Give Them What They Want
An interview with Virginia Postrel
In 1999, Vanity Fair did a photo spread on the new generation of conservative babes. The group included Wendy Shalit, Amity Shlaes, and Virginia Postrel. If this was Vanity Fair's idea of a right-wing Charlie's Angels, then surely the smart one was Postrel.
In the Nineties, she pulled the libertarian magazine Reason out of the clutches of that fringe for whom Atlas Shrugged is the New Testament and put it solidly in the mainstream. Along with Wired, which, under Kevin Kelly's original editorship, had a strong Rand-ian tinge, Reason helped make libertarianism the default impulse of Silicon Valley's best and brightest. It was a good time to be against big government no less a personage than President Clinton declared that the era of big government was over. Postrel codified that era's hopefulness in a book, The Future and Its Enemies, in which she contrasted dynamists who glory in an open-ended future that is conceived in terms of improvisation, surprise, and creativity with stasists, who value stability and believe in planning. Postrel's thought combined Frederick Hayek's critique of central planning with Karl Popper's epistemology of experimentation. It was a heady mix.
Postrel, now a columnist for The New York Times, quit her job at Reason a few years ago (although she still writes for the magazine) and researched a book about a seemingly less political topic: the cultural import of design. Her book, The Substance of Style, garnered a lot of reviewer plaudits. In particular, every reviewer remarked on Postrel's toilet brush example. She found varieties of toilet brushes in your average Target ranging from your usual $5 wire 'n' bristle instrument to a Philip Starck-designed $50 beauty. What tail fins were to the Fifties, toilet brushes are to the double 0s: design as a cultural Rorschach test.
Austin Chronicle: You resigned as editor of Reason, moved to Dallas, and published a book on aesthetics, a seemingly big leap from your former Libertarian concerns. Why all the recent changes in your life?
Virginia Postrel: It sounds dramatic when you put it that way, but each of these changes was independent of the others. After 10 years of editing Reason, which was a demanding management job, I was ready to be on my own. Shortly after I stepped down, my husband got a job offer out of the blue from SMU. Using contemporary categories, it's natural to see The Substance of Style as a departure, but actually it isn't. The book is another exploration of what it means to live in a free, commercial society and of how markets operate to discover what individuals value. My intellectual roots are in the Scottish Enlightenment, as are Reason's, and writers like Adam Smith and David Hume would have recognized The Substance of Style as continuing the conversation they began.
AC: Victor Papanek, who writes on green design, coined the phrase "fun follows function" to describe a state of affairs he deplores. As he puts it, the true needs of the consumer classes have been pushed aside by artificially induced wants." You strongly disagree with this kind of thing in The Substance of Style. Why?
VP: This is what a designer friend calls the "scratchy toilet paper" view of green design that virtue is all about denying pleasure or, to be more precise, about denying other people's pleasure. The brutal truth about competitive markets is that producers have to give people what they want or they'll go out of business. "Artificially induced wants" are a lot harder to fabricate than both critics and grandiose marketers would like to think.
AC: Your survey of different available toilet brushes caught the eye of every reviewer of your book, and is rapidly becoming an iconic statement of the current culture of consumerism. Why do you think this became such a meme?
VP: The toilet brush passage is specific and dramatic, and it's about things everyone uses and everyone has seen. I also like to think that it's a convincing example: It's hard to believe that toilet brushes are largely about status, and they certainly aren't advertised.
Virginia Postrel will lead a presentation at SXSW Interactive on Sunday, March 14, at 10am in the Convention Center. See www.sxsw.com/interactive/panels for more information.