Category Archives: Economics, Culture and Commerce

serial ownership

Roy Hoffman has a good essay today in the NYT called My Private New York City.

He describes his visit to the Rembrandts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this way.

Among them [the paintings], I also have the chance to become a thief. When the guard steps to an adjacent room, and other museumgoers drift out before a new batch wander in, I steal a heightened moment. Of the billions of people on the planet, I, alone, commune here.

The portraits are all mine.

This is serial ownership. Every Met visitor owns a Rembrandt in their turn. It’s a charming idea, a deeply proprietary feeling for things we do not own…or a feeling of ownership that lasts a moment and leaves no mark. Cats, I believe, think of the world as a matter of serial ownership. This is why they jump up on counters when you’ve told them not to. If you’re not using it, the feline argument goes, then for the moment it’s mine.

Skeptics will say that serial ownership is an illusion that serves the idea of property and its institution of theft. Romantics will say it’s a way of stealing things back.

But what’s called for is a more careful inventory and analysis of the possibilities. What, precisely, are the connections, satisfactions, meanings, definitions and functions of the things we own? How many of them can be true of the things we don’t? What satisfactions, etc, are unique to the things we own serially? (It should count for something that we can have daily access to the wonders of Rembrandt, without have to spend a penny in upkeep, conservation, insurance, security…and not a “penny” in insecurity of ownership.)

I don’t think anyone has broken this down. You would think, of course, that museums and other institutions would take an interest here. Pragmatically, it supplies the logic with which they could persuade an art collector to put their collection into the public domain. It is also the logic of museum support at the membership and the philanthropy level.

Some of the web is a commons. We own it serially. Some of the culture it cares about is a commons, too. You would think someone in this community would have “run the numbers” on this argument.

Most of the city is owned serially…even as it is owned by other parties and interests. If there is something to the Putnam’s Bowling Alone argument (Putnam, Robert 2000. Bowling Alone: The collaspe and revival of American community, Simon and Schuster), it comes from this proprietary feeling that we cultivate for things we own in this temporary way, in Hoffman’s. Putnam’s argument says that it is when this temporary sense of ownership is abandoned that cities begin to decay in earnest.

There are some really difficult ideas swirling around here. What if claims (to identity or ownership, say) no longer need to endure to hold. We could dismiss this vista as nonsense…a refusal of the felicitous conditions that have always held and must always hold. But then we now see lots of claims to identities being made on a temporary basis that once required full time committment.

In a postmodern culture, we can say at least that the ideas of ownership are being tested. In the case of the Rembrandt’s, it belongs to the philanthropist, the museum, the curator, and to Hoffman. Oh, no, he just left. Now it belongs to a rather attractive women in a rich red coat.

go here for the original essay

David Frum on commotion

this entry ported over from my now defunct LiveJournal website Nov. 28, 02

David Frum, yesterday in the National Post, called economic freedom “the first freedom.” He gives 3 reasons: that we must be able to express our “working, building, providing” aspect, that to override economic freedom is to step upon a slippery slope, it’s only a matter of time before freedoms of religion, speech and press will be compromised, and, finally, that control of economic activity expands governmental interference.

It’s a pretty standard argument. But two things surprised me. That we never hear the companion piece to this argument. I can’t remember the last time I heard someone say that the abrogation of artistic liberties puts the economy at risk. Apparently, the slippery slope doesn’t slide in this direction.

The second thing that surprised: how “siloed” is this argument. It is true that ours if a culture that thinks about religion, artistic, economic and other domains as separate, distinct, and sometimes even mutually exclusive. It is also true that the social sciences and especially the Talcott Parsons period at Harvard helped to encourage this approach to the world. (Frum went to Harvard; maybe he got it there.)

What struck me though is how much these silos have in common, how similar are the freedoms in each domain. At a certain level, deep inside the thing itself, there is almost no difference between an artist, the entrepreneur and the religious enthusiast. All three are creating and responding to a deliberate unraveling of the world. They make a tear in the surface of the world, and then they fall through it. (More on this in Commotion 0.0.)

We recoil from this idea, largely because it confounds categories “work,” “art” and “devotion.” And our feeling of repugnance may be the operation of the principle that Mary Douglas reduced in Purity and Danger to the formula “the unclear is the unclean.” (Simplifying, when things that culture renders as distinct and separate are brought together, we react as if some notion of purity has been violated. Conceptual confusion provokes a sense of pollution.)

This might be a way to make the Frumian argument. But, again, the economic domain doesn’t want to claim fellowship with the artistic and religious ones. And one wonders whether this is because art looks like an exercise in self indulgence and the irrational, two things that economic man regards as especially dangerous to his construction of self and world. Too bad. It is, after all, one culture…even and especially in its post modern moment.

Adieu Bourdieu?

According to Robin Pogrebin in the New York Times (Oct. 16, 2002), symphonies have a problem. Some people who used to buy season tickets prefer single ticket sales.

In a culture of commotion, this makes sense for three reasons.

First, we are moving from the culture that reveals the Arnoldian notion of culture, the idea of a hierarchy of taste that puts fine things on high and more popular culture below. This conceit, hypnotically powerful in one form or another in the West for at least 500 years, is now losing its vise-like grip on the way people think about themselves, the culture they care about, the things they consume. (See book 2, Transformation, for more on this.) This means that the status giving, identity defining importance of symphony subscription is on the wane. This is not to say that people don’t care about high culture and the status it brings them. It is to say they care about many other kinds of culture and identities as well.

And this brings us to the second reason. Because people now have bundles of selves that cover a range of class, age, experiential, stylistic, gender definitions, they are obliged to have access to a range of cultural events. This means we have to spread the same dollar over symphonies, clubs, web access, diverse books, several magazines and so on. That symphony subscription takes up too much of our available resources. Better to dip into the symphony season as and when it looks useful and leave those other resources for deployment in a different venue, for a different purpose.

There’s a third reason. The just-in-time nature of our culture. We can’t know when we are asked to sign up for symphony season who we will be at the end of it. And we certainly dont know where contemporary culture is going to be. Don’t make us choose early. Give us the latitude to choose as and when it becomes apparent who we are becoming and where the several groups to which we belong are heading.

Thoughts only.

Vin Diesel, endangered?

I picked up the latest Entertainment Weekly to figure out why and how Vin Diesel has become such a big hit. (Yes, I saw Fast and Furious. I still didn’t get it.)

Here’s what they say:

“What’s going on,” explains one Hollywood agent, “is that there’s a shortage of action stars in Hollywood.”

How could Hollywood run out of one of its staples.

I figured this would be a good problem to put before popular culture experts not least because it cannot be (well) answered with the usual platitudes about Hollywood. You actually have to know something the industry and the moment in the industry.

Second, this is a genuine wobble in popular culture, something truly anomalous. It satisfies the anomaly test: “If someone had written an essay 10 years ago saying that Hollywood would someday run out of action stars, would anyone have taken it seriously?” The answer here has to be no.

So what happened? How and why fail to produce more action adventure stars?