Postrel (and Fergie) on Egalitarian Glamour

glamor.jpgI’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.”

Fergie first recalls all the fun she had “back in the day,” and insists that she is still “Fergie from the block:”

I don’t care, I’m still real

No matter how many records I sell

After the show or after the Grammies

I like to go cool out with the family

Sippin’, reminiscing on days when I had a Mustang

But the video belies her egalitarian sentiments, eventually closing with her flying alone in a private jet. Her old pals are nowhere to be seen in her new life. And as we’re told at its beginning and end, “if you ain’t got no money”….well, you really aren’t invited to participate.

Which all brings me back to my first encounter with the word “glamour”: the renewal of baptismal promises all Roman Catholics are required to affirm at certain masses. One must affirm one will “reject the glamor of evil,” a provocative phrasing that turns on a theological commitment to the idea that all are drawn away from the good by an almost centrifugal force of original sin. It’s not the “attraction” of evil, or even “temptation,” but its “glamor” we are to be particularly wary of. Regardless of one’s religious commitments, the jamming together of evil and glamor in this formula is an intriguing reminder of the ways that weakness of will can lead anyone away from their ideals. Moreover, I think we can all hope that people find “grace, mystery, and transcendence” in something less ephemeral than a handbag.

So what’s the legal implication? Well, I’d be pretty cautious of any initiative that uncritically accepts the glamor industry’s account of its value to society…be it proposals to give IP protection to the fashion industry, or ever more initiatives to protect the business model of the movie or music cartels. Is the “cult of luxury brands” about rewarding fine design and craftsmanship, or preserving opportunities for conspicuous consumption? There’s no easy way to judge . . . but it’s a lot more interesting (and relevant) argument than dry quantifications of projected sales figures.

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