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.

 

References:

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.

 

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?

 

References:

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

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.

 

Reference:

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