Gossip, Parody, and Pastiche

Steeping tea is one of my favorite San Francisco picnic pastimes. The idea of a hobble of twenty-something-year-olds gathered around an overextravagant charcuterie board, carefully curated to lower defenses and facilitate information exchange, evokes feelings of entertainment and a contagious set of giggles. You definitely won’t get this telling of local news in the neighborhoods from the Chronicle.

In other words, I am talking about chismis. Gossip. I have not been back to the Philippines since I was four, but I’m almost certain that Daly City, a hotbed for California Filipino culture, has made its subtle mark on its fellow San Francisco residents. Or maybe this is the real consequence of the real sharing economy; even social capital is out for rent.

Exchanging drama is unadulterated entertainment. I love being the narrator of these tales for my charcuterie brethren. So many different weapons are at my disposal: marked pauses, divulgence (or withholding) of names, Socratic seminar to piece together perspectives of a recent happening, and the like. In the end, a curated story, with a personal injection of the “important details”, is produced to induce laughter in the audience.

But really, why do we gossip? Matthew Feinberg explains gossip as a way to “sustain cooperation and deter selfishness better than those that don’t.” At the charcuterie picnic, if you choose to only listen to the juicy tidbits without sharing any of your own insights or peculiar happenings, good luck getting a future invitation. Culturally, it can be seen as a mutual protective ritual, as the sharing of important news about an absent third party can inform behavior in future interactions.

Of course, there are incentives to tell the truth in these exchanges. In these small charcuterie circles, information travels fast, and is only inhibited when means of communication fail to function. Spread false information in these circles, and expect to be banished once the truth resolves itself.

Since I have been newly influenced by some entertaining libertarian book clubs from Hanover, New Hampshire, I want to look at gossip from an economic perspectiveThrough the magic of public listservs and careful omission of my alumni status, I was kindly welcomed into a guided reading of Sowell’s Knowledge and Decisions and Economic Facts and Fallacies. Here to report that I was entertained, but not convinced.

. One way to view the exchange of gossip is as a mechanism of spontaneous order. An insight from Friedrich Hayek is that a price system can act as a “single mind” to possess all relevant information in making an economic decision:

Fundamentally, in a system in which the knowledge of the relevant facts is dispersed among many people, prices can act to coordinate the separate actions of different people in the same way as subjective values help the individual to coördinate the parts of his plan… The whole acts as one market, not because any of its members survey the whole field, but because their limited individual fields of vision sufficiently overlap so that through many intermediaries the relevant information is communicated to all.

I don’t fully espouse this theory, especially considering that the market has steadily progressed to become a simulacra of reality. Not to mention that this neoliberal theory that promotes a decentralized market system does not match the ordoliberal reality. But it’s fun time so let’s entertain this model since it provides some guidance when used in a local context.

Let us apply a semblance of the theory to our gossip picnic setup (usually hosted at Alamo Square Park, my park of choice in San Francisco). If “knowledge of relevant facts” (second-hand accounts of events, important life updates) “is dispersed among many people” (the charcuterie circle), “prices” (induced laughter in relation to the accumulation of relevant facts) can finally “help the individual to coordinate the parts of his plan”. Now, how are the individuals helped in this regard? Well, one can think of the charcuterie circle as a local market of morality. Indeed, if the circle is composed of friends whose facts (or knowledge of facts) are widely desired, would not their personal perspective be key as well?

In a sense, we are consuming our friends’ ideas of right and wrong behavior. Stories of wrong behavior induce laughter, followed by a deconstruction of what could have happened or what should have happened. Additional normative claims can be made through discussion within the charcuterie circle.

This is why sharing a curated story to the group is as entertaining as laughing along and consuming the information (and the salami, cured meats, juicy grapes, crackers, spreads) of the charcuterie circle. In the vocal illustration of the story, rooted in a mixture of second-hand observation, trusted information, and personal interpretation arises a subtle message that is delivered to the group. Depending on how this message meshes with the group, implicit rules in the group’s collective sense of morality are either updated or validated. Kickstarting this process through a story is powerful and hilarious.

I would like to emphasize that these illustrations of events are parody: its key feature is that the narrator has infused personal opinions in the form of mockery of the original event. Frederic Jameson has a nice definition:

Now parody capitalizes on the uniqueness of these styles and seizes on their idiosyncrasies and eccentricities to produce an imitation which mocks the original… Still, the general effect of parody is - whether in sympathy or with malice - to cast ridicule on the private nature of these stylistic mannerisms and their excessiveness and eccentricity with respect to the way people normally speak or write.

Gossip is a representation of the underlying event. By itself, it can be dull. Only when it is infused with personal values does it become interesting. The ridiculousness of the event is precisely identified and shared out. In parody, we impart the takeaway, the lesson from the event to the charcuterie circle. And through spontaneous order, we see the lesson from the parody taken up or rejected by the group’s morality, as gauged by induced laughter. Social order arises.

Future behaviors of individual group members are subject to scrutiny against the group’s morality. The most consequential behavior is when the member is the subject of gossip, and the lesson from its parody is already well known knowledge, as its lesson has been learned and incorporated into the group’s morality from a previous occasion. With no additional takeaway from the gossip, it merely a retelling of an event. It is dull.

This sort of gossip is not parody, but pastiche. Again, Frederic Jameson provides a useful remark here:

Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique style, the wearing of a stylistic mask, speech in a dead language: but it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without parody’s ulterior motive, without the satirical impulse, without laughter, without that still latent feeling that there exists something normal compared to which what is being imitated is rather comic. Pastiche is blank parody, parody that has lost its sense of humor.

Similar to the outcome of ostracization of those who do not participate in the gossip or spread untrustworthy information in the group, if you cannot assimilate the group’s unspoken rules from the training examples of shared stories, expect to be ousted.

Gossip is a mechanism to understand a group’s collective morality. Is it any surprise that it’s so fun to pay attention to it, to help shape and reinforce that narrative?

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