[In any Brief Reflection posts, I simply aim to outline a few rough ideas and basic applications of a variety of theorists as quick intellectual exercises: some posts might get developed into longer posts or pieces with fully fleshed out ideas, some will be abandoned as incoherent, wrong or immensely uninteresting. Enjoy (or don’t.)]
The ascension of brands like Supreme and Palace have left me uneasy. Both brands were established, somewhat recently, as skateboarding and fashion lines: not established with the desire to generate global brand hegemony or generate millions or profit, rather just as unique artistic outlets for people with genuine and continued love of the skateboarding and fashion worlds.Yet both have seemingly transformed well beyond these somewhat humble beginnings into spectacles of exclusivity, brand fetishism, as well as developing immense industries of fakes and knock-off imitations. Does this reflect anything particular about the state of global consumerism? Perhaps.
The Culture Industry theory and outlook developed by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkenheimer, in their work the Dialectic of Englightenment, is seemingly an influential, yet overused, overly simplistic and no longer appealing way of explaining the complexities of product desire and commodity industry in the global world: the billboard, television and magazine advertisement world has been replaced with even more sophisticated ways of promoting brand image and commodity desire in society, particularly in the social-media, internet era. Yet, their theory seems to still have great explanatory power and intuitive appeal. Adorno ultimately argues that we live in a society shaped by mass culture, in which consumer goods (although their focus was largely on mass media and art, but still applies to more aesthetic brands like Supreme and Palace) are generated in highly standardized forms to flood society and the market, and pacifu creativity and ensure a high standard of cultural normalization, which is subordinated under the will of both the capitalist elite, and the culture industry system as a whole. But does this generic anti-consumerist shtick actually reveal anything about new ultra-brands like Supreme and Palace, which have seemingly overcome the need for standardized production etc. and rely on uniqueness, limited edition exclusiveness and design by youth themselves? Perhaps.
Although its evident that brands like Supreme, or the vast majority of their supporters, aren’t aggressive revolutionaries or anti-capitalists: thus it might seem odd for me to be critical of them for not escaping the mass culture process. I am not attempting to be critical of them specifically, rather I wish to investigate whether or not new cultural products, which arise from different social sites and spaces, can function without taking on the features of the culture industry. (the answer is: no.)
Despite the few features which seem to distinguish newer, more unique and artistic fashion brands from the old ones of brute force manufacturing and advertisement, its still quite clear that the popularity and success of such brands has manifested in essentially the same structures and processes of the old products and companies, although perhaps with newer methods. Following a number of arguments presented by Adorno, I want to make a few points.
- The supposed unique and exclusive nature of products under brands like Supreme does not actually disrupt their use and presence in a mass culture system: exclusivity and rareness are simply tools which generate a different face for capital to proliferate with; the brand logo worship is just as (commodity) fetishtic as more usual or elite brands. The change in medium and method does not alter the content at all: still just a accumulation of capital but under a perhaps prettier name.
- Uses the same production methods and resources in its goods as any other: no uniqueness in its material existence (e.g. which actually impacts labourer and the environment), simply the fetishised commodity-identity that haunts its material reality is different.
- The creativity, seperate from establish mass corporations, still simply results in an end product that functions as cultural and economic capital: brand might be newer, artier and genuine expression of youth, but its still expressed in the exact same market and mass culture terms as old and unwanted trainers from a long redundant and boring brand.
- (the brand logo itself for Supreme itself is based on propoganda art: just like the creator of Buzzfeed having a background in Critical Theory, the dialogue between ironic consumerism and brutal consumerism seems blurred, and propels them into new heights of consumer-capital glory)
Beyond this world of newer brands and more distinct forms of mass fashion (parading as exclusive), the broader streetwear phenomenon on an political-aesthetic level is also quite interesting, so a short comment on that is also here. Although brands like Nike and Adidas have always had extensive global media and advertise campaigns to establish themselves as highly desired and assumed brands, the perhaps more recent occurance of their presence in the high fashion world is quite interesting. Like with the above ideas on Supreme, I am sure that the adoption of Nike on a new aesthetic level by teenagers is not meant to be some great meta-comment on subverting traditional street clothing into pieces of high fashion while maintaining their natural environment, to thus question the distinctions between high/low art/culture fashion etc (the usual shtick, once again), I simply want to argue that this process can never really occur:
This kind of cultural and aesthetic inversion of a product/logo/brand for a political purpose is most evident (on a theoretical level) in the ideas of the French Situationists, who adopted the idea of Detournement as part of their subversive anti-capitalist project and events: mainstream cultural and social symbols are adopted in subversive ways in radical acts and objects. The Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen is a good example; utilising the proud image of the Queen in an ironic, sardonic and scathing way to promote their own radical creation. Streetwear, particularly of the Nike/Adidas variety can never succeed in doing this, due to the lack of revolutionary change on a material level. Using a Nike jacket in a new artistic way isn’t particularly interesting: I’m sure the workers in Nike production centers adore the way in which their craft is being presented on a Instagram post. Without a material act of change following one of imagistic political subversion, the act is meaningless: it instead simply reconstitutes the ways in which a product by a multi-national corporation can benefit from how it has glued itself to culture and physical expression. Perhaps some Adidas jackets knitted by austerity stricken grandmothers would be more effective as a political image.
I hope that my inner conservatism, which fears new (mass) culture, shines through in this post: I am fully committed to anarchism as an ethico-political outlook, and even my preferred metaphysics is as painfully edge (Speculative Realism, thank you) but in terms of culture (albeit, very particular cultural trends) I’m often annoyed at my immediate reactions of pessimism. In this post I wan’t to briefly reflect on a few of the more identifiable points of my internal outrage at the proliferation of street wear, and elements of contemporary youth culture that I see around me (or more so, that I see online). Again, this post is simply an intellectual exercise, and luckily for me, nobody reads this blog so I am not worried about any potential consequence of revealing my aesthetic Ludditism (is that a phrase that means what I meant it to mean? Unlikely.) I have read extremely little about the streetwear phenomenon so don’t take anything I write as even remotely justified on a factual level, its merely a personal reflection.
When I refer to the ‘Streetwear’ culture etc, I refer to the Supreme/Palace/Nike/Adidas fetishists in the Europe and America (proliferated by I-D and its internet ilk). Its plague has infected vast corners of the internet (well, popular social media and probably an infinity of tumblr pages and blogs). Its particular aesthetic is indeed extremely cool and satisfying, that I won’t deny. I appreciate (very much so) the way in which the new fashion and aesthetic trends have given a degree of autonomy to people my age, and how they have been able to establish cultural freedom from the dictats of traditional outlets (as well as providing massive energy and inspiration for young creative people; far more creative, competent or energetic than me.) Now, with the anxious apology and appreciation out of the way (kind of), onto some reflections.
Streetwear lacks political consciousness
I know not all youth movements and trends are centered around revolutionary anarchist principles (why not? fuck you.) but seemingly a constant element or claim made around new fashion is its commitment to tearing town the old ways and replacing them with new radical ways of organising and generating communities. Yet, is this in anyway true?
First, does the adoption of extremely well-established brands like Nike and Adidas in new ways count as a subversive act? Does bringing them forward as premium items undermine and counter-constitute their mass produced kind? Is re-styilsing them as high fashion count as a radical move? Unlikely. The most famous promotion of this idea lies perhaps with the Detournement method developed and adopted by the French anti-capitalists, the Situationists, in the 1960s: mainstream cultural and social symbols are adopted in subversive ways in radical acts and objects. The Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen is a good example; utilising the proud image of the Queen in an ironic, sardonic and scathing way to promote their own radical creation. Streetwear, particularly of the Nike/Adidas variety can never succeed in doing this, due to the lack of revolutionary change on a material level. Using a Nike jacket in a new artistic way isn’t particularly interesting: I’m sure the workers in Nike production centers adore the way in which their craft is being presented on a Instagram post. Without a material act of change following one of imagistic political subversion, the act is meaningless: it instead simply reconstitutes the ways in which a product by a multi-national corporation can benefit from how it has glued itself to culture and physical expression. Perhaps some Adidas jackets knitted by austerity stricken grandmothers would be more effective as a political image.
It’s likely I expect too much: even Punk was co-opted pretty quickly to become a massively successful consumer commodity; anti-social images as the most prolific? Righteous.
Does the almost universal love of the Supreme logo reflect the final victory of the Culture Industry? Adorno and Horkenheimer’s notion of a Culture Industry is perhaps one of the most overused and influential ideas for describing late-capitalism and its consumer society, but it still clearly resonates: contemporary culture and goods are highly standardized, mass marketed pieces with limited discern-ability or originality, and are desired on a basis generated by the same system of corporate capitalist that generates the desire in the first place. In the case of newer brands like Supreme/Palace, which are staples of youth culture, made, designed and influence by youth culture, this does not seem to apply: unique, limited edition and designed by the youth themselves (feel patronising even using this term). Well, I think it still fits securely within the bounds (and benefits for them) of the mass culture industry (perhaps, just one the many mass culture industries?). It might be generated not by, as the old stereotyped idea goes, by face-less bureaucrats attempting to gain hegemony over youth culture, but by younger, artistic and more altruistic people; yet it still exists in the same structure that Mass culture established itself, and pushes it even further. The complete subordination of culture and material desire, as well as the aims of artistic expression, under a particular logo and brand identity does not seem that distinct from old-school culture industry to me?
Thanks, please explain how I am wrong. please.
(to be edited, change or perhaps deleted all together)