John Tuohy's MY WRITERS SITE: Happiness ...................: ABOUT THE AUTHOR John William Tuohy is a writer who lives in Washington DC. He holds an MFA in writing from Lindenwood Unive...
By Howard Dukes South Bend Tribune
A passage that Linda DeCicco wrote in a book about the Sophomore Literary Festival at the University of Notre Dame started her interest in the life of Kenneth Rexroth.
The poet, who died in 1982, is associated with poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who are all associated with the beat poetry scene in San Francisco.
As it turns out, Rexroth had a connection to South Bend that DeCicco noted in her book when she detailed something that took place when the poet read at the literary festival in 1973.
"John Matthias hosted him and had him over for dinner, and (Rexroth) points outside the window and says, 'I was born right over there,'" DeCicco says.
A former editor at The Tribune, she filed that one item from a history of the Sophomore Literary Festival away. However, she always wanted to return to Kenneth Rexroth and his upbringing in Michiana — the poet moved with his family to Elkhart and remained there before moving to Chicago when both of his parents died.
DeCicco, who recently retired from teaching at Riley High School, says she would run across things that reminded her of the unfinished project.
"One day I was at Barnes & Noble and I see this big book on Kenneth Rexroth and it says that he was from South Bend, and I said, 'How come nobody knows this? This is important,'" she says.
DeCicco says she decided to find the poet's childhood home, so she spent hours in the library going through microfilms and old city directories before finding a Charles Rexroth who lived in the 800 block of Park Avenue.
It turned out that Rexroth incorrectly identified the home as his childhood home during that 1973 reception at the home of John Matthias, DeCicco says. However, her determination to honor Rexroth eventually brought her to The History Museum, where she hoped to spark interest in mounting a Rexroth exhibit.
"The guy (in charge of) the archives was real super-interested, but then he left and it kind of dropped," she says. "Then nothing happened and life happened and nobody seemed interested in memorializing him. But I always knew in the back of my mind that when I retired — and this is my first year of retirement — that I was going to find a way to resume the effort."
A Tribune article about the Indiana Historical Bureau's effort to look for topics of statewide significance that can be honored with historical markers provided DeCicco with a way to restart her plans to honor Rexroth. The bureau is looking to erect additional markers across the state honor historically significant people, places and event as a part of the state's bicentennial.
DeCicco says she submitted an application to have a marker placed in front of Rexroth's childhood home, and will find out next month if her submission will be among the ones accepted. If her application is approved, the sign will be installed in 2017, but she will have to raise the estimated cost of $2,200. DeCicco says she will do a crowd-funding campaign if the bureau approves her request.
DeCicco also spoke to Paul Fields, the current homeowner who had previously expressed support, to see if he still supported the proposal.
"I think that history is important and that it's absolutely important that we put a land marker there if the state feels that he needs to be recognized."
And When I Die, I Won't Stay Dead Makes Beat Poet Bob Kaufman's Mysterious Life Even More Mysterious
by Rich Smith
Speaking to a crowd at the Festival of California Poets in 2007, poet and scholar Harryette Mullen introduced Bob Kaufman's woefully under-celebrated but critically acclaimed work by saying: "He often seems to be overlooked when people discuss African American poets, partly because he's a Beat writer. And he often seems to be left out of a lot of Beat history because he was a Black writer." She concluded her brief introduction to the poet by adding, "He dedicated himself to the antithesis of a literary career."
Unlike Allen Ginsberg or Jack Kerouac, Kaufman's removal/liberation from mainstream bourgeois society by way of poetry wasn't arguably an attempt to join that society or remake it in his own image. But like many facts about Kaufman's life, the degree to which this removal was self-imposed remains a mystery. These mysteries remain mysterious, even after spending a long hour and half with Billy Woodberry's documentary on the enigmatic poet, And When I Die, I Won't Stay Dead.
Over beers, ex–cool cat poets such as former San Francisco poet laureate Jack Hirschman spread Kaufman's legend as they heard it or experienced it, telling stories of the poet's involuntary electric-shock treatment, the fortunate coincidences that led to his publication, his vow of sort-of silence following the death of JFK, and the friends who saved his work from dissolving into pure air.
Both family and friends seem to believe their interactions with Kaufman amounted to a visitation. For some he was a silent angel, and for others he was a cigarette bum. To many women, he was a fly-by-night lover, an absent father—and for some a welcomely absent father. For the French, he was a genius—they called him "the black Rimbaud." For the canonical Beats, he wasn't "political" in the way they wanted him to be, says Hirschman. He seems to have embodied truth at the base of a paradox, a figure he obsessively employed in his hilarious and still-fresh poems.
And When I Die presents a mosaic of conflicting stories about Kaufman. This structure uses the poet's style as a guide to framing the story about Kaufman, which is clever and artful, but ultimately Woodberry fails to translate the liveliness and humor of Kaufman's poetry from the page to the screen. Though there are a few moments of visual humor in the doc, the overall tone is self-serious and reverential. (Think lots of poorly mixed jazz playing over old B-roll of San Francisco streets.)
My advice to you: Watch the trailer for this documentary, which accomplishes the film's larger mission but in a much shorter period of time. Then read the rest of "Abomunist Manifesto," Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness, and The Ancient Rain. All of that might take you twice the time of watching the documentary, but you'll get a fuller feeling of the poet's genius.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti at his City Lights book store in San Francisco, which he co-founded in 1953
By ALEXANDRA ALTERJ
SAN FRANCISCO — The poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti was sitting at his kitchen table in his North Beach apartment on a drizzly morning, telling a story about Allen Ginsberg, when he hopped up suddenly and bounded out of the room to retrieve his hearing aid.
“At my age, if it’s not one thing, it’s another,” he said cheerfully.
Tall and agile at 97, with a neatly trimmed gray beard and oval tortoise shell glasses that magnified his glassy blue eyes, Mr. Ferlinghetti could pass for a man in his 70s. He still writes almost every day — “When an idea springs airborne into my head.”
Mr. Ferlinghetti is one of the country’s most prominent poets, and arguably its most successful: His 1958 collection “A Coney Island of the Mind,” which was published by New Directions, has sold more than one million copies. Over the last 61 years, he’s published around 50 volumes of poetry.
His latest work is unlike anything he’s ever written. After retrieving his hearing aide, Mr. Ferlinghetti got up again and returned to the kitchen with a cardboard box stuffed with reporter’s notebooks, numbered up to 78. He set it on the table, next to a bowl of fruit and a half-empty bottle of merlot.
The box holds the first draft of a novel he’s been working on, in fits and starts, for the last 20 years. “I think it’s a new genre,” he said.
The book, titled, “To the Light House,” blends autobiography, fiction and surrealist riffs on mortality, nature and consciousness. It’s the closest thing to a memoir that he’ll ever write, he said.
Mr. Ferlinghetti’s project came as a happy surprise to his longtime literary agent, Sterling Lord, who has been badgering his client to write his autobiography for nearly two decades. Mr. Ferlinghetti has repeatedly spurned the idea. “I’ve stopped asking him,” Mr. Lord said.
Now Mr. Lord — Mr. Ferlinghetti’s friend and occasional sparring partner — has finally prevailed, in a way.
“This new manuscript is his most personal,” Mr. Lord said. “It’s certainly different than anything I’ve ever read. I’ve never seen an autobiography that was constructed like this.”
The partnership between Mr. Ferlinghetti and Mr. Lord, two towering legends in the publishing world, traces back to the heady, early days of the Beat movement, when a literary and cultural revolution was ignited by a band of iconoclastic writers.
Though neither of them can recall precisely when they first met, their long association dates from the 1950s, when they became acquainted through Jack Kerouac, one of Mr. Lord’s first clients. Over the years, as many of the writers they knew have died, they’ve formed even more of a kinship.
“Sterling really is my generation,” said Mr. Ferlinghetti, who was born in Bronxville, N.Y., in 1919. “We’re in the same boat, heading for the falls.”
Mr. Lord, who was born in Burlington, Iowa, in 1920, likes to point out their age difference.
“Lawrence is the only client I have who is older than I am,” said Mr. Lord, who will turn 96 in September.
Now, they stand as two of the last living links to the Beat Generation. From opposite coasts, they fueled a literary movement that defined the era and ushered in a new populist, countercultural strain of poetry and fiction.
At his New York agency, Sterling Lord Literistic, Mr. Lord helped initiate the careers of writers like Kerouac, John Clellon Holmes and Ken Kesey, who along with his band of Merry Pranksters elevated LSD use to something resembling performance art. When Kerouac, frustrated after a string of rejections, was ready to give up on publishing his groundbreaking, experimental “On the Road,” Mr. Lord remained resolute. It took him more than four years, but he finally sold it to Viking, for $1,000.
Through his small San Francisco publishing house, City Lights, Mr. Ferlinghetti championed the work of Beat Generation writers like Gregory Corso, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder and Ginsberg, renegade poets who were too provocative for most mainstream publishers.
“It was a revolution in contemporary poetry,” Mr. Ferlinghetti said. “My way of judging a manuscript was, if I had never read anything like it before, if it articulated a whole new view of reality, then I knew it was important.”
His subversive taste sometimes got him in trouble. He occupied the front lines of a free-speech battle when he published Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” in 1956, and faced obscenity charges as a result. His legal victory paved the way for the United States publication of boundary-pushing novels by D. H. Lawrence and Henry Miller.
“Without Lawrence Ferlinghetti, there wouldn’t have been a Beat Generation at all,” said Bill Morgan, a literary scholar and an expert on the Beats. “He published all of these people who would never have been heard of.”
In some ways, Mr. Ferlinghetti and Mr. Lord make unlikely partners. Apart from their shared connection to the Beats, they never really ran in overlapping cultural circles.
Mr. Lord, who favors tweed jackets, sweater vests and sharp ties, is a tenacious salesman whose star-studded client list included the former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and the newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin. He became famous for wringing fat advances from publishers, with an extremely diplomatic touch. (He titled his 2013 memoir “Lord of Publishing.”)
Mr. Ferlinghetti, a bohemian rebel who has a jeweled stud in his ear, has long occupied a place on the cultural and political fringes, even as he became one of the country’s most popular and influential poets. His fervent fan base includes Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Francis Ford Coppola and the poet Billy Collins.
“Sterling is an old-fashioned gentleman, and Lawrence is really an anarchist,” Mr. Morgan said. “You could say that one of them is working within the establishment, and one is working against it.”
Sometimes, Mr. Ferlinghetti and Mr. Lord clashed when they found themselves on opposite ends of the negotiating table as publisher and agent. In a letter to Ginsberg in 1970, Mr. Ferlinghetti complained that Mr. Lord often snubbed him in favor of bigger publishers: “I’ve written Sterling Lord since Jack’s death, asking of ‘Visions of Neal’ and ‘Some of the Dharma’ but I never get the time of night from him – like we’re not worth his trouble for the big money, etc. Maybe you could tell him we complained and push him.”
At other times, Mr. Ferlinghetti had the upper hand. He once turned down a manuscript that Mr. Lord sent him because it was too disjointed. (It was a messy early draft of William S. Burroughs’s “Naked Lunch.”) “I am extremely doubtful, from what I’ve read so far, that any bookseller would dare sell it in his store,” Mr. Ferlinghetti wrote to Ginsberg.
For roughly three decades, Mr. Ferlinghetti managed his own career without help from a literary agent, which suited his rebellious streak. He did fine on his own. “Most agents can’t be bothered with poets because they never bring in any money,” he said.
But in the 1980s, he struggled to find a publisher for his debut novel, “Love in the Days of Rage,” after it was rejected by New Directions. He called Mr. Lord, who quickly sold the book to Dutton. They’ve worked together ever since.
“He admired what he knew about me, and I admired what I knew about him,” Mr. Lord said. “He’s absolutely unique in the world of publishing.”
Any perceived slights or old rivalries from decades ago seem to be forgotten. (Mr. Lord seemed full of affection even when he noted casually that one of his ex-wives was “kind of in love” with Mr. Ferlinghetti, adding, “I can understand any intelligent woman having a crush on Lawrence.”)
Both men attribute the longevity of their lives and careers partly to the fact that they weren’t as wild as the Beat writers they championed. Mr. Lord, who cycled through four marriages, hung around with many of the rebellious, semi-feral writers he represented, but he was always the straight man. He never even smoked cigarettes, at least not in the last half-century. “I did smoke a little, in my 30s,” he said. “But I didn’t inhale.”
Mr. Lord often found himself in the role of babysitter. Once, when he visited Kerouac in St. Petersburg, Fla., he gamely joined him on a bar crawl, but only drank a few beers, while Kerouac downed rounds of double scotches and chased them with beers.
During a visit to Kesey’s farm in Eugene, Ore., Mr. Lord rode in Further, the infamous bus that ferried Kesey and his band of tripping Merry Pranksters back and forth across the country. But Mr. Lord’s joy ride was a relatively uneventful, acid-free trip: Kesey just drove him to the airport.
Mr. Ferlinghetti was also pretty tame, by the hedonistic standards of the era. He smoked the occasional joint and experimented with LSD, but never got too crazy. He remembers peeling Kerouac off the ground in front of his cabin in Big Sur early one morning, after Kerouac went on one of his benders while visiting him there. (The visit wasn’t entirely fruitless: Kerouac wrote his novel, “Big Sur,” which features a character based on Mr. Ferlinghetti, at the cabin).
While his vagabond Beat cohorts were taking mescaline and Benzedrine-fueled road trips across the country, Mr. Ferlinghetti was married and running two businesses: his bookstore, which he co-founded in 1953, and his publishing house, which he created in 1955. On top of that, he had his own creative pursuits.
“I had too much to do,” Mr. Ferlinghetti said. “I was more interested in developing my own painting and writing.”
And though he’s often lumped with the Beats, Mr. Ferlinghetti rejected the label. “I got associated with the Beats by publishing them, but my own poetry has never been Beat,” he said.
As they approach 100, neither of them has slowed down all that much. Most days, Mr. Lord, who gets around nimbly with a walker, still works at Sterling Lord Literistic, the literary agency he founded in 1952 after being fired from his job as a Cosmopolitan editor. He often works six or seven days a week. He reads submissions and drafts with the help of a magnifying machine, and conducts most of his business face to face or by phone.
“It’s a little bit like having Maxwell Perkins call you,” Barbara Epler, president of New Directions, said, comparing Mr. Lord to the legendary editor of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.
Mr. Ferlinghetti, who suffers from glaucoma, still paints in his art studio at Hunters Point once or twice a week, though because of his deteriorating eyesight he’s limited himself to black-and-white abstracts. In July, his paintings will be featured in a solo exhibition at the Rena Bransten gallery in San Francisco.
He stopped riding his bicycle around North Beach after taking a spill a few years ago, but remains an intrepid traveler. He spent two weeks in Paris last year, and visited the Pacific Coast of Mexico this January, where he spent a week on the beach, writing in his notebooks by day and drinking margaritas at night.
“He’s still very much engaged with the world,” said Elaine Katzenberger, the executive director of City Lights Booksellers & Publishers. “It’s just who he is.”
Mr. Ferlinghetti’s presence is still palpable at City Lights, one of the last countercultural outposts in a rapidly gentrifying city. His deep, raspy voice is on the bookstore’s answering machine. His handpainted signs adorn the store’s walls and windows, with slogans he coined like, “Stash Your Sell Phone and Be Here Now!” and “Books Are Trees Made Immortal.”
Upstairs, in the small three-room headquarters of the publishing house, Mr. Ferlinghetti keeps a small, tidy office with an old roll-top wooden desk.
Though he retired from running the press many years ago, he still makes suggestions about potential acquisitions and poetry translation projects.
Last year, Mr. Ferlinghetti released a flurry of books. He published a compilation of his travel journals titled “Writing Across the Landscape,” a collection of his correspondence with Ginsberg, a 60th anniversary edition of the City Lights Pocket Poets Anthology, with a new introduction he wrote.
And in a sly prank that no one seems to have been up on, he also published a new volume of his poetry, titled “Shards,” with New Directions, which he passed off as a translation of verses by a 14th-century Roman poet named Lorenzo Chiera (English translation: Who Was Lawrence).
Most days, he works in his home office, a ramshackle room teeming with books and notebooks full of his sketches and writing, in a second floor rent-controlled apartment where he’s lived for more than 30 years.
He has a computer that he mostly uses to send emails, and a magnifying machine that helps him read the newspaper. His desk is surrounded by dictionaries in English, Spanish, French and Italian, and bookshelves with volumes of poetry by E. E. Cummings, Milton, Ezra Pound, Ted Hughes, T. S. Eliot and Frank O’Hara. A wicker chair held a thick stack of unpublished poems, typed up with hand-scrawled edits.
“At my age, I might not publish another book of poetry,” he said. “But there’s lots to be published.”
For now, Mr. Ferlinghetti is focused on his new novel, which Mr. Lord is shopping around to publishers. Part of the narrative draws on his coming-of-age as a young man in Europe and his tumultuous childhood: His father died before he was born, and he lived in an orphanage for a while after his mother was institutionalized.
Mr. Ferlinghetti and Mr. Lord have been talking on the phone over the past few months, discussing ways to shape the story. Mr. Ferlinghetti has pushed back on some of his agent’s suggestions. But Mr. Lord is, as ever, optimistic.
“The book is not a conventional autobiography in any sense of the word, but you get to know Lawrence quite a bit by reading this material,” Mr. Lord said. “We’re describing it as ‘scenes from his autobiography.’”
Drug-fueled 18-page letter Neal Cassady wrote to Jack Kerouac which inspired On The Road goes up for sale and is expected to fetch $600,000
•Neal Cassady wrote 16,000 word letter over three days in December 1950
•Later admitted to having been on amphetamine Benzadrine the whole time
•Kerouac said the 18-page note was 'the greatest piece of writing I ever saw'
•Letter was lost for 60 years but was found in a defunct publishing house
By CHRIS PLEASANCE FOR DAILYMAIL.COM
It was the 16,000 word letter that inspired the Beatnik generation - and it is now going up for sale more than 60 years after it was thought to have been lost over the side of a houseboat.
The 18-page script, penned by Neal Cassady over three drug-fueled days in 1950 and sent to Jack Kerouac, is credited with inspiring the spontaneous style of his masterpiece, On The Road.
Speaking in 1968, Kerouac said the letter 'was the greatest piece of writing I ever saw' saying he got his own style from 'seeing how good old Neal Cassady wrote his letters to me, all first person, fast, mad, confessional, completely serious, all detailed'.
In his response to the letter, Kerouac added: 'I thought that it ranked among the best things ever written in America. It was almost as good as the unbelievably good "Notes from the Underground" of Dostoevsky.
'You gather all the best styles... and utilize them in the muscular rush of your own narrative and excitement.
'I say truly, no [Theodore] Dreiser, no [Thomas] Wolfe, has come close to it; [Herman] Melville was never truer.'
Known as the 'Joan Anderson Letter' because of one of the love interests that it discusses, it was thought to have been lost for almost 60 years.
Kerouac said he loaned the letter to poet and fellow Beat Allen Ginsburg, who had passed it along to an unknown third party who was said to have dropped it off the side of a boat.
Only a small extract was known to exist after being retyped by Kerouac himself and then included in the 1964 book 'Notes from Underground #1' by John Bryan.
However, the full script resurfaced in 2012 after being found in the 'to read' pile of a now-defunct publishing house in San Francisco called Golden Goose Press.
According to Jean Spinosa, who found the letter among her late father's possessions, Ginsburg had been trying to get it published when he mailed it, to no effect.
The letter was due to be auctioned in 2014, but was withdrawn from sale after it sparked an ownership dispute between Spinosa, Cassady's children, and Kerouac's estate, who were unaware of its existence.
The trio have now reached an 'amicable settlement' according to the San Francisco Chronicle, with Cassady's family retaining ownership of the content, which they plan to publish at a later date.
The letter itself is due to go under the hammer on June 16 at the Rockefeller Center in New York where it could fetch as much as $600,000.
Dennis McNally, a Kerouac biographer, said: 'The letter is invaluable. It inspired Kerouac greatly in the direction he wanted to travel, which was this spontaneous style of writing contained in a letter that had just boiled out of Neal Cassady's brain.'
Cassady, a prominent member of the Beat generation known for his love of both drugs and women, admitted writing the letter to Kerouac during a Benzadrine binge.
He formed the basis for the hopelessly energetic 'holy fool' character of Dean Moriarty in On The Road, while Kerouac himself appeared in hedonistic adventures alongside him as Sal Paradise.
From June 22 to October 3, 2016, the Parisian museum will be paying homage to the literary and artistic movement of the beatniks with an exhibition entitled "Beat Generation."
Spanning a period from the late 1940s to the late 1960s, the Beat Generation scandalized America in the dawning days of the Cold War. The movement laid the foundations for the liberation of youth culture and is now recognized as one of the major cultural movements of the 20th century. The Beat Generation is now also the subject of an exhibition at the French capital's Centre Pompidou.
After forming when beatnik novelists and poets William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac met in New York, the heart of the Beat Generation then shifted to San Francisco on the USA's west coast. From 1957, the movement gained ground in Europe, with Paris becoming an important center of activity. The city's Beat Hotel proved a particular focal point, with regular guests including William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky and Brion Gysin.
In homage to its shifting centres, the "Beat Generation" exhibition is organized geographically. It is split into three main sections covering New York, California and Paris, as well as smaller sections on Mexico and Tangiers.
The New York section focuses on the relationship between music and literature, and explores the technology of the age, such as vinyl records and typewriters. The California area focuses on the literary and artistic scene from 1952 to 1965. The show then takes visitors to Mexico, exploring the many factors that drew beatniks over the border, including the country's violent yet magical appeal. Next, the show heads to Tangiers, highlighting the influence of trance music recorded by Paul Bowles during his visits to Morocco in 1959. The exhibition ends with a section on Paris, where several major Beat poetry works were written, particularly at the Beat Hotel.
The exhibition is accompanied by a program of readings, concerts, meetings, films and other events.
"Beat Generation" runs June 22 to October 3, 2016, at Centre Pompidou, Paris.
BY STEVE QUARTZ
Editor’s Note: When cracks began to emerge in Steve Quartz’s anti-consumerist beliefs, the professor of philosophy and neuroscience at the California Institute of Technology turned to what he knew best: neuroscience. By developing a new study that he called “consumer neuroscience,” Quartz began to better understand why we consume. What he found led to a book of surprising conclusions.
Below, Quartz, the co-author of “Cool: How the Brain’s Hidden Quest for Cool Drives Our Economy and Shapes Our World,” suggests that a change in consumerism in the 1950s played an elemental role in our shift from a hierarchical society to a more pluralistic one — one with different routes to status. Tune in to Thursday’s Making Sen$e segment for more, and check out his latest article here.
— Kristen Doerer, Making Sen$e Editor
The 1950s high school conjures up images of neatly-dressed students navigating what can only be described as a rigid social hierarchy. Boys wore blazers or letterman sweaters, potent symbols of where they stood in the school’s pecking order. Girls, whose status depended largely on their associations with boys, wore skirts, blouses and pearls, according to the rules laid out in Betty Cornell’s “Teen-Age Popularity Guide.”
As James Coleman recounts in his classic 1961 work, “The Adolescent Society,” athletics was almost the only route to status for high-school boys of that era. Having such a limited route to status, perpetuated by the social organization of schools and the limited numbers of spots available on sports teams, created a status dilemma as schools grew larger and competition for limited status intensified. As sociologist William Bielby chronicles in detail, a response to this status dilemma was for boys to find a new route to status. Thus came to life the teenage rock ‘n’ roll band. Since then, the routes to status in high schools have increasingly diversified, particularly for women, who, unlike their 1950s counterparts, can participate in athletics and school leadership. As sociologist Murray Milner details, today’s high schools have much more complex status relations and are typically more pluralistic than hierarchical.
The evolution of high-school social structure in many ways mirrors larger social changes since the 1950s, particularly a shift from a hierarchical society to a more pluralistic, fragmented one, due in part to growing gender equality and diversity. Consumer researchers have documented an explosion in the number of lifestyles over this period, as a relatively monolithic culture fragmented into more and more diverse ones. This shift from social hierarchy and its limited routes to status, to pluralism and the proliferation of lifestyles is a major reason why nations become happier as they undergo these changes, as documented by Ronal Inglehart of the World Values Survey over the last four decades. Similarly, economic historians, such as Benjamin Friedman, point to economic growth as a powerful progressive force, driving political and social liberalization, including greater opportunity, tolerance of diversity, social mobility, fairness and commitment to democracy.
But what drove these titanic social changes? I suggest that a shift in consumerism and the motives driving it — our status and rebel instincts — played an elemental role.
Most societies throughout history incorporated hierarchical status systems, often thousands of years before the advent of agriculture. Hierarchical societies seem to emerge whenever there are scarce defensible resources for people to inherit. Picture a pyramid with fewer and fewer positions the higher you go. The only way to ascend is to knock someone above you out of their spot. Thorsten Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption is the prototypical example, and many contemporary consumer critiques retain the same basic logic. Because high status rank is so limited in a clearly ordered social hierarchy, only a few people can have it. The overwhelming majority are destined to be frustrated and unhappy.
The fact that most societies have been hierarchical points to the centrality of our status instinct. Humans are not naturally egalitarian. Although existing hunter-gatherer bands are often romantically portrayed as naturally egalitarian, their egalitarian social structure is actively maintained by collectively sanctioning members who try to over-assert their authority. Because of our status instinct, we find being deprived of status emotionally aversive.
Epidemiologist Michael Marmot’s landmark study of British civil servants found that our social standing dramatically affects our health and longevity. Losing status affects every system of the human body. Brain signals in response to status threats flow to glands of the endocrine system, including the pancreas, thyroid, pituitary gland, adrenal glands, ovaries and testes, which in turn release hormones that regulate growth, metabolism, reproduction and responses to stress and injury. This can even lead to cognitive impairment, suppressed immune function, hypertension, elevated levels of stress hormones and decreased fertility. Chronic low status impacts the developing brain’s structure, impairing language, memory, social-emotional processing and cognitive control.
This strong, innate aversion to low status creates what I call a rebel instinct. Like the status instinct, it is etched into our brain’s emotional circuitry. It fuels our anger, frustration and resentment when we sense that other people are trying to dominate us. Combining the results of over 100 studies that included people from virtually all parts of the world, researchers found that members of subordinate groups strongly dislike hierarchy. This suggests why traditional, hierarchical societies ruled by elites are often ruthlessly authoritarian in a bid to limit access to status, as Taliban rule in Afghanistan so starkly revealed. It also indicates why people in more hierarchical societies are not as happy as people in less hierarchical ones.
Consumption began to take an oppositional form, driven by the rebel instinct, as consumers began to rebel against status quo values. Their consumption was no longer fueled by emulation of higher-ups.
Beginning in the 1950s, a shift in the psychological motivations underlying consumption helped unleash the titanic change in the nature of American society and its status system. Consumption began to take an oppositional form, driven by the rebel instinct, as consumers began to rebel against status quo values. Their consumption was no longer fueled by emulation of higher-ups. Rather, the architects of “rebel cool” — such as Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer — appropriated the values of those that had been marginalized at its bottom. The anti-status quo values of rebel cool seamlessly and rapidly aligned with consumption and has since spread globally, as the omnipresent hipster, from Brooklyn to Jakarta, illustrates. As the historian Christopher Gair notes, even among the counterculture of the 1960s, increases in absolute wealth and its discretionary spending made their alternative lifestyles involving music, travel and drug experimentation possible. These economic changes allowed the first generation in history to turn from worrying about an economy that feeds stomachs to one that feeds lifestyles. For consumers, it meant they no longer had to emulate the family next door. They could create new status groups that embodied views that were antithetical to the values of the Joneses. By the 1980s, rebellious imagery made its way into virtually all realms of consumption. Consider, for example, what Advertising Age considers the greatest ad ever made: Apple’s introduction of their Macintosh in 1984, which likened IBM to Big Brother and their customers to Orwellian proles.
These titanic social changes remind me of a process of divergence we see in nature. Darwin witnessed divergence in action when he visited the Galapagos Islands. In particular, he kept encountering birds that looked similar but had all sorts of beak shapes that allowed for different diets. They were various finch species — a dozen in all — and they were unlike others anywhere else in the world. Darwin would go on to theorize that a single species likely came to the islands from the mainland. The islands, Darwin continued, featured new niches containing different types of nuts, that weren’t available to them on the mainland because other species already filled those niches. Rather than compete for the same resources, the species diversified — not purposefully, but through mutation. Darwin would call this process of divergence adaptive radiation.
My suspicion is that the proliferation of lifestyles that consumerism makes possible similarly allowed us to stop competing for the same limited resource: status in a hierarchical society. Emulation consumption drives us to want similar things. Oppositional consumption, in contrast, drives us to want different things because our value pluralism links our consumption patterns to different social norms. Oppositional consumption’s adaptive ingenuity is that it diffuses competition for social status. It does so by supplying increasing dimensions of esteem through the proliferation of lifestyles. Increases in absolute wealth help create the lifestyles, niches and brand communities that supply the status we seek. In short, status diversification expands the status pie and so reduces the intensity of our status comparisons and makes relative comparisons along broad dimensions like socioeconomic status less salient.
The rise of oppositional consumption also reveals another often underappreciated fact about consumption. Consumption is not some asocial, highly individualistic endeavor. It is a highly social enterprise tied to social norms. Conspicuous consumption, for example, only brings esteem when there’s a broad consensus that displays of wealth is a valued social norm. When other social norms govern consumption, such as Yankee thriftiness, conspicuous consumption brings disesteem. Yet consumerism has come to be regarded as inevitably hyper-consumption of frivolous luxuries. It’s worth noting that this image of U.S. hyper-consumption is largely a myth: careful studies of the overwhelming majority of household spending patterns reveal that increases are due to rising costs of essential goods and services, principally housing, education and healthcare. Consumerism prescribes no necessary level of consumption.
Consumerism, at its most basic, is simply arranging economic activity around consumer preferences. Because those preferences are shaped by social norms, changes to them — what brings esteem and what brings disesteem — will alter patterns of consumption. There’s good reason to believe this is occurring for conspicuous consumption, which appears to manifest itself primarily in relatively early stages of economic growth. As social norms change, then, so too does consumption.
These economic changes allowed the first generation in history to turn from worrying about an economy that feeds stomachs to one that feeds lifestyles.
Consider, for example, the rise of fair-trade, sustainable consumption, localtarianism and “conspicuous conservation.” The strong sales of the Toyota Prius is due in part to its being a potent prosocial signal of one’s commitment to consuming less. In drought-stricken California, removing your lawn has quickly become such a potent social signal of one’s commitment to water conservation that consumers used up a $340 million government “cash for grass” program in the first six months of its existence, shocking officials.
Aligning consumption with more norms that produce social benefit clearly remains an incomplete project. Yet, the link between our consumer motivations, norms and social esteem should cast doubt on such claims as those by Pope Francis and anti-consumers that view consumerism as irrevocably immoral. Indeed, it is ironic that most of history’s most influential moral philosophers have built morality on our desire for esteem, including David Hume, John Locke, Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant and Voltaire, along with American founders like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Thomas Hobbes put it bluntly when he said, “few except those who love praise do anything to deserve it.” Beyond these moral foundations, psychologists confirm that our desire to be esteemed, respected and accepted by others is among our most basic, universal needs and motivations. Neuroscience has pinpointed the brain regions that expanded during evolution to give rise to this need and along with it our social life. Anthropologists confirm that this is the origin of our moral life among hunter-gatherers. Legal theorists reveal that this desire to be esteemed and to follow social norms is the glue of our social order.
Social norms and non-legal sanctions hold our society together because of their link to status. Without our desire for status, then, morality would have never emerged, complex social life would be impossible and our own society would collapse in short order. Understanding that these same desires underlie our consumption and the complex material culture that we both create and that helps create us, would lead to a deeper understanding of why we consume. Indeed, it would allow us to shape our consumption in ways that help solve, not create, our most pressing social problems.
Steven Quartz is co-author of "Cool: How the Brain's Hidden Quest for Cool Drives Our Economy and Shapes Our World" and a professor of philosophy and neuroscience at the California Institute of Technology.