Law in Contemporary Society
-- NonaFarahnik - 06 Apr 2010 Miranda is the editor of Vogue. Andy is her assistant. This is from The Devil Wears Prada.

Miranda Priestly: [Miranda and some assistants are deciding between two similar belts for an outfit. Andy snickers] Something funny?

Andy Sachs: No, no, nothing. Y'know, it's just that both those belts look exactly the same to me. Y'know, I'm still learning about all this stuff.

Miranda Priestly: This... 'stuff'? Oh... ok. I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don't know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise, it's not lapis, it's actually cerulean. You're also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar De La Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St Laurent, wasn't it, who showed cerulean military jackets? I think we need a jacket here. And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of 8 different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff.

I remember that line.


"...All I know is that it was very bad when I was twenty-eight. Everything that was said to me I seemed to have heard before, and I could no longer listen. I could no longer sit in little bars near Grand Central and listen to someone complaining of his wife’s inability to cope with the help while he missed another train to Connecticut. I no longer had any interest in hearing about the advances other people had received from their publishers, about plays which were having second-act trouble in Philadelphia, or about people I would like very much if only I would come out and meet them. I had already met them, always. There were certain parts of the city which I had to avoid. I could not bear upper Madison Avenue on weekday mornings (this was a particularly inconvenient aversion, since I then lived just fifty or sixty feet east of Madison), because I would see women walking Yorkshire terriers and shopping at Gristede’s, and some Veblenesque gorge would rise in my throat. I could not go to Times Square in the afternoon, or to the New York Public Library for any reason whatsoever. One day I could not go into a Schrafft’s; the next it would be the Bonwit Teller." - Joan Didion, "goodbye to all that"

-- JessicaCohen - 06 Apr 2010

Jessica and Nona - your quotes reminded me of this quote from the last chapter of The Great Gatsby, especially "Miss This-or-that's":

One of my most vivid memories is of coming back West from prep school and later from college at Christmas time. Those who went farther than Chicago would gather in the old dim Union Station at six o’clock of a December evening, with a few Chicago friends, already caught up into their own holiday gayeties, to bid them a hasty good-by. I remember the fur coats of the girls returning from Miss This-or-that’s and the chatter of frozen breath and the hands waving overhead as we caught sight of old acquaintances, and the matchings of invitations: "Are you going to the Ordways'? the Herseys'? the Schultzes'?" and the long green tickets clasped tight in our gloved hands. And last the murky yellow cars of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul railroad looking cheerful as Christmas itself on the tracks beside the gate.

-- DavidGoldin - 07 Apr 2010

I myself am no stranger to conspicuous consumption. I buy expensive cerulean handbags, go to Miss This-or-that parties, etc. Nonetheless, sometimes a new product or service comes out which just takes society's quest to create new "needs" too far, even for me. Many of you surely rolled your eyes at this a while ago, but I'm putting it here anyway(particularly because I was amazed to hear two old nurses talking about it on the subway this morning.) That's all.

-- KalliopeKefallinos - 10 Apr 2010

I agree with the comments, and I think that advertising and, to a lesser degree, television have developed exponentially by selling us things that we don't need and wouldn't want otherwise, but think we want or need because the attractive family, or actress or athlete on TV has one. And this all ties very logically to Veblen's arguments about our relationship to 'stuff.'

One potential flaw in the argument, though, is its failure to take into account other deeply ingrained human motivations - interests in security, comfort and beauty, for example - which might drive our social and economic development. A better house, car or piece of art isn't necessarily bought, unconsciously or otherwise, as a status symbol - for many rational purchasers, the society's valuation of the purchase has little or nothing to do with anything. A better car is selected simply because it is just that: better functioning. If today's leisure class (whatever that is, to me the term conjures up an image of wealthy housewives, which is itself an outdated concept)can be identified by their high levels of financial security (and the physical and structural security that implies), can we not reclassify economic evolution in security, not status terms?

-- AerinMiller

Has anyone seen Logorama? It's another artistic take on conspicuous consumption, focusing on the ever-presence of branding. It's a sixteen minute short -- I think it effectively confronts some of themes we've been discussing:

Logorama from Marc Altshuler - Human Music on Vimeo.

-- EricaSelig

Some years ago I stumbled across a BBC documentary called "The Century of the Self." The film attributes the explosion of mass-consumerism in the 20th century to targeted marketing efforts championed by Edward Bernays, the American nephew to Sigmund Freud. The film posits that Bernays leveraged his uncle's theory of the subconscious to design messages that exploit the psychological responses of human beings in the aggregate. Under the label of "public relations," Bernays sold these findings to American businesses hoping to sell more stuff and made a fortune in the process.

There's a particularly compelling quote in the film cited from Paul Mazer, an investment banker working for Lehman Brothers in the 1930s: "We must shift America from a needs- to a desires-culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. [...] Man's desires must overshadow his needs."

If you look past the film's quasi-conspiratorial tone (and the mind numbing ambient music) there's a allegation of a powerful psychological manipulation in everyday economic transactions that helps to explain at least one force sustaining Veblen's conspicuous consumption.

Considering Eben's policy on posting copyrighted materials, I'll err on the side of caution and say you can find film online with a quick google search. It's worth a watch.

-- MichaelDuignan

One of my current procrastination activities is browsing the pictures on this website I like looking at pretty and amusing pictures, though Apartment Therapy, xkcd, and pictures on tripadvisor are much wiser choices for idle browsing, since over-consumption of those websites rarely result in being convinced that I need something stupid. The forum members' relationships with their accessories are both absurd and understandable. It's the only place where I have encountered people congratulating each other for buying non-essential stuff (as in, not someone's dream house or a child's education). Most of the threads are started by members posting pictures of new acquisitions, and they are always presented with such accomplishment. I think for many of these women buying accessories are important sources of validation to their personal and professional success, and the members so applaud each purchase because the ability to spend $X is a symbol of having moved up in the world. Status has meant security for the most part of our history. I think the status symbols of now are like the armors and war spoils of more primitive eras, in that they protect their owners by indicating to the world that such-and-such person has at least purchasing power - which means a lot societies where almost every other source of power can be purchased.

A search for "conspicuous consumption" and "status symbol" yielded two relevant threads. In one, focused on curbing consumptions, the some members discuss their difficulties paying off credit card debt, yet even in there enabling remains rampant - $100 coin purses are "earned" by the paying off of $1000, of a balance enough to feed your average law student for three years. In the other, the proposition that forums members purchase purses and shoes as status symbols was by most part sharply denied.

Thought this NYT article was interesting. It talks a bit about conspicuous consumption and Veblen in the context of hugely expensive designer phones for the rich, and their designer who now finally feels "fulfilled."


The problem is that you can reduce almost anything to non-essential status. That dream house- why do you even need a house? Rent or buy a smaller place that you can afford without having to take a huge mortgage out. Education? Who needs fancy private schools when you're already paying taxes for public schools? Even food- I knew one guy who subsisted for an entire summer on orange juice, milk, plain bread and cereal (which he stole from our university's dining hall), even though he was making a good salary and could easily have afforded more diversity- that was how much he "needed".

There needs to be a place to draw the line. The problem is that it's hard to figure out whether that feeling you get when you buy something is because you know other people will see you in it, and that gives you pleasure (as in, if you moved to a place where burlap sacks were considered "designer clothing" would you toss your current wardrobe and start shopping for burlap sacks?) or whether whatever you are buying would serve you equally well if you were stranded on a desert island (you get just as much pleasure having a sports car to race around in if you knew nobody would ever see you driving it- or at least enough pleasure to justify the cost of the car, assuming a desert island with well-maintained highways and gas stations).

-- JonathanWaisnor - 18 Apr 2010


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r11 - 18 Apr 2010 - 18:34:38 - JonathanWaisnor
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