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