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Book review: "Status and Culture", by W. David Marx
A grand theory of why human beings do what we do
“The world needs wannabes/ So, hey, hey, do that brand-new thing” — The Offspring
W. David Marx is someone I’ve always looked up to. In the 2000s and 2010s I was very into into Japanese underground culture, and David Marx (or “Marxy”, as he was sometimes known in those days) was the Western aficionado of Japanese underground culture. When he gave me the chance to write some guest posts for his old blog back in 2014 and 2015, I viewed it as a big break.
David has graduated from being the king of the Japan hipsters, and is now an exec at a major tech company, handling their Asia-Pacific communications. He is also the author of some of the most interesting books in the market today. David is a diagonal thinker; he always comes at you obliquely. His book Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style — which I reviewed here — purports to be a history of postwar Japanese men’s fashion, but it’s really about the history of postwar Japan. And on another level, it’s a book about the beauty of cultural appropriation. There are always layers.
Status and Culture: How Our Desire for Social Rank Creates Taste, Identity, Art, Fashion, and Constant Change is a far more ambitious effort. It purports to be about art and fashion, and it is about art and fashion, but really it’s a grand theory of human society and behavior.
Our age has a distinct lack of grand theories of human society and behavior. In the olden days, people like Immanuel Kant or Karl Marx or Antonio Gramsci would just get out their pens and write huge dense tomes in which they made a million assertions about how the world works, and then just dump those tomes on the world and leave lesser scholars to argue for centuries about whether they were right and what they really meant. Over the years we’ve gotten away from this sort of grandiosity, moving toward small-bore ideas and empirically grounded hypotheses. Today, if you want to win arguments, bring data.
David Marx (no relation to Karl) has revived the old grand-theory tradition with Status and Culture. Many of our explanations of human society and behavior, whether Econ 101 or communist, are fundamentally materialist — they’re about how much stuff each person gets. In recent years, it has become fashionable to supplement materialist paradigms with theories about power. But relatively few thinkers assert that most of what we do is in pursuit of social status.
If you think about it, though, it makes sense. Even if you don’t believe in the strict textbook version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, it’s pretty obvious that even after a society provides most of its people with material security, many people still care about life and have ambitions and desires and work very hard. There are social needs that are, in some sense, on top of the physical ones. Maslow thought that these needs were A) love and acceptance, and B) esteem and respect. David Marx rolls these ideas, and others, into a unifying concept: social status.
Most of us don’t want to think of humanity in general as a bunch of status-seekers, and especially not ourselves. But Marx makes a convincing case by pointing out that most people aren’t after adulation and fame, but simply trying to attain normal status — to be accepted as average, rather than being an outcast or a loser. Wanting to be normal is OK, right? And then of course it feels good to earn recognition from our peers — when people at work tell you that you did a good job, it makes you happy, right? And although a big house is nice in its own right, there’s also a little bit of a warm glow when people compliment you on it, right? The more examples like this you think of, the more Marx’s overarching status-based framework makes sense. He doesn’t say status is everything — just that it’s always a factor.
An economist might say this is a story about rational behavior under incomplete markets. Money can’t buy everything — it can’t buy you love, and it also can’t buy you social status. Of course, money gets you status, but you don’t just go buy it from the status store for a set price — you need to have more than your neighbor. So this is also a story about social preferences. But lots of people go after status in ways that don’t depend on money — they make cool art, they wear cool clothes and get trendy haircuts, they learn esoteric knowledge to become hipsters and geeks. These activities are what Marx spends most of his pages thinking about. The grand theory of human society and behavior is just a warm-up; what he really cares about is the trendy haircuts.
So why do we make art and fashion and all that stuff? In Marx’s telling, the churn of cultural creativity is a byproduct of millions upon millions of status-seeking efforts. Perhaps some working-class kids try to turn the tables on the middle-class people who call them losers by creating a punk subculture where they pierce their lips and wear mohawks and listen to musicians who can’t play their instruments. And perhaps some artists and musicians draw inspiration from the punk subculture to create works of art that get them recognition from the critics and literati. And perhaps some rich people, seeing those novel punk styles, try to distinguish themselves from other rich people by adopting some of those punk conventions (in a tamer form, of course). This latter makes punk tragically un-hip, of course, so the punk kids have to move on to something else — grunge, or post-punk, or hip-hop, or Harajuku fashion, or whatever. And so it goes, round and round, with the wannabes and the imitators chasing down the cool new thing, and the subcultural rebels and avant-garde artists trying to stay one step ahead.
This is the basic sketch, I think, but it doesn’t really do justice to the sheer density and richness of David Marx’s ideas. Status and Culture can be a frustrating book, because David throws out ideas and theses and claims about the world faster than I can decide whether I agree with them. It’s sort of like a DDOS attack on one’s faculty of critical skepticism, and it’s probably why to this day we still spend so much time arguing over Kant. The book took me literally months to read, because I had to pause and consider each paragraph — sometimes, each sentence. Seen another way, this means that if you like thinking about stuff, Status and Culture will give you value for your money.
I won’t go through any of my more minor disagreements and nitpicks here, but there is one big thing that nagged at me. In the later chapters of Status and Culture, Marx turns to the question of how the internet is changing the game. The fact that any subculture can be easily penetrated by outsiders and weekend warriors, he laments, means fewer awards for originality. Trends that last only fifteen minutes don’t have time to make their artistic mark — everything becomes remakes and sequels. When social media allows everyone to consume an omnivorous diet of culture and style and media, the only real status signaling comes from having money, or things like Twitter follower count. And that, Marx worries, is making our culture more boring.
What nagged at me is this: In a world where culture exists only for the purpose of status, why does it matter if culture is boring? Perhaps “taste” is just the pretension of hipsters and the old-money rich, but why would we worry about internet-driven homogenization and cultural stasis unless novelty was an important part of why we like art and culture in the first place?
In fact, Marx does deal a bit with this, arguing near the end of the book that cultural complexity is inherently valuable for various instrumental reasons. But this fails to satisfy. Perhaps we evolved to love novelty for a reason, but in the here and now, many of us enjoy novelty because it sparks joy.
And if novelty sparks joy for the consumer, why not for the artist as well? I write things that I never show anyone, simply because there was something I needed to express to myself. And I have seen David Marx himself making music in his basement just for the fun of it, with no prospect of any sort of status gain. Emily Dickinson wrote 1800 poems and published only 10 of them; she only became famous after her death, when her sister discovered her secret cache.
Self-expression isn’t exactly the same as novelty, of course. And there are a whole bunch of other reasons we like what we like. Maybe a song reminds us of a romance gone by, or of our childhood friends. Maybe a movie speaks to our own experiences and makes us realize that someone, somewhere can empathize with our struggles? And so on. Consumption of art and other creative products isn’t just about status; it’s about individuation.
But David Marx isn’t trying to explain the whole world — just a piece of it. And status relations in human society are a sorely neglected topic — partly because, as Marx notes, making explicit status comparisons is kind of a taboo. In recent years some people have become a bit bolder in talking about status, but it seems likely that many of the upheavals in our society are being driven by status resentments and anxieties that we’re still loath to mention explicitly.
Marx touches on this a bit at the end of the book. He expresses hope for a world where material equality — not the perfect equality of a communist utopia, but the muted differences of a social democracy — blunts the downsides of status competition by ensuring that there are few abject losers. This was an extremely tantalizing note on which to end a book like this — the hope that we might find some way of redistributing status itself. Now that is a kind of Marxism I could really get behind. (You knew I’d eventually get around to making that joke, right?)
In the meantime, if you like to think about big ideas, go grab a copy of Status and Culture. Hopefully this review has increased David’s status — he certainly deserves it!