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by Rob Horning

2 Mar 2009

The Atlantic’s new business site (which it annoyingly calls a “channel”) recently posted an interesting but fairly cryptic article by anthropologist Grant McCracken, looking at potential shifts in consumer behavior in the downturn. He outlines several possibilities in relation to a concept he doesn’t really explain here, the “Diderot effect.” Diderot, an 18th-century intellectual, wrote an essay about being given a fancy dressing gown, which made everything else he owned feel shabby to him. Thus, he explains in the essay, he needed to replace the rest of his stuff to maintain consistency among his belongings at the new level of their perceived status. The assumption is that we instinctively strive for that uniformity in our possessions—that we want to communicate a coherent portrait of our cultural capital by having a collection of things whose meaning is readily legible to others and that don’t embody too many internal contradictions. Pushing it further, we may pursue this consistency to convey a coherent sense of our identity to ourselves—we don’t know who we really are until we see ourselves reflected back to ourselves in a cogent group of possessions.

I’m a bit skeptical about this internal urge to consistency; it’s possible that this tendency is encouraged by advertising and marketing efforts to promote what a coherent set of belongings should be, promulgating associations between objects to establish a society-wide understanding of what makes for the standard-issue set at various status levels. In other words, mass media advertising and the content it supports encourage the establishment of “lifestyles,” the logical extension of what Diderot was writing about as a personal idiosyncrasy.

The coalescence of lifestyles may have the laudatory effect of elevating what makes for a subsistence level of consumption in our collective understanding—it couples irrefutable necessities like food and shelter together with more nebulous goods—education, media—that allow people a minimal sense of social belonging. But while this minimum standard has improved in absolute terms over the days of starvation wages, recently it hasn’t improved in relative terms. Income inequality has increased; barriers to social mobility have hardened. That suggests, in turn, that the distinctive goods that we use to make those class barriers known have become more visible and more inaccessible, notwithstanding the supposed democratization of luxury. That widely touted pre-crash trend demonstrated how an improvement in “real” standards can nevertheless leave social class in place. Democratized luxuries are just evident knock-offs, declassé goods that mark the inferiority of their owners to those higher in the hierarchy. The hypocritical cant about “democracy” that’s evoked is a perfect example of ideological inversion—Orwellian Newspeak.

But what happens now, with the recession leveling off all consumption? If consumption was the proimary way of policing class borders, does the fact that there will be less of it imply that those barriers have become more permeable? That more of us can pass as a member of a higher status group through clever and thrifty purchases? Will some other manner of social display more widely available come to signify status?

McCracken’s post doesn’t exactly deal with that question, but it gets at the microfoundations of status consumption. He offers several different possibilities for what will happen to consumption in the wake of the recession. First, everyone could scale back, leaving the existing hierarchy in place, only a lower level. Then with recovery, it will merely ramp back up. Alternatively, certain items of distinction will become more valuable and more cherished, and sacrifices will be made to hold on to the ability to purchase these specific exceptions.So rather than social class being signaled by a collection of goods, it will temporarily come to be signaled by one expensive good.

But is it possible that the new, scaled-back levels will prove “sticky”? McCracken writes,

Displeasure, as we move to a lower level of consumption, might for some consumers eventually lose its sting and turn to comfort too. Or not. The question is whether we might habituate to a lower level of spending.  I think this can only happen if some of the deeper cultural drivers of the consumer culture fall silent.  These would include competitive spending. (This is largely dead among some Millenials.)  It would also include the wish to stay in fashion or in touch with the curve.  (Here too some young consumers are turning their backs on fashion, especially the branded, mainstream variety.)  There are positive forces: the wish to go green, to “save the planet,” this has been the great staple of elementary school education and it is now on the verge of being installed in our culture as orthodoxy.  (This is no doubt as it should be.)  This is where we really have to do our anthropology: what are the cultural drivers that might intervene here and lock consumption habits into place.


I’m pretty skeptical that there are any such cultural drivers—capitalism relies too much on competition for its dynamism for anything to override those sorts of pressures.

by PopMatters Staff

2 Mar 2009

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
Turtles Can Fly. That’s a sad fucking movie.

2. The fictional character most like you?
Tyler Durden from Fight Club.

3. The greatest album, ever?
Fugazi’s 13 Songs. Nobody has ever done anything like this record, or like this band.

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Wars, I mean, have you seen Trekkies?

5. Your ideal brain food?
A good book in a small mom and pop cafe sipping on a hot chocolate…

by Jason Gross

2 Mar 2009

Though Slate is (in)famous for their whole contrary ‘tude, scribe-maven Jack Shafer is pretty astute about the beat that he covers.  In a recent column where he tried to tackle the problem that’s driving the news industry nuts (‘how do you get online users to pay for content?’), as he looked for some answers, citing some places that had good models for it.  One of them was Apple, who’s now the numero uno music retailer.  I took issue with using that as an example that the news trade could follow and had this e-mail conversation with him.

JG: “Interesting column but you leave out a few things about Apple.  Jobs and company make their real money off of selling iPods and not the music, where they get razor-thin profits after the record companies take out their cut.  The iPods are the important component because they’re a sleek, sexy device that has status, which is why the Zune couldn’t beat it out, even if they were making a superior product.  If an enterprising publication wanted to follow that model, they’d have to come up with their own hot digital toy that captivates consumers and that might not be the most productive use of their time right now.”

JS: “How much do you think they’ve made off the 6 billion tunes they’ve sold through the store?”

JG: “I’ve seen pie-charts which detail how much goes to labels, publishers and Apple (which say that Apple gets the short end) but doing a quick search, this is what I came up with :http://forums.appleinsider.com/showthread.php?threadid=73926

JS: “I’ll take 10 percent of $6 billion any time. That seems like a great profit!”

JG: “Right but the point isn’t the amount but the percentage.  Newspapers can’t hope to get that kind of total profit and thus, they’d get pretty skimpy money from a similar model, assuming that it would work for them.”

JS: “10 percent is an excellent margin for just selling something somebody else manufactured. Grocery stores get like 1 percent of sales.”

JG: “There’s this too from Business Week: ‘But the iTunes metaphor cannot be extended to news. Music fans have long paid for small chunks of artists’ work­think singles or ringtones. There is no such analogue for news or print products. And for over 10 years companies that have tried to set up online micropayment services for content sites have gone bust.’”

Later, I also found this column by the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz who sounded like he agreed with me that iTunes isn’t a good model for newspapers, even if former Time editor Walter Isaacson seemed to think so:

“People keep songs for a lifetime; news stories are ephemeral. And why would readers pay anything for, say, a Los Angeles Times piece on Hollywood when they can read Tinseltown news on Yahoo, Google, AOL, Huffington Post, Drudge and a thousand other Web sites? (Yes, most of these sites recycle and pontificate on the original reporting done by newspapers, but that distinction is lost on many folks.)”

So who’s right?  Shafer and Isaacson or Kurtz/Business Week?

by John Bohannon

2 Mar 2009

I’m about 100% positive that I’m not the only sucker out there for some vintage psychedelia. Radio Moscow is the type of down-home bred band we all imagine. You know, the no name town (Story City, Iowa), the direct influences (Peter Green, Nuggets compilations, really any psychedelic guitar god), and the boy prodigy (insert Parker Griggs). But make no mistake, these boys are the real deal, and the proof is coming on their upcoming album, Brain Cycles, releasing April 14th.

Having the backing of the Black Keys and Alive records, the band has recently been able to find themselves in a perfect position to stone minds all around the country and have a little fun in the process. But hear, hear! Don’t come into this with a nasty attitude against psychedelic music, because if you do, then a band like Radio Moscow will never be for you. But if you want to sit back and let the wah-wahs and blues-driven guitar solos blow your mind, do yourself a favor, and check out the new single “Broke Down”.

Radio Moscow
“Broke Down” [MP3]

by Sarah Zupko

2 Mar 2009

Justin Townes Earle’s tunes have more of an old-timey classic country feel than those of his father Steve. Blending Hank Williams style honky tonk with a little bit of ragtime, swing and bluegrass harmonies, Earle is on his way to becoming one of roots music’s young stars. Earle sings of being like his dad on “Mama’s Eyes” and twangs through a sweet country shuffle on “What I Mean to You”. Both of these songs appear on Midnight at the Movies, out this week on Bloodshot Records.

Justin Townes Earle
“Mama’s Eyes” [MP3]
“What I Mean to You” [MP3]

Justin Townes Earle - The Good Life

//Mixed media
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Violin Virtuoso L. Subramaniam Mesmerizes in Rare New York Performance (Photos)

// Notes from the Road

"Co-presented by the World Music Institute, the 92Y hosted a rare and mesmerizing performance from India's violin virtuoso L. Subramaniam.

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