When oddity becomes orthodox

Being human means being caught between two instincts – the desire to belong and the desire to stand out. In time, what this means is that something unique, deviant, differing or odd often becomes something regular, as more and more people begin following a trendsetter. But what determines whether something odd remains odd, or whether it becomes normalized and joins the ranks of the ordinary? What phenomena do we envy when they differ, which ones do we fear, which do we look down on? What is it that determines when something odd becomes orthodox – and is it the case that we’re becoming increasingly desensitized to what used to be shockingly different?

Wealthy or valorous?

Thorstein Veblen, economist and sociologist, posited that what is different in an attractive fashion is mainly a case of conspicuous consumption – consumption of time, money, or other resources (sometimes called conspicuous leisure).In his own time, he referred to fox hunting and society clubs being popular with the British upper class, while the most effective and productive members of society – the factory workers – were on its bottom rungs. To be able to waste time and money is a sign of high class, and moreover to do so in as conspicuous a fashion as possible. The classical example from biology is the male peacock, which wastes resources on its beautiful tail feather fan. But in the same way one can spend physical capital in excess, there’s also conspicuous consumption of social capital – those who already command respect from society opt to stand out because they can. The grunge fashion of the 1990s revolved around showing off social capital by wearing old jeans and flannel shirts instead of expensive brands – and was most common in a relatively well-off middle class. In poorer parts of the US, the contemporary fashion was based in the hip-hop ideal with gold chains and luxury watches, where physical resources (like money) were more difficult to access, and consequently more conspicuous to consume.

Symbols for sale

Even a movement that initially revolves around social change can quickly become commercialized – and once commercialized, become normalized. According to sociologist Dick Hebdige subcultures often take their root in some revolt or rebellion – an intentional protest, initially not tied to status but to a tangible message. Very quickly, however, the symbols associated with the message gain a value in themselves, either in that they represent time and money or in that they represent social capital, the ability to stand out and create identity. This artificial identity, and the symbols associated with it, over time becomes more important than the revolt in itself, they become ”Veblen goods” that represent some conspicuous consumption or conspicuous leisure. Before long they’re commercialized, become available to a broader public without an effort on their part, and the values of the subculture fade and become mundane – they no longer represent either a rebellion or an asset, but simply become part of everyday life. The punk movement is one clear example, what was once a revolt is found today mostly on T-shirts and rarely anywhere else.

The work of the network

Has the speed of transformation from odd to orthodox increased – perhaps to the point where phenomena are commercialized well before they have time to get established? It’s not impossible. Metcalfe’s Law dictates that the complexity of a network increases exponentially alongside the nodes in the network – the more communicating parties, the more complex the content, and a more complex network can propagate more phenomena at once. Perhaps it’s the case that in our connected era phenomena generally spread faster, meaning they’re also commercialized and subsequently normalized faster than ever before. If that’s the case, will the future have subcultures in the way that Dick Hebdige imagined them?

Consumers of tomorrow?

Does the future, then, belong to subcultures – is nobody different in the future? Even if so, Veblens theories of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure will probably still hold. Someone who wants to be different, in an attractive fashion, will still need to have time, money and social capital – both the ability to spend resources and a context in which behaving differently is permissible. With this in mind, it may well be the case that the consumer of the future becomes more picky about specifics. Yet, there’s no reason why consumers should stop striving for what is conspicuous, and especially what is conspicuous because it isn’t easily accessible. Generally speaking, conspicuous leisure or consumption requires some kind of investment. Perhaps it’s physical health (running an Iron Man), wealth (buying luxury products), acquiring special skills (serving home-made bread to guests), or something similar.

The peacocks of the future

It’s increasingly difficult to define normativity – but it’s in human nature to desire that which is difficult to obtain. This holds true whether the difficulty lies in time, money, skills or courage. Those symbols that show a high value, represent an investment or an effort, will probably always stand out…

…unless made available by external forces. Commercialization, standardization and exploitation makes almost anything available to a broader public. To strike at the right moment means paying attention to indicators that something exciting is on its way of becoming mundane – or something mundane becoming exciting again. Baking bread was once the definition of normal in agrarian households, today it’s trendy and Instagram-friendly. 

What will be the peacock of the future? It will likely vary from group to group – but the peacock’s tail feathers are there, to those who know where to look. 

By Rikard Molander