Monads • 17 July 2007

Thanks to those who went in for the what is fashion? Rorschach test the other day. I didn’t give you anything to go on, and you turned up many good and unexpected bits. I have this tendency to seek puzzles and hidden ironies in the things humans do (think Freakonomics, the apotheosis of the academic gimmick), but there’s a non-ironic nub in the things you say: people simply want to beautify, to imitate the beautiful, to copy those around them, to create “in” language that both demarcates a group and demarcates an era.

University is about closing off most thought-worlds in order to nurture and perfect singular lines of reasoning. This makes paradigms robust, but closes the mind. Bringing the conversation here opens me up to charges that I’m assuming too much, that I’m saying nothing but stupid common sense, that I’m forgetting to see the strange in the familiar and the familiar in the strange. Most days, the fact that organized society exists—that we’re not all anarchically killing each other but actually live together in crazy complex (beautiful) organization—blows my mind. But some days, here in the iron cage not only of bureaucracy but of extremely patterned thinking, I forget to be amazed. Could it be that our natural tendency is toward organization—not entrorpy? And that ingroup-outgroup dynamics are the primitive form of organization? Aaah, so.

The main reason I brought you this question is that I’m trying to think of what I might be missing about ethical consumerism movements—especially sweat-free campaigns and (less so) the new environmentalism of green industry and (cough) carbon offsetting. The obvious way to conceptualize this (at least green consumerism— sweat-free movements are harder to nail down) is as a social dilemma: we’re all gonna die when pollution chokes us out, so the best a girl can do is to encourage others to pollute less while herself covertly enjoying the “personal utility” of polluting. Moreover, she can use green consumerism as a coercive device— stigmatizing those who don’t practice it and motivating them to join the in crowd and do it. So it looks like a classic tragedy of the commons: individual rationality (using as much of the free resource as possible) leads to collective irrationality (we hit the margin and go extinct). Very Freakonomics.

Thing is, this doesn’t do it for me. First, it doesn’t help me understand why anyone would give a shit about their T-shirts coming from a sweatshop (whatever that is). And second, I don’t think most people really, practically, believe that we’re all gonna die from pollution. So I opened it up to see what people think about where imitation trends come from. I think the thing about existential anxiety and not wanting to be alone is pretty rich (and corresponds nicely with where neuroscience is going).

I can’t even begin to investigate this stuff, really, until I settle on a unit of analysis. Is it a society (whatever that is)? Is it individuals? Dis, with other tough-minded, clear-thinking individuals who see the social whole as equal to the sum of its parts, says: “Strictly speaking, groups themselves don’t think and act, individuals within groups do.”

Ok, yes. This is the part where I kiss your little typing fingers for letting the monads in by the back door. Monads! A decade ago The Editor and I discovered the little gremlins. I actually have no fricking idea what a monad is, but I do know that “monads have no windows.” What? Ok, so when I say a human is a monad, all I mean is that it’s a self-contained organism. When a human does something, all the “parts” of the human do it. They don’t get to do something else. When I take a bath, my spleen doesn’t get to stay out on the balcony. But, if there even is such a thing as a society, it definitely isn’t a monad. There’s not some dominant volition that necessarily takes its constituients to and fro without any say from the parts. Action at the level of a society just isn’t that clean: some of the subparts are joining the infantry but some are going to Canada. Some pursue only money, some art, and some would trade it all for an ounce of enlightenment. Or sex with Jon Stewart. It just makes more sense to try to explain and predict a monad’s (individual’s) movement than that of a society, especially if all a society is is a collection of monads.

Except, I would submit, it isn’t.Network theorists and biologists (the most cutting edge social thinkers in the game, I’ll admit) see groups as “emergent properties” of interactions. This has the advantages of being beautiful and of focusing analysis not so much on concrete individuals themselves as on the stuff they do. Groups aren’t made of people: they’re made of relationships. That’s a really great idea. And it’s great for explaining how groups form on, say, the playground or the internet. It’s all just interactions, over and over, and with time groups emerge.

Yet…this individual, processual version of reality doesn’t work for everything. Would you study a school of fish like that? (Or junior high girls?) Or a dictatorship? A world trade agreement? A religion? Many groups are more than emergent: they’re institutionalized. We don’t reproduce them merely as individuals: we are born into them and die out of them and the group lives on. Stuff—like the weight of history, or the fact that groups aren’t made of homogenous or equal parts—gets lost when we say a trend is the aggregate of social actions.

I’m interested in what the regnant ideas can’t account for with respect to something as irrational and bizarre as a bunch of US students making common cause with a bunch of Chinese workers. These people are monads… but have they through interaction created a kind of transitory group-level entity? Whose actions and efficacy are not reducible to those of its constitutients? (Mmm… Leibniz meets Whitehead.)

In case you missed it, the implicit question here is: what are the limitations of oneness?

I don’t know. A rote Marxist would say ethical consumerism is just the last gasp of late capitalism—a dialectical move to preserve the system just a little longer while it suffocates on its own contradictions. That’s a little too system-level to me: Capital, alas, is not exactly a monad. As usual, I’m trying to find a middle path between the view from above and that from below.


  • Posted 17 July 2007 at 4:11 pm | #

    Why you little… Doh!!!!

    I’m not sure this explanation really explains what you were doing. I’m confused.

  • Posted 17 July 2007 at 4:34 pm | #

    Oh. Pardon the completely random snapshot of my brain. Here’s what I was doing by asking the fashion question.

    So, ethical consumerism. What is that? Well, there are these networks people who study markets and who would say it’s a tragedy of the commons. And there are these structuralists who would say it’s the system’s attempt to correct the irrationalities of capitalism. And a bunch of other people who would say it’s all ingroup/ outgroup stuff. And I’m saying, whatever. I’m saying: to what degree is it all just a fashion trend?

    But then I realized I have no real clue what that would mean. So I asked, curious to see if what you said about fashion would map on to the ethical consumerism case or not.

  • R
    Posted 17 July 2007 at 4:41 pm | #


  • Posted 17 July 2007 at 4:43 pm | #

    You can never trust a monad.

  • Posted 18 July 2007 at 1:20 pm | #

    I’ve been reading Ken Wilber’s Brief History…, per your recommendation. This integration thing he’s trying to do is interesting, to say the least. He also seems a little dangerous since he is culling from so many places he doesn’t have first-hand experience with. He is one of those third-hand researchers that does his work by reading and pondering. Nothing wrong with that I guess — someone’s gotta do it — but he’s way off base on some important points. The book is very readable, except the way he overuses the phrase “fuck it or kill it.” I could do with a little more finesse.

    All in all, his approach is pretty remarkable. Maybe others will jump on board with the multi-axis idea. The holarchy he describes doesn’t seem to work though. He needs to fix it or ditch it.

  • Posted 19 July 2007 at 1:00 pm | #

    I’m glad to hear you’re unsatisfied with it. This is by far the most reductive of his books, and rides his assumptions raw. For people who see those reductionist and assumption-riding dynamics at work and haven’t been through the processes he took to arrive there, the book can be irritating. Also, the whole “fuck it or kill it” vibe he busts into at times (his ability to go to that place is a bit infamous) can be unsettling.

    Sex, Ecology, Spirituality is a whole different deal. And the most recent, Integral Spirituality, contains two utterly genius chapters where he walks through his analytical process with respect to, first, the limitations of systems theory and second, the integration of psychoanalytic and contemplative practice (you’d like the second of these, I think). There’s also a hilarious chapter on the shadow of the 1960s/Boomer ethos, if you’re willing to work with his assumptions about what culture is and how development works.

    Much of his life’s work is tinkering with the holarchy. It gets more and more accurate, and over time he’s dispensed with many unnessary assumptions. I get a little bored with the holarchy, actually, because I don’t take it seriously. It’s a map. It’s fun. But analysis shouldn’t just be about making maps and then trying to match lived experience back on to them. That’s where a lot of integral minions get hung up. Wilber, however, is completely happy with the whole system just being a vague approximation. He’s not a fanatic.

    I agree that he is dangerous in that he doesn’t know firsthand all the stuff he summarizes (and in other ways, for sure). But I will say that his overviews of the fields I know is accurate, if stylized. Most researchers are just worker bees, toiling away in a little corner of the comb with no understanding of the whole. But sometimes, a true queen emerges.

    Too bad it’ll be another century before most of the bees can even begin to deal with Sex, Ecology, Spirituality.

  • Posted 19 July 2007 at 2:21 pm | #

    I’ll log onto the library’s website and put a hold on a copy of S, E, S.

    How do you affect italics in your comments? I tried straight-up HTML tags but they get stripped out.

  • Posted 19 July 2007 at 2:24 pm | #

    It’s old-school, and simpler, actually. Click on “Textile Help” just above the comment window.

  • yancy
    Posted 24 July 2007 at 7:06 pm | #

    As I may be the only reader here who subscribes to magazines that catalogue all things fashionable—Lucky, Domino, those monthlies that don’t even pretend to be anything other than consumer trends—I have some thoughts on all of this. I’m also constantly analyzing my own consumer choices and experiences (why am I reaching for Tide right now instead of Cheer? That ad was funny: do I want the product now?). I’ve been interested in my seeming inability to catch the ethical consumerism trend for a long time.

    Here’s a situation that comes to mind. A high school where school uniforms are required. Even within these restrictions, kids will do whatever they can to individuate (is that a dirty word in these circles?) and some of the things they do to this will become fashionable. The things they do—rolled sleeves, untucked shirts, baggy fit, etc., won’t just separate in from out. It will “segment” them (to use the language of marketers!) into many more sub-groups. I think of fashion (clothing, in the literal sense, but any other kind of trend adoption) as being a way individuals “advertise” their tastes, personalities, and ultimately values, which I think is what you’re dealing with, right? Because all consumerism, “ethical” or otherwise communicates values. The communication of those values is one of the perceived utilities of a given trend.
    I mean, let’s say there’s a truly ugly girl at this high school that requires uniforms. How does she communicate that she is a person who values beauty, if she is not beautiful? Even those folks who try very consciously not to communicate their tastes, personalities, values, etc. through the adoption of trends, do communicate values. Of course, we could all be wearing sandwich boards what communicate these values/tastes much more directly. But the current way works out much more nicely for people who’d like to sell us things.

    And of course, we’re communicating status or class. Are there societies that aren’t class-based? Status always matters, even outside of capitalism, doesn’t it? Maybe not class in the sense conflict theorists mean. But status, surely, status that must be communicated.

    I think the point about language is especially important. Let’s say I’m in a job interview. Being fashionable in terms of my language as well as my dress “advertises” the kind of person I want to be perceived to be, and the shared values I am trying to communicate. I can wear a Rolex to communicate this. I can use jargon, like “team building” and “best practices.” I am trying to say that “I am one of you.” Academics, especially, use language to communicate these values. The rest of us, I’m afraid, are more likely to communicate via our shoes.

    And I don’t think you’re taking utility seriously enough. Consumers, individually, can be very calculating about their choices. Is it worth it? is a question about utility. These shoes are so cute, and I can wear them to work, and people will know I make a good income to be able to afford these shoes. They are worth it. That’s pretty darn calculating. And in this frenzied age, our need to identify the sort of person we are with consumer choices is greater than ever before. As we become less invested in other notions of identity, these consumer choices anchor us. What great news for advertisers.

    I’m getting off of your point, and I know I’m reducing things to situations. But that’s what fiction writers do. We think of individual people in specific situations and that’s all we know.

    And this all leads to a funny behavior I’ve observed in myself. I tend to buy these “ethical” products for others, not for myself, because I can communicate to these other people that I observe, respect, and share their values and thus have purchased this bamboo bowl or organic cotton onesie for them. There is an added utility to this that doesn’t exist when I merely buy the product for myself. And it usually tips the scales. Pretty screwy, eh?

    I think that one of the things that makes the adoption of ethical consumerism so problematic is that values come in conflict. Is it more important for me to be a person who values a certain ethical good, or more important to be a person who refuses to be “marketed to?” That sort of thing.

    But maybe you were trying to ask why we want to “advertise” ourselves at all and I didn’t get that? Is it biological and are we back to the peacocks after all? I don’t have a clue.

  • Rob
    Posted 24 July 2007 at 10:03 pm | #

    Yo Mo—Just to prod a little on the values thing: I might agree with you, if by “values” we don’t mean the same thing.

    I think of a person’s values as something relatively stable, at least increasingly so as they age; as things like “I value a healthy lifestyle” or “I value non-conformity” or “I value responsibility” or “I value being able to get a little crazy sometimes.” It’s hard for me to see how these sorts of values translate into the sort of rapid-fire fashion world of the magazines you talk about—where trends change seasonally, if not by the issue—unless the value they’re expressing is “I value my appearance enough to stay on top of fashion trends.” It’s hard to see how the emanation of the other types of values could drive that machine.

    I do see how things like “I value non-consumerism and DIY” translates into a person’s general clothing tastes, but that seems like something different from the highly variable regime of “fashion.”

    Also, it seems like there has to be something more than values and choice and utility-evaluation going on; because if not, the implication is that the person who isn’t carrying a $1000 handbag simply doesn’t value looking good as much as the person who does.

    That said, I think that the communicating (of “values”) part is where the meat is. It’s more about the impression that someone means to give off (and give off with an awareness of the sorts of distinctions and categorizations that fashion produces and reproduces among a range of audiences). “I want to be seen in this interview as someone who values efficiency and utility, but also has a little bit of class and isn’t afraid to have a little fun.” I guess that the things to point out in this example are: that it’s more about consciousness of the impressions made about one’s values than about their mere natural “expression”; and that it’s situationally variable.

    But blah blah blah.

  • Posted 25 July 2007 at 12:13 pm | #

    Sure “individual” is in my book! Humans make their own history. Aren’t creativity and choice pretty much the source of meaning… and what makes life worth trying to understand?

    Yes, as you mentioned, I’m wondering about the underlying impulse of trends in self-presentation. This would frame consumerism not as need-satisfaction or even entertainment, but primarily as self-creative. The conflation of “style” and “values” in your comment points to something that ethical consumerism has (sort of) pulled off: equation of aesthetics and ethics. The refrain “There can be no judging of taste,” is under attack. Nice! Yet, even as the underlying “value”-impulse of the movement is moral, it seems that quickly drops out to render a purely aesthetic schema. Some Prius drivers care about their carbon footprints; some just want to make a statement about themselves (the second is an selective employment of “values” which is closer to “taste”). Sometimes taste (“the beautiful”) and morality (“the good”) work as the same thing; sometimes they don’t.

    Interesting dilemma about being a person who won’t be marketed to versus supporting an ethical market. I’m for consuming less, primarily for taste and secondarily for ethics. Middlebrow consumerism annoys me more because it’s anxious and tacky than because it’s wasteful, though the latter is a better justification for my uncharitable judgements… and as I become more of an environmentalist, that balance might shift. 🙂

    Some consumer choices happen after a cost-benefit analysis; some are impulsive. Sometimes cost-benefit really is a rational “is it worth it?”; sometimes it’s a rationalization. A lot of what marketing does is high-jack or by-pass the c-b analysis. Interestingly, that’s often with an appeal to values. Ethical consumerism is a commodification of values.

  • yancy
    Posted 27 July 2007 at 10:51 am | #

    It’s funny, since you posted this I keep seeing news stories that are related. By values, I meant those b.s. cultural values, the sort that are themselves subject to trends. And of course, the entire thing is hijacked by marketing. Even if the values themselves might be fixed in some instances (I value tradition, say, or I value innovation) the way we are told we should express these values is constantly in flux. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that it is a natural or even legitimate expression of values, but the idea that values should be expressed this way has been sold to us so thoroughly that we can’t really escape it. And I think the American “value” of “keeping up” is in fact one of the very things people try to express by constantly adopting new changes. It is one of the central corporate values. Sure, we all get bored and sick of things (even songs we love, for example) but we don’t have any innate need for new things at the rate at which new things are sold to us.

    I can think of very few things I wear, or trends I adopt, that are a natural expression of my personality, much less my values, perhaps with the exception of color, which is something universal and found in nature. I like color, and that might express my personality. Everything else has less to do with how I feel about a particular thing, than what I believe to be some mutually accepted statement the things expresses.

    —-Some Prius drivers care about their carbon footprints; some just want to make a statement about themselves (the second is an selective employment of “values” which is closer to “taste”).—-

    Yes. And the more of these factors that come together to make a particular trend convenient, the faster it is adopted.

    I think to get at the rate that trends recycle and refresh goes back to the example about the poor boys at Pitchfork. The elite (including the wealthy, but also including the cultural elite, the “creative” elite) have to work hard to constantly separate themselves from everyone else. Having superior—and unique—taste defines them. So in that sense, I guess we’re back to be it being driven by class. And I think it is driven more by that than by the marketers alone. The example in Freakonomics about baby names really demonstrates that. (And shows that this happens even when there’s nothing to sell). And with technology today, those that want to mimic the elite can do so much more quickly, so things go from cutting edge to bourgeois to mainstream and so on much faster than ever before.

    —-Also, it seems like there has to be something more than values and choice and utility-evaluation going on; because if not, the implication is that the person who isn’t carrying a $1000 handbag simply doesn’t value looking good as much as the person who does.—-

    The implication is that they don’t value looking wealthy as much as the person who carries the $1000 handbag does. And it implies very little about their actual wealth, of course.

    It took me a whole year to buy a pair of $100 jeans because I didn’t want to look like the sort of person who buys such a thing. But eventually the benefit of looking five pounds thinner won out. So apparently I value looking thin more than I value looking like an individual! (I could go on and on about our attempts to express value via our weight.)

    And this culturally accepted implication is in constant flux, as trends become mainstream. Back to what’s alternative when alternative is mainstream? In a city like L.A., driving a BMW or a Mercedes is so common that it is no longer a symbol of class status as much as class aspiration. A wealthy person is much more likely to drive a Subaru.

    I have no idea where I was going with this, but I’d love to see you post more about the marketing of the green movement at some point. I’ve noticed some minor shifts in language that seem to have made a major impact on the trend, and it’s a subject of much personal fascination for me.

  • Rob
    Posted 27 July 2007 at 11:47 am | #

    the color thing; baby names; weight; and car consumption more as class aspiration than class expression: interesting things.

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