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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 November 26, 2019

      How to Motivate Yourself: 13 Simple Ways to Try Now

      How to Motivate Yourself: 13 Simple Ways to Try Now

      Who needs Tony Robbins when you can motivate yourself? Overcoming the emotional hurdle to get stuff done when you’d rather sit on the couch isn’t always easy. But unless calling in sick and waking up at noon have no consequences for you, it’s often a must.

      For those of you who never procrastinate, distract yourself or drag your feet when you should be doing something important, well done so far! But for the rest of you, it’s good to have a library of motivational boosters to move along.

      Despite your best efforts, passion, habits and a flow-producing environment can fail. In that case, it’s time to find whatever emotional pump-up you can use to get started.

      Whether you’re starting a business, trying to los weight or breaking a bad habit, you’ll learn how to motivate yourself with different techniques here:

      1. Go Back to “Why”

      Focusing on a dull task doesn’t make it any more attractive. Zooming out and asking yourself why you are bothering in the first place will make it more appealing.

      If you can’t figure out why, then there’s a good chance you shouldn’t bother with it in the first place.

      2. Go for Five

      Start working for five minutes. Often that little push will be enough to get you going.

      3. Move Around

      Get your body moving as you would if you were extremely motivated to do something. This ‘faking it’ approach to motivation may seem silly or crude but it works.

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      4. Find the Next Step

      If it seems impossible to work on a project for you, you can try to focus on the next immediate step.

      Fighting an amorphous blob of work will only cause procrastination. Chunk it up so that it becomes manageable. Learn how to stop procrastinating in this guide.

      5. Find Your Itch

      What is keeping you from working? Don’t let the itch continue without isolating it and removing the problem.

      Are you unmotivated because you feel overwhelmed, tired, afraid, bored, restless or angry? Maybe it is because you aren’t sure you have time or delegated tasks haven’t been finished yet?

      6. Deconstruct Your Fears

      I’m sure you don’t have a phobia about getting stuff done. But at the same time, hidden fears or anxieties can keep you from getting real work completed.

      Isolate the unknowns and make yourself confident, you can handle the worst case scenario.

      7. Get a Partner

      Find someone who will motivate you when you’re feeling lazy. I have a friend I go to the gym with. Besides spotting weight, having a friend can help motivate you to work hard when you’d normally quit.

      8. Kickstart Your Day

      Plan out tomorrow. Get up early and place all the important things early in the morning. Building momentum early in the day can usually carry you forward far later.

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      Having a morning routine is a good idea for you to stay motivated!

      9. Read Books

      Read not just self-help or motivational books but any book that has new ideas. New ideas get your mental gears turning and can build motivation. Here’re more reasons to read every day.

      Learning new ideas puts your brain in motion so it requires less time to speed up to your tasks.

      10. Get the Right Tools

      Your environment can have a profound effect on your enthusiasm. Computers that are too slow, inefficient applications or a vehicle that breaks down constantly can kill your motivation.

      Building motivation is almost as important as avoiding the traps that can stop it.

      11. Be Careful with the Small Problems

      The worst killer of motivation is facing a seemingly small problem that creates endless frustration.

      Reframe little problems that must be fixed as bigger ones or they will kill any drive you have.

      12. Develop a Mantra

      Find a few statements that focus your mind and motivate you. It doesn’t matter whether they are pulled from a tacky motivational poster or just a few words to tell you what to do.

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      If you aren’t sure where to start, a good personal mantra is “Do it now!” You can find more here too: 7 Empowering Affirmations That Will Help You Be Mentally Strong

      13. Build on Success

      Success creates success. When you’ve just won, it is easy to feel motivated about almost anything. Emotions tend not to be situation specific, so a small win, whether it is a compliment from a colleague or finishing two thirds of your tasks before noon can turn you into a juggernaut.

      There are many ways you can place small successes earlier on to spur motivation later. Structuring your to-do lists, placing straightforward tasks such as exercising early in the day or giving yourself an affirmation can do the trick.

      Bonus: Staying Motivated Forever

      The best way to motivate yourself is to organize your life so you don’t have to. If work is a constant battle for you, perhaps it is time to start thinking about a new job. The idea is that explicit motivational techniques should be a backup, not your regular routine.

      Here are some other things to consider making work flow more naturally:

      Passion

      Do things you have a passion for. We all have to do things we don’t want to. But if life has become a chronic source of dull chores, you’ve got a big problem that needs fixing.

      Not sure what your passion is to get you motivated? This will help you: How to Get Motivated and Be Happy Every Day When You Wake Up

      Habits

      You can’t put everything on autopilot. I’ve found putting a few core habits in place creates a structure for the day.

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      Waking up at the same time, working at the same times and having a similar productive routine makes it easier to do the next day.

      This guide will be useful for you if you’re looking to build good habits: Understand Your Habits to Control Them 100%

      Flow

      Flow is the state where your mind is completely focused on the task at hand. While there are many factors that go into producing this state, having the right challenge level is a big part.

      Find ways to tweak your tasks so they hover in that sweet spot between boredom and maddening frustration.

      Easily distracted and hard to focus? Here’s your solution.

      Final Thoughts

      With all these tips I’ve shared with you, now you know what to do when you’re feeling unmotivated.

      Find your passion and develop a positive mantra so when the next time negativity hits you again, you know how to stay positive and motivated!

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      Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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