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Where lies the seeming unexplained residual value people ascribe to luxury goods above and beyond their use value? Paul Bloom’s answer is history.
In my view, Bloom adds two letters too many to his answer. The value that Bloom attributes to history is better understood as the value of story. When I was a child, I traveled to the Smithsonian, where I saw and learned about the “history” of the Hope Diamond. This beautiful blue diamond was cursed, and this curse apparently afflicted all of its owners. Even though I didn’t believe in curses as a child, I was fascinated by the coincidental tragedies that seemed to befall the diamond’s owners. These coincidences seemed to imbue the object with greater value than it would otherwise have accrued just sitting in the Smithsonian all those years. Later, I would learn that many of these tragic tales were fictitious, but, even so, the diamond didn’t lose any value for me. In some ways, the new knowledge of these falsehoods made the story more interesting—and implicitly more valuable—because of the questions it raised: Why did people feel the need to lie to increase the value of this diamond? Why were these stories so readily accepted as true? The stories surrounding this diamond presented me with the opportunity to explore, discuss, and share, and in doing so added value.
Bloom confuses history with the value of story.
Bloom never tells us exactly what he means by history, so maybe he thinks of history as synonymous with story. However, most would agree that there is a difference between a good story and a good historical account. Good historical accounts are first and foremost about what is true; good stories are first and foremost about drama, tension, and telling details. When a sommelier pours a fine wine, I believe that whether her description of the wine rings true for those tasting matters less than whether they are engaged and entertained by the telling details about its production and taste.
This is not to say that the truth is irrelevant to the value of the story. Truth matters. More truth is better than less. But while truth enhances the value of a story, it is only one contributing element, and luxury goods tend to have other elements that make for compelling stories. For example, there is often some element of challenge or struggle in the creation of a luxury good: the materials may be unique, even exotic, and the maker may have an especially compelling life story, be recognized as an artisan of special ability, or have overcome great odds to pursue their craft.
Stories provide value for both the teller and the listener. I did not need to own the Hope Diamond to derive value from the stories associated with it. I get more than enough value from the telling and retelling, even now.
If we accept that part of the value of luxury goods lies in the stories to which the goods lend themselves, it is worth observing that the status implications of storytelling are not necessarily neutral or predetermined. The storyteller can relate the tale in ways that enhance his or her status vis-à-vis the audience or else draw the audience in close, place them on equal footing, and establish or reinforce a sense of community. Understanding how status, story, and luxury interact seems like fertile ground for further inquiry.
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