Law in Contemporary Society

Adventures of the Mundane

-- By KristineSaul - 23 May 2009

Living in the age of reality television, personal blogs, and Facebook, watching the lives of others unfold has become a regular past time. What may have been deemed a mild form of stalking ten years ago is currently the way millions of people decide to kill time on a daily basis. With the newest addition of Twitter, we can follow the constant movements of our favorite celebrities, friends, hell, even perfect strangers, throughout the day. Now, what could be the attraction behind this recent phenomenon? Do we really just enjoy watching Rihanna eat her lunch? Are people genuinely concerned over who has love for Ray J? What could possibly be the appeal in watching people...well, live?

Pecuniary Emulation

Perhaps Veblen would analyze this fascination as a result of pecuniary emulation. The trend follows his theory that people continue to emulate the wealthy. It speaks to a desire to continually compare oneself against those who have more. Veblen believes that people's spending habits is not based entirely on their own whims and needs. Choices are made based on the comparisons to the rich and seemingly unattainable. Possessions and expenditures are correlated with one's esteem and general regard amongst peers. Looking to the lives of the rich and famous may be an example of society buying into the need to continually compare themselves to those of the wealthy, leisure class. Ironically, the way wealth is defined does not necessarily equate to how hard one works but rather through the wasteful activity they engage in. The paparazzi do not clamor to get pictures of public figures hard at work but instead aim to catch photos of celebrities eating lunch, shopping, or catching a tan on the beach. These may sound like everyday occurrences but when the lunch is at Mr. Chow, the purchases are made at Harry Winston, and the beach is in St. Tropez, the seemingly mundane becomes anything but. The need to follow the lives of celebrities is indicative of our tendency to equate value and worth with the wealth we build and possessions we acquire (or lack thereof). TMZ does not cover Madonna or Angelina Joile because they are outstanding human beings who make valuable contributions to society. People watch them to see what child they're going to buy next.

Keeping up with the Joneses

The obsession with celebrity culture adds strength to Veblen's theories of society's need to emulate the wealthy but what of the fascination with Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace? . Those mediums are not predicated on following the lives of the rich and famous yet they, too, have roused a new societal vice. While Veblen may focus on the need to aspire upward, there's also a trend to look laterally and downward as well. To further validate one's societal status, one must also look to how they measure up in comparison to their peers. As much as people have a desire to walk alongside the wealthy and elite, we also need make sure we're still on par with those we consider our equals. Checking up on the Facebook profiles of friends and seeing how their lives continue to evolve may be driven in part by a genuine desire to keep in touch with old and new acquaintences. It may also a way to see how your life compares. Whereas Veblen is correct in that we look to the upperclass and attempt to emulate, the inability to measure up to a group so out of reach may not be as painful as when we fail to measure up to family, friends, or colleagues. The inabililty to meet or surpass those around you can be a much more tangible blow. It's one thing if you fail to reach Oprah's level - it's still fun to have the dream. The matter is completely different when you can't keep up with those around you.

It Could Be Worse

Aside from using social networking sites to make sure you're on par with you peers, we also use these tools to boost our egos. It would be inaccurate to pretend that we don't measure our success, at least in part, by the failures or lesser accomplishments of others. Yes, this sounds harsh and slightly sadistic but we all do it. The tragedies and shortcomings of others can make our struggles pale in comparision. Our complaints and fears about job opportunities after law school, for example, seem a little less tragic coming from Columbia Law when compared to others at schools much lower in the rankings. Success is not measured in a vacuum and the lovely curve we've become accustomed to speaks to that very fact. It's not fair and not always accurate but it is a reality. We may celebrate our own personal accomplishments, goals, and victories but society has a success "curve" that extends far beyond the subjective ones we create for ourselves.

Did Veblen Have It Right?

So, what IS the appeal in watching people live? Veblen may argue pecuniary emulation and inviduous comparison are at the root of the fascination. While this is true, upward looking comparisons do not fully encompass the phenomenon. Beyond giving substance to our dreams, observing the lives of others can serve to verify our own realities and fuel our fires. Even if we are not a part of the elite, wealthy class, we can at least aim to be content within our current social standing and comforted that wherever we are in life, it can always be much worse.

  • I'm not sure what Thorstein Veblen's real relevance is to the proposition you're advancing here. Indeed, the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous genre might be said to have something to do with stoking pecuniary emulation, but "Little Visits to the Homes of the Great" long predate reality TV; Edward R. Murrow was compelled by Bill Paley to make TV of that sort back when news divisions weren't subsidiaries of the network entertainment divisions. But an MTV Real World genre entry, or a Big Brother or Survivor type narrative has to do with status hierarchy definition, but not, it seems to me, with the portion of that process that Veblen writes about, with his very different purpose firmly in mind.

  • It seems to me that treating "reality TV" as a single cultural type, rather than a response to the unfavorable economics of scripted drama on television containing new cheap versions of everything that used to be made using actors, is part of the problem. Gossip and the narrative involvement in the lives of others begins before language, let alone before television. People have always wanted to know more about how other people live their lives. We are, as I have mentioned once or twice, social animals with consciousness, and it's not surprising that society is what we love to watch. But not all narratives of social observation have the same functional arrangement: love stories and tragedies, not to mention bildungsroman and conversion confessions, use our enthusiasm for the details of others' experiences in different ways. While Housewives of New Jersey may differ from Project Runway as Pride and Prejudice differs from The Rise of Silas Lapham, though with an order of magnitude less intelligence applied to their making, what's important for social interpretation of our desire for involvement in other peoples' lives, I think, isn't that some of them are reality TV and some of them aren't.


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r3 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:42:50 - IanSullivan
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