Editor's Choice

Compensatory chocolate

Rob Walker's latest Consumed column in the Sunday NYT magazine looks at criminally overpriced chocolate as a vehicle for "compensatory consumption." Professors at Northwestern University found in a study that "subjects who had put themselves in a powerless frame of mind were willing to pay measurably more than the other group for high-status items" and that "individuals who felt less powerful showed a preference for clothing with larger and more conspicuous luxury logos." In other words, our status anxiety may register to us as a lack of autonomy, as powerlessness, and we may compensate by exercising the sort of autonomy with which we are all familiar -- making a wasteful shopping choice to prove that we can. Hence, spending $8 on a chocolate bar.

If this phenomenon of "compensatory consumption" holds, there would be seem to be incentive for marketers to make us perpetually anxious about our status, in good times and bad, and to make sure that status remains a meaningful social category with as much salience as possible. This implies that there can be no end to the social barriers derived from class as long as there is a robust advertising industry. That industry, of course, is not so robust currently; unfortunately, its services in making us anxious about our future are not especially necessary right now.

Could the chocolate taste so good that it would be worth that much? That question is irrelevant, as it is for wine as well. The causality must be reversed; it tastes better because we spent the extra money on it, because we are eating our own sense of power.

Because I live in a neighborhood where cheap imported chocolates from Eastern Europe are readily available, I have a different relationship with chocolate. I get to enjoy not the ersatz thrill of pseudo-luxury spending but the ersatz cosmopolitanism of consuming unusual imported goods. Apologists for consumerism tend to celebrate this sort of access to goods as a kind of "power," but really the variety of goods is not improving my life so much as it is further articulating the status hierarchy. In this case, the status boost I get comes not from my sense of extravagant spending on an overpriced chocolate with a fancy brand name but from a different sort of privilege: the undeserved sense of superiority that comes from living in the sort of neighborhood where I can find Bulgarian and Croatian candy bars that other Americans can't get so casually. Nevertheless, I can't give you an honest appraisal of whether this chocolate tastes better or worse than Hershey's for the same reasons mentioned above. On the level of relative obscurity, they rate highly. What I worry about is the way the status value masks the flavor; it becomes hard for me to tell the relative "objective" worth of things in the ordinary course of life. I would have to go through life blindfolded to really taste anything as it is.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

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TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

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The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

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To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

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Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

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