Monday, November 22nd, 2010

Our Rich Culture Heroes Are Shilling Perma-Adolescence

The great social prophet in consumer society is the bearer of taste refinement. This is a figure who can assuage our innermost disquiet over the dizzying rounds of having, holding and re-leveraging that make up our economic lives. Sure, we might, from time to time, inspect the great storehouse of disposable junk and value-free financial instruments that sustain the fictions of our pecuniary well-being, and find a still small voice offering variations of the great existential questions “what does it all mean?” or “why bother?” But tastemakers can briskly smooth over our worry-ravaged brows; they realign the often brutal prerogatives of the market with the heaving tremors of the soul, and divine in the passing stuff of our consuming fancies the very essence of our expressive being.

That’s why, in this moment of great material derangement, Vanity Fair has done us the inestimable service of mobilizing the authority of no less than fifteen makers of taste, freely offering their charismatic tips of consumer mastery to the anxious republic.

Sure, the exhaustive inventory is modestly titled “My Stuff,” but the editors at Vanity Fair online have tipped their hands by packaging it in the site’s Culture section. For not only is stuff of all kinds—its extraction, classification, and exuberant fetishizing—one of culture’s main activities; navigating the populace through the bedlam of consumer desire is also one of the most urgent tasks of the culture hero.

For a litany of accumulated dosh, it is admirably purposeful and pared down: This is clearly no time to tarry with inessential matters. With the exception of two Asian entries—they are, after all, the model minority, so why not go ahead and make them into the modeling one in the bargain?—every taste exemplar here is white. Hardly anyone, apart from restaurateurs David Chang and Thomas Keller, can be said to hold down a real job; fashion designers and interior decorators abound, with an occasional exotic variant supplying a thrilling glimpse of how pointlessly reticulated such endeavors can become—e.g., “ambassador for Chanel” Caroline Sieber or “cult” decoupage artist John Derian.

And while every entrant’s taste panoply is subject to the closest forensic inspection, down to preferences for underwear, sheets, toothpaste and “favorite scent,” none is shown favoring anything so gauche as a book, a religious belief or a political conviction. Where more vulgar personalities may enshrine such ponderous culture legacies, these taste paragons always favor the sleek, the streamlined, and the just-in-time. Typically, they list favorite gadgets (chiefly, duh, the iPhone and iPad) and treasured movies (for the most part, a revealingly presentist and maudlin selection, from E.T. and Dead Poets’ Society to When Harry Met Sally and Clueless). In Conde Nast’s version of the Over-Soul, Culture is clearly something you either log onto, broadly sentimentalize or scrub down with.

Indeed, one’s own patient and forensic inspection of the “My Stuff” package yields a discomfiting realization: These people are children. Some, like actress/comedienne/”cupcake aficionado” Amy Sedaris, and tedious Upper East Side candy baron Dylan Lauren, have crafted aggressively marketed images as thirty- and forty-something moppets. Sedaris, the author of the newly published, not-at-all-condescending Simple Times: Crafts for Poor People, is shown in the brightly bedecked “craft room” of her New York apartment, and heard recommending “lollipops with cuff—white” underwear, a “45 RPM denim shoulder bag” and an “enamel mouse pin with shakable eyes.” For good measure, she names “bunnies” as her favorite pets.

Lauren—who by merest coincidence, also has a booklike object, Dylan’s Candy Bar: Unwrap Your Sweet Life to promote this month (on top of what already appears to be a lucrative product-placement deal for swoony Vanity Fair coverage)—is of course pictured in the cloyingly colorful environs of her candy franchise, festooned with lollipops and creepy plastic teddy bears. And in the true solipsism of childhood, most of her taste preferences are strikingly Dylan-Lauren themed; her favorite stationery is Dylan’s Candy Bar note cards; her favorite day bag is a Dylan’s Candy Bar tote; and her favorite T-shirt is a Dylan’s Candy bar T-shirt. This, plainly, is one Manhattanite who doesn’t face an identity crisis every time she leaves the house. And when she runs out of her own favorite self-branded accessories, well, there’s always the handiwork of her fashion-emperor father, Ralph: He is, of course, listed as her favorite designer, as well as the creator of her favorite brand of evening bag and bed sheets. We leave the stunted daughter’s equation of dad with night-themed pleasures to psychiatric professionals.

Sedaris and Lauren (oh, and Katy Perry—honestly, I just don’t have the energy to write that entry up) may represent the limit-case of the starchild trendsetter, but the entire roster of “My Stuff” profile subjects shares the same broad kidcult affinities. (The monotony of these elite tastes is a sermon for another occasion, but it is worth noting in passing that when ironic T-shirts, vintage furniture and thrift-style costume jewelry serve as an entire social class’s markers of quirky individuality, its members might just as well chuck the whole enabling conceit here and start donning Maoist uniforms.) They display a strikingly uniform penchant for low-cut Converse sneakers, sickeningly sweet desserts and pet-themed charities. This is to say nothing, of course, of the frictionless infant-gratification menus on their pet Apple mobile devices, which not only serve to decimate attention spans but to promulgate an infantilized relationship to digital culture at large.

Then again, why expect anything other than a long record of self-admiring impulse indulgence from the ranks of the overindulged? They are merely playing their appointed role as assessors of cultural value. As the dour German sociologist Max Weber explained, culture heroes of the sort lionized in the Vanity Fair pantheon possess the most elusive yet indispensable sort of social authority—personal charisma. As opposed to the other main bulwarks of modern social order, tradition and bureaucracy, charisma, by Weber’s lights, issues from the unstable compound of divine inspiration and individual accomplishment. The problem, of course, is that there is no way to ensure the survival of charisma over time, since it is so forcefully inheres in the persona of the culture hero. Charismatics are also, he notes, profoundly anti-economic figures, since much of their appeal is founded on principled scorn of everyday routines of work, the surface niceties of the fallen material world, and the like. And as Weber, a true connoisseur of social bummerhood, explains, the firebreathing legacies of the charismatics fall ineluctably prey to economic “routinization”: “Every charisma,” he writes, “is on the road from a turbulently emotional life, which knows no economic rationality, to a slow death by suffocation under the weight of material interests; and every hour of its existence brings it nearer to this end.”

In other words, dear Vanity Fair readers, cleave the wisdom of Dylan Lauren and decoupage impresario John Derian close to your anxious breasts; their dubiously material brands may lord over the cultural horizon now, but they are far too precious and gossamer a thing for this world. After all, as the consummate sociological professionals at Conde Nast remind us, yesterday’s stable of meticulously choreographed taste preferences are merely fodder for tomorrow’s ironically packaged crafts-for-the-poor insta-book.

Chris Lehmann rarely shops in the rarified boutiques of the Village's East 2nd Street.

19 Comments / Post A Comment

Emily (#20)

The bile directed at Amy Sedaris, at least, seems misplaced. She's a comedian and writer; I'm sure the book was hardly "insta" — her last one, a guide to entertaining per her idiosyncratic rules, one was hilarious and meticulously well-done. I made her beef stew recipe from it on Friday and it came out great. All these other people might aspire to be children but Amy is an insane genius whose words only read as childlike through the dumb VF lens. Take a closer look before you fire, Chris.

Clip Arthur (#2,024)

Amy Sedaris is to crafting what Andy Kaufman is to wrestling.

Chris Lehmann (#222)

I freely confess that I am tonedeaf to the humor of pitching a crafts book at "the poor" when more people are living below the poverty line–a notoriously inadequate measure of real privation, but still–now than at any other point in the past 50 years. And the whimsy quotient dilutes further for me, it's true, when the advice comes from someone with a Manhattan apartment big enough to contain its own "crafts room." Under those circumstances, "insta" is one of the nicer things I'd say about the project.

I'm sure the beef stew is quite good, however, and bilious though I may be, I have never, personally, had it in for bunnies.

Emily (#20)

Weirdly I don't think Amy Sedaris is rich! I don't think she's poor, exactly, but her apartment strikes me as the large yet un-luxurious kind that people who have lived in New York for decades tend to sometimes live in; lucky them. And I think she's got it right to send up the kind of crafting that sends people on $300 jaunts to Jo-Ann fabrics for fun fur and glitter and eerily realistic fake fruit. Also her bunny is free to roam about her apartment; under those circumstances, how nice can her apartment be?

Baroness (#273)

Agree- I think her apartment is rent controlled, and I don't think she's terribly rich, either. She's always talking about making a few bucks here and there, with cupcakes and cheeseballs. Don't think she's condescending, a lot of her uh, rustic characters are affectionately drawn. She's also talked about her beloved rabbits for years.

But Chris, you're right in pointing out how loathsome that "My Stuff" feature is. I think a lot of people just lie about what exotic toothpaste they use, or their Chanel dry-clean-only underwear. Ugh, please.

mishaps (#5,779)

I know more than one long-time solidly middle-class New Yorker who has a killer rent-stabilized place: it's just a question of staying where you are, and taking over rooms as roommates move out if you can cover the rent yourself. It was also cheaper by an order of magnitude to buy an apartment in NYC 10-15 years ago.

And, to echo everyone else, perhaps you should refrain from passing judgment on satires when you don't know the topic being satirized.

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

There's a whole lot of crafting going on out there in Middle / Real America – lots of people have craft rooms in their houses. And her tips are actually pretty useful, if you're actually going to take an Amy Sedaris book as staight-faced, which you probably shouldn't. I haven't seen the new book, but her first book had all these subtle gags in the design about how we use senseless, relentless cheer in the face of crushing oppression and awfulness, and the insistently un-glamorous photos were interesting in the context of lifestyle magazines' tendency toward aspirational recipes, if that makes any sense. It was a lot more honest than what you usually get, I suppose.

Honestly, this is the sort of thing I don't like about this series – the complaint always seems to be "why aren't we turning to the important ideas of great men of the past, rather than focusing on this silly modern culture?" That seems remarkably un-generous and dismissive of pleasure, but I guess maybe we're just working different sides of the fence? I dunno.

NinetyNine (#98)

"They like to draw the line of 'rich' with care, generally."

MollyculeTheory (#4,519)

I am just slightly creeped out by the idea that if by some miracle/disaster I one day become a rich tastemaker, I'm going to have to keep an Excel spreadsheet of my favorite toiletries?

NinetyNine (#98)

I don't understand the bio. I'm not questioning the pervasiveness of boutique culture anywhere in Manhattan. I'm just wondering if I'm missing a reference. The run of 2nd Street has shockingly few boutiques of any kind.

Dickdogfood (#650)

Hm. I am totally on board with you when you say what most of these folks produce is insubstantial or inane, but even there I wouldn't say said folks don't have "real jobs." As far as I can see, you define (not in so many words) a "real job" as something involving "everyday routines of work" and maybe making physical objects—a definition that, if accurate, would probably discount everybody who pushes a pencil or taps a keyboard, possibly you included.

Also: for fuck's sake stop using "of course." All it communicates is that you're making a point so obvious that the only reason you bring it up is to wave it away. Jesus, if so, why bother saying it all?

Also also: wouldn't you actually find it distasteful if intellectual, political, or religious opinions were listed there like so many lifestyle knick-knacks?

6h057 (#1,914)

You guts, I stopped reading after the words Katy Perry. Sorry, VF, you can't just peel down my expectations of good subject matter.

KarenUhOh (#19)

Thorstein Veblin: What's playing on your iPad??

Ribs (#2,690)

You plowed on through despite the inclusion of counterculture-smiled-upon Sedaris…thank God a respected thinker wasn't on the VF list- stating their proclivity for this product or that musician – or this whole article could've been null.

raincoaster (#628)

You're a couple of years late with this. They recently introduced the "My Dream" series, in part because they're aware of the tone-deafness of consumerism as biography.

Although in Dylan Lauren's case, it is pretty much accurate.

musicmope (#428)

Should the Fran Lebowitz piece in the Times today be held up in contrast to the VF spread? Or folded into it?

skahammer (#587)

Let this post stand as a warning to any media type who finds herself considering a pose as an enemy of "rich culture heroes" or "elite taste"-makers.

Because you run the terrifying risk of sounding like this, trying desperately to tart up your status angst with references to 19th-century thinkers and composing boomerang-type sentences which wind up hitting their targets surprisingly close to home. ("…[W]hy expect anything other than a long record of self-admiring impulse indulgence from the ranks of the overindulged? They are merely playing their appointed role as assessors of cultural value." Yes. Yes they are indeed.)

lawyergay (#220)

Wow…touched a nerve this week! I think this probably had to do with the take-down of Sedaris, the beloved creator of Jerri Blank.

I guess I might be similarly irritated if so many of my friends weren't constantly "checking in" to Eataly, starting their own lines of men's pants whimsically trimmed with batik-printed tape, or founding wooden birdcage import businesses inspired by "The Four-Hour Work Week."

When it comes right down to it, we all know the secret to the four-hour work week: have money, or write "The Four-Hour Work Week."

Anyway, I loved this.

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