Posts Tagged ‘costly signalling’

Display of rectitude as a war of attrition

July 25, 2014

It is as foil to his brutal, sport-mad, loutish classmates that Stephen Dedalus is thrown into relief as a quiet, sensitive young artist-to-be.

In the schoolyard, delicate and wheezing, Stephen is not like other boys:

The wide playgrounds were swarming with boys. All were shouting and the prefects urged them on with strong cries.

The evening air was pale and chilly and after every charge and thud of the footballers the greasy leather orb flew like a heavy bird through the grey light.

He kept on the fringe of his line, out of sight of his prefect, out of reach of the rude feet, feigning to run now and then. He felt his body small and weak amid the throng of players and his eyes were weak and watery…

He was caught in the whirl of a scrimmage and, fearful of the flashing legs and muddy boots, bent down to look through the legs. The fellows were struggling and groaning and their legs were rubbing and kicking and stamping.

Then Jack Lawton’s yellow boots dodged out the ball and all the other boots and legs ran after. He ran after them a little way and then stopped. It was useless to run on…

It would be better to be in the study hall than out there in the cold.

To such extravagant lack of athletic ability, add a record of conversational misfires and a tendency to lapses in classroom etiquette.

This experience of youthful difference is disagreeable. Stephen the aesthete must find a more suitable habitat in which to fit himself — if not a different, less provincial country entirely.

Theophile Gautier

Yet revealing one’s type in this fashion  sticking out from the plodding, lowing herd of peers and contemporaries  is not all bad.

It is through such outward and visible signs of inward distinction that the sheep are separated from the goats, the philosopher from the street-porter, and those with a special destiny from the ordinary run of people.

And how do you distinguish yourself from the crowd when, having progressed to a better school, all your peers are of similarly thoughtful and bookish temperament?

The pale gleaming purity of the ‘model youth’ is readily perceived against a background of ‘undistinguished dullards.’ But what to do on those nights when all the cows, like you, are black?

In David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest, readers are introduced to the grad student Molly Notkin, ‘as of yesterday enjoying ABD pre-doctoral status in Film & Film-Cartridge Theory at MIT’.

Molly’s pious, high-minded ex-boyfriend is described:

[An] erotically circumscribed G.W. Pabst scholar at New York University tortured by the neurotic compulsion that there are only a finite number of erections possible in the world at any one time and that his tumescence means e.g. the detumescence of some perhaps more deserving or tortured Third World sorghum farmer or something, so that whenever he tumefies he’ll suffer the same order of guilt that your less eccentrically tortured Ph.D.-type person will suffer at the idea of, say, wearing baby-seal fur.

Here is a kind of arms race of sanctimony, the pursuit of holding the most exacting and conspicuously austere standards of conduct within one’s reference group (i.e. of grad students in the liberal arts).

The Pabst scholar is engaged with his peers in a bidding tournament to exhibit the most delicacy and unremitting sensitivity, the most guilt for his lapses into the profane:

Molly still takes the high-speed rail down to visit him every couple weeks, to be there for him in case by some selfish mischance he happens to harden, prompting in him black waves of self-disgust and an extreme neediness for understanding and nonjudgmental love.

In The World of Odysseus, Moses Finley portrayed Homeric contests for esteem as a kind of zero-sum tournament of social climbing:

It is in the nature of honour that it must be exclusive, or at least hierarchic. When everyone attains equal honour, then there is no honour for anyone. Of necessity, therefore, the world of Odysseus was fiercely competitive, as each hero strove to outdo the others…

In the final analysis, how can prepotence be determined except by repeated demonstrations of success? And the one indisputable measure of success is a trophy.

The prestige gained by the ‘winner’ was a kind of positional good. The value of honour depended on its being unequally distributed: having it entailed that some other people didn’t have it.

This encouraged a competitive rat race of escalating heroism, a tournament or bidding war in which ever more resources — time, effort, spilt blood — were expended.

It resembled what Veblen would later describe, in Gilded Age Chicago, as a treadmill of ‘pecuniary emulation… a restless straining to place a wider and ever-widening pecuniary interval between himself and this average standard.’

For abiding by an obligatory norm wasn’t enough to distinguish the Homeric warrior (or the ‘tortured PhD type’) as a hero or elicit the approbation of others. One had to go beyond the call of duty.

Admiration was reserved for supererogatory acts: those that surpassed the norm.

Veblen on keeping up with the Joneses:

As fast as a person makes new acquisitions, and becomes accustomed to the resulting new standard of wealth, the new standard forthwith ceases to afford appreciably greater satisfaction than the earlier standard did. The tendency in any case is constantly to make the present pecuniary standard the point of departure for a fresh increase of wealth; and this in turn gives rise to a new standard of sufficiency and a new pecuniary classification of one’s self as compared with one’s neighbours.

One-upmanship is typical when this kind of (indivisible, positional) prize is at stake.

We’re all familiar with social contests (e.g. pursuit of prestige through conspicuous consumption of luxury goods, arms races in education leading to ‘credential inflation’, litigation battles with massive legal expenses incurred by both parties, R&D races, competitive giving in potlatch, etc.) that generate escalating and wasteful consumption of resources.

Each participant knows that the prize in these tournaments will be awarded to whoever is willing to match others’ bids and commit that extra epsilon of costly resources, refusing to drop out.

The rents accrued, in the end, by the winner are often matched or surpassed by the resources squandered during the contest.

When new standards are successively established and function henceforth as a baseline or default, we have a kind of ascending-bid auction.

The latter is an auction where everyone submits bids, with successively higher iterations, and the prize winner is the one who can afford the most costly investment.

Sensitivity, insofar as it confers prestige while bringing expense of time and effort, may be one such contest.

How does the tournament proceed: in what manner are competitors pruned and a prize allotted?

The needs of some individuals are easier to satisfy than the needs of others: society must, for example, expend more of its limited resources to supply electricity to a resident of a remote farming region than it does to provide the same good to an urban dweller.

A person (e.g. someone with restricted mobility who must amend the design of their house or workplace to be capable of getting around) may have ‘expensive tastes’ even without voluntarily cultivating the latter.

Some societies (and some agents i.e. governments, firms, individuals) can afford to spend resources satisfying such costly needs. Others cannot.

A large corporation may be able to afford diversity and inclusion programmes or sensitivity training for its employees, and can modify office facilities to allow access by disabled workers and visitors, etc.

A small proprietor may be unable to afford either investment, or may have to choose between them.

Regularly maintaining and upgrading manuals of approved usage or conduct is a costly task, as is employing compliance officers, or monitoring the speech and behaviour of oneself and others.

It will only be undertaken by those with resources to spare.

This is, of course, to say nothing of the inclination to undertake such costly benevolence. Willingness rather than capacity may be the decisive factor.

Yet such enlightened attitudes must themselves be cultivated or acquired through training, reflection or experience. Thus their possession  like table manners, personal decorum or the ability to play a musical instrument  itself requires expense that not all can sustain.

BAE Systems diversity and inclusion matrix

Displays of sensitivity therefore function as a discriminating signal. They are, in certain contexts, a screening device that sorts insiders (the initiated) from outsiders.

A display of rectitude is only valuable as a screening service if it reliably distinguishes the ‘good’ from the ‘bad.’ If some display is easy to emulate (i.e. relatively cheap) then it is not credible as a status symbol.

Self-punishment, as exhibited by the sexually tortured film student, satisfies the handicap principle. It is not for everyone, being costly to maintain. Only the earnest need apply. The elaborate tartufferie of the big corporation, for different reasons, is also expensive to fake.

How much sensitivity, or guilt in the case of the film student, can one sustain?

This challenge triggering an arms race and squandering of resources — is the currency or subtext of many social interactions where, for lack of anything else to do, jockeying for prestige is the object: online discussion, for example, in which participants compete to parade the most costly investment (in knowing the currently approved or most esoteric terms, etc.).

But similar contests of one-upmanship pervade the bien-pensant circles of the professional and managerial classes, and their social satellites, as described in a recent post.

Genteelisms, as is well known, aim to provide a signal of distinguished taste and courtesy, as reliable as any good food and stylish furnishings. (Kojève, observing the survival of now-meaningless archaisms like tea ceremonies in postwar Japan, called this ‘snobbism’). They are a chief method for regulating in-group membership.

Yet, rapidly outdated, or too widely dispersed to work as shibboleths, they provoke a ceaseless euphemism treadmill.

The standard of circumlocution now set higher, an escalating level of resources must be devoted to mutual monitoring to detect infringements, and to lexical ingenuity to repel attacks, in order to come out ahead of the pack.

In general, the class of behaviour involves acquiring redundant goods or credentials, or undertaking some costly investment of time or effort, in order to maintain one’s position relative to competitors for some prize.

Such contests, as Finley and Veblen described, are a high-wire act of ‘restless straining.’

Hypocrisy, said Maugham, was ‘the most difficult and nerve-wracking vice that men can pursue’, demanding constant vigilance. It could not be practised in spare moments, but was a ‘whole-time job.’

So, too, the exhausting battles for prestige, and enforcement of correct conduct and usage, among those with a deep regard for social status and the esteem of peers and colleagues.

Submitting to this regimen is not so easy as Alexander Cockburn imagined in his article on the ‘Conscience Industry’:

Today, at the level of symbolic action, a person of progressive temperament can live in a bubble bath of moral self-satisfaction from dawn to dusk… For every decision in the liberal day, there’s a certificate of good behaviour being flaunted by some of the most disgusting corporations on Earth.

Every decision, all day? Less a warm bath than an exhausting workout. The reader of the Nation cannot relax if she is to keep up with her peer-competitors in the field of uprightness and decorum.

The dinner party as rat race.

National guilt

May 28, 2010

Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption describes how luxury goods or services (yachts, private aircraft, fowling pieces, Fabergé eggs eggs, Gucci handbags), because of their expense, are a badge of class membership. Their purpose is the signalling of status, adherence to a collective tradition or identity, or display of credentials, intelligence and good taste.

The middle classes lack the purchasing power for such displays, but their private consumption choices and leisure activities do often serve the purpose of signalling good taste and discernment (in the manner satirized by Stuff White People Like).

The more exacting the better, as Adorno described in Minima Moralia:

The high life aspires to be the beautiful life. It affords those engaging in it ideological pleasure gains.

Because the formalization of life becomes a task requiring the adherence to rules, the artificial preservation of a style, the maintenance of a delicate balance between correctness and independence, existence appears endowed with meaning, so appeasing the bad conscience of the socially superfluous.

The constant injunction to do and say what exactly befit’s one status and situation demands a kind of moral effort. By making it difficult to be the person one is, one gains the feeling of living up to a patriarchal noblesse oblige.

Thus are life’s common activities, the everyday routines of consumption, transformed into exercises of style (what Kojève called snobisme, using the example of Japanese tea ceremonies that survived as a kind of postmodern ritual adornment without content or substance).

‘You must change your life,’ ran the injunction issued to bourgeois audiences by Rilke’s archaic torso. Today’s middle-class public is likewise encouraged to shed its complacency. But postmodern art, more gratifying, presents itself to readers and viewers as lifestyle supplement, rather than revision. It offers a means to decorate their lives, adorning, adjusting and embellishing themselves with the finest appurtenances and soundest thoughts.

Members of the liberal professions (certified academics, architects, lawyers, accountants, etc.), together with civil servants and other members of the skilled professional salariat, imagine that the income premium they command, and other privileges, are due to their ‘different genius’ (as in Adam Smith’s parable of the philosopher and the street porter).

Their relatively high earnings (compared to the wages and salaries earned by employees generally) are understood as a just reward for talent. According to the prevailing economic ideology, the level of payment they fetch in the labour market (or receive as proprietorship or partnership income) is set by the worth of what they contribute as an input to production.

The latter capacity is held to derive either from intrinsic characteristics of the person themselves (superior cognitive skills), or from a provident and well-calculated investment of time and effort in education — foregoing earnings for several years of additional study, bestowing upon them a stock of human capital.

These qualities (so it is believed) also manifest themselves in good taste and discernment in consumption, e.g. the best food, clothes, cultural products, etc.

Products marketed at this audience thus often contain deliberate signs of ‘quality’, difficulty and seriousness. These are a kind of screening device: consumption of such products is a reliable signal of the consumer’s underlying ‘type’, since it requires a costly investment (e.g. of effort, time or money spent acquiring the taste, knowledge or capacity for appreciation) that most cannot afford (due to lack either of resources or motivation).

Through these products, consumers can thus signal their correct thoughts, depth, sophistication, possession of good taste, and status as a Serious Person.

Alexander Cockburn described such consumer behaviour in his article on the ‘Conscience Industry’:

Today, at the level of symbolic action, a person of progressive temperament can live in a bubble bath of moral self-satisfaction from dawn to dusk…

For every decision in the liberal day, there’s a certificate of good behaviour being flaunted by some of the most disgusting corporations on Earth.

His examples came from fair-trade coffee and similar speciously ethical products.

When it comes to products like art and periodical publications, such markers of quality include the latest bienséance: the ideological badges of decorous respectability, intellectual fashion and contemporary right-thinking.


Middlebrow arthouse cinema is one example, draped like ‘literary fiction’ with obvious badges of ‘seriousness’ that are designed to distinguish it from mainstream filmic dross (which it dwells happily alongside as a complementary market segment, in peaceable and mutually constitutive coexistence).

Such middlebrow products today include an especially deplorable sub-genre: a filmic variety that, dramatically incoherent and gesturing limply towards political ‘topicality’, gels utterly with liberal-progressive ideology. The latter now includes various tenets of identity politics, and has abandoned any attempt to think seriously about imperialism, racism, sexism, etc.

Instead there is the posturing and demagogy of ‘collective guilt.’

When it comes to novel and film publicity, any promise to ‘explore’ the theme of collective guilt is a fairly reliable warning of middlebrow vacuity to come: of portentous and dramatically specious attempts to fuse ‘psychological complexity’ with political ‘topicality’.

More than this: for a particular social layer, these art products are a kind of positional good, in Veblen’s sense.

Auteuil and Binoche - Caché

In Michael Haneke’s Caché, for example, Daniel Auteuil’s adult character is haunted by a nasty lie he told as a six year-old boy, which turned out to have terrible consequences for an Algerian boy.

This seems intended as an allegory for France’s colonial legacy. Here the secret of overdrawn individual culpability (for who could blame the man for the child’s petty fib?) lies in national guilt. Auteuil’s character is culpable not for what he personally did, but, as a Frenchman and by virtue of that alone, for colonialism.

Even more representative of the genre is Bernhard Schlink’s novel The Reader, which received Oprah’s seal of approval and was made into an Oscar-winning movie.

In this story, a young German man feels guilty because, as a fifteen-year old, he had a sexual relationship with a woman who later turned out to have been an SS camp guard.

At the novel’s beginning, his parent’s generation, which ‘had been been served by the guards and enforcers, or had done nothing to stop them, or had not banished them from its midst as it could have done after 1945, was in the dock’.

Eventually, though, the main character learns of his ‘accrued or inherited responsibility’:

I was guilty of having [unwittingly, as a child!] loved a criminal… [Perhaps] we are responsible even for the love we feel for our parents… [My] love for Hannah was, in a way, the fate of my generation, a German fate [das deutsche Schicksal].

Here a person, by virtue of national origin, has acquired responsibility for something he wasn’t directly involved in. And, in a step beyond Caché, he wasn’t even born in time to see the crime.

Schlink has since expanded on his theme.

Last year Queensland University Press published a group of his essays called Guilt about the Past. Schlink can be watched addressing the Melbourne Writers Festival on how ‘individual guilt becomes collective guilt and is passed on to the next generation.’

Collective liabilities, he says, are founded on ‘communities of solidarity, such as ‘a family, an association, an organisation or institution and even a people’. Nations are like kinship groups, in which the ‘web of guilt… is high and wide’. If a member of my group offends against morality, I can only achieve absolution by severing the ‘ties of solidarity’ between us — ties that ‘exist by default’.

Guilt thus extends not only to ‘perpetrator, inciter and accessories to the crimes’, nor merely to ‘those who were perfectly capable of resistance but did nothing’. It ‘entangles an entire generation and even casts a shadow over later generations’, so long as the criminals aren’t ‘cast out’.


Here Schlink has borrowed — his Australian audience no doubt remains ignorant of the transaction — from Max Weber and Otto Bauer’s description of the nation as Schicksalgemeinschaft, or ‘community of fate.’ The intellectual pedigree is impeccable.

Yet its origins in the early-twentieth century empires of Wilhelmine and Habsburg Europe ought to give pause. Stripped of Schlink’s piety and examined coldly for its consequences and internal logic, the notion of assigning guilt to an individual on the basis of group membership or ascriptive characteristics (racial or ethnic identification, language, religion, etc.) is bizarre, incoherent and sinister.

It’s the precise analogue of the idiotic demands, regularly made over the past decade, for ‘moderate Muslims’ to disavow or condemn every terrorist attack committed by other Muslims (Daniel Dennett adds an extra layer of responsibility: ‘if we non-Muslims do not speak out, we too must share in the blame.’) And Schlink’s notion of trans-generational guilt, acquired by ‘a people’ then transmitted via consanguinity, creepily mimics that old anti-Semitic saw, by which Jews are forever condemned as Christ killers.

Is there a Jewish or Muslim ‘fate’ (Schicksal), along with a German one?

Underlying the idea of collective guilt is a vision of ‘the nation’ (or the ‘race’) as a collective personality, a supra-individual actor that can perform actions and incur liabilities (and culpability for wrongdoings) just as a natural person does.

This entity (the nation) is understood to have an existence distinct from that of the individuals who constitute it: like a limited-liability corporation, with its ‘perpetual succession’, the nation endures after the departure of its original members. The nation is considered to act vicariously through the agency of (some or all of) its members. A government, especially, is said to act ‘on behalf of the nation’, either as its mandated representative, or in holding jurisdiction over the territory in which members of the nation reside. The consequences of actions undertaken ‘by the nation’ at one time may fall upon subsequent members, just as an individual is assigned responsibility for actions he has performed during earlier periods.

The nation is a kind of moral agent, which entails that its members, having jointly committed a collective wrong, may justly be subjected to collective sanction.

The appallingly reactionary origins and implications of this line of thinking hardly need to be stated.

The idea of national guilt collapses the distinction between a territorial state, its population, and the imagined community that ideologically binds part of the population (the in-group) into a ‘nation’ (or ‘community of solidarity’, to use Schlink’s term).

Among other things, this confers a whiff of legitimacy on the targeting of civilians in times of war. After all, by signalling their membership of the enemy out-group — by saluting the flag, singing the national anthem or speaking the national language — they become, on this view, responsible for the state’s actions like any member of the ruling elite: the Kaiser, police chief or army general.

Once deemed collectively culpable, they may — why not? — be susceptible to collective punishment.

This last argument, it will be recognized, was used to justify the murder of ordinary people in New York’s World Trade Center. And Schlink’s book, in turn, reads like the fictional equivalent of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners.

The adherence of avowedly ‘progressive’ people to such ideas (they are expressed not just in middlebrow cinema but in bien-pensant organs of opinion) testifies to the deep intellectual and political confusion of the ‘liberal left’ in the present era, and to the deep contempt felt for the broader population among members of the skilled intelligentsia and middle classes.