Consumption and survival

Lately I’ve been reading Thorsten Veblen’s ‘Theory of the Leisure Class’. This has been as part of my general reading list. My general reading list consists of everything from about Aristotle to Confucius up to about Philip K. Dick. I have a big list of books to read, and that doesn’t include new books or journals, and I have said to myself jokingly but half seriously that it will probably take most of my life to read them. Veblen’s ‘Theory of the Leisure class’ (henceforth: Leisure) is one of them.

Veblen’s Leisure was introduced to me in first year sociology. I then found that it was referenced by a few people who talk about subcultures, consumption and even a few economists. Veblen’s Leisure is said to be one of the first serious works of Sociology, when the academic discipline was at its burgeoning stage. Veblen’s initial part of Leisure consists in a pseudo-anthropological thesis, about how human communities have moved from a base stage of co-operation in order to survive, this involves a division of labour oriented towards fulfilling necessary tasks towards human survival, the later parts of the book, which I shall touch on in this post concern how when the human community is affluent enough, reaches a stage where items are produced and goods are procured that are less about survival, but status.

I think it must have been Veblen who conceptualised the term Conspicuous Consumption. The notion that we spend our money and use certain goods just for the sake of using and obtaining them. There is no need about certain items in the way that we may need sustenance or shelter or warmth, but we use things for a sense of pleasure. Society had reached a point by Veblen’s period where a greater number of people engaged in this conspicuous consumption.

So what is an example of conspicuous consumption? Veblen gives some very interesting and odd instances. Women are conspicuous consumption objects. By that, I take him to mean, the furnishing of women’s wants (by men, and the women themselves), in terms of makeup, fancy outfits and so forth.The status of having affluence can be indicated by a male partner looking very ornate. I think there’s an interesting dimension of objectification here, women in this courtly sense are portrayed as arm candy accessories and confer status. The more one Victorian can spend on his wife, the greater sense of upper class sensibility can be accorded to him. Women are treated instrumentally in this sense of conspicuous consumption.

Another aspect of conspicuous consumption offered by Veblen is horse racing. The pursuit of going to see horse races, betting on them, to be seen at the races and even the cultivation and sponsoring of race horses. These are eccentric 19thC examples, but I can see how it still resounds today. Consider for instance how people pride themselves in an ever so bourgeois way on their book shelf. As a way not of showing their intellectual prowess (although it is under the pretense of doing so), but indicating fundamentally how useless their sense of interests are in the wider scheme of human survival. To have a bookshelf seems to suggest that you are not hungry or destitute in life. That said, half of my book collection is in a shed at the moment because I life in a small place, I fear my Aristotle will suffer a fate worse than the burning of Alexandria’s library: winter damp.

The pursuit of social activities such as going to the pub, drinking alcohol for pleasure (instead of sustenance), theatre, gaming, gigging or even shopping when one has enough clothes, all show our obsession with consuming beyond need. I think that the frame of conspicuous consumption is a good analytical tool, I understand it has been used as such in economic research. There is apparently a legacy that Veblen has for economics beyond sociology, which is interesting for a sociologist to have such a legacy.

Veblen’s conspicuous consumption is something that has come to my mind lately, because it is essentially the pursuit of status, and expressing to social others that one lives towards a financial and material means that they produce enough for survival that they can spend their time and money on leisure. Anyone who lives in a country with poor economic growth right now can see this isn’t necessarily the case. Resources are spent on both leisure and survival, even when we don’t have enough to fully cope with the latter. Economic conditions are making life difficult for many families, business and individuals, but the culture of leisure pursuits and conspicuous consumption is not changing in accord, if anything, it’s exploding even more.

Leisure seems to be the outlet, the lightning rod of the frustrations from struggling to make ends meet. Industrialisation has shown that its possible to live in a way that sustains survival, but the post-industrial reverses this trend due to wider economic factors, but leaves the economic system of conspicuous consumption in tact. We still have ‘industries’ that work towards consumption and away from need, it may be the case that for many people, the presence of these industries provide jobs and a means of survival. There isn’t quite the equilibrium in today’s climate that Veblen saw that there was in his description. But maybe it wasn’t the case either that humanity had reached a point where its survival was guaranteed for all either, but rather conspicuous consumption highlighted an upper and middle class. One thing that is certainly true today, is that conspicuous consumption is encouraged for all economic groupings. To the point, I would say, of undermining other issues of importance.

I’ve come to think about consumption in other ways lately. Thanks to Transition Town Tooting hosting earlier in the summer a series of discussion groups called ‘Carbon Conversations’. I came to think about consumption in relation to sustainability and environmental impact. One of the themes addressed in the talks by many people was the concern about the way their decisions as consumers have an impact upon the kind of world they want to have. Consumption therefore has a much deeper dimension in relation to survival. It is not an opposition between conspicuous consumption and survival, but a relation on how our mass decisions as consumers (for instance, consuming beef products which has a high carbon footprint, or driving a car) impacts on wider global issues.


Closing reflections on Hakim’s ‘Erotic Capital’

I know this blog post is about a week later than I intended it. I’m ridiculously busy and spending half the time enjoying my last few weeks of being 25. Doing this book review has reminded me of the importance of sociology as a discipline, including how it can be informative towards feminist and wider gender issue discussions. I have a few specific points I’d address that sum up aspects of my thinking on this book:

What informs our understanding of gender?

Such a general question: what informs gender notions? One of the things about working in a sociological area that hits close to home is that the researcher will have some personal stake or experience in this issue. Gender is arguably one of the few issues that people can escape for better or worse.

Hakimappeals to a variety of sources to create her notion of femina sociologicus [note: Destre told me not to say ‘homo feminis’ due to the absurdity of it] by a variety of qualitative and quantitative sources:

  • Interview histories: some of which Hakim admits details are ‘changed’ for dramatic effect, as well as the standard ethical anonymity reasons. Some of her interviews often tell a story, but seem so contrived and suggestive I feel they are unhelpful. For example, Hakim’s examples of the two sisters (one ugly, one attractive) where one predictably has self esteem issues and is an underachiever, and the other is a social climber.
  • Cultural references: Hakim references a bit of erotica such as ‘The Story of O’ and ‘Secret diary of a call girl’. The point of these references are to establish a sense of zeitgeist of how real people live. Cultural references are a good resource for getting insights on social perspectives and issues, but methodologically speaking lack the rigour of strong operationalism
  • Public health data: This is really the meat of the research that backs up Hakim’s conclusions. One may quibble about the comparison issues of say USA and Finnish datasets or the measuring and melding of the data, but I see this as immaterial to the conclusions made which were coarse grained. The data gives an indication for instance that more male men report a lack of sexual satisfaction than females in the data. When looking at massive datasets, we may entertain exceptions from personal experience or testimony, but as social scientists, one should know better than to regard personal or anecdotal testimony higher than the wider dataset. I thought this point was unhelpfully highlighted when incumbent London Mayor Boris Johnson reported in the Mayoral debate that crime in London was down significantly and a person in the audience reported she’s never seen so much knife crime around her before. This point may have made Boris red in the face, but the data is dispassionately more comprehensive, even if it tells us things we don’t want to accept

Lemma: Ideology and prejudice

I’d like to talk a bit about prejudices now. Prejudices can take a whole variety of forms. A few months ago I was making a music suggestion to someone who will remain nameless of a band they would like. I made this decision on the basis of knowing their interests and wider outlook on life. However it was because I biased the conversation by talking about Black Metal in the same sentence that primed her to say she would immediately not like it. Months later a facebook post magnanimously accepted the bias involved in her initial judgment. Cognitive bias 1, passive aggressive okayguy.

There is currently a book review of Magnanti’s book on Sex Myths which would also point to a greater commitment to ideology than actual facts. Note how few of the empirical points or the methodology are critiqued, and how the review reads as the immortal: ‘it’s not what you said, it’s the way you said it’. Hakim embarrasses feminists. Which feminists, you might ask? As I’m sure Hakim would identify with the advancement of womankind. The ones who are committed to being a vague unspecified feminist. The kind who is like the Christian who refuses to acknowledge that denominations exist and genuine disagreements and disputes can and should exist even among people who are supposed to be allies. It’s one thing to acknowledge your opponents, its another to misunderstand your detractors.

The commitment to an ideology undercuts the commitment to facts, conclusions, or the revision of said ideology. This was a big problem in Adorno’s work where his view on social research was basically anti-methodology and all theory, and even ventured to essentially say that ‘research’ is an undermining conspiracy against his agenda. Antisophie said in a comment earlier this month how when anyone says ‘I believe’ it immediately smells fishy. Nobody should be allowed to say ‘I believe’ in an argument, you either justify your conclusions or you don’t contribute constructively to a discussion. Feminism as an ideology with propositions is definately a bad idea. The immunity to criticism is also really bad. Liberal men have spent hundreds of years adopting this position of engaging in amicable disagreement about the most fundamental notions. It upsets me when there are politicos who refuse to accept a conclusion contrary to their own, solely on the basis that it is not their own. This is dogmatism, and challenging notions such as whether sex work is always criminal, or whether sex work is ‘oppressive to women’ needs to be challenged, opened up and critically considered. Dogmatism has no place in decent social thinking.

The Ski Jumpers

One objection about subcultural research is that it overemphasises the deviants of society. What about people who are boring and not part of a subculture? If we judged solely by media representation the year of 1977 most Londoners would be savage punks opposing the Queen or protogoths in the early 1980s. The point about the Ski Jumpers is that while there were movements of social ‘cool’ credibility through things like subculture, it didn’t affect everyone. In fact, most people wish to overlook the naff fashions of yesteryear, like the Ski Jumper. Likewise, we might think that Hakim is overemphasising erotic capital, even if we concede the data about sexual focus between men and women, or her points about how sex work should be considered a legal enterprise, perhaps for most people it would not change their mundane lives.

Is Hakim overemphasising the place of Erotic Capital for women? My initial thought was that this may only apply to something like the upper 2-4% of attractive women. However Hakim would have a reply to this, in the idea of upper class ideals and virtues filtering down social classes. Hakim links this to the idea of Elias Norbert’s take on the historical process of social etiquette which was initially held by aristocratic classes that was then filtered down to other social classes through guidebooks. Erotic capital could also have a ‘filtering’ process, it may be the upper percentile of extremely attractive women who provide the recipe of success that can in some ways be replicated such as good manners, social attractiveness, improving coded signifiers of attractiveness like jewelry, hairstyle, fitness etc. In that way, highly attractive people who use erotic capital successfully act as trendsetters or shepherds for others to follow as a guide of erotic capital’s successful execution. My initial critical thought is therefore addressed.

I also think it is fascinating how Hakim links Hoschild’s work on ‘The Managed Heart’ as a piece of microsociology to the macrosociological theme of Elias’ social filtering. Methodologically speaking, Hakim tries to breach the qualitative/quantitative gap, as well as the micro-macro in the social. feminis socialis is both homo sociologicus and homo economicus.

Phsyiognomy, the worrying conclusion

Hakim alludes to Erotic Capital as if it were like the process of Shaw’s Pygalion, transforming from a peasant to a queen. If there was a 19thC English writer that I’d allude to with Erotic Capital, it’s Oscar Wilde. Wilde’s ‘Picture of Dorian Gray’ is a story of a man trapped by his beauty, but also simultaneously blessed by his beauty. The world of Hakim’s erotic capital is quite a cynical one. A world that says that the pretty candidate gets the job in an interview; the most attractive barrister wins the case and that your looks will be an asset or a discredit in the same way that say, your economic background or education might.

In essence I think that Hakim has not discovered a new way of female emancipation from men by manipulating their sexual urges to benefit the former. Rather, she’s unveiled a new form of discrimination. There’s no legal opponent for not discriminating on the basis of one’s looks, and in the most intimate of competitions (sexual), that is the truest of judges.

I put forward the normative question: is that really how we want to judge society and our values as modern people of today? Hakim would say yes, and point to how private sector employees tend to have a beauty premium over those in public sector, where looks are valued in commercial ventures. The problem with Hakim’s world is not that she’s given us the wrong depiction of the social reality, the problem is that it looks like she’s right. More than anything this is the worrying concern. A similar problem with Goffman’s ontology, where is the authenticity of the social in the interaction-based world of erotic capital? How much of the real person is behind all that flirting and nice presentation for others?

When Goffman shows intricately the ways in which the ‘front’ stage of social performance permeates so much, I think how in the early 21st century the personal has become commodified: people can talk about what they’ve had for breakfast on Twitter or Facebook and even though these experiences are immensely personal (and mundanely boring), they immediately lose rights to those thoughts and ideas, as they become official data owned by Facebook and privacy is diminished. The cultural focus on the personal in television programs such as documentaries which try to document how people feel in their experiences, or the proliferation of 24 hour media even further limit the scope of privacy or authenticity for public officials and significants, for they are always on ‘stage’. So too is the social presence to want to be these celebrities. We are always on the front region of Goffman’s stage and Erotic Capital shows how one of the most personal worlds we inhabit (our sexuality, attractiveness and set of social intentions) are essentially a commodity.

Perhaps many women may read Erotic Capital as a guide to social and economic advancement, I read it as a pessimistic reminder of how authenticity is under attack.


All rivers run through Vienna

I wanted to write a self-indulgent post that says nothing at all.

I’ve recieved a copy of a book that I’m set to review for The Marxist Review of Books. Looking at the blurb, and the contents, I find a very interesting read ahead.

The book I’m set to read is ‘Dreams in Exile: Rediscovering Science and Ethics in Ninteenth-Century Social Theory’, by George E. McCarthy. The book sets itself a task (so the blurb and intro seem) to relate Aristotle and Kant to the theoretical underpinnings of early Sociologists and sociology theory. Both the subjects of Kant and social theory are close to heart, and the chapter headings look pretentious and verbose. While this doesn’t look terribly prospectful, it is a book about philosophy and social theory written by a sociologist (sociologists don’t have a reputation for much classical learning) which itself seems an interesting mix of insights.

Also, this looks interesting from a personal view because some of my postgrad work was on Kant and the origins of social science.

Just an aside, I found out that Otto Neurath (the figurehead of the Vienna Circle and proponent of the Unity of Science movement) had an economics background and he also had Ferdinand Toennies as a supervisor. The link between the early social sciences and philosophical thinking is a fascinating aspect of the history of the mid-19thC to the early 20thC, especially as its rivers run through Vienna.


The benefit of empirical data in relation to moral reasoning

After some consideration about the recent interest in experimental philosophy, I must state some charitable features of the role of psychological data:

1. (perceived) Asymmetries: Moral theorising is often percieved and practised as an a priori excercise. A utilitarian may say that moral decisions may be made on the basis of the amount of welfare or gain or investment into one’s own ends ( which include, inter alia, happiness); but this kind of view may be too simplistic. Why?

If we were to accept a few propositions a priori we may asses moral situations with these generic principles, this seems obvious. If we consider utility as our moral desiderata, we may say that some moral situations are parallel; such as whether to forsee the death of a minority to save a majority, or to perform animal testing. We may find, through empirical studies that what moral situations are a priori (through these normative ethical principles) symmetrical are in fact, perceived as asymmetrical. To follow up on this thought, consider the Knobe effect.

The conclusion of these kinds of studies is not to say something simple like, there is empirical data to refute a normative thesis (this never will work), but it is simply not as easy to apprehend moral situations viz moral principles without considering the influence of our background psychological dispositions (c.f. priming studies [Doris 2003 et. al])

2. The Kantian appeal: This argument comes straight from my dissertation, which in itself is more or less an argument from Kant. Kant believed that human anthropology assists us in knowing about human beings. We know about human nature in various ways; through the people we meet in our lives; through media, like television, film, literature; and through empirical and ethnographic study of others. Sociological and anthropological data can tell us about the ways in which human beings do in fact behave, my favourite examples for this kind of thing is Goffman in the Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, where he spend some time analysing hotel staff in the Shetland isles.

The crux of Kant’s point was that given a moral system (in his case that was his deontology, but we don’t need to commit to any moral system for this line of argument), we still need empirical knowledge of people so as to know how to apply it. Consider the platitude of do not lie, we might be able to manipulate a social situation so as not to lie, but not to tell the truth, or not to bring the offending issue at hand, or non-participation in any situation where you may be brought to lie. Knowing how to apply moral principles is not enough to help us as agents, having the know-how and practical wisdom of the conduct of human beings would help as well.


Same matter, different subject

Crime, how do we study it?

There are many different ways to look at crime. The most conventional way it would seem to me is to look at it as a human and social behaviour. There are many perspectives on crime, and that there are perspectives on crime reflects the way we construe our subject manner. We might say for instance:

1. Crime is a social construction (constructivist)
1*. (therefore, there is no such thing as crime)

2. Crime is a natural phenomenon, we shall see it as while inevitable, there should be a rate to define a healthy rate of crime (positivist)
2*. Crime, or evil is a necessary pervailance in the immanent world (a religious-leaning viewpoint)

3. Crime is a situational behaviour established by a series of circumstances to dispose one to deviant action (generic psychological)

4. Crime is a situational occurence established by a system or social organisation which oppresses people to commit crime (Holist)

There are so many different ways to cut a phenomenon such as crime, here are some distinctions:

1. Focus on the individual vs. Focus on society or groups as a whole
2. Focus on the agent’s preferential and motivational set/Focus on causal factors
3. Focus on quantification of recorded occurences/Focus on speculative insights to which fit best to explain data
4. Focus on a scientifically validated measure or dataset, and establish as tight a methodology as one can/Focus on instituting change

Note that these distinctions are not mutually exclusive.

There has been recent talk as to the establishment of teaching sexology as a subject in universities. While a similar point is to be made about crime, there is an established ‘criminology’ that is taught in many universities (how it is organised often, is as  a collaboration of law scholars, social scientists and sometimes psychologists).

I may pose a similar question: how do we understand sex? There can be many ways to understand sex, how we determine this question leads to what kinds of answers we have. Is sex a natural phenomenon wherewhich we may address issues of medicine? Is sex a social issue, that represents at its most fundamental, the power relations between men and women, the complexitity of social identity (sexuality), and the relation with other important social notions (criminality, deviance, education, class, work).

Sex and criminality bring up many issues: the notion of paedophilia, for instance has a question-begging notion of childhood. A study like Philippe Aries and many others shows how our attitude towards the pre-pubescent and pubescent has changed over the past few centuries with industrialisation. Some criminalised sexual behaviours can reflect social attitudes, why is it criminal to put out a cigarette on one’s partner if they both want it [there are many documented stories like this]?

Legal issues can come up; age of consent is an obvious one, borderline cases, what about sex and legislation on an international level; where homosexuality is a corporal punishable offence at one sovereignty and acceptable at another. What about the plight of those who are between cultural identities and yet torn apart by them by virtue of their sexual identity (transexuals in Iran; the double discrimination of homosexual Israelis; the custom of forced marriage in British Pakistani communities).

Biological issues: does it make sense to classify between sexes of male and female? If sexual intercourse is a notion held by other species, is sexuality a workable notion? Can we for instance, use the insights of observing animal sexual behaviour as to understanding our own? Are we sufficiently genetically comparable?

Education: how do we properly teach sexuality in the classroom? How do we teach sexuality to children as parents and adults?

Normative: is it ethical to study sexual behaviour? What are the provisions required for ‘ethical’ study? Does the ‘is’ of animal sexual behaviour entail the ‘ought’ of sexual behaviour genera? (the answer is no).

To speak of a ‘sexology’ is a bit of a misnomer in some respects. While there are many insights to be made as the biological scientist, the social psychologist, the clinical psychologist, the sociologist, the philosopher, or even the educator; those issues of sex often presuppose or come to bear upon wider issues of those subjects. To have a ‘sexology’ would be at worst a failed understanding of the underlying issues which lie far beyond sex itself, or at best, an understanding simultaneously of many many disciplines at little depth or only one subject at much depth. There are some subjects that, while are importantly interdisciplinary, are not subjects suis generis, that is, without some failure or exclusion of one discourse.

This is not fair to say that some interdisciplinary efforts are irrelevant.

Many subjects in the mathematical sciences often have specialists who are non-mathematicians. Calculus as applied to the many aspects of chemistry, or the subject that has now come to be known as computer science; are noble species of wider genera subjects.

There is a sense of question-begging to which I have decidedly not answered, as to how to understand crime, or sexuality. While we may be conciliartory between the biologist interested in evolution, or the law scholar who is also an amateur marxist; we find not necessarily competing theses, but rather; competing ideologies and methods. To group them as one exclusive category excludes the manifold within each subject matter.


Verstehen truths

Who is the real Destre? Some people say it’s Michael, others, one of the other areopagites repeated, but, what does it really matter? Oscar Wilde wrote on the importance of deception and face management as a way of portraying some kind of other reality of a person.

When Liberace died, many were curious about the nature of his death. Liberace was a beloved celebrity in the United States and beyond, representing a certain kind of mindset or kitcsh. For many, he was a cultural icon, for a certain demographic, he was the face of a new wave of technology that was otherwise unfriendly and inaccessible. The legacy of Liberace, unlike that of Sinatra, will not last, and did not last with much warmth after his death.

Why was this? A large speculation is that many peole inquired into the cause of his death. A media frenzy then came of this issue, of how, or why he died. It then became that the man’s reputation, which he took his life to build, was destroyed by the suggestion that he was a homosexual. With that, his career ended in a way that not even his own could have taken away. I see today in the news of some rumours about John Lennon; all interesting for the newspapers to get us buying and watching.

It got me to consider the whole importance of face management in social interactions. In many professions, and to the identity of many social individuals, reptuation, and image, is everything. Perhaps it is that impetus to understand our fascination with trying to find celebrities with their pants down (figuratively and literally). Those icons who work hard to their eminent status and those individuals who have by means of their own effort and goodfill have achieved a status, or did a service, or entertained in ways few people could ever do, are those individuals we are so fascinated in dishing the dirt about.

A galpal once told me, and I think is apt. Everyone has dirty laundry. I was with Michael at the time and he just kept sniggering about a certain person in the room, who had notably dirty laundry. Immaturity aside, the serious point is that we could all find something shambolic and embarrassing about others, perhaps the shambolic and embarrassing thing can be that they have no interesting lives.

If there is an image that can be shattered, the pieces of its shattered glass clearly show that the image was not a false one. The shaming of individuals is mere self-indulgence. Because truths about the self are truths of a different domain of facts than those normal ones we think of. To say there are ‘truths’ about a person is not to speak in a domain of facts, but within an ellipsis. It is, to invoke a pun. A verstehen turth of a person that may or may not be truth-apt, bit far from it is it to assume truth-aptness as a tacit and necessary condition.

Antisophie (and Sinistre*)

Can we define harm?

I saw this very interesting piece just now. It provoked me in thought.

putting the instance where the man is suggested to make the teenage boys to do this, aside. Then make a conceptual issue.

Is self-flaggelation harm?

Lets put another case; I remember when I studied criminology; they told us about these various cases where people engage in inflicting physical damage in relationships to express intimacy and sexual expression. Examples like, a couple stabling the male spouse’s testicle skin to a tree; and many others of a similar vein.

What does it mean to say this is harm? Consider the following appeals of relevance:

i. Agency
ii. Ritual
iii. Expression
iv. Self-identification
v. Definitions of harm…

The British sociological association defines harm in various (and surprising) ways; which show that harm is a concept that is very complex; for instance, it is emotionally harmful to reveal facts that a person may not have already known; such that it is inappropriate or problematic to disclose them to a subject.

Harm, is a social concept; as such, it is plastic.

What is the intention behind our putative ascriptions of harm? Why is it acceptable for some to wear an iron maiden; where a man cannot staple his testicles to a tree?