Daily Archives: April 21, 2010

New Technologies of Style and Selfhood

When Mimi suggested I post about Blair Fowler, the 17 year-old haul vlogger from Tennessee (a.k.a “JuicyStar07”) who was the subject of a recent Jezebel post, I resisted. Fowler is certainly worthy of a post or at least our acknowledgment since her significance in the mainstream fashion culture of the 21st century, in particular, and in the new creative economy, in general, is undeniable. Her fans number in the high millions and a single haul video of hers can “amass over 300,000 views in just a couple of days.” Yet I still resisted watching Fowler’s haul videos for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve written about haul vloggers before. My observations about ChanelBlueSatin as well as Tavi Gevinson and the new digital work order in which they and indeed most of us labor might easily be transposed to Fowler. For example:

  • Fowler’s compulsion for digital productivity is a topic I’ve previously discussed in “Why I Feel Guilty When I Don’t Blog”. (Fowler notes in the video below that she feels “bad and guilty about [sleeping in when she should be] . . . getting up and responding to emails and doing videos and stuff like that.” Remember, she’s seventeen years-old.
  • Child entrepreneurs like Fowler (she’s an older teenager but she also has a 7 year-old sister who’s vlogging) is suggestive of the ways in which Web 2.0 technologies are dissolving the boundaries between labor and play, is reliant on child labor, and is capitalizing free and democratic spaces – some of which I discuss in “Digital Work and Child’s Play”. In this GMA segment, we learn that Fowler’s devotion to vlogging led her to quit attending regular classes at her high school (she’s now home-schooled) to focus on shopping which, for haul vloggers of course, is working

But perhaps the primary reason I resisted writing about Fowler is that while haul vlogging is interesting to me as an academic, it holds very little appeal for me personally. I enjoy shopping with friends and sometimes I even enjoy glimpsing their “hauls” but a stranger’s haul? Not so much. It isn’t that I’m offended by haul vloggers’ “bragging,” as Fowler assumes of her detractors; instead, I find haul vlogs boring. In my low blood sugar moments, I find them downright tedious. But I’m in the minority. According to the GMA segment on Fowler and her sisters, their videos have gotten a combined 75 million hits – enough to make YouTube offer them a partnership, guaranteeing them a cut of the ad revenue from their vlogs. And along with the Fowler sisters’ YouTube videos are about 110,000 other haul videos that are viewed thousands of times a day.

In previous posts, we’ve emphasized the ways in which lifestyle experts and technologies instrumentalize neoliberal forms of governmentalization that correct and regulate populations to normative social formations of professionalism, middle-class respectability, femininity, masculinity, motherhood, etc. But such technologies of power do not operate by coercion alone. As Terry Eagleton reminds in The Significance of Theory,

No oppressive power which does not succeed in entwining itself with people’s real needs and desires, engaging with vital motifs of their actual experience, is likely to be very effective. Power succeeds by persuading us to desire and collude with it; and this process is not merely an enormous confidence trick, since we really do have needs and desires which such power, however partially and distortedly, is able to fulfill.

The enormous popularity of Web 2.0 lifestyle technologies such as what-not-to-wear fashion blogs, what-to-buy-now haul vlogs, and the shopping and style guide apps available for our smartphones, demonstrate that millions of people (particularly women and girls, who are still the ideal subjects of the highly dispersed fashion media complex and its makeover logics) want the expertise of life-conduct authorities. But why are these lifestyle technologies so appealing? Why do millions of people search for, share, and subscribe to the RSS web feeds of life-conduct gurus? What is it about this particular moment that makes such expertise a matter of urgency? What conditions, in the words of print and online fashion journalists, the “fashion emergency” that iPhone apps like Ask a Stylist, Elle Shopping Guide, Net-App, and Gilt on the Go are said to rescue us from? (Download Ask a Stylist and you’ll have a small cadre of stylists  available to you 24 hours a day, seven days a week, ready to provide you with personalized responses within 2 minutes of your question.)

The desire for self-improvement is not unique to this historical moment. While new technologies such as blogs, video sharing, smartphones, and GPS deliver the tools of and paths to self-reinvention faster, more often, and to more people than ever before, the desire itself is a foundational element of the American Dream in which the exceptional potential for and possibility of self-improvement is central. Recall Horatio Algers’ 19th century rags-to-riches stories which assured Americans that wealth, success, and happiness were available to anyone through hard work and determination. Today, the ethos of success through hard work persists however the site of this labor – particularly for women – has shifted inward, from the office, factory, and field to the body.

The role of technologies in women’s histories of selfhood and self-reinvention is especially familiar. New kitchen technologies, as we know from Laura Scott Holliday, played a major role in creating and securing ideologies about femininity. In the post-war years, when women were no longer needed or wanted in the work force events like the Kitchens of Tomorrow exhibits enticed women to return to their homes and their roles as (newly liberated) homemakers.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, kitchen and home appliances located proper femininity in the home and particularly in the kitchen while large cars and the new car radio situated ideal masculinity “on the road.” In the neoliberal post-welfare present, digital lifestyle technologies like blogs, vlogs, and iPhone apps privatize (rather than domesticize) femininity. Personal and personalized technologies allow and encourage us to be responsible for our own well-being. For women and girls, the health of our “well-being” is intimately tied to the look and style of our bodies, which includes our sartorial appearances. The unprecedented availability of life-conduct expertise through lifestyle technologies that are always at our fingertips through our laptops and our smartphones facilitates the transfer of the responsibility for our welfare from the government to individual women. Such responsibility is articulated in the neoliberal present as freedom. That is to say, lifestyle technologies give us the freedom to work on our bodies and appearances whenever we want. Such technologies do more than shape our social identities; they deliver directly to us the  immaterial and material tools (i.e., information and consumer goods) for realizing our optimal selves.

Providing up-to-the-minute product and sales information, style rules, and GPS mapping, these lifestyle technologies are timely instruments of rational consumption, self-determination, and social and physical mobility that enable us to be enterprising agents of our own care and happiness. (Lifestyle technologies have also expanded into biomedical spheres, monitoring and regulating our diets, exercise routines, and even menstrual cycles.) Such care and management of the self is the mark of good “post-welfare citizenship.” As Laurie Ouellette and James Hay write in their wonderfully useful essay, “Makeover Television, Governmentality and the Good Citizen”:

Today . . . the state relies primarily on the private sector rather than public bureaucracies to produce ‘good’ citizens. Acting more as a supporter and less as an ‘overseer’, the United States has offloaded much of the responsibility of governing onto public–private partnerships and depends more than ever before on cultural technologies.

As such, blogs, vlogs, and mobile phone apps are at once technologies of power as well as technologies of self-optimization. Thus, the promise of the American Dream and particularly the dream of self-reinvention at the heart of the American Dream is located not merely in the free market but in the fashion media complex specifically. The rapid digitalization of fashion media from the online publications of print magazines to the lifestyle technologies discussed here (many of which are owned, in varying degrees, by media and/or fashion corporations) makes it possible for anyone to create the Perfect Outfit, the Perfect Shopping Experience, or the Perfect Smoky Eye. This is the democratization of fashion and style. Like the Perfect Day in Davin Heckman’s fascinating study of smart homes, the Perfect Outfit is a technologically-enhanced, media-saturated, and future-oriented narrative of “the good life” that is the promise of an “exceptional consumer lifestyle.” Heckman explains:

The Perfect Day is a grand goal, a utopian dream for the subject of neoliberal capitalism that owes its existence to the numerous promises that are conjured up daily in the marketplace . . . It is a technologically facilitated experience of subjectivity as life without deficiency and without doubt.

And as with all consumerist ideals of perfection, the Perfect Outfit that is the utopian promise of the Ask a Stylist app, is always, in Heckman’s words, “just beyond the present and stopping short of perfect satisfaction.” The anticipatory but not yet fulfilled promise signified by the Perfect Outfit is precisely the driving force of consumer capitalism. But in desiring the Perfect Day or the Perfect Outfit or the Perfect Body –  mass-mediated “spectacles,” to borrow Guy Debord’s term —we have to concede that we are deeply un-perfect and thus in need of the lifestyle technologies and life-conduct expertise that will surely improve not only our outfits and bodies but our chances for happiness, future employment (as the Chicago Bar Association, would have it), love, and, in places where racial-sartorial profiling is institutionally sanctioned, the right look can improve our chances for living a life without police harassment.** This is the appeal of lifestyle technologies and life-conduct expertise. A complex of biopolitical affective power, these technologies and agents produce “post-human” neoliberal subjects who are no longer determined by biology but are instead self-determined through their consumer choices.

Personal, convenient, and mobile technologies of (economic, social, physical, and sartorial) health rationalize the care and management of the self. Women who are not (yet) style experts can still be “entrepreneurs of the self” if they take the initiative for searching out, downloading, and conducting their lives and themselves according to this expertise. And since lifestyle technologies and life-conduct gurus are so easily accessible, enabling anyone to have the Perfect Body and the Perfect Outfit, there is no excuse for obesity or sloppiness. A disorderly look, as we are reminded everywhere in our makeover culture, signifies a disorderly worker, low self-esteem, and bad consumer citizenship. It is as such that Nikolas Rose finds in advanced liberal democracies, there is an “ethic in which the maximization of lifestyle, potential, health, and quality of life has become almost obligatory, and where negative judgments are directed towards those who will not adopt, for whatever reason, an active, informed, positive, and prudent relation to the future.”

Although this post has focused on women and girls who, as I’ve mentioned before, continue to be the ideal subjects and target consumers of lifestyle technologies, men are not excluded from makeover culture’s ethical imperative. To quote Tim Gunn before making over some of the husbands and boyfriends of Oprah Winfrey’s viewers on the “Makeover My Man!” episode (November 19, 2009):
“Men have no excuse. It’s so much easier for us.”

Tim Gunn: "It was all about respecting who they are at their core and making them better, enhancing them."Josh: "I feel like a new man."

** A footnote: Xenophobic legislation such as California’s Prop 187, the Homeland Security Act, and Arizona’s just-passed SB 1070 which allow state agents to question or imprison people they suspect are “illegal”or “terrorists” often implicitly sanction racial-sartorial profiling. That said, the histories of Asian Americans, Chicanos, and Latinos are full of instances of creative sartorial subversion! See Debbie Nathan’s Women and Other Aliens: Essays from the US-Mexico Border; Erika Lee’s At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration during the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943; and Min Song’s chapter in Q&A: Queer in Asian America.

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Filed under FASHION 2.0, STYLE POLICE & STYLE GURUS

LINKAGE: The Feather In Your “Native” Cap

Hipster headress from Urban Outfitters

In the last few weeks, several writers have tackled the concatenation of concerns surrounding “native appropriations” in so-called hipster fashions.  (Feathered headdresses, for example, are among the latest accessories for sale by retailers such as usual suspects Urban Outfitters. For not-equivalent-but-possibly-relevant commentary, see my “History and the Harem Pant,” or Minh-Ha’s “Blackface, and the Violence of Revulsion.”) Neither of us are able to comment at length right now because we’re both on our separate ways out of town (having said that, one of the first things I would do is explore the difference between an analytic of appropriation as a property relation and an analytic of alienation as a social-historical one, in response to the many comments to these posts that protest that indigenous peoples do not have a “monopoly” on feathers), but I thought I would bookmark these writers for our readers’ perusal.

Sociological Images borrows from several posts by Adrienne at Native Appropriations (a truly amazing archive) to compile a partial archive of “native style.” Lisa Wade writes,

“All of these cases romanticize Indianness, blur separate traditions (as well as the real and the fake), and some disregard Indian spirituality.  They all happily forget that, before white America decided that American Indians were cool, some whites did their absolute best to kill and sequester them.  And the U.S. government is still involved in oppressing these groups today.

Julia at a l’allure garconneire penned an epic essay, called “the critical fashion lover’s (basic) guide to cultural appropriation,” in partial response to the Jezebel syndication of the above Sociological Images post. (Many Jezebel commenters expressed hostility and indifference to the post, hurling accusations of “PC policing” or suggesting that “it’s just fashion, who cares?” Julia capably responds to some of the more representative comments.)

“my favourite aspect of cultural appropriation is that it can help us begin to deconstruct our sartorial choices and acknowledges the power of clothing as a means of shaping (racial, national, sexual, gender) identity. the exact same piece of clothing can mean very different things to different people (take any politically charged piece of clothing: the hijab, high-heel shoes, doc martens, the keffiyeh, etc) and acknowledging this fact is a very important first step. the very basis of cultural appropriation gets people thinking about questions like, can one piece of clothing “belong” to one culture? what do certain pieces of clothing signify? it moves us away from basic discussions of colour palettes and cuts and styles and trends and moves us towards a more complex theorizing of fashion.”

Molly Ann Blakowski at the University of Michigan’s Arts, Ink. suggests in “The Hipster Headress: A Fashion Faux Pas” that while the trend in feathered headresses is neither ironic nor chic, it is hardly the worst injury in a long history of violence.

Not to say some people aren’t offended – it’s definitely apparent in the posts’ feedback – but I’ve got a hunch that the hundreds of years of broken promises, stolen homelands, trails of tears, and more or less genocide at assimilative boarding schools are probably a bit more offensive than lame hipsters wearing headdresses. No, it’s cool, it’s not like your ancestors killed them all or anything-” (or your university possesses their grandparents in cardboard boxes). Choosing to wear these items out to a party leaves you looking foolish, no matter your intentions. Regardless of whether or not you’re offending someone of Native origin, you’re offending yourself.

For Bitch Magazine, indigenous feminist activist Jessica Yee tackles hipsters and hippies head on:

“Whether it’s headbands, feathers, bone necklaces, mukluks, or moccasins – at least put some damn thought into WHAT you are wearing and WHERE it’s from. I know our people sell these things en masse in gift shops and trading posts, and it seems like it’s an open invitation to buy it and flaunt it, but you could at least check the label to see A. If it’s made by actual Indigenous people/communities B. What does this really mean if YOU wear it?”

Finally, the heated comments in Yee’s post (both on the Bitch blog and on the Bitch Facebook) inspired someone to post the always-handy internet meme, the “Fill in the Blank” Bingo Card — in this case, the “Cultural Appropriation” Bingo Card (created by Elusis):

"Cultural Appropriation Bingo Card"


EDITED AGAIN TO ADD:
Please do send additional linkages if you find them! Like this one, My Culture Is Not A Trend, which is an entire Tumblr dedicated to the apparently accelerating “feathers and fashion” phenomenon. She writes in a recent post, “When you enter into these arguments, ask yourself ‘Is my right to wear something pretty greater than someone’s right to cultural autonomy and dignity?'”

Or this one, in which K. of Side Ponytail (best blog name by the way) points to another, poignant dimension of unequal access in “on headdresses“:

April: There is a HUGE difference between being gifted authentic regalia and wearing shit because you think it’s cute. Also, a headdress is not something you wear FOR KICKS, you know?
K: I don’t know, don’t you ever have those days where you roll out of bed and say to yourself, “I deserve a headdress today!”
April: “Because in my life, every day is a pow wow! That’s how SPECIAL and UNIQUE I am!” EXTRA TRAGEDY: So many native folks, especially kids! can’t afford to create or have real regalia created. But it’s super cool that [white girls] can have [their] knockoffs.
—-
The other day April and I were talking about the recent glut of Native American “inspired” fashion trends, including (but by no means limited to) headdresses and moccasins. (This conversation was partly inspired by April’s work with an Indian community organization and my tendency to be annoyed by basically everything I see on the internet.) I thought this snippet of the conversation was worth sharing, mainly for April’s point that many native folks (especially kids, that kids part kills me) CAN’T AFFORD to have regalia of their own.

Thea Lim at Racialicious decontructs “some basic racist ideas and some rebuttals” in response to the increasingly heinous comments at Bitch for Jessica Yee’s essay.

Incidentally Bitch is also a pop culture site, so it kinda makes sense that Jessica talk about hipsters there. Bitch readers come to Bitch to talk about feminism and pop culture, but they don’t want to talk about racism and pop culture?

The “get over it” defense is not hard to take down as soon as you realise that by “it” the commenter is referring to colonisation and genocide, the legacy of which continues to beset Native communities in the form of poverty, environmental racism, and health disparities (to recap some of the things Jessica mentioned in the original post).

The whole “but that happened 100 years ago!” defense is similarly dense: a brief look at who is poor and who is marginalised in the richest countries in the world should quiet that one down…though it often doesn’t.  There’s no accounting for pigheadedness.

And beyond this? Racism manifests itself in a million different ways, from massive structural inequalities, to the accessories of that fashionable person on the subway next to you.  And sometimes it is easier for folks to understand and tackle the small things; for me, it was a long journey to the admission that racism exists and impacts my daily life.  Talking about pop culture was a baby step that I could take; it was also something that was familiar and accessible when I didn’t really understand the academic language of postcolonial theory, or couldn’t imagine that words like “double marginalization” “diaspora” or even “immigrant” could apply to me.

EDITED ONCE AGAIN: Confused about the meaningful differences between distinct histories of exchange? They are not all the same. Read also these excerpts from Coco Fusco’s 1995 essay “Who’s Doing the Twist?” Also, new at Native Appropriations are some of the answers to the apparently compelling question, “But why can’t I wear a hipster headress?”

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Filed under FASHIONING RACE, FASHIONING THE HUMAN, LINKAGE