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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Virginia Postrel’s The Substance of Style: yes, and…?

I have now finished reading The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness by Virginia Postrel, and it has been a strange experience. The book made its way towards me garlanded with superlatives from people to whom the thing was clearly a revelation. My only reaction at the end of it was: It is all obvious and it is all true, but… so?

You know how you are often a very bad judge of your own writings? Well, I often am. There is a reason for this. It is that some of my writings are the result of thorough reflection, in which I say only that which I know to be so, and those writings seem to me very dull and obvious. I fear that all readers will react exactly as I reacted to The Substance of Style. With a weary: yes, and…? When readers are delighted or amazed by what for me were obvious mundanities but which were for them were startling revelations, so am I.

But then there are the other, less good writings, with what I think are startling revelations which have only just occurred to me. These ones I am extremely excited about. But because of my excitement I make elementary blunders of all kinds, and consequently most readers are underwhelmed.

The experience of reading The Substance of Style reminds me of this distinction, because this is a book I could have written myself. Well, not really (see below). But it does resemble my best stuff, in that to me it is obvious but that others are delighted and amazed. My problem is that the underlying mentality Virginia Postrel brings to the study of aesthetics, Look and Feel, etc., is one that I arrived at many years ago. What it comes down to is: it is all subjective. (Think: Austrian economics.) Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The only reason why we all make such a fuss about steel production and Gross National Product and suchlike is that eventually, the result is lipstick of the sort that someone will really enjoy. All consumption is for the sake of subjective sensations, when you trace it back to its source in human desire, and whether it is really pleasurable or pleasure-enabling or pain-relieving or pain-avoiding will depend on exactly what turns you on and off, and you, and you.

And now that we can do all this Look and Feel stuff relatively cheaply and easily, we are doing it, and good for us.

But, subjective though aesthetic experiences may be, they are still very important. People get a huge kick out of looking how they want to look, and of having carpets that look as they want them to look. But since it is all so subjective, we need different places where different Looks and Feels can predominate.

The subjectivity of taste is one of the most potent arguments for property rights, in my experience. Property as nice stuff for rich bastards to accumulate at the expense of others is the case against property. The case for property is that it is the solution to conflicts which are impossible to settle in accordance with any other objective standards. Property equals peace. Property equals civilisation. What colour should the curtains be? Wrong question. Right question: who should decide? Answer: the owner. When conflicts still rage, in public places for example (whatever they are exactly), then: let us all be tolerant. Amen.

Let me retract that claim that I could have written this book myself. I couldn’t have written it, because book-writing is beyond me. I would not have dug up nearly so many anecdotes about toilet brushes and Christmas lights, and aesthetic planning disputes involving different coloured tiles. And if I had written it I could not have got it published. The footnotes would have been a shambles, and no way would I have persuaded Robert Venturi or Tom Peters to put rave reviews of it on the back.

But everything in it is stuff I have long thought, and I had to really make myself carry on with it on the off chance of startling revelations, which never came. All there was at the end was an acknowledgement of the force of what early readers of early bits probably offered by way of objection.

This objection, I’m guessing, went roughly: aren’t you taking this Look and Feel thing just a tad too seriously Virginia? All that you say about it is so. The high modernists of former decades were a deal too ready to legislate about the allegedly objective superiority of their own tastes. People like pretty computers and computer add-ons and pretty dresses and hairdos, and they like this dress rather than that dress for all the reasons you say. Plastic surgery isn’t the moral issue some say it is. And indeed, now that the Chinese actually make all this stuff, we have to employ ourselves deciding how it will all look. But, well, put it this way: Could Look and Feel ever win a war? She doesn’t put the question quite as forcefully as that, but she answers it nevertheless.

I can think of a few military applications for Look and Feel expertise, such as camouflage, the design of the control panels of aircraft and ships and tanks, getting propaganda leaflet designs right. But not many. Engineering – the mastery of the construction of ugly, clunky but effective things – will always be necessary for wars.

Or to put the same point rather differently, Postrel is describing one of the many peace dividends of the end of the Cold War. We can now think about Look and Feel more than before, because we can. So, bodily adornments will not win the Cold War? It doesn’t matter, because it is already over.

Although, Look and Feel does have rather more to do with winning the War against Terror, because it is all part of making the West more attractive and enticing. (Postrel starts out with a bit about liberated Afghan women wanting to get lipstick.)

Nevertheless, I still want my civilisation to be able to do things that do the job, and don’t just look nice. Michael Jennings, who along with me has also been reading this book, made the same point about it by saying that what he particularly likes about the design of bridges is that bridges are beautiful because they work. Their beauty is intrinsic to their engineering excellence. It is not stuck on afterwards by stylists. I feel the same way. That is a very high modernist attitude, I think.

But no, Look and Feel alone couldn’t win a war, concedes Virginia. Or build a bridge. We must be pretty and smart. And that deals with my only serious doubt about this book, apart from the fact that I found it too obvious to stir me.

So the question I do still have (I always seem to have questions on Samizdata don’t I?) is not: is this a fine upstanding book? Of course it is. My question is: who else is reading it? Who else in the world is being told to think the way I already do?

My impression is, quite a few, in fact a great many. Postrel is a schmoozer of the opinion forming and opinion spreading classes, and not coincidentally to the message of this book, she appears to look the part. (That is another department where she has a big advantage over me.) This book is attractively written and is surely attracting lots of quality readers. And that’s good.

To many of them, I further surmise, it will strike with the force of revelation. Good again.

4 comments to Virginia Postrel’s The Substance of Style: yes, and…?

  • How come if taste is “subjective” then there is so much agreement about it? There is vastly more agreement about things than there is disagreement. The most striking example is in the standards of physical beauty both within cultures and across cultures: they are remarkably similar.

    Landscape too is not something about which there are enormous differences of opinion.

    Yes, there are shades of gray, but each shade represents millions and millions of people. Writ large, I would suggest that though there are distinctions, what is more interesting is that there is very great agreement, patterns in the Christopher Alexander parlance, about what is beautiful and what is ugly.

    Though taste may vary from one individiual to another, en masse these individual’s tastes aggregate into what are such large scale agreements that it becomes somewhat coy to suggest that ‘oh it’s all a matter of subjectivity.’ No?

  • Nigel Holland

    For a really indeapth look at how complex, dynamic systems ‘live’ and the aesthetic value of living systems check out Christopher Alexander’s The Nature of Order http://www.natureoforder.com/. I’ve not read The Substance of Style and only read earlier works of Christopher Alexander’s, so I can’t compare them.

  • Mr. Objective

    David, I suppose your statement about “vast” agreement applies also to politics. After all, we all agree governments should consist of people and not cheetahs, for example. We also agree voting rights should not be extended to four-year-olds. Etc, etc. But who cares? It’s the areas we disagree that are interesting; and those areas are indeed subjective.

  • Monsyne Dragon

    Re: the subjectiveness of style.

    Basically the point that needs to be kept in mind is this:
    Style is about value preferences between functionally equivalent items.

    Style is subjective. Functionality is objective.
    A white teapot will hold tea just as well as a black one. I like black, thus, I’d buy the black one. That’s a style choice. A china teapot will hold hot tea immensely better that one made of chocolate. Thus I’d buy the china one, if I’m interested in containing hot tea.

    If you look at things which are common preferences worldwide, you will undoubtedly find that there is a functional reason for them. In the case of common standards for beauty in people, you will find that those common ‘beautiful’ characteristics are fairly good indicators of good health, a functional preference which has been pounded into people’s heads with Darwin’s Hammer.