PM Pick

Innovation and fashion

Rob Walker's Consumed column in yesterday's NYT Magazine, about the "innovations" in toaster technology, raises the question of what constitutes an authentic innovation without quite answering it. Do all innovations become commoditized, or can products be continually refined so as to refresh their novelty and extend their usefulness? Should we differentiate between cosmetic improvements and actual functional improvements. The column ends with this punch line:

the market has spoken, and its message is that this innovation — while it may not rate as breakthrough status — is, to some, worth paying for. As Clyne notes, the Egg & Muffin toaster is being tweaked with even newer options. Like more slots. And a version with a stainless-steel finish. But those innovations will, of course, cost you extra.
This seems to suggest that anything consumers will pay more for should be considered an innovation in our consumerist culture, and maybe that's right. There's no more sense seeking authentic innovation than there is deciding what really counts as creativity (rather than cultural recycling or cynical commerce) or what the true use value is of various commodities -- postmodernism should have taught us that there is no measuring stick with which to take stock of these things (no Archimedian point from which to lift the world, so to speak; no standard that is not itself free of the need for evaluation), and into that void of verifiable authenticity we may as well let the market and its scoreboard of dollars exchanged stand.

But still I balk at letting interchangable stylistic refinements stand as innovations -- society did not progress with the invention of the brushed-stainless-steel toaster, and the $200 pair of jeans is no humanist triumph either. Fashion cycles turn in a wheel without propelling society forward -- but ah, how can I even say I know which direction society is moving in? We can refer to increases in efficiency and output, but adherence to these economic gauges may come with spiritual costs: a corrosive rationality that can't comprehend pity or sympathy, a loss of community, a preference for facile convenience over the difficult but enriching bonds of human companionship, and all that. Nevertheless, fashion and style innovations intend to allow consumers to signal primarily their superiority to others, imposing on them a net loss in the zero-sum game of status. "real" innovations would have to overcome that net loss by supplying some compensatory utility that is free from the game of self-aggrandizement. But isn't it the case that utility, as a matter of individual preference and satisfaction, is virtually defined as self-aggrandizement? Does such individualism at the root of how we conceive innovation doom us to focus our innovative efforts on those things that will ultimately consume themselves in a burst of trendiness or fashionability that's quickly spent? These are convoluted ways of asking whether the conflation of style with innovation basically turns all innovation into mere shifts of fashion, with it impossible for us to judge what are lasting improvements from a standpoint more comprehensive than what's good for our own ego. Encouraging the motive of self-actualization, through signaling goods, etc., has broken fashion as an idea out from its former niche as a frivolous aristocratic preoccupation in precapitalist times to be a primary force driving the economy -- and if innovation is a matter of growing the economy, than perhaps fashion is innovation. Sorry -- I seem to be going in circles here.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
3

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
5
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image