July 3, 2012

Social and anti-social status contests

When you think about it, there cannot be anti-social status contests -- the whole point of one is that there's some kind of public arena where performers are being judged by spectators. It requires a minimum level of commitment to public life on the part of performers and spectators.

So during cocooning times, we should re-interpret what look like status-seeking contests as something else. They're not about competing out in the open before judges, but rather about carving out their own micro-niche where only they and very few others are the colonists. Once too many people arrive, they scurry off to some other micro-niche. It's running away from the would-be competition, refusing to be judged along with them on some dimension. Maybe we should call it niche-hopping or something; the point is, it's not a contest, let alone one about status.

An example of a status-seeking contest is wearing clothes that are more and more expensive, where higher status is accorded to the more expensive clothes. A status contest always leads to more and more exaggerated traits, just like over evolutionary time the peacock's tails get longer and longer. Pretty soon, those involved in the contest are dropping big bucks even for minor pieces of their look.

We expect to see these status contests mostly during an out-and-about period, which more or less maps onto a rising-crime period. I think this is what people are referring to when they label the Roaring Twenties and the Go-Go Eighties as materialistic. They couldn't have been less concerned with the material world, focused as they were on the spiritual, supernatural, cultish, and apocalyptic. However, there was incredibly stiff competition over who could look the most elegant or stylish, who could spend more money on their new car.

As the performers in these contests showed more and more exaggerated behavior, the kind of fever pitch got remembered as a slavish devotion to material things as a source of meaning in life. However, buying those ever more expensive things was not to find a source of meaning in one's private life, but to out-do the competition in a public contest. (Finding meaning in life from consumer products belonged instead to the mid-century and the past 20 years, both falling-crime and cocooning periods.)

Athletics are another obvious case. You have to meet the competition in public and be judged. There was a cult of the athlete from roughly 1900 through the early '30s, and then again from the '60s through the '80s. During the mid-century and the past 20 years, being a jock has not been cool -- let alone being one who was ambitious. Just as the contestants for who could wear the most glamorous clothing became slandered as materialistic, the athlete who lived to beat the competition became remembered as a bloodthirsty barbarian type.

And obviously pursuing athletic competition has nothing to do with materialism. Along with dressing stylishly, athletics was just another case of people being more eager to compete in public. Jazz music from the Jazz Age (before it went underground and became unlikeable), and guitar solos from the Rock 'n' Roll Age, are further examples still. It wasn't materialism but a drive to compete in public for status.

What, then, are the niche-hopping cases like? Those are all pretty fresh in our memory, so I won't go into any depth. But the whole bullshit about, "I like a band that only a dozen people know about," or "I had to go backpacking in Tajikistan because Uzbekistan is just getting too damn crowded with touristy frat bro's in Ed Hardy shirts," or anything else from the realm of SWPL-dom. It's not about who is the biggest, most dedicated fan of the band, which is a possible contest. The moment that enough people knew about them for such a contest to be feasible, they'll leave that micro-niche and carve out another. I think that's why the so-called world travelers always have such a superficial knowledge of where they've been -- it's not about proving you're the most knowledgeable or experienced or devoted to some foreign place or people (all possible contests). Instead it's about hiding in a place that few others are going to.

I'm no longer convinced that these are really contests, e.g. over who knows the most obscure bands, who's been to the most obscure location, etc. These people don't like talking much to each other -- they just want to enjoy their little micro-niche and be left alone, not regularly congregate in an arena and duke it out over who is the most esoteric. Sure, when they are forced into a social interaction, they do seize the moment to preen about their obscure tastes as though it were a contest. But that's a pretty rare chance they get, unlike the stylish girl who goes out to parties every night, or the jock who competes every day after school, or the guitar player who has a gig at least once a week.

Moreover, niche-hopping does not result in more and more exaggerated traits like the peacock's tail, the 4-hour / $1000 look, or the virtuosic guitar solo. If their esoteric tastes kept spiraling out of control, why are they still so tightly within the confines of contemporary Western culture, or foreign places so highly connected to it? Why aren't they studying obscure dead languages from halfway across the world? Or getting into 13th-century Mongolian throat singing? -- y'know, not that modern crap that you posers already know about. Why not appropriate the myriad food cultures of sub-Saharan Africa?

I don't see any steady move toward greater and greater obscurity. Rather, they want to stay within more or less known-about traditions, but just carve out a micro-niche within them, where they can cocoon away from the other people who are into the broad tradition -- let them carve out their own micro-niche. I'll listen to shitty indie band A, and you listen to shitty indie band B, neither encroaching on the other's territory. If it were about obscurity, I'd jump ship altogether and listen to Medieval Chinese opera or something. This way we can both be part of a group that listens to indie music, but that doesn't have a strong sense of community identity, every fan being cocooned away around their own band's scene.

I don't have too many concrete examples from the mid-century, but it was more this way back then too. I do know that that's how they viewed domestic architecture and interior design. They were almost paralyzed with a neurosis about being one of the regimented mob. Individuality, meaning distinctiveness, was the most important thing to them in how their house looked. And it wasn't just like, let's have our own look to make a memorable impression on our guests. It came more from an antipathy toward the crowd that they belonged to, but didn't want to be seen as belonging to.

For example, the first glance at two neighboring ranch modern houses might look almost identical, but one would be the same design with the "front" spun around to where the "back" was on the other, or there would be minuscule differences in the size and placement of windows on the front. Nothing truly distinctive, kind of like how people have different skins for their identical Macbooks and iPhones.

Obviously the state of their technology didn't allow them to be as niche-hopping mad as we are today, but certainly compared to the previous Jazz Age and the Rock and New Wave Age afterward, they were more in the "I know something you don't know" direction. And again, not in a competitive way, but more to feel like they had their own little private sanctuary from the monotony of the mob's tastes, just the way that the yoga-and-yoghurt people must feel today.

Anyway, you get the idea. I realize that it's fun to make the SWPL types out to be hypocrites who engage in status-seeking contests of their own. And of course sometimes they actually do, like when they compare vocabulary size, GRE scores, level of difficulty for the colleges they got into, and so on. But that's still rare. Most of their seeming contests are really forms of cocooning through niche-hopping, not striding into an arena of competition and proving to the spectators and judges how high they can score on some characteristic. They aren't even contests over obscurity.

Status contests fit in with a more socially engaged culture, so we don't see them when everyone is withdrawing into their own little worlds. When people mill around more with each other, it's not hard to tell what the contests are, given how evolution has constrained what we accord status to. They're all variations on what Fitzgerald called the two stories -- "the charms of women and the bravery of men."


  1. I think F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong about that one. Women want looks just as much as men do.

  2. This may be of interest to you.
    Fireworks sales are the lowest they've been in decades:


  3. I agree that veneration of individual athletes is higher in rising-crime times.

    However, it seems as if the 1990-2020 period has seen a rise in compulsive sports watching amongst young, virile men.

    During falling-crime time, sports obsession is "nerdy" and dehumanized - there's an emphasis on stats, strategies and tactics, etc. Individual athletes are portrayed as being spoiled, with success riding on a good strategy rather than the character and courage of a star athelete. At the same time, sports nerds(and let's be honest, that's what they are) play God through fantasy football, once again denigrating the importance of individual athletes.

    During rising-crime, however, sports is focused more on a celebration of individual atheletes.

    I expect all this to become worse before 2020, when the pendulum will hopefully begin swinging the other way.

  4. "They're not about competing out in the open before judges, but rather about carving out their own micro-niche where only they and very few others are the colonists"

    Yeah, you see this in college a lot with house parties and such. its really frustrating, because it makes it difficult for anybody to get laid - its hard to find a mate in whatever little clique you get shuffled into. This could be one explanation for the decreasing sexual activity of young people.

    Interestingly, college libraries tend to develop as freer environments where people can check each other out, regardless of clique. Tom wolfe talked about this in his book about college, and it was certainliy true for my college. You could say Starbucks is developing into that type of role.

  5. Man, I feel like I practically spam your posts, but I was thinking, maybe cocooning is some kind of evolutionary mechanism to weed out bad genes?

    Sheltering is major handicap to reproduction. It doesn't take a genius to realize many of the Millenials will never have kids, or even be functional.

    It sounds cruel, but maybe sheltering a generation every 30 years or so, and then pulling out the rug, is a sophisticated way to get rid of bad genes. Those with good genes find a way to pull through when they're forced to actually go out and about and compete with people.

    Looking back, it seems that a lot of the members of the Silent Generation were seriously fucked up by 1960-1990 rising-crime period. Silent Generation had a huge number of divorces in the 1960s, for instance. Might be worth it to look up what percentage of Silent Generation people failed to have children altogether.

  6. "maybe cocooning is some kind of evolutionary mechanism to weed out bad genes?"

    At the first look, does not seem to make much sense - a person with good genes and without "cocooning" tendencies will have always more probability of having descendence than a person with good genes and with "cocooning" tendencies; than, by these mechanism I can't see why cocooning could have an evolutionary advantage.

    If you want an evolutionary explanation for what you call "cocooning", I have an alternative idea - to achieve our goals, we need to make plans and put them in practice; then, the ideal genetic combination will be one with a balance between the impulses to think and to act.

    But, in a population with a balanced mix of genes, it will always to born (by the laws of hereditiry) some people with to much "planning" genes and some people with to much "put in practice" genes.

    The first type of people will end up as the guys who spend their lives thinking and daydreaming but not doing anything; a good example are the reclusive philosophers or poets, like Nietzsche or Holderlin; if they are more of the "hard sciences" type, probably they will follow an area that requires more thinking than real activity, like mathematics or computer programming, instead of areas like engineering or chemistry; in the extreme point, they could end up judging that their mind IS the real world and becoming schizophrenics (a disease apparently common in both philosophers and mathematicians...).

    In the opposite case (to much propesensity to act and to little to think), they will end up, or constantly entering and exiting jail because of their impulsive acts, or as "good and hardworking guys" but needing someone to direct them.

    Perhaps there is a kind of continuum:

    - drunk
    - ordinary criminal
    - "good worker" in a structured environment
    - management position or self-employed worker
    - garden-variety nerd
    - reclusive thinker
    - schizophrenic

    Then, perhaps (if these theory is correct) both "cocooning" and "reckless behavior" are simply a kind of "sickle cell disease", a problem that happens when genes that, in small doses, are benign happens to being inherited in big doses by an individual.

  7. Status is a common motivation for violence. Violent status contests can easily be labeled anti-social. And the term "pro-social" is often used to mean the opposite, to cooperate in the prisoner's dilemma.

  8. "If you want an evolutionary explanation for what you call "cocooning", I have an alternative idea - to achieve our goals, we need to make plans and put them in practice; then, the ideal genetic combination will be one with a balance between the impulses to think and to act."

    I don't know. It seems like all the cocooners are crappy.

  9. I also think you get a different quality of jock in rising-crime vs. falling-crime.

    In 1975-1993 cultural highpoint, jocks were portrayed as heroic. Think Rocky. Or, in the movie "Lucas", the handsome quarterback - played by Charlie Sheen - is a good guy who looks out for the other students. One more example is Josh Brolin's character in "Goonies".

    From what I remember, in my high school the "soccer boys" were immature fratboy types, mostly hung out with each other as opposed to with girls.


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