Professionalism and Alienation

I recently heard (or perhaps instigated) someone at work talking about how proper attire promotes professionalism. My faithful readers will recall that I, as a fashion anarchist, have commented on Jeffrey Tucker’s suggestion that people should dress properly at work (Bourbon for Breakfast, Chapter 37).

Now to tackle the tangent idea that a dress code promotes professionalism. First, if professionalism is meant in the narrow sense of an individual’s competence to complete the tasks at hand with rigor, efficiency, and integrity, the fashion anarchist wins this one easily. Obviously, my engineering or accounting or design skills are not affected every time I change clothes.

If professionalism is meant in the general sense – the sense that it is generally easier to maintain professional relations where people are dressed professionally – this is a little trickier. On this level, I say good riddance to professionalism, which has been a scourge on human contact for some 300 hundred years.

The Age of Bourgeois Capitalism, which began in roughly the 18th century, could also be called the Age of Professionalism.  In the previous age, the frame of reference for human relations was the landed hierarchy of commoners, gentry, aristocracy and various subsets. Doctors and lawyers and such were generally commoners, subject to much mirth and ridicule in the literatures of the day. Even where respected, their professions (or one might call them “occupations” in that pre-professional age) conferred no class status. As bourgeois capitalism replaced landed hierarchies as the defining scaffold of power, the “professions” came to confer the kind of class status we see today, with grandmas encouraging grandkids to grow up to be doctors or lawyers (and not, on good authority of Waylon and Willie, cowboys, those residual personae of the land). The old frame of reference for human relations in the landed order – things like de facto respect for those above you in the hierarchy and generosity towards those below you in the hierarchy – was replaced by the public sphere paradigm to “behave professionally.”

“Professional behavior” presupposes human connections that are less vertical and more horizontal/democratic, and that may well be a step forward toward the ideal of a human community of mutual fulfillment, but it comes at a cost. The cost is alienation. Human relations becomes the “business of human relations.” When Karl Marx says that under capitalism “human relations take on the fantastic form of relations between things” (Capital, Vol. 1), this can be applied on the social as well as the economic level.  Human relations become a little bit icier. The other person is objectified, which enables us to treat him or her as an object in some market-driven game and not as a concrete human being. One scene in The Godfather (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, screenplay Coppola and Mario Puzo) nicely encapsulates human relations in the Age of Professionalism. Tessio has betrayed Michael and now realizes that Michael has discovered the deed and set him up to be killed. Tessio, knowing the end is near, tells Tom: “Tell Mike it was only business. I always liked him.” Tom replies with some pathos, “He understands that,” and then goes forward with the hit. Lift the veil on professionalism’s polite exterior, and this is the model of human relations you have underneath. It brings everyone one step closer to the version of human identity manifested in the “officials” of Kafka’s novels, who epitomize ad absurdum the sloughing off of all human responsibility in the execution of the office.

The alienation that takes place in the Age of Professionalism indeed gives us another reason to look to the Luddite/technophobe point of view. In particular, the technophobe distrust of mechanization may raise valid points about the impact of technology not just on labor markets but on human relations generally. If professionalism takes a subjective toll on the fullness of human relations, new technologies, without moral steerage, can give a kind of exoskeleton to the process of alienation, abstracting us from the human warmth and human consequences of our actions. The person who pushes a button in Nevada to launch a drone strike on a Pakistani village and then stops by Walmart on the way home probably does not see his actions the same way as one who had to stand toe to toe and push the steel blade into his opponent’s belly.

Now for the optimistic conclusion: In our collective reach for higher ideals, professionalism has served its purpose, weaning us away from hierarchies that were antithetical to the fullest form of human relations and giving us a basis for something more democratic and fully reciprocal. But we have paid a cost in terms of the objectification of, and alienation from, our fellows. It’s time take the next turn, put professionalism to bed, and reinvest full humanness into our relationships, even into our relationships in the workplace and with remote clients and customers. And one way to start that slow tectonic shift is to gently undermine the professionalism paradigm by bringing, so far as we can manage it, a little fashion anarchy into the workplace.  It might look funny, but it beats becoming characters in a Kafka novel.

Photoshop Beauty

Something about this viral Photoshop video of model Sally Gifford Piper baffles me. The point (bizarrely) seems to be that the end result is an impossibly high standard of beauty. But she looks like a beautiful woman at first and then is transformed into what looks like an alien made of modular plastic parts. It’s depressing to think of how desperate we (men and women alike in my experience) are to buy into a conventional model of “female beauty,” just because we believe it to be conventional, without regard to what idiot is inventing the model to turn a profit, or to how counterintuitive it is to the natural instincts.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xKQdwjGiF-s&feature=player_embedded

Individualism/Collectivism

As I look to another visit to Germany and France, I recall a long talk with German friends over Spargel and Spätburgunder about our different (but overlapping) cultures, in which it occurred to me that the things I most appreciate and most lament about American culture come down to the same thing: individualism. Americans are obsessed with it, and therein lies their greatest weakness. And their greatest strength.

Individualism will always be part mirage. We are not “thrown” into the world as the existentialists would have it. We emerge organically as part of our parents’ bodies, part of a larger organic chain of parents and children and extended families. Really, it makes more sense to see the species as a single organism, a tree perennially producing new leaves.

This doesn’t mean I am against self-reliance. I believe in the virtue of self-reliance, and believe, probably more overtly than many of my liberal comrades, that this virtue should be an informing principle of any social welfare system. But an obsession with self-reliance can become pathological. Like it or not, we do not live in a state of nature. Like it or not, the world we live in is not just populated by individuals but by very large political and institutional and corporate formations – “collective formations” if you will. We can try to set policies that harness that collective energy for the collective well-being (the tendency of democratic socialism), or we can cling the individualist credo of “every man for himself” and ignore those gigantic formations at our peril. America tends toward the second extreme. The result is the greatest economic disparity of any post-industrial nation. Those at the top of the corporate (“collective”) macro-formations enjoy the profits of middle-class productivity, while middle-class families go bankrupt over health care and education costs at a rate that must be astounding to our more socialized friends across the pond. Our insistence on unlimited individual gun rights is coupled with 11,000 gun homicides a year, compared to 90 in Spain or 70 in the UK. That is individualism in practice.

But naturally my German friends, now imbibing into the night at full throttle, wanted to push the other side, asking what I think GOOD about American individualism. First of all, self-reliance in itself is a virtue, and only becomes pathological when it ignores the actual formations in the cultural landscape. And socialist policies can take a toll on self-reliance if not implemented with care. But more importantly, I do get a sense of freedom in America that is linked to individualism. Not that I share the absurd belief of some of my conservative friends that we are objectively more free than our European neighbors. But there is a subjective tonality that profits from the hyperindividualist ideology of America. In my many hitchhiking romps coast-to-coast in America, and in a lifestyle that has exposed me to a broad demographic spectrum, there is a sense that Americans wake up every day ready to go out and make their own rules. This feeds a kind of creative energy and entrepreneurial spirit, a continual willingness to reboot whatever with a tabula rasa vision, without looking back, and it does give America a special dynamism. (I suspect it also makes quicker soil for the growth of things like fashion anarchy, although as I have shown in my other excellent blog entries, fashion anarchy must work its way back through German socialism if it ever hopes to arrive at the decentralized freedom that individualists seek.)

So, yes, I love Europe, and I especially love the richness of its cultural history and the way it has harnessed collectivist formations to enhance the commonwealth. But the social and cultural traditions that make Europe fascinating, and make it in my mind capable of dealing in a more mature way with the collective formations of late capitalism, may benefit from the occasional prompt of America’s naïvely free-spirited individualism. I guess that’s why I need to bounce around Europe from time to time and why I need to entertain my European friends back home in New Orleans. I’d like to think that we’re participating in the kind of cross-pollination that keeps the species moving. Now for that German beer.

What is “fashionable”?

Fashionable, adjective \ˈfash-nə-bəl

The aptitude for wearing what other people think you should wear.  Although this has long been thought a learned trait, scientists at the Universität Wirmachenkleider in Germany have isolated a genetic marker in some individuals that may indicate a higher risk for the disorder. Furthermore, a recent study at Dim Son University in Taiwan suggests that fashion sense may be inversely proportional to IQ.

Regarding the second study, I have seen enough exceptions to warrant further analysis. If, for example, the study had controlled for the distinction between the passive trait of having fashion sense and the active inclination to make others conform to fashion rules, I suspect that the inverse correlation to IQ may appear only in the latter subgroup.

Regarding both studies, I have my doubts about the accreditation of these so-called “universities,” as they sound almost like “made up” institutions to me.

For a thoughtful analysis on the topic by someone with impeccable credentials (an inquiring mind and a pint of Guinness), link to Letter from a Fashion Anarchist.

Regifting and Post-Tech Ethics

Roiled in the recent holiday spirit, my friend, Brit, asked if I could do a regifting manifesto in the vein of my fashion anarchy manifesto. I thought I’d over-comply and build an entire ethical system around regifting. Thus the following.

I think of ethics as having a constant layer and a layer of culturally-specific variables. The constant layer – the golden rule – is fairly simple, and is constant even as expressed differently by Kant, Jesus, Plato, Confucius, et al. As the Dalai Lama puts it: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

On the variable layer, ethical conundrums arise with each age and within each culture. As the Mayan calendar ends and we move into the post-technological age, I see a few practical strategies for ethical behavior that might navigate us from late capitalism to the Age of Aquarius.

First, we have to restructure our ethical vision to meet changes in the natural environment. Technology has reached a point where it can (a) rapidly strip-mine all remaining resources off the face of the earth in pursuit of quick profits, or (b) distribute resources as needed to all parts of the world. The Corporate State wants to bind people to the consumerist ethic that keeps technology on track (a). One person alone can’t stop that consumerist mentality, with its concomitant greed and political structures, all designed to maximize how much stuff can be hoarded. But there are things individuals can do. And through the old-fashioned ripple-effect of friends of friends of friends, and the newfangled speed of social media, we can change the cultural sensibility more rapidly now than in the past.

Thrift store shopping (kudos to Macklemore). Simple. Why burn through Mother Nature’s resources more quickly than you need just to satisfy the “new stuff” fetish that has been cynically implanted into our brains by the Corporate State?

Regifting. If you have something you know a friend would like, why not give them something that has a little bit of your own life imprinted on it, something with real traces of sentiment, something that shows you’ve sacrificed a little bit of yourself for them to keep forever or until such time as they regift it and pass along the chain of accumulated sentiment? Things made with your own hands would fall into this category too, at least so long as those things are given in the spirit that the receiver is welcome to pass along the object, which is now a locus of emotional history and not just an anonymous commodity, to someone else that he or she would like to bring into the chain.

Regifting will not get traction as quickly as thrift store shopping, because the Corporate State has buried this taboo into its subjects more deeply. After all, since regifting completely detaches the idea of “the purchase” from the idea of “meaningful gift,” the Corporate State rightly sees it as an even bigger threat. All the more reason for us to get a movement going to make regifting cool. And here we must rely on a new generation of teens and twenty somethings, as the stigma will be too much for most older people to overcome on their own.

So practice regifting, practice thrift store shopping. And practice fashion anarchy, too, as it will maximize creative leeway for every individual and at the same time liberate our most basic self-presentation from the commodified versions of self being sold to us for cold cash at retail outlets and big box stores every day. It will also dispel, and perhaps transform, the motivation of some of consumer culture’s most dogged enforcers (those who act as fashion police). If individuals do these things and promote these ideas mindfully, we will already be moving toward a culture where self-actualization and human achievement is no longer measured in terms of purchasing power.

But don’t underestimate the resistance we will encounter. On the economic level, these apparently small lifestyle choices shift the priority from ever-growing economies to sustainable economies, which is a very dangerous idea to the status quo of profiteering giants who are currently managing the global economy. On the other hand, don’t overestimate the power of those giants. As the earth’s resources are depleted, the age of consumerism will die. The writing is on the wall. The ice sheets are melting. What little rainforest remains (now about 6% of the land surface) could be consumed in about 40 years at present rates. The Age of Aquarius is coming. The only question is whether it will happen via a utopian or dystopian pathway. In the utopian model, human ideals are transformed and we come to find fulfillment in creatively sustaining the resources around us. In the dystopian model, our appetite continues to grow until there are not enough resources left to sustain growth, and the species begins to implode as resources dry up while humans still define themselves by how many resources they can personally control. Now make your choice.

Letter from a Fashion Anarchist

Taken from my original post on my friend’s fashion blog: http://destrehansdaughter.blogspot.com/p/fashion-anarchist-vs-style-blogger.html

I am not a good dresser. I sometimes wear black shoes with a brown belt. I sometimes wear socks with sandals. I sometimes do this carelessly. I sometimes do this deliberately. I am a fashion anarchist.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against fashion. The people I supervise at my office are welcome to dress up or dress down, as their fancy suits them on any given day. Occasionally things in the “up” style catch my eye as aesthetically pleasing; occasionally things in the “down” style catch my eye as aesthetically pleasing. Often, I’m just plain oblivious. My only rule is this: Dress however you like and give others the same respect.

The most common objection to fashion anarchy stems from the misconception that it is “anti-fashion.” People who know me know that I love art museums, that I love to garnish my plates at dinner. And I am sometimes asked: Why are you so against devoting the same attention to fashion? The answer, of course, is that I am not against it. Everyone should pursue their interest in fashion or art or garnishing down to whatever level of detail pleases them. I’m all for freedom of expression and freedom to be as creative or conventional as you like. Just let me dress as differently or as carelessly as I choose. Otherwise, you undermine the very integrity of fashion. You have turned it from a liberating, expressive act into something restrictive and socially deadening. So match your socks and your belts and shoes if you like, but don’t forget to celebrate those who mismatch.

A second objection to fashion anarchy is that clothing should suit the venue. In this case, there is no misconception, merely an outright disagreement. The fashion anarchist does not believe in venue-driven restrictions. These sorts of restrictions are generally a residue of class hierarchy. The wealthier class does not want to see underdressed people in their buildings or clubs or social locales. In another context, I may argue that this need to segregate one’s “people” from lower orders occurs only where you have collective material power combined with collective low self-esteem, or that it is a residue of pre-Renaissance social needs which will wither away in some forthcoming Age of Aquarius. For now let us just say that the comfort taken in maintaining one’s hierarchical status is probably not going away any time soon. Fair enough, but when class exclusivity uses fashion as its weapon, it may serve some purpose for the exclusionary class, but it certainly does no service to fashion. The “dress code” mentality is, in fact, the direct or indirect source of all hostility to the world of fashion. When fashion becomes a tool for exclusion, the excluded come to associate fashion with oppression, and some measure of hostility will follow.  But where fashion is a conduit of free expression, stripped of all restrictive functions, it becomes purely liberatory for all classes. This is the final irony: that only through the prism of fashion anarchy can fashion emerge in its full liberatory mode.

So next time you see me with the mismatched socks and sandals, you might want to buy me a beer. For I am your reminder: fashion anarchists are not the enemy of fashion; fashion police are the enemy of fashion.

(For expansion and follow-up, see From Fashion Anarchy to German Socialism.)

External links:

When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink, Smithsonian Magazine.