‘Status and Culture’ Review: Making the Cut

The Wall Street Journal , October 07, 2022

When W. David Marx was 8 years old, he saw a photo of the Beatles on a cassette tape of their early hits. With their moptop haircuts, he thought they looked just like him and his brother—and many other guys in their conservative southern town. He was amazed to learn that just 20 years earlier those haircuts had been the flashpoint of a trans-Atlantic culture war.

Mr. Marx, a Tokyo-based writer on culture and fashion, opens “Status and Culture” on the scene of the conflict. Originally adopted by the “lost Beatle” Stu Sutcliffe, the haircut began as an imitation of German art students who were themselves imitating French styles. After first mocking their bandmate, the rest of the Beatles embraced the style to distinguish themselves from other aspiring British musicians. The subsequent hysteria—“They look like girls!” was a common objection—added to the band’s aura. Eventually, even folks with crew cuts got used to moptops, and the Beatles moved on to what Mr. Marx calls “full-length hippie locks.”

The story exemplifies what he calls “The Grand Mystery of Culture”: “Why,” he asks, “do humans collectively prefer certain practices, and then, years later, move on to alternatives for no practical reason?” Where does fashion— in clothes, art, or music—come from? Mr. Marx suggests that the master key for unlocking such mysteries is status.

“Status,” he writes, “denotes a position within a social hierarchy based on respect and perceived importance.” Our status depends on how others see us, and “status positions are best expressed as membership within tiers stacked up from high to low.” Most members of a given group, whether that’s a kindergarten class or a curling team, have “normal status, for which they receive common courtesies and basic privileges—but no special treatment.”

To maintain their positions, the normals conform to social conventions, even as they aspire to higher status. Individuals’ decisions about when to switch from one convention to a new one drive cultural changes. “Those who have either very high or very low status are more likely to try new things,” Mr. Marx writes. The innovators may explore new forms for intrinsic reasons. Then high-status people adopt the avant-garde to distinguish themselves, and the trend begins to spread. Take hip-hop music and style, which came out of ghettos in New York and Los Angeles. “New York’s downtown art scene supported Bronx hip-hop before many African American radio stations took rap seriously,” notes Mr. Marx. Eventually, cultural industries “locate high-status innovations with cachet and adapt their content to the existing tastes of mass audiences.” They dilute complexity to make new forms broadly palatable. MC Hammer turns hip-hop into pop music.

Mr. Marx’s status-based explanation is powerful but simplistic. It ignores the power of pleasure, including the joy of novelty itself. As a white working-class kid in rural Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, my colleague Sean Crockett was an unlikely early adopter of hip-hop. But one night in 1987 he was scrolling through the radio dial when he caught a Philadelphia station playing Newcleus’s “Jam On It.” It was like nothing else he’d ever heard and he loved it. He stayed up all night listening this new music. Rap has been his favorite ever since. Stories like that don’t fit easily into Mr. Marx’s single-variable explanation for trends.

Neither do individuals who may simply be more easily bored than other people. Just as not everyone falls into the same status tier, not everyone has the same craving for novelty—a variable studied in depth by psychologists. This is not only a matter of personality differences: film critics, for example, see too many movies to find many of them appealingly fresh. Jaded and easily bored, they reward newness—a mark of sophistication, perhaps, but not necessarily of status competition.

Early in the book, Mr. Marx makes the astonishing claim that “despite the importance of status, there has been a conspicuous lack of discussion about its influence on human behavior.” The rest of the book, however, including its impressive bibliography, demonstrates that this “conspicuous lack of discussion” is no such thing. Social scientists, journalists and critics have been obsessed with status for at least 250 years. Indeed, Mr. Marx ransacks the status stacks, pulling quotes from Thorstein Veblen, Georg Simmel, and Werner Sombart, as well as such important contemporary scholars as Grant McCracken, Cecilia Ridgeway, and Elizabeth Currid-Halkett alongside a raft of journalists. He is especially fond of the “Style Guy” Glenn O’Brien and relies heavily on Everett Rogers’s theory of how innovations diffuse. He quotes René Girard, whose views on imitation are all the rage among admirers of his admirer Peter Thiel. As a survey of the literature on status, the book is broad if not deep. It could serve as an introductory textbook.

“Status and Culture” is blessedly free of the moralizing that so often mars analyses of status. Mr. Marx recognizes that status and status-seeking are human universals: “All status symbols rely on objects and behaviors with practical or aesthetic value that enrich our lives,” he writes. But the book often feels anchored in the second half of the 20th century, when the Beatles, Pop Art, and preppy style were salient examples and mass media essential to cultural diffusion. It doesn’t reach back to, say, the Italian Renaissance to more fully test its theories. Only in the final chapter does it begin to explore our own “era of vast quantities, deep specificity, and breakneck speed, where few individual artifacts, artworks, or conventions leave a dent in society or bend the curve of history.”

In today’s sea of instantly available, constantly ranked cultural production, Mr. Marx argues, everything and nothing has cachet. The result, he worries, is to “debase cultural capital as an asset, which makes popularity and economic capital even more central in marking status.” In some ways, the world he describes sounds like the 1950s, with the culture of TikTok as the new mass media, and “keeping up with the Joneses” measured in likes.

Now, however, individuals with specific passions and tastes can find the things they value far more easily. “We live in a paradise of options, and the diminished power of gatekeepers has allowed more voices to flourish,” Mr. Marx acknowledges. “The question is simply whether internet content can fulfill our basic human needs for status distinction.”

But neither status hierarchies nor creative products have to be universal to flourish. Individuals can find meaning, esteem and new ways of seeing the world within specific communities online or off. Responding to a Getty Museum pandemic challenge, Peter Brathwaite, a successful British baritone locked out of his normal performances, began recreating historic artworks with materials from around his house. He chose depictions of black people, beginning with an unknown 18th-century artist’s portrait of an English servant. Clever, well-researched and provocative, the resulting Instagram selfies brought Mr. Brathwaite acclaim and highlighted largely forgotten historical images. Internet culture elevated not only hispersonal status but that of his ancestors and the black subjects hidden in European art.

Mr. Marx’s vision of a single-tiered status ranking for an entire society limits the power of his theory. It marks the book as a 20th-century artifact, despite its publication date. But he is a curious cultural observer, asking important questions. If he continues his 21st-century explorations in a sequel to “Status and Culture,” I’ll want to read that book as well.