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Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Diderot Effect et moi: Decluttering. Spending, Consuming and all the rest

Oh Denis Diderot: where have you been in my life? The last time I thought about you was in Humanities 210, when I read Rameau's Nephew. About which I remember nothing. The next year, a friend wrote his senior thesis on Diderot, entitled Le Philosophe Dans les Ruelles (why do I remember that? must have had a crush on the guy).


While procrastinating on my own decluttering, I chanced upon a blog post by Philip Brewer. Here is an excerpt from his post:

The Diderot Effect is named after the French writer Denis Diderot, who wrote a famous essay on how the gift of one very nice item had made his other things look shabby. In an amusing fashion, the essay traces out the series of steps by which he ended up having to upgrade everything he owned.

A whole lot of marketing is aimed at getting you to buy one nice thing — because the marketers know that having one nice thing will put you on the path to replacing many other items as well — things that are perfectly good, but that aren't as nice as your new thing.

It's an easy trap to fall into, and a terrible one.

Fortunately, the Diderot Effect is its own cure. While one nice thing makes your other stuff look shabby, when your stuff is all about the same, it produces a pleasant inertia that makes it easy to resist upgrades.


I wonder if the writer read and remembered Diderot? The term was coined by an academic/guru of culture and commerce, Grant McCracken. The Wikipedia entry describes McCracken's thesis thus:

In McCracken's usage the Diderot Effect is the result of the interaction between objects within "product complements", or "Diderot unities", and consumers. A Diderot unity is a group of objects that are considered to be culturally complementary in relation to one another. For example, items of clothing, furniture, vehicles, etc. McCracken describes that a consumer is less likely to veer from a preferred Diderot unity in order to strive towards unity in appearance and representation of one's social role. However, it can also mean that if an object that is somehow deviant from the preferred Diderot unity is acquired, it may have the effect of causing the consumer to start subscribing to a completely different Diderot unity.

The term was popularized (again, thank you Wikipedia) in Judith Schor's The Overspent American.

If you want to read Diderot's essay, here is a translation (on a Marxist site! how appropriate!)

Anyway, for me, this has been food for thought. Should I subscribe to Brewer's idea: keep everything at the same level? Is it possible to upgrade one thing without having to upgrade everything?

Have you ever succumbed to the Diderot Effect?

8 comments:

Patience_Crabstick said...

Thanks for the interesting post.
I think it is possible to upgrade just one thing. My house has been in a state of piecemeal upgrading for over ten years so I have seen bits of it look unbearably shabby as other bits are improved.

SewingLibrarian said...

Interesting! I had heard of this effect but had not heard it associated with Diderot. I associate Diderot with L'Encyclopedie.

Joan said...

Now I understand why trips to Ikea are fraught with such disappointment... The "look" only works if you buy the whole package!

Terri said...

Oh, dear. I have noticed this effect in my thrifting for clothing and just today, after 25 years of resisting, I bought a fur...This is not good.

Duchesse said...

Really enjoyed your post, and yes, it happens, *for awhile*. But eventually one hits his or her level of upgrade. Most people are not striving for museum-quality everything, which is why Crate & Barrel and Design Within Reach exist.

If wise (Bon Diderot?) the durables last for life (and possibly longer) and if you replace the other things only as they wear out, you are in fact better off than if you consume in the gotta-get-the-latest mindset.

I think that what marketers want even more than the upgrade buyer is a culture that buys trends and disposable junk.

(I'm writing this response in an Eric Bompard cashmere cardigan I think is at least a decade old, and is in great shape.)

I loved "The Overspent American"!

Ms. M said...

I agree with Duchesse. I'm pretty sure I have hit my level of upgrade, with most things, anyway.

I'm not willing to upgrade if the new thing will require excessive upkeep or fear of theft/damage, or if it's overpriced. I'll pay full retail for quality, but I refuse to pay an unfair price.

These two things tend to keep my shopping under a certain price level.

And then there are certain times when I just decide I'm not going to upgrade even if I dislike what I have. For instance, there are a lot of things that bug me about my house, but I've made the decision that I'm not going to invest in decorating or remodeling.

Frugal Scholar said...

@PC--Me too. Every time I think I'm done, I have a new desire. Of course, I also have a greater tolerance for shabby than most, so much of what I do would have been done long sense by others.

@Sewing--Well, the Encyc is the BIG book. Read the essay if you have a chance--it's a lot of fun.

@Joan--So true about Ikea. True also of Shabby Chic looks and others. Bringing things home so often results in disappointment.

@Terri--Ohhh, hope you will model it in the near future! My daughter and
i have started sniffing at certain brands at the thrifts--oh another Ann Taylor, big deal!

@Duchesse--True for C and B, but DWR has many museum type pieces that I would love. I promised my son a Noguchi coffee table if he ever settles down and my daughter wants a pair of Eros chairs by Starck. Of course, their taste may change. Haven't read the book, but will get a copy--it does sound good.

@Miss M--We are also trying to decide what we should and shouldn't do in our house. I appreciate your point about upkeep--certain things make me nervous. I read an essay (I think it was by Nora Ephron) about someone who bought an expensive handbag and was then trapped in a restaurant b/c she didn't want to take it out in the rain.

Shelley said...

Most things in our house were inherited, bought second hand or handmade. New items tend to look really out of place until they are bashed in a bit. We found that Ikea bookshelves are acceptable and a glass TV table up on the landing didn't offend too much, but as I refuse to unload our beloved inherited pieces of furniture a Diderot-style upgrade simply isn't on the cards for us. Thank Goodness! Clothes, those are a different story, one I've not yet figured out I think.