Schlock and bling


My first understanding of status symbols came from tracing the origin of the shell motif in European architecture and furnishings. The scalloped shell is a symbol of Saint James (as in coquilles St. Jacques). Pilgrims on the Camino de Compostela wore a shell as a sort of spiritual bumper sticker to indicate their undertaking of a spiritual journey. The symbol made its way onto chests carried in their entourage and onto inns along the route. Eventually it was incorporated in churches, on secular buildings, and on furniture. Especially in the Baroque period, it became a common decorative motif. It was no longer a literal badge of spiritual accomplishment, but remained by implication a sign of spiritual status—ironic and undeserved.

Religion and power have long been associated. Worldly rulers bolstered their authority as representatives on earth of the divine, when not claiming actual divinity for themselves. Kings and nobles would surround themselves with spiritual symbols to enforce this idea and assure others that their superior status was god-given and well deserved. Their inferiors, desiring that such social standing should rub off on them, made use of the same emblems, now become status symbols completely devoid of religious significance, yet serving to assert their claim to superior class.

It is no coincidence that the powerful have also been rich. Wealth itself thus became a status symbol, based on the notion that the rich, like the noble, deserve their station, which may even be predestined or god-given. Wealth is a sign of merit and superiority. Thus, visible luxury items and baubles are not only attractive and fun adornments, but also set some people above others. Given human competitive nature, gold and jewels—to be treasured—must be specially distributed among the few, as well as relatively rare on earth.

Wealth has become abstract and intangible in modern times and above all quantitative—electronic digits in bank accounts. Money translates as power, to buy services and goods and command respect. Yet, there remains a qualitative aspect to wealth. In the industrial age of mass production, in which goods and services are widely available, there is nevertheless a range of quality among them. The rich can choose what they view as better quality versions of common items. Hence the eternal appeal of Rolex and the likes. How much better can they tell time than the fifty-dollar counterpart? Their role is rather as jewelry, to indicate the status of the wearer. In fact, such wristwatches may have all sorts of deliberately useless features. And so with haute couture: dresses so impractical they can be worn only to rare elite functions.

The very nature of status symbols creates paradoxical dilemmas. Everyone wants high status, which by definition is for the few. Street vendors sell counterfeit knock-offs of expensive labels, precisely because—from a distance or to the undiscerning eye—they serve as status symbol as effectively as the brand they mock. This underlines a distinction between what we might call objective and subjective quality. On the level of symbol and first appearance, the rhinestone necklace is equivalent to the diamond version it copies; the size and number of “gems” may be the same. Yet one is a repository of human labour in a way that the other is not. The real diamonds or emeralds, being rare, were mined with difficulty and perhaps great suffering; the metalwork involves hours more effort, first finding then shaping the gold in a befitting way. This is why art has always been valued as a form of wealth, because of the painstaking effort and intention it embodies. The expensive watch is touted as hand-made.

Is quality in the eye of the beholder? The real goods are wasted on those who can’t tell the difference, let alone afford it. Snobbery and class thus depend on sensibility as well as the quantitative power of money. Money can buy you the trappings of wealth, but can you recognize the real thing from the imitation? You can’t take it with you when you die; but can you at least take it in while alive? Does it make any tangible difference if you cannot? Status symbols do their work, after all, because they are symbolic, which does not entail being genuine. Of course, the buyer should beware. But if you don’t really care, then what difference does quality make, even if you can afford it?

Is there objectively genuine quality? Yes, of course! But to appreciate it requires the corresponding sensibility. We might define quality to mean “objectively better” in some sense—perhaps in making the world a better place? In that case, at least someone must know what is objectively better and why, and be capable of intending and implementing it—for example: designing and producing quality consumer goods. That could entail quite a diversity of features, such as durability, repairability, energy efficiency, recyclability, esthetics, usefulness, etc. Sadly, this is not what we see in the marketplace, which instead tends ever more toward shoddy token items, designed to stand in as knock-offs for the real thing. Designed to take your money but not to last or even to be truly useful.

The rich must have something to spend their monetary digits on, otherwise what is the point of accumulating them? True, economics is a game and there is value and status simply in winning, regardless of the prize. Just knowing (without even vaunting) that one has more points than others reinforces the sense of personal worth. But there is also the temptation to surround oneself with ever more things and conveniences, many of which are ironically empty tokens, mere rhinestones. These also serve as status symbols, to demonstrate one’s success to others who also cannot tell the difference (and thereby to oneself?) In the absence of imagination, collecting such things seems the default plan for a life. The would-be rich also must have something to spend their money on; hence consumerism, hence bling.

Traditionally, value is created by human labour. Quality of product is a function of the quality of effort, which in turn is a function of attention and intention. The things that are standard status symbols—artworks, jewels, servants; fine clothes and craftsmanship; luxury homes, cars and boats, etc.—represent the ability to command effort and thereby quality. There is a paradox here too. For, while quality ultimately refers to human effort and skill, in the automated age ever fewer people work at skilled jobs. The very meaning of the standard is undermined by loss of manual skills. Quality can then no longer be directly appreciated, but only evaluated after the fact: how long did the product last, was it really useful, etc.? Like social media, the marketplace is saturated with questionable products that require the role of consumer reviews.

Ever more people now grow up without manual skills and little hands-on experience of making or repairing the things they use. This is a handicap when it comes to evaluating quality, which is a function of what went into making those things. Many people now cannot recognize the difference between a building standard of accuracy to an eighth of an inch and a standard of a half of an inch (millimeters versus centimeters, if you prefer). Teenagers of my generation used to tear apart and rebuild their cars. Now cars are too sophisticated for that, as is most of our technology, which is not designed for home repair, or any repair at all. There are videos online now that (seriously) show how to change a light bulb! People who make nothing, and no longer understand how things are made or how they work, are not in a position to judge what makes things hold together and work properly. They are at the mercy of ersatz tokens mysteriously appearing on retail shelves: manufactured schlock. That is the ultimate triumph of a system of production where profit, not quality, is our most important product.

When machines and robots will do everything (and all humans will be consumers but not producers), what will be the criterion for quality? Quite possibly, in an ideal world where no one needs to work to survive, people would naturally work anyway, as many people now enjoy hobbies. Perhaps in such a world, wealth would not be a matter of possessions but of cultivated skills. As sometimes it is now, status would be a function of what one can do aside from accumulating wealth produced by others. Perhaps then quality will again be recognizable.