The Future is Glamorous

Via Arcane Wanderland and Tyler Cowen, from Virginia Postrel’s new book, Glamour:

"Oh, the glamour of youth! Oh, the fire of it, more dazzling than the flames of the burning ship, throwing a magic light on the wide earth, leaping audaciously to the sky," wrote Joseph Conrad, wistfully recalling "the deceitful feeling that lures us on to joys, to perils, to love, to vain effort." …

All these meanings have two ideas in common: that glamour is an illusion, and that glamour exists not in the glamorous object but in the observer’s mind.  Glamour is not a style but a theatrical, imaginative process that creates a specific, emotional response: a sharp mixture of projection, longing, admiration, and aspiration. …

Glamour represents a special case of what the cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken calls "displaced meaning." As sources of identity and hope, he argues, every culture maintains ideals that can never be fully realized in everyday life. To preserve and transmit these ideals, a culture develops images and stories that portray a world in which its ideals are realized – a paradise, a utopia, a vanished golden age, a world to come. When they are transported to a distant cultural domain, ideals are made to seem practicable realities. …

The mythmaking of displaced meaning gives cultures the characters, artifacts, geography, and emotions that make their cherished abstractions seem attainable and true while keeping those ideals safely removed from the constraints and compromises of everyday life. Hence, the connection between the glamorous and the exotic. It’s easier to imagine a perfect life in a place you’ve never been, a place you know only from carefully selected images. California, Paris, and New York were most glamorous when they were hardest to reach. Yet these are, of course, real places. They are, at least in theory, attainable.

For individuals, McCracken argues, commercial goods often serve as "bridges to these hopes and ideals." Your dream house represents not just a dwelling but your vision of the perfect family life, the perfect job, the perfect self. … The perfect artist’s loft, cook’s kitchen, or writer’s study will makes us who we want to be. …

But the ideal is always out of reach and so, in some way, must be the goods that symbolize it. Only then can tangible things remain bridges to intangible, and impossible, goals. That is why luxuries often take on displaced meaning. We cannot afford them or, like countless haute couture dresses, they require a setting or a physique few people will ever possess.

Glamorous clothes or houses do little for me, but Virginia’s passage shows me that I too am under glamour’s spell.  As a fan of science fiction fan and an analyst of future technologies, I am tempted to project my ideals onto a future "safely removed from the constraints and compromises of everyday life."  And I am drawn to overcome bias in part because it would be a grand and glorious achievement.   These attitudes motivate me to work on these topics, but surely they also introduce biases, which I only partially understand.    

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  • Barkley Rosser

    Aw, that Virginia Postrel. She’s just a glamour puss, :-).
    (Just teasing, if you are reading this, V.P.!)