Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

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Friday, Aug 19, 2005

Is there anything more infuriatingly inane than a “Best Dressed Man” list? Not to say best-dressed lists for women aren’t insulting enough, reducing a woman’s competence to how attractive she’s able to appear. Maybe there’s a crude leveling in afflicting men with the same insecurities. But only the garment and publishing industries truly profit from this new equality in being able to feel prefigured by one’s accessories.


Since fashion functions not by evolving toward some higher better plane but by simply changing constantly and predictibly, any value judgment made in regards to fashion makes no sense; such comments can have no reference point. There is no “truth” to any criterion—an assessment can make no reference to any ideal because these are programmed to routinely change. Claims about striped ties or the relative lengths of cuffs and collars merely lionize a random point on an always spinning wheel.


But in truth, trying to master the details of fashion is never a matter of learning specific details and pointers like the ones adumbrated in Best Dressed Lists, it’s a matter of understanding what guides that systematic process of change, of having a sense of when things must change, to keep those bamboozled by the arbitrary details guessing. Fashion magazines, slavish to demands of their fashion-house advertisers, disseminate the arbitrary shifts with the absolute, ahistorical (and consequently schizophrenic) language that proclaims each new season of new ideas as eternal truths that everyone has just been too dim to perceive before. If there is reference to the past, it is to “classic” and “timeless” looks which are amalgams of moribund styles still vaguely remembered. No stable Golden age has ever existed to which terms like classic can apply. What is meant by “classic” and the era it’s supposed to designate is always shifting and moving in time with fashion, generally. And of course the compulsion to be classic is joined with a contradictory admonition to look contemporary, or modern; or to look modernly classic, or classically modern. The incoherence of this advice is the key to its efficacy—you are being encouraged not to think rationally, but to revel in the confused fugue state brought on by irrationality, which pleases the consumer because it makes it seem like anything, no matter how absurd, is possible (just look at television commercials).


The people on best dressed lists do aren’t there because of their sartorial aplomb, but because they have effective PR people and they are promoting some new film or record, or they effectively serve as tempting aspirational symbols of leisure class luxury—e.g., royalty, heiresses; people that we’re all eager to emulate and thereby imagine ourselves climbing the social ladder. But the truly rich and powerful don’t care how they dress, as their power draws from real sources—actual land and wealth and social connection. They’ll cooperate with the fashion industry, because it affirms their power and invests them with further social capital, but they would survive without it. But the fashion industry needs them to serve as stimulus to their lessers, so they invest a lot in acquiring the right to dress the rich and powerful and famous—hence the dresses given away for the Oscars, etc. Never mind the fact that these allegedly best-dressed people have the time and money and stylists to help them look good, which is often a professional requirement (and which should really disqualify them from consideration; if dressing up is your job, if you are wearing a glamorous uniform, have you really demonstrated any special sartorial sense?) The reason why the best dressed look “good” is because they are selected to before the fact and dressed in whatever style the fashion industry needs them to adopt, which is then touted as the superlative style. We know it’s good because the rich, famous guy is wearing it. Exposed to this kind of thing often enough, that even the tautologous reversal that we know he is rich and famous because he looks good begins to take hold.


What’s so infuriating about all this is how the copy written to accompany these lists credit the individuals for the stylishness, alleging it comes from innate personal qualities and smart fashion decisions within anyone’s grasp, rather than being the product of an enormous industry apparatus coupling itself to the long-accrued prestige of the privleged classes. The habitus of the rich is beyond most people, no matter what brand label they buy, because that aristocratic bearing is the product of an ingrained sense of entitlement that one must be raised with to feel, and to have animate unconsciously the gestures with which one moves through the world. But these lists obfuscate that, and encouage you to feel bad that you lack this natural grace, and urge to buy more crap to try to get it, a move which will inevitably fail, make you feel worse, and more vulnerable to the same pitch to buy more crap the next time. The point: “style” is never personal. It is always socially produced, and never within one’s individual control.


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Friday, Aug 19, 2005

Sometimes when I am feeling frustrated with not knowing enough about anything, I get overtaken by a wild urge not to immediately start reading one of the many books piled up by my bedside but to order a bunch of books from Amazon.com, which strangely relieves my agitation. I haven’t learned anything by buying the books, but I feel like I’ve made a date with knowledge in the future and put a little down payment on it, providing instant comfort and relief, which is really all I wanted in the first place: instant comfort more than knowledge or understanding. And when the books arrive, I know that whether or not I read them, their presence on my bookshelf should suggest to anyone who sees them that I’ve read them even if I haven’t, and that’s almost as good as reading them in the meantime, anyway, right? Since everyone around me in America seems to be getting away with similar pretenses, my joining in won’t even be noticed, I can tell myself. I’m not telling anyone any lies, so what’s the harm? I really do intend to read them eventually, maybe after the next raft of books I just ordered comes in.


This is how therapeutic shopping works, obviously; a good becomes associated with a quality we long to exemplify, skills we wish we had mastered but are too unfocused, incompetent, lazy or harried to truly put the time in and master them. Aware of the wished-for quality and our inability to have it immediately, as the monolithic voice of society suggests the case should be with everything, we yearn for instant gratification, even if it amounts only to a distraction. So we let the instantaneous finality of a transaction replace the drawn-out process of struggling for mastery. We start buying things instead of doing things. And when we still discover we can’t do the things we wished we could, we buy more.


This is a powerful engine for moving commodities and locking individuals into cycles of consumption despite their being largely unsatisfying. So it’s no wonder that it is routinely promoted in virtually every nook and crannie of the estalished culture industries—in films, when montage scenes imply effortless progress toward some goal, in the myriad ways style is championed over substance in media that linger on the implications of surface appearance without ever deigning to analyze any events or suggest any hints of causality in our society. Of course The Wall Stret Journal routinely pitches in to help perform this crucial ideological work, the most important in a consumer culture like ours. Today in the recurring “Style and Substance” feature on the front page of section B, an article about yoga clothes essentially reiterated last week’s article about sexy aprons. The crucial point: in the words of Danskin CEO Carol Hochman, “You don’t have to do the activity to wear the clothes.” In a nutshell, that is the purpose of this piece, which masquerades as trend-spotting but is in fact an advertisement for a certain approach to life, the approach that holds that you can wear yoga pants without caring a lick about yoga, that you can own a shelf full of books by Bourdieu and never read them through, that you can wear sexy aprons and have no intention to cook, you can wear a T-shirt with Che Guavara on it without knowing what he did or a kitschy shirt with Soviet propaganda on it without caring what it implies.


A related point: when something gets seized upon by the trendy in this way, when yoga pants are separated from yoga, does it imply some ultimate failure in the activity being cannibalized? It’s okay to wear Lenin shirts now and think they are campy because communism failed and is therefore funny, nostalgic. Yoga, domesticity—have these too failed to have any real cultural impact, or is ther potential impact being dissolved into empty, stylistic gestures and trends—the status quo’s old trick of coopting threats and neutralizing them into harmless trends. I guess that is really what these trend-spotting stories are about; not only do they encourage style over substance, but they reduce all substantive things to empty poses. This unfortunately was the effect Schor had on “downshifting” anti-consumers y identifying their practices as a trend. Even if the trend is hopeful, the grammar of trend-spotting trivializes whatever it is.


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Thursday, Aug 18, 2005

A few bloggers have today noted this astounding statistic: Toronto detectives have found that all but one of the more than 100 pedophiles they have arrested in the last four years are “hard-core Trekkies.” Ellen Ladowsky, a psychologist, offers a pretty intriguing thesis as to why this might be, that Star Trek posits a utopian world where all sorts of inescapable boundaries (gender, race, etc.) are broken down, which would have an obvious appeal to the pedophile.


This reminded me of another quasi-utopian subset, the garage-rock obsessed music nerd who is on a messianic mission to save rock and roll. Last summer when I went to a big garage rock festival in New York, I was struck by how much the average Cavestomper was like a Trekkie. The show convinced me once and for all that rock and roll is utterly dead as a genre, quickly going the way of traditional jazz to become a solemnly lauded museum piece, a specialization for avid superfans eager to tunnel into a subculture of nostalgia. With its eccentric fashion statements, an uneasy mishmash of Carnaby Street flash and Austin Powers parody, and its vigilant gatekeepers preserving the sacred knowledge about things like vintage fuzz pedals and the teen-rock scene in 1960s Wichita, garage rock can satisify fans with arcana while allowing them to criticizing anything not sufficiently faithful to the strictures delimited by the Beatles and the Stones and the Who. Rock and roll might have once been about rebellion and teenage angst and youth and new horizons of cool, but now it is undeniably a geek scene, and the festival was a Star Trek Convention with amplifiers. Like Trekkies, garage fans are absolutely shameless about their love for their obscure niche but perhaps unlike Trekkies, they are apparently unaware how marginalized their passion makes them and seem to believe instead that they are on the vanguard of a cultural movement instead of the comet’s tail.


People, mostly in their thirties and forties, came dressed up in costumes—their fake-vintage mod trousers and their tour shirts for bands whose last meaningful tour was twenty or thirty years ago and their Cavestomp shirts, testimony to their having gone conventioneering before and their white go-go boots and their mintskirts and the rest) and they passionately swapped cherished bits of hopelessly obscure information that no one else in the world cares about while their aging, decrepit heroes emerged from retirement to go through the motions of their heyday thirty or forty years ago and mouth platitudes about the significance of the audience’s enthusiasm, collectively vindicating what often seems to be an insane preoccupation, perhaps even to those laboring under it. No angst, no innovation, just a reiteration of well-cherished truths, a kind of day-long sermon. Band after band testified to the all-important power of rock and roll—to do what? Inspire you to “rock” more? Usually rock and roll is supposed to have changed the world, and we the audience, were making it happen still, keeping the tradition alive, as though it were a suppressed religious faith and we were contributing to some as-yet-unfulfilled prophecy. How has rock and roll changed the world, though? It changed some fashions and it altered the contours of pop music for a while, but “changed the world?” It may once have been the soundtrack for young revolutionaries plotting to throw monkey wrenches into the workings of consumer society, but that revolution was squelched and co-opted in 1968. These days, garage-rock fans are intent not on changing anything about the world but on consuming as much as possible from their tiny niche. Whatever computer hackers are listening to as they are retooling their viruses, that is the revolutionary music of today. (I’m guessing it sounds like Four Tet, which is as uncompromising and unlistenable as I would expect truly revolutionary music to be).


I mention garage rock (which, incidentally, flourished at roughly the same time Star Trek originally aired) because more than a few of the 40-something music nerds I’ve encountered have had an unhealthy fixation on young girls. Part of this may stem from the fact that the music they love fetishizes youth, is made by teenagers and glorfies teenagerdom as the end-all and be-all of existence, it’s incandescent and melodramatic moments rendering all adult dilemmas humdrum and a bit pathetic. But as with intense Star Trek fans, intense music nerds seem to refuse to accept the intractability of adult problems, seem fixated on the uncomplicated ideals of their childhood that can nonetheless be elaborated endlessly with the limited set of symbols the object of their fan love affords. Which is to say, basically, what Ladowsky argues in part, that pedophilia, like being a Trekkie or music nerd, is a form of escapism, a regression to a simpler time of childhood, but one that has ceased to be benevolent. That pedophiles are specificallly Star Trek fans is possibly a matter of the correspondance with when today’s pedophiles were adolescents. The pedophiles of the future will probably turn out to be big Buffy the Vampire Slayer fanatics.


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Thursday, Aug 18, 2005

If you get The New Yorker you might have noticed that discount retailer Target bought all the ad space this week. Seems like as good a method as any for the retailer to buff up its middlebrow bona fides. Bryan Curtis was inspired to write this account of Target’s rise on Slate, detailing how carefully it cultivated its upscale image and its dedication to pointless stylization of mundane household objects, the kind of thing that gets shills like Virgina Postrel all excited. They basically cajoled celebrities into promoting the store on TV and managed to get Style sections of newspapers to run fluff pieces about their stores under the guise of trendspotting, a la the current fascination with the iPod.


It’s interesting to read how an ideological ediface is built and interesting to consider how commonplace it is for people to pay to participate in ideology, the idea that there is some mark of distinction to buying toilet paper at Target rather than Wal-Mart or a bodega. In a consumer society, buying in is the only socially recognized way to exhibit your values, so it makes sense, I guess. But Target’s popularity also suggests the sheer pleasure of participating in ideology—people are willing to pay for the privilege of duping themselves about their social status. (One of the problems in marginal utility theory seems to be its inability to account for a shopper’s pleasure in wastefulness. People are eager to spend, not reluctant, because they are led to believe that spending is the best way to exhibit power and have fun.) Ultimately the problem I have with Target is that it promotes the idea of destination shopping, investing consumption with even more ephemeral symbolic resonance than it already has. Target would like you to believe that coming to its store signifies more than the fact that you need socks and a saucepan. Social symbolism may very well be a zero-sum game, and the more resonace various aspects of consumption have, the less potency is left for non-commercial aspects of culture; in fact, when Target openly cannibalizes fine art for its commodities, its destroying the arts’ ability to stand independent of consumption—what happens is the only reaction to art and design we have is, Wow, I’d love to own that.


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Thursday, Aug 18, 2005

A comment on my post from yesterday inspired me to clarify further my response to Schor’s description of “downshifters”. I don’t think these “downshifters,” people who self-consciously try to consume less, are making matters in the consumption society worse; it’s just that I wonder whether we lack a way to talk about them without playing into the hands of the forces that create the hyperconsumer world—our public discourse may be so shaped by consumer practice and its values (via ads and passive entertainment and gizmo fetishes and so on which all celebrate acquisition and direct personal interaction toward social comparisons and shopping talk) that to talk about those who reject those values inevitably calls up our skepticism, immediately makes those people seem suspect. I’m as inclined as anyone to want to sympathize with downshifters, but I found myself thinking they seemed pretentious—perhaps it is hard to publicize the noble things anyone does without the act of publicity itself tainting the noble deed and cheapening it.


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