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.
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.
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.