Author Archives: heathermichellewhitney

Thoughts on The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class

My quick thoughts on The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett (PUP 2017). Originally posted on Goodreads (here), hence the talk of star ratings.

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If you’re interested in the interplay between consumption and status, you’ll like (three stars) this book. The problem, though, is that while the author provides some interesting information (and is thus worth picking up for the references alone), I found myself confused about the ultimate normative argument and dubious about some of the descriptive claims. Here are some of my lingering questions/comments:

– What is her normative evaluation of the aspirational class? On one hand, she seems to think it’s worse because these people are spending money on the kinds of inconspicuous goods, like education for their kids, that is more likely to reproduce inequality than if they spent on clothes. So, she argues, they are exacerbating inequality. But… is that right? As compared to what? In other words, is this more likely to increase or perpetuate inequality than a world without this class? I suspect it matters a bit whose in the class. And, as we see, it’s not just (or really, primarily) the uber wealthy. Instead, it’s populated by people who have invested a lot (often, though not exclusively, with the serious financial aid of their parents) in the accumulation of social and cultural capital. They have advanced degrees, know all the cool music, read the right stuff, etc. But if these people aren’t coming primarily from the super wealthy, then doesn’t that mean that the aspirational class gives more people options for succeeding in the class wars? That is, you don’t *have* to be born rich to be high-status because you can develop your cultural capital instead. Indeed, the author points out numerous times that one interesting this about the aspirational class is that it cannot be easily delineated by economic capital. That is, these people aren’t all themselves or the children of people with lots of money. If that’s right, why is the creation of this class *worse than the alternative* for inequality? Does the opening up of new ways to raise your status instead help challenge the status of the uber-wealthy? Does it move us in the direction of equality?

One theory you could have about why this is bad (though not one she provides, though one I’m interested in) would compare the fracturing of class and status to the fracturing of the American corporate elite. (See Mark S. Mizruchi’s book, The Fracturing of the American Corporate Elite – HUP 2013). Today, we see class and status power fractured – where once the same individuals were vested with all capital (economic, social, cultural), today those are split. Some people have social but not economic, economic but not cultural, etc. (See Mike Savage Social Class in the 21st Century [discussing the UK but the same idea would hold]). The problem with this is that fracturing makes it harder to identify and fix issues of inequality, or to regulate for whatever end you want. It also makes collective action more difficult. If lots more people have ways to get at least some capital (economic or social or cultural) maybe they are less likely to think the status games are problematic (because they can play more easily). Maybe this dynamic exacerbates long-term inequality. That’d be an interesting argument but it’s not there.

– But moving back to the book, in addition to asserting that the aspirational class is bad of equality, she also suggests ways that their consumption habits might *decrease* inequality. She talks about “conspicuous production” (clever catchphrase that I will use!) and how those within this class care about where a product is from, who made it, etc. Now, that can lead to market demand for animals treated well, or improved labor practices (consider the strategies used by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers). If that’s right, isn’t this new class helping?

Now, one concern is that these people don’t actually care about e.g., the environment, workers, happy animals, etc. they just want to paint a pretty picture in their head of those things. If that’s right, then of course conspicuous production isn’t likely to help those picking the organic fruit. But she never gives us data to understand if this is what’s happening. She mentions one other scholar who takes this view (and I have worried about this in other work) but what does she think? Where is the data?
And, again, if this enjoyment of conspicuous production *does* help make the world a slightly more just place, isn’t that at least kinda-sorta good?

– One possible concern (and one she very briefly mentions but does not develop) is that the aspirational class, because its fueled by belief in meritocracy and its members have often gotten into the class by working hard, thinks they deserve their status in the world and others deserve their status too. And this desert will help them justify their own position and their not-helping those who got screwed in the where-and-t0-whom-you-were-born lottery. But 1) this stands in contrast to her argument that the aspirational class cares a lot about those less well-off than them (she mentions Maslow’s hierarchy here) and 2) is belied by their spending on conspicuous production (unless she thinks they don’t *really* care about production, but she never gives us data to show this).

In short: there are a lot of internal contradictions in the description of this group. (I am interested in the ethics of consumption and was thus a bit disappointed by the internal tensions in her characterization of these people).

– Lastly, I don’t get the title. Her point isn’t the sum of *small* things, it’s the sum of *invisible* things. Or invisible things made visible. Or big-invisible things. Part of the argument is that the aspirational class, while still spending on conspicuous consumption spends more these days on 1) conspicuous production and 2) inconspicuous consumption (e.g. healthcare, education, outsourcing domestic labor (childcare, housework, etc.)). Both of these are supposed to stand in contrast to the gaudy (accd. to the aspirational class [and me]) Louis Vuitton logos, Chanel labels, etc. in that they aren’t conspicuous. The operative trait of aspirational class spending is that the most important segment of it lacks visibility. And as for size, this spending is the opposite of a sum of small things. One of the bigger problems for the author is that those lower down the status food chain cannot replicate the purchases of the aspirational class because they are so not-small! You can save your money and get a decently expensive purse but most can’t save enough to put their kids through college today. You can’t, if you are poor, buy yourself the free time necessary to read all the hip books, reviews, and online articles. So while a minor thing, the title makes no sense to me.

There are some incredibly interesting and challenging questions raised by the consumer behaviors. In our current political climate we see, from #boycottuber to massive pushes to get big companies to pull ads from sites like Breitbart, consumer purchasing power being treated as a political tool. It’s also, as this book details, considered by those within the aspirational class to be a moral issue as well. Or, at least, maybe. How to think about this, especially in a purportedly liberal democracy where the market is thought distinct from the political sphere, is exciting and important. But this book didn’t help me think more carefully about these issues. Nonetheless, the data provided on how various groups spend is itself valuable for those interested in these questions. Overall, I enjoyed the book and will cite it in future work.

March – May Reads

  1. The Taming of Free Speech by Laura Weinrib (HUP 2016)
  2. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
  3. Why Some Things Should Not Be For Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets by Debra Satz (OUP 2010)
  4. NW by Zadie Smith
  5. We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World by Melvyn Dubofsky
  6. To Steal a Book is an Elegant Offense: Intellectual Property Law in Chinese Civilization by William P. Alford (Stanford University Press 1997)
  7. Orlando by Virginia Woolf – loved this
  8. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
  9. The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand – loved this
  10. The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements by Eric Hoffer
  11. Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives by Elizabeth Anderson (PUP 2017) – this combines her Tanner Lecturers with commentary by scholars from various fields. I’m hoping this is a sign that philosophers are becoming more interested in theorizing about work relations and private-ish law.
  12. The Disappearing L: Erasure of Lesbian Spaces and Culture by Bonnie J. Morris (SUNY Press 2016) – Books on lesbian culture are hard to come by so I was quite happy to have stumbled upon this one. Very interesting. The discussion of conscious raising and how it resulted in intra-group fights(e.g. concerning women-born-women only spaces) and factions pairs well with the documentary She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, which covers the rise of the women’s movement, focusing on 1966-71.
  13. Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil (University of Chicago Press 2017) – better to know a bit about these women before you read this.
  14. Food Justice by Robert Gottlieb and Anupama Joshi (MIT Press 2010) – some helpful information for those with limited knowledge about the issues. I found it repetitive.
  15. Attached by Amir Levine

February Reads

  1. Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee
  2. Prejudicial Appearances: The Logic of American Antidiscrimination Law by Robert Post and others (a collection of responses to a Post essay)
  3. The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
  4. The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester (Fun but also sad. I now would like to own the complete OED. Note: very expensive)
  5. Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin
  6. The Second Shift by Arlie Russell Hochschild (a must read)
  7. Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald (great to read after finishing her biography)

January Reads

I’ve decided to do another 52 book challenge this year. While last year I read more than 52, I didn’t want to set a higher goal this year because, in short, I’d like to avoid creating conditions that disincentivize the reading of both longer and more complex books. With a goal of 52, last year I was able to read a number of long books (e.g., Middlemarch and the biography of Chavez) and a number of complex books — books that I wanted to read very slowly (e.g., To the Lighthouse and a number of the more philosophical texts). This year I’d like to ensure I have the space to do that again.

With that, my January reads.

  1. Autumn by Ali Smith (embarrassing confession: I’d never heard of Ali Smith before reading an LGBTQ newsletter for Boston-area people that just happened to include a list of lesbian authors. After seeing her described as “Scotland’s Nobel Laureate-in-waiting”, I had to look her up. This book was a real treat. So much ‘high’ literature is depressing but this was quite the opposite. While the book is set in post-Brexit England, and while many of the characters have painful memories of past relationships, and live with an awareness of the narrowing of opportunities for them as time goes on, there is something quite hopeful and, I thought, joyful in these pages. Perhaps not so different from the conflicting feelings of closure, nostalgia, regret, and possibility that Autumn itself can evoke.
  2. How to be Both by Ali Smith (I read that the book is published in two versions. One version has the story Francesco del Cossa, the Italian renaissance artist, first, and the other has the story of George, a modern girl living in England, first. I happened to get the Francesco story first. I suspect I would have enjoyed it more the other way around and recommend the same to future readers. If you do insist on reading Francesco first, I think it best to read Francesco again, after you read George. Either way, I enjoyed Autumn more than this one.)
  3. Heartbreak: The Political Memoir of a Feminist Militant by Andrea Dworkin
  4. The Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri (my close friend was going to buy me this book but I thankfully ended up buying it for myself first. Thankfully because otherwise I’d feel bad saying the following: it’s not worth buying. I’ve not read her other work (work I’ve heard is fantastic, for what it’s worth) but this should not be a book. It was originally a lecture and there simply aren’t enough ideas in here to merit publication in book format. I wish her editor would have encouraged her to put forward a few ideas and then spend some time really developing them. As it stands, it could have been a nice (and easily shortened) Slate article. Disappointing. Though the book cover itself is appealing.

62 books read in 2016

A great year of reading.

Since my last post:

  1.  The Crusades of Cesar Chavez by Miriam Pawel (fascinating, even-handed)
  2. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
  3. If on a winter’s night a travel by Italo Calvino
  4. Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett
  5. She Came to Stay by Simone de Beauvoir

September Reads

While I’ve completed the 52 book challenge already, I’ve decided I’ll keep posting my monthly reads. At least for now.

  1. Liberty’s Refuge: The Forgotten Freedom of Assembly by John Inazu (YUP 2012)
  2. Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by John King (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2015)
    • In one of Colin Powell’s leaked messages he mentioned reading this book (he specifically said, “Just finished a book by a guy named Llosa about loss of culture. It was reviewed in the WSJ last week. Culture is going and with it the ties that bind.”). If Powell thought it worth mentioning the book, I figured it was worth my reading it. I found it a mixed bag. I’d recommend the first eighty or so pages and then a skim of the rest.
  3. Autobiography of Mother Jones by Marry Harris Jones (aka: Mother Jones), edited by Mary Field Parton (Charles H. Kerr Publishing 1996. Originally published by Kerr in 1925)
    • An absolutely incredible person. However, I recommend a bibliography before her autobiography (she assumes lots of prior knowledge). A few tidbits:
      • You remember the Divine Right of Kings? Here is what the President of the mine owners association said in 1902: “The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected not by the labor agitator but by the Christian men and women to whom God in His infinite wisdom has given the control of the property interests of this country.” (61).
      • Work or Fight Laws (Mother Jones called the “infamous slave bill”): A law was passed (again, the wealthy control of the government was no joke) that said: if you strike, you are automatically sent to the front line trenches. (177) The Governor veoted it but just take a moment to think about how that passed.
      • With company-owned towns, they were able to tell workers (who were paid in company script instead of real money and thereby forced to buy from company-owned stores [with marked up prices] and live in company-owned shacks [also marked up]) that allowing Mother Jones into their homes constituted trespass (on company property, remember). Indeed, the police would stand on the boundaries of the company-owned land. If she stepped one foot inside, she was arrested. If any workers pushed for change, they were immediately kicked out of their shacks, blacklisted, and without money.
  4. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (first published in the UK, by Bloomsbury 1997. First US edition published by Scholastic in 1998)
    • I’ve started listening to a fabulous podcast that I fully recommend: Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. I also attended my first in-person meeting of their book club last week. So what does it mean to treat Harry Potter as a sacred text? Three things (per their site):
      • 1) trusting the text (“we practice the belief that the text is not ‘just entertainment’, but if taken seriously, can give us generous  rewards.
      • 2) rigor and ritual (“The text in and of itself is not sacred, but is made so through our rigorous engagement”)
      • 3) reading it in community (“Scholars of religion explain that what makes a text sacred is not the text itself, but the community of readers that proclaim it as such. The same applies to us.”
    • Often times (and somewhat related to Book 54) it seems people are unwilling to fully embrace the things they love. There’s this desire to keep an ironic distance. While irony has its place in our lives and how we view our beliefs (see: Richard Rorty), there is also something incredibly valuable about loving something and pursuing its gifts in earnest. This podcast fully embraces this philosophy. I’ve learned so much from them and their subscribes (who call in). If you want to cultivate the virtues, this would not be a bad place to start the work. (and as they point out, becoming a better person is work)
  5. Speaking Freely: Whitney v. California and American Speech Law by Philippa Strum (University Press of Kansas 2015)
    • Unfortunately, no relation (as far as I know!)

August Reads

Excited to report that I completed my 52-books-in-2016 challenge this month!

But now onto the August reads…

  1. At Home in the Law: How the Domestic Violence Revolution is Transforming Privacy by Jeannie Suk (YUP 2011)
  2. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance (Harper 2016)
    • After reading the author’s interview with the New Conservative, this got bumped to the top of the list. I laughed a lot more than I thought I would (some of the dialogue reminded me of what I heard as a kid, and reading about it somehow elicits, among other things, laughter). Instead of some memoirs where you either feel like the author barely sees him/herself as an agent (which then leaves you feeling depressed and helpless as well) or where the author tells a story of triumphing over all with god/John Galt-like control (unrealistic and fails to appreciate how we all depend on those around us, and how important it is to have support – as a kid and as an adult) this was much more in the middle. He acknowledges how some members of his family not simply “saved him” but, better than that, provided him with the conditions from which he could go on to succeed. Also, a refreshing comment on how the military can turn lives around (I don’t think people in elite institutions often understand how someone screaming at you, making you do what they say, can really *increase* agency, but Vance explains how much of a difference his time there made). (note: both my parents were in the Air Force and I’m pretty sure my dad would agree. Mom is a different story) In short: really enjoyed, very quick read, and I suspect will give a lot of people an insight into a culture of which they are ignorant but, if this election cycle has shown anything, they should not be.
  3. The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon (Scribner 2000)
    • Atlas is not an inaccurate description. This book is massive, 570+ pages. And the font is small! Parts I enjoyed. Other parts, less so. If you want a now-slightly-outdated encyclopedic understanding of depression, here’s your book. Chapters go into detail about the author’s own experiences, the history of different drugs and treatments, the history of how we’ve understood depression over the centuries (I liked that part), and an unfortunately short look at what it’s like to deal with mental illness for those who don’t come (in contrast to the author) from such privileged backgrounds.
  4. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein (originally Putnam’s Sons 1966)
    •  A gift with high praise from Will B., though he hadn’t read the thing since he was a kid. Libertarians will enjoy. Enjoyed the alternate family structures, the conscious computer (Mike!), and the political and revolutionary strategy. A quick-witted sort of tone. No Ursula K. Le Guin (Dispossessed is better) and no Octavia Butler, but good. And let’s be real: that is an awesome title.