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On “The Substance of Style”

On “The Substance of Style”

    • Review of Virginia Postrel, The Substance of Style (2004, Harper Perennial, Paperback)

    Virginia Postrel’s The Substance of Style is a book I’ve been meaning to read for a long time.  Postrel has a rare combination of talents: her writing is fluid, vivid, and memorable, her writing is informed by careful economic reasoning, and despite her expertise she doesn’t assume that her aesthetic and cultural choices are self-evidently better than anyone else’s.  In a quote from a review in The Guardian in the inside cover of the paperback edition, Steven Pinker writes: “In this delightful book, Virginia Postrel invents a new kind of social criticism, one that is economically literate, brimming with psychological insight, and deeply resepctful of ordinary people.”  Pinker’s assessment is accurate.  For people interested in design, aesthetics, and social change very broadly, The Substance of Style takes its place next to her earlier The Future and Its Enemies as a must-read.

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    The Substance of Style cover

      Postrel makes several contributions.  First, her discussion of what she calls “the aesthetic imperative” attacks aesthetic and cultural elitism on every margin.  She engages both those who think that style and fashion are superficial and unnecessary, and she engages those who think that the unwashed masses are making incorrect aesthetic decisions.  Second, she argues that even though they are increasing in importance, aesthetic values are not reflected in conventional measures of living standards.  Finally, she shows that there isn’t really a tradeoff between substance and style.  If you’re familiar with a cliche about selling “the sizzle, not the steak,” as aesthetics get progressively more important the sizzle becomes an integrally important part of the steak-eating experience.

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      Postrel hooks the reader almost immediately with a discussion of the sudden change that occurred in Afghanistan after the Taliban fell:

      Afghan men lined up at barbershops to have their beards shaved off.  Women painted their nails with once-forbidden polish.  Formerly clandestine beatuy salons opened in prominent locations.  Men traded postcards of beautiful Indian movie stars, and thronged to buy imported TVs, VCRs, and videotapes.  Even burka merchants diversified their wares, adding colors like brown, peach, and green to the blue and off-white dictated by the Taliban’s whip-wielding virtue police.  Freed to travel to city markets, village women demanded better fabric, finer embroidery, and more variety in their traditional garments. (p. ix)

      Throughout the book, Postrel revisits this theme and argues that, contrary to the claim that style is a ruse cooked up by manipulative advertisers, it actually touches a deep and fundamental human appreciation for beauty.  Simply put, people value pleasant aesthetic experiences as such.  If you need a cosmic justification, consider what it says about our ability to cooperate for the production of truly beautiful things.  The writer of Proverbs asked the sluggard to consider the ant.  I ask the elitist to consider the iPod, which combines incredible functionality with beauty that is difficult to articulate.  The iPod is the product of countless hours of effort among countless people.  They cooperated to produce something that is visually stunning and that allows you to carry the great artistic achievements of humankind in your pocket.

      There are important takeaway points for critics, entrepreneurs, and managers. For critics, Postrel’s book draws on classical liberal and libertarian respect for people with self-evident and inalienable rights rather than as members of a churning mass waiting to be managed by moral, intellectual, and aesthetic elites (see the quote from Steven Pinker, above).  She disputes the claim that fashion and style are only about status.  Through a number of examples, she argues that while people try to keep up with the Joneses on some margins, a more plausible explanation is that people actually value aesthetic pleasures.

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      The Viking Range, for example, which some critics denigrate as a wasteful status symbol, is considered by some to be an aesthetic addition to the kitchen.  Some buy them for the same reason they buy artwork (p. 76).  Is it to my taste?  Not really, but the fact that I’m an economist should tell you everything you need to know about my fashion sense.  My disagreement with and puzzlement about others’ aesthetic choices is an invitation for me to practice a little humility and maybe see if I can learn something.  My confusion isn’t a license to exercise veto power over others’ choices.

      Postrel emphasizes again and again that “People are different” (cf. pp. 150-152, emphasis in original).  In a recent episode of The Simpsons, Marge criticized the new “ultimate punching” MMA fad by saying “call me a killjoy, but I think that because this is not to my taste, no one else should be able to enjoy it.”  Unfortunately, this is exactly the sentiment a lot of critics express when the call for design restrictions that (for example) prevent people from building houses certain ways.

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      The takeaway point for entrepreneurs and managers is that they ignore the aesthetic imperative at their peril.  Style and beauty aren’t superficial.  They are yet another margin on which people create meaningful value. You can serve great food, but the quality of the food itself is only one aspect of what people want when they go to restaurants.  Businesspeople who forget that the aesthetic imperative matters can manage their businesses into bankruptcy (pp. 164-165).

      And so we return to Steven Pinker’s assessment.  The Substance of Style helps us think about individual decisions and social problems in new ways.  This is a book that is seven years old but that has aged well: if anything, it is more relevant now than it was then.

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      Art Carden

      Art Carden is an Assistant Professor of Economics and Business at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee.

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      Last Updated on September 18, 2020

      7 Simple Rules to Live by to Get in Shape in Two Weeks

      7 Simple Rules to Live by to Get in Shape in Two Weeks

      Learning how to get in shape and set goals is important if you’re looking to live a healthier lifestyle and get closer to your goal weight. While this does require changes to your daily routine, you’ll find that you are able to look and feel better in only two weeks.

      Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to get in shape. Although anyone can cover the basics (eat right and exercise), there are some things that I could only learn through trial and error. Let’s cover some of the most important points for how to get in shape in two weeks.

      1. Exercise Daily

      It is far easier to make exercise a habit if it is a daily one. If you aren’t exercising at all, I recommend starting by exercising a half hour every day. When you only exercise a couple times per week, it is much easier to turn one day off into three days off, a week off, or a month off.

      If you are already used to exercising, switching to three or four times a week to fit your schedule may be preferable, but it is a lot harder to maintain a workout program you don’t do every day.

      Be careful to not repeat the same exercise routine each day. If you do an intense ab workout one day, try switching it up to general cardio the next. You can also squeeze in a day of light walking to break up the intensity.

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      If you’re a morning person, check out these morning exercises that will start your day off right.

      2. Duration Doesn’t Substitute for Intensity

      Once you get into the habit of regular exercise, where do you go if you still aren’t reaching your goals? Most people will solve the problem by exercising for longer periods of time, turning forty-minute workouts into two hour stretches. Not only does this drain your time, but it doesn’t work particularly well.

      One study shows that “exercising for a whole hour instead of a half does not provide any additional loss in either body weight or fat”[1].

      This is great news for both your schedule and your levels of motivation. You’ll likely find it much easier to exercise for 30 minutes a day instead of an hour. In those 30 minutes, do your best to up the intensity to your appropriate edge to get the most out of the time.

      3. Acknowledge Your Limits

      Many people get frustrated when they plateau in their weight loss or muscle gaining goals as they’re learning how to get in shape. Everyone has an equilibrium and genetic set point where their body wants to remain. This doesn’t mean that you can’t achieve your fitness goals, but don’t be too hard on yourself if you are struggling to lose weight or put on muscle.

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      Acknowledging a set point doesn’t mean giving up, but it does mean realizing the obstacles you face.

      Expect to hit a plateau in your own fitness results[2]. When you expect a plateau, you can manage around it so you can continue your progress at a more realistic rate. When expectations meet reality, you can avoid dietary crashes.

      4. Eat Healthy, Not Just Food That Looks Healthy

      Know what you eat. Don’t fuss over minutia like whether you’re getting enough Omega 3’s or tryptophan, but be aware of the big things. Look at the foods you eat regularly and figure out whether they are healthy or not. Don’t get fooled by the deceptively healthy snacks just pretending to be good for you.

      The basic nutritional advice includes:

      • Eat unprocessed foods
      • Eat more veggies
      • Use meat as a side dish, not a main course
      • Eat whole grains, not refined grains[3]

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      Eat whole grains when you want to learn how to get in shape.

        5. Watch Out for Travel

        Don’t let a four-day holiday interfere with your attempts when you’re learning how to get in shape. I don’t mean that you need to follow your diet and exercise plan without any excursion, but when you are in the first few weeks, still forming habits, be careful that a week long break doesn’t terminate your progress.

        This is also true of schedule changes that leave you suddenly busy or make it difficult to exercise. Have a backup plan so you can be consistent, at least for the first month when you are forming habits.

        If travel is on your schedule and can’t be avoided, make an exercise plan before you go[4], and make sure to pack exercise clothes and an exercise mat as motivation to keep you on track.

        6. Start Slow

        Ever start an exercise plan by running ten miles and then puking your guts out? Maybe you aren’t that extreme, but burnout is common early on when learning how to get in shape. You have a lifetime to be healthy, so don’t try to go from couch potato to athletic superstar in a week.

        If you are starting a running regime, for example, run less than you can to start. Starting strength training? Work with less weight than you could theoretically lift. Increasing intensity and pushing yourself can come later when your body becomes comfortable with regular exercise.

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        7. Be Careful When Choosing a Workout Partner

        Should you have a workout partner? That depends. Workout partners can help you stay motivated and make exercising more fun. But they can also stop you from reaching your goals.

        My suggestion would be to have a workout partner, but when you start to plateau (either in physical ability, weight loss/gain, or overall health) and you haven’t reached your goals, consider mixing things up a bit.

        If you plateau, you may need to make changes to continue improving. In this case it’s important to talk to your workout partner about the changes you want to make, and if they don’t seem motivated to continue, offer a thirty day break where you both try different activities.

        I notice that guys working out together tend to match strength after a brief adjustment phase. Even if both are trying to improve, something seems to stall improvement once they reach a certain point. I found that I was able to lift as much as 30-50% more after taking a short break from my regular workout partner.

        Final Thoughts

        Learning how to get in shape in as little as two weeks sounds daunting, but if you’re motivated and have the time and energy to devote to it, it’s certainly possible.

        Find an exercise routine that works for you, eat healthy, drink lots of water, and watch as the transformation begins.

        More Tips on Getting in Shape

        Featured photo credit: Alexander Redl via unsplash.com

        Reference

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