Fashion Coercion

by Rob Horning

6 April 2010


I was revisiting the Marginal Utility archive earlier and this entry from a few years ago captured my attention: “Rooting against fashion.” It remains true; I still somewhat irrationally want fashion to fail, and most design too. There are, it seems to me, obvious reasons to root against fashion. Beyond being a means for mystifying class distinction (taste naturalizes inequality that is manufactured by social conditions), which is bad enough, fashion sets a social tempo for consumption that seems out of pace with most people’s lives, so they experience it as coercive. It compels us to be uncomfortable with ourselves and accept novelty as an inevitable condition of reality, as a positive value. This creates a culture-wide superficiality bias so pervasive, it seems petulant to complain about it. One can belong to society only through an investment in novelty, through caring about arbitrary change and helping establish the illusion that it is not arbitrary and means something more than entropic variation.

Back when I wrote the other post, I wondered why I was cheering against prosperity, the enabling condition for the elaboration of complexity in fashion. And I was cheering against something that seemed to bring other people pleasure—that let other people feel interesting. What do I have against other people being interesting? Am I threatened by it? Probably. Fashion is a field in which I will never be interested (I am very much a follower and not an early adopter or a trend setter), so from a human capital standpoint, I prefer it when it sinks in cultural esteem. Consciously or not, I’m sure I want people to compete on the fields that I recognize as strengths of mine. I think that I win when fashion and design fail.

Of course not all fashion can fail; something has to occupy the space structurally afforded to fashion trends by our culture. When I root against fashion, I root against this aspect of culture as a whole; it’s not as though I wish something else would become trendy. I have the hopeless wish that there weren’t any trends at all. But identifying something as a trend is fairly subjective—the trends that I adopt myself don’t seem like trends to me. Only the stuff that other people are collectively doing is recognizable and contemptible as trends. Trends are simply the way people participate in culture without actively making anything—unless you buy the idea that participation is a kind of production, since consumption of that sort “produces” new and useful information (usually marketing related) about the goods. Our consumption makes meanings, but it isn’t necessarily meaningful work, I think. But I waver back and forth about the idea of immaterial labor and consumptive production, wondering about the subjective element in that as well. (Do we have to be aware of the meanings we are producing to consider ourselves productive? Does anyone ever reach the zero degree of passivity? Is one never aware of one’s own objective passivity since our consciousness of ourselves is inherently active? Questions in a world of blue.) I tend to think of counter-trend behavior as a more “authentic” way of cultural participation, inherently more active as it functions as an implicit critique and requires conscious resistance. Design and fashion present themselves to consumers as means to avoid critique and resistance in favor of the pleasures of acceptance, the liberty to ignore social critique and simply enjoy the idea of oneself, fitting in and being approved by society at large.

My default interpretation of designy-ness is that it is an attempt at coercion disguised as an effort to please me. I persist in thinking this despite the manifest good intention of most designers, who I don’t think are in bad faith about wanting to “help” people or improve their lives with design. Nevertheless, they want to dominate me, and I am supposed to enjoy surrender. (At the New Inquiry, J. Bernstein makes a related point about the politics of reading.) But instead I take pleasure in stubborn resistance. The user-friendliness of, say, Apple’s computers strikes me, like many others (not so well represented in the media, it seems) as a prison. I read the convenience as their attempt to predict what I want without my consent or input. If I go along, I won’t know if what they wanted me to want was what I really wanted. This attitude gets incredibly counterproductive at times. When autonomy always trumps gratitude, you have to go through life making a point of being difficult to please, and pleasure, if and when it comes, must be private almost by definition.

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