What Have I Become, My Sweetest Friend?

10 Aug

One of the good things about Wilmington is that being here forces me to read.  I don’t have regular access to internet here, I don’t have very many friends here (awww), and I don’t have a car.  All those mean that my joys here are eating lunch, working out, drinking (usually by myself–awww), and reading magazines that I purchase from the Amtrak newsstand.

One of the bad things about Wilmington is that I’m pretty much limited to purchasing my magazines at that newsstand, which is small.  Thus, I’ve already read this month’s Esquire, GQ, Atlantic, Men’s Health, and Details magazines.  Unless I want to delve into, say, Cosmopolitan or People, I’ve pretty much gone through all my options.

Merits of Wilmington aside, Details had an interesting spread on the artisanal movement and how ubiquitous it’s become.  As stated by the author:

What’s new is the astonishing ubiquity of the aesthetic. Small-scale has hit it big. Farmer’s markets sell artisanal cheeses— and so does Costco. Suits available in midwestern malls have machine-made details that mimic the hand stitching once found only on a Neapolitan tailor’s eccentrically rolled lapel.

Now, I don’t think there’s anything wrong per se with this newfound appreciation for craftsmanship.  Indeed, I think it’s great that we can purchase exceptional items made by small producers.  I recognize, however, that just as with “biodynamic” and “organic”, “artisanal” can be co-opted by large corporations (or even by small producers who don’t necessarily use the best ingredients, components, or methods and are simply coattailing on the efforts of others) for their own benefit. 

But even more disturbing than the above is the realization that I have become defined not by my interests, passions, activities, or abilities, but by how I spend my dollar.  My consumer preferences have become my most salient feature, the one around which most of my conversations and waking moments revolve.

Sure, I love wine.  But wine is as much about the commodity as it is about the art, or the experience.  Indeed, I couldn’t enjoy wine without money; I couldn’t write a wine blog without buying wine.  I couldn’t learn about wine without buying wine.  As far as hobbies go, wine is less about what you know or can do than how much you spend.

Obviously, this is a broad statement.  Many people spend a lot of money on wine and never develop a fine appreciation for it, and many people simply want the next 99 pointer from Robert Parker.  But these exceptions do not disprove the rule.

I write on Crane Paper and Kate Spade paper stationery.  I can differentiate between different varietals of coffee.  I like caramels but especially love fleur-de-sel caramels from Little Flower Candy Company.  I think nothing of spending $8 or $10 on a bar of Mast Brothers Chocolate.  I love critiquing restaurants on minutiae of service, presentation, and flavor; I desperately want to be part of an underground supper club

There is nothing wrong with craving quality, or rarity.  But what we buy has become a proxy for who we are, and to me that is a problem.

Thoughts?

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16 Responses to “What Have I Become, My Sweetest Friend?”

  1. steve August 10, 2010 at 12:09 pm #

    “I don’t have regular access to internet here, I don’t have very many friends here (awww), and I don’t have a car. All those mean that my joys here are eating lunch, working out, drinking (usually by myself–awww), and reading magazines that I purchase from the Amtrak newsstand.”

    So its like DC with magazines instead of internet?

    In other news, I suggest reading New Yorker (good stuff)

    • vinicultured August 10, 2010 at 12:29 pm #

      Ah yes! I was trying to remember the reason I don’t like you, Steve.

  2. James August 10, 2010 at 11:05 pm #

    Consumption is not as noble as creation, but investing meaning in consumption is not inherently crass. Money is a medium, literally a means to an end, and enjoying the end while respecting the impact of the means is neither a waste nor a shame.

    Wine is a labor-intensive, talent-intensive product. To the extent that money pays for the investments (physical, intellectual, emotional, historical and fiscal) made by producers to create something beautiful, why should you feel hollow for transmuting your own investments for the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of their labor?

    Craving rarity… now that’s another issue entirely 😛

    • vinicultured August 11, 2010 at 8:40 am #

      James, you bring up an excellent point, and I agree with you that money, as a means, allows me to enjoy and respect the end (i.e. artisanal products).

      However, what I am concerned with is that I am becoming increasingly defined by my consumer preferences instead of, say, my own abilities or my own convictions. Thus, it’s like saying “Joon likes white Burgundies” and should be defined through the connotations associated with liking white Burgundies, versus “Joon feels strongly about x social issue” or “Joon is a terrific cook” or something.

      There’s nothing wrong with liking small-scale, beautiful, skilfully-made things, but when I can be defined in large part by my love of single-origin chocolate and a specific brand of shoes, that becomes a problem.

  3. Rachel August 11, 2010 at 1:20 am #

    I predict a civil war between the artisans and the “artisans”.

    However, I find that the Details article is a bit ludicrous and only focuses on the surface of this matter. There are classical economic theories as well as neoclassical economic theories that should be taken into account when studying this type arsenal revolution.

    • vinicultured August 11, 2010 at 8:47 am #

      Interesting–you’re getting all technical on me here, Rachel! =)

      • Rachel August 12, 2010 at 12:41 am #

        Well, Joon, if it helps you feel better, I define you as “that super classy dude who has extreme talent and passion for writing about all the wonderful things he enjoys in life ’cause that’s how he rolls.” so there!

  4. Rachel August 11, 2010 at 1:26 am #

    I meant to write artisanal revolution, not arsenal.

  5. James August 11, 2010 at 8:53 am #

    Being labeled as liking white burgundy and being defined as liking white burgundy are two completely different things. No one can be told that you like Mast Bros. chocolate and white burgundy and expected to know how you would behave in a real-life conversation, let alone whether or not they would understand you well enough to be able to truly define you as a person. And in reality, I highly doubt that when people talk about you when you’re not around, they say things like “Joon is a guy who likes X wine.” They’re more likely to say “Joon has a passion for wine and is always ready to share a bottle with his friends.”

    Those who do whole-heartedly wrap themselves in their consumer choices fulfill the prophecy on their own. I think it’s pretty easy to tell who can really be defined by what they consume when you meet these people face to face. And then there are people who define themselves by intangible elements that are simply bullshit. You’re a fine young lad.

    • vinicultured August 11, 2010 at 10:58 pm #

      Thanks, James! I think that when I’m not around, people are likely to say, “That Joon has such a potent animal virility about him… AND he has a passion for wine and is always ready to share a bottle with his friends.”

      But you bring up a fine distinction I might have missed in my jeremiad; namely, that being labeled as liking something versus being defined as liking something are completely separate things. Well put, sir!

  6. Jillian August 11, 2010 at 11:10 am #

    Well, let’s be honest. There are very few “interests, passions, activities, or abilities” that do not fundamentally boil town to an economic transaction of some sort. Essentially, you’re purchasing an experience. If a 6 dollar bar of chocolate makes for a better experience, it might actually be a better value, in terms of bang for your buck.

    As for the “artisanal” vs. artisanal issue, I think that “artisans” are going to run into big trouble with their consumer base. People are becoming more and more educated thanks to the interGoogles. Almost everyone who buys organic now knows the difference between certified Organic and fake labelers. Wine lovers seek out wine that’s aged in actual wooden barrels, not stainless steel drums with chunks of wood bobbing around. Eventually, people will distinguish what is authentic from what is not. And preferring the real thing is not something to be ashamed of. Scotch drinkers have known this for years 🙂

    • vinicultured August 11, 2010 at 11:00 pm #

      Thanks Jill! And I think the chocolate is like $8 a bar.

      Perhaps it’s a good thing that people are becoming more discerning about what and from where they are purchasing. Perhaps one can be defined simply as possessing refined or discerning taste generally, rather than being defined through one’s consumer preferences.

  7. Kris August 12, 2010 at 12:47 am #

    To be fair, in an increasingly capitalistic world, how we choose to spend our money is one of the most powerful statements we can make. Inasmuch as it’s a fairly limited resource, being known as someone who prefers to buy quality over quantity, for instance, can indeed say something about a person. I don’t know that our spending habits entirely define us, but I do agree that they can say a good deal about us. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing.

  8. vinicultured August 12, 2010 at 9:23 am #

    @Rachel: thank you! That means a lot coming from you. =)

    @Kris: I think you’re right. Just because one has money doesn’t mean one has taste. Or, as Billy Joel put in slightly different words, “Are you tryin’ to be a Beau Brummel, baby? / You can’t dress trashy till you spend a lot of money.”

    On second thought, I don’t know if that Billy Joel quote works. But hell, I’m going to leave it in. How often does one get the opportunity to quote Billy Joel? Not “for the longest time.” Heh.

  9. JamesP August 12, 2010 at 1:31 pm #

    This is one of the better posts I’ve read in awhile. It’s a concern that’s popped up for me from time-to-time as well.

    I’d have to agree with [the other] James on this one. I think there is a huge difference between me knowing that you really enjoy drinking certain varietals of coffee and sharing that expeirience with others vs. someone who wants to be defined by their consumer choices. The later tends to be the person who drops the fact that they ate Restaurant X on Facebook because they want everyone to know that they ate there, not because they want to share the experience. Some subtlety, but there is a huge difference.

    By the way, depending on the thread, here are a few Billy Joel quotes that fit rather nicely with this topic:

    “And it seems such a waste of time/If that’s what it’s all about/Mama if that’s movin up then I’m movin out”

    “You had the Dom Perignon in your hand/And the spoon up your nose” OR “And they were all impressed by your Halston dress/And the people you knew at Elaine’s”

    And of course “a bottle of white, a bottle of red, perhaps a bottle of rose instead”

    Ok… so maybe those don’t work exactly either, but it is an entertaining exercise.

    • vinicultured August 12, 2010 at 2:10 pm #

      James P.,

      I’ll respond by first identifying the songs from which came your Billy Joel quotes.

      1) “Anthony’s Song (Moving Out)”
      2) “Big Shot”
      3) “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant”

      All excellent songs, sir.

      Thanks for the feedback! I think it’s natural that you and I have had similar concerns, because artisanal goods (and an artisan commune) consitute 60% of what we usually talk about. And I think James B. really nailed the difference between those who merely choose based on their tastes versus those who are strictly defined by their tastes. The Jameses are in accord.

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