The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness

by Virginia Postrel


A billboard for CB2, Crate and Barrel’s somewhat trendier offspring, began popping up on Brown Line platforms this past winter depicting a pair of analog wall clocks made of concentric rings of polished hardwood. The caption was “Who cares if they tell time.” It’s rhetorical, of course–CB2 doesn’t even bother with the question mark. No one who would purchase such a clock would be so taken by the design as to pardon a total lack of function. Few who saw the ad would give it a second thought.

Number among those few, however, Virginia Postrel, the former editor of Reason magazine. She revels in such billboard moments when everything comes together: impeccable design, the triumph of style over crass utility, and our seemingly shrewd detachment from the ads that succeed in winning us over. And she’s prepared to renounce others among those same few who would lament all of this as so much frivolity, characterizing them as paternalistic fuddy-duddies and cynics who want to paint the world in drab, egalitarian monochrome because they think they know what’s best for us. It’s an odd characterization, though. Those fuddy-duddies are only counseling caution in how we let our buttons get pushed as consumers because they know we’re smarter with our pocketbooks than we sometimes let on. Folks like Postrel suggest that it’s enough just to get those buttons pushed effectively, however naive we remain to the process. Just who’s the cynic here?

Take in the look and feel of Postrel’s 2003 book, The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness, or at least the hardcover edition (it’s now out in paperback from Perennial). Note that it does little to differentiate itself from other titles on the shelf. Yes, it’s wrapped in a luminescent red jacket that undeniably captures the eye. Yes, the lightly embossed gold cover lettering contrasts nicely with the alliterative, oversize S trisecting the title and spiraling down the face of the book to cradle the author’s name at the bottom. Yes, the operative words of the title–“substance” and “style”–are highlighted in sans serif bold at the top of even-numbered pages as a frequent reminder of the principal estrangement the volume addresses. Yes, the whole package feels smooth and balanced in the hand. Yet it’s difficult to see how HarperCollins found these features distinctive enough to merit a $25 price tag.

Come on, you say–that’s no way to evaluate a book penned by an economics writer for the New York Times, the author of The Future and Its Enemies, and a noted libertarian doyenne and free-market blogger. Books aren’t aimed strictly at providing visual or tactile gratification. They convey thoughts, ideas, and arguments that must be evaluated in their own right. To invoke a cliche that’s rarely so apt, you can’t judge a book simply by its cover.

But once you’ve read it, such an appraisal of The Substance of Style doesn’t seem all that inappropriate. It’s this very “look and feel,” Postrel argues, that have evolved as the key evaluative criteria by which we rank the various things that satisfy our wants–home furnishings, planned communities, and, yes, books. This, we learn, is the age of the “aesthetic imperative.” Where once we were content with mere functional utility and serviceable workmanship, we now demand–and get–pizzazz. It’s a revelation that flatters the subcultures of urban sophisticates for whom what’s on the dinner plate may be less important than how it’s plated, but Postrel’s point is that the reign of look and feel now extends to Wal-Mart and Wendy’s as well.

To be fair, it would caricature Postrel’s position to say she’s simply claiming style trumps substance. She makes it clear throughout The Substance of Style, especially in her final chapter, that while “smart and pretty” is the rule, “dumb but pretty” won’t pass as a surrogate–useless things remain useless no matter how they’re packaged. What gives pure aesthetics an edge in many of our consumer choices, Postrel explains quite elegantly, is a notion long familiar to economists: diminishing marginal utility. Adding functionality to things and making them more useful is undeniably valuable to a point, but as additional increments of usefulness shrink, look and feel begin to outweigh them. Such, Postrel speculates, is the appeal of the iMac, whose owners pay a premium for style while foregoing the comparable or even superior processing power of a less expensive but frumpier PC.

The Substance of Style is a verbal slide show of vivid images: $400 toilet brushes, a GE Plastics wall of 4,000 tiles in unique color samples, idle $7,000 Viking ranges that preside over the home kitchens of people who dine out nightly (the ranges, we’re told, are for looking, not for cooking). It’s this astute trend-watching that both keeps the book readable and accessible and provides the foundation for Postrel’s nominal case that style is now

integral to substance.

The slide show is selective though, and elsewhere you’ll find abundant evidence to the contrary. A January 6, 2004, online edition of Business Week, for example, reported in an interview with Sharper Image founder Richard Thalheimer that the company has boosted earnings by broadening its product line beyond “executive boys’ toys” to include “practical, less pricey products.” Thalheimer confesses that he found it a “real awakening . . . that useful products had broader appeal.”

But it soon becomes apparent that Postrel is doing more than celebrating style anyway. She’s testifying on behalf of the particular social arrangements she touts in her other work–those where the free market adapts dynamically to the whimsy of consumer tastes and follows reflexively from simple human needs. There’s nothing wrong with such testimony when it’s forthright, but Postrel isn’t inviting scrutiny on this front. By putting consumer tastes chronologically and conceptually before the market institutions that allegedly respond to them, she insulates both from reasonable skepticism and pronounces the market natural and inevitable.

Postrel pulls this off by keeping things breezy and largely unassailable in any terms that can be waved off as overly academic. The Substance of Style is a studious attempt at the astudious–a text unsullied by footnotes, engaging in little original examination of popular culture sources already secondary and derivative and largely innocent of the more untidy debates of consumer tastes in capitalist societies. It offers ostensibly profound statements on the nature of human wants, commerce, and modern means of uniting the two while maintaining the demeanor of an extended Fast Company article.

Postrel’s universe is a simple one full of two kinds of people: aesthetes beholden to look and feel on one hand and an assortment of pedants, prudes, malcontents, and dyspeptics on the other. The former tend to shop, and do so smartly; the latter to populate the media and academia, leveraging their positions to deny the former their sensory pleasures. Her stated foils are the likes of columnist Anna Quindlen and historian Stuart Ewen–those who suggest there’s something wasteful and silly about our preoccupation with ephemeral fashions and the advertising that encourages them. Other elaborations of this claim emerged in the post-World War II period, from the mainstream liberal musings of John Kenneth Galbraith to the Frankfurt School’s dissection of the “culture industry” to the somewhat more staid Marxist accounts of longtime Monthly Review editors Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy, but Postrel generally avoids drawing attention to its more radical pedigree. This allows her to characterize such thought as “respectable opinion,” lending her own views an air of transgression.

Postrel runs for long yardage on a well-worn axiom of neoclassical economics: our tastes and preferences are primitive, prereflective dispositions that must be accepted at face value. They contrast with our cognitive beliefs, which result from fallible perceptions, calculations, and considerable reflection and may thus be evaluated in terms of “correct” and “incorrect.” We can say our friend is deluded if he believes the Sears Tower stands about 18 feet tall, but the most we can say of his preference for cough syrup and grapefruit sections on his pasta is that he has “unique” tastes. We can’t say his tastes are wrong, or expect him to have a rationale for holding them.

But examination of one’s tastes will confirm, for most of us, that descriptive justification of what “is” is often conflated with normative justification of what “ought to be.” Yes, it’s pointless to pronounce a preference for vanilla over chocolate “correct” or “incorrect.” But two people may coherently dispute the claim that our taste for a big bowl of ice cream is bad for us in some meaningful sense if we are diabetic or dangerously obese and wish to control our blood sugar or our weight. Tastes, in other words, may well be exempt from (and nonsensical in terms of) descriptive judgments of accuracy or veracity, but it doesn’t follow from this that they also escape judgments of prudence, appropriateness, and the like. We can hardly resist judging the tastes of others on these grounds, but we also pass similar judgment on our own preferences. We may, in fact, structure our lives in both subtle and obvious ways so that certain meta-preferences can rein in our first-order preferences. We order the fruit plate despite the seduction of the creme brulee; we avoid parties where we anticipate having too “good” a time to function normally the next day. There’s nothing exceptional or unnatural about this. It’s a strategy of being human.

Even if tastes are more than primitive, unmediated impulses, can’t we still think of them as private matters between ourselves and the market, void of any particular social meaning? Postrel would like us to think so, though she’s not exactly giving this question a fair hearing either. That consumer choices are often a conspicuous demonstration of one’s perceived social position, a claim advanced by theorists from Thorstein Veblen through Pierre Bourdieu, can hardly be considered controversial. But Postrel will have none of it. Take, for example, those pricey toilet brushes. Their “look and feel . . . are just that–sensory pleasures, expressions of what you find appealing.” Who, Postrel asks the reader, can seriously attribute attraction of the brushes “to the status-craving drive to impress the neighbors” if they’re hidden in the corner of a bathroom neighbors will never see?

This misses the point. To claim that our purchases are at least occasionally intended to tell others something about our lifestyle is not to equate taste with status. We are drawing distinctions between ourselves and others, to be sure, but not necessarily to align ourselves with the cultural elite against the boorish masses; it may well be to identify with those masses. The rabble are not defined simply by an absence of bourgeois refinement. Nor is their more conspicuous consumption necessarily marked by lofty aspirations for such refinement or its caricature in gaudy ostentation. Class lines have always been reinforced by taste simultaneously from both sides of the divide. The comfortable classes affect “sophistication,” yes, but the hoi polloi are no more likely to mimic this than to renounce it as pretentious and cultivate their own “unaffected” preferences. Marketers have exploited this as effectively as they’ve exploited snob appeal–just look at beer ads. Selling a lifestyle requires consumers to understand they’re purchasing–and thus broadcasting–a lifestyle. This was a pillar of class distinction long before Bravo made it a matter of being straight or gay.

Regardless of where tastes come from and what, if anything, we say to others in satisfying them, they do retain an undeniably social element in that one person’s submission to the aesthetic imperative may be an affront to others. Tastes often involve public demands, however socially detached we believe their expression to be. And such demands may be difficult to reconcile with the demands of other peoples’ tastes. Regardless of our preferences, we are forced to look daily at the garish paint job on a neighbor’s home because he happens to have a passion for pastels. We suffer the stale, commodified ubiquity of faux hip-hop so that soft drink and fast food retailers can court the 14-to-24-year-old demographic. We even pay marginally higher taxes so that nature lovers can have scenic national forests in which to traipse during their idle hours. Is it fair to ask us to endure these things?

Postrel, to her credit, acknowledges this conundrum, and the environmental analogy strikes her as apt. Chapter five swaps “ugly” for “effluent” in the disputes over what to do about externalities and spillovers–the social costs we generate in the pursuit of our private ends. In this case, it’s the aesthetic burdens we might inadvertently impose upon others. Just as environmentalists seek to enjoin polluters, Postrel worries, we’re observing an emergent class of aesthetic police–design boards, urban planners, housing cooperatives, and the like–bent on curbing free aesthetic expression. “The very power of beauty encourages people to become absolutists,” she warns, “to insist that other people’s stylistic choices, or their trade-offs between aesthetics and other values, constitute environmental crimes.” She cites bizarre accounts of a Wisconsin township dictating to McDonald’s the acceptable colors for a local franchise (beige and tan), planned communities that protect their members from the scourge of arched tops on home windows, and assorted other tales of provincial tyrants.

Postrel’s disdain for such brazen attempts to legislate taste isn’t surprising, and it’s not completely unwarranted. She takes a curious turn, however, when it comes to conflicts between rights to individual expression through fashion and the rights of an employer to maintain a particular look and feel in the workplace–for the sake of, say, a brand image. Though Postrel is coy about which look ought to prevail, personal or organizational, her fealty ultimately lies with corporate culture. While you’ll probably have her sympathies if your condominium association wants to preapprove your storm door, you’ll need to work harder for her support if your boss at the music megastore demands you grow a goatee to help lend the place some indie cred.

In the end, Postrel is confident that a widespread heightening of aesthetic sensibilities will usher in a period where the fetters of taste regulation can fall away like a vestigial sixth toe. “Now that people increasingly care about look and feel in their private choices,” she writes, “aesthetic regulation is less necessary to control blatant public ugliness.” One might have thought that several decades of heightened awareness in the analogous case of ecological damage would have obviated the need for environmental regulation by now as well. Go figure.

For all of the celebrated freshness of her approach, Postrel hews to a fairly conventional libertarian line when it comes to her faith in the eternal wisdom of consumers, effusing at length over their savvy in navigating the retail options presented to them. While the dyspeptics lament that we’re being swayed irrationally by empty marketing overtures that sell sizzle rather than steak, Postrel reassures us that what might appear as complicity in our own swindle is actually a sophisticated affirmation of self. “I like that,” Postrel observes, inevitably morphs into “I am that.”

Sure, maybe the dyspeptics have forsaken their more tangible blueprints for the clutter of five-year plans and horrific great leaps forward. Sure, maybe they’re just cranky when they deride our weakness for basic, well-designed consumer comforts and those ads that are just so cute. But they’re not misrepresenting their intentions when they carp about the status quo: they’d like to replace the consumerism of capitalism with something they take to be more rational, fair, and environmentally benign. The Substance of Style is quite the opposite. It’s a political tract, but not the sort that inspires us to reconcile our personal choices with their often unintended, often noxious consequences. It’s a stern upbraiding delivered through a pleasant boutique-counter smile: There’s nothing beyond Bed, Bath, & Beyond, so get over it already and enjoy the ride.

No one, presumably, is hankering for a ministry of taste, much less a universal revival of sturdy Mao suits and Soviet grocery shelves. But even if we were to somehow derive from this that tastes are purely personal artifacts, we would still soon discover that the means for their satisfaction are not designs we can erect by private decree. What we produce, how we produce it, what sorts of tastes will prevail if not all of them can be served–all of these things have to fit together in a way that steps on the fewest toes and upsets the fewest sensibilities. Maybe the market is indeed a viable instrument for coordinating this. But before we pronounce it a natural extension of our wants, we should pause to appreciate just how sorely untested it remains. Human preferences and desires are as old as humans. What we know as the free market has imprinted them for a mere three centuries or so. That’s scarcely 2.6 million hours out of the hundreds of millions we’ve been on the clock, for those watching one that actually tells time.