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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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      Last Updated on October 16, 2018

      Why Do I Have Bad Luck? 2 Simple Things to Change Your Destiny

      Why Do I Have Bad Luck? 2 Simple Things to Change Your Destiny

      Are you one of those people who are always suffering setbacks? Does little ever seem to go right for you? Do you sometimes feel that the universe is out to get you? Do you wonder:

      Why do I have bad luck? Is bad luck real?

      Let me let you into a secret:

      Your luck is no worse—and no better—than anyone else’s. It just feels that way. Better still, there are two simple things you can do which will reverse your feelings of being unlucky and change your luck.

      1. Stop believing that what happens in your life is down to the vagaries of luck, destiny, supernatural forces, malevolent other people, or anything else outside yourself.

      Psychologists call this “external locus of control.” It’s a kind of fatalism, where people believe that they can do little or nothing personally to change their lives.

      Because of this, they either merely hope for the best, focus on trying to change their luck by various kinds of superstition, or submit passively to whatever comes—while complaining that it doesn’t match their hopes.

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      Most successful people take the opposite view. They have “internal locus of control.” They believe that what happens in their life is nearly all down to them; and that even when chance events occur, what is important is not the event itself, but how you respond to it.

      This makes them pro-active, engaged, ready to try new things, and keen to find the means to change whatever in their lives they don’t like.

      They aren’t fatalistic and they don’t blame bad luck for what isn’t right in their world. They look for a way to make things better.

      Are they luckier than the others? Of course not.

      Luck is random—that’s what chance means—so they are just as likely to suffer setbacks as anyone else.

      What’s different is their response. When things go wrong, they quickly look for ways to put them right. They don’t whine, pity themselves, or complain about “bad luck.” They try to learn from what happened to avoid or correct it next time and get on with living their life as best they can. They have this Motivation Engine, which most people lack, to keep them going.

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      No one is habitually luckier or unluckier than anyone else. It may seem so, over the short term (Random events often come in groups, just as random numbers often lie close together for several instances—which is why gamblers tend to see patterns where none exist).

      When you take a longer perspective, random chance is just . . . random. Yet those who feel that they are less lucky, typically pay far more attention to short-term instances of bad luck, convincing themselves of the correctness of their belief.

      Your locus of control isn’t genetic. You learned it somehow. If it isn’t working for you, change it.

      2. Remember that whatever you pay attention to grows in your mind.

      If you focus on what’s going wrong in your life—especially if you see it as “bad luck” you can do nothing about—it will seem blacker and more malevolent.

      In a short time, you’ll become so convinced that everything is against you that you’ll notice more and more instances where this appears to be true. As a result, you will drown yourself in negative energy and almost certainly stop trying, convinced that nothing you can do will improve your prospects.

      Fatalism feeds on itself until people become passive “victims” of life’s blows. The “losers” in life are those who are convinced they will fail before they start anything; sure that their “bad luck” will ruin any prospects of success.

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      They rarely notice that the true reasons for their failure are ignorance, laziness, lack of skill, lack of forethought, or just plain foolishness—all of which they could do something to correct, if only they would stop blaming other people or “bad luck” for their personal deficiencies.

      Your attention is under your control. Send it where you want it to go. Starve the negative thoughts until they die.

      To improve your fortune and have “good luck”, first decide that what happens is nearly always down to you; then try focusing on what works and what turns out well, not the bad stuff.

      Your “fate” really does depend on the choices that you make. When random events happen, as they always will, do you choose to try to turn them to your advantage or just complain about them?

      If you think you’re “suffering from bad luck”, you can really change things up and start life over. It may even be a lot easier than you thought:

      How to Start Over and Reboot Your Life When It Seems Too Late

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      Thomas Jefferson is said to have used these words:

      “I’m a great believer in luck and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.”

      Ralph Waldo Emerson said:

      “Shallow men believe in luck. Strong men believe in cause and effect.”

      Your luck, in the end, is pretty much what you choose it to be.

      Featured photo credit: LoboStudio Hamburg via unsplash.com

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