Part I: Free for All = Free for Some
I have to admit that I barely glanced at the New York Times article, “The Sartorialist Blog is a Victim of Knockoffs” when it was published a few days ago. And I gave it very little thought even after more fashion blog parodies were revealed (here and here). The Sartorialist (the blog and the man who created it, Scott Schuman) is located firmly in the cultural imaginary – by Schuman’s own design and with the great help of his throngs of readers and models who provide the bulk of the content for his site. Parodies of The Sartorialist, it seemed to me, was as inevitable as the Times‘ narrative of “victimization” of the most commercially successful fashion blogger in the world is ludicrous.
But what finally caught my attention was the response of 25 year-old resident of Johannesburg, Eduardo Cachucho, who is the mastermind behind The Fake Sartorialist. Here Cachucho is specifically responding to Schuman’s statement that “Now everyone feels the internet is a free-for-all”:
I find it odd that Scott sees this as a “now” moment. The internet has always been somewhat of a free-for-all, that is what makes it such an important medium. Without the internet his very own blog (that is renowned for being reposted all over the web) would not be as popular as it is.
One of the strengths of the internet is in the power users have to create new content from existing sources. And though of course I don’t condone people just copying images willy nilly, I think there is definitely something to be said for new works created from appropriated sources.
I for one used The Sartorialist’s images only as a base and incorporated images from over 100 blogs that I visit every day. It’s hardly a free-for-all; more like a long thoughtfull [sic] sifting through gigabytes of content.
For both Sartorialists, the terms of the debate about the cultural and legal legitimacy of fashion blog parodies turn on the phrase, “free-for-all.” Interestingly, they both seem to agree that the Internet “free-for-all” has its limits. Schuman told the Times that “he was amused to a point” but had to draw the line at “the unflattering depiction of his subjects.” Likewise, Cachucho asserts that free use of digital content should not be available to “people [who] just copy images willy nilly” and that unlike these people, he is doing something more “thoughtful.” In other words, their point is that blog and other new media content while accessible to everyone is not equally accessible to everyone.
And in a way, they’re right.
As numerous Internet scholars have argued, despite the open access of the Internet (for people who must first have access to a computer and a broadband Internet connection), the Internet is hardly democratic. The operating logic of search engines is such that only the most popular websites are likely to show up in searches. The same websites and blogs appear in the top 3-5 results of every web search; all other sites are, as Jodi Dean put it in an NPR interview discussing her book Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics (Duke UP), “drowned in the massive flow [of commercialized data].” As such, Internet democracy is not a democracy of equitability but of popularity. To quote Dean further:
Rather than a rhizomatic structure where any one point is as likely to be reached as any other, what we have on the web are situations of massive inequality, massive differentials of scales where some nodes get tons of hits and the vast majority get almost none.
The Internet’s uneven distribution of cultural power is clear when we consider that before the controversy, Cachucho’s site got 50 hits per day whereas Schuman’s site got an estimated 250,000 daily hits – that’s 5000 times more than Cachucho. (Thanks to Schuman’s objections, Cachucho’s online traffic has spiked since the controversy – a point Schuman’s detractors are beyond giddy about.)
But in debating the concept of “free-(use)-for-all” Cachucho and Schuman aren’t talking about technological or class barriers. Instead, they’re referring to the ethical and legal barriers. Schuman actually provides a comment on The Fake Sartorialist post (March 31, 2010) that ominously intones, “Intellectual property beware. Intellectual freedom beware. En garde.” I think the en garde is pretty funny – even charming in another context – but I’m not really sure if he’s threatening Cachucho or being playful here.
On its face, Schuman’s objection to The Fake Sartorialist site – an objection based on his concern for the “unflattering depictions of his subjects” – makes little sense. First of all, Cachucho isn’t parodying Schuman’s subjects so much as he’s parodying fashion blogs in general and The Sartorialist (the exemplar of fashion blogs), in particular. Schuman’s protective claims on behalf of his subject seems mislaid at best and disingenuous at worst since they’re clearly not the target of the parodies.
Secondly, the idea that Schuman was fine with the parody site until it became “unflattering” is illogical. Parodies are intrinsically unflattering (though their objective is not always or necessarily to offend); otherwise, they’d be homages. Schuman probably just reached his limit with the parody – and this is understandable – but his being fed up with it is not a sound ethical basis for Cachucho or any other parodists to cease and desist. Arguably, this is precisely the moment when the parody is most effective! By the way, I’m no legal expert but it doesn’t seem to me that Cachucho is breaking any copyright or intellectual property rights laws either. In 1994, the Supreme Court found in favor of 2 Live Crew in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music (yep, a reference to 2 Live freaking Crew found its way into threadbared!) that parodists are protected by fair use doctrines so long as “it is unlikely that the work will act as a substitute for the original.” Since Cachucho’s website explicitly announces its difference from Schuman’s (e.g., The Fake Sartorialist) and since the images are so clearly touched-up (unlike other fashion images – Schuman’s included – that disavow or conceal their processes of production and manipulation), no one is likely to mistake Cachucho’s work for the original. Indeed, the aesthetic punch and cultural value of Cachucho’s site depends on this difference! Anyway, I’m hoping law professor Susan Scafidi of Counterfeit Chic weighs in on her blog.
Finally, Schuman’s squabble with users’ appropriation of his blog style and images, as Cachucho points out, is more than a little hypocritical. Bloggers, to varying degrees, depend on external Internet users for their content. The higher the number of reader comments, links, and cross-postings a blog can amass, the more likely it is that the blog will achieve top search status and as such, increase the unique hits it gets. Sites with large numbers of unique hits gain the attention of not only more readers but advertisers, editors, literary agents, and designers who are all in the position to monetize the blog. Put another way, blogs and other Web 2.0 domains (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, etc.) depend on and, increasingly, profit from the voluntary labors of users. That Schuman’s cultural and financial coffers runneth over due in large part to the unpaid digital labors of readers (who are often also fellow bloggers like Cachucho) seems lost on Schuman.
The fashion blogosphere is an inherently referential, associational, and interactive space of cultural production. Typically, readers comb through fashion and style blogs to see what other people are wearing; what they should be buying, wearing, or storing this season and next season; and where to shop for these items. And as part of these consumption practices, they often leave comments on the site that comprise a major part of the digital content of the blog. Fellow bloggers cite, link to, and cross-post each other’s posts as well as the fashion images found in an array of digital sites. An exemplar of the fashion blogosphere – are there any print or digital discussions of fashion blogs that don’t include at least a mention of The Sartorialist? – Schuman’s blog is one of several elite blogs that show up in any Internet search among the hundreds of fashion and style blogs that don’t. The digital buzz about his blog is free advertising that helps to maintain and secure his cultural dominance. Cachucho’s parody is just another – albeit more creative – mode of productive consumption that does free work benefiting Schuman’s blog and blogger profile. Whatever Schuman’s personal feelings are about the parody site, it along with the controversy Schuman has helped to manufacture will likely increase his readership as well as secure his position as the reigning fashion blogger. To echo Amy Odell, “We Thought Scott Schuman Understood the Internet Better” too.
To be sure, parody is double-edged: at once confirming and contesting dominant relations of power. The parody site and the controversy has inarguably raised Cachucho’s cultural capital as well. How many had even heard about The Fake Sartorialist until this controversy? How sustainable this cultural capital is or whether he will see a financial effect remains to be seen though.
Part II: Legitimate Fakeness vs. Illegitimate Fakeness
According to Cachucho, “people just copying images willy nilly” don’t count. This is a stunning distinction: here, The Fake Sartorialist is legitimizing his fake art against the illegitimate fakery of so-called willy nilly copycats. Legitimate fakeness vs. illegitimate fakeness? What’s the difference? Cachucho explains that his is a “new work created from . . . a long thoughtfull [sic] sifting through gigabytes of content.” In other words, his fake art is an original and unique endeavor (“new work”) and thus he is a true author of fakes (rather than a real copycat) since he alone produced this new work (a labor-intensive and time-consuming “sifting” of over 100 blogs per day).
By positioning himself as an author of “new work,” Cachucho articulates himself as an individual against the masses of “people just copying images willy nilly.” This is the definition of an author. According to Martha Woodmansee, the author (a figure that emerged in the 18th century alongside print capitalism and the modern nation-state) is “a unique individual uniquely responsible for a unique product.” She also notes that historically the author was never “regarded as distinctly and personally responsible for his creation” but instead was perceived as a master craftsman who was notable for “manipulating traditional materials in order to achieve [desirable] effects.” But the cultural, political, economic, and aesthetic value of Cachucho as creative genius also differs from Woodmansee’s 18th century example. Rather than a unique or original genius, we might say that he is an ordinary genius – an oxymoron that actually makes sense in the era of the democratization of fashion and communication. Rather than a signification of artifice or derivation, “The Fake Sartorialist” is a brand that signifies democratic expression. This is what Cachucho means when he asserts that the Internet enables users to have “the power . . . to create.”
That said, the “fake” in the Fake Sartorialist stands for “the little guy” against the cultural and social giants that the Sartorialist aligns himself with and represents. Fakeness sets right and secures the democratic socioeconomic relations the Internet is supposed to foment (as Cachucho points out).
But it isn’t just Web 2.0 technologies that have opened up a space in the fashion world for those outside to enter and occupy it. For the past 8 or 9 years, cheap chic fashion and democratic design have been valorized as enabling non-elite consumers to access and own the look of elite classes. The democratization of fashion ushered in a new cultural politic that values and legitimizes (some) knockoffs. It is against this political economic and cultural backdrop that the real and virtual consumption and circulation of fashion images, objects, and discourses are given new meaning. Cachucho’s blog is appealing because its fakeness, like the legitimate knockoffs I mentioned in a previous post, is embedded in and enacts the new cultural dominant of democratic design.
The Fake Sartorialist site is a reminder that the margins, as Stuart Hall, bell hooks, and so many others have shown us, is a productive space. It is the site in which new cultural forms, new social relations, and new identities are imagined and produced against their dominant counterparts to struggle over the meaning of “culture”. Thus, “fake” in this new creative economy is not the opposite of “authentic” but rather the other side of the same coin. They mutually constitute each other. Additionally, the fake and the authentic are linked as well by a shared neoliberal logic of the creative economy in which privatized identities (“individuals”) are endowed with political economic protections such as intellectual property rights – protections the unindividuated masses are denied. It is as such that Schuman has been shielded from accusations that he’s copying Bill Cunningham who’s been doing street fashion photography for more than 40 years and that the “ethnic inspired” clothing collections of star Western designers are aesthetically valued in the fashion industry while designer-inspired handbags circulating in underground economies are condemned as “fake.”
** My “fake” title is brazenly taken from Stuart Hall’s essay, “What is the black in black popular culture?” which inspired key ideas in this post.