Science and capitalism share preeminent positions of authority in our culture. They provide the primary frameworks that define what is legitimate and what matters, but the extension of those perspectives beyond their appropriateness and the forced qualification and quantification of the world at large according to their models is at odds with much of life's experiences.
The over-application and reliance on science and commerce has created terrible blind spots in the collective understanding of ourselves. In spite of the advances of technology as well as the vast amounts of data that we are able access and process the world is not a more stable and predictable place. The current economic crisis makes this painfully evident. Did anyone really see this coming? Does anyone have any significant insight as to what to do? What I find most interesting is that presently, there seems to be very little consensus on the value of anything — even basic material things, like houses — in strict financial terms.
Questions of value in life's more illusive arenas — relationships, aesthetics, culture, pop-culture — have always been complicated. They tend to get ignored, marginalized or discounted. Not because they matter less but because they are less easily grasped and manipulated. What is the cultural value of Rock 'N Roll? Your favorite song? A relationship? Questions like these are almost unapproachable.
Things with high levels of social and exchange value are paradoxically problematic. They defy the type of clearly defined value that science and commerce attempt to achieve and yet are extremely high in their social and personal importance. Physical esthetics is a great example.
Physical attractiveness as an indicator of genetic health and the role it plays in sexual selection has been a popular topic in the literature of evolutionary biology in recent years. Studies show that good looking people get farther in life. They also get there quicker. Attractiveness has an intangible value that resists being fixed. It's like a ghostly presence that can't be caught on film but it's effects are constantly witnessed. Even if it physical attractiveness and the benefits it bestows were precisely measurable, then what? The acknowledgment of this would just causes more problems. Would we have to consider educational stipends and tax beaks for the ugly? We can't even mange the value and pricing of housing, food and heating fuels.
Social status and pecking order are extremely powerful — as well as extremely underestimated and under-examined — forces that effect human behavior and shape social organization. Physical attractiveness is one factor that determines a persons place with respect to both. This creates endlessly complicated problems that range from the very personal to the broadly social. Problems we aren't able or comfortable dealing with rationally or directly. Given the emphasis placed on looks in this culture, teaching children that beauty is on the inside is as grounded in reality as the "just say no" approach to the drug problem.
Pop-culture is the way we arbitrate these issues and exorcize our emotions about them. It is the marketplace, the noisy exchange floor for the speculation, bidding, display and exchange of our social (or actual) values. Nothing illustrates this quite so perfectly as two magazine covers I saw last weekend: People Magazine's "Celebrity Transformations" and Parade's "What People Earn".
Both are social dialogues on status and pecking order. Picture of celebrities, because they are familiar to all of us, provide points of reference for a shared experience. A mass self-reflection. An evaluation and comparison of ourselves collectively. While filliping through these magazines, everyone is performing a constantly revising calculation: one’s own position and value.
This is our bottom-up, self-regulated, system for privately obsessing over our biologically-hardwired insecurities while publicly negotiating the intangible, difficult to apprehend values that exert such massive collective force. A force that operates beyond the threshold of perception and discourse. It's simply dismissed as a populist, guilty pleasure. Despite the massive amounts of physical and emotional energies — attached directly to dollars — expended on these needs and values, a quantified answer to the question "what does this get me?" is never really arrived at.