Henry Farrell — who recently said some very interesting things about Very Serious People — writes me about my musings on hipster style, and refers me to a review of a book on codes of the underworld. The book notes that tattoos and such play a role as signals of criminal identity, which work precisely because they make it hard to participate in non-criminal society. But there’s more: criminals actively cultivate a reputation for incompetence at non-criminal business, designed to reassure both their colleagues and the victims of their extortion that they won’t break their implicit contracts by going legit. And the author, Diego Gambetta, adds a wonderful parallel: according to his account, Italian academics, who do a lot of horse-trading in appointments etc., cultivate a reputation for incompetence at actual research, again designed to reassure those with whom one deals:
“Being incompetent and displaying it,” he writes, “conveys the message I will not run away, for I have no strong legs to run anywhere else.