The Enigma of Fashiopolitics and Fashiopower

A paradox in the politics of fashion is the tension between freedom and conformity; we use the same word for fashion both when it breaks free from the convention of the time, as well as that very same convention. As highlighted in Susanne Pagold’s (2000: 8) definition of fashion as “to dress like everyone else, but before everyone else”, the difference between conformity and difference is minimal, yet still the crucial element at the heart of fashion.

The tricky part of unpacking fashion is that the same term is used for two distinct counter-movements. Fashion is a phenomenon that tends to exceed or transgress a boundary, the (feral) natality which breaks out of domestication and seriality. We put the label of “fashion” on both natality (the difference) as well as the seriality or conformity of the latest range of commodities. Or to put it differently, fashion has two powers; there is a power of fashion, an energy of excess and disruption, while simultaneously a power over looks, a serial conformity and system of repetition and commodities.

Interestingly, Italian philosopher Roberto Esposito’s discussion on biopolitics in his book Bios (2008) highlights a similar situation when it comes to biopolitics, what he calls the “enigma of biopolitics.” So what is biopolitics for Esposito?

“If we want to remain with the Greek (and in particular Aristotelian) lexicon, biopolitics refers, if anything, to the dimension of zoe, which is to say life in its simple biological capacity [tenuta], more than it does to bios, understood as “qualified life” or “form of life,” or at least to the line of conjugation along which bios is exposed to zoe, naturalizing bios as well.” (Esposito 2013: 351)

If we think of “bare fashion” as a parallel to zoe or “bare life” – a minimal life devoid of meaning, control or rights – the bare minimum of fashion is a fashion devoid of meaning, control or difference. And perhaps more importantly; it is a fashion without passion.

When Esposito discusses Foucault’s term biopolitics he highlights the paradox of biopolitics; “does it concern a governing of or over life?” (352) Esposito uses a lexical bifurcation to grapple with this (yet highlights that the terms are used indifferently at times). Biopolitics is meant a “politics in the name of life” and biopower is a “life subjected to the command of politics.” (352)

Perhaps we can make a similar bifurcation when unpacking fashiopolitics? Fashiopolitics is the negotiation and conflict in the name of fashion, while fashiopower is the subjection to the commands of conformity (even if this conformity is the latest “difference.”) Very simplified fashiopolitics connotes a horizontal and social conflict, enacted between peers, (through affects and emotional status play; in greed, envy, shame, etc), while fashiopower connotes the commands and protocols of conformity, the more systemic and vertical enactment of boundaries and with a backing of some force.

To put it differently, fashiopolitics concerns the conflicts around social passions, the everyday clashing desires of imitation, mimetic rivalry and social combat, while fashiopower is systemic or industrial amplification of these passions into positional struggles over symbols and goods, and where these goods are used to enact and entrench social domination. Thus the “power” of fashiopower is the systemic enactment of hierarchical boundaries, yet simultaneously also the obedience of subjects who “gives away” their power to popular peers (in hope of some exchange of inclusion).

Yet, still  the paradox remerges; there is something feral and beast-like in fashion; an energy that breaks free from within, overflows of affirmation, an uncontrolled natality which usurps social conventions and the safe conformity of culture; a passion of the new which a user can ride on – and this energy is a form of power, or it can be translated into social and affective power. This is the promise of fashion as a “difference that makes a difference,” a passion/emotion/movement. It is a power which breaks out of power. A promethean form of vanity. Luciferian.

The enigma remains. Better terms are needed.



Esposito, Roberto (2008) Bíos: biopolitics and philosophy, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Esposito, Roberto (2013) “The enigma of biopolitics” (from Bios), in Timothy Campbell & Adam Sitze (eds) Biopolitics : a reader, Durham: Duke University Press.
Pagold, Suzanne (2000) De Långas Sammansvärjning. Stockholm: Bonniers.


Fashion and the Psychopolitics of Social Media

Social media are platforms for turning the subject into a project. As Byung-Chul Han (2017) posits, they are arenas where we turn our lives into transparent endeavors which are broadcast to turn friendships into quantifiable data-processes. By broadcasting my actions into a competitive arena, where I am nothing if I do not do things, “the I is now subjugating itself to internal limitations and self-constraints, which are taking the form of compulsive achievement and optimization.” (2017: 1) All actions are valued within the constraints of the attention and achievement market, in continuous rivalry between “friends” and “followers” and freedom itself becomes an arena for exploitation; “freedom itself is bringing forth compulsion and constraint.” (2017: 1) Whereas the disciplinary imperative (“should”) is limited to commands and control, the new free achievement imperative (“can“) is a compulsion without limits.

“Being free means being free from constraint. But now freedom itself, which is supposed to be the opposite of constraint, is producing coercion. Psychic maladies such as depression and burnout express a profound crisis of freedom. They represent pathological signs that freedom is now switching over into manifold forms of compulsion.” (2017: 2)

As compulsive productivity seeps into the very notion and actions of freedom, we see a “totalization of labour” as the neoliberal and entrepreneurial subject can have no relationships which are “free of purpose.” (2017: 2) Friendship and freedom are simply new relationships to extract value from; to gain “followers,”  and “likes” from.

“Originally, being free meant being among friends. […] A real feeling of freedom occurs only in a fruitful relationship – when being with others brings happiness. But today’s neoliberal regime leads to utter isolation; as such, it does not really free us at all.” (2017: 2f)

Under the free competition of social media friendship, every isolated participant becomes a brand, and every worker an auto-exploitative entrepreneur of the productive self, as “even class struggle has transformed into an inner struggle against oneself.” (2017: 5) Here, Foucault’s notion of the disciplining “dispositif” inverts freedom into an addictive and restraining quest for optimization of achieved and documented events of freedom.

“It means turning everything inside out by force and transforming it into information. Under the immaterial mode of production that now prevails, more information and more communication mean more productivity, acceleration and growth. Information represents a positive value; inasmuch as it lacks interiority, it can circulate independently, free from any and all context.” (2017: 9)

We broadcast ourselves on as many channels and platforms as possible, on CVs, sites and portfolios, on groups and chats and continuously fear of missing out on all the freedom we have. Han continues,

“Every dispositive – every technology or technique of domination – brings forth characteristic devotional objects that are employed in order to subjugate. Such objects materialize ans stabilize dominion. Devotion and related words mean ‘submission’, or ‘obedience’.” (2017: 12)

The psychopolitics of neoliberalism that Han points to is the turning of social media and the quantifiable self into gamification and big data (60), which in turn becomes a new frontier of biopower, of psychopower. Not only does thus tuning of our affects influence and predict our actions and desires, but it allows “making the id into an ego to be exploited psychopolitically.” (2017: 64) The collective unconscious, or “collective psychogram” (21), is a market for egos put into productive mode. (65)

We must thus see how fashion today is part of a large economy of competitive affects and achievements. In order to exist, to become updates and data, we keep producing alluring broadcasts of ourselves and our actions that not only build our own brands as popular (or at least somewhat “interesting”) individuals. H&M is the Home Depot of the identity producing entrepreneur, offering tools and materials for building, attuning, and broadcasting an identity; an identity we inhabit.

But whereas Han primarily points to the controlling power of Capital (producing competing individual entrepreneur, stripped of interiority), the use of “freedom” in fashion must also be seen within a relationships of envy and rivalry. The psychopolitics of fashion are played out between peers competing to be “liked” and have “friends,” Indeed, the CV of today’s identity entrepreneur is dependent on social medial followers and buzz ( it is a key component to mention for example in book proposals and job applications). The small, local, competitions in popularity are thus acting in tandem with much larger forces, as fashion an beauty on the school playground is mirrored in the larger economy and modes of immaterial production. The gamified rivalries and tensions in school are training grounds for a future life consisting of continuous identity rivalries.

Rivalries are not only enacted between peers and friends (like in a Shakespeare drama), but across the whole economy of achievement. The psychopolitics of the competing lovers is everywhere amplified into Big Data.



Han, Byung-Chul (2017) Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and new technologies of power. London: Verso

Bare fashion and the inferno of the same

We often hear that fashion is in some way erotic; it plays with seduction and sexuality. And this then becomes excuses for harassment and worse. But is fashion really erotic? Or is it more narcissistic? Does fashion draw the observer into the meeting of sensual aesthetics of intertwined sexual desires, or is it more an issue of projecting desire for oneself onto another? (the two may not be exclusive..)

Byung-Chul Han (2017) argues there is a crisis in love. “Love, the claim goes, is foundering because of endless freedom of choice, the overabundance of options, and the compulsion for perfection. In a world of unlimited possibilities, love itself represents an impossibility.” (Han 2017: 1) However, Han does not agree with this explanation.

“The crisis of love does not derive from too many others so much as from the erosion of the Other. This erosion is occurring in all spheres of life; its corollary is the mounting narcissification of the Self.” (1)

Indeed, its the disappearance of the Other that lies at the foundation of this change. In the “inferno of the same […] erotic experience does not exist. Erotic experience presumes the asymmetry and exteriority of the Other.” (1) As Han posits, it is essential that Socrates called the lover “atopos”, that the one who fascinates me and I desire is “placeless,” removed from my knowledge and the curse of sameness (1f). But today, in the search-engine society, we seek no difference, only sameness, only that we already know. We leave no room for the unknown and mysterious. As negativity is disappearing “everything is being flattened out into an object of consumption.” (2)

“Today, we live in an increasingly narcissistic society. Libido is primarily invested in one’s own subjectivity. Narcissism is not the same as self-love. The subject of self-love draws a negative boundary between him- or herself and the Other. The narcissist subject, on the other hand, never manages to set any clear boundaries. In consequence, the border between the narcissist and the Other becomes blurry. The world appears only as adumbrates of the narcissist’s self, which is incapable of recognizing the Other in his or her otherness-much less acknowledging this otherness for what it is, Meaning can exist for the narcissistic self only when it somehow catches sight of itself.” (Han 2017: 2)

Eros stands in opposition to this narcissist drive. “Eros pulls the subject out of itself, toward the Other.” (3) Eros makes it possible to experience the otherness of the Other, leading the way out of the narcissist inferno of the same. It is a self-renunciation, a self-evacuation which lies at the core of the “gift of the Other.” (3)

The way we use fashion in the everyday is not about self-renunciation in order to let the Other speak, but about aesthetic self-creation, overpowering the Other under the desires of the self. When a consumer engages with “other” or “exotic” fashions, the emphasis will most certainly be on the sensual signification of this new difference (what it does to me) rather than were it came from or what its cultural meanings may be. Indeed, under a commodity regime, the otherness of this Other signification is erased (a cultural significant symbol is reduced to a “trend”). This is at the center of appropriation, the annihilation of cultural meaning, which flattens and reduces every symbol into a transactional form, a symbol which is then leveraged for self-expression. The otherness in ethnic dress, in patterns, runes or subcultural symbols, is not relevant for fashion as a deeper meaning or cultural practice, but as reference to a source of difference which by its unknown signifies a void into which to project depth. I wear some exotic, magical or cultural symbol and my outfit now has an interesting touch of otherness which gives my look a certain mystique (a mystique neither of us cares what it really is about).

With the transformation of the individual subject into a “project” in the achievement society the self becomes an auto-compulsive drive with no way to resist itself (10). One becomes a slave to oneself’s entrepreneurial drives to always become anew. And “whoever fails is at fault and personally bears the guilt.” (10)

In applying Han’s ideas to fashion, all that matters is to achieve and perform, and in the realm of dress this means to continuously update new looks on social media where my carefully curated self is a broadcasting project of achievement, performance and televised sexual allure. If I fail to attract followers I am simply not trying hard enough or not seducing my audience in the ways they like.

“Today, love is being positivized into sexuality, and, by the same token, subjected to a commandment to perform. Sex means achievement and performance. And sexiness represents capital to be increased. The body-with its display value-has become a commodity. At the same time, the Other is being sexualized into an object for procuring arousal. When otherness is stripped from the Other, one cannot love-one can only consume. To this extent, the Other is no longer a person; instead, he or she has been fragmented into sexual part-objects. There is no such thing as a sexual personality.” (12)

Eros, on the other hand, is a “relationship to the Other situated beyond achievement, performance, and ability.” (11) It is the negativity of otherness which constitutes erotic experience, as “a successful relationship with the Other finds expression as a kind of failure.” (11)

In today’s medialized world, we seek to draw the Other closer, but instead makes the Other disappear. Today “a total abolition of remoteness is underway. This does not produce nearness so much as it abolishes it.” (13) We fear negativity of the true otherness of the Other. “Today,” Han argues, “love is being positivized into a formula for enjoyment. Above all, love is supposed to generate pleasant feelings. It no longer represents plot, narration, or drama-only inconsequential emotion and arousal.” (13)

We never let the Erotic invade and wound us. Instead it is always controlled. Even supposedly mystic pleasures such as BDSM becomes sameness, as in EL James’ 50 Shades of Grey. Even sadomasochistic torture lacks the “negativity of overstepping” (14).

“The overuse of the adjective ‘delicious’ throughout the novel points to the dictate of positivity, which transforms everything into a formula for enjoyment and consumption. Even torture can be ‘delicious’ in Fifty Shade of Grey. This world of positivity admits only things that can be consumed. Pain itself is supposed to be enjoyable. Here, negativity-which manifests itself as pain in Hegel-no longer exists at all.” (Han 2017: 14f)

We are held prisoners by our own desire and affirmation. Trapped within our own enjoyment and fearful of any negativity or asymmetry breaking the relationship between our desire and what we can acquire. Consumption makes sameness is everywhere. “Society, as a search engine, a machine for consumption, is abolishing the desire for what is absent-what cannot be found, seized, and consumed.” (16) Eros, on the other hand, can interrupt the change rate of consumption to open room for the Other. “Otherness admits no bookkeeping.” (16) It allows the erotic experience to be a desire that slips away, a negativity vanishing into the future. “Its desire is nourished by what doesn’t yet exist.” (16) A share sensuality of the otherness of each other. Eros is the withdrawal and delay of sexuality, the emergence of negativity in the Other.

If fashion today is available everywhere, if only as images dug down into viral marketing campaigns for the new limited edition “drop” it is the epitome of sameness. Fashion is the search for acceptable sameness. For fashion there is no daringness in becoming the Other. Acceptable deviance is the name of the game as people line up for the latest cool streetwear from Supreme that everyone is talking about and people pretend to care about. Endless known pleasures to be consumed. Endless sameness.

This pre-programmed sameness of fashion, from the “fast” and accessible everyday or the spectacle of couture, to the sameness hype of Vetements or limited “drops” of street brands seeking lame authenticity,  the refusal of otherness saturates all forms of fashion. This is the equivalent to Agamben’s (1998) minimal sense of living in “bare life,” it is the minimal sameness of fashion. Agamben’s distinction emerges from the Greek demarcation between “bare life” (the biological fact of life, Gk. ζωή “zoê”) versus “qualified life” (the form or manner in which life is lived, Gk. βίος “bios”). Bios (citizen life) is distinguished from that of the ostracized person, the non-citizen; the prisoner or slave who is kept barely alive – sameness is their destiny (the state treats them as bare numbers, stripping them of citizen rights and humanity).

Bare fashion is barely interesting as fashion, a barren social marker. It is  devoid of emotional charge beyond that of every other search-engine-commodity. This is fashion stripped from any unique quality, any aspiration towards autonomy; it is pure seriality. It is “bare fashion.”

Is there any room for the otherness of Unknown Pleasures?



Agamben, Giorgio (1998) Homo sacer: sovereign power and bare life, Stanford: Stanford University Press

Han, Byung-Chul (2017) The Agony of Eros, Cambridge: MIT Press

The Courage and Cowardice of Fashion

Is it the courageous or the cowards who follow fashion? Is spending money on the latest drop of cool stuff (which everyone is talking about already) a path towards status bravery, or it is it the slope of sissies?

The fashion industry teaches us to admire fashionistas who are “ahead of the curve,” yet most often they simply wear what they are told, or items already filtered through the aesthetic control systems of the industry. We admire them simply because they can access desirable stuff. We celebrate them as heroes even though they simply follow orders and do what they are told.

They are “worth it” – and most of us are not. Are they worthy because they are brave and dare to be “unique” in their style? Yet we treat them as aesthetic heroes. The media sings their praise, like Homer did to Achilles, praising their heroic passions for excelling over the dead horde of common cowards. We treat them as heroic and thus their deeds are sung to the gods, and their honor is more worthy than the obedient duty of the slaves who follow mass fashion. But are they more brave? What does their heroism consist of?

As Patterson (1982) famously argues, the relation between social life and death, or between freedom and slavery, has traditionally been distinguished through the categories of courage and cowardice. The citizen, the honorable man, is supposed to be a person who stands up by his word and deeds, and thus social standing equates to courage. The duel measures the worth of honor. The scale cannot be challenge to a dual, as he or she has no honor, and thus no worth.

The style of icons in fashion stands above the masses because of their “courage” to challenge norms. Yet we must ask; the icons of fashion, are they courageous? The models and stars of the Met gala, with the staff of stylists and assets to support their expensive habits, are they stars of style because of the aesthetic heroism, the risks they take? If courage is to stand up to something that is frightening and challenging, is it courageous to dress in expensive clothes made by a big name designer?

The famous slogan of L’Oreal “because I’m worth it!” captures the essence of fashion and the contemporary consumerist spirit, Blackburn (2014) suggests. Even if L’Oreal does not suggest only the courageous can use their beauty products, the wording suggests some people are simply not worth it. The don’t deserve it. The are lower, they have no esteem, and should obviously not have it (as Blackburn also posits, that is why the model can have such arrogant attitude when she makes the statement in the advertising).

Yet the question of “worth” in the realm of fashion is a central one. The aesthetic meritocracy cements this mechanism. Or, it is the mechanism that covers up the mechanic dynamics of exclusion. Heroes are worth more because their deeds must have been so great they are heroes. Otherwise they would not be heroes, not unlike how rich people are rich because of their deeds and merits.

David Graeber suggests we have made a mistake thinking that we can find the elementary structures of domination in the relationship between master and slave (as Hegel would have it). Instead Graeber (2015) suggests we should study bullying to unpack the social dynamics of domination and “how we have come to create institutions that encourage such behavior and that suggest cruel people are in some ways admirable”. This is no dialectic, as Hegel would have it, but instead a “three-way relation of aggressor, victim, and witness, one in which both contending parties are appealing for recognition (validation, sympathy, etc.) from someone else.”

Thus the elementary structure of human domination can be found at the school yard, and it is here we must start to unpack “why we accept societies being ranked and ordered by violence and domination to begin with.”

We are continuously reminded by people in power (teachers too) that without domination and order chaos threatens around the corner. Without clear hierarchies the “killer ape” of the primordial alpha male will return to the law of the jungle. Just look at Lord of the Flies! But as Graeber argues,

“In fact, books like Lord of the Flies are better read as meditations on the kind of calculated techniques of terror and intimidation that British public schools employed to shape upper-class children into officials capable of running an empire. These techniques did not emerge in the absence of authority; they were techniques designed to create a certain sort of cold-blooded, calculating adult male authority to begin with.” (Graeber 2015)

Institutions are organized around the structure of bullying, the threat an extension of the authority of the structure. An institution like a school is not entirely benign, but it is arranged to uphold its order through facilitating certain social dynamics to flourish; it supplies bullies with the necessary audience needed to suppress their victims.

“Lonely, private persecution is relatively rare. Much of bullying is about humiliation, and the effects cannot really be produced without someone to witness them. Sometimes, onlookers actively abet the bully, laughing, goading, or joining in. More often, the audience is passively acquiescent.” (Graeber 2015)

This is what Graeber identifies as the “triangular dynamic among bully, victim, and audience”. This is “the deep structure of bullying” which stigmatizes its victims and celebrates the perpetuators not only at the school yard, but also throughout other social spheres. And it is the boundary that holds the victim from running away that forms the arena. In some cases victims are forces to stay (school or prison) but perhaps more interestingly, some places hold people prisoner to hope. Victims will endure suffering and bullying if the potential price at the end is prestigious enough, or there are shared social commitments strong enough where the stigma of running away comes at a high price. Dropping out of the military training will make you a “chicken” or a “sissy.” Complaining about the structural violence will makes you a “snowflake” or reporting abuse from a supervisor will make you a weak “snitch.” Students and interns endure cruelty at the work place wit the hope to getting place at the final show or a permanent position at the company. The model will endure harassment in the hope of getting a contract. The deep structure of the bullying is the same.

One must ask what the deep structure of fashion is and how it relates to the “worth” of those we consider “fashionable” – is it because they are more “courageous?” How courageous is it being an elevated stylist of editor or bullying teacher?



Blackburn, Simon (2014) Mirror, Mirror: The Uses and Abuses of Self-Love, Princeton: Princeton University Press

Graeber, David (2015) “The Bully’s Pulpit” The Baffler, No. 28 (July 2015) []

Patterson, Orlando (1982) Slavery and social death. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Violent affirmation and the pleasure of nativity

As mentioned in the previous note on Byung-Chul Han’s (2015) discussion on affirmation, it is important too notice the folding of oppression and desire – that oppression needs not to be negative and obstructing, but like a Möbius strip invert desire onto itself as topology of violence and self-aggression. As Han notices, the dynamic of achievement society is a “totalized state of normality” in the sense of a “state of positivity” (2015: 48). In this state, power lies not in the negativity of exclusion and inhibition, but in the “violence of and positivity, which expresses itself as the exhaustion and inclusion that characterize the society of achievement.” (48)

“Today violence issues more readily from the conformism of consensus than from the antagonism of dissent. In this sense-contra Habermas-one might speak of the violence of consensus.” (Han 2015: 48)

The same positivity is at the foundation of fashion “be different!” – “become yourself!” – “be an individual!” The consumer must continually work on the self, be more of oneself, train more, do more, shop more, look better, network more, be more “creative” in a way that aligns with the creative norms of achievement and produces more “followers” and “fans.” Life itself is an aesthetic project. Even if the subject/project stands free from top-down oppression, where “freedom and violence now coincide.” (49)

“the absence of external domination does not abolish the structure of compulsion. It makes freedom and compulsion coincide. The achievement-subject [“project”] gives itself over to freestanding compulsion in order to maximize performance.” (Han 2015: 49)

As Han points out, the possible freedom and liberation Hannah Arendt found in nativity, the possibilities for change inherent in the creative birth of the new, are now the very source of domination. Arendt’s “Vita Activa” is now the labor or bare life (17f). The heroic creativity which once was the breaking of bureaucratic and “unthinking” obedience is now the very means which harvest the hyperactive and hyperneurotic producing population. “Work itself is bare activity. The activity of bare laboring corresponds entirely to bare life.” (18) The creative birth of the new is now the new norm of creative labor.

“Ultimately, the dialectic of master and slave does not yield a society where everyone is free and capable of leisure, too. Rather, it leads to a society of work in which the master himself has become a laboring slave. In this society of compulsion, everyone carries a work camp inside. The labor camp is defined by the fact that one is simultaneously prisoner and guard, victim and perpetuator. One exploits oneself. It means that exploitation is possible even without domination.” (Han 2015: 19)

Violence and nativity coincide and fold over like a Möbius strip. The human condition under the achievement society is to be forever creative, to always seek compulsive nativity as the labor of bare life.

Thus Han’s model is homologous with the compulsive violence in fashion where every aesthetic subject is a project, a project of creative self-becoming bound to the economy of fashion. One can only be oneself by becoming the commodity suggested by the system, and in continuous competition with one’s peers. In the pleasure of following one’s desires, the subject/project also shuts the doors to being the source of his or her own self-becoming. Continuous affirmation, desire, creation and achievement forces peers against each other and themselves, raising the bar and the speed of performing themselves over and over. New fashion, cheaper fashion, shorter seasons, faster cycles; all making itself more and more desirable as fashion can become “sustainable” (or “conscious” as H&M would call it). The more sustainable, the more efficient: we can all have the cake and eat it.

Be yourself so you can achieve more of being yourself, and you will get more narcissist followers seeing you being yourself in order to better be themselves.



Han, Byung-Chul (2015) The Burnout Society, Stanford: Stanford University Press

A short note on aestheticized domination

The domination fashion is helping enact is often hard to notice, especially for the one who enjoys the realm of dress. Indeed, like other forms of privilege, the aesthetic supremacy of the fashionable is invisible to the fashionable as the agent feels entitled to this higher position: the locked door to the VIP room is only experienced to the person rejected entry.

Paraphrasing Ozlem Sensoy & Robin DiAngelo (2012: 49), fashion seems like a natural expression of individualism and aesthetic meritocracy which features both “internalized domination” by those considered “in” as well as the “internalized oppression” of those considered “out.” Sensor & DiAngelo’s typology applied to fashion could be exemplified as;
— Rationalizing privilege as natural (“some people are just born beautiful”)
— Rationalizing privilege as earned (“I have worked hard for my success”)
— Perceiving you as the most qualified (“She only got that modeling job because she was plus sized”)
— Highlighting the normative rejection of minoritized groups with inclusion (“we are now more diverse” or “we also have plus size”)

On the other hand, “internalized oppression” makes people rationalize their inferior position (49f). Like in hegemony, this creates the consent of domination by the minoritized group (without force). Once again paraphrasing their examples;
— Believing the dominant group members deserve their position (usually by simply “being themselves”)
— Seeking the approval, looks and standards of the dominant group (looking like a “princess”)
— Behaving in ways that pleases the dominant group in hope of being included (following the “advise” of the bullies)
— Enduring micro-aggressions (“you should be happy to be with us”)
— Believing your rejection is because of your inadequacy, and not institutionalized domination (continuously being rejected by the bouncer because of the “wrong” clothes)

Yet the issue is not only how the cultural and structural aesthetic domination in fashion perpetuates relational judgment, rejection and violence – but what makes it pleasurable to do so. That is, that fashion thrives in exactly the dynamic belief of my aesthetic merit, that I feel I am “worth it” and others are not. What a fashion designer sells are devices which help enact this belief; I pay for my superiority and it makes me feel better about myself.

In reference to Byong-Chul Han’s (2015) ideas of the auto-exploitative self to whom nothing is impossible, my entrepreneurial self-worth in relation to fashion is based on that I feel I have achieved something – I have moved forward, upward; I have “become myself” just a bit more than the others. It inverts the negativity of the discipline and control societies into an affirmative “Yes, we can” where prohibition is replaced by “projects, initiatives, and motivation.” (9) Fast fashion, cheap and accessible makes the positive scheme of endless possibility open for continuous affirmation and the product that is the self. Fashion is no longer dictated from above as a “thou shalt” but instead offers itself as a promising possibility to achieve an enhanced sense of self-worth.

“The achievement-subject is faster and more productive ythan the obedience-subject. However, the Can does not revoke the Should, The obedience-subject remains disciplined.” (Han 2015: 9)

“Be yourself!” is the slogan of possibility and as a mode of production. When I fail I am either a loser who failed to become myself enough, or burned out of being myself too much. This is what Han (10) sees as “the systemic violence inhabiting achievement society, which provokes psychic infarctions.” The pressure to achieve is the new commandment of labor which leaves nothing but exploitation in every sphere of life, “voluntary, without external constraints. It is predator and prey at once.” (10) left is only creative fatigue and exhausted ability as “nothing is possible” has been replaced by “nothing is impossible” (11). Indeed, if I can buy a cheap copy of everything out there, and simply become anyone and everyone, why am I not more successful?

This is the compulsive freedom of fashion: it is accessible and affirmative everywhere. I am free to dress however I want, but it is this freedom under constraints which makes fashion such affirmative oppression. I am auto-exploitative because of the “feeling of freedom attends it.” (11) Fashion is freedom, accessible as an affirmation of identity, available to all – so you better play well. Why am I not more liked, more beautiful, more popular and adopted? It is all my own fault. I need a coach, stylist or brand manager to help me become myself better. “Depression is the sickness of a society that suffers from excessive positivity.” (11) Thus the “psychic indisposition of achievement society are pathological manifestations of such a paradoxical freedom.” (11)

Fashion plays a key role in the selling of the achieving self; look at me looking good. This is a subject which “expects the profits if enjoyment from work” (38) but which turns all parts of life into work. “In social networks, the function of ‘friends’ is primarily to heighten narcissism by granting attention, as consumers, to the ego exhibited as a commodity.” (43) Here, subjection is replaced by projection, and the self as subject is replaced by  self as project. (46)

“Projecting oneself into the ego ideal is interpreted as an act of freedom. But when the ego gets caught in an unattainable ego ideal, it gets crushed together. The gap between the real ego and the ego ideal then brings forth auto-aggression.”(46)

The violence of domination is inverted, now stemming from the competitive desires of the self-project, folding violence back onto itself. The auto-aggression of the self turns affirmation into self-hatred in the bassuolte competition between individuals who cannot live up to their ideal egos, it is a violence which does not stem from negativity or conflict but “derives from the positivity of consensus.” (46) Here, the “achievement-subject competes with itself; ot succumbs to the destructive compulsion to outdo itself over and over, to jump over its own show. The self-constraint, which poses as freedom, has deadly results.” (46)

If my fashionable self fails, I feel like a loser, and I am a loser under the regime of aesthetic self-affirmation. And there is nothing more unfashionable than a loser.



Han, Byong-Chul (2015) Burnout Society, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Sensoy, Ozlem & Robin DiAngelo (2012) Is Everyone Really Equal? New York: Teachers College Press.

Intimate vs. Heroic Vanity in Fashion

It is easy to think of fashion as “shallow” (it is something on our skin and we take it on and off and change often) and also part of our “vanity” the excessive need for affirming our attractiveness. The vanity part of fashion is interesting since it is per definition a social phenomenon, the vain person needs an audience and needs others to be better or more attractive than. But there are many strategies for being vain, many ways to gain appreciation and affirmation, one can seek love and intimacy through vanity, as much as the pleasure of conquest.

Perhaps we can think of at least two forms of vanity, and let’s call them “intimate” and “heroic” vanity to set them apart.

The heroic vanity is the vanity of glory (Latin; gloria – “boasting”) – it is the vanity of conquest, strength, daring, aggression, domination. It is the vanity of rage that makes Achilles drag Hector’s body after his chariot; the vanity that takes pride in humiliating and belittling others. If appreciation can be harvested, this is what the heroic vanity does, it consumes it, sucks it up: it is in no form reciprocal or returned to the audience (as opposed to charisma which make the audience see and hear themselves in their idol)

The heroic vanity is a traditional masculine form of vanity and connected to the collectively reinforced experience of “manhood.” It is a vanity which is deeply aware of hierarchies of power and the behavior which produces and possibly undermines “manhood.” The exposure of manly ideals of strength, productivity, independence and courage are essential as these are the properties that produce the manly “deed.”

The heroic vanity is frail however, as it can easily be undermined by reliance and dependence on others, and its worst enemy is ridicule as it effectively tears down the authority of the deed. As the heroic vanity is socialized in groups of peers, there is a continuous battle over being the Alfa-hero in the group, “daring” others to test boundaries and engage in behaviors that distinguish the group from others (competition, posturing, violence, etc).

This produces a deep fear of ridicule and anything which may threaten the currency of “manhood,” but also more indirect sources of weakness, such as being taken advantage of or being exposed and rejected (or worse, both at the same time!) Male vanity is boasting while also paranoid and hypervigilant, screening peers and surroundings for threats.

The heroic type of vanity has traditionally been socialized as a masculine gender role, but it also reproduces inexpressible loneliness for many men through a cultured denial of an emotional education to men. To expose a need for intimacy or closeness is a form of surrender. Even to admit a “deeper” emotional life is a competition with peers, where excess and having the best or most “profound” sentiment is a diving competition into the abyss of the suffering soul, which still leaves no chinks in the armor, even as the hero sinks like a stone.

In this heroic vanity, conquest and domination is high in currency, and it would be shameful and a sign of weakness to admit one needs intimacy. Even acknowledging love is more a form of transaction (who called first) than a surrender to emotions or the possibility of being rejected. However, it is not shameful to admit you need sex — so sexual heroism is something one can boast of (which makes impotence the most frightening fate for the hero, on both a biological and metaphorical level).

The opposite of the heroic vanity is intimate vanity. The intimate vanity is a need for affection, for closeness and it by essence reveals frailty and weakness. It is a vanity in need for care and by such, it is an acknowledgement of impotence and powerlessness. It is a cry for for support from a position of dependence. A vanity in need of a breast or shoulder to cry on. A need for an uncompromised affection, a hunger for love. By essence it is the deep need and dependence of the newborn baby.

The masculine hero is not scared of vanity, but of intimacy, a form of affection that is weak and intimacy is a form of surrender. Intimacy is an affection that may reveal something deeper (perhaps the uncultured abyss that is the emotional life of the hero).

Could we say a common dress practice amongst men is a form of heroic vanity: the suit, the jeans and hoodie, perhaps also the hipster and normcore – ironic posturing as they may be. It is a vanity that may seek modest recognition, but never risking revealing anything intimate about their aspirations. At its best, it is a conquering style, a style drawing some attention, but never for its daring in expressing more than affirming social norms.

The intimate vanity is more revealing, more at risk. It tests reactions and tries to care for others. Can there be such fashion?

(is fashion per definition alexithymic? Alexithymia is the inability to identify and describe emotions in the self. The core characteristics of alexithymia are marked dysfunction in emotional awareness, social attachment, and interpersonal relating..)

The Parasite: Between Narcissist and Echoist

In its everyday use, narcissism is not all too good trait. The ego-centric and selfish person that lie, cheat, manipulate, and with his ot her emptiness becomes like a black hole that sucks the energy from peers and admirers, a trait Kristin Dombek has described in her The Selfishness of Others (2016). Their energy may seem charming at first, but it is because their energy is sucked from others. Narcissism is a form of vampirism, as Dombek point out, and at its worst it is a trait that turns to not only neglect others but actively hurting or even killing them.

When we look at artistic narcissists we often see creators, we think of the ego-centric original artist, the genius which radiates of expressive force. But following Dombek’s discussion, this energy always originates in theft and is sucked into the black hole that is the soul of the narcissist.

Psychologist Craig Malkin has popularized a scale of narcissism, as he follows a trail of psychologists who argue that a little bit of narcissism must exist in order to form a sense of self (Malkin 2015). In excess, the narcissist is harmful, both to self and others, but too little narcissism produces a condition which denies the self any form, a condition Malkin calls “echoism,”

“The less people feel special, the more self-effacing they become until, at last, they have so little sense of self they feel worthless and impotent. I call these people echoists” (Malkin 2015: 11)

But the scale is not a mark of essentialism – the time and context makes the self fluctuate along the continuum between narcissism and echoism. Some times we are in need of recognition and our peers support this temporal condition; they boost us before a job interview, or take care of us when we are sick, cuddling our egos they would not accept otherwise (2015: 12). Similarly, we may adjust to a new environment by tuning down the ego and try to blend in, or abate our level of social ambition. And as Malkin highlights, not all narcissists are expressively arrogant, but may be shy and withdrawn, yet still need others to see and recognize them in order to build their self-esteem. But like other traits echoism and narcissism have a tendency to turn into habits, depending on the circumstances and feedback, and can turn into more permanent features of the person.

As the level of narcissism grows in the subject, supported by the environment, the social dynamics of selfishness can grow perverted, turning into abusive demand of recognition and domination. In this way Dombek’s perspective resonates well with psychiatrist Marie-France Hirigoyen’s idea that a narcissist’s life “consists in searching for his reflection in the gaze of others,” a search that can take very abusive form (Hirigoyen 2005: 126). This becomes a perverted or reversed narcissism, as the abuser is not only self-centered, but also takes pleasure in domination and assault of others. The perverted narcissist grows the ego by humiliating others, undermining the victim’s self, and the abuse often escalates in cycles of isolation, rejection, invalidation, discreditation, in order to destroy the victim. This is the abusive narcissist, the “asymptomatic psychotics who find their equilibrium by discharging onto another person the pain they can’t feel and the internal conflicts they refuse to acknowledge. They do wrong, because they can’t exist any other way.” (Hirigoyen 2005: 143)

The rise of consumerism and social media may coincide with what Twenge has diagnosed as the “narcissism epidemic” (2009) where a focus on the self has turned up the volume of pop-existentialism into fully individualist projects of psycho-profit-maximizing subjects, feeling entitled to exclusive VIP treatment at every occasion.

But a question for a psychopolitical examination of fashion is the ambiguous relationship between echoism and narcissism and the continuous negotiation between the two poles in social relations. And perhaps paradoxically, both the echoist and narcissist can be seen as vampires as they both “steal” from their surrounding, or act as “parasites” in Michel Serres’ sense: they trade asymmetrically in social energy. The echoist copies others, “stealing looks” in the mimetic sense, while the narcissist lives on the attention of others, “stealing looks” in the sense of taking their attention. This is the magnetic energy of the narcissist, the celebrity we adore, the beautifully radiating ego “we cannot take our eyes of” – the charisma that makes us feel alive by adoring others.

It must come to this; fashion is always a form of parasitism. Fashion is always a “stolen look.”


Dombek, Kristin (2016) The Selfishness of Others, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Hirigoyen, Marie France (2005) Stalking the Soul: Emotional Abuse and the Erosion of Identity, New York: Helen Marx

Malkin, Craig (2015) Rethinking Narcissism, New York: Harper

Serres, Michel (2007) The parasite, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Twenge, Jean & Keith Campbell (2009) The narcissism epidemic: living in the age of entitlement, New York: Free Press

A short note on Sovereign Vanity

Vanity is one of the many paradoxes that cuts through fashion; that in order to be myself I need to take good care of what other’s think of me. Indeed, I feel myself better the more others see and acknowledge me. It is easy to think this is a matter of simply being liked, and have many friends that treat you kindly.

But no. In fashion, this attitude takes on other expressions. If we look at the models on the catwalk, the advertisements, or the characters of the gossip columns, it is another form of vanity that emerges; the immodest pride, sneer, despise and superiority. It is arrogance in its most attractive form. And we love it.

We may think a narcissist is vain, but as Simon Blackburn posits in Mirror Mirror: The Uses and Abuses of Self-Love (2014), the narcissist does not care about the opinion of others, even though he may cherish their gaze. He does not seek the approval of his social world, but is self-absorbed. In the end of the Greek tale, Narcissus fades away, only hearing the echo of his self-love. To the narcissist there exists no society, Blackburn posits, and greed is good, “Because you’re worth it!” as the L’Oreal advert goes (Blackburn 2014: x). And Blackburn continues, the advert reveals something deeper about our fascination with narcissism and praise of vanity,

“if occasionally [the models] looked pleasantly human, at least as often they seem to project self-absorption, or arrogance and disdain. They bestow the kind of smile that might be a sneer. They pout and sulk. Their vanity and indifference goes with being above us all, and perhaps knowing that they can call up our adulation and worship at will. The personae in the advertisements are simply out of reach. They do not care what we think of them. Like Narcissus, they appear to live in a world of their own, enclosed in their own self-love. Unsurprisingly, the models calculated to inflame our desires lure us with youth and beauty, and it is relatively easy to see that those are desirable features. We envy those who are handsome or beautiful, graceful, well-proportioned, symmetrical, glowing with youth and health.” (Blackburn 2014: 44f)

The vain person, on the other hand, is dependent on the opinions of others, seeks approval, and lives in the eyes of others, not only oneself, like the narcissist.

This brings us to the paradox of vanity in fashion. We know we are dependent on others, and fashion is an interface which seeks the approval of others while it marks aspiration and distinction. Indeed, fashion is by its very nature social and heteronomous, yet we sneer at this dependency and fashion promotes its denial. This dynamic tension is at the heart of fashion – it promises independence in a realm which is explicitly contingent on the affirmation of our peers.

This tension is also something fashion media plays with,  and the icy expression of models plays its part, as Blackburn notices,

“[the model] need not smile at us-indeed, to promote this kind of illusion, she must not smile at us-because that would be a gesture of recognition and reciprocity, and the fantasy she is inducing is one in which there is no commerce with people like ourselves. By buying the produce, the promise whispers, we can transcend our everyday dependencies on one another and rise to join the royalty ans the gods, a higher place where we too can afford to ignore the herds below.” (Blackburn 2014: 46)

Fashion sells an asymmetry, a promise of aesthetic sovereignty: if I am popular and have status, I do not need to give anything back, yet others will adore me. This is a special form of social and aesthetic sovereignty, the sneering affirmation of the pedestal; you must recognize me, while I don’t need to recognize you.

But paradoxically, I would not think it simply a matter of domination or the thrill of feeling superior. Fashion is more complex than that, and it is more seductive than mere violence. Instead, this aesthetic sovereignty may resonate with Bataille’s production of sovereignty through the acts and rituals of expenditure which dissolves the self into a an intensity of unity. This may be the “oceanic” feeling of fashion: of being seen in a way that transcends boundaries, expanding the self (as discussed earlier).

The aesthetic sovereignty and vanity in fashion is not a property, but an ever-intensifying hunger for connection; impossible, unrealizable. It is the physical intensity of affirmative bodily pleasures, the ecstasy of existing in others. As Bataille writes, “Sovereignty is the object which eludes us all, which nobody has seized and which nobody can seize for this reason: we cannot possess it, like an object, but we are doomed to seek it.” (2012: 193f)



Bataille, George (2012) Literature and Evil, London: Penguin classics

Blackburn, Simon (2014) Mirror, Mirror: The Uses and Abuses of Self-Love, Princeton: Princeton University Press

Fashion as self-expansion

When wearing a new special garment, and being seen and getting a compliment, what is that feeling about? The rush of dopamine, the feeling of “being on top of the world?” Or even just the feeling of “fitting in” – of becoming one with a scene or a group?

Partly such experiences may explain the kick the consumer gets from new purchase, or just in the preparation for a date. The feeling of expansion, of a new world being available to oneself. An entry ticket to a new world, or even that the garment is the very vehicle for such journey towards self-expansion.

The self-expansion model in psychology argues that the primary motivation for humans is to self expand, the desire to enhance our individual potential to affect or be affected. We may seek assets, goods and resources, but motivations for such goals become secondary concern, it is their instrumental use for self-expansion that explains their value because the “fundamental human motivation [is] to enhance potential self efficacy.”(Aron & Aron 1986) With skills and useful information, friendships and social status, power and popularity – all potentials for expanding the affectual sphere of influence.

A fundamental way to achieve self-expansion is with an inclusion of others in the self. A classic example may be a new romantic relationship where the newness and sense of development is the way the new company expands your world. New routines, new eyes and comments on everyday things, and a personal sense of growth, not only from affection, but from moving in novel ways through the everyday.

This is what the Self Expansion Model of Aron & Aron (1986) suggests; that interpersonal relationship goes beyond seeking to fulfill basic survival requirements to include motivation and cognition of self development and interpersonal love. With this emphases, they merge models of Western motivation (often individually focused) with Eastern views of self-development through interpersonal love. Or perhaps a Nietzschean “will to power” but in a more caring relationship.

In the theories of Aron and Aron a close relationship usually begins with a perceived overlap between two selfs: common interests, values and/or ideas, or a sense of one self becoming included into the other. But there is also a sense of augmentation, where the affects of the not only feeds into the ego, but opens new venues for it, making new resources and avenues available. This sense of growth leads to the belief that the two worlds are now connected, a new world is included in the self, which forms the foundational and powerful experience of the dyadic relationship. Expansion is the experience which also intersects with wider social emotions, such as social support, self esteem from admiration, and construction of in-group identity, and even a sense of belonging (a sense of having grown to “fit” into a place.)

With a partner of a long time, the self is more cognitively integrated than with a non-close other; affecting perception and cognitive structures, but also the sense of possibility. For example an individual may feel more competent, taking on new tasks, knowing that the partner can help facilitate the process or fill in with needed knowledge, “I can complete [this task] because my partner will tell me how” (Reimann & Aron 2009: 68).

Riemann and Aron (2009) expands the model to also include the use of brands a way to experience self-expansion. Expanding on the original self-expansion model, they argue the “inclusion of other in the self” (IOS) could be transferred into a brand context to become “inclusion of the brand in the self” (IBS) (Reimann & Aron 2009: 74). In Reimann and Aron’s findings, after a successful identification process with the brand, the subject start to make choices that reflect an inflection between brand and self, where the subject may start behaving in alignment with the characteristics associated with the brand, thus merging the interests of the subject with those of the brand.

It might be possible to say fashion is, like the brand on Reimann and Aron’s study, a vehicle for self-expansion and an opening to new sensibilities and affects. The quality of fashion is that of the timing to the zeitgeist which makes some garments “just right” at the moment, they are attractor points of the right kind of attention, the right kind of status alignments: they are vehicles to the right worlds we want our affects to expand into.

But, when we see others expand their cognitive world and self, while we remain enclosed in our own little habitual ponds, is that not the greatest source of envy? We see them grow, see their esteem expand and they radiate from confidence and success, and we all love to have them close. We love to imagine being their friends.

And similarly, could it be said that the self-expansion also could happen with a darker purpose: the self-expansion that happens as groups rally against the scapegoat or bully victim, or in the emotional vandalism when we try to downranking the status of our unacknowledged idol. The rush now comes from a type of expansion that is trespassing and intruding on the world of another, or at the cost of another. We feel entitled to something more, w e see “everyone else” get what “they deserve” – while we are left in resentment a,d we would just love to shame them, displace their status and rally bad affects to undermine our rivals (or the scapegoat). Perhaps that is also a form of self-expansion, at least an emotional one, emerging purely from our own sense of inferiority, but nevertheless ravishing in the destruction of another.


Aron, Arthur & Elaine Aron (1986) Love and the expansion of self: Understanding attraction and satisfaction. New York: Harper & Row

Aron, Arthur & Elaine Aron (1996) “Self and self expansion in relationships” in Garth Fletcher and Julie Fitness (eds.), Knowledge structures in close relationships: A social psychological approach, Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates (pp. 325-344)

Aron, Arthur & Elaine Aron (1997) “Self-expansion motivation and including other in the self,” in Steve Duck (ed.), Handbook of personal relationships, Chichester, UK: Wiley (pp. 251–270)

Reimann, Martin & Arthur Aron (2009) “Self-expansion motivation and inclusion of brands in self.” in Deborah MacInnis, Whan Park & Joseph Priester (eds) Handbook of brand relationships, Armonk: M.E. Sharpe. (pp. 65-81)

Reimann, M., Castano, R., Zaichkowsky, J., & Bechara, A. (2012) “How we relate to brands: Psychological and neuropsychological insights into consumer-brand relationships.” Journal of Consumer Psychology, 22, 128-142.