Selling San Juan: Part 2

An essay on New West gentrification and the feasibility of preserving community self-determination in San Juan County after the designation of Bears Ears National Monument.

Part 2: Bears Ears, by Patagonia

When deep space exploration ramps up, it will be corporations that name everything.  The IBM Stellar Sphere. The Philip Morris Galaxy. Planet Starbucks.

—  Jack, Fight Club

As asserted in this essay’s Part 1, amenity migration imposes a post-industrial order onto a rural western landscape previously defined by industrial-age logic and values.  It is structurally similar to colonialist projects of the past in its pursuit of the wholesale replacement of a worldview deemed unsophisticated and obsolete.  I will further develop these particular critical theoretical ideas in this part of the essay then move on to a discussion of the practical challenges and opportunities of amenity migration in subsequent sections.

A Brief (and Somewhat Academic) Discussion of Commodification

Nearly anything can be commodified — turned into an object of economic value — in large part because the process of commodification involves the intrinsic utility of the thing only as a starting point and primarily entails the thing’s ability to contain and express personal and social meaning.  We have, for example, the concepts of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure, in which Thorstein Veblen observed over 100 years ago that the wealthy of his time established their elevated personal worth and social status through displays of ostentatious, wasteful spending not widely available to the poorer classes of society.  Veblen also noted that, for their part and to the extent financially possible, the middle and lower classes often engaged in pecuniary emulation, which is the class-aspirational act of imitating the consumption and leisure practices of the wealthy.

In this way, the process of commodification is about the relationship between people as much as it is about the relationship between things.  Luxury goods command a price premium compared with their substitutes not because of, or at least not merely because of, their functional superiority, but because of their positional superiority.

Processes of commodification are of course always embedded in a particular historical context.  And so, as America has transitioned from an industrial to a post-industrial society, so has the range of possibilities for commodification.  Whereas in Veblen’s era the ordering of class differences revolved almost entirely around material objects of higher or lower esteem — houses, art, jewelry — it now incorporates post-productivist logic and values.  Social status is now fragmented along niche tribal lines from up and down and all across the socioeconomic strata and is sometimes even (paradoxically) expressed in terms that are oppositional to the production and consumption of material objects.  Society may not have become noticeably better at dealing with class, but the market has become immeasurably better at providing the means for its expression.

Post-Luxury and the Connoisseurship of Nature


Photo: bcorporation.net

Our language — as expressed in the academy, in professional business literature, and in mainstream culture — has reflected this evolution.  For instance, some researchers have extended Veblen’s terminology in noting the elevated status now associated with inconspicuous consumption and conspicuous conservation.  Increasingly, avant-garde brand strategists argue that conventional ideas about product-oriented class-signaling are entirely outdated, replaced by a New Luxury or Post-Luxury order in which metaphysical objects such as experiences and time itself have become the new frontier in the endless expansion of commodity fetishism.  And of course the modern marketing apparatus deftly engages such apparent non-commodities as nature and feminism to sell, for example, Jeeps (and vice versa).

New West yuppies — and the businesses, political parties, towns, NGOs, etc. to whom they are the target market — comprise a tribe that fully occupies the leading edge of this evolution.  In the New West, relics of the industrial Old West are not just undesirable but repugnant.  Oil derricks, mines, ATVs and livestock are not just stains on the landscape, but symbols of a low, coarse form of human civilization to be kept out of mind and therefore out of sight in an ugly corner of America or, better yet, offshore in a developing country.  The downmarket offerings of the typical Old West main street are likewise met with disdain.  Instead, the presence of amenities like yoga studios and third wave coffee shops signify the elevated status of a place, and nature itself is made a prestige product, an Instagram-perfect stage for the performance of socially worthy expressions of affluence.

This raises something about the Bears Ears narrative that I think is intuitively grating to many people with a longstanding connection to San Juan County: marking onto a map a boundary around nearly all of the county’s off-reservation backcountry and stamping it “Bears Ears National Monument” is itself an aggressive, reductive act of commodification.  The limited utility of the land along industrial and pre-industrial lines is essentially status quo ante, yet its socioeconomic meaning is completely transformed by the monument designation.  A landscape that went by many names and contained overwhelming multitudes of meaning was reduced not just to a political football, but a slick media brand suitable for easy use as a status good by millions of people who had never so much as heard of San Juan County before December 28, 2016.

The underpinning logic, here as in most New Luxury categories, comes down to questions of connoisseurship, and, in this conceptual move, the potential for drawing hairsplitting distinctions in the service of financial profit and class hierarchy becomes nearly limitless.  Perhaps the most common trope of the post-industrial connoisseur is the performance and ownership of “authenticity,”  and perhaps no corporation in the New West marketspace is more practiced at this form of antimarketing than Patagonia.

Ridgeway [VP of Public Engagement for Patagonia] can sometimes sound a little weary at having to explain to outsiders a way of life that comes quite naturally to him. ‘We don’t want to hold ourselves up in some arrogant exclusivity,’ Ridgeway said, but then described the kind of customer that Patagonia does not ‘necessarily want to invite under our umbrella.’ Namely, people who want to climb Mount Everest for bragging rights – the sort of affluent adventurers, drawn to climbing in part by Patagonia, whose impact Chouinard now regrets so much. ‘Someone who has paid $100,000 for a guided climb where the sherpas put the route in and risked their lives fixing the lines and carried all your stuff up for you and positioned your oxygen balls so you could go up and come back and say you climbed Everest. That doesn’t work for us,’ Ridgeway says. ‘And we don’t mind saying it publicly.’

—  Meltzer, M. Patagonia and The North Face: saving the world – one puffer jacket at a time. The Guardian.

It’s all right there: in a move that deems superficial and vulgar even “Patagonia-adjacent” manifestations of outdoor enthusiasm, we have luxury branding that pretends to be transcendent of both luxury and branding.  Patagonia constructs a particular hierarchy of authentic, enlightened outdoor connoisseurship and, as if by coincidence, those who buy into this articulation occupy the top point of the pyramid.  This is how it becomes not just logical, but an act of supreme good taste and environmental consciousness, to spend $65 on a pair of running shorts fabricated from petrochemicals, stitched in a Vietnamese factory, and shipped halfway around the world to a boutique in Telluride.  Or to launch, with no apparent sense of irony, an expensive, multimedia advertising and political campaign in “defense” of a landscape where the greatest objective threat of development and degradation has long been the one posed by the New West’s own social construction and commodification of nature.

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