Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The nostalgia of the street

ThreeThousand is advertising its Christmas party using a doctored image from The Breakfast Club. I couldn't help noticing the startlingly contemporary way Molly Ringwald is dressed in that film. She wears a white lace neckerchief, a loose-fitting pink V-necked t-shirt with the sleeves rolled up, tucked into a high-waisted chocolate brown knee-length skirt, and brown knee boots. You can see fashionably dressed women wearing variations on this outfit right now. I guess I found this particularly striking today, given that I'm wearing a neckerchief, a high-waisted knee-length skirt, and knee boots.

Around the same time ThreeThousand began advertising its party, I was sent a link to a marvellous slide show based on Amy Arbus's book On the Street, a collection of photographs from 1980-1990, which ran in Arbus's column of the same name in The Village Voice. Again, I was struck by the contemporaneity of the image of The Clash in 1981. You could find people in Melbourne right now dressed just like those people from 1981. It looks like an ad for jeans, except they'd never have allowed the non-jeans-wearing dude on the far left into the frame.

Why do these clothes look contemporary? I'm troubled by the distinct possibility that an ironic nostalgia is what's inspiring contemporary kids to dress like the ones in the photos, and what inspires companies to sell that nostalgia to us as lost authenticity. Because let's face it; we're talking about hipsters, and so we must tackle irony. And where there are hipsters, there are clothing manufacturers who believe in the authenticity of these hipsters' cultural activities, and want to jump on their bandwagon in order to market their clothes successfully to people who want the feeling of cool that self-perceived authenticity imparts.

Coined in the seventeenth century to describe a pathological homesickness, nostalgia has come to denote the pang that accompanies the impossibility of returning to an idealised past. In her book On Longing, Susan Stewart argues that nostalgia devalues the lived present, making the idealised past the site of authenticity. She defines nostalgia as "the repetition that mourns the inauthenticity of all repetition". Looks like she's getting all Jamesonian on our arses.

In his oft-cited Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Fredric Jameson writes that the nostalgic turn arises from "the enormity of a situation in which we seem increasingly incapable of fashioning representations of our own current experience". What Jameson calls "the nostalgia form" of postmodern culture "approaches the 'past' through stylistic connotation, conveying 'pastness' by the glossy qualities of the image, and ... by the attributes of fashion". So here, we're talking about "80s-ness".

For Stewart, its utopianism gives nostalgia an innocence very unlike the self-awareness of irony, while Jameson conflates nostalgia and irony (in the form of pastiche) as equally self-aware and destructive products of the postmodern condition. But Linda Hutcheon argues that nostalgia and irony are strikingly similar, because both have doubled meanings. Nostalgia reveals both an unsatisfying present and an idealised past, while irony offers both said and unsaid meanings.

"What irony and nostalgia share, therefore, is a perhaps unexpected twin evocation of both affect and agency", writes Hutcheon. Neither inheres in a text – they’re something that the body makes happen.

As a sense of real time and history becomes lost in the postmodern morass, Jameson argues that the unified modern subject becomes fragmented and loses the capacity truly to feel -- his famous "waning of affect". Jameson doesn't, however, suggest that feelings are altogether absent from postmodern culture: rather, they become "intensities" that are "free-floating and impersonal ... dominated by a peculiar kind of euphoria" and anxiety that Jameson likens to the sublime.

But for Hutcheon, nostalgia doesn't destroy affect -- it is an affect.
... nostalgia is not something you "perceive" in an object; it is what you "feel" when two different temporal moments, past and present, come together for you and, often, carry considerable emotional weight. ... it is the element of response -- of active participation, both intellectual and affective -- that makes for the power.

So first imagine you're a hipster. You look at these images and you get excited. You're meshing these images of the past with the contemporary trends you see around you. You're imagining how you'll harness the past, how you'll look wearing these clothes. You'll imagine yourself being Molly as she gives generationalism the finger on one special Saturday. You'll imagine yourself lounging suavely like The Clash. But you'll be doing this now. Then imagine you're a marketer or a fashion designer looking for the next source of inspiration. And you trawl backwards, looking for that thing that'll get you excited. Because making the past seem fresh is your job.

Are you doing this in a thoughtless and facetious way? No, argues Hutcheon. "The ironizing of nostalgia, in the very act of its invoking, may be one way the postmodern has of taking responsibility for such responses by creating a small part of the distance necessary for reflective thought about the present as well as the past."

But it seems to me as though these are two kinds of nostalgia at play here: The Breakfast Club speaks to a mediatised nostalgia; what Hutcheon delightfully calls "commercialized luxuriating in the culture of the past". But On the Street, while also mediatised, speaks to something different -- a spatial nostalgia; a nostalgia of the street. I'm intrigued by Jameson's contention that, since the postmodern subject has lost track of temporality, "I think it is at least empirically arguable that our daily life, our psychic experience, our cultural languages, are today dominated by categories of space rather than by categories of time, as in the preceding period of high modernism".

I want to envisage "the street" as one of these categories of space. It's worthwhile remembering that nostalgia in its original sense was a longing for place. Perhaps when nostalgia seeks authenticity, it's discursively creating the street as that authentic space. And perhaps that's why marketers still look to "the street" in their quest to render the old new again. And perhaps that's why people collapse images of the past onto spaces of the present in order to create their personal styles.

This post is part of my thinking-through the paper I'm writing. I welcome your thoughts, because I am really cutting it fine now. I leave town on Tuesday morning...

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Footnote zeitgeist

Today I checked my stats and discovered that Kate has posted on Larvatus Prodeo a response to my post about 'silly' or 'bad taste' clothing. Basically, Kate was observing two chicks out shopping wearing playsuits.
Anyway, even as I tried not to stare with incredulity at these two young women I just couldn’t help but think ‘why’? Why a short tight blue jumpsuit? Why a terry towelling athletic-style dress with red piping? And the answer is: I don’t know.
But Kate does gesture towards an answer: that it's like something Marissa Cooper would wear on The O.C. I thought this was an intriguing idea, given that these girls live in an affluent beachside community, as Marissa does (in their case, Claremont, WA), and most probably they also watch The O.C. and follow the doings of Mischa Barton in gossip magazines, etc.

Yet Kate goes on to shut down the possibility she'd just raised, turning instead to a discussion of whether it is or isn't a feminist act to stand in judgement about what women 'should' wear. She concludes:
... it is worth discussing: but not in a way that damns people who don’t dress in Approved Feminist Uniform. Or, conversely, who don’t conform to mainstream fashions. All that said, I still love Go Fug Yourself, and I reserve the right to mock people who I think dress weird, I’m just not going to pretend there’s anything feminist or intellectual about it.
I agree that moral judgements about women's clothing should never be couched as feminist, and I agree that people are entitled to wear non-mainstream fashions (although I am not nearly as interested in them as, say, a subcultural theorist would be). But - and I'm slightly perturbed by the thought - is Kate beginning with a quote from me advocating a thoughtful and open-minded way of analysing one's feelings about clothing one doesn't wear or like, and then finishing by saying her preferred mode of engagement is mindless mockery?

I couldn't disagree more with the idea that some clothing choices don't merit attention other than to dismiss them as 'ridiculous', 'silly', 'weird', or, in generationalist terms, as just one of 'those things' that 'the kids of today', aka 'Gen Y', do. (This theory was raised by a commenter on the cross-posted version of Kate's post.) So, am I one of those damned fools who "pretend there's anything ... intellectual" about the clothing choices people make? Maybe mockery is healthy in measured doses, and my seriousness is like the profound humourlessness about bogans that set in once I'd been researching that topic for too long. It disturbs me that a playful way of approaching a research topic could be hammered out of me so easily.

Perhaps a more productive way of looking at situations like these is to conceive of public space (even privatised public space - yep, I'm writing about shopping centres at the moment, can you tell?) as a space of affective encounters. Sophie Watson's City Publics: The (Dis) Enchantments of Urban Encounters seems like a useful book, because Watson explicitly couches ordinary city geographies as spaces where difference may be encountered and negative affects can erupt, but 'enchanted' and wondrous possibilities may also be found. Watson's main examples are racism and homophobia, but it'd be interesting to view the observation of 'ridiculous' and 'bad taste' clothing as another kind of exclusionary practice - one that, as Watson argues, can appear innocuous and unobservable to those not implicated in the encounter.

I also recall Melissa Gregg's excellent essay "Five Bonds T-Shirts From K-Mart: Intervening Against Indifference" (my apologies if I've got the title wrong - you used to be able to read this as a PDF on Mel's blog, but I can't find it there any more). I am sure Mel would have many more (and many more intellectual) things to say about indifference. She also has a cracker of a post up at the moment.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Let me hear your body talk

Right now I am all about the return of the rolled-sleeve t-shirt. What I like about this look is its collision of signifiers. The way it combines the 50s bad-boy t-shirt, which is about revealing the body by tightening and decreasing the length of the sleeves, with the 80s version, which references exercise wear, in which the sleeves are rolled to make a baggy shirt fit better. Of course, Springsteen's style in the 80s was an ironic pastiche of the all-American white t-shirt and blue jeans - signifiers not only of nostalgic masculine rebellion, but also of the disappearing 'authentic' American working class (the same one Billy Joel sings about in "Allentown") of which Springsteen's music was emblematic.

I love the way that Olivia Newton-John's version is also about work. Except her kind of t-shirt work is exercise. Look at how wet she is. But I especially like "Physical" because it links clothes and affective states to communication: "Let me hear your body talk." Here it's the t-shirt that facilitates the 'body talking', or corporeal orature.

This has been my epistemological preoccupation over the last three years - how ideas are communicated by the way bodies occupy space, make themselves visible, interact and collide, and the embodiedness of affect. I've been finding it very difficult to situate this interest in a particular field of study, because I'm interested in a cluster of related cultural spaces and practices - the party, the street, the shop - that fall somewhere between 'fashion', 'popular music', 'branding', 'the everyday' and 'subcultural studies'. It was very frustrating last week when I went to the Melbourne University bookshop to look for relevant literature, and found the work I was looking for variously categorised under sociology, marketing and philosophy. They have no cultural studies section. This astounded me.

But back to body talking - lately I have been trying to ask people straight-out why they chose their clothes, and what inspires them. And I'm fascinated by things like Vogue Street Chic or New York's Look Book that deliberately set out to make people explain why they wear what they do. But it isn't always a useful exercise, because I'm finding people are much less cognitive and more intuitive with their style. Or rather, they tend to favour the cognitive aspects of their dress - the stuff that's easy to explain - over the more intangible intuitive - or, should we say, affective - stuff.

Last Friday, I admired Chris's outfit - he was wearing pointy-toed shoes, black stovepipe jeans, a fitted black short-sleeved shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and a black and white striped tie tucked into the shirt several buttons down. It's a very specific look that you could even call subcultural because it's shared by a certain clique in Melbourne who deliberately dress that way. I've been told that the pointiness of the shoes is very important - the pointier the better. But when I asked Chris why he tucked his tie into his shirt - a perennial question for me, it seems - he replied that it was to stop the tie falling into his food and drinks.

I was extremely dissatisfied with this response.

In "Symbols of Trouble", Stanley Cohen problematises sociological and cultural studies research that argues for the semiotic and political richness of style:
"It seems to me ... that somewhere along the line, symbolic language implies a knowing subject, a subject at least dimly aware of what the symbols are supposed to mean. ... My feeling is that the symbolic baggage the kids are being asked to carry is just too heavy, that the interrogations are just a little forced. This is especially so when appearances are, to say the least, ambiguous or (alternatively) when they are simple, but taken to point to just their opposite."
I love the way Cohen teases the Birmingham School for their reliance on bricolage as a deus ex machina - ie, when things appear contradictory, it's because their power comes from those very contradictions. And he neatly delineates my own analytical problems:
"the problem of intent; of polysemy (a single symbol standing for many things); how people's interpretations of what they are doing might contradict how they actually behave; under what conditions the observer must go beyond indigenous interpretaitons because of what he [sic] knows of the context."
I'm keen to investigate affect as a way of addressing these problems. I've got some books on my shelf right now that I'm hoping will help me out. I'm particularly excited by Empire of the Senses: The Sensual Culture Reader (ed. David Howes). And I'm also revisiting the genre of criticism of all the old Birmingham-era subcultural theory to see if there is any wiggle room (a pun I embarrassingly included in my booty dancing paper) for the idea that bodies don't have to explain themselves in words.

Watch and learn

This is a ring I bought from Sportsgirl in early October for $4. That's about what it's worth, frankly. My apologies that the photo is a touch blurry - I took it with my left hand.

I bought this ring because while I was in Newcastle for This Is Not Art, I saw a panellist wearing a similar ring and I thought it looked cool. It's this confluence of observation, evaluation and desire that I want to unravel here, because it seems like one of the key processes by which 'street' trends spread. I'm emphasising the 'street' for several reasons:

  • Because cultural studies has traditionally represented 'the street' as a physical site for the display of subcultural political authenticity; an authenticity that is inevitably diluted by ideological incorporation of these subcultures by mainstream media
  • Because the 'bubble-up' fashion system refers to 'the street' as a stylistic site of unorthodox ideas or acts of bricolage to be resold to mainstream markets (with so-called 'cool hunters' and 'street teams' as the frontline troops)
  • Because an entire market of 'streetwear' (documented by an entire accompanying media genre) follows traditional product design, distribution and marketing methods, yet trades on a generalised (ie, not invoking specific subcultural motifs, or encompassing a diversity of motifs) idea of 'streetness'
In a paper I'm researching right now, I plan to outline the ways in which the phenomenon I'm calling hipsterism intersects with and evades these three paradigms.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Now this is just silly - or is it?

Honkytonks, Melbourne, Friday 2 November. (Courtesy of my 3.2 megapixels of crap.)

I have posted about men's jeans before. Here's what I wrote about the genre of male trouser aesthetics that I called "arse amputation":
He is suffering from an unfortunate sickness that I like to call "Hipster's Trouser". It is what happens when subcultures collide. He is not wearing ultra-baggy homie jeans, yet he thinks it is cool to reveal two inches of underpant. I've remarked many a time on the black-stovepipe-denim-wearers at St Jerome's whose belts are mysteriously no help at all. Sometimes their waistbands even slip below the arse and sit underneath it. And from the back, it looks as though they've had an arse amputation.
And here's a picture of it from the front, where often it looks like only the penis is keeping the pants ahoist. Look at the guy on the right holding the camera.

But that still doesn't account for the question on everyone's lips, which is, "WHY WHY WHY?" It's easy to answer, "Does something as dumb as this even need an explanation?" There's a tendency to paint the wearers of these jeans as hapless fashion victims, although there's been much more criticism of women's low-riding jeans than men's. Here's just a taste:

Yup, as the Melbourne Fashion Festival comes to a close and the city whips itself into a lather over the usual catwalk parade of ridiculous, absurd and impractical clothes, it's clear Melburnians are paying no attention whatsoever. [...] I don't see a great deal of style around. I see the vulgarity of fashion that has left young Melburnians taking on a look that is shabby, slovenly and somewhat whorish. [...] chances are many girls and guys will continue to buy clothes that emphasise the huge gap between what they think they look like and what they actually look like.

But if we look at these sad, saggy creatures and consign their "bad taste" style decisions to Dick Hebdige's "place beyond analysis", we're doing what a familiar genre of style commentarydoes. We're not only creating arbitrary categories of 'good' and 'bad' taste; we're also creating a bogeyman of 'bad taste' -- saying that it doesn't follow the same embodied, pragmatic and affective processes that 'good taste' does. That it can only be observed with farcical incredulity and that people with 'bad taste' are fundamentally retarded in some way because they aren't ashamed of the way they look.

Sure, it's immensely fun and satisfying to be on the side of 'reason' in this fashion discourse. But I think it's important to ask why people wear their pants in this way. Because enough people do it to make the question relevant and interesting.

Of course, you also run the risk of being an Academic Wanker -- the rather hysterical sort who attributes improbable discursive significance to trashy or banal pop-cultural texts and practices, and equally improbable motivations to the audiences of and participants in these texts and practices. (Let it also be said that I decry the lazy journalistic practice of claiming all popular cultural studies is done by Academic Wankers.)

But let's forge ahead nonetheless. For me, this fashion is about the eroticisation of a certain kind of boyish male body. (Let's all pause a minute to thank MySpace for putting pictures of half-naked hipsters at the disposal of my completely detached analysis.)

See how low even the underpants sit? It's about the creation of a particular silhouette with a long body, narrow hips and slim legs. It says the wearer is not only skinny enough to wear such clothes; he's also so skinny they won't sit in place. And it's about a certain kind of preening body consciousness: you're always having to tug up your pants, thus drawing attention to your arse, hips and groin. But its artless slovenliness means it escapes being read as self-conscious, homosexual 'to-be-looked-at-ness'.

I'm not saying this is what the wearers of Hipster's Trouser consider while getting dressed every day. It's my gesture towards re-inserting meaning into a style that many commentators would say is just plain silly.