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Too Many Mirrors

Photo (partial) from the University of Notre Dame "Selections from the Harry E. Winkler Collection of Boxing Photographs"

Style is often described paradoxically as an indescribable quality, as something timeless, which is precisely what makes it so useful to the fashion industry.

The Book of the Courtier

Publisher: Dover (New edition)
ISBN: 0486427021
Author: Baldassare Castiglione
Price: $9.95
Length: 470
Formats: Paperback
US publication date: 2003-05-02

Sour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
ISBN: 0521313686
Author: Jon Elster
Price: $32.99
Length: 192
Formats: Paperback
US publication date: 1985-10-31

Recently the Wall Street Journal had a trend-spotting story declaring the return of the preppy. The evidence for this? A list of consumer goods that have been heavily marketed recently and some quotes from fashion industry flacks. If a retailer or an industry analyst proclaims an important trend, then it must really be happening. This particular article cites these noted and disinterested experts: John Murray, co-owner of Murray's Toggery Shop, rap-video director Julien "Little X" Lutz (who proclaims "Hip-hop is rapping about money and power and women, which is perfect for preps"), and Susanna Salk, the author of A Privileged Life: Celebrating WASP Style.

I point this article out not because I have some gripe about preppy fashion; in fact, if it were possible to divorce it from its ostentation, I'd be inclined to endorse it for its bland uniformity. But no fashion can be separated from its signaling function to be taken at face value, for the specific design of the clothes. The specifics of what the clothes look like, and the particular subject of trend stories generally, is virtually irrelevant, almost a red herring, masking the more essential purpose of promulgating the overriding importance of an abstract notion of style.

Style is often described paradoxically enough as an indescribable quality, as something timeless, which is precisely what makes it so useful to the fashion industry. Style can be deployed to mystify the perpetual scheduled changes in fashion that the industry requires, allowing the contradiction of timeless trends to seem altogether natural. It helps explain this otherwise puzzling statement by Salk in the Wall Street Journal article: "Preppy fashion is so iconic now. There's a nostalgia element to it. It's certainly a privilege to live in a manner that doesn't evolve, doesn't change." Put aside for a moment the fact that this makes no sense on the face of it: how can something that doesn't change come in and out of fashion? And it requires no particular economic privilege to adopt a wardrobe that doesn't change; just put on a gray-flannel suit every day. What it does take to transcend trends is the mental stubbornness to ignore them, to resist the allure of belonging to the zeitgeist, the bonuses of being alive in this particular time.

But perhaps part of the usefulness of living this contradiction is that we may fantasize about transcending the preoccupations of fashion without actually surrendering our involvement with the current cultural conversation. We want to buy a consumer good that can, for instance, evoke enduring preppiness for us, giving us a chance to daydream about summering in Nantucket with Topsy and Skip without having to live out the tedium or the coruscating snobbery. We can revel in the superficial appeal without having to adhere to the constricting traditions. Through nostalgia fashion, you get the thrill of participating in something with an ersatz tradition without actually having to do something as boring as adhere to a rigid code.

By continually pointing to models with "timeless style", the awkward question of why what was timeless last season has become suddenly dated is circumvented, particularly for those who want to play along with the game, who want to believe that now is the only possible time it could be meaningful to be alive. For us, after all, it is, right? So preppy fashion, like all fashion, offers the opportunity to purchase the illusion of permanence without the rigor that comes with upholding a standard. It sells timelessness as a transient, thrilling experience -- the exciting thrill of participation in the present moment and the fleeting sense that this moment is the most important moment and will last forever.

The humdrum commercial mechanics of the fashion business disappear, and instead we enjoy a parade of consumer society's values in their most attractive packaging -- beautiful people seeming to live the possibility of effortless spontaneity, with looking the part becoming as pleasurable as living it only much more convenient, since it only demands donning a costume. Via well-marketed products. It's iconic nostalgia for the now -- you can dupe yourself into believing you can get style without propriety.

The paradox of periodic timelessness inherent in the style ideal is a modern update of the notion of sprezzatura -- planned spontaneity -- espoused in The Book of the Courtier. by 16th century Italian diplomat Baldassare Castiglione (who the Wall Street Journal, apropos of nothing, recently profiled). The Book of the Courtier is made up of aristocrats in the court of Urbino discussing ideal aristocratic behavior, which consists mainly in faking naturalness, governing the representation of feelings that if sincere, would be beyond governance. Ideal courtiers can "practice in all things a certain nonchalance which conceals all artistry." But underlying sprezzatura is the idea that an action's value is in how it is received rather than in the action itself or how it makes the actor feel. An ideal courtier's praxis becomes arbitrary, which leads in The Book of the Courtier to the ludicrous equivalence of disparate practices: from Castiglione's point of view, how one appears on the battlefield and how one appears at a masked ball are subject to the same criteria, criteria which have nothing to do with why one fights, or why one dances.

This dilemma is evident in the strange depiction of ideal love that it develops. The "certain shyness" that first informs a lover of his own feelings of love, becomes, like a lady's timely blush, a pretense. What makes a lover sure of his own sincerity becomes dubious testimony of his sincerity when exhibited. The actual feelings of love are precisely the awkward sort which the doctrine of sprezzatura intends to suppress, replacing them with acts governed by a strict grammar of representation, whose rules are more or less arbitrary. The representation of feelings replace feeling itself.

The problem with this is that if you believe in these sorts of ideals despite the evident contradictions in them, and you stake you sense of self on them, you can end up losing your moorings, beguiled by your own pretenses and left with no stable, operational identity. Since spontaneity is artfully feigned, it's no longer of use as a way to confirm sincerity, and every emotional state can seem contrived, including one's own. And one begins to labor to turn one's own spontaneous reactions into managed signals, expressions of "natural style" and inborn refinement.

It becomes impossible to determine the sincerity of one's own feelings for oneself. For those who celebrate style, it may be a moot question, since the substance of style is arbitrary and attitude is all that’s important anyway. So under the sway of style, we merely do what seems to be expected without wondering whether we want to do it. By extension, one has emotions simply because they are expected: One loves simply because one is expected to. In that ideal world of the Sunday Styles page and Abercrombie and Fitch catalogs, the world where sprezzatura is manifest and seems perfectly realized, men and women interact with one another without needing to understanding why. With no reference point to judge the other's sincerity, with nothing but style to go by, mutual love becomes impossible anyway, leaving only the possibility of mutual suspicion.

We can see the legacy of sprezzatura in the contemporary discourse of aspirational ads, their manufacture of "timeless" style, their marketing of ersatz authenticity, their selling the idea that you can find yourself through consumer products. When ads shifted away from supplying product information -- instrumental knowledge about how to use the advertised good -- toward conjuring the emotional states manufacturers hoped to associate with products, the entered the realm of sprezzatura's impossible syntheses. And these make possible the current hegemony of consumerism we are confronted with in the West.

Consumerism thrives on a ideological belief -- easily disproved -- that there is no society, only individuals and their preferences, that can be sated in the market through goods, independent of the actions of others. After all, even our consumerist desires are dependent to a degree on what other people want, or have wanted, or will want. What's available depends on what others want and are willing to produce and sell. The value of things to us often depends on how others view them, and how scarce they are due to how much others covet them. And then there are status goods and positional goods, which can only be valued in terms of excluding others from having or using them; things like beach-front property and limited-edition luxury goods and artworks. We are not in total control of what we want and whether we can have it, and this undermines any simplistic assessment of what our rational behavior should be in such terms.

Rather, our desires are always affected by the sort of decision-making processes studied by game theory: if they want that, then I should want this, unless they know I know they want that in which case I should want this and not that. This is how this worked for me as a teenager in 1983: If my brother thinks it's cool to have a bunch of Led Zeppelin records, then I'm going to listen to Depeche Mode. Such strategizing, of course, makes us as hopelessly self-conscious as one of Castiglione's courtiers, and by the standard implicit in the discourse of individualism -- i.e., we have perfect knowledge of our unique personal wants -- we become inauthentic, at one remove from what we are brought to regard as our "natural" desires.

Consumerism exploits this problem, offering to return us directly to our naturalness through a fantasy evoked by heavily-advertised goods while exacerbating the inauthenticity that comes with the feeling that we are calculating our identity. Consumer products seem to provide us a signaling language to express real selves, but our real selves don't speak that language; self-awareness is probably best considered what philosopher Jon Elster in Sour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality calls a state that is essentially a by-product (Cambridge UP, 1983). Spontaneity, love, courage, belief, and humility -- the various emotional shadings that make up selfhood -- can't be willed directly without the process of willing corrupting or hindering the desired outcome. Thus when ads promise direct access to these states, making them seem rational and plausible -- of course you should buy an iPhone to impress people; why wouldn't they be impressed? -- they're offering what seems like a short cut but is in fact a blind alley.

When we expect that we can consciously, rationally, plan out what we desire as a means to achieving a better sense of who we are and how we want to live, our very concern makes our goal, selfhood, impossible. Elster cites Hegel on this point: "Desire and the self-certainty obtained in its gratification are conditioned by the object, for self-certainty comes from superseding this other: in order that this superceding can take place, there must be this other." The process of desiring is central to the self, not what is desired. Consumerism tends to make us confused on that point, and we wonder why the objects themselves continue to disappoint us, or satisfy us only temporarily, or leave us fundamentally unfulfilled. No matter how many cigarettes I smoked, I somehow continued to fail to exude the calm confidence of the rugged plainsman of the Marlboro ads, gazing into the horizon. Carrying around my new laptop has somehow failed to unleash my raw productivity.

Once we set out to pin our nature down, it eludes us, becomes contrived, feels wanting. As Elster points out, "there is no such activity or kinesis as 'acquiring self-respect,' in the sense in which one may speak of the activity of 'learning French.'" At this point, the machinery of the consumer society intervenes to remedy that lack, reinforcing the faulty premise that conditioned it.

Where consumerism reigns, individualism is less a matter of being able to do whatever you want without interference than it is synonymous with the ability to assemble a unique collection of goods that one owns personally and which seem to constitute one's unique social identity. It's easier to feel autonomous when your social role -- who you are in your community -- is determined not by what you are capable of doing or what you are permitted to contribute but by what the magic of the economy allows you to buy for yourself. This arrangement allows for the illusion of much greater independence from those around us; you can walk into a mall and experience the fantasy of being able to become whoever you want, immediately, through a series of well-considered purchases.

At that time, it begins to seem beside the point to do or believe in anything in any other way than literally buying into it. And every belief we express publicly seems a posture, a marketing ploy.

Photo from

To complete the cage that's closing around us, businesses that might strive to undo the damage wrought by consumerism find themselves afflicted with an authenticity problem, as well. Consider the dilemma of Sierra Nevada Brewery, which has quietly been taking measures to make itself energy independent and environmentally sustainable, turning its own by-products into inputs into its manufacturing process. But the minute the brewery begins promoting itself as a green business, it instrumentalizes environmentalism and makes it serve as marketing tool, a reputation builder, rather than an end in itself. This is likely to alienate the very audience who remains skeptical of environmentally sound business practices by making them seem the province of the latte liberals and coastal elites such marketing materials would appeal to.

Others won't buy into sustainability once it seems like it is something people want to congratulate themselves for, once it seems a means to an individualist end -- the green pose, after all, takes the narcissism of consumerism and larders some hypocrisy on top. To put it in Elster's terms, a reputation for environmentalism is a necessarily a by-product and not something that can rightly be the aim of a set of practices. Publicity would undermine the perceived purity of Sierra Nevada's motives. Instead, it must rely on disinterested observers to spread the word of its greenness for it, protecting it from seeming to exploit environmentalism, reducing it to a trend. But then, any advocates must also be careful not to become too strident as well. Elster cites Stanley Benn, who argues that "political activity may be a form of moral expression", but this must be tempered with care that it not become merely moral self-expression, "middle-class radicalism", as most forms of commodified rebellion expressed in shopping endorsements or lifestyle choices turn out to be.

The point is that one must be a true believer to make proselytizing a worthwhile action; the minute one begins to consider how what one is doing makes one come across as the sort of person who does such things, then all is lost. One becomes a vanguard hipster who's trying to pass for a fellow traveler. The social relations at stake are reduced to ego politics, and one's actions merely echo the system one pretends to want to change; one becomes a second-rate entrepreneur marketing a self-image. When the sincerity of your motives are in question, even if it is it seems as though it is through no fault of your own, you risk doing active harm to the cause you espouse -- like Janeane Garafolo on the campaign trail in 2004. And once you become overly self-conscious about the effects you are trying to achieve, and how it reflects on you personally, your motives are suspect.

Of course, I am riddled with these kinds of thoughts constantly, cursed with perpetual self-consciousness, and I'm always envious of those people who never question their causes or put their own interests out in front of the ideals they pursue. Were I to consciously try to emulate their M.O., though, I'd compound my problem; I'd still be trying to achieve through direct action a state of mind that is accomplished only by thinking entirely of something else.

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