December 26, 2003

No Style, No Substance

Virginia Postrel's The Substance of Style is neither substantive nor stylish. In fact the prose is about as bland and drab as a Soviet apartment block. The deeper problem however is that Mrs. Postrel apparently lives in a world where urban legends, trends hyped up by hack journalists and the contents of corporate press releases constitute reality. I highly suspect Mrs. Postrel is the sort of person you could convince gullible is not a word in the dictionary. Needless to say critical thinking is not a part of her vocabulary.

All this is sad because she sets out to right about what should be a fascinating subject to me, the rising popularity of design culture in America. And for a moment or two in chapter 5 "The Boundaries of Design" she actually touches on some interesting issues. Touches, but does not explore.

For the rest of the book Mrs. Postrel is content to do two things:

1 - State the blindingly obvious, that people care about aesthetics.
2 - Completely strip the current trends of design out of any meaningful context in order to construct a bumbling argument that we are entering an "age of aesthetics".

The core absurdity of this woeful excuse for a book is that Postrel somehow thinks people caring about aesthetics is a new thing. Its as if people never took care in selecting their china patterns a hundred years ago, indigo was never a luxury commodity and homes where never filled with decoration.

What Postrel completely misses, that the Henry Ford style "any color as long as its black" anti aesthetic stance that she hates so much, is actually the anomaly. The uniformity of design that is currently disappearing is actually a manifestation of the first stages of industrialization and mass production.

Postrel appears to want to believe that an "Age of Aestetics" is rising out of a new popular demand. And in order to make the argument she completely ignores the context of what is actually driving the events that she's read the press releases for. What she wants to see as a demand driven focus on "design" is actually a manifestation of various technological, economic and sociocultural changes in society. The demand for customization is not new at all, but in early state mass production it just wasn't possible.

Postrel however has no interest in exploring the real dynamics that are driving transformation, despite the ironic fact that her blog is titled "Dynamist". Instead she spends her whole time attempting to isolate "aesthetics" from any context, in order to manufacture her little "age". Of course the truth is that aesthetics, which are of course important to people, can not be so easily stripped from surroundings.

The 20 toilet brushes of Target exist, not just because there is demand, but because the technology exists to make them cheaply. The twelve year old dying his hair purple is not just doing because he love the color, he's doing it because of the cultural meaning associated with the action. The gold lettering on Postrel's book jacket is not there purely because she likes shiny things, its there because gold conveys a story, one that has evolved through geology, war and commerce.

The fact is there is probably a whole slew of books ready to emerge from the territory Postrel bumbles through so cluelessly. Good books. The Substance of Style is not one of them.

Posted by Abe at December 26, 2003 12:45 PM