I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with Virginia Postrel’s work–so perceptive an aesthetic theorist, yet so complacent about commercial culture! But those studying IP have to come to terms with it, if only because she wrestles with a topic central to our endeavor: what is the value of those cultural products protected by copyright and trademark law? In The Substance of Style, Postrel argued that we routinely and vastly underestimate the contribution of design and beauty to our well-being. From an upcoming book proposal on Glamour, it looks like she’s about to expand and refine that argument.
Focusing on a variety of glam entities, Postrel distills three common components which “are not aesthetic elements but imaginative qualities: grace, mystery, and transcendence.” She reverentially recites a litany of products and personages that ooze glamor: Oprah, art deco, and Pre-Raphaelites all get props. To her credit, she recognizes glamour can be used for evil as well as good–she notes how Leni Riefenstahl glamorized a horrific Nazi program. But that’s just a bump on the road for a treatment that clearly wants to elevate our appreciation of glamour:
[D]espite its dangers, we would be foolish simply to reject glamour. It is too powerful to be denied, and its power can inspire good as well as evil. Although glamour has been a tool for tyrants, it has also provided an imaginative refuge for the ostracized and oppressed. . . . True sophistication lies not in rejecting or eschewing glamour—a largely futile approach—but in understanding how it works.
Note the slipperiness of the terms of evaluation here; where once “good, evil, and danger” were our guideposts, by the end of the paragraph “sophistication” becomes the summum bonum. Her discussion also reminds me of the Nussbaum-Kahan exchange in Bandes’s The Passions of Law, where Nussbaum argues for purging public life of emotions like disgust, while Kahan argues for a progressive appropriation of the concept. I think Kahan got the better of that exchange, but I’m a bit skeptical of glamor…even in the wake of books like Dream, Stephen Duncombe’s argument for tapping into “America’s collective unconscious through spectacle.”
There’s always a democratic edge to Postrel’s work, a gnawing need to establish that a new age of design, aesthetics, and glamour is a tool of self-realization for the masses. She admits that “Glamour can erode our appreciation of quotidian pleasures, and our sympathy with human limitations, exacerbating our dissatisfaction with life as it actually exists. And glamour can exclude outsiders as surely as it can dignify them.” But she always finds some way of de-emphasizing these trends, noting, for instance, that “The 1930s made glamour a truly mass phenomenon, one no longer dependent on geography or class.” (Yep, the KMart blue light special offers up glam items just as frequently as Agnes B.) For Postrel, the answer is not to beat or ignore the glamorous, but to join them: “glamour can . . . provide an essential imaginative leap toward personal achievement or social and economic progress.”
Though I should probably wait for the whole book before I pass judgment, I have to say now that I’m not buying the masstige angle. Glamour is inevitably exclusionary, the classic example of a positional good: by her own terms, the glamorous have to transcend somebody, and that’s usually the rest of us. Rather serendipitously, hip-hop diva Fergie provides a great example of this process in her video “Glamorous.”