28 April 2015

After a Fashion

In which the lede bluntly states what is elementary for some people (but perhaps not to others):

“Though we might try to frame it in more rational, objective terms, design culture is really nothing more than a highly complex, super-developed system of driven-by-object fetishism. It's a world where objects take on meanings and significances far beyond the sum of their material form. Where things inert and external to us resonate deep within our psyche. As designer or consumer, we are drawn towards sensations – the sheen of a particular texture, a particular colourway, the way a particular door swings. We've all had it, that moment when we feel a desperate attraction to a thing, an uncontrollable desire for...it, whatever that 'it' might be.”

From Sam Jacob, he of the UIC architecture department and the Strange Harvest blog, with a cheeky opin piece for Dezeen, in which he argues that designers could learn a thing or two from BDSM culture.

There was, if I recall, a fair amount of fetishism lurking beneath the surface of Roland Barthes's The Fashion System. Within months of its publication in 1968, Jean Baudrillard made his debut with The System of Objects, in which he extended Barthes’s semiotics (and fetishism) to a broader critique of postwar consumer culture. For example:

“There was a long period during which American cars were adorned by immense tail fins. For Vance Packard these perfectly symbolized the American obsession with consumer goods. They have other meanings, too: scarcely had it emancipated itself from the forms of earlier kinds of vehicles than the automobile-object began connoting nothing more than the result so achieved – that is to say, nothing more than itself as a victorious function. We thus witnessed a veritable triumphalism on the part of the object: the car’s fins became the sign of victory over space – and they were purely a sign, because they bore no direct relationship to that victory (indeed, if anything they ran counter to it, tending as they did to make vehicles both heavier and more cumbersome). Concrete technical mobility was over-signified here as absolute fluidity. Tail fins were a sign not of real speed but of a sublime, measureless speed. They suggested a miraculous automatism, a sort of grace. It was the presence of these fins that in our imagination propelled the car, which, thanks to them, seemed to fly along of its own accord, after the fashion of a higher organism. The engine was the real efficient principle, the fins the imaginary one. Such interplay between the spontaneous and the transcendent efficacy of the object calls immediately for nature symbols: cars sprout fins and are encased in fuselages – features that in other contexts are functional; first they appropriate the characteristics of the aeroplane, which is a model object relative to space, then they proceed to borrow directly from nature – from sharks, birds, and so on.”

To that, one might add Jameson’s discussion of the “depthlessness” of postmodern culture, as supposedly epitomized in Warhol’s “Diamond Dust Shoes.” Which is one way to look to look at Warhol’s many prints of women’s shoes. Another being that Warhol, by many accounts, also had a major foot fetish.

Image: UK pop sculptor Allen Jones, c. 1969, with one of his “tables.”

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