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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