The Virgin and the Dynamo
If you are David Brooks, the proliferation of mass-produced style is a sign that America is the land of Last Men, morally flaccid “bourgeois bohemians” who take their freedom of choice most seriously when it comes to cups of coffee and kitchen countertops. If you are Virginia Postrel, on the other hand, designer toilet-brushes at Target are a sign that American life is robust and rich. Who’s right? Well, even by the standards of Virginia Postrel’s new book on “style,” Brooks wins. Brooks’ Bobos in Paradise was a very cool book, setting a new standard for “comic sociology.” Like Brooks, Postrel has a keen eye for cultural trends and telling details—both have spent a lot of time walking around chain retail stores. But rather than look under the surface, Postrel is content to take everything at face value. Much of The Substance of Style reads like Bobos minus both the humor and the critical insight—imagine David Brooks on Prozac.
Postrel is at least self-conscious enough to realize that her project requires her to call into question the very distinctions on which such a judgment rests. She imagines that the “age of aesthetics” has undermined those old “Puritan” dichotomies between “substance” and “style”, between the superficial and the meaningful, between the surface and the deeper truth. Aesthetic appeal, Postrel argues, is not only valuable in the sense of useful, but is valuable for its own sake. If designers and marketers have discovered the advantages of selling “look and feel,” that is because aesthetics is intrinsically “meaningful,” and it is time to overturn the prejudice that aesthetic pleasure is superficial or “meaningless.”
However correct she is to point out the reality of aesthetic value, Postrel’s conceptual net is a bit too loose. What is meaningful and valuable for its own sake may yet be less than ultimately valuable, and may even distract us from what is ultimately valuable. Sensual pleasure is intrinsically desirable, but it is nonetheless not what is most worth desiring, and in the light of what is most worth desiring, may appear as relatively “meaningless.”
The notion of relative value, and the distinction between what seems desirable and what is worth desiring, are simply not available to Postrel. She manifests Karl Popper’s old paranoia that Platonic moral realism is tantamount to totalitarianism, and is the true enemy of an open society. (Not surprisingly, for Postrel Plato is not a literary genius who reflected more profoundly than anyone else on the meaningfulness of beauty, but an insensitive prude, lumped together with “the Puritans” as a paradigmatic hater of aesthetic pleasure.) The last third of The Substance of Style makes plain the political lesson that Postrel hopes we will draw from her analysis: that “the power of beauty” should not “encourage people to become absolutists.” So the rationale for Postrel’s studied superficiality is a fear that standards of evaluation and discrimination are implicitly tyrannical.
This isn’t a naïve mistake on Postrel’s part, but a deeply rooted commitment. To see why, it helps to recall her previous book, the widely commented The Future and its Enemies: The Growing Conflict over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress. In that book, Postrel introduces her personal creed, “dynamism,” which is to be contrasted with “stasism.” Stasists prefer predictability, stability, regulation, and centralized control; dynamists prefer decentralized power, creativity, discovery, and an “open-ended future.” Here too we see a thesis which depends on questionable dichotomies. But “dynamism” is a creed of dichotomies. A dynamist is someone who thinks that “dynamism” and “stasism” divide the world neatly into two distinct camps, respectively the true friends, and the dangerous enemies, of “progress.”
However crude and simplistic its language, we can say, with genuine praise, that The Future and Its Enemies articulates with great energy a central important truth: social institutions are much more like organisms, with intrinsic but mysterious principles of order and development, than they are like systematic and predictable machines organized by human fiat. For a book that is essentially, despite protestations otherwise, a libertarian tract, this is refreshing. A certain kind of libertarian tends to privilege the individual will to such an extreme that social institutions become nothing more than expressions of free individual choice. If the individual will is sovereign, then its social effects are subject, and so extreme libertarianism is often accompanied by a dangerous disregard for existing social forms, and a utopian impulse to remake the world. For Postrel, on the other hand, social life has a real but often inscrutable integrity, which must be respected.
The “stasist,” Postrel’s main enemy, is thus revealed to be the social engineer or political meddler; left or right, what is wrong with the stasist is, somewhat ironically, that he will not let people be. He does not respect the integrity of social institutions or their promise of natural development. Instead, the stasist tries to force human relations to conform to his own, fixed vision. Thus the epithet “stasist” becomes, for Postrel, interchangeable with “technocrat.”
Postrel’s disdain for the technocrat is just one sign of her laudable intellectual debt to Friedrich Hayek, whom she calls dynamism’s “most important theorist.” Indeed, much of The Future and Its Enemies can be understood as an attempt to present, in hipper language and with an overwhelming number of policy examples and contemporary anecdotes, Hayek’s prudent suspicion of social planning of all stripes. Hayek called it not dynamism but “individualism”—a term with its own difficulties—but his message was clear: “The fundamental attitude of true individualism is one of humility toward the processes by which mankind has achieved things which have not been designed or understood by any individual and are indeed greater than individual minds.”
The Future and Its Enemies is more punditry than political theory, but Hayek is undoubtedly its philosophical inspiration, and throughout Postrel returns to standard Hayekian themes: the importance of an awareness of the limits of human knowledge; a respect for the “tacit knowledge” dispersed and encoded throughout complex social systems; an appreciation for “spontaneous order”; and a trust in the ability of men, given the freedom to experiment and learn from their mistakes, to achieve more than a central planner could even conceive.
Unfortunately, to this Hayekian vision Postrel unnecessarily joins a number of foolish views and fallacious inferences. She wrongly supposes, for instance, that what has no human designer has no inherent purpose; and she wrongly assumes that to insist that certain human associations—like the family—do have a purpose is to advocate a centrally enforced plan. Thus for Postrel, anyone who believes that certain institutions serve naturally or divinely ordained functions must be a stasist. Dynamism apparently requires not just epistemological humility but metaphysical relativism.
Postrel is continually guilty of the charge she once levels against political philosopher John Gray: she “conflates the desire for lasting commitments with an appeal to predetermined, inherited status roles.” Postrel assumes, moreover, that those who criticize change in society are necessarily insisting that there is “one best way” for things to go. Indeed, on Postrel’s view, cultural criticism itself would seem to be an essentially stasist endeavor—which leaves one wondering what Postrel thinks she’s doing publishing such a passionate book of cultural criticism.
This points to perhaps the most obvious flaw of Postrel’s book, its own self-refutation. If “progress” demands that we allow things to take their course, why shouldn’t we allow conservative cultural criticism to take its course, and on what grounds can we discourage even genuinely “stasist” reaction to progress? Is such criticism and such reaction not spontaneous and natural? Postrel observes that a period of creativity and change is often followed by a period of conservatism, but she assumes that this is a bad phenomenon, which is “checked” only by competition between societies: dynamists flee the mature, conservative culture for a more youthful, innovative one. But what if the pendulum-swing of innovation and conservation is itself part of the natural, free, “open-ended” dynamism of human societies? Then conservative reaction is not necessarily anti-dynamist, and it is Postrel who, despite herself, is shouting utopian rant into the roaring winds of inexorable organic social development.
Postrel does not see these tensions in her views. Absent from her version of Hayek is any awareness that valuable “tacit knowledge” might be contained in tradition (which suggests a presumption against any of the exciting changes automatically favored by the strident dynamist). As a result, Postrel does not do justice to the ways that others have exhibited a healthy Hayekian contempt for technocracy. Postrel has read widely, and she freely displays her familiarity with a range of cultural critics. But her creed requires her to fit their various and often sophisticated views into the simple, closed categories of her preconceived intellectual blueprint. She cannot even see that she has potential allies in those cultural critics who voice, albeit in ways other than hers, a humility toward, and proper reverence for, natural human association. Thus such a variety of thinkers as Wendell Berry, Christopher Lasch, Leon Kass, Jeremy Rifkin, Russell Kirk, E. F. Schumacher, Patrick Buchanan, Thomas Frank, Neil Postman, and the Southern Agrarians are all written off as stasists, enemies of progress, “technocrats” afraid of change. (Notably missing from Postrel’s pantheon of intellectual targets is Alasdair MacIntyre, whose After Virtue offers what Postrel would have us believe is impossible, a teleological defense of the “open-ended future,” including a critique of bureaucratic managerial expertise and an account of ineliminable social unpredictability.)
It seems, then, that Postrel’s Hayekian prudence is substantially compromised by its polemical context. The Future and Its Enemies is a political tract, and any reasonable positions it contains are put in the service of an unmistakably ideological goal. Postrel’s ideology may be called simply the ideology of progress. Of course, everyone favors progress. Nobody would hope that things get worse rather than better. But Postrel’s conception of progress is ideological to the extent that it is concerned exclusively with man’s creativeness and inventiveness (the “creativity” and “enterprise” of her subtitle); it is the progress of instrumental reason and technology, not the progress of moral imagination and moral life. It is the progress of technique.
This narrow conception of progress can be conveyed by a couple of examples. The first is small but telling. To illustrate the value of “local knowledge,” Postrel praises Sam Walton’s “deep understanding” of “rural markets.” Now certainly by some standard the fabulous growth of the Walmart empire testifies to Sam Walton’s extensive knowledge of the rural economy. But is this really local knowledge? Hayekian “local knowledge” connotes a kind of intimacy with particulars that is certainly not the first thing called to mind by 3000 box stores. More importantly, are we dealing here with “deep understanding”? Understanding, especially deep understanding, implies a knowledge accompanied by care, even love. What the case of Sam Walton exemplifies is not a love for existing, naturally evolved rural life, but a ruthless, pragmatic analysis of potential economic gain.
A more significant and frightening example of the ideology of progress is Postrel’s glibness in the face of what she calls “the new biological arts.” Genetic screening for birth defects, genetic manipulation, human cloning—for Postrel each is just another invention, making life more convenient, like sticky-notes or sanitary napkins. As cases of “new technology,” there can be no objection to them, moral or otherwise. They represent an increase in power and choice, and so are all cases of “progress.” Case closed.
Postrel the dynamist is thus revealed as the true technocrat, for in her vision we have the absolute reign of technique. The technocrat, giving all authority to instrumental reason, leaves no room for the faculty of moral judgment. Even Postrel’s closing invocation of putatively ethical terms confirms her true, technocratic priorities. The Future and Its Enemies ends with a brief discussion of the “public virtues” required of dynamism: tolerance, toughness, patience, and good humor. All of these, Postrel says, make us the kind of people who are more willing to “let evolution take its course.” In other words, what are presented as “virtues” are in fact psychological dispositions which tend to neuter any passionate sense of moral conviction. What Postrel calls a “public virtue” is not a virtue at all, but a social trait valued for its utility in fostering the expansion of technique. Postrel would extinguish the instinct to resist or to critique, and prepare us to accept endless change, social upheaval, creative destruction.
Noticeably lacking from Postrel’s list is the true virtue mentioned by Hayek: humility. We may say that humility is that virtue which makes one not only respect natural social development, but also respect existing social institutions as the product of natural development. Humility would also make us more inclined to think that the power of beauty speaks to the possibility of higher values than the sensual. But we do not expect humility from someone so eager to define a new creed, so ready to make virtue serve, rather than rule, technique and style. Humility can only be sustained by the kind of mind that sees that there is more to life than technological advance and aesthetic pleasure. For the average person, as much as for Plato, technology and taste easily raise questions of deepest moral concern. Postrel’s approach to these matters, unfortunately, reveals a practiced inattention to the moral dimension of human life.
Joshua P. Hochschild was assistant professor of philosophy at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.
Posted: March 29, 2007