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In the early 1950s, two leading American anthropologists, Alfred Kroeber and Claude Kluckhohn, undertook a survey of their discipline’s literature and produced a monograph identifying 164 definitions of culture. That, the official count, was something of a lowball estimate. In a footnote the authors indicated that if every nuance were tallied, “probably close to three hundred ‘definitions’” might be found in the book. The persistent frustration of their efforts was best summed up when they quoted A. Lawrence Lowell, a former president of Harvard University. Defining culture, “attempt[ing] to encompass its meaning in words,” he’d written, “is like trying to seize the air in the hand, when one finds it is everywhere except within one’s grasp.”

I do not know of any effort to update Kroeber and Kluckhohn’s survey, but the spectrum of meanings has not narrowed since then. Expressions such as “culture war” or “cultural politics” do not appear in Kroeber and Kluckhohn’s pages, though they seem all but inescapable now. “Culture” proves an extremely adhesive concept, with new meanings sticking to it constantly, and to clarify it seems a Herculean task.

While not quite cutting the Gordian knot, W. David Marx saws away at it with much vigor in Status and Culture: How Our Desire for Social Rank Creates Taste, Identity, Art, Fashion, and Constant Change (Penguin Random House). Building on his graduate school interest in the economics of popular culture, Marx—an American writer based in Tokyo—sets out “to synthesize all the significant theories and case studies to explain how culture works as a system and why culture changes over time …”

That how and why amount to what the author calls “the Grand Mystery of Culture.” No spoiler warnings are necessary here. The solution to the Grand Mystery is prominently featured in the title, where the word doing the heaviest lifting is undoubtedly “and.” While implicitly framing status and culture as distinct phenomena, the argument treats them as practically synonymous, at least most of the time.

We might size things up thusly: Homo sapiens is, like most other primates, a gregarious species. But it is also one riddled with anxiety over the hierarchies within its own ranks. A young orangutan’s challenge to an alpha male is a zero-sum game in which the rules are clear, the positions stable. Whoever wins, the outcome will be unambiguous, and the social order will retain much the same shape as before—a pyramid of sorts.

Humans, by contrast, are endlessly inventive of ways to assert superior status and to define fine grades of distinction, while also finding ways to challenge one another’s claims. The production and circulation of signals about prestige (about who has it, who lost it and why) goes on incessantly. And because as social animals we are concerned with belonging to a community, the stakes can be enormous.

“The pressures of status,” Marx writes, “give every individual a set of conflicting demands … In sum, we must distinguish ourselves to demonstrate individual difference for higher status, while concurrently imitating the conventions of our groups to retain normal status. There are no authoritative solutions to these contradictory requirements—only risk-management strategies. We must pick a position on a spectrum between pure individuality (breaking all known conventions at high risk, high reward) and total conformity (adhering closely to all established conventions at low risk, low reward).” And by no means is that position certain to remain stable.

Individual efforts to find the sweet spot between acceptance and distinction are only part of the status dynamic. People at comparable or compatible levels of prestige cohere into their own spheres of shared experience and mutual recognition. Thus any social order of much size or complexity generates myriad smaller groupings, distributed at different levels of authority and influence within the wider society. Each develops its own practices and idioms, and inevitably an internal differentiation takes shape: an unequal distribution of power and esteem among its members. Criteria for exclusion from the group, or criteria for judging some members inauthentic, may emerge. And over time, one status group may spin off others. The work of assessing prestige is never done.

Much of this may sound like basic cultural sociology—and fair enough. Marx makes no outsize claims to originality. He borrows eclectically from the social sciences and, less often, the humanities. A common distinction sorts authors and theories into two categories, splitters and lumpers, defined by whether they emphasize nuances or similarities. With their taxonomy of at least 164 definitions of culture, Kroeber and Kluckhohn offer a clear case of splitters at work. Marx assembles insights from Pierre Bourdieu, Tom Wolfe, Vance Packard, Michèle Lamont and Max Weber, with side visits to the films of John Waters and The Official Preppy Handbook—kneading them all into a lump, albeit a well-edited one.

He has an eye for concrete examples (making more vivid the arguments sketched here so broadly) and a knack for apt quotation. In citing the anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s analysis of culture as “a set of control mechanisms—plans, recipes, rules, instructions—for the governing of behavior,” he provides a key to his project as a whole: the understanding of culture as a process of bringing the passions, whether for glory or revenge, into some kind of order.

What’s missing is any sense that creativity might be driven by other needs.

“The fast, hard, and exciting changes of the twentieth century,” Marx writes, “relied on humans frequently switching to new conventions, which they did in pursuit of status value.” That is one way of looking at it. T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (published 100 years ago this year) was certainly among “the fast, hard, and exciting changes of the twentieth century,” and if someone maintains that its publication yielded not just tremendous prestige for the poet but a line of status-value credit for its admirers—well, that would be pointless to deny. But as an insight into the poem, this contribution is less than zero.

Reducing the complexity of Eliot’s language to its effect of excluding most readers disregards its significance as a response to another of “the fast, hard, and exciting changes of the twentieth century,” namely the First World War. The poet ended up with the Nobel Prize but had other things on his mind. Status and Culture is stimulating and wide-ranging, but the blinkers on its perspective are much too narrow.

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