Spent vs. Ridicule

I just re-watched Ridicule, a ’97 movie I’d liked. Its villains are Versailles courtiers just before the French Revolution, and its heroes are two young idealist engineer nobles seeking money, a man to drain a swamp to improve peasant health, and a woman to help her invent underwater gear. Both are tempted by the “corrupt” Versailles community to sell sex for favors, and the man also to maneuver politically and to spar for the peak of Versailles prestige, a reputation for wit, i.e., clever spontaneous, often insulting, remarks. He sells but is outwitted and fails, she refuses to sell, but no matter, the revolution kills off their rivals a few years later.

Interestingly, in many ways these “corrupt” courtiers achieve the ideal Geoffrey Miller advocated in Spent:

We are social primates who survive and reproduce largely through attracting practical support from kin, friends, and mates. We get that support insofar as others view us as offering desirable traits .. we have evolved many mental and moral capacities to display those desirable traits. Over the past few thousand years, we have learned that these desirable traits can also be displayed through buying and displaying various goods and services in market economies. … As a self-display strategy, it is very inefficient. … Almost every other way of acquiring and displaying human artifacts or experiences sends richer signals about one’s personal qualities. … Buying … offers low narrative value – no stories to tell about interesting people, places, and events … It does not expand your circle of friends and acquaintances.

The Versailles courtiers described in Ridicule were clearly intended to be despised by movie viewers. Yet they avoided consumerism and returned to forager ways in important ways. That is, they gained status not by buying things but attracting loyal allies and by displaying very personal rich story-full signals, little mediated by wealth or institutions: spontaneous verbal wit. Courtiers also revived forager-levels of promiscuity which, by his go-back-to-what-worked logic, Miller should also approve. But I’ll bet he doesn’t.

So why don’t anti-consumerist let’s-signal-via-storyfull-human-interaction folks celebrate Versailles’ witty courtiers? I’ll bet it is simply that they were rich while others were poor. But we are rich in a world where others are poor. So how could anti-consumerist habits ever vindicate us?

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  • Bock

    “So why don’t anti-consumerist let’s-signal-via-storyfull-human-interaction folks celebrate Versailles’ witty courtiers?”

    Isn’t this exactly what Roissy promotes: latter day witty courtiers – “with a spar of clever, often insulting remarks” — who can out-rank wealthy consumerists in status?

  • Steven Schreiber

    I think the fact that all of these people maintained lavish palaces away from Versailles sort of diminishes the “anti-consumerist” case.

  • Steven Schreiber

    Anyway, the reason we don’t approve of Versailles is that signaling has changed a lot since then. In an age where information is plentiful and, at least among the upper and upper middle class, advanced education is the norm, the witty repartee of courtiers is analogous to behaviors we hate in poseurs.

    We will see their actions anachronistically and judge them to be hollow people because we currently demand an almost Byronic life from which narrative is drawn.

  • http://silasx.blogspot.com Silas Barta

    I’m sure I said this at the time, but I’ll never understand why Spent got the attention it did. It’s a complete non-starter. Miller purports to have evidence that you can gain the same or better social status without spending as much as you currently do.

    But if what he’s saying is true, he should be able to find some proteges and get them to skyrocket in social status inexpensively. Instead, all has is a model that works on paper and only paper. Are we supposed to be dazzled by this complete lack of meaningful results?

  • http://www.uncrediblehallq.net/ Chris Hallquist

    I think your post answers why we find the courtiers of Ridicule (if not historical courtiers) repulsive: there, the game wasn’t purely a matter of showing off how smart you were. It was a world where people put a lot of energy into tearing each other down, and where the powerful could use their power to get sex simply because they were powerful, and not because the people they wanted to sleep with were impressed by their charms.

    @Silas: I think hipsters and pickup artists are proof-of-concept for non-monetary ways of being impressive.

    • http://silasx.blogspot.com Silas Barta

      But Miller didn’t discover that, did he?

  • Tyrrell McAllister

    So why don’t anti-consumerist let’s-signal-via-storyfull-human-interaction folks celebrate Versailles’ witty courtiers? I’ll bet it is simply that they were rich while others were poor. But we are rich in a world where others are poor. So how could anti-consumerist habits ever vindicate us?

    Wouldn’t this predict that those anti-consumerists would be more likely to celebrate poor people who tear down others with verbal bullying? Pro-underdog bias might lead an anti-consumerist to celebrate a poor person who tears down rich people. But I have a hard time seeing a celebration of a poor person tearing down other poor people. The metaphor of crabs in a bucket comes to mind.

  • http://cephalicfurrow.wordpress.com Peter

    Successful status-seeking involves not only signaling high status (via either building up successful signals or successfully tearing high-status others down), but also convincing others that you’re a “good guy,” that you are acting not merely out of self-interest but out of a moral sense of what is good. Without the latter component, you are simply a selfish status-seeker and there is plenty of precedent for unjustified status seekers to be cooperatively torn down. (Note that convincing others you’re a good guy is only tangentially related to your actual goodness and draws on the same skillset as social status seeking. Note also that powerful businessmen, for one, often justify their actions as “in the best interests of the company” or “the consumer,” thus fulfilling this condition.)

    Now I haven’t seen the film but I suspect that whether or not the courtiers managed to convince others that they are acting out of the interest of the state or whatever, they fail to convince the audience, and are therefore considered selfish status-seeking villains.

    • michael vassar

      I saw the movie and no, the courtiers don’t try to convince anyone that they are acting on any principles other than that wit is intrinsically good and should be cultivated. They make a fairly credible case for their position and aren’t unambiguous villains.

      • Tyrrell McAllister

        I saw the movie and no, the courtiers don’t try to convince anyone that they are acting on any principles other than that wit is intrinsically good and should be cultivated.

        It’s been a while, but isn’t there a scene where some courtier brags that he can give an argument against God’s existence as easily as for God’s existence, and the rest of the court reacts with shocked horror, destroying his career? Maybe the other courtiers where trying to signal that they thought that God was too important for such jests.

  • http://www.angryblog.org Brian Moore

    I imagine when most people in developing countries think of Americans talking about movie stars/political scandals in magazines and on the internet, the image of courtiers at Versailles would be a rather accurate metaphor for them.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Going beyond our attitudes toward movie characters, how do we feel about the ancien regime? Was their replacement an improvement?

    • Tyrrell McAllister

      To soon to tell.

      • Tyrrell McAllister

        And lest people think that I’m claiming that witticism as my own: Zhou Enlai.

  • Tyrrell McAllister

    I will try to follow Robin’s example and not let my typo bother me.

  • Anonymous

    Isn’t this extrapolation from fictional evidence?