Solving the long-standing mysteries of culture—from the origin of our tastes and identities, to the perpetual cycles of fashions and fads—through an exploration of the fundamental human desire for status.
Marx’s first book — an investigation of the Japanese influence on the global fashion industry — succeeded precisely because of his narrow approach. Here, his comprehensiveness threatens to render Status and Culture a dull but effective teaching text. In his effort to cover everything — from conventions to signaling to complex questions of identity, counterculture and race — the author’s thesis gets lost ... Marx is engaging when tracing the evolution of products, such as the democratization of chocolate and Perrier from gourmet delicacies to deli staples. More plodding is his examination of those aspirational behaviors that gel into mass phenomena, like the Beatles 'mop top.' While it’s interesting to learn that expensive purebred dogs are a relatively recent passion, a curiosity that became popular, the fact feels slight when juxtaposed with observations about race, which in turn gets relatively cursory treatment. But he’s done his homework, collating the zingers and wisdom of some of our best cultural critics, sociologists, and philosophers ... Marx is most convincing when addressing the perennial question of whether money can, in fact, buy class ... At times, you wish Marx would indulge in juicier class voyeurism ... Fans of the genre may wonder about certain choices ... In his effort to get everything in, Marx often presents his information blandly.
... cannily reasoned ... Marx consults the work of dozens of formidable thinkers--anthropologists, historians, philosophers, sociologists--and quotes them liberally. But to further bolster his points, Marx is at least as likely to furnish examples from pop culture as from so-called highbrow culture ... offers plenty of revelations.
Mr. Marx’s status-based explanation is powerful but simplistic. It ignores the power of pleasure, including the joy of novelty itself ... 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...As a survey of the literature on status, the book is broad if not deep. It could serve as an introductory textbook ... blessedly free of the moralizing that so often mars analyses of status. Mr. Marx recognizes that status and status-seeking are human universals ... 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.