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Trophies: Why We Interpret Wealth as a Signal of Worth

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American sociologist Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929) believed that trophies played a central role in the evolution of human society and in the formation of social hierarchies.

To be considered worthy of esteem from our tribe, we must demonstrate our exploitive skills. We must accomplish something – something beyond the monotonous, everyday ‘drudgery jobs’ that just anyone can do. Esteem depends on differentiation, distinction from the medium and average.

But you cannot merely claim to be great; you need to prove it. Prowess is nothing without evidence. No matter how brave, audacious, and dexterous you announce yourself to be, it’s all talk unless you can substantiate your words.

In order to gain and hold the esteem of men it is not sufficient merely to possess wealth or power. The wealth or power must be put in evidence, for esteem is awarded only on evidence. (Veblen 1967[1899]:36)

Success is nothing without trophies. In terms of social payoff, even the greatest accomplishment doesn’t exist unless you can display some corroboration; some “tangible evidence of prowess,” the loot, the booty, the fruit of your exploit. (Ibid 17-16) A trophy, simply, is tangible evidence of success.

In Veblen’s view, trophies establish our worthiness like a primal instinct – a natural, evolved social behaviour as ancient as human society itself. However, showing our worth with demonstrations of wealth dramatically grows in prominence when we organize ourselves around the idea of private ownership. (Ibid 24) Now, personal property becomes evidence of our prowess: what a person owns now defines the worth of the person. The ‘trophy’ is now one’s estate, job title, and vehicle model.

The situation quickly becomes reciprocal: honour confers wealth, wealth denotes honour. Ergo, those who fancy themselves “honourable people” must seek wealth, or at least figure out a way to demonstrate a respectable level of wealth. (On this account, poverty becomes seen as evidence of a lack of character and fortitude, and thus it relegates ‘ignoble’ individuals to the lower classes.)

[Property] therefore becomes the conventional basis of esteem. Its possession in some account becomes necessary in order to any reputable standing in the community. It becomes indispensable to accumulate, to acquire property, in order to retain one’s good name… The possession of wealth [becomes] itself a meritorious act. (Ibid 29)

Reputation, esteem, and personal worth all depend on trophies – signals that we send to each other to prove our bravery, cleverness, and worthiness of respect. Veblen argued that we do not own property for the sake of property itself, we pursue and amass possessions because we are incapable of determining our place in society without them. In other words, our position in the pecking order of social merit is impossible to establish without the trophies we have collected, to get to whatever position we occupy on the totem pole of fiscal class.

Without your possessions, you might as well be an amateur athlete claiming he has won a world championship — yet without any evidence that he even knows how to play the sport.

“Oh, no, not me,” retort Veblen’s detractors. “I comprehend my own personal worth and merit apart from my personal property. My ambition and motivation do not originate from some silly, imaginary, primordial game of show-and-tell. What I earn in life doesn’t define my worth to others.”

I imagine Thorstein Veblen sitting back in his chair, looking his critic in the eye, and saying, “Really? Do you apply this reasoning to every other person you meet as well? You consider the character of the beggar and vagabond no differently than the character of the professional executive and the self-made entrepreneur? If you infer even a fraction of other people’s social stature of others based upon the evidence of their wealth, how could you not, even unconsciously, judge yourself by the same criteria and scale?”

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The Week Ahead

This week in the Caesura Letters…

  • Triangulation: a sense of personal identity is not unlike GPS protocol.
  • Spending and Saving: do we derive the most benefit from money by spending it?
  • Tree Spirit: stories don’t have to be true in order to be real.
  • Optimal Cruelty: does humour depend on a ratio of cruelty?
  • Desire Versus Desire: is ‘will-power’ just another form of desire?

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Ants are poor metaphors for humans: equality does not equal capability

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Go to the ant, you sluggard. Consider her ways, and be wise; which having no chief, overseer, or ruler, provides her bread in the summer, and gathers her food in the harvest. (Proverbs 6:6-8 WEB)

Ants, said the Teacher of Proverbs, are “little on the earth, but they are exceedingly wise.” Their wisdom is evidenced by their discipline: even though they “are not a strong people,” they diligently “provide their food in the summer.” (Proverbs 30:24-25, WEB)

There is something endearing about ants: their homes remind us of our cities, their hierarchies remind us of our societies, and their diligence reminds us of our industry. But most of all, their survival exemplifies our ideal of fairness:

On a cold frosty day an Ant was dragging out some of the corn which he had laid up in summer time, to dry it. A Grasshopper, half-perished with hunger, besought the Ant to give him a morsel of it to preserve his life. “What were you doing,” said the Ant, “this last summer?” “Oh,” said the Grasshopper, “I was not idle. I kept singing all the summer long.” Said the Ant, laughing and shutting up his granary, “Since you could sing all summer, you may dance all winter.” Winter finds out what Summer lays by. (The Ant and the Grasshopper, in James 1911:6)

Aesop’s fable keenly asks the question: why should the ant be expected to help the grasshopper survive the winter? Furthermore, why should the grasshopper expect his lack of resourcefulness to be rewarded? “If anyone will not work, don’t let him eat,” taught the early Christian evangelists. (2 Thessalonians 3:10) If you are not going to help with the harvest, why should you be invited to the banquet?

It all seems so nicely cut and dry — that is, fair — until we address a thorny little detail: we are not ants. Should the laws that dictate the survival of ant colonies also dictate the survival of human beings? Do we align our moral compass to the destiny of insects?

We humans inherit a wildly more complex social situation than ants do, because we are far more unequal to one another than ants are. Some of us are far more privileged, far more clever, far more intuitive, far more critical, and, yes, far more motivated than others.

The ant-as-virtue metaphor assumes an equality of ability among humans. The problem with this sense of universal, clone-like equality is that it turns us all into ants: homogeneous colonies of evenly gifted workers. But on the contrary, human culture itself is the product of diversity in skill, agenda, gumption, and ingenuity. To say we should be equal — in the sense that ‘ant A’ is as identically enterprising as ‘ant B’ — is to deny ourselves our very humanity.

Equality does not mean we all share the same capabilities, it means we are all worth the same regardless of our drastically unequal capabilities. It is because we are so radically unequal in ability, background, and opportunity that treating one another as identical bearers of intrinsic worth is so important. We are not ants. Some of us are grasshoppers.

Today, how we divvy up the storehouse says everything about how we manage our inherent inequalities. In a world of inequality, fairness is a vexing dilemma.

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A Chat with Thorstein Veblen

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Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929) was born in Wisconsin. His parents were Norwegian immigrant parents. In 1899, he wrote Theory of the Leisure Class, which attempts to explain the social, evolutionary origins of American culture and consumption at the turn of the century. In his era, Veblen stands out as one of only a few a critics of capitalism who did not also simultaneously argue for Marxism.

Veblen’s vision of the human condition is far-reaching, fantastic, and all descriptive of daily, human life. This coming week, the Caesura Letters explores Veblen’s premises, hypotheses, and conclusions about human behaviour, social status, and consumer-culture. It is a theory of social evolution that seeks to explain everything from designer jeans to suburban front lawns.

Join us for a very unique adventure, with the remarkably clever Thorstein Veblen as our guide.

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Chant of the Mystic

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Did a god not pass by? Why is my flesh frozen numb? (Epic of Gilgamesh, Standard Version, Tablet IV 20)

Encounters with the divine are a steady thread throughout the human story. Across cultures and continents, we are inspired by moments that eclipse our own ability to explain:

“Moreover, something is or seems, That touches me with mystic gleams, Like glimpses of forgotten dreams– “Of something felt, like something here; Of something done, I know not where; Such as no language may declare.” (Tennyson, The Two Voices, cited in James[1902]:383)

Like clockwork, one generation after another, we systemize and catalogue the wonders of our experiences. Our coexisting with sheer mystery is cognitively crippling. We live by descriptions. And so, ignoring limitations of mortal language, we use our words to articulate immortal doctrines.

But then, just as predictably, the mystic arises, interrupting our canonizing effort, and eulogizing our ‘mortalization’ of God with her inescapable words: “You know nothing, you only believe.”

“Go, preach your doctrines!” she prods us with tears. “The more you try to make your god known, the more you disrespect the feasibleness of your own silly mind! How do you think you can describe the incomprehensible and comprehend the indescribable?”

No few poets and theologians have joined the mystic in her chant. Representing equal measures of love and reverence, literature is full of poignant phrases regarding the dilemma of God:

Saint Thomas Acquinas (1225-1274):

Then alone do we know God truly, when we believe that He is far above all that men can possibly think of God. (Saint Thomas, Summa contra gentiles I.5; in Campbell 2001:25)

Christian existentialist Paul Tillich (1886-1965):

God does not exist. He is being—itself beyond essence and existence. Therefore, to argue that God exists is to deny him. (Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology I, 205 )

Professor John McIntyre (1916-2005):

Theology is human speaking about God…Here could be found the final blasphemy in theology that it pretends to be God’s words when it is only man’s words. (McIntyre 1962:37)

George Santayana (1863-1952):

transcendent realities, if they exist, can have nothing to do with our ideas of them. (Santayana 2004[1896]: 117)

To ‘know’ God is to romance the paradox: it is to behold a Thing that is not a thing, or talk about Noun that is not a noun.

The role of the mystic is to remind us of our foolishness. “Do you know what is illogical and incoherent?” she asks. “It is to argue about the ‘existence’ or ‘non-existence’ of a Concept that transcends existence.” And yet all she can do is laugh and weep at our strident attempts to disprove the immeasurable and explain the improvable.

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Leisure, in Review

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A few weeks ago we spent some time contemplating the nature of work. This coming week we will once again rejoin this theme, but now from a different angle: what is the merit of leisure? Is the purpose of work so that we can relax? Should we all be eligible to enjoy equal reprieve from labour?

Join the investigation by subscribing to the Caesura Letters:

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“Do What You Love” – A Trojan Horse in the Value of Work?

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their idleness is only rendered possible by the industry of others; indeed their desire for comfortable idleness is historically the source of the whole gospel of work. The last thing they have ever wished is that others should follow their example. (Russell 1972[1932]:13)

In a recent article in Jacobin, art historian Mika Tokumsitu addresses one of the most popular mantras in Western culture today: Do what you love, love what you do. Tokumsitu argues that the attitude behind this little inspirational slogan is a Trojan horse — a set of assumptions quietly eroding our respect for work itself.

This is Tokumsitu’s contention: if we believe that personal fulfillment is really the ultimate purpose of labour, then who do we expect to do all the other jobs that are not so existentially fulfilling? After all, society depends on a great many people doing a multitude of messy, unpopular, and quite ‘unlovable’ tasks, day after day. Even more importantly, the self-actualized doer-of-what-thou-loves still depends on the janitorial staff, the electronics assembly line manufacturer, and the sewage line maintenance crew. You can only do what you love as long as someone else makes sure the toilet isn’t backing up. As an ethos, doing what you love invites us to ignore the importance of most real work, and re-labels everything else as a romantic pastime.

The idea that a person can arbitrarily select any activity or interest they ‘love’ and then expect to receive monetary compensation for pursuing it depends on several factors, not the least of which include social class and economic mobility. For instance, the mother whose immediate concern is buying groceries for her children is not in a position to contemplate how her job as a cashier is supposed to reinforce her transcendent sense of meaning. For her, work is work — not a mechanism to validate her theoretical and unique identity on the planet.

Tokumsitu’s conclusion: the message that our work ought to be emotionally gratifying and spiritually rewarding only deepens the trench between the working class and the intellectual class. Even though the rallying cry to do what you love seems to celebrate the importance of work and career on the surface, it is essentially elitist and anti work at its core. Practically speaking, society would altogether fail to function if everyone did nothing but the things they love, therefore the ‘option’ only exists for a small, select segment of the population.

I also wonder what the personal implications are for believing that our work must be the object of our love. In our insistence that every dimension of life should be loveable and edifying, do we consequently undermine our ability to truly love anything? If I truly love my work, in what sense then do I truly love my family? In our effort to find jobs that we love, do we inadvertently cheapen our love for everything else?

Maybe the point of work is to work. And maybe the more we respect work as work, the more we will appreciate our interdependence. And maybe, just maybe, if work is respected, then workers, too, might be appreciated as more than minion cogs in a vast machine, slavishly working to provide a handful of ‘creative’ people the opportunity to believe employment is only meaningful if it is also a passion.

Indeed every man, in every condition, is great. It is only our own diseased sight which makes him little. (Channing 1839:6)

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The Week in Questions

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Among the ideas and questions we will investigate in the Caesura Letters this week… Do mystics actually help keep us evidence-obsessed folks grounded in reality? If you could say a few words at your own funeral, would you? Is what we think about learning as important as what we learn? Would the world exist if we weren’t here?

Join us this week, for yet another gleeful romp through the domain and history of ideas.

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Great Explorations

Caesura Letters Volume VIt is time for another Caesura Letters book release!

Great Explorations is the sixth volume of the Caesura Letters, the magazine devoted the art of looking at the world differently. It is available in paperback and ebook formats.

Chapter Overview

  1. Self Betterment. From ancient looms, to 18th century writers, to stories about sticking logs in your eyes, we investigate the timeless questions about what it means to become better at being human.
  2. Of Laws and States. Whether protecting liberties or taking them away, governments are a powerful influence on the world we live in. From the tyranny of the majority to the tragedy of the commons, we explore some classic themes in political history…ideas that seem no less relevant today than the times in which they were first theorized.
  3. Nothing Without You. A series of reflections and meditations on social life, community, and interacting with one another.
  4. Minding Dreams. Daydreaming has a sordid history, once the activity of the slow and foolish, it is now increasingly understood to play an important role in our overall neurological wellbeing.
  5. To Feel is to Know. Emotions, it’s all about emotions. Is it possible to truly untangle feelings from abstract, calculating, rational headwork? What if our emotions define how we define ‘rational’? What if feeling is the beginning of knowing?
  6. Thoughts for Thinking. A diverse set of stories and illustrations (drawn from thinkers far more clever than I will ever be) to kick-start some rigorous, creative self-reflection.
  7. Chuang Tzu. A review of some of the teachings and parables by the feisty, creative, and contrarian fourth century BCE Chinese philosopher.

Caesura Letters Volume VI: Great Explorations

Ebook (ePub, Kindle, PDF) Paperback