The Status and Culture Interview: W. David Marx
On taste, identity, and fashion
W. David Marx (WDM) is a pal and the Tokyo-based author of one of my favorite books, Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style. His new book Status and Culture: How Our Desire for Social Rank Creates Taste, Identity, Art, Fashion, and Constant Change (pre-order) comes out September 6 from Viking Books and is a comprehensive look at how status creates most cultural phenomenon. (CJN)
How did you go from writing a history of Japanese menswear to a book about the universal laws of culture?
Ametora was ultimately a case study on how new forms of culture develop, how they become cool, how they root as tradition, and how globalization works. I’ve been thinking about these questions for decades, and have always been frustrated there isn’t a single book that explains what culture is and what it does, where it comes from, and why it changes. Over the years I uncovered a lot of great scholarship on these questions and just decided it was time to sit down and synthesize all of the ideas into a single accessible model. Five years later, the book is finally coming out.
If it’s a book about culture, how does status play into this?
In writing out all the universal laws of how culture works, I kept finding that social status explained everything. I needed to properly define status and went looking for an authoritative book on how status drives human behavior. There wasn’t one, so I started to cobble together my own explanations, and the more I looked at it, I realized that everything I was describing in culture grew out of individual status seeking: the way we follow customs and fashions, signal through status symbols, judge others’ tastes, define our identities, conform to the aesthetics of our socioeconomic class, borrow ideas from subcultures, appreciate art, etc.
Once you understand how status works, culture is a lot less mysterious. In fact, you really can’t talk about one without talking about the other.
In the 21st century, there have been a lot of famous books and ideas on cultural diffusion, such as The Tipping Point. What do you think they got right and wrong?
The most prominent theory about how culture spreads is what I would call the viral contagion model. The idea is that culture spreads exponentially from person to person like the measles. The fact that we use the word “viral” to explain all popular internet culture shows how much this theory has rooted..
The viral contagion model, however, is very problematic for a lot of reasons. First, viruses are self-replicating; with measles, humans are simply vectors without agency in the process. Culture, on the other hand, is the result of intentional human actions. People choose to watch Justin Bieber’s “Baby” over and over again or go to Dimes Square or say “100%” as affirmation.
Second, most cultural trends don’t actually spread from person to person. In Hit Makers, Derek Thompson does a great job demonstrating that most cultural trends tend to explode when a “dark broadcaster” with massive influence pushes an obscure piece of culture to huge audiences.
Third, the concept of virality suggests that the beginning and end states of a trend are the same. The only reason things can “spread” from elites and the underground is that the media, manufacturers, and other institutions step in to simplify innovations to better fit pre-existing conventions. By the time a normal person is participating in a trend, all the edges have been sanded off.
One other problem with most contemporary cultural analysis is an overemphasis on numerical measures and “hits.” Culture is always a story, and the narrative doesn’t necessarily follow the most popular thing. Nirvana sold way fewer records than Garth Brooks, but Nirvana represents the 1990s. You can’t understand culture as a simple numerical ranking of human action. At any time, the vast majority of any population wears clothes that are “out of fashion.” Culture is an ecosystem of activity that over-values elite behavior and innovative cultural exploration, because they set the future directions. Hits often represent the end of a cultural flow.
How has the internet changed culture?
If there is a status and culture machine, the internet changes all the parameters and outputs a totally different set of results. There are no more barriers in information or distribution, which elites once used to create their own distinct cultural practices. Information moves too fast, which messes up fashion cycles. There are too many cultural entities to chart, so people can’t use them as ingredients for their identity. People are still creating very interesting things, but the entire system devalues the output, which means we appreciate it all less.
At the same time, there’s also a movement away from judging one piece of culture as better than another in the first place.
Yes, I talk about this in the book. We live in an age of omnivore taste that equally values both low and high culture. This attitude comes from an egalitarian place, and certainly a lot of innovation happens in pop culture. But once you understand what culture does and how truly innovative art expands our perceptions and valuations of the world, this can focus us on ways to judge art that go beyond simple questions of “quality.”
Most creators stick to well-known conventions, but true artists play with symbols in more complicated ways. Following pre-existing rules is the best path towards monetary success, but tends to be a “dead-end.” Innovation is only achieved when creators intentionally break convention in ways that inspire others to follow their lead.
A key role of critics is to promote complexity and innovativeness, since these are overall good for the cultural ecosystem. Everyone wins: Discerning audiences get to experience art that fulfills their particular intellectual needs, and those innovations trickle down to refresh mass culture as well. And there is nothing classist about focusing on complexity and innovativeness: It is people on the margins of society that are best at dreaming up new directions for culture. (WDM)
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Thanks for reading,
Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & David (WDM)
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