Jacob Jordeans, “The Bean King” (1638). Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Why does something become popular? Why does culture change? In his new book, Status and Culture: How Our Desire for Social Rank Creates Taste, Identity, Art, Fashion, and Constant Change (Viking, 2022), writer and journalist W. David Marx focuses on contemporary culture—its perversions, its omnivorism, and its stasis. In this interview, Marx, who resides in Japan, discusses the nature of culture and his own influences, from Thorstein Veblen, to right-wing subcultures, to the fall of geek-oriented Internet, to TikTok and memes.

Alla Anatsko [AA]: David, in the preface of the book you write that you could never find a single book that explains “the Grand Mystery of Culture:” why humans gravitate toward some behaviors and not others. What do you mean by that?

W. David Marx [WDM]: If you think about culture as an ecosystem, there were books that contained fragments of the answer, but none that linked them all together. I’ve been obsessed with cultural mechanics for most of my life and felt like there wasn’t a practical handbook to it. I started from that idea and took Thorstein Veblen’s theory, Pierre Bourdieu’s theory, and Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations theory, fusing them all—because together they explained a pattern of how culture changes.

AA: If there were no books that explained culture for you, there was one on class: The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899). Throughout your book you cite Veblen more than anyone else.

WDM: Status is the clearest trigger for the movements you see in culture, and Veblen is where you start. Obviously, status links to class, but status is also broader than class. Conspicuous consumption is a universal phenomenon, so I don’t think Veblen was necessarily the first to ever notice it, but he was the first to popularize it—and a lot of his ideas still hold today.

Where there is new money, there will be conspicuous consumption, and bold aesthetics will emerge. So basically, from Veblen and Bourdieu alone, you can figure out how classes create aesthetics in society. But classes other than the “new money” class generate their own aesthetics. I believe most aesthetics in society come out of a class background, but in the twentieth century in particular you can’t ignore subcultures—groups that in many ways fall out of the class structure. 

AA: In the 1970s, Tom Wolfe, who you also cite a lot, argued that talking about status was the “fundamental taboo.” But we cringe to even think about status. Why is that?

WDM: Social psychologists have done a lot of research on status as an important organizing principle of society. Cameron Anderson, a social psychologist at Berkeley, has done research with his colleagues around status as a fundamental human desire. Sociologist Cecilia Ridgeway at Stanford has also done quite a bit of work about status structures as human inventions that motivate groups towards goals.

There’s a long debate about whether status is an instinct, in the sense that we’re all born with a DNA that forces us to want it—but people want high status because it’s beneficial. Similarly, psychologists have found that low status is damaging. We want to escape it and we want to go up. Another thing is that there’s no amount of status that makes us not want more status. We get addicted to it. People drop out of society because they’re sick of the “rat race,” but being above the whole system can be a status move as well.

We’re pretty much locked into defining ourselves socially: status infects all of that, even if we don’t want it to. So instead of ignoring it, we should understand its mechanisms. There are also things we can do to lessen the impact of status hierarchy; we can make the bottom not so far apart from the top.

AA: In your book you mention that status is a zero-sum game. Could you please explain that?

WDM: Sure. So, we’re all in groups, and all those groups have hierarchies—across multiple groups we have different hierarchy placements. But there is no master status ranking, unless you’re in the Army. The status tiers that we navigate are quite abstract—we have to figure out at all times where we are. That being said, most groups still want global status; they want their group to also move up this imaginary hierarchy.

Here’s an example. Trumpist Republicans—especially the wealthy ones who live in Middle America—get lots of respect in their community. But when they turn on the TV, they don’t see their values being reflected and they’re angry about it. I think the resentment they feel is completely related to how they see the global status hierarchy changing. So I’m not convinced that everyone is happy to step outside of the main hierarchy. Even though it doesn’t really exist anymore, there’s an idea in people’s minds about who gets respect and resources. 

It’s very easy to feel like it’s a zero-sum game when your group is going down and you see another group going up.

AA: At the same time, while people emulate higher classes to escape low status, those who are already at the top can be happily eccentric and even use lower class signifiers. As you say in the book, “they can ‘slum it’ without being mistaken for people living in slums.”

WDM: It seems obvious that if you can replicate the lifestyle choices of people above you, you could be understood as being them. The issue is that there are signaling costs. For example, you can get a loan and buy a Ferrari, but the other parts of your lifestyle will not match it. It sticks out like a sore thumb, and the people above will not believe that just because you have a Ferrari, you are one of them. The whole idea of cultural capital is knowing what objects to buy, how to arrange them, how to behave—all of these things go together. 

Just because you can purchase an object does not mean you can get into the group.

Meanwhile, at the very top, people can do whatever they want while, at the same time, showing that they are different from others: this requires distinctive behaviors. Even if they are eccentric, everyone has to tolerate it.

Celebrities make their eccentricity into a spectacle. Michael Jackson lived an incredibly strange life, ate weird foods, his entire behavior was bizarre—and that only added to his aura. So, what I talk about in the book is that the pressure on all of us to be individuals is really a democratization of aristocratic values. It can’t just be weirdness for weirdness sake, since we want to be rewarded for that eccentricity. 

I recently wrote an essay about the origin of Generation X. Douglas Coupland took the idea from Paul Fussell’s book Class. In the last chapter, Fussell talks about this group called X: the category of people who’ve left the class structure. They are a parody aristocracy, because they’re very eccentric but not actually rich. To extend this, if Gen X is a parody aristocracy, then millennials are a parody bourgeoisie: people showing on Instagram how hard they’re working to be rich and have these fabulous lifestyles.

AA: You write that “a significant portion of the modern economy is based on committing light symbolic deceit,” but that a supreme virtue for many is “keeping it real.” How do you explain this contradiction?

WDM: People live contradictory lifestyles, and we all aspire to luxury goods to some extent. Luxury companies created an image of the product that is anchored in elite distinction, yet they sell that product to nearly everybody everywhere. In the United States, there is a strong anti-fashion bias because it’s a place where class is not supposed to exist. I think that’s where the “keeping it real” part comes in: we find a reason to buy goods, some alibi that has nothing to do with status marking. “My mother has the same bag,” or “I thought this design was cute,” or “I got a discount on it.” Keeping it real simply means that your purchase behavior aligns to the sense of who you are. No one in the United States would tell you straight up, “I saw this in GQ, and the magazine told me I need to wear it.”

This puts pressure on us as individuals—especially in the West—to feel that we must buy these aspirational goods for status reasons, but at the same time to lie about our reasons, even to ourselves.

AA: Where does Bottega Veneta and The Strand bookstore’s $3,000 bag collab belong then?

WDM: It’s ridiculous because it seems so inauthentic. Luxury brands have completely taken over the world—there’s little countercultural movement in art and everything is tied up with fashion, even books. It’s the inauthenticity that becomes the spectacle.

I grew up in Pensacola, Florida, and my entire cultural education was mostly from MTV. There was a show called House of Style, and I would always change the channel because it had nothing to do with my life as a teenager—grunge, being anti-money, being down to earth. But today young people know brands, they know designers, they know that NBA players wear Thom Browne suits—you can’t avoid the spectacle of luxury goods.

AA: Was it hard to write about contemporary influences on culture?

WDM: Yes, especially things like TikTok. TikTok culture is entirely inside jokes. Writing about it for a Gen X person is hubristic: you know you’ll mess it up. But one thing I want to point out about TikTok is the fact that it’s inexplicable to me means it’s working. There have to be barriers to keep outsiders out, and TikTok does that very well.

But I think we’ve seen enough of the Internet over the last 20 years to know that information and distribution barriers are gone. You can buy anything from anywhere at any time. Those barriers were important for making culture into status symbols in the twentieth century, and today we’re in a much more difficult place: using culture in order to mark status. It means that economic capital—expensive things—become the way we mark status, which I find quite boring.

In the book I talk about Rashed Belhasa, the son of an Emirati business tycoon, who at age 15 had a Ferrari wrapped in Supreme and Louis Vuitton logos. It became an Internet spectacle, and you can expect more of this to happen. People with the most money outside of the U.S. will start broadcasting, and a global nouveau riche culture will take over.

AA: When you say that everything on the Internet is now available to everyone, do you mean products or information?

WDM: Two things are happening. One is that information is a currency, but it’s a devalued currency. You may know something but everyone else will also know about it quickly. And then there are experiences off the internet that are broadcast on the internet. There’s an article in The Atlantic about restaurant reservations that are very difficult to get, and that people brag about: you can broadcast eating at a restaurant on Instagram and turn that into a status symbol. 

Social media has empowered us to turn real life experiences into status symbols because they’re scarce.

AA: Was social media the only game changer in the way we see status?

WDM: The smartphone that brought everybody on the internet and made it a 24/7 affair, and then social media created a reason to be constantly online. I got on the internet in 1993 when the only things available were song lyrics and music chords. In the 2000s, the internet was still text-based and quite ugly. As the internet became more visual, more people joined; Instagram in particular gave the Internet a set of aesthetic conventions that everyone followed.

Another thing is the globalization of the internet. Professionals and creatives were incredibly sympathetic to that because it would give them access to all the other weird people around the world—the internet was theirs. Now the internet is for everybody, and it propagates a sense that everyone in the entire world needs to know all about mass culture. Today there is more pressure to be hip: to listen to the new Drake or Beyoncé, watch the big movie or TV show, and have opinions about all of them. 

AA: And on the internet there are no prominent contemporary subcultures any more, right?

WDM: There are subcultures on the Internet, but they’re subcultures that we don’t like: incels and trolls and “black pill” folks—right-wing people, but we just don’t think of them as subcultural because we can’t mine them for creative ideas. But right-wing subcultures have been influential. If you go back to the most famous subcultures of the twentieth century, like English Teddy Boys, they were right-wing too. Skinheads, who became a fashion phenomenon, worked with the National Front. Motorcycle gangs in Japan adhere to right-wing ideas. We forget about their politics, we take their fashion, and we think it’s cool. 

AA: Do you see the conservative pivot we are witnessing now as a reaction to cultural stasis?

WDM: Absolutely. Culturally sophisticated people became such omnivores that they like everything except for anti-omnivore provincial culture. So we’re seeing a battle between cosmopolitanism and provincialism. If you look at Trump and his movement, it is an intensely, proudly provincial culture that says: “Oh, if something is bad for the environment, we’ll do it.” Because cosmopolitan values have become so powerful, subcultures are powered by being anti-cosmopolitan.

AA: You also propose that even though trends on the Internet change very fast, the culture slows down.

WDM: In the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, information moved slowly, and you got trends from aristocrats. In the twenty-first century you have a mass market: an increase of speed results in more trends. But there’s a limit to that speed. A new trend debuts at a runway show, and two weeks later appears in a store. The cycle is so fast that we can’t use fashion cycles reliably to create distinction for ourselves. The meta-knowledge that speed can destroy that distinction window has made elites more conservative.

The internet was promised to us to be this place where we could celebrate diversity, but  instead, it has created stasis. Meme culture, for example, is universal and intentionally stupid. It shows that you have a sense of humor, but memes are not sophisticated art. Memes do not introduce new ideas that give us radical new ways to revalue our lived experience.

Click here to read an excerpt from Status and Culture by W. David Marx, courtesy of the author and Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2022 by W. David Marx.

W. David Marx is a journalist and author of Status and Culture: How Our Desire for Social Rank Creates Taste, Identity, Art, Fashion, and Constant Change (Viking Books, 2022) and Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style (Basic Books, 2015).

Alla Anatsko is MA candidate in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at The New School for Social Research.