Managing our dreams
Each week on US television, a taut-faced woman names Elsa Klensch hosts a program titled ‘Style’. The prime focus is on the new designer collections, and it transports us to major fashion shows around the world.
But there is more.
Some features center on the homes of the people in the world of fashion design; castles in the countryside near Rome; converted farm houses in rural Connecticut; fabulous playpens overlooking Paris. Still other items deal with the daily lives of people employed in the World (one dare not call it an industry!) of fashion. We follow a tawny Milanese mannequin through her regular two-hour body and facial treatment by Sergio Valente.
Accompanying commercials blend right in, telling us of the slimming value of Tab cola, or of the way that Henry Grethel clothing will lead us into accidental and anonymous romantic encounters with beautiful women – or men – in elegant hotel rooms.
We see that style is about beautiful mouth-watering surfaces; but we see more. The uninterrupted message of the television program is that style makes up a utopian way of life. The people we view inhabit a universe of infinite bounty. They wear dresses costing thousands.
At the other end of he tunnel of televisions, however, sits the viewer: cheaper clothes; no castles; bills piling up; no stranger to the anxieties of desire placed within the constraints of possibility. From this vantage point, the viewer is engaged in a relationship with style. I is a relationship with offers a pledge. This pledge is repeated across the panorama of American consumer culture. Everyday life in its details (clothing, house, routine objects, and activities) can, through the sorcery of style, be transformed. Without ever saying so explicitly, the media of style offer to lift the viewer out of his/her life and place him/her in a utopian netherworld where there are no conflicts, no needs unmet; where ordinary life is – by its very nature – extraordinary.
So we see something else. Style presents a way of life which is unattainable for most, nearly all, people. Yet this doesn’t mean that style isn’t relevant to most people. It is very relevant. It is most common realm of our society in which the need for a better way of life is acknowledged, if not met.
The development of consumer capitalism in America was fuelled by more than entrepreneurial genius. From the mid-nineteenth century on it was fired by a series of massive migrations providing a cheap work force. For people coming from rural agrarian or small town artisan roots, the move to urban industrialism posed a shock. People were uprooted from familiar patterns of work, family and community, and from customary ways of understanding the world. Coming from places where the number of people encountered was small and familiar they now entered a terrain in which ‘others’ included countless strangers.
People began to learn not only that ‘others’ were strangers, but that they themselves were often seen as ‘strangers’. Entering into a job market no longer meant participation in a venerable circle of craft. Work was increasingly unskilled, and as one applied or was interviewed for a job, one knew how important it was to make a good ‘presentation’. There was a shift from the importance of ‘character’ (intrinsic self) to the importance of ‘personality’ (a mouldable extrinsic self).
Crucial to this new ‘personality’ was a sense of style. As style entered the popular imagination, it was not merely reflected in people’s lives. It entered their language. It was used and altered by people. Its meanings, its uses became increasingly volatile. Drawing from the spectacle of American culture in the twentieth century we find a myriad of examples: the flapper look, the zoot suit, the crash pad, the geodesic dome, dungarees, dashikis, ‘sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll.’
People involved in the creation of style are occasionally candid about what they do. In an interview, James B--- - a photographic stylist whose work appears in major ad campaigns, retail and wholesale catalogues, and ‘shelter’ (home decorating) magazines - discussed the definitions of his work.
‘I create the image that people want to see. It’s up to me to fake people out ... Basically you lie to people. You create... a picture and then they adapt to that picture. You can bring people up in taste level, you can bring them down in taste level just by what you create, what you put into it ... And it’s just pulling together elements which work with whatever you’re trying to sell.’
What B--- describes is an ongoing dynamic of the consumer culture. After a brief acknowledgement of what ‘people want to see,’ he arrives at the heart of the matter. Style is a process of creating commodity images for people to emulate and believe in.
As frozen images - in ads or style magazines - become the models from which people design their living spaces or themselves, extreme alienation sets in. One becomes increasingly uncomfortable in one’s own skin. The constant availability of alternative styles to ‘adapt to’ thrives on this discomfort. The marketing engines of style depend on people seeking to become splendid objects. We seem destined to be defined as only passive consumers.
In a society where image-management is a strategy of commerce, industry and politics, style becomes a basic form of information. It is as a form of information (or misinformation) that style places us on slippery ground. The ability to stylize anything: toothpaste, clothing, roach spray, food, violence, other cultures around the world. ideas, etc., provokes a comprehension of the world which focuses on the superficial.
Like Newspeak, the authoritarian language in Orwell’s 1984, style is capable of holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously without any apparent conflict or opposition. As a form of information, style creates a consciousness which is seductively at war with much of our experience. As a form of information, style discourages thought.
WAR IS PEACE as camouflage battle fatigues join the iconography of high fashion.
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY when manacles or ‘slave bracelets’ are worn as the shiny accoutrements of liberated sensuality.
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH as a young woman in a Calvin Klein jeans commercial proudly announces ‘when you lose your mind, it’s great to have a body to fall back on.’
As style gains as a powerful form of information, it vies with people’s own experience. Nowhere is this more evident than in the arena of television news. Sets are styled to create the look of a command center, to offer an imagistic sense of being ‘plugged-in’ to what is happening, to convey authority. Journalists are selected and cultivated for their looks, their screen presence. The Christine Craft affair, where an anchorwoman was taken off the air because she couldn’t fit the right image mold, is a case in point. In a business where anchorwomen are expected to appear both cool and attractive, beauty does - indeed - become truth.
Within this context the news itself is beyond comprehension. Stories are presented as a series of jagged bits. The interconnectedness of facts, their relations in the world, are never developed. The highly stylized news program offers the only principle of cohesion and meaning. Again, surface makes more sense than substance. The assembled facts, as joined together by the familiar and authoritative personality of ‘The News,’ becomes the most accessible version of the larger reality that most Americans have at their disposal.
Since the end of the World War II, the stylization of politicians and political ideas has become commonplace. Within a burgeoning consumer culture, electoral politics is one more market of consumable items. Advertising agencies regularly participate in the packaging of governmental policies for public scrutiny and consumption. A whole field of media consultancy has emerged to advise candidates and office holders in matters of leadership style. At every turn reality is obscured and political fiction becomes the norm. In the resulting realm of superficial meanings, democracy itself becomes style. Political involvement assumes spectatorship.
This fractured consciousness is relied upon by those in power. Public politics has devolved to the status of style. Nowhere can we see this more clearly than in the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Reagan was trained for political life as a Hollywood actor and later on television and in the field as a spokesman for the General Electric Corporation. Given the contemporary parameters of politics, he is the logical president. His background has provided him with a repertoire of proven images and appeals. At times we can close our eyes and hear the honest tones of Spencer Tracy. When an aura of simple trustworthiness is called for, he can draw upon his folksy Jimmy Stewart routine, replete with a shake of the head and an implied ‘aw, gee.’ As the executioner of social programs he becomes the ‘last angry man,’ true to his own sense of justice, painfully misunderstood. As a militarist he assumes the pose of the indignant good guy, out to right the world’s wrongs. In defining America’s enemies, world struggles for power are couched in the familiar idiom of ‘Star Wars’ or some medieval costume drama. We are implored to join a heroic struggle against the ‘Evil Empire’. The plots are all familiar, tried and true. The Hollywood narrative supplies a stylistic model for political consciousness.
This commitment to a politics of image permeates administrative responses to criticisms. While the deregulation of business allows for greater profits and reduced attention to industrial health and safety, the argument that Reaganism favours the rich is characterized as a problem of perception.’ As thirty years of civil rights legislation is systematically dismantled, the conviction that Reaganism is insensitive to minorities is addressed as a problem of perception. It is on the perceptual level that social issues get attended to. Instead of social change, there is image change. Flexibility at the surface masks intransigence at the core.
The danger is this: as this world encourages us to accept these images, it implies that substance is unimportant and not worth pursuing. Our own experiences are of little consequence unless validated by this world of style. In the midst of such charades, the chasm between image and reality widens and we experience a growing sense of disorientation.
Stuart Ewen is author of two books on the politics of US consumer culture.