The Substance of Style:
How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture,
and Consciousness

by Virginia Postrel.
HarperCollins (New York), 237 pp. $24.95 cloth, 2003.

The Future and Its Enemies:
The Growing Conflict over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress

by Virginia Postrel.
The Free Press (New York), 265 pp. $25.00 cloth, 1998;
Touchstone (New York), $13.00 paper, 1999.

If you are David Brooks, the proliferation of mass-produced
style is a sign that America is the land of Last Men, morally
flaccid “bourgeois bohemians” who take their freedom
of choice most seriously when it comes to cups of coffee and
kitchen countertops. If you are Virginia Postrel, on the other
hand, designer toilet-brushes at Target are a sign that American
life is robust and rich. Who’s right? Well, even by the
standards of Virginia Postrel’s new book on “style,” Brooks
wins. Brooks’ Bobos in Paradise was a very cool
book, setting a new standard for “comic sociology.” Like
Brooks, Postrel has a keen eye for cultural trends and telling
details—both have spent a lot of time walking around chain
retail stores. But rather than look under the surface, Postrel
is content to take everything at face value. Much of The
Substance of Style
reads like Bobos minus both the humor
and the critical insight—imagine David Brooks on Prozac.

Postrel is at least self-conscious enough to realize that her
project requires her to call into question the very distinctions
on which such a judgment rests. She imagines that the “age
of aesthetics” has undermined those old “Puritan” dichotomies
between “substance” and “style”, between
the superficial and the meaningful, between the surface and the
deeper truth. Aesthetic appeal, Postrel argues, is not only valuable
in the sense of useful, but is valuable for its own sake. If
designers and marketers have discovered the advantages of selling “look
and feel,” that is because aesthetics is intrinsically “meaningful,” and
it is time to overturn the prejudice that aesthetic pleasure
is superficial or “meaningless.”

However correct she is to point out the reality of aesthetic
value, Postrel’s conceptual net is a bit too loose. What
is meaningful and valuable for its own sake may yet be less than
ultimately valuable, and may even distract us from what is ultimately
valuable. Sensual pleasure is intrinsically desirable, but it
is nonetheless not what is most worth desiring, and in the light
of what is most worth desiring, may appear as relatively “meaningless.”

The notion of relative value, and the distinction between what
seems desirable and what is worth desiring, are simply not available
to Postrel. She manifestsKarl Popper’s old paranoia that
Platonic moral realism is tantamount to totalitarianism, and
is the true enemy of an open society. (Not surprisingly, for
Postrel Plato is not a literary genius who reflected more profoundly
than anyone else on the meaningfulness of beauty, but an insensitive
prude, lumped together with “the Puritans” as a paradigmatic
hater of aesthetic pleasure.) The last third of The Substance
of Style
makes plain the political lesson that Postrel hopes
we will draw from her analysis: that “the power of beauty” should
not “encourage people to become absolutists.” So
the rationale for Postrel’s studied superficiality is a
fear that standards of evaluation and discrimination are implicitly

This isn’t a naïve mistake on Postrel’s part,
but a deeply rooted commitment. To see why, it helps to recall
her previous book, the widely commented The Future and its
Enemies: The Growing Conflict over Creativity, Enterprise, and
In that book, Postrel introduces her personal
creed, “dynamism,” which is to be contrasted with “stasism.” Stasists
prefer predictability, stability, regulation, and centralized
control; dynamists prefer decentralized power, creativity, discovery,
and an “open-ended future.” Here too we see a thesis
which depends on questionable dichotomies. But “dynamism” is
a creed of dichotomies. A dynamist is someone who thinks that “dynamism” and “stasism” divide
the world neatly into two distinct camps, respectively the true
friends, and the dangerous enemies, of “progress.”

However crude and simplistic its language, we can say, with
genuine praise, that The Future and Its Enemies articulates
with great energy a central important truth: social institutions
are much more like organisms, with intrinsic but mysterious principles
of order and development, than they are like systematic and predictable
machines organized by human fiat. For a book that is essentially,
despite protestations otherwise, a libertarian tract, this is
refreshing. A certain kind of libertarian tends to privilege
the individual will to such an extreme that social institutions
become nothing more than expressions of free individual choice.
If the individual will is sovereign, then its social effects
are subject, and so extreme libertarianism is often accompanied
by a dangerous disregard for existing social forms, and a utopian
impulse to remake the world. For Postrel, on the other hand,
social life has a real but often inscrutable integrity, which
must be respected.

The “stasist,” Postrel’s main enemy, is thus
revealed to be the social engineer or political meddler; left
or right, what is wrong with the stasist is, somewhat ironically,
that he will not let people be. He does not respect the integrity
of social institutions or their promise of natural development.
Instead, the stasist tries to force human relations to conform
to his own, fixed vision. Thus the epithet “stasist” becomes,
for Postrel, interchangeable with “technocrat.”

Postrel’s disdain for the technocrat is just one sign
of her laudable intellectual debt to Friedrich Hayek, whom she
calls dynamism’s “most important theorist.” Indeed,
much of The Future and Its Enemies can be understood
as an attempt to present, in hipper language and with an overwhelming
number of policy examples and contemporary anecdotes, Hayek’s
prudent suspicion of social planning of all stripes. Hayek called
it not dynamism but “individualism”—a term
with its own difficulties—but his message was clear: “The
fundamental attitude of true individualism is one of humility
toward the processes by which mankind has achieved things which
have not been designed or understood by any individual and are
indeed greater than individual minds.”

The Future and Its Enemies is more punditry than political
theory, but Hayek is undoubtedly its philosophical inspiration,
and throughout Postrel returns to standard Hayekian themes: the
importance of an awareness of the limits of human knowledge;
a respect for the “tacit knowledge” dispersed and
encoded throughout complex social systems; an appreciation for “spontaneous
order”; and a trust in the ability of men, given the freedom
to experiment and learn from their mistakes, to achieve more
than a central planner could even conceive.

Unfortunately, to this Hayekian vision Postrel unnecessarily
joins a number of foolish views and fallacious inferences. She
wrongly supposes, for instance, that what has no human designer
has no inherent purpose; and she wrongly assumes that to insist
that certain human associations—like the family—do
have a purpose is to advocate a centrally enforced plan. Thus
for Postrel, anyone who believes that certain institutions serve
naturally or divinely ordained functions must be a stasist. Dynamism
apparently requires not just epistemological humility but metaphysical

Postrel is continually guilty of the charge she once levels
against political philosopher John Gray: she “conflates
the desire for lasting commitments with an appeal to predetermined,
inherited status roles.” Postrel assumes, moreover, that
those who criticize change in society are necessarily insisting
that there is “one best way” for things to go. Indeed,
on Postrel’s view, cultural criticism itself would seem
to be an essentially stasist endeavor—which leaves one
wondering what Postrel thinks she’s doing publishing such
a passionate book of cultural criticism.

This points to perhaps
the most obvious flaw of Postrel’s book, its own
self-refutation. If “progress” demands that we allow
things to take their course, why shouldn’t we allow conservative
cultural criticism to take its course, and on what grounds can
we discourage even genuinely “stasist” reaction to
progress? Is such criticism and such reaction not spontaneous
and natural? Postrel observes that a period of creativity
and change is often followed by a period of conservatism, but
she assumes that this is a bad phenomenon, which is “checked” only
by competition between societies: dynamists flee the mature,
conservative culture for a more youthful, innovative one. But
what if the pendulum-swing of innovation and conservation is
itself part of the natural, free, “open-ended” dynamism
of human societies? Then conservative reaction is not necessarily
anti-dynamist, and it is Postrel who, despite herself, is shouting
utopian rant into the roaring winds of inexorable organic social

Postrel does not see these tensions in her views. Absent from
her version of Hayek is any awareness that valuable “tacit
knowledge” might be contained in tradition (which suggests
a presumption against any of the exciting changes automatically
favored by the strident dynamist). As a result, Postrel does
not do justice to the ways that others have exhibited a healthy
Hayekian contempt for technocracy. Postrel has read widely, and
she freely displays her familiarity with a range of cultural
critics. But her creed requires her to fit their various and
often sophisticated views into the simple, closed categories
of her preconceived intellectual blueprint. She cannot even see
that she has potential allies in those cultural critics who voice,
albeit in ways other than hers, a humility toward, and proper
reverence for, natural human association. Thus such a variety
of thinkers as Wendell Berry, Christopher Lasch, Leon Kass, Jeremy
Rifkin, Russell Kirk, E. F. Schumacher, Patrick Buchanan, Thomas
Frank, Neil Postman, and the Southern Agrarians are all written
off as stasists, enemies of progress, “technocrats” afraid
of change. (Notably missing from Postrel’s pantheon of
intellectual targets is Alasdair MacIntyre, whose After Virtue offers
what Postrel would have us believe is impossible, a teleological
defense of the “open-ended future,” including a critique
of bureaucratic managerial expertise and an account of ineliminable
social unpredictability.)

It seems, then, that Postrel’s Hayekian prudence is substantially
compromised by its polemical context. The Future and Its
is a political tract, and any reasonable positions
it containsare put in the service of an unmistakably ideological
goal. Postrel’s ideology may be called simply the ideology
of progress. Of course, everyone favors progress. Nobody would
hope that things get worse rather than better. But Postrel’s
conception of progress is ideological to the extent that it is
concerned exclusively with man’s creativeness and inventiveness
(the “creativity” and “enterprise” of
her subtitle); it is the progress of instrumental reason and
technology, not the progress of moral imagination and moral life.
It is the progress of technique.

This narrow conception of progress can be conveyed by a couple
of examples. The first is small but telling. To illustrate the
value of “local knowledge,” Postrel praises Sam Walton’s “deep
understanding” of “rural markets.” Now certainly
by some standard the fabulous growth of the Walmart empire testifies
to Sam Walton’s extensive knowledge of the rural economy.
But isthis really local knowledge? Hayekian “local knowledge” connotes
a kind of intimacy with particulars that is certainly not the
first thing called to mind by 3000 box stores. More importantly,
are we dealing here with “deep understanding”? Understanding,
especially deep understanding, implies a knowledge accompanied
by care, even love. What the case of Sam Walton exemplifies is
not a love for existing, naturally evolved rural life, but a
ruthless, pragmatic analysis of potential economic gain.

A more significant and frightening example of the ideology of
progress is Postrel’s glibness in the face of what she
calls “the new biological arts.” Genetic screening
for birth defects, genetic manipulation, human cloning—for
Postrel each is just another invention, making life more convenient,
like sticky-notes or sanitary napkins. As cases of “new
technology,” there can be no objection to them, moral or
otherwise. They represent an increase in power and choice, and
so are all cases of “progress.” Case closed.

Postrel the dynamist is thus revealed as the true technocrat,
for in her vision we have the absolute reign of technique. The
technocrat, giving all authority to instrumental reason, leaves
no room for the faculty of moral judgment. Even Postrel’s
closing invocation of putatively ethical terms confirms her true,
technocratic priorities. The Future and Its Enemies ends
with a brief discussion of the “public virtues” required
of dynamism: tolerance, toughness, patience, and good humor.
All of these, Postrel says, make us the kind of people who are
more willing to “let evolution take its course.” In
other words, what are presented as “virtues” are
in fact psychological dispositions which tend to neuter any passionate
sense of moral conviction.  What Postrel calls a “public
virtue” is not a virtue at all, but a social trait valued
for its utility in fostering the expansion of technique. Postrel
would extinguish the instinct to resist or to critique, and prepare
us to accept endless change, social upheaval, creative destruction.

Noticeably lacking from Postrel’s list is the true virtue
mentioned by Hayek: humility. We may say that humility is that
virtue which makes one not only respect natural social development,
but also respect existing social institutions as the product
of natural development. Humility would also make us more inclined
to think that the power of beauty speaks to the possibility of
higher values than the sensual. But we do not expect humility
from someone so eager to define a new creed, so ready to make
virtue serve, rather than rule, technique and style. Humility
can only be sustained by the kind of mind that sees that there
is more to life than technological advance and aesthetic pleasure.
For the average person, as much as for Plato, technology and
taste easily raise questions of deepest moral concern. Postrel’s
approach to these matters, unfortunately, reveals a practiced
inattention to the moral dimension of human life.

Joshua P. Hochschild was assistant
professor of philosophyat Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.