Academic of the day: Walter Benjamin (1892-1940)
Benjamin is yet another German sociologist. His main source of inspiration? Baudelaire! Benjamin focused on literary theory for some time, and wrote extensive commentary and exploration of Baudelaire’s work. (He even translated Les Fleurs du Mal)
In 1927, he focused his energy writing about the arcades of nineteenth-century Paris. The arcades are glass-roofed rows of shops that were early centers of consumerism. The Arcades Project remains unfinished, as Benjamin committed suicide before being detained by the Gestapo.
In the Arcades Project, Benjamin presents a montage of quotations from, and reflections on, hundreds of published sources, arranging them in thirty-six categories with descriptive rubrics such as Fashion, Boredom, Dream City, Photography, Catacombs, Advertising, Prostitution, Baudelaire, and Theory of Progress.
His central preoccupation throughout these themes is what he calls the commodification of things–a process in which he locates the decisive shift to the modern age. Modernity is defined as our ability to consume. Socialization is centered around consumption: people are now congregating at the shopping center. The store is the central point of social contact.
Wow, not much has changed since 1927!
Sorting through the Arcades Project:
I pulled some of Benjamin’s thoughts on fashion from his unfinished work. Here are some thought provoking ideas. I’d love to hear your comments!
Remember my post on death? Well, apparently Benjamin had some death fears to overcome himself. He asserts that fashion is a parody of death. The constant changing of fashion avoids death, and that our need for perpetual newness is fueled by our subconscious desire to avoid death. Wow, deep. (At this rate, I’m bound to achieve immortality)
For fashion was never anything other than the parody of the motley cadaver, provocation of death through the woman, and bitter colloquy with decay whispered between shrill bursts of mechanical laughter. That is fashion. And that is why she changes so quickly; she titillates death and is already something different, something new, as he casts about to crush her. For a hundred years she holds her own against him. P 63
Fashion can also been a satire on love. (I disagree! I think fashion is love! But that, my friends, is for another post.) Fashion is actually filled with secret resistance to love.
A definitive perspective on fashion follows solely from the consideration that to each generation the one immediately preceding it seems the most radical anti-aphrodisiac (aka not inspiring sexual desire, repulsive) imaginable. This judgment is not so far wrong as might be supposed. Every fashion is to some extent a bitter satire on love; all sexual perversities are suggested in every fashion by the most ruthless means; every fashion is filled with secret resistances to love. p65
Hmmm, I wonder if shopping becomes a substitute for love and romance? This could be a really interesting spin off topic. . .
Extreme fashion. Fashion can only exist in the realms of extremities. Why? Well, if it’s not extreme, it ceases to exist.
Fashion consists only in extremes. Inasmuch as it seeks the extremes by nature, there remains for it nothing more, when it has abandoned some particular form than to give itself to the opposite form. It’s uttermost extremes: frivolity and death. P. 70
And the most thought provoking question of all:
Does fashion die because it can no longer keep up the tempo “ at least in certain fields? P.71
I think this question was aimed towards communist and totalitarian regimes. Can fashion exist when Hitler is dictating identity? What about Russia and Cuba? How can people assert identity through fashion when individuality is repressed?
A penny for your thoughts! Please comment:
Just in case you thought academia had abandoned clothes, style, and all things fashion, there are even MORE smart people concerned with fashion. In fact, there are so many smart people that wrote about fashion, I’ve decided to break it down into two other blog posts.
Man of the day? Georg Simmel.
Simmel, (1858 – 1918) was a German sociologist (one of the first German sociologists, at that!). His biggest question: What is society?
Society, according to Simmel, society is an association of free individuals, made up of the interactions between these individuals. The size of the group where social interaction takes place is very important in understanding the group. In a small town, relationships are built over time. Often, families remain friends and impressions are passed down from generation to generation. Romeo and Juliet knew what Simmel was talking about. Their relationship was doomed from the start because their families hated each other.
So, I’d like you to use your imagination just for a moment. How do people dress in a small town rather than a large city? (Just remember, when Simmel was around, fashion was not as accessible as it is today. Ever heard the term country bumpkin? Yeah, it was coined for a reason.) Just in case you forgot how to use your imagination, I included some images.
The increase in the size of a group increases individual freedom. This is because the group gets larger and the unity is diluted. There is a no way to enforce ridged codes of conduct or dress. The Metropolis is the location where the greatest individual freedom is experienced. Yet the individual can have difficulty asserting his or her own personality.
Why? Well, here are a few reasons:
- Increasing number of people in the city
- Brevity of interactions with others
- Scarcity of human contact
In short, the increased population and level of activity reduces the amount of time spent with other people. The individual is fragmented from a group identity. This is both good and bad. There is such an increased level of personal freedom, that everyone is able to express themselves without ridicule. The downside? That developing and maintaining an identity as a group member, and identifying with other like minded people becomes challenging. (Hmm, I wonder what Simmel would think of Southern California . . .)
So how exactly do individuals assert their personality?
By adopting different
Than those around them.
So in the Metropolis, contact with other individuals is very brief. It often occurs while traveling or working. Lasting impressions must be made in minimal time. In a small town, relationships are built over time. It’s not like the small town, where family reputations mean everything. The individual must make an impression in 30 seconds or less, or will be dismissed with the passing of the crowd.
Never underestimate the power of first impression. You never get a second chance to make one!
Therefore, fashion develops in the Metropolis. Fashion allows social mobility and expression of personality and personal values all while following social norms. Most styles gravitate towards each other and are not extremely radical, with a few exceptions of course. Social norms and individuality must exist at the same time, or else neither exists at all. Each would be meaningless without the other.
Some other smart people that read Simmel went on to say that fashion creates self-awareness:
Fashion provides the best arena for people who lack autonomy and who need support, yet whose self-awareness nevertheless requires that they be recognized as distinct and as particular kinds of beings. (Ashley and Orenstein, 314)
The Metropolis & Mental Life was one of Simmels published works that explored sociology in the city and just how overwhelming it all can be. (Maybe you should check out the short story I wrote about riding the train home in NYC.)
So what’s this book all about?
In every age, the same fundamental battle is being fought: the resistance of the individual and his/her fear of being leveled. Metropolitan individuality is constructed on an intensification of emotional life. This is due to the continuous exposure to stimuli. (Think of crowded cities! How many people are you exposed to in a single day? A single subway ride? In one subway ride I read a book, heard a lecture on death by the iPod, and gave advice to a fugitive criminal. Talk about exhausting!) The Metropolis creates its own psychological conditions. Fashion is a medium to express identity, attract like-minded people, and deal with all of the insanity that is constantly bombarded at you.
So is shopping then a form of therapy? If so, I like where this is going . . .
Sort of. Shopping, fashion, and the need for beauty are all attempts to be remembered. Why? Because:
Man is a creature whose existence is dependent on differences . . . his mind is stimulated by the difference between present impressions and those which have preceded. Lasting impressions . . . consume less mental energy that rapid telescoping of changing images.
Simmel was giving a prototype for the Von Restorff effect.
The Von what?
The Von Restorff Effect is the increased likelihood of remembering unique or distinctive events or objects versus those that are common. (Universal Principles of Design, 204) Still hazy? For example look at the picture below. Which is the most unique and easy to remember?
The star is easiest to remember because of the difference in context to the squares surrounding it.
Or, more simply put: DIFFERENCE ATTRACTS ATTENTION AND IS BETTER REMEMBERED.
Fashion allows a social relationship because individuals can conform to a visual membership. This membership allows some to be individual by deviating from the norm. This deviation is only very slight, because those that reject the idea of what is fashionable at the moment create a new standard that in turn creates a new group. Group membership and individuality must co-exist. One without the other would be meaningless. Fashion also allows fragmented members of the metropolis to assert their personal values and personality to the external world, where they are removed from small town, emotionally intimate relationships.
In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different. – Coco Chanel
Very early. Plato was one of the first. He started talking about beauty in his work Hippias Major (aka What is Beauty), which was written around 390 BCE. So what did Plato figure out about beauty? Well Hippias Major is a conversation between Socrates and Hippias. They start debating on the definition of beauty. The whole dialogue doesn’t really go anywhere, since neither candidate can formulate an answer that encompasses the entire concept.
So the question becomes, did Plato determine anything relevant about fashion?
Here is an interesting quote from Hippias Major:
Socrates: See here, then. What do we say about the appropriate: Is it what makes by coming to be present each thing to which it is present be seen to be beautiful or to be beautiful, or neither? (294a)
(Huh? I think Socrates meant to ask: Is it more important to be perceived as beautiful or to actually be beautiful?)
Hippias: I think it’s what makes things be seen to be beautiful. For example, when someone puts on clothes and shoes that suit him, even if he’s ridiculous, he is seen to be more beautiful. (294a)
(It’s better to be perceived as beautiful. The clothes make the man, Socrates! Any idiot can look good with the right props.)
Socrates: The if the appropriate makes things be seen to be more beautiful than they are, it would be a kind of deceit about the beautiful, and it wouldn’t be what we are looking for, would it, Hippias? (294b)
(So, in other words. Clothing and fashion make liars out of us. By relying on clothes, we are projecting a fraudulent idea of beauty.)
Let’s skip through history and talk about Baudelaire next.
Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) was a poet and art critic that recognized the importance of appearances. France was changing at his time. The Industrial revolution was bringing technological advances and more leisure time. Art trends were changing. Painters had traditionally only worked on religious or genre scenes. For the first time, artists were beginning to examine normal, everyday subjects. They were acting as social anthropologists, recording the fashion and behavior of the people of their time. Painting begins to record the gestures, fashion, and postures of the ages.
In 1863, Baudelaire wrote The Painter of Modern Life. In this work, he discussed the new paintings and what they were documenting about French culture. What set him apart from other art critics is that he also analyzed fashion and fashion plates. Baudelaire realized that fashion is a critical part of history. Fashion and its documentation offered records of the latest styles, how to wear them and how to move in them. These records are an intimate view into the past.
Moreover, Baudelaire believed it was artist’s duty to capture the mysterious beauty of daily life.
The painter genius is not merely a flanure [wonderer] but searching for modernity, the quality that is new.. .He makes it his business to extract from fashion whatever element it may contain of poetry within history, to distill the eternal from the transitory. p. 12
Why I personally love Baudelaire? He encouraged the use of cosmetics. In 19th Century Paris, cosmetics were becoming increasingly accepted. Prior to this point, the only women that wore make-up in public were prostitutes and actresses and these two careers were often blurred. Baudelaire declares that all women should wear cosmetics. He even devoted an entire section of his book to the subject, entitled In Praise of Cosmetics. Here is his verdict:
Woman is quite within her rights, indeed she is even accomplishing a kind of duty, when she devotes herself to appearing magical and supernatural; she has to astonish and charm us; as an idol, she is obligated to adorn herself in order to be adored. Thus she has to lay all the arts under contribution for the means of lifting herself above Nature, the better to conquer hearts and rivet attention. It matters but little that the artifice and trickery are know to all, so long as their success is assured and their effect always irresistible. P. 33
Why this radical stance? Baudelaire’s logic was simple. Nature is nothing other than the voice of our own self-interest, thus nothing other than evil tyrant. Virtue, then is always artificial, a construct of man. Women’s duty is to elevate themselves above Nature by using the artificial to enhance their appearance. Cosmetics should be visible to challenge the vice of nature.
Baudelaire summary: Fashion is ultimately an outward manifestation of men and women’s attempt to show virtue. Its function is to remedy evil with idealism. By controlling our appearance, we are harnessing the powers of nature into a force of good.
The last smart person for the day: Stephane Mallareme
Mallareme is a later fashion theorist and poet who took a completely opposite attitude to Baudelaire. Mallarme believed there is no difference between Nature and art. Mallarme goes as far to say that Nature is a false concept, and that man-made and natural have no real distinctions.
While Mallareme was highly regarded as a poet and literary figure, he did something very unique that positioned him as a fashion authority: he started his own fashion magazine, La Derniere Mode, or The Latest Fashion. Even more astonishingly, Mallarme is the editor, designer and author of the entire magazine. He assumed pseudonyms for the different columns.
Each edition of the magazine consisted of advice, black&white engravings of costumes Mallareme designed, editorial content describing the drawings and latest fashions, advice and correspondence columns, detailed information on dress shops, and reviews on the theater, books, and other activities.
So, how was this important?
Mallareme became a fashion insider, which gave him a much different experience than other theorists and critics, who participate from the sidelines. Mallareme was able to examine and create fashion rules, philosophy, and language of persuasion from the inside.
How can we see this as relevant today?
Take the decline of fashion editors and the rise of bloggers. Marc Jacobs, Rodarte, Dolce e Gabbana and more have chosen to set lead bloggers at the front row of fashion shows a mere seats from Anna Wintour and other top editors of esteemed magazines. Other once overlooked fashion participants, like stylists, now have feature TV shoes.
Mallareme’s magazine project was eventually handed over to another editor. It lasted for eight issues, and had approximately 900 subscribers. The failure was attributed to a lack of funding from obtaining advertisements. La Derniere Mode promoted local dress shops and commercial establishments, but never solicited advertisement funding from them.
Here is a synopsis I wrote back in college for a philosophy of physics class. Enjoy!
According to Kuhn, normal science is based on a collective assumption of the scientific community that the world functions in a specific way. This assumption is a paradigm, or a model, for the rest of the community and their successive theories, experiments, and basic way of perceiving the physical world. The scientific community relies on paradigms, and measures all successive theories and discoveries to these pre-existing beliefs. This ridged concept of reality and science makes it difficult for new theories and discoveries to develop, as they endanger the tradition of science and prove the paradigm as erroneous.
Generally, a discovery of some type of anomaly causes a shift in the scientific community, which Kuhn labels a “scientific revolution“. As the term revolution implies, the scientific community is thus held responsible for correcting and reconstructing the entire history of science prior to the new discovery. This is a huge and arduous task, and is met with strong resistance.
Several paradigms exist, creating a school of thought or point of reference. This helps to create questions, methods of evaluating and determining areas of relevance, and help to find meaning in data. These paradigms are crucial in evaluating theoretical models, as well as scientific history, as they are the tools of interpretation and allow its followers to develop a professional discipline.
As I see it, Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions is a logical theory which proves science to be provisional, or in a constant state of flux. Paradigms are crucial in refining and evaluating scientific discoveries, but they also tend to limit and constrict new theories and knowledge of the physical world. Paradigms are historically based, and extremely hard to challenge as they are held to be self-evident and infallible to scientists. However, it is important that people continue to challenge this history and to find and explain anomalies manifest in the physical world. These radical and unusual theories based on anomalies further our understanding and advance our society.