Links on Culture - January 2023
Floppy Birkins, luxury in Korea, literal corporate rock and fashion, and waiting for the post-internet culture to drop
Each month I review new developments in global culture within the framework of my book, Status and Culture.
New Status Symbols: Floppy Birkins
The best status symbols come with signaling costs beyond a high price. In Status and Culture, I write, “The Hermès Birkin has long been considered the most covetable handbag, not just because it is expensive, but because the brand’s staff are instructed to only sell them to established patrons. … Receiving a Birkin hand-me-down from a parent may trump new models by adding in the time-signaling cost."
Navaz Batliwalla (aka Disneyrollergirl) reported on a trend she’s been tracking for a while: the “floppy” worn-out Birkin bag may be more prestigious than a new one. This is possible because the wear-and-tear serves as a signaling patina: I didn’t buy this bag, I got it from a family member. Of course, many are buying these bags in a worn-in state. Over on The RealReal, “demand has doubled for luxury bags in ‘fair’ condition since they started accepting them for resale last year.”
New Conventions: Luxury Spending in Korea
As reported in CNBC, Morgan Stanley found that South Koreans are the highest spenders on luxury goods globally. The reasons cited were: “increase in purchasing power as well as a desire to outwardly exhibit social standing” (and maybe an inability to buy real estate.)
Mass spending on luxury brands doesn’t have to follow the rise of hyper-individualism. In fact, the stronger force for society-wide luxury consumption is the horizontal pressure to conform. This usually follows one of two patterns. The first, common in countries with very high income inequality, is where buying luxury goods is necessary to demonstrate being on the “right side” of the class divide. Japan in the 1990s, however, revealed an alternative arrangement: Louis Vuitton handbags became a requirement to live up to middle-class standards rather than try and surpass them.
With South Korea’s class divisions so conspicuous (see Parasite for the most famous self-critique), I had long assumed luxury desire there derived from the “haves vs. have-nots” scenario, but with rising incomes, luxury goods may be settling into what Veblen called “pecuniary canons of taste”: goods you must buy to be acceptable.
As much as gobbling up European brands may not feel particularly creative, the history of fashion in Japan shows that these periods of luxury consumption can be a very important step towards the creation of local brands with high status value. With the global reach of K-Pop, K-Beauty, and K-Drama, Korea is building up the glamor to produce desirable fashion brands of its own.
“New” Music: Dogpatch Podcast on Last Ten Years
Music podcast Dogpatch did an excellent episode covering their favorite songs from the last decade — a period which, yes, has exhibited conservatism in production styles but also pumped out some jams. If you fear being a “geezer” who doesn’t get mumble rap, this is a solid introduction.
New Kitsch: Winklevoss Rock
This Sam McPheeters article on the Winklevoss Twins’ “hard-hitting rock band” MARS JUNCTION is pure comedy but also quite revealing of our times. In the 1990s, kids showed up to Dogstar shows to see Keanu Reeves play bass, and a decade later, went to go see Jordan Catalano with his boys in Thirty Seconds to Mars. (A lot of “Mars” in these vanity bands.) Since our collective heroes are two guys famous for going early into Bitcoin after failing to get ConnectU off the ground, of course their band will attract audiences.
New Convention: “Corporate Grifter Kitsch”
Blackbird Spyplane swoops in to name something I had vaguely considered would probably be cool: corporate swag from the world’s most hated financial institutions and failed startups. This includes “Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities backpacks, Enron tees, Theranos fleeces, Bear Stearns caps, Lehman Brothers totes, Goldman Sachs sweatshirts, etc.” Weiner is right that this swag serves as comeuppance “trophies.” But there are some synergies here with MARS JUNCTION: These are literally the band T-shirts of our hyper-capitalist lifestyles. If maximizing shareholder value is the least impeachable reason for cultural production, then Stratton Oakmont tees are our Echo & the Bunnymen T-shirts.
Sustained Narrative: Internet Content is Boring, so What’s Next?
Back in December, The Atlantic proclaimed Instagram “over,” and The New Yorker recently pointed out a good example of why: random people earned big bucks making face filter reaction videos. Some of these creators altruistically tried “to make videos that people would hate less,” but the entire episode suggests an inexorable link between these apps' incentive structures and the glut of disposable content.
Last year it started to become common knowledge that the algorithms were starting to eat themselves — over-recommending terrible content that made the sites increasingly boring to people with any semblance of curiosity or taste. (Instagram shows me the same reels day after day.) Sam Kriss did the formal manifesto for this idea, and Kyle Chayka in The New Yorker helped explain how we got there. Now Cory Doctorow has coined the new term "enshittification" for the content degradation that arrives as an inevitable byproduct of the internet business model.
If the history of pop culture is novelty followed by boredom followed by novelty, we must be headed somewhere in this disillusionment with social media. Yet a major barrier is the ruling paradigm of techno-progressivism, which casts anyone who goes offline as a reactionary refusenik. Most of us have internalized this framing. The kids in New York who ditched their smartphones for reading books in the woods call themselves the "Luddite Club." I, too, am focused in 2023 on meeting people in real life, reading a lot of real books on paper to write another real book on paper, and walking around Tokyo without constantly listening to content in my ears. But I worry a lot that any self-removal from the apps will lead to immediate irrelevance.
When I read excellent newsletters like Casey Lewis’s After School, I am reminded that all new culture is internet culture. Even when a Buzzfeed writer uses a Motorola Razr flip phone for a week — but only a week — she posts the story on Buzzfeed. In order for post-social media content to catch on, it has to provide us with exciting novelties. The Luddite Club seems to have formed in a 1995 high school parking lot: Doc Martens and Black Flag T-shirts, Jack Kerouac and Kurt Vonnegut.
In order to figure out what happens after the social media era, we need to break out from the binary of (1) the flavorless cafeteria buffet of online content versus (2) reactionary counterculture revival. The world is primed for a fecund offline culture, but it has to offer something other than retreat.