Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Sign Value

I just finished writing a series on poverty for the National Catholic Register, and I found that some of my favourite ideas just didn't make it into the text. So I'm going to talk about one of them here.

Basically, I was trying to cover all of the major gospel quotes about money, and to give a brief summary of Church social teaching, a brief apercu on gift exchange, and some hard-hitting practical advice on how to be poor and love it, but I just didn't have the space to talk about the idea of sign value.

This is a concept that arose out of neo-Marxist thought in the late 20th Century (no, I'm not about to go Commie-pinko on everyone – it's an observation not a manifesto), basically in an attempt to account for the fact that in a modern commodity based market you can find almost identical goods being sold for radically different prices. To give an obvious example, there are the endless designer look-alike looks touted in every fashion magazine. They show you a dress, handbag and shoe ensemble that was worn by some millionaire celebrity, they quote you the jaw-dropping price that was paid for the outfit, and then they cheerily inform you that you can get almost the same thing at the local mall for a 'mere' $300.

An even more extreme example is the phenomenon of crushed or broken packaging. If you have two items that are literally identical – same brand, same product, same factory of origin, etc. -- and one of them has a box that has become ripped or discoloured or otherwise marred in transport, the one with the pristine box will be "worth" at least 25% more in the marketplace. Sign value is a theory that accounts for this by dividing the value of goods into two components: the use value, which is the actual functional value that will be derived by the user or purchaser; and the sign value, which is the value that is conveyed by the good functioning as a sign – of prestige, of affluence, of strength, of beauty, etc. In the case of the crushed box, buying something that is in less-than-perfect condition (even if the product itself is not effected) is seen as "cheap," it signifies poverty and a willingness to "settle for less." Thus the damaged package has a negative sign-value that reduces the commercial value of the product. In the case of the $300 look-alike ensemble, there are two different levels on which sign-value is functioning: it is functioning, in the first place, to massively inflate the value of the original celebrity outfit, which may literally have thousands of dollars added to the value by the presence, for example, of a designer label or a particularly trendy kind of cut crystal. In this case, the celebrity purchaser is looking for something that will carry with it the sign-value of designer prestige, uniqueness, and cutting-edge fashionable novelty. The buyer of the look-alike, however, is not actually buying the same outfit with its value scaled back to reflect its actual usefulness: they too are paying a mark-up for sign-value, in this case the sign-value of looking like the celebrity.

Anyway, I was going to discuss how sign-value functions within gift economies, where value is not measured in objectivized monetary terms. Within modern commercial economies, there is a strong impetus to imbue products with sign-value in order to increase profit margins. This generally involves artificially assigning a sign-value and reinforcing it through advertising media. In gift exchange, however, the gift has a natural sign-value. It signifies the relationship in which it is given, the love and sacrifice that went into making or providing it, and the occasion on which it was given. In many cases, the gift has literally no use-value; it is only a sign – as in Oscar Wilde's famous quip that all art is quite useless. The interesting difference here is that the sign-value of gifts increases as the gift is given and given again. In traditional cultures, many gift items would become the purveyors of a story or legend, they would take on magical traits, conveying new and amplified meanings as they moved through traditional cycles of giving. Much the same thing happens with family heirlooms, which perpetuate and accumulate meaning as they are passed from generation to generation. With market commodities, generally, the opposite happens: what carries the sign-value of prestige, novelty, wealth, and status today will carry the stigma of poverty, grubbiness, out-of-dateness, and fashion-cluelessness tomorrow.

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