Thinking Blue Guitars

Slogans stifle thought.

Month: July, 2009

I Heart Retro

Despite a recent post critiquing the mystery of distressed jeans, I must admit a certain penchant for retro clothing. The two are not to be confused, even though they often overlap. ‘Distressed’ tends to signify the intentional staining or damaging of clothes to make them appear worn, whereas ‘retro’ does not necessarily entail such artificial scruffiness, rather focussing on the ‘vintage’ appearance of the product.

‘Retro’ is not a new conception. Throughout history many eras have looked back to their forebears for aesthetic or sartorial inspiration, and this often for ideological purposes. As Marx remarked, everything in history happens twice: ‘the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce’. Take Alexander II’s fancy-dress balls just prior to the October Revolution, in which the Russian aristocracy dressed up in late medieval costumes. This was part of a whole ideological package in which Alexander was engaged. After much popular unrest throughout the nineteenth century, which exploded in the failed 1905 revolution, Alexander’s legitimacy was in tatters. By summoning up the mysterious Muscovite past, he hoped to reinforce his hegemony over the people, a hegemony that was fading so rapidly away.

So what are we to make of the current fashion for retro products? Perhaps the answer lies partly in an observation of Eric Hobsbawm’s in the introduction to his epic history of the twentieth century, The Age of Extremes. He notes that young people today grow up in a perpetual present, having lost all sense of history and tradition. I can personally vouch for that very feeling: my knowledge of history in general is exceedingly poor, and I doubt whether I could answer even basic questions as to how we have ended up with the systems, nations, and peoples through and in which we live today.

The consequence of this, it seems, is that we need something to fill the historical vacuum, the lack of links to a common past or heritage. What retro clothing, and retro products more generally, tend to do is to supply us with an artificial link to a past which we imagine to be rooted in something more absolute than our current groundlessness. I often wear a flat-cap, for example: half of this is simply because I like it and because a friend of mine found it on top of a bin in Leeds, and so it has about it a certain postmodern romance. But perhaps the other half of why I wear it is because of its simultaneous links to a bygone bohemian aristocracy and, their secretly linked antithesis, the working-class men of old. I take part in no communal tradition, something which suburbia prevents most successfully, so I substitute my hollow present for an imagined past of plenitude.

The same could be said of the trend for sepia-toned or black and white photographs. What we see ‘naturally’ in colour is so obviously empty and coarse that we try to give it an air of authenticity by invoking aesthetic techniques that belonged to an era which possessed – supposedly – more depth.

What we should really be doing is acting communally to bring about a state of affairs in which the creative fashions we design together possess a depth of their own because they are an outgrowth of a whole, flourishing society.

Writing the Limits of Freedom

Wordsworth

Wordsworth

I was struck by this remark from Graham Harman:

Remember, you have two major enemies when approaching a writing project: zero, and infinity. The zero is the anxiety of the blank piece of paper. The infinity is the gigantic expanse of reality that you cannot possibly exhaust in any piece of writing. Your initial goal is to make the project finite, and hence manageable.

This is the best articulation I’ve ever come across of the dread that haunts all writers at the outset of a project. The task any text has before it is to aim at the infinite through the finite. No wonder, then, as Harman goes on to observe, that limits (word-number, titles, themes, target audience etc.) often provide comfort: they bear the brunt of infinity on our behalf. Indeed, in a very real sense limits – no matter what Americans or hedonists might tell you about them – can be freeing. Absolute freedom, paradoxically, is not free, since it has nothing against which it can feel the exercise of its freedom. It engulfs itself in its own abyss.

This is one of the reasons why poets keep coming back to the sonnet form. On the one hand, it tests their versatility – can they, for example, respect the (14th-century) Petrarchan rhyme-scheme whilst still managing to sound modern? On the other hand, those strict limits of form, line-length, rhyme, and so on, constitute familiar walls on which to bounce their measured words. This was probably what Wordsworth had in mind when he wrote the following:

Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room
And hermits are contented with their cells;
And students with their pensive citadels;
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
In truth the prison, into which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.

Morality and Style

Here is one of my favourite aphorisms from Adorno’s Minima Moralia:

“Morality and Style – A writer will find that the more precisely, conscientiously, appropriately he expresses himself, the more obscure the literary result is thought, whereas a loose and irresponsible formulation is at once rewarded with certain understanding. It avails nothing ascetically to avoid all technical expressions, all allusions to spheres of culture that no longer exist. Rigour and purity in assembling words, however simple the result, create a vacuum. Shoddiness that drifts with the flow of familiar speech is taken as a sign of relevance and contact: people know what they want because they know what other people want. Regard for the object, rather than for communication, is suspect in any expression: anything specific, not taken from pre-existent patterns, appears inconsiderate, a symptom of eccentricity, almost of confusion. The logic of the day, which makes so much of its clarity, has naively adopted this perverted notion of everyday speech. Vague expression permits the hearer to imagine whatever suits him and what he already thinks in any case. Rigorous formulation demands unequivocal comprehension, conceptual effort, to which people are deliberately disencouraged, and imposes on them in advance of any content a suspension of all received opinions, and thus an isolation, that they violently resist. Only what they do not need first to understand, they consider understandable; only the word coined by commerce, and really alienated, touches them as familiar. Few things contribute so much to the demoralization of intellectuals. Those who would escape it must recognize the advocates of communicability as traitors to what they communicate.”

- Theodor W. Adorno

Distressed Jeans

Distressed

Distressed

‘Distressed’. The name itself should give it away. If you’re looking for a pair of plain jeans, by which I mean good old dark blue – non-distressed – denim, then you’re in for a nasty surprise. Jeans these days have to have ‘character’: some have been attacked with various forms of bleach; others have been slashed in wars of which we never knew the existence, bearing their wounds like Victoria Crosses; still others come with ready-fitted chains, the relics of their time as P.O.W. perhaps. In the bad old days, workers wore jeans on a daily basis; it was their hard manual graft which put holes in them. But even so, they were blessed with the good sense to patch them up, since ‘holes in trousers  = good’ is a relatively postmodern formula. And like most things postmodern, it is a symptom of a dysfunctional epoch.

With the decline of the primary industries (mining, ship-building, etc.), most hard labour disappeared elsewhere. But the desire for the very real ‘character’ required for such labour failed to leave with it. Instead, it left an army of office workers casting around for something to help them forget the white-washed walls of their sterile dens. Enter distressed jeans: the ready-made workers’ look. All the sartorial benefits of graft without the graft itself – what could be better? It was the fashion equivalent of decaf coffee or alcohol-free beer. After a day in the call centre, or the insurance company’s head office, during which I speak in a banal manner about banal things to banal people, I can doff my postmodern proud-to-wear-pink shirt, and don my dirty denims.

Jeans have to have character, because the people who wear them have had theirs stolen from them; the fact that we seem aware of this theft, and that we desire to replace it at all costs, is an anaemic but very real ray of hope.

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