The Sociology of Jack Vance II – Positional Goods and the Columns at Tustvold

by Henry on June 13, 2013

These columns are discussed in the first part of Cugel’s Saga. The villagers of Tustvold, sprung from the dubious stock of fugitives from the Rhab Faag, have a curious social structure in which the women do all the work, and the men spend their days at the tops of columns whence they “absorb a healthful flux from the sunlight.”

“The higher the column the more pure and rich is the flux, as well as the prestige of place. The women, especially, are consumed with ambition for the altitude of their husbands.”

In Vance’s description, the innate virtues of ascending to the empyrian are less interesting to the villagers than the more mundane pleasures of superior social position.

“Dame Petish, for instance, is annoyed that Dame Gillincx’s husband now sits on the same level as Petish himself. Dame Viberl fancies herself the leader of society, and insists that two segments separate Viberl from his social inferiors.

Access to the flux of the higher altitudes is a very nearly perfect example of what Fred Hirsch dubs a ‘positional good.’ The benefits of the good to its consumers depend on its limited availability. If all the columns were magically raised high into the upper atmosphere, but their heights were equalized, Dame Petish would be very unhappy. Hirsch argues suggests increased supply of positional goods is self-defeating, since the more readily they are available to the vulgarity, the less valuable they are.

Vance illustrates a less-widely noted corollary of the concept. To the extent that the benefits of these goods are purely positional, they are likely to involve considerable waste. In Veblen’s terms, they are a kind of conspicuous consumption. People’s ceaseless pursuit of relative status will surely compel them towards ever more costly extravagances as they try to catch up to their social superiors, or alternatively to accentuate their distinction at the expense of social inferiors. Cugel proposes to mitigate some of this waste (and, more to the point, fill his purse) by abstracting the lowest segments from all the pillars at once, and then selling them back again to the villagers as purportedly new segments.

“I have watched the men climbing their columns. They come out blinking and half asleep. They trouble to look at nothing but the state of the weather and the rungs of their ladders.’

Nisbet pulled dubiously at his beard. “Tomorrow, when Fidix climbs his column, he will find himself unaccountably lower by a segment.”

“That is why we must remove the ‘One’ from every column. So now to work! There are many segments to remove.”

Unfortunately for Cugel and Nisbet, the scheme is discovered, and the women of Tustvold, being unacquainted with the niceties of social theory, fail to appreciate its efficiencies. As is often the case in these books, Cugel is forced to flee precipitately, with a crowd of outraged villagers in pursuit.

Further readings.

Fred Hirsch (1977), Social Limits to Growth . London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.



Rich Puchalsky 06.13.13 at 2:39 am

Cugel would clearly have been better off abstracting the “six” from every column, given that he and his accomplice have a zero-gravity device that makes removal at any point easy. People pay attention at the bottom and the top of the columns, but presumably not the middle. Though really it was a get-rich-quick scheme sure to be detected one way or another pretty quickly. As always, Cugel is self-defeating — a person who can happen into free antigravity and only turn it into a short-term con.

The story is such a pure illustration of Hirsch because it’s been politically neutered in other ways. OK, the upper-class men — meaning all the men of the village, more or less — do nothing. The women do all the work, except for one man who does all of the mining because of the free antigravity device. Are the columns hugely wasteful? Well, they’re taking the labor of one person, and materials that are lying around. Plus that one person is bribed by the women providing food and washing laundry for him, but they can’t really pay him more than one very well-paid worker can get. So there’s nothing really like class interest.


Sebastian H 06.13.13 at 4:08 am

College degrees for a vast number of jobs…


Zamfir 06.13.13 at 7:21 am

The literal one-dimensionality of the story brings out a common risk in positional-good thinking. People rarely subscribe to a simple and clear measure of status. The direction of high status is itself a contested value. It’s never just about having a high pillar, it’s also about convincing others that a high pillar should be or envied. It’s at the core of hipsterdom, where you win by knowing the right direction.

There’s a book on commerce in the Ming empire, with a chapter on antiques manuals. Those were books that explained the right kind of vases, screens, decorative rocks to buy to show that you are a cultured man. It’s clear that reading such book won’t be enough, that in fact the need for such a book is a mortal flaw, but there’s a still a healthy market for them. With regular updates of course, since the right kind of antiques shifts by the year. It’s both familiar and strange, like the How To Spend It from a different time and placed.

Plus the warm feeling that I can see beyond the superficiality of pet screens and Range Rovers, making them the wrong kind of pillar to sit on.


Zamfir 06.13.13 at 7:23 am

The book was called ‘ The Confusions of Pleasure’, by Timothy Brooks.


Adam Roberts 06.13.13 at 5:00 pm

Given the rather artificial set-up, Cugel’s thinking seems to me sound: none of the villagers care about their absolute height; they only care how high they are in relation to everybody else. If everybody is brought down a single segment, the latter is not effected. The problem, I suppose, is that although they actually care about their relative height, they are pretending to care about absolute height (the better to absorb a healthful flux from the sunlight), and so are compelled to object to Cugel’s plans

My problem with describing this in terms of Fred Hirsch’s ‘positional good’ is that none of the examples he gives map onto Vance’s artificial pillar model very well. Here’s the wikipedia entry. Don’t tell my students I’m citing so unacademic a source:

“Examples of positional goods include high social status, exclusive real estate, a spot in the freshman class of a prestigious university, a reservation at the “hottest” new restaurant, and fame. The measure of satisfaction derived from a positional good depends on how much one has in relation to everyone else.”

It seems to me that, in none of those examples, is there any actual way to move everybody (as it were) one segment down. I have a reservation at Chichi’s; you have a reservation at All Bar One. If I am shunted to a table at All Bar One and you have to pack up and go next door to Burger King for dinner, our respective experiences are positionally maintained, but also they are materially altered. Aren’t they? (What I mean is: the positional good in this case is that I have a table at Chichi’s and you don’t; I don’t really care where you eat — I only care that you can’t get into the incredibly exclusive eaterie I’m at.


Random Lurker 06.13.13 at 5:16 pm

Shouldn’t this post be named “economics f Jack Vance”?

I was waiting for a post like this ever since you announced a serie of posts on Vance, because it touches on what I think is the most important aspect of Vance’s view of the world. I even tought of a link between Vance, the “spirit of capitalism”, and austerity.

In many Vance’s novel, the heroes are confronted with people of different cultures, who inveriably have goals that look extremely stupid or weird from the point of view of the heroes and of the readers; however those goals are defined inside their cultures as things that confer a lot of status.
This is very evident in the “Gray Prince” where there are two populations, one “civil” and the other “savage”, but civil people really can’t understand the savage culture, and the one charachter who came from the savage culture but was raised half civil can’t be happy because he can’t reach status in the civil society and isn’t interested in status in the savage one.
Also in the “Gray Prince” there is a sort of caricature of civil liberal do gooders, who other than being completely useless are portrayed as rich elitists; in short the do-gooder-ness is just a different sort of status claim.

Similar elements appear in Tschai (the birdmen) in the demon princes (the evil guy who, even if ultra rich, cannot buy a house in an exclusive planet), in Space Opera (where elitist lyric singers believe that every sentient being in the universe should like lyric music, but then realize that musical tastes are very culture- and specie- specific), and I suppose in a lot of other Vance novels.

While this cultural relativism is IMHO the most fascinating aspect of vances’ worlds, this leads to a disvaluing of common sense values too, which means that the heroes with wich the reader is supposed to empathize either look stupid, or evil, or oversimplified respect to the bad guys.
Since nobody can write a novel without some sort of moral paradigm, Vance is forced to adopt one anyway, and usually resorts to the “jawboned cynic” guy who can win in some sort of (usually unsatisfying) way, exactly because he can see through the vanity of other peoples’ moral (social) values.

This “vanity” of social values is actually a very long standing staple of the “spirit of capitalism”: from the point of view of old feudal Catholic Church, “making money by money” was a sin, and as a consequence both “usurers” and merchants were seen as sinners of “greed” and had to pay fines to the church to reach heaven; people were supposed to be “magnanimi” and to spend large and generously. At the same time, society was very static so there was very few hope of changing classes and the ones with the money were the lords, so spending generously was also a way to rise the lifestile of their lessers.

But as middle age cities became commercial hubs (for the standards of the times), this kind of ethic was untenable, and “greed” was redefined from “capital accumulation” to “big spending on status goods”; while this is usually associated with Calvinism this is obvious in many other older religious movements like the Catars, the Bogumils, Savonarola’s movement (I’m not sure of this but I think that both in Savonarola’s Florence and Calvin’s Geneve had, for example, laws against expensive dresses).
At the same time, merchantile cities had (i suppose) more social mobility, so that status goods were likely more important; thus disparaging the vanity of socially defined “status” was and is an important part of the ethic of capitalism, because it retains capital accumulation as a good thing while treating as a sin the kind of fight for status that can easyly happen in a commercial society, but that is also destabilising.

This kind of morality clearly plays a big role in the modern idea of “austerity”, mostly because many people think that the reason for the debt crisis is excessive spending by peasants on social status goods (like big houses).

I want at least a (B) for this comment.


burritoboy 06.13.13 at 7:03 pm

It was very common for political regimes before, say, the French Revolution, to have laws controlling (what was viewed as) excessively expensive or improper clothes.


Random Lurker 06.13.13 at 9:48 pm

@burritoboy 7
Ouch! No B for me then?


Anderson 06.13.13 at 10:23 pm

“The problem, I suppose, is that although they actually care about their relative height, they are pretending to care about absolute height”

The problem, I think, is that Cugel’s ripping them off.


ajay 06.14.13 at 9:46 am

It was very common for political regimes before, say, the French Revolution, to have laws controlling (what was viewed as) excessively expensive or improper clothes.

“Sumptuary laws” is the phrase. The Roman Republic is the Trope Namer here; not just clothes, either, but all forms of excessive consumption were punished by the censors, and it was generally held by the harrumph! tendency in the late republic and empire that the whole place had started to go downhill when the sumptuary laws had stopped being enforced.


ajay 06.14.13 at 9:49 am

Interestingly there were two kinds in history: one sort said “no one is allowed to wear expensive stuff”, and the other said “only people who are actually rich or of defined social status can wear expensive stuff”.


Chris Williams 06.14.13 at 1:03 pm

Vance explores the limits of his own relativism in the short story _The New Prime_. Shorter: galactic empire recruits ruler through dream audition, in which the cynical protagonist is dropped into a sucession of social and and political crises. Spoiler-ban prevent me from giving away the end.


Anderson 06.14.13 at 7:31 pm

12: one of many I haven’t read. Do you know a collection it’s in?


David 06.15.13 at 3:51 am

Good call, Chris Williams. That one occurred almost immediately to me, given the nature of some of the rather overblown complaints about Vance.


Eli Rabett 06.17.13 at 5:19 pm

Anyone else remember John Anthony West’s Gladys’s Gregory? It may have been Vance’s more palatable starting point.

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