The spiggot of social recognition

by Rob Horning

22 February 2006


Any would-be authority must seek to control the sources of social validation and legitimacy; the source of their power stems from being able to grant or withhold that kind of respect. The ceremonial aspects of power—the nomenclature, the rituals and so forth—are not merely ornamental but reinforce that sense that these institutions have control over the spiggot of social capital. In capitalist society, commercial enterprises, regardless of whatever specific thing they sell, must also be in the business of selling validation and legitimacy, or “cool,” which may be considered the source of value in a society ordered by what Veblen calls “invidious comparison”—by positional goods and status displays and so on. Once consumerism moves beyond providing subsistance goods, it shifts into this market of cultural validation, selling the feeling of belonging and of having a place; and its various agencies within the culture (advertisers, retailers, flacks, polticos, lobbyists, journalists—anyone with a stake in the zero-sum economy of cool) do whatever they must to undermine if not destroy any other source that provides those feelings. (Thus “amateur” and “local” things are delegitimized, made to seem irrelevant in comparison to masss society’s reach.) If it can’t destroy them, it will co-opt them, revealing to those parties involved the sort of profits that can be had in selling social recognition.

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