Oscillation / Fashion

1. Oscillation

You can never really tell when James Murphy’s being sincere, whether he’s making fun of others or making fun of himself. “Pow Pow”’s his statement of philosophy—“from this position / I can totally see how the decision was reached”—which is a sort of pragmatist-PoMo enlightenment: acknowledge perspective’s providence on truth and then turn it into a middle-aged reasonableness (over youthful anger, over Roman conceit).

On the surface Murphy’s all about fashion (“I’m losing my edge to Internet seekers who can tell me every member of every good group from 1962 to 1978… the art-school Brooklynites [with] borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered Eighties”). More substantially he’s obsessed with Hegelian dialectic — thesis, antithesis, synthetic reconciliation. (“And they’re actually really, really nice”; “Maybe I’m wrong / And maybe you’re right” ; the love & hate vis-a-vis New York.)

So: “I hear that you and your band have sold your guitars and bought turntables / I hear that you and your band have sold your turntables and bought guitars.” On one hand this is about the flip-flop or “barbershop pole” of fashion: as soon as the lower classes figure out what’s cool it’s no longer, the kids perpetually moving on to the next hot thing by circling around to the bottom, appropriating from the lower classes. On the other hand, the line’s about dialectic, because these cycles and flip-flops and back-and-forths (oscillations, maybe) don’t add up to stagnation.¹

[1] You oscillate to calibrate: you go back and forth, making incremental progress to a center or consensus, fact-checking yourself along the way. (Catch someone at the wrong/right stage of oscillation and they’ll stick up for a belief they wouldn’t otherwise endorse.) The Persians, per Herodotus, knew this, which is why their delegatory bodies infamously balanced substances and sobriety. It’s part of the quotidian rack, where activities inform activities, cortexes cortexes, experience experience.

The thing about oscillation (sincerity/irony, guitar/turntables, belief/disbelief, determinism/free-will) is that every time it switches the meaning’s changed, the accumulated history altering the signification Pierre Menard-style. You’re ping-ponging to build vertically, a kind of miracle supported by the apparatuses of cultural memory — apparatuses that are improving as we speak.

The other thing about oscillation is that it’s part and parcel with the world of art,² it’s part and parcel with the world of taste, and it’s part and parcel with the world of fashion. If an LCD song is about dialectic deep down, and fashion up front, well — really it’s pairing off theory & application, philosophy & praxis. Parents generationally oscillate when they name their children along class lines; teenagers do it when they pick out school clothes to fit in or to transcend the try-hards;³ dutiful citizens do it when deciding who to vote for (and when picking the phrasing by which they’ll qualify those votes). Just read Randall Collins: the upper echelons of intellect and education veer toward upsetting contrarianism, from the counter-fact hyperbole of the French poststructuralists to the quasi-ironic metapolitics of accelerationism and chan-cult.

[2] You do it the first time it’s cool. You do it the second time, you’re just miming an approved good. You do it a third time, well, we all know why you did it the second time but now why’d you do it? — which, suddenly it’s interesting again. Just watch a performance of Tao Lin’s “I caught a whale,” then extrapolate to the history of the avant-garde. It’s amusing until it’s not until it’s amusing again, and all of the judgments come down to confidence levels w/r/t the amount of intentionality (or “self-awareness,” or whatever) present in the utterance. Time, sequence, precedent, are the foundational materials with which the artist works.

[3] If you’re royalty, you make the color purple off-limits to the masses, to save the time wasted (and the face lost) in inevitable cycles of mimicry.

2. Fashion

By fashion, I’ve meant the cultural signification fields—the connotations, associations, relationships, and histories of use—tied to objects and behaviors. I’ve meant the reading and evaluation of said signification fields, and the ways such readings shape and enable the production of signals (for some desired audiences, within some context at hand). This process is not dissimilar to reading a chessboard in order to determine optimal moves. I’ve meant “fashion” to refer to the industry of often-cyclic use, abuse, and reuse of objects or behaviors in new contexts, and the industries (branding, marketing, advertising, visual art) that constantly use and, through using, distort this signification field. Associate your beer with beaches, and customers can signal a laid-back attitude with every purchased six-pack. By tying your product to signals (by making it so that consumers can send a legible identity signal through consumption, a “who I am” to friends and strangers), you move units.

cycle of conversational observation & intervention

A list of everything-I-can-come-up-with comprising the cultural signification field:

  • chains of influence
  • sources of innovation
  • levels of saturation
  • cultural histories
  • subcultural affiliations
  • demographic associations
  • cultural connotations
  • audience knowledge

If all this sounds overly complicated, remember how good we tend to be at the semi-instantaneous, micro-calculations involved in gauging social contexts and determining optimal responses, what Erving Goffman calls “face-work.” It’s the very premise by which we navigate social life. Still, people especially good at gauging cultural signification fields — and who have undergone the necessary data uploads of class-linked education and cultivation — often become artists, art being a field which manipulates and leverages soft meanings towards ends that run the gamut from comfortable to shocking.

Christopher Alexander: Every design problem begins with an effort to achieve fitness between two entities: the form in question and its context. The form is the solution to the problem; the context defines the problem. There are different types of contexts informing problem-solving in artworks, and it’s valuable to carve up what they are. Henceforth:

  1. Inter-work fitness: fitness with the canon (ie art-historical trajectory) and contemporaneous works.
  2. Intra-work fitness: fitness between parts and whole.
  3. Subjective fitness: fitness between the work and audience (cf. John Dewey)

Optimizing for the situation at hand — the chessboard — is inter-work fitness, and optimizing for the player across the board is subjective fitness. Optimizing for both is to beat fashion (to outskirt death through the cultural preservation of one’s creations).¹

[1] Fitness between parts and whole is not entirely irrelevant to fashion. Part of the fashion structure is the way a culture at a certain moment chooses to group and arrange aesthetic or symbolic elements. There are established and predictable sets of decisions, or groupings of elements. (One example is modernist typeset and graphic design; another is the aesthetics of 70s punk.) Effective and arresting works often recognize these sets of groupings as predictable, and manipulate existing associations in the fashion structure to discover new possibilities of vibe.

Another metaphor is the dialogue, the conversation. One problem in art, eminently fashionable (that is, related to the practice of fashion) is: how do I create a “valuable” work — a work that is interesting, which contains novel information or stimulus — given the established discourse that my audience will be familiar with.² Not incidentally, this is also the process by which human beings just have conversations. Just as a new arrival to a conversation might unknowingly repeat an earlier comment, or might make a point that seems irrelevant or off-topic, so too any effective intervention into an aesthetic discourse requires an extensive knowledge as to what, in its tradition or subculture, has been already “said.” And not just what has been said, but the connotative by whom and to whom. (Class will always be involved.)

[2]  There’s something of predictive processing at play — I wrote in “The Erotics of Interpretation” that one big way art works is by setting up and then subverting audience expectations. Which is, in a macro sense, what trendrunning — along the edge of the knife, so to speak — is up to.

Hence Bakhtin’s idea of art (summarized in Shohat & Shohat) as “incontrovertibly social, not because it represents the real but because it constitutes a historically situated ‘utterance’ — a complex of signs addressed by one socially constituted subject or subjects to other socially constituted subjects, all of whom are deeply immersed in historical circumstance and social contingency” (that is, as dialogic).³

[3] In The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art, David Lewis-Williams writes on the development of body paint and adornment in early man: “We need to note that body decorations are not simply ‘decorations,’ the fruit of personal whims; on the contrary, they signify social groups and status. ‘The surface of the body… becomes the symbolic stage upon which the drama of socialisation is enacted, and body adornment… becomes the language through which it was expressed.’” The basic mechanisms remain in place in contemporary culture, but their complexity increases as they invade the realms of art, business, and capitalist consumption alike.

To occupy the edge of fashion is what separates the artist from the craftsman: to be on the brink of a new move, to understand and be able to manipulate w/r/t moves prior. Peli Grietzer, “A Letter About Art”:

There are two commonplace ‘pictures’ of what art is that we use to justify the pursuit of art. One pictures says that great art describes the human condition, or expresses our innermosts experiences, or connects us to our unattended thoughts and feelings, or allows us to reflect on our life and memories and circumstances, or to empathize with others or to commune with the cosmos or to understand material conditions of life or whatever. Apart from being kind of old and uncool, this picture’s inconsistent with how crucial ‘gaming’ the cultural moment is for making good art… the second picture says that there’s a thing called ‘culture,’ which is a sort of social structure that’s formed out of the interaction of everyone’s world-views and desires and beliefs and in turn structures the evolution of everyone’s world-views and desires and beliefs, and making art is a way of intervening in that structure. So on this picture art is a form of politics, in the sense that making art is making a historical intervention in a collective structure.

On one hand, it’s damning that art operates off of similar social structures as middle school quads. On the other hand, “fashionable” art — or at least, art that engages with fashion structures — tells a story about the cultural signification field at that moment. Pop music is high-information-bandwidth in the sense that it’s constantly gunning for enough of a bleeding edge and enough familiarity to entertain. With each stylistic choice, The whole of the system is invoked and activated by any one connection; the whole is “folded” into each single instance of activation, bending the universal and the particular into one another. There is an enormous amount of cultural information packed into an album like The War On Drugs’ Lost in the Dream: information about what “Americana” and “heartland synthrock” and a slide guitar and Bruce Springsteen all meant in 2017 (and especially within Brooklyn and New York, within music communities and subcultures). I end up damning S___ D___’s music as bad not because it isn’t formally interesting but because it unironically uses ukuleles as a twenty-something in twenty-something (’16? ’17? ’18?). S—— D—— is fatally innocent  to the cultural baggage which his music’s trappings and aesthetic/self- representational choices carry, the way they proxy pretty strongly for not properly orienting in a historical/cultural context. There’s a conversation in music culture and right now consensus is that ukuleles are overly sentimental and shit as art, and though obviously there’s nothing “inherently” or “automatically” unartistic or “low” about ukuleles, but is there  about anything? and the challenge here is in participating and demonstrating participation in existing culture-slash-discourse.⁵ This renders  S—— D——’s music as non- participatory and therefore  less rich (narrow in/empty of cultural bandwidth/informational transfer) because pop music is, as much as anything, a four-minute, four-chord vessel for these sorts of cultural moves/engagements/ conversations.  S—— D——’s music is pretty but in an empty way, because the implicit, fascinating arguments that pop music makes vis-a-vis/via its stylistic/cultural choices, either S——D—— isn’t making them or his engagement with existing culture/discourse is so poor that it’s impossible  to see an active conversation at play. I think S—— D——s “in a vacuum” is about good as any above-average pop music out there (lyrics included). It’s just that “in a vacuum” can only take you so far, and not just pop but in any artistic discipline. (Though especially so in pop, because of how lightweight it is in other informational arenas: as semiotic legibility decreases, and semiotic ambiguity or indeterminacy grows, contextual metadata like occasion and credibility grow in importance; one approach to fashionability is to see it as “metadata” to the core communicative content, though this is perhaps underselling it.)

[4] Benjamin Bratton, The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty.

[5] This is the point at which artists/authors start using said tropes 1. ironically 2. subversively or 3. metatextually.

Moreover, fashionability, or cool, or style, acts as a passphrase, a shift key, a phase shift, a valuable proxy for speaker identity which then allows the speaker to communicate complexly, reflexively, with reference to self and modified by self. It is reliable because of the intense difficulty of faking fashion, which requires so much insider knowledge that any successful impostor is arguably no longer a fake. There’s a reason it’s tough to get into Berghain. Consider, by way of another example, the way true upperclass belonging, or highbrow aesthetic taste, is so impossible to convincingly fake for those outside the caste. So much of fashion is unquantified, subconscious, and ambiently soft that we are not even explicitly aware of the class and taste signals we send, or what alternative signals we might send to signal an alternative identity, and yet we send them constantly, through word choice, attitude, posture, interest, palette, reference, familiarity.⁶

[6] With the mass manufacturing of clothing, class-based distinctions in dress persist but with more subtlety: how high he rolls a shirt cuff (mid-forearm? elbow? bicep?), the bagginess of his slacks, an athletic-fit cut, a lack of logos, the texture of the fabric — immediately, if unconsciously, tip off those in the know

Fashion, in art as in life, is also a way of communicating identity, which in turn modifies the meaning of the message, a phenomenon known in literary criticism as the “speaker.” One subset of this phenomenon is author credibility, which in relation to an audience accompanies certain artistic and interpersonal identities, is a prerequisite for all complex language: subtlety, indeterminacy, entendree, ambiguity, irony, persuasion.

Knowing enough to fake membership of a group (in this case, the cultural upperclass) requires so much homework and immersion that it’s A. not worth it and B., you’re basically an in-grouper by the time you’ve finished. And in a world — artistic/literary interpretation — where value judgments and meaning-determination is so notoriously difficult, credibility or lack thereof can unlock answers. Cf footnote 2: Just watch a performance of Tao Lin’s “I caught a whale,” then extrapolate to the history of the avant-garde. It’s amusing until it’s not until it’s amusing again, and all of the judgments come down to confidence levels w/r/t the amount of intentionality (or “self-awareness,” or whatever) present in the utterance.

On the other hand, because there are so many traditions today made available by apparatuses of cultural memory, the danger will always be that we misread what tradition an intervention is being made in. Meaningful engagement with past traditions (while in ignorance of the present) still proxies well for intentionality, but just what context a tradition lies within will suffer frequent cases of context collapse in an increasingly atomized society. Criticism will, by necessity, become even more localized than it already is.⁷

[7] Engagement with the structure of cultural signification is important for artists, but reflects a set of values which, on one hand, are afforded to an upper-class with the time, attention, and wealth to pursue, but which accord with priorities related to the self-indulgent, socially self-satisfactory practice. Says my friend Sam Henly: Maybe a developed sense of taste is a credible signal for failing to make substantial contributions in other areas.

Last, a note on poptimism. When I used to write music criticism Rare Candy, in the magazine’s early and very different years, a lot of my time and attention was turned toward poptimism, a shift in critical sensibilities that occurred in the 2000s, led in part by publications like Pitchfork and the music critics of the New Yorker, that challenged critical negativies toward pop. I’ve written a much fuller piece on poptimism and rockism at Rare Candy, “The Progress of Poptimism and the New Rockism,” which I will refrain from summarizing here, but will say: Poptimism was a response to the baring of the prior (or hegemonic) fashion paradigm, i.e. rockism. But instead of dismantling fashionability as a system (for better or for worse — obviously “both”) the movement merely shifted its existing parameters, so that Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift, and Charli XCX were newly-crowned symbols of the taste elite. This is dramatically less subversive a move than self-identified poptimists would like to think.

3.

So a direct line between the fear in “Losing My Edge” of the kids being more knowledgeable and being more hip: cultural and social capital are intertwined in the New York art machine. Murphy’s transition out of guitar music and into dance music happened at the perfect moment, so much so that it’s “impossible to separate his epiphanies from ours,” (Mark Pytlik, Pitchfork), and this bleeding-edgeness, into the ephemerally out-of-reach, made the music so exciting.

Like philosophy, the goal of fashion is always to kill itself, to make all other contenders appear outmoded, dated, and—most damning—predictable.  “Losing My Edge” didn’t just find the winning move—that perfect riff that feels (felt!) fresh and now. It also shows off its knowledge of the game while doing so; it says “I see through this game and I can win it anyways—with ease.” It points out the intricacies of taste politics, makes the fashionable and self-perceived upper echelons cliche (and by legibilizing, demoting them). It wins on its own terms, and on the terms of the game, while also mocking those terms and humiliating all other contenders.

The ironic and detached cultural identities that permeate modern (upperclass) culture did not emerge, as often alleged, due to existentialism or atheism or postmodernism. They emerged because of the impossible cornering of typification and trope identification—the sheer media-fueled, big-city legibility of tropes, where every choice is recognized, mapped, and mocked. Where every artifact carries an accumulated history of connotative baggage. Where every surface sits perched atop buried layers of rock in a geologic record. The only way out is detachment and repudiation, picking an option but constantly disavowing, constantly contextualizing it. “I know that X / but I still love Y.”

7 responses to “Oscillation / Fashion”

  1. […] Supplementary notes to twin essay “Oscillation / Fashion.” […]

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  2. […] ties in to two pieces I’m working on. One is on fashion and its role in art and pop music (update: link), the core idea being that pop songs (in the sense of “popular music” eg rock, soul, […]

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  3. […] set of notes to “Oscillation / Fashion.” First set […]

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  4. […] theory, optics, and reputation just clicked—and helped me make sense of previous interests like fashion, proxies, and bullshit. I wrote a short piece called the “The Dark Miracle of Optics” […]

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  5. […] quitting art to play chess; Wittgenstein’s silence—and more like normcore, a fashion statement insofar as it’s a move in a game, instead of a renunciation of the […]

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  6. […] perspective, clothing and language are surprisingly similar systems—partly functional, partly fashionable, a way of communicating “tribe” through “vibe.” To broadcast a set of dispositions is to […]

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  7. […] in general have been in for a while, so it makes sense that their envelope’s followed. Hunter’s Rotem Linial and […]

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