Wednesday, June 30, 2010


For some reason when I look at this map, I don't get the sense that the United States of America is the most powerful, richest, badass country this world has ever seen, especially when I'm looking at Kentucky. In fact, this map reminds me of fifth-grade.

I'm sure some Muslim person in Afghanistan probably thinks differently.


they don't see this

they see this

science major

It is to be noted that many students who come to the university intending to go into natural science change their intention while in college. It never, or almost never, happens that a student who was not interested in natural science before college discovers it there. This is an interesting reflection on the character of our high school education in general and science education in particular.

- Allan Bloom

What percentage of people who intend on majoring in the natural sciences do so because of intrinsic interest or because of career and financial aspirations?

Pre-Business Major

I think Allan Bloom has a point here about the university turning increasingly into a vocational school. But his opinion that those who major in economics because their sole motivation is money is to say the least absurd. Economics is a powerful tool that enables its practitioner to analyze critically individual and social behavior, markets and industries, and international trade and development.

He needs to make a differentiation between those who major in economics and those who major in business administration. One is an actual science , the other is a vocational degree. Like Bloom however, I personally hold little respect for pre-business majors who take only the bare minimum of liberal arts and social science classes. Accordingly though, they are the ones losing out.

I think one also needs to make the point that what Bloom is/should be referring to here is the MBA undergraduate degree. I believe no one pursuing a MBA graduate degree has the perception that they're getting a liberal arts education or a scholarly one at that. It is and should be a path to getting a more lucrative job.

The establishment of the MBA as the moral equivalent of the MD or the law degree, meaning a way of insuring a lucrative living by the mere fact of a diploma is not a mark of scholarly achievement. It is a general rule that the students who have any chance of getting a liberal education are those who do not have a fixed career goal, or at least those for whom the university is not merely a training ground for a profession. Those who do have such a goal go through the university with blinders on, studying what the chosen discipline imposes on them while occasion­ally diverting themselves with an elective course that attracts them. True liberal education requires that the student's whole life be radically changed by it, that what he learns may affect his action, his tastes, his choices, that no previous attachment be immune to examination and hence re-evaluation. Liberal education puts everything at risk and requires students who are able to risk everything. Otherwise it can only touch what is uncommitted in the already essentially committed.

The effect of the MBA is to corral a horde of students who want to get into business school and to put the blinders on them, to legislate an illiberal, officially approved undergraduate program for them at the outset, like premeds who usually disappear into their required courses and are never heard from again. Both the goal and the way of getting to it are fixed so that nothing can distract them. (Prelaw students are more visible in a variety of liberal courses because law schools are less fixed in their prerequisites; they are only seeking bright students.) Premed, prelaw and prebusiness students are distinctively tourists in the liberal arts. Getting into those elite profes­sional schools is an obsessive concern that tethers their minds.

The specific effect of the MBA has been an explosion of enrollments in economics, the prebusiness major. In serious universities something like 20 percent of the undergraduates are now economics majors. Economics overwhelms the rest of the social sciences and skews the students' percep­tion of them—their purpose and their relative weight with regard to the knowledge of human things. A premed who takes much biology does not, by contrast, lose sight of the status of physics, for the latter's influence on biology is clear, its position agreed upon, and it is respected by the biologists. None of this is so for the prebusiness economics major, who not only does not take an interest in sociology, anthropology or political science but is also persuaded that what he is learning can handle all that belongs to those studies.

Moreover, he is not motivated by love of the science of economics but by love of what it is concerned with—money. Economists' concern with wealth, an undeniably real and solid thing, gives them a certain impressive intellectual solidity not provided by, say, culture. One can be sure that they are not talking about nothing. But wealth, as opposed to the science of wealth, is not the noblest of motiva­tions, and there is nothing else quite like this perfect coincidence between science and cupidity elsewhere in the university. The only parallel would be if there were a science of sexology, with earnest and truly scholarly professors, which would ensure its students lavish sexual satisfactions.

why we should be moral

what goes around, comes around.


Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal.

- Matthew 6:19

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?

- Matthew 6:25

All man's efforts are for his mouth, yet his appetite is never satisfied.

- Ecclesiastes 6:7

Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the desire.

- Ecclesiastes 6:9

In all these assaults on the senses there is a great wisdom--not only about the addictiveness of pleasures but also their ephemerality. The essence of addiction, after all, is that pleasure tends to dissipate and leave the mind agitated, hungry for more. The idea that just one more dollar, one more dalliance, one more rung on the ladder will leave us feeling sated reflects a misunderstanding about human nature; a misunderstanding, moreover, that is built into human nature; we are designed to feel that the next great goal will bring bliss, and the bliss is designed to evaporate shortly after we get there.

Religion does a good job in assessing specific aspects of human nature but the solutions it proposes feels like it's replacing one set of idols with another.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

to all those hating haters

Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.

- John Maynard Keynes

Monday, June 28, 2010

abstract art

if pictorial expression has changed, it is because modern life has made it necessary.

- Fernard Leger


For a long time I never understood cubism and why some of its art is so expensive. This following excerpt helps explain why it developed but still doesn't answer why it's so damn expensive. If you do want an explanation, check out some of my previous excerpts on contemporary art:

The aim of cubism was not to reproduce visual reality but to record a response to an object - whether still life, landscape, or individual - that was developed over time and was both visual, in reflecting different angles of vision, and intellectual. What was important was not the sitter as he appeared to the world but the painter's conception of him. Kahnweiler likened the process to that of poetry, quoting the French nineteenth-century poet Mallarmé, who claimed that his poetic goal was "to describe not the thing itself but the effect it produces." Once photography had freed painters from the obligation to create a likeness, they could abstract the portrait in a variety of ways.

Pablo Picasso - Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1910)

In order for the artist's subjective response to be considered the most important aspect of a portrait, it was necessary for a change to occur in the circum stances in which portraits were made. In previous centuries the relationship between sitter and artist had been dominated by the sitter: it was the sitter (or the person commissioning the portrait) who dictated how the sitter was represented, and it was the sitter's self- image that the portraitist was employed to convey. But when artists, represented by dealers, began to paint almost exclusively for the open market, portrait commissions gradually became less important to their financial survival. Since the late nineteenth century artists have been increasingly able to choose whom they paint. (Picasso's portraits were almost all of his friends, wives, lovers, and children.) Today when some one commissions a portrait from a leading artist he or she usually does so on the understanding that he or she will submit uncomplainingly to the artist's vision.

Abstraction in portraiture - which results from the imposition of the artist's own personal vision on the sitter - has many sources, but it always depends on the artist being seen as the more powerful partner in the transaction. However, when looking at portraits it is as well to remember how recent such a view is. Today we may remember Mona Lisa only because she was painted by Leonardo, and Mr. and Mrs. Andrews simply because they had the foresight to ask Gainsborough to portray them, but at the time they would have had no doubt that it was they who were calling the shots.

Pablo Picasso - Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907)

Paris Society

The German artist Max Beckmann captures the atmosphere at a rich high-society soirée in Paris. Each party-goer is a caricature, and the thick black outlines give the impression of a spontaneous charcoal-like sketch. Just as this rough style contrasts with the polish and veneer of the party, the grotesque faces contrast with the elegant clothing of the party­goers, who push against each other in the cramped space. Most seem not to notice one another, and certainly no one is paying any attention to the singer in the background. This society is shown as fragmented and hypocritical.

Max Beckmann - Paris Society (1931)

counterculture says give up

Great synthesis of ideas gleaned from Marxism, Christianity, and postmodern ideas from the movie, the Matrix. All of these belief-systems argue that to see reality, one must reject the false illusions of the "system." Ultimately, these belief-systems imply that a revolution in human consciousness and awareness is necessary--reform only moves the chairs on a sinking ship so to speak. Revolution, not evolution.

However, as Potter argues, taking this sort of stance throws the baby out with the bath water. Genuine reform has worked (workers' rights, progressive taxes, environment regulation, minimum wage laws, social security, welfare, and unemployment insurance have all improved the situation of the working class and poor. In fact, regulated capitalism has produced in excess the greatest level of prosperity for its participants than any other political-economic system (ie: South Korea vs North Korea, China vs Soviet Union, West Germany vs East Germany). However, regulation is key because free-market capitalism often leads to extreme inequality and financial instability.

Counterculturalism is giving up. Do drugs, don't work, meditate, don't desire, give your life to God--these are short-term and unsustainable solutions. Be the change you want in the world. Reform the system, don't reject the system:

The world that we live in is not real. Consumer capitalism has taken every authentic human experience, trans­formed it into a commodity and then sold it back to us through advertising and the mass media. Thus every part of human life has been drawn into "the spectacle," which itself is nothing but a sys­tem of symbols and representations, governed by its own internal logic. "The spectacle is capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image,"
Debord wrote. Thus we live in a world of total ideology, in which we are completely alienated from our essential nature. The spectacle is a dream that has become neces­sary, "the nightmare of imprisoned modern society, which ulti­mately expresses nothing more than its desire to sleep."

In such a world, the old-fashioned concern for social justice and the abolition of class-based society becomes outmoded. In the society of the spectacle, the new revolutionary must seek two things: "consciousness of desire and the desire for consciousness." In other words, we must try to discover our own sources of pleas­ure, independent of the needs that are imposed upon us by the sys­tem, and we must try to wake up from the nightmare of "the spectacle."

In other words, when it comes to rebellion and political activ­ism, there is no point trying to change little details in the system. What does it matter who is rich and who is poor? Or who has the right to vote and who doesn't? Or who has access to jobs and opportunities? These are all just ephemera, illusions. If commodi­ties are just images, who cares if some people have more of them, others less? What we need to do is recognize that the entire cul­ture, the entire society, is a waking dream—one we must reject in its entirety.

Of course, this idea is hardly original. It is one of the oldest themes in Western civilization. In The Republic, Plato compared life on earth to a cave, in which prisoners are shackled to the floor, seeing only shadows flickering across the wall from the light of a fire. When one prisoner escapes and makes his way to the surface, he discovers that the world he had been living in was nothing but a web of illusions. He returns to the cave bearing the news, yet finds that his former companions are still embroiled in petty disputes and bickering. He finds it difficult to take these "politics" seriously.

Centuries later, early Christians would appeal to this story as a way of explaining away the execution of Jesus by the Romans. Prior to this event, it had been assumed that the arrival of the Messiah would herald the creation of the kingdom of God here on earth. The death of Jesus obviously put an end to these expecta­tions. Some of his followers therefore chose to reinterpret these events as a sign that the real kingdom of God would be not on this earth, but in the afterlife. They claimed that Jesus had been resur­rected in order to convey this news-- like Plato's prisoner returning to the cave.

Thus the idea that the world we live in is a veil of illusion is not new. What does change, however, is the popular understanding of what it takes to throw off this illusion. For Plato, there was no ques­tion that breaking free would require decades of disciplined study and philosophical reflection. Christians thought that it would be even harder—that death was the only way to gain access to the "real" world beyond. For Debord and the Situationists, on the other hand, the veil of illusion could be pierced much more easily. All that it takes is some slight cognitive dissonance, a sign that something's not right in the world around us. This can be provoked by a work of art, an act of protest or even an article of clothing. In Debord's view, "disturbances with the lowliest and most ephemeral of origins have eventually disrupted the order of the world."

This is the origin of the idea of culture jamming. Traditional political activism is useless. It's like trying to reform political insti­tutions inside the Matrix. What's the point? What we really need to do is wake people up, unplug them, free them from the grip of the spectacle. And the way to do that is by producing cognitive dis­sonance, through symbolic acts of resistance to suggest that some­thing is not right in the world.

Since the entire culture is nothing but a system of ideology, the only way to liberate oneself and others is to resist the culture in its entirety. This is where the idea of counterculture comes from. The inhabitants of Zion, in The Matrix, are a concrete embodi­ment of how countercultural rebels since the '6os have conceived of themselves. They are the ones who have been awakened, the ones who are free from the tyranny of the machines. And the enemy, in this view, is those who refuse to be awakened, those who insist on conforming to the culture. The enemy, in other words, is mainstream society.

Morpheus sums up the countercultural analysis perfectly when describing the Matrix: "The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But when you're inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it."

In the '6os, the baby boomers declared their implacable opposition to "the system." They renounced materialism and greed, rejected the discipline and uniformity of the McCarthy era, and set out to build a new world based on individual freedom. Whatever hap­pened to this project? Forty years later, "the system" does not appear to have changed very much. If anything, consumer capital­ism has emerged from decades of countercultural rebellion much stronger than it was before. If Debord thought that the world was saturated with advertising and media in the early '60s, what would he have made of the 21st century?

In this book, we argue that decades of countercultural rebellion have failed to change anything because the theory of society on which the countercultural idea rests is false. We do not live in the Matrix, nor do we live in the spectacle. The world that we live in is in fact much more prosaic. It consists of billions of human beings, each pursuing some more or less plausible conception of the good, trying to cooperate with one another, and doing so with varying degrees of success. There is no single, overarching system that integrates it all. The culture cannot be jammed because there is no such thing as "the culture" or "the system." There is only a hodge­podge of social institutions, most tentatively thrown together, which distribute the benefits and burdens of social cooperation in ways that sometimes we recognize to be just, but that are usually manifestly inequitable. In a world of this type, countercultural rebellion is not just unhelpful, it is positively counterproductive. Not only does it distract energy and effort away from the sort of initiatives that lead to concrete improvements in people's lives, but it encourages wholesale contempt for such incremental changes.

According to the countercultural theory, "the system" achieves order only through the repression of the individual. Pleasure is inherently anarchic, unruly, wild. To keep the workers wider con­trol, the system must instill manufactured needs and mass-produced desires, which can in turn be satisfied within the framework of the technocratic order. Order is achieved, but at the expense of promoting widespread unhappiness, alienation and neurosis. The solution must therefore lie in reclaiming our capacity for sponta­neous pleasure—through polymorphous perversity, or perform­ance art, or modern primitivism, or mind-expanding drugs, or whatever else turns your crank. In the countercultural analysis, simply having fun comes to be seen as the ultimate subversive act. Hedonism is transformed into a revolutionary doctrine.

Is it any wonder then that this sort of countercultual rebellion has reinvigorated consumer capitalism? It's time for a reality check. Having fun is not subversive, and it doesn't undermine any system. In fact, widespread hedonism makes it more difficult to organize social movements, and much more difficult to persuade anyone to make a sacrifice in the name of social justice. In our view, what the progressive left needs to do is disentangle the concern over ques­tions of social justice from the countercultural critique—and to jet­tison the latter, while continuing to pursue the former.

From the standpoint of social justice, the big gains that have been achieved in our society over the past half-century have all come from measured reform within the system. The civil rights movement and the feminist movement have both achieved tan­gible gains in the welfare of disadvantaged groups, while the social safety net provided by the welfare state has vastly improved the condition' of all citizens. But these gains have not been achieved by "unplugging" people from the web of illusions that governs their lives. They have been achieved through the laborious process of democratic political action—through people making arguments, conducting studies, assembling coalitions and legislating change. We would like to see more of this.

Less fun perhaps, but potentially much more useful.

Cool by its nature can not be a force for reform because by definition, Cool is to not care:

Cool is never directly political, and politics, almost by definition, can never be Cool. To get anywhere in politics you need to care passionately about something, whether it is a cause or merely the achievement of personal power, and you need to sacrifice present pleasures to the long and tedious process of campaigning and party organization. Nor has any party yet, outside of the lunatic fringe, proclaimed the pursuit of Cool as its election platform - such a platform would presumably have to include legalizing all drugs, abolishing all taxes and yet simultaneously paying generous unemployment benefits, which might make life tricky for the first Cool treasurer.

feminism as false consciousness

While attending college, I had a lot of fundamentalist Christian friends. I never understood why they CHOSE to participate in it. I could think of a lot of reasons but I'm going to focus on one...relationships. So in their Christian circle, the pastor believed in dating with marriage in mind and no premarital sex. I don't why my guy friends would agree to this. No sex before marriage?! What?! Dating a girl with marriage in mind? Why would you put so much pressure on yourself and have this timeline looming over you (typically these friends got married within two years at the average age of 25). I didn't understand.

The girls on the end, it made more sense. But they had to subscribe to stuff like this:

1. Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.

2. Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law.

And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.

3. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.
Serious, right there in the Bible, women must submit to men. In an age of equal rights and feminism, why would my college-educated women friends agree to this? But slowly I realized young women have more to gain from the Christian framework than young men. Why?

No premarital sex and a commitment to marriage before the relationship starts. No hook-ups, no friends with benefits, no nothing. "You want sex, propose to me." And it worked--one by one, my guy friends got married. Of course, they didn't just get married because of sex; they got married because they loved their girlfriends and they saw a future together. But because there was this mutual understanding that we're dating to get married, the path to marriage was there. Girls weren't wasting their time in dead-end relationships and awkward ambiguous breakups and rebound relationships.

The idea of a counterculture is ultimately based on a mistake. At best, countercultural rebellion is pseudo-rebellion: a set of dramatic gestures that are devoid of any progressive political or economic consequences and that detract from the urgent task of building a more just society. In other words, it is rebellion that pro­vides entertainment for the rebels, and nothing much else. At worst, countercultural rebellion actively promotes unhappiness, by undermining or discrediting social norms and institutions that actually serve a valuable function. In particular, the idea of coun­terculture has produced a level of contempt for democratic politics that has consigned most of the progressive left to the political wilderness for over three decades.

In order to see where it all went wrong, one need look no further than the controversy that erupted over an enormously popular lit­tle dating manual called The Rules. Published in 1996 by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider, the book was noted primarily for the retro­grade character of much of the advice it offered. Women were instructed to play hard to get, to insist that the man pay for dinner, to avoid casual sex and to never, ever tell a man what to do. Femi­nists responded with outrage. "I fought in the trenches for years so that my daughter wouldn't have to grow up in the same repressive, sexist culture that I had to deal with," they said. And this is how she repays me? By voluntarily adopting the same backward rules that we fought so desperately to overcome?"

Yet with all of the furor that accompanied this episode, the central lesson was missed. What the popularity of The Rules shows is that bad rules are better than no rules. Feminists were quite right to fight tooth and nail against the old rules that used to govern rela­tions between the sexes. Those rules were based upon the assump­tion that the man would go on to become the breadwinner, the woman a housewife. As a result, these rules actively contributed to the reproduction of that pattern. But instead of trying to replace these rules with better ones—ones that would have put men and women on an equal footing—too many early feminists bought into the myth of counterculture. They assumed that the very exist­ence of rules was a symptom of the oppression of women. In order for men and women to be equal, therefore, they concluded that it would be necessary to abolish the rules, not reform them. "Free love" was proposed as a substitute for "going steady." Love was like a beautiful flower, they claimed, which should be left free to unfold in its own natural way, without the artificial constraints of social convention.

Thus the sexual revolution had the effect of destroying all of the traditional social norms that had governed relations between the sexes, without replacing them with any new ones. What it left was a complete void. As a result, my generation, which came of age in the late '70s, was forced to invent for itself some way of dealing with all the tricky problems of adolescence. The result was not lib­eration, it was hell. The absence of settled rules meant that no one knew what to expect from anyone else. For a bunch of adolescents, this was deeply anxiety-provoking. We never knew where we stood with one another, or what we were supposed to do next. Anything that resembled "dating" was deeply uncool and therefore out of the question. So you couldn't ask a girl out. You could try to bump into her at a party, maybe hang out, get wasted and then have sex. "Going out" was something that began only afterward, and even then it was always accompanied by ironic scare quotes.

Against this background, it is hardly surprising that so many young women reached out for The Rules. Many feminists had already noticed, early on, that "free love" had opened the door to the sexual exploitation of women in our society on a massive scale. The initial feminist assumption had been that because men were the oppressors, all of the rules governing relations between the sexes had to have been rigged to the man's advantage. The fact that many of these rules were obviously for the defense of women, designed to protect them from men, somehow escaped notice. Camille Paglia caused a furor in the '8os when she pointed out that many of these fussy old social conventions actually had the rather important function of reducing the risk of rape. Similarly, the old "shotgun wedding" rule forced men to take some responsibility for the children they fathered. The erosion of this norm has been one of the main factors contributing to the widespread feminiza­tion of poverty in the Western world.

In fact, if you were to ask a group of men to think up their ideal set of dating rules, they would probably choose something very much like the "free love" arrangement that emerged out of the sexual revolution. You only have to tour a gay bathhouse to see how men choose to organize their sex lives when they don't have to cater to feminine sensibilities. Yet these possibilities were all ignored, primarily due to the power of the countercultural analy­sis: women are an oppressed group, it was argued, and social norms are the mechanism of oppression. Therefore the solution is to abolish all the rules. Freedom for women thus becomes equated with freedom from social norms.

In the end, this was a disastrous equation. Not only did it set up a completely unobtainable state as the ideal of liberation, but it cre­ated a tendency to dismiss as "co-optation" or "selling out" any acceptance of reforms that might actually lead to tangible improvements in women's lives. How could we have gone so far astray?

anticonsumerism conformity

Do you hate consumer culture? Angry about all that packaging, all those commercials? Worried about the quality of the "mental environment"? Well, join the club. Anticonsumer­ism has become one of the most important cultural forces in millennial North American life, across every social class and demo­graphic. Sure, as a society we may be spending record amounts of money on luxury goods, vacations, designer clothing and house­hold comforts. But take a look at the nonfiction bestseller lists. For years they've been populated by books that are deeply critical of consumerism: No Logo, CultureJam, Luxury Fever, Fast Food Nation. You can now buy Adbusters at your neighborhood music or cloth­ing store. Two of the most popular and critically acclaimed films in the past decade were Fight Club and American Beauty, which offered almost identical indictments of modern consumer society.

What can we conclude from all this? For one thing, the market obviously does an extremely good job at responding to consumer demand for anticonsumerist products and literature. But how can we all denounce consumerism yet still find ourselves living in a consumer society? The answer is simple. What we see in films like American Beauty or books like No Logo is not actually a critique of consumerism; it's merely a restatement of the critique of mass society. The two are not the same. In fact, the critique of mass society has been one of the most powerful forces driving consumerism for the past forty years.

That last sentence is worth reading again. The idea is so foreign, so completely the opposite of what we are used to being told, that many people simply can't get their head around it. So here is the claim, simply put: Books like No Logo, magazines like Adbusters and movies like American Beauty do not undermine consumerism; they reinforce it. This isn't because the authors, editors or directors are hypocrites. It's because they've failed to understand the true nature of consumer society. They identify consumerism with conformity. As a result, they fail to notice that it is rebellion, not conformity, that has for decades been the driving force of the marketplace.

Over the past half-century; we have seen the complete triumph of the consumer economy at the same time that we have seen the absolute dominance of countercultural thinking in the "market­place of ideas." Is this a coincidence? Countercultural theorists would like to think that their rebellion is merely a reaction to the evils of the consumer society. But what if countercultural rebel­lion, rather than being a consequence of intensified consumerism, were actually a contributing factor? Wouldn't that be ironic?

why poor people don't save

Social status, like everything else, is subject to diminishing marginal utility—the less you have of it the more you are willing to pay to get some. Thus lower-status groups are willing to dedicate a greater percentage of their income to competitive consumption than are high-status groups. People in the upper class already have so much status that they're not willing to make any great sacrifices to obtain more of it. The lower classes, on the other hand, are.

hippie consumerism

For consumers who profess antimaterialist values and endorse an ideal of "simple" living, people sure seem to be spending an awful lot of money. Some might call it "the paradox of antimateri­alism." In the past forty years, antimaterialist values have been one of the biggest cash cows of American consumer capitalism. The simple fact is, not everyone has the time to grow their own organic tea. Some people have jobs. But while they may not have the time or the money to share a antimaterialist's lifestyle, they can at least endorse his or her values, and embrace his or her aesthetic, by purchasing organic tea. Growing your own tea, rather than buying the cheap mass-produced stuff, makes you seem like a better person, more in touch with the earth. Thus "dropping out" of the tea market in order to make your own does not really strike a blow against con­sumerism; it just creates a market for more expensive, "all-natural" organic tea for those who do not have the time to grow it them­selves. In other words, it exacerbates competitive consumption rather than reduces it.

This is why the hippies didn't need to sell out in order to become yuppies. It's not that the system "co-opted" their dissent, it's that they were never really dissenting. Rejecting materialist values, and rejecting mass soci­ety, does not force you to reject consumer capitalism. If you really want to opt out of the system, you need to "do a Kaczynski" and go off and live in the woods somewhere (and not commute back and forth in a Range Rover). Because the everyday acts of symbolic resistance that characterize countercultural rebellion are not actu­ally disruptive to "the system," anyone who follows the logic of countercultural thinking through to its natural conclusion will find herself drawn into increasingly extreme forms of rebellion. The point at which this rebellion becomes disruptive generally coincides with the point at which it becomes genuinely antisocial. And then you're not so much being a rebel as you are simply being a nuisance.

don't conform - buy more of our shit

With the "alternative" facelift, "rebellion" continues to perform its traditional function of justifying the economy's ever-accelerating cycles of obsolescence with admirable efficiency. Since our willingness to load up our closets with purchases depends upon an eternal shifting of the products paraded before us, upon our being endlessly convinced that the new stuff is better than the old, we must be persuaded over and over again that the "alternatives" are more valuable than the existing or the previous. Ever since the 1960's, hip has been the native tongue of advertising, "antiestab­lishment" the vocabulary by which we are taught to cast off our old possessions and buy whatever they have decided to offer this year. And over the years the rebel has naturally become the cen­tral image of this culture of consumption, symbolizing endless, directionless change, and eternal restlessness with "the establish­ment"—or, more correctly, with the stuff "the establishment" convinced him to buy last year.


Distinction always involves both inclusion and exclu­sion. It involves reaffirming one's membership in the superior in-group and, at the same time; disavowing membership in the inferior out-group.

I have good taste

Good taste, in other words, is a positional good. One person can have it only if many others do not. It is like belonging to an exclusive yacht club, or walking to work downtown, or hiking through untouched wilderness. It has an inherently competitive logic. Thus any consumer who buys an object as an expression of her style or taste is necessarily participating in competitive consumption.

Whenever goods serve as a source of distinction, it means that at least part of their value stems from their exclusivity. Because not everyone has them, these goods identify the owners as members of a small club (those who are in the know) and distinguishes them from the masses (those who do not have a clue). Conformity and distinction thus always go hand in hand—one conforms to the habits and standards of the exclusive club in order to distinguish oneself from the great unwashed. Critics of mass society, unfortu­nately, have focused on the wrong side of the equation. It is not the desire to conform that is driving the consumption process, but rather the quest for distinction. The value of a good comes from the sense of superiority associated with membership in the club, along with the recognition accorded by fellow members. Yet once the word gets out and more people begin to acquire the good, the distinction that it confers is slowly eroded. The quest for distinc­tion is therefore collectively self-defeating—everyone strives to get what not everyone can have.

Of course, the result of this competition is that consumers all windup with roughly the same commodities at the end of the day. But this sort of conformity was never part of their intention. Con­sumers are like crabs stuck in a bucket, each one trying to escape but getting pulled back in by the others. It's not that the crabs want to stay in the bucket. It's just that as soon as any one crab makes any progress toward the rim, the others try to crawl over it, using its progress as a way of furthering their own escape. As a result, they all wind up back where they started.

Ultimately this shows how naive it is to think we can opt out of consumerism. The sense of distinction permeates all of our aesthetic judgments: what is beautiful or ugly, charming or tacky, cool or uncool. Any­one who cares about style is so committed to competitive con­sumption. The only way to opt out is to refrain from allowing any such judgments to inform our purchasing decisions.