to capture value. (And this breaks with the internet model that says everyone gives away everything–a model I was personally fond of, but not fully persuaded by. More on this in a later post.)

Now, who should do this? Certainly, not celebrities. They have already been hired in this editorial capacity by the big labels–as when Fred Durst and Madonna are given their own labels. And, generally, they are good readers of the dynamism of contemporary culture–and could not be “stars” without this ability.

But what we want is an array of editors that stand between all that invention out there and the thicker parts of the market place. And we want to fill this array with people who can get paid without having to be celebrities. Who will build it? When does the market place supply this “emergent” response to a compelling consumer, cultural need?

great quotes of our time

“But I really do not expect people to agree with me. People haven’t agreed with me as a soft Marxist, as a social engineering transport economist, as a quantitative economic historian, as a Chicago School economist, as a neoinstitutionalist, as a libertarian, as a global monetarist, as a free market feminist. No wonder they don’t agree with me as a rhetorician of science.

Of course, like most people, I do assume that those people are wrong and I am right. (And in sober truth–can I confide in you as a friend?–I am right.)”

McCloskey, Deirdre N. 1998. The Rhetoric of Economics. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, p. 188.

valuation: anthropology meets economics

I was talking to a New Yorker recently about an upcoming trip.

“Where are you staying in the city?” she asked.

“Oh, mid-town”

Actually, this was just a guess. I like to sound like an insider. So I use “upper west side,” “soho,” “tribeca” with nonchalance. But to be honest, I am never exactly certain I have got my terms right.

“But where, exactly.”


“Um, on 49th, near the Plaza.”


Whew! Guessed right.

I put down the phone in a vertiginous moment. These neighborhood labels are a little testing for a rube from Canada. (I am in another classificatory scheme, “bridge, tunnel and border.”) But as a classificatory scheme, these labels are almost nothing at all.

And this is where anthropology meets economics. For the neighborhood labels are, like most cultural schemes, pretty general. There are, and now I’m really guessing, about 12 of them. (Ok, I know this because I just googled the question.) That’s 12 categories to cover an island that contains, um, 8 million people.

And here’s where it gets vertiginous. As I put down the phone, I realized that these 12 cultural categories contain, roughly, 19.5 economic distinctions. This is the number of discrete prices for property in Manhattan. (This assumes that the most expensive property sells for $20 million and there is no property that sells for less than $500,000, and that there is, or could be, a property for sale for every dollar amount.) (I am sure there are places that sell for more than $20 million, but you get the idea.)

Let’s review. Culture gives us 12 distinctions. Economics gives us 19.5 million distinctions.

This is not to mock culture. We are very happy to have a set of 12 categories that somehow manages to map the great, blooming diversity called Manhattan. Without it, many things, including a taxi ride, would be vastly more difficult. It’s always true that we want embracing classificatory schemes and without them would be lost in a welter of detail.

But compare this cultural valuation to economic valuation. With this classicatory scheme, we can make endlessly fine distinctions. We can mark the difference between a Soho condo on the 4th floor and the 5th floor. We can distinquish between a property that has double paned windows and with single panes. We can in other words make impossible fine distinctions. And in the process we can what many things are worth: sides of the building, views, neighborhoods, access to a park. Clearly, only the virtuoso real estate agent is fully conversant in these distinctions. But all of us will defer to these distinctions if and when we buy a place on the island.

But what is really astonishing, and here is where culture must not just tip its hat to economics, but actually remove it in a gesture of abiding deference, the valuation scheme created by economics actually floats. All those monetary distinctions can change 1) over night, 2) without committee oversight, 3) in almost perfect concert.

That’s condo on 5th avenue that is now worth $8.3 million will sometimes fluctuate with stock market as its owners sleep. Oh, the Japanese buy more dollars. Oh, the exchange rate changes. Oh, the markets respond. Oh, the owners wake up a little richer or a little poorer.

It’s nice to think of a city that has digital read-outs attached to every property, the numbers spinning up and down over the course of a day as the real estate market works out what value is and external factors impinge. Oh, someone just bought a place in your building for 1.5 million more than asking. Everyone’s value goes up a little. The market has spoken.

This is the mystery. Not for economists for they take this for granted. But for anthropologists. A classificatory scheme that lets the market “speak,” in very little voices, in the creation of millions of utterances that are prone to second guessing and revision many times a day.

Anthropology meets economics and comes away astonished.

Hunting the cool hunt

Historically, the relationship between mainstream and non-mainstream music has been love-hate. Pop stars love the welter of ideas in the underground and the indie world hates them precisely for their avarice. Whether it’s the newfangled French disco influence on the last Madonna record or the electronic strains on Radiohead’s Kid A and Amnesiac, when mainstream musicians seek inspiration, they inevitably look underground. (from Mayer, Andre. 2002. Listen: Snap, Crackle…Pop? Shift Magazine. 10/3 September, 63-64, p. 63.)

This is the received assumption: the mainstream takes, the non-mainstream gives, that the mainstream exploits and the margin is exploited, that capitalism feeds on the innovations of the groups it excludes and despises.

But it is, anthropologically and economically, only one way of looking at things.

MSP (mainstream parties) are speaking to their publics, only thus do they sustain themselves. They know their audiences are interested in the “new”. They know that their audiences can “hear” innovations in, say, French disco, if only distantly, and that they have perked up their ears. French disco is a little strange but not unattractive. This means three things: 1) that the MSP must incorporate the “new” into what they take to market, 2) that if they don’t do it, someone else will, 3) they must chose their moment exquisitely: too early and the audience recoils, too late and they sneer. Accessing the “new” in this way is part of their contract with their audience. It is, to use the language of the Harvard Business School, the way they create value for the consumer.

By this rendering, it’s not clear that the MSP are “raiding” cool, as Thomas Frank and now Naomi Klein would say (and as Mayer implies, though his argument is more subtle). They are acting on behalf of their audience…both when “sourcing” the “new” for them, and when “stepping it down” so that it thrills but does not frighten.

Well, the interlocutor might say, but this merely pushes the Frankian accusation down the path to the ultimate beneficiary of the raid. Whoever benefits, marketer or consumer, the charge of cool hunting still stands.

But does it? The ultimate recipient, the consumer, does not “profit” from the receipt of the cool in any obvious way, certainly not in the ways that a studio or magazine does. The “new” works for them as a kind of “cultural capital” but what they do with this capital and why they care about it, these questions demand ethnographically nuanced answers that the “raiding” metaphor cannot deliver (and actually serves to obviate). (One such question: “what does the main stream use the “new” for? How and why does it use it to construct self and world?”)

A post Frankian model has several advantages. One of them is that it helps to explain the likes of Moby. We might say that when Moby made his music available to clothing stores as the sound track of commerce, he was merely cutting out the middle man. He was delivering cool “direct,” so to “disintermediate” the studios and magazines. Clearly, it would be wrong to ignore two external conditions that made this possible: first, that the music in question wasn’t as difficult as avant-garde artifacts sometimes are, and, second, that the mainstream has moved away from the banalities that were once its stock in trade. Moby may or may not be a fair test.

Naturally, the margin (M) disdains the whole affair. That someone should steal their innovations, that they should then water them down, that they should be driven by commercial motives and not artistic ones…all of this is galling. But it is still not clear that M is an injured party. It would have moved on to new innovations in any case and that it is not, therefore, being driven by market predations. Second, this system actually sees to the distribution of music without the M having to step it down. (There are some in the M camp who argue that they don’t want anyone else to have access to their music…and some who say that those who want it should only be allowed to have the “raw” original form. We can agree, I think, this is anti-democratic in the first case and elitist in the second. Parties in the M camp are entitled to these arguments, but they can hardly use them as the cri de coeur of an injured party or as the foundation of their “j’accuse” attack on the mainstream.)

We could push this notion a step further, which I do now mostly for the sake of argument. We could say that M is rather well provided for. Its structural position is inevitable. It can invent without regard for popular taste. It can speak to very small audiences and even merely to itself. In an egoistic, individualistic society, many people want this liberty, only M gets to have it. Indeed, it looks as if M are the classic beneficiaries of an avant-garde model. The deal here has always been poverty (or at least an insufficiency of goods) in exchange for freedom and a superfluidity of currency. Even when an avant-garde artist is not very good or productive, s/he has a robust cultural capital and the right to sneer. In the history of the West, fierce contests have been fought over the right to sneer, the right to claim status. To think that, in our moment, it comes merely from a subfluidity of goods is…well, perhaps not such a bad deal, after all.

Let us push the argument one more step. We could say that when the MSP and the M interact as they do, they create a division of cultural labor. The M creates cultural innovation, the “new,” for the mainstream. (It is another and relatively unexplored question why the mainstream should be so dependent on the “new,” but it is.) The MSP act as conduits here, capturing the “new” and, with appropriate and progressive modification, passing it along to the mainstream. Like any trans-shipper, they chip off some of the value they are helping to distribute. This division of labor pays out in two quite different ways. The M is paid for their trouble in “currency,” the MSP is paid for their trouble in value that is more tangible but not obviously more valuable. This is one of the ways cultural capital and economic capital meet and doe-see-doe in the economies of a capitalist society.

Let us push the argument one last step. There is perhaps a division of symbolic labor at work as well. The MSP need the M to create the “new,” to render the currency with which the economy, desire and especially the modernist and postmodernist self perpetuate themselves. And the M need the MSP and the mainstream in order to create an anti-new, a terra cognito, a center which in its turn creates an edge, a verge, a new. In this division of labor, the antagonists are mutually defining and the complaint in Frank and Mayer is not actually a complaint. It is an exercise in the process by which a modern and post modern cultures construct themselves out of the interaction, the contest, of disparate groups and conflicting projects.

See also:

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1990. In Other Words: Essays toward a reflexive sociology. Oxford: Polity.

Brooks, David. 2000. Bobos in paradise: The new upper class and how they got there. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Gladwell, Malcolm. 1997. The Coolhunt. The New Yorker. March 17, 1997: 78-88.

Frank, Thomas. 1997. The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Klein, Naomi. 2000. No logo: taking aim at the brand bullies. Toronto: A.A. Knopf .

Thorton, Sarah. 1996. Club Cultures: Music, media and subcultural capital. Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press.

the Drew Bledsoe paradox

The Drew Bledsoe paradox: the mysterious home economics of homo economicus

When Drew Bledsoe (then the quarterback of the New England Patriots) decided to build a home for himself, his economic advisors had to explain to him that the millions he was about to spend would never come back to him. This is because the people who bought his house would be buying it for the land alone. They would knock Drew’s palace down, and build anew. Everyone who owns this property, in fact, knocks down and starts fresh. None of them recapture the millions they spend on their homes.

Drew was apparently puzzled. So should we all be. Homo economicus, economic man, is not supposed to act like this. To “invest” millions of dollars in a “property,” and then have to walk away from it…this is not the rational thing to do. (It is especially not rational when you are an NFL quarterback who may discover on any given Sunday that the caprice of an owner or a coach obliges him to pick up and pursue his career on the other side of the country. But never mind, almost everyone who spends this kind of money on a house lives a fluid life that can demand sudden relocation…and this cataclysmic loss.)

The Bledsoe paradox does not hold only for the very wealthy. It is a truism of home renovation that the renovator will not recapture all (in some cases, any) of the value of the money they spend on their renovations. They might think about a new kitchen and deck as an improvement that must increase the value of this property. But they’re wrong. They are about to sacrifice hard-won savings to the Bledsoe paradox.

How should we think about this? We might say, “well, no, the money people put into their homes or their renovations is not meant as an investment.” People spend this money to make themselves comfortable. They are spending for the moment, not the long term. It is an investment in happiness, not the real estate market.

Let’s run the numbers, shall we? Let’s say that Bledsoe spend 3 years in his house before moving to Buffalo and that he spend $2 million on house construction. The happiness fee here was around $650,000. That’s $220,000 a year, around $20,000 a month. What about the more usual home owner? Let’s say the average renovation is $100,000 and that people spend an average of 3.5 years on their homes. Here the happiness fee is roughly $3000 a month or a hundred dollars a day. (An anthropologist with a calculator is a dangerous thing; better check these numbers.)

The opportunity cost is itself quite high. If the renovators had invested the $100,000 intelligently in the stock market of the middle 1990s, they could have retired by decade’s end. The inconvenience cost is high too. Ask any homemaker what it’s like to put up with commotion, dirt, and a missing kitchen for 4 months, and s/he almost always says, “we will never do it again.” That there is an inconvenience cost should make us suspicious of the happiness argument. If happiness were truly the objective, this family could treat themselves to lavish hotel life every weekend and still put money in their pockets.

The socio biologists will no doubt say that we rebuild or renovate to claim the property. The notion here, to put it somewhat crudely, is that this investment is our species way of peeing in the corners. As usual, this argument is a blunt instrument which fails to explain most of the data at hand. Are we to understand that the construction of a vast faux Tudor and a monument to modernism have exactly the same motive? Are we to understand that the hundreds of little decisions that people agonize over when building or renovating are really just a false consciousness. French drapes, glazed windows, open skylights, it’s all really just pee. But there is a simpler question, one that sociobiology cannot reckon with: why don’t we just actually pee in the corners?

Let’s imagine we have done our anthropological homework. We have interviewed Mrs. Maison about the new renovation she and her husband just completed on their three year old home. They tore off the back of the house and replaced it mostly with glass. Light now pours in. When we ask Mrs. X why she went to such great expense and inconvenience, she says,

“Well, you see, my husband just loves the light in the morning. Me, I would sleep until noon, if you let me, but Frank’s a morning person and he loves to get up and pad around in the first light of the day. It’s his quiet time. It’s his thinking time.”

This is a charming statement of wifely solicitude but it’s also wrong. When we talk to Mr. Maison, he doesn’t talk at all about morning light. He talks about space and openness and being able to see the garden. When we gently prompt him about mornings, he says, “Oh, that. Yeah, I know. My wife keeps saying that to everybody, and it’s partly true. I mean I am a morning person, and the house is way nicer in the morning. But I liked it before. I mean in the winter months, there really isn’t any light.”

Homo economicus meet homo faber (man the maker). The reason Mr. and Mrs. Maison spent $180,000 on this renovation was to capture an idea Mrs. Maison has of her husband, and, more important, to create the idea she has of her husband. He works too hard, she thinks. He has so many demands made of him. If only he had a little more time to himself. If only he could be bathed in the light of the morning, maybe… This is a more complicated species of wifely solicitude. It is Mrs. Maison crafting the home to craft her husband.

The Bledsoe paradox proves not to be a paradox at all. We invest in our homes (when we have the good fortune to have homes and money enough to remake them) because they are transformational opportunities. We make them to make ourselves. This is money well spent…when it works. It’s badly spent when the idea we are trying to invent for and of ourselves is implausible or otherwise uninhabitable. It does not fit very well with our notions of economic man, of ourselves as rational creatures who invest for future profit. But that’s only because homo economicus is defined too narrowly. It would help a little if we would see that some economic activities are also cultural ones (the reverse is also true), that we undertake these activities especially when we want to cast our ideas out into the world in the hopes that they will “discover” us there and take up residence.

In a sense, the paradox comes from a paradigm. Economic man is a robust part of who we are, but only a small part of who we are. When we case this idea out into the world, we are sometimes puzzled by the creature who turns up at our door.

Ben Affleck, pop culture quiz

Adam Sternbergh asks the right question. Why is Ben Affleck such a big star? His career has not been distinguished by great films, or even by very popular ones. Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford, his predecessors in the parthenon, had big hits and several of them. Ben’s stardom is much bigger than his middling career seems to warrant.

But Sternbergh boots the answer! What is missing here is Oscar night 1998. This was the year when Ben and Matt won for Good Will Hunting. But what was more telling than the award was that they showed up to receive it.

It was left to Joan Rivers to sum up the obvious. “You are the only guys here your age! We’re glad you’re here!” And indeed Ben and Matt where the only ones under the age of 35 in attendance. They had come from an award but, as Joan pointed out, really, they were the prize.

It felt as if something generational was happening. Ben and Matt had agreed to show up and Hollywood, always sensitive to demographic realities, was eager to give them an Oscar for their trouble (and, oh yeah, that film, whatever). It was no cynical payoff. Ben and Matt were genuinely pleased to be there but it was like a visit from royalty. They were making a gesture, generously, happily, but it was a gesture nevertheless.

The reason Ben and Matt were such a hit, the reason they got Oscars for showing up, is the story of the 1990s. This began with the demographic exclusion that took place in the very late 80s, it matured into the great Seattle refusal of the opening years of the decade and it became by mid decade the great indie alternative in film–a development so robust it could make Steve Buscemi a household name without any studio work and see to the rehabilitation of the career of Harvey Keitel–an event most thought impossible. The 1990s may have started with the wrenching discovery that Generation X was not wanted on the voyage and by mid 90s it turned out that it was Hollywood that had missed the boat.

People under 35 weren’t at the Oscars because they had been refused in the first case, refused to come in the second, and were just much too busy to make it in the last.

Everything that Sternbergh says is no doubt true but this, I think, is the real reason Affleck is such a big star in spite of his not so stellar record. He didn’t exist, so Hollywood had to invent him.

[for the Sternbergh article in question, go here]