Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Sign Value

I just finished writing a series on poverty for the National Catholic Register, and I found that some of my favourite ideas just didn't make it into the text. So I'm going to talk about one of them here.

Basically, I was trying to cover all of the major gospel quotes about money, and to give a brief summary of Church social teaching, a brief apercu on gift exchange, and some hard-hitting practical advice on how to be poor and love it, but I just didn't have the space to talk about the idea of sign value.

This is a concept that arose out of neo-Marxist thought in the late 20th Century (no, I'm not about to go Commie-pinko on everyone – it's an observation not a manifesto), basically in an attempt to account for the fact that in a modern commodity based market you can find almost identical goods being sold for radically different prices. To give an obvious example, there are the endless designer look-alike looks touted in every fashion magazine. They show you a dress, handbag and shoe ensemble that was worn by some millionaire celebrity, they quote you the jaw-dropping price that was paid for the outfit, and then they cheerily inform you that you can get almost the same thing at the local mall for a 'mere' $300.

An even more extreme example is the phenomenon of crushed or broken packaging. If you have two items that are literally identical – same brand, same product, same factory of origin, etc. -- and one of them has a box that has become ripped or discoloured or otherwise marred in transport, the one with the pristine box will be "worth" at least 25% more in the marketplace. Sign value is a theory that accounts for this by dividing the value of goods into two components: the use value, which is the actual functional value that will be derived by the user or purchaser; and the sign value, which is the value that is conveyed by the good functioning as a sign – of prestige, of affluence, of strength, of beauty, etc. In the case of the crushed box, buying something that is in less-than-perfect condition (even if the product itself is not effected) is seen as "cheap," it signifies poverty and a willingness to "settle for less." Thus the damaged package has a negative sign-value that reduces the commercial value of the product. In the case of the $300 look-alike ensemble, there are two different levels on which sign-value is functioning: it is functioning, in the first place, to massively inflate the value of the original celebrity outfit, which may literally have thousands of dollars added to the value by the presence, for example, of a designer label or a particularly trendy kind of cut crystal. In this case, the celebrity purchaser is looking for something that will carry with it the sign-value of designer prestige, uniqueness, and cutting-edge fashionable novelty. The buyer of the look-alike, however, is not actually buying the same outfit with its value scaled back to reflect its actual usefulness: they too are paying a mark-up for sign-value, in this case the sign-value of looking like the celebrity.

Anyway, I was going to discuss how sign-value functions within gift economies, where value is not measured in objectivized monetary terms. Within modern commercial economies, there is a strong impetus to imbue products with sign-value in order to increase profit margins. This generally involves artificially assigning a sign-value and reinforcing it through advertising media. In gift exchange, however, the gift has a natural sign-value. It signifies the relationship in which it is given, the love and sacrifice that went into making or providing it, and the occasion on which it was given. In many cases, the gift has literally no use-value; it is only a sign – as in Oscar Wilde's famous quip that all art is quite useless. The interesting difference here is that the sign-value of gifts increases as the gift is given and given again. In traditional cultures, many gift items would become the purveyors of a story or legend, they would take on magical traits, conveying new and amplified meanings as they moved through traditional cycles of giving. Much the same thing happens with family heirlooms, which perpetuate and accumulate meaning as they are passed from generation to generation. With market commodities, generally, the opposite happens: what carries the sign-value of prestige, novelty, wealth, and status today will carry the stigma of poverty, grubbiness, out-of-dateness, and fashion-cluelessness tomorrow.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The God of Sinners

One of the strange things about our faith is Christ’s declaration that there will be more rejoicing in Heaven over one repentant sinner than over 100 righteous men. Now you can wash this over some way or other by saying, “Oh, well, everyone is a repentant sinner if they’re in Heaven,” which is true, but I don’t think that it really gets at what Christ is saying here. The implication, the pretty clear and strong implication, is that the person who humbly makes his way through his life, tending the fathers fields, doing what the father says, never even asking for a goat so that he can have a party with his friends, doesn’t cause as much rejoicing as the one who goes off, squanders his inheritance on street boys and gypsy dancers, sits around in gambling houses laughing his head off at raunchy jokes, and then, through a sea of pig-shit and suffering, finally makes his way back to the father’s house.
Why? From a literary perspective the answer is pretty obvious. Try sitting down one day with those first long, drawn out, tedious chapters of Les Miserables, where Hugo is just going through and recounting all the good deeds and charity of the Bishop of Digne. Yawn. No one is interested until the wild-eyed theif shows up and yoinks the poor Bishop’s silverware in the middle of the night. Or leaf through a book of the lives of the Saints. There are literally hundreds of Saints whose lives read something like, “She lived in obedience to her parents throughout her childhood, and wanted to enter the convent at the age of thirteen, but she had to stay home and look after a sick sister, so out of filial piety she put aside her dreams and stayed home until she was 22. Then she entered the Order of X, and founded 700 orphanages, and cared for the sick and dying until she died at the age of 45 holding a crucifix and smiling on a picture of the baby Jesus.” I’m sure that there’s more to the stories of these women: I’m sure that there are fabulous interior exploits, and struggles with sin, and all sorts of juicy literary grist that was hidden from the world. I’m sure they’re not actually boring. But let’s be realistic here, the average reader, if they’re going to bother with the lives of the Saints at all, wants the ones with sin and blood. The ones where the heroine was the most horrible sinner in the world, and then went out and blackened her skin for fifty years in the Egyptian desert, doing penance and fighting with demons. We want the descent into darkness, and the miraculous conversion, the soul rising up out of the depths of Hell to seize the light with all its strength.
Does Heaven want this as well? Apparently. Why? My best guess is that God has a finely tuned sense of narrative, and sees the wonderful symmetry in having the entire salvation history of the race acted out, like a fractal equation, writ small, writ large, writ in blood and in tears, in the individual lives of each of His human creatures.