Supplementary notes to twin essay “Oscillation / Fashion.”
Fashion is important because it is in almost everything.
Alfred H. Daniels (1951)
If by “fashion” I mean the sociocultural landscape at a given moment — the full topography of associations, connotations, endorsements, baggages, and significations attached to cultural objects and aesthetic decisions — then by “fashionability” I mean the way that a work reflects and reacts to the nuances of a cultural discourse, and the way it channels an awareness of cultural objects’ varied cultural associations.
This structure of complex, nearly endless associations, and their detailed navigation thereof, make fashion (in the sense of being a characteristic or quality of art) a highly compressive, high-density packager of information. As regards art forms which utilize or significantly judged off fashion and style, fashion must be considered a serious, intellectually deserving part of their informational “content.”
Clothing almost certainly began out of practicality, but fashion arose from social organization. During the Upper-Middle Paleolithic Transition, human societies and economies grew rapidly more complex. Trade deals and diplomacy had to be performed among credible spokesmen, and social hierarchies required preserving for interactions between strangers. “By the production of symbolic artefacts that signified different social groups and kinds of relationships,” David Lewis-Williams writes in The Mind in the Cave, “Aurignacian people were able to maintain wider networks that could exist event between people who had never set eyes on one another,” giving them a competitive advantage over non-networked societies. It was the linkage between an item (e.g. a necklace) and an abstract idea (“friend”) that gave fashion power, and it is similar linkages which drive the fashion industry today.
Even nakedness, seemingly fashion’s negation, can be understood as one available option presented in fashion’s structure of options. It too carries the baggage of history, it too is performed with knowledge of reputation and effect.
“And I hunt ‘cool,’ although I don’t like to describe it that way. Manufacturers use me to keep track of street fashion.” Magda’s eyebrows go up. “And you like my hats?” “I really like your hats, Magda. I’d wear them, if I wore hats.” Magda nods, excited now. “But the ‘cool’ part—and I don’t know why that archaic usage has stuck, by the way—isn’t an inherent quality. It’s like a tree falling, in the forest.” “It cannot hear,” declares Voytek, solemnly. “What I mean is, no customers, no cool. It’s about a group behavior pattern around a particular class of object. What I do is pattern recognition. I try to recognize a pattern before anyone else does.” “And then?” “I point a commodifier at it.” “And?” “It gets productized. Turned into units. Marketed.”
William Gibson, Pattern Recognition (2002)
What I’m arguing is that pop music and pop culture are some of the densest carriers of information. But their information is primarily sociocultural; pop cultural forms reflect themselves; pop culture’s decisions are based on the standings of other pop cultural forms. Pop culture promulgates cycles of newness, not in the name of innovation but in the name of style. And yet cycles of newness lead to innovation nonetheless.
This is the point which Alva Noë misses in his essay on pop music, “Air Guitar Styles” from Strange Tools. Noë notes, correctly, that pop’s art lies not (at least purely) in the music itself. He also acknowledges the importance of style to the medium. But he wrongly points to the pop singer’s identity as the locus of experimentation and expression, a notion which may have been forgivable in the 1960s and 70s but is less so now, post-Napster. The argument centers around the cults of personality which surround rock artists, portraying the musician as engaging in a “personality art” akin to performance art. Instead, my argument is that the art of fashion exists primarily in the music itself, and not just in the music of prominent personalities like Kurt Cobain or Elvis Presley but in all popular music and really, all art.
It has been argued that taste enjoys an inverse relationship with production, in that devoting time to developing taste takes time away from producing art. What those who advance this view fail to realize is that sophisticated taste is a prerequisite for sophisticated art. Indeed, “taste,” in a broad sense, is a prerequisite for production in all domains. An ability to hunch out what has been done, and therefore how original one’s work is; to understand the current discursive territory enough to respond to it in a “fashionable” way, is a tactic not just of the arts but of the sciences. Fashion is a way of conveying complex, high-dimensional information about what is “tired” and what is “fresh” in a culture, i.e. what subjects and forms are most likely to yield high-novelty and therefore high-learning/model-transforming info. Fashion does not actively seek to innovate, and yet it innovates nonetheless.
We can understand advertising, per Kevin Simler, as an attempt to make a product a product fashionable. This process involves three major steps: one, the alignment of the product with certain other positive or fashionable cultural items and phenomena, so that it becomes positively associated; two, the transmission of these associations into cultural consciousness; and three, the communication of the fact that these associations are now nationally known, which is why nationally broadcast events such as the Super Bowl are so valuable to advertisers. Simler on this process, which he calls “cultural imprinting”:
Cultural imprinting is the mechanism whereby an ad, rather than trying to change our minds individually, instead changes the landscape of cultural meanings — which in turn changes how we are perceived by others when we use a product. Whether you drink Corona or Heineken or Budweiser “says” something about you. But you aren’t in control of that message; it just sits there, out in the world, having been imprinted on the broader culture by an ad campaign. It’s then up to you to decide whether you want to align yourself with it.
Importantly, targeted advertising can’t culturally imprint as effectively: “unless there is a semi-stable, common knowledge consensus vis-à-vis a product’s cultural associations, signaling is unreliable,” Simler writes.
Part of Camera Obscura’s promised deliverable is a formal object which reflects and responds to the condition of culture at a given moment, and which does so in an informed, meaningful manner. On that front Camera Obscura did not deliver. A classic pop music then is a sort of reorganizing mirror of the cultural moment, through which both a zeitgeist and history can be directly and indirectly understood.