Diderot effects

by Rob Horning

2 March 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.

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