On Rarity and Scarcity and Happiness

by Tom Jacobs

ScreenHunter_15 Aug. 13 13.45This last weekend I went on a two-day sailing expedition with a friend. I took the subway from Brooklyn to Grand Central and got a train to Connecticut and, it must be said, had no idea what I was doing or in for (thank god my friend did—an expert sailor, this guy). In the following days I felt as close to death or at least profound suffering/drowning as I’ve ever felt, and also experienced something close to the kind of sublimity that is only afforded when one is willing to enter those places that are decidedly not welcoming, that are not our home. This means the wilderness, those places that used to be “beyond geography” but which now, while mapped and navigable via GPS, refer either to mostly unpeopled, wooded, waterless places or that, as in this case, to the sea. I had a vague sense that I had no business being out there in a motorless sailboat, left to stasis or to the insanity of unpredictably wind gusts or counter currents or unfriendly waves, all depending upon the vagaries of the wind and weather, and in this I was quite correct. To be out in the open ocean on a sailboat is to realize that our everyday lives are wildly and ridiculously shielded from what used to be called “nature,” that slippery pre-modern concept that both calls to and repels us.

As I lay next to my friend under a canvas tent that we (or “he,” really) erected on the boat that just barely accommodated both of us, cheek by jowl, and just as a massive thunderstorm passed by in the late afternoon, many things crossed my mind.

The most crucial of these was: “This is a rare experience.”

In an essay exploring the idea of rarity, Nicholson Baker speaks of the experience of having to write down a phone number on whatever surface presents itself at the moment as eligible for inscription—in his case, the blade of a Rubbermaid spatula (one could just as easily substitute the experience of listlessly doodling on the rubber midsole of one’s sneaker in mid-afternoon study hall in high school). He speaks of the incomparable pleasure of pressing the ballpoint of the pen against the yielding and squishy rubber of the rubbery blade (or shoe) and wonders whether this is the kind of shared experience that is rarely spoken of or even observed but that might provide some kind of tenuous community: “Infrequent events in the lives of total strangers are now linked; but the pleasure itself is too fragile, too incidental, too survive such forced affiliation undamaged.” In other words, as soon as this experience is discussed and made public, its rarity immediately departs.

What occurred to me as I drove home from Connecticut, however, is that this feeling of rarity was not, for once, connected to an object, but rather to an experience. That there is an important distinction to be made between rare experiences and rare objects or things.

Thank God there was gold to forge.

~ William Gaddis, The Recognitions

The lovely thing about gold is that it provides a non-floating signifier, something that anchors the superflux of value in something material, something tangible. Of course this is nonsense—value, economic or cultural or otherwise—is now completely unhinged from anything resembling material reality. Value has become symbolic: what is considered valuable these days has little to do with labor, or craftsmanship, or even beauty. This is not an entirely bad thing; to understand the semiotics of value and exchange opens up landscapes unimagined by cultures and economies that are bound to use and survival. It’s nice to unleash freedom from necessity, but this freedom is also terrible and difficult.

I happen to really enjoy the song “Call Me Maybe.” This is perhaps the least rare thing there is…anyone with access to youtube or Spotify or whatever can listen to the song ad nauseam. But there it is, this song. And it gives me pleasure. It always makes me happy. This is the least rare of all things—a song that you can’t not hear if you turn on your radio. Yet there is value there.

A distinction might be made between scarcity and rarity. Scarcity refers to an inadequate supply, a dearth, a paucity. Rarity refers to something that infrequently occurs, to something excellent or extraordinary. There is, obviously, an ethical distinction between scarcity and rarity. Scarcity reverberates on ethical planes. Rarity on the aesthetic. This is a problem.

It is at precisely this moment—the moment when we pause to consider value, economic or cultural or otherwise—that thing get muzzy and strange. The symbolic nature of economic theory shoulders itself into view and cannot be ignored.

More to come, but it will involve Tino Sehgal, Levi’s jeans, and racist commodities.