In “Status and Culture,” W. David Marx sets out to unravel the grand mysteries of identity.
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STATUS AND CULTURE: How Our Desire for Social Rank Creates Taste, Identity, Art, Fashion, and Constant Change, by W. David Marx
W. David Marx writes that he was inspired to tackle his subject because he couldn’t find “a single book that explains the Grand Mystery of Culture.” The capitalization immediately, and knowingly, evokes grandiosity: arcane scholarly tracts, Mr. Casaubon’s doomed pursuit of “The Key to all Mythologies” — not to mention most of Malcolm Gladwell’s oeuvre.
Marx, a writer with a particular interest in cultural trends, quickly arrives at his thesis: We cannot unravel the mystery of “how culture changes over time,” he states, without understanding status. In an attempt to “synthesize all the significant theories and case studies to explain how culture works as a system and why culture changes over time,” the book poses several questions: Is culture a mere byproduct of status? Is class anxiety the ultimate fertilizer for artistic production? Are we all just mindlessly adopting “certain techniques to ensure semiotic success?” Do we “make our aesthetic choices within the context of status?”
As to whether we’re in thrall to what others think: Marx says yes, basically — but he doesn’t believe that’s necessarily a bad thing. In fact, he spends the final section of the book positing that the internet is “draining status value.”
The most successful armchair sociologists have historically treated status as a way for readers to fuel their resentments and fears. The jacket copy on Vance Packard’s “The Status Seekers,” published in 1959, all but threatens its contents: “CLASS BEHAVIOR IN AMERICA AND THE HIDDEN BARRIERS THAT AFFECT YOU, YOUR COMMUNITY AND YOUR FUTURE.”
In 1983, Paul Fussell wrote what remains the classic of the genre, “Class: A Guide Through the American Status System.” The book is — like its near-contemporary “The Preppy Handbook” — a romp, and functions as something of an insider’s guide to recognizing granular details that separate the rich from the really rich from the tacky rich. Fussell ends with a quiz: To which class does “a 50-year-old man on the deck of a 35-foot Chris-Craft, drinking a can of Bud and attended by three luscious girls wearing halters and inexpensive white yachting caps” belong? The answer: High prole! (Unless he’s drinking beer out of a glass, then “he might pass for middle class.”)
Marx avoids such salacious class-baiting. He focuses instead on explaining the choices we make every day — from the denim we wear, to how we take our coffee, to the chair we sit in. All trends, he says, start via the combined influence of outsiders and elites, the early adopters who are “well-paid (economic capital), well connected (social capital) and well educated (educational and cultural capital). Moreover, they’re cosmopolitan.” The book is organized into four parts: status as it affects the individual; creativity and large cultural trends like fashion; cultural change; and status in the twenty-first century.
Marx’s first book — an investigation of the Japanese influence on the global fashion industry — succeeded precisely because of his narrow approach. Here, his comprehensiveness threatens to render “Status and Culture” a dull but effective teaching text. In his effort to cover everything — from conventions to signaling to complex questions of identity, counterculture and race — the author’s thesis gets lost.
Marx is engaging when tracing the evolution of products, such as the democratization of chocolate and Perrier from gourmet delicacies to deli staples. More plodding is his examination of those aspirational behaviors that gel into mass phenomena, like the Beatles “mop top.” While it’s interesting to learn that expensive purebred dogs are a relatively recent passion, a curiosity that became popular, the fact feels slight when juxtaposed with observations about race, which in turn gets relatively cursory treatment. But he’s done his homework, collating the zingers and wisdom of some of our best cultural critics, sociologists, and philosophers — from Chuck Klosterman and Glenn O’Brien to Mary Douglas and, naturally, Pierre Bourdieu.
Marx is most convincing when addressing the perennial question of whether money can, in fact, buy class. He admits, “Ideally all signals should be behavioral residue — reflections of how we live rather than items acquired for the purpose of claiming status” — in the way that, say, someone from Old Money might inherit a Chickering piano from a great-grandmother. But, Marx argues, “we can ‘cultivate’ ourselves over time to make more advanced choices that will garner more respect.”
At times, you wish Marx would indulge in juicier class voyeurism. When he writes that “only informed elites know to … travel to Marfa, Texas,” it’s hard not to feel slightly deflated, like he’s failing to really give us the dirt we crave. Marx points out that the Upper Haute Bourgeoisie (to quote another student of class, Whit Stillman) prefers patina to the gloss of newness, but it’s Fussell who observed, 40 years ago, that “as the middle class gets itself more deeply entangled in artistic experience, hazards multiply, like patina, a word it likes a lot but doesn’t realize is stressed on the first syllable.”
Which is not to say Marx’s book isn’t peppered with the extravagant eccentricities of rich people: Aristocrats of the 1700s loved pineapple. A “13th-century Italian nobleman, Giacomo da Sant’Andrea, once burned down his own villa just to thrill guests.” (Drake’s much-publicized closet full of Birkins for a future wife gets a shout out, too.)
Fans of the genre may wonder about certain choices. There is no mention of Newport, Rhode Island. The terms “plutocrat” and “well-to-do” are, perhaps, glaring omissions. He does define “shibboleth,” without which no treatise on status would be complete. But it’s telling that the only Vanderbilt women who get name-checked are of a later generation, and those — Gloria and Amy — who made money trading off the cachet of their last name. You won’t learn, for instance, that Gertrude Vanderbilt warned her progeny against men who make their money from oil and farm animals because, as she put it, it takes three generations to wash off the oil “and two to exterminate the smell of hogs.” This fact is from Steven Gaines’s 2005 book “The Sky’s the Limit: Passion and Property in Manhattan,” a scathingly insightful work about what it takes to live on Park Avenue.
In his effort to get everything in, Marx often presents his information blandly. He mentions in passing that the robber barons of the Gilded Age “had no clear guide on how to build palatial homes, so they just copied the architecture of wealthy European families.” Tom Wolfe nails this same observation more colorfully in his small 1981 book on the cutthroat world of New York architecture, “From Bauhaus to Our House.” Per Wolfe, “Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt told George Browne Post to design her a French chateau at Fifth Avenue and Fifty-seventh Street, and he copied the Château de Blois for her down to the casework on the brass lock rods on the casement windows.”
That house, incidentally, was razed to make way for Bergdorf Goodman. Which is exactly the sort of niche anthropological investigation that might make for a good book. And Marx would be just the person to write it.
Kaitlin Phillips is a frequent contributor to Bookforum.
STATUS AND CULTURE: How Our Desire for Social Rank Creates Taste, Identity, Art, Fashion, and Constant Change by W. David Marx | 368 pp. | Viking | $30