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A Sociology of Jack Vance II - The Columns at Tustvold

Again, discussed in the first part of Cugel's Saga. The villagers of Tustvold, sprung from the dubious stock of fugitives from the Rhab Faag, have a curious social structure in which the women do all the work, and the men spend their days at the tops of columns whence they "absorb a healthful flux from the sunlight."

"The higher the column the more pure and rich is the flux, as well as the prestige of place. The women, especially, are consumed with ambition for the altitude of their husbands."

In Vance's description, the innate virtues of the flux are less interesting to the villagers than the more earthly pleasures of superior social position.

"Dame Petish, for instance, is annoyed that Dame Gillincx's husband now sits on the same level as Petish himself. Dame Viberl fancies herself the leader of society, and insists that two segments separate Viberl from his social inferiors.

Access to the flux of the higher altitudes is a very nearly perfect example of what Fred Hirsch dubs a 'positional good.' The benefits of the good to its consumers depend on its limited availability. If all the columns were raised by magic far into the upper atmosphere, but their heights were equalized, Dame Petish would be very unhappy. Hirsch argues suggests increased supply of positional goods is self-defeating, since the more readily they are available to the vulgarity, the less valuable they are.

Vance's book discusses a less-widely noted corollary of the concept. To the extent that the benefits of these goods are purely positional, they are likely to involve considerable waste. In Veblen's terms, they are a kind of conspicuous consumption. People's dynamic pursuit of relative status will likely compel them towards ever more costly extravagances as they try to catch up to their social superiors, or alternatively to accentuate their distinction at the expense of social inferiors. Cugel proposes to mitigate some of this waste (and, more to the point, fill his purse) by abstracting the lowest segments from all the pillars at once, and then selling them back again as purported new segments.

"I have watched the men climbing their columns. They come out blinking and half asleep. They trouble to look at nothing but the state of the weather and the rungs of their ladders.'

Nisbet pulled dubiously at his beard. "Tomorrow, when Fidix climbs his column, he will find himself unaccountably lower by a segment."

"That is why we must remove the 'One' from every column. So now to work! There are many segments to remove."

Unfortunately for Cugel and Nisbet, the scheme is discovered, and the women of Tustvold,being unacquainted with the niceties of social theory, fail to appreciate its efficiencies. As is often the case in these books, Cugel is forced to flee precipitately, with a crowd of outraged villagers in pursuit.

Further sociological readings.

Fred Hirsch (1977), Social Limits to Growth . London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

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