Monday, 4 February 2008

The Subject and Kitsch: Costume as Language & Fashion as 'Essential Forgetting'

Before we are forgotten, we will be turned into kitsch. Kitsch is the stopover between being and oblivion.
-Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being


The function of clothing in film differs from that of other theatrical elements in one critical aspect: unlike the elimination of props or elaborate stage sets, dispensing with costume as a dramatic technique cannot properly be termed ‘minimalist’. In von Trier’s Dogville the absence of scenery is reductive: by removing elements from the field of our contemplation it serves to shift attention to what is normally stifled or diffused by the absent scenery: action, bodies, pure drama. The absence of costume however does not erode the positive content or shift attention to the action; this absence draws our attention to a point half-way between background and action – nudity is itself a dramatic element.

Yet clothes do not simply conceal nudity: they also have the function of visually subordinating difference to identity. Clothing-fashion is the primary technique of visually constituting and representing the ‘fake’ identity of a fractured post-‘mirror-stage’ subject: as Joe Buck of Midnight Cowboy, decked out in a rodeo cowboy outfit, admits "I ain't a for-real cowboy, but I am a hell of a stud!" The principle of fashion is a hyperbolic extension of a primary function of clothing, homogeneity. It is no coincidence that the films and TV shows most noted for a certain fashion style tend also to be the most uniform: the futuristic outfits of Star Trek or Barbarella, the disco outfits of Saturday Night Fever, or the swinging sixties’ London of Blow Up. The underlying theme of fashion is uniformity, a profound uniformity beneath all affects of fashion. This theme is taken up in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, which takes place ‘somewhere in the 20th century’ as we are told in a caption at the beginning; the costumes and sets in the film comprise a seamless melange of emanations thrown up by the century in question, a theme which neatly folds into the Orwellian 1984-esque storyline. From the viewpoint of fashion and historical ‘accuracy’ it may appear as an insignificant gesture – but there is a profound point here: actual trends in clothing are at bottom never definitive, it is always a matter of fixed boundaries imposed on an underlying field of overlapping intensities that traverse a network of singularities: if a whole decade can be boiled down to a ‘style’, why not a century? Brazil only takes this innate totalizing tendency of fashion a step further. Fashion implies fashioning, to fashion – fascio – ‘bundling together’ – fascism. It is one of the primary processes whereby our constitution as subjects is the very form of our subjection, to put it in Foucauldian terms.

This is not to suggest that nudity entails liberation: for the technique that produces our subjection is precisely the ‘incitement to discourse’, the call to express individuality through dress; and nudity is only another discourse amid a proliferation of discourses, another form of confession, another technique for producing the ‘truth’ that subjects us: “The obligation to confess is now relayed through so many different points, is so deeply ingrained in us, that we no longer perceive it as the effect of a power that constrains us; on the contrary, it seems to us that truth, lodged in our most secret nature, “demands” only to surface; that if it fails to do so, this is because a constraint holds it in place, the violence of a power weighs it down” (Foucault 60) This is the lesson we may draw from Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain when, for all its iconoclastic, surreal and grotesque imagery, short-circuiting nudity with high spiritualism and psychedelic trips, presenting a Christ-figure in the form of a thief who recalls the tarot card figure of The Fool; at the end leaves us with the cloaked immortals who turn out to be dummies, and in the final scene, the alchemist who reveals the film equipment outside the frame and reminds us that “Real life awaits.” This final gesture ruptures and discredits the work itself. After saying everything, it finally tells us that it has said nothing, confessed nothing – real life awaits.


If we conceive of clothing articles as words of a language, and fashion as discourse or statements (‘fashion statements’) in the sense deployed by Foucault – language not as semantic meaning-content or truth originating in a responsible subject, but the pure ‘taking place’ of statements that refer to a ‘vacant place’ of the subject that can be filled by any individual – ‘fashion’ in the broadest application of the term appears as the natural element of what Agamben calls a “metasemantics built on a semantics of enunciation.” There are affects of speech, ways of saying, fashionable and unfashionable statements, which anyone can adopt or ‘wear’; they do not originate in a subject, for anyone can adopt a particular fashion - ‘fashion’ is a perfect metaphor for this vacant place, the ‘I’ displaced in relation to itself, the “being reciprocally consigned to something that cannot be assumed by a subject”. (Agamben 130) We may even reverse the metaphor – language (meaning-content) is the clothing of the mind, equally subject to trends and affects of fashion. The “disjunction between the living being and the thinking being” that marks the “empty place” of the subject (ibid 143) – an antinomy or ‘parallax gap’ that precludes our access to the real, in Zizekian terms – is expressed in the disjunction between nudity and the clothed or ‘fashioned’ human body. This parallactic Real, the empty place of the subject, defies representation.

In The Future of the Image, Ranciere argues that contemporary art’s radical undoing of the representative relationship between text and image, the law of the ‘profound today’ or ‘the great parataxis’ – most powerfully expressed in the ‘young art’ of cinema – takes its cue in large part from the modern novel. Before Godard and the Marx Brothers, we had Balzac, Proust, Zola, and Hugo “could transform a book into a cathedral or a cathedral into a book.” (42) And indeed, some modern writers were aware of this potential long before cinema took up the project: Virginia Woolf, in a 1926 essay titled ‘Cinema’, spoke of a “cinema of the future” that would “make thoughts visible, like smoke pouring from Vesuvius.”

Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is rife with cinematic imagery – one could even call it a cinematic novel, cinematic narrative transposed into text. And it is in light of the above comments that we may interpret the pervasiveness of clothing in the novel: the “reddish-brown hairy stocking” that Mrs Ramsay is knitting for the lighthouse keeper’s boy throughout the first half; her green shawl tossed over the edge of a gilt frame to conceal its worn state and prettify the drab surroundings, later worn when going for a walk in pregnant silence with Mr Ramsay, and still later wrapped round a scary boar’s skull in order to conceal it and effect a compromise between her children when putting them to sleep(“how lovely it looked now…like a bird’s nest…a beautiful mountain” 124); Mr Ramsay talking “by the hour about his boots”; the brooch that Minta loses on the beach when her engagement to Paul is cemented. (“How extraordinarily lucky Minta is! She is marrying a man who has a gold watch in a wash-leather bag!” p 127)

The total depth to which this fetishism of clothing permeates becomes palpable in Woolf’s use of metaphor, as when Mrs. Ramsay reflects: “How did she differ? What was the spirit in her, the essential thing, by which, had you found a glove in the corner of a sofa, you would have known it, from its twisted finger, hers indisputably?”(55) In another case, Mr Bankes “felt rigid and barren, like a pair of boots that has been soaked and gone dry so that you can hardly force your feet into them. Yet he must force his feet into them. He must make himself talk.” (98) In ‘Time Passes’, the lyrical, evocative chapter that ‘bridges’ a period of ten years between the first and last chapters, this theme comes to the fore: “What people had shed and left – a pair of shoes, a shooting cap, some faded skirts and coats in wardrobes – those alone kept the human shape and in the emptiness indicated how once they were filled and animated; how once hands were busy with hooks and buttons; how once the looking-glass had held a face; had held a world hollowed out in which a figure turned…”(141) It is clothing items and fashion accessories that in these passages are made to fill the role of speech, or of enunciation, the ‘empty place of the subject’ – the twisted finger of the glove that speaks of one’s essence, the obligation to observe social mores symbolized by a rigid pair of boots that one must ‘force’ one’s feet into – be subject, subject oneself; Minta, upon getting engaged and losing her brooch on the beach, starts crying, and although “she minded losing her brooch, she wasn’t crying only for that. She was crying for something else…She did not know what for.” (Does the brooch symbolize her freedom, while the two are both lost by the engagement?) What better way is there to render cinematically visible the fractured ‘I’ in modern society, the split between the enunciated content and the subject of enunciation, than through the speech of clothing, the talk of commodities – the deflection of a subject’s speech onto a visual object one wears and which expresses visually its thought but is not intrinsically part of it, does not emanate from its being? (Joe Buck eventually sheds his cowboy outfit saying “I ain't no kinda hustler.”)


Films that in cultural memory become associated with an era and its fashion very often have a retroactive element - Saturday Night Fever, the epitome of 70s disco lifestyle, was made at a time when disco was fast becoming a thing of the past. Scorsese’s New York, New York, which produced one of Frank Sinatra’s most iconic hits, was filmed in 1977, years after the heyday of both the age it depicts and of Sinatra’s career. This signals the invoking of a pure past, an always-was in the form of Deleuze’s virtual object which is ‘found only as lost, and exists only as recovered.’ One doesn't see people on the street wearing clothes such as those paraded by celebrities on catwalks. Yet when the history of our era is recorded in the decades to come – the official, popular history – it will be constructed to an overwhelming degree in this element of kitsch subtracted from our actual present – the already-was cultural output of film, TV, music videos, etc – and rehashed. In Hairspray (2007), a musical comedy about segregation set in 1960s Baltimore, the costumes are not so much those of the era in question as they are of the 1960s as construed in kitsch. It is said that “if you remember the 60s, you weren't there.” As an effect of the fractured ‘I’, the same could perhaps be said, on some level, of any era. (with or without the LSD, weed, amphetamines, and free love –)…Even death is turned into kitsch: one may recall Villon’s Epitaph - “Freres humains qui apr├Ęs nous vivez…” – as a plea of essential forgetting; or Jeff Wall’s photographic reconstruction ‘Dead Troops Talk’, in which dead Russian soldiers killed by Afghan fighters, with gaping holes in their bellies and slit throats, joke and laugh with each other.

Just as there are different fashions, different ways of being dressed (statements), there are different nudities (silences), different ways of being naked, of extending the uniformal discourse of fashion into its apparent absence or silence in nudity. “Nudity is a shroud”, as Kundera ponders in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, when a group of friends meet on a nudist beach, “their naked genitals staring duly, sadly, listlessly at the yellow sand.” One of the group pontificates on the decline of Western civilization, and “for the time being those few feet of beach felt like a university auditorium.” (228)

The real split then is not between clothed and naked, but rather between the subject present to itself, the self-conscious subject of ‘shame’ confronted with the pre-individual inhuman core of its humanity, with its own emptiness; and the shrouded (nude or clothed) subject, fashioned and bundled, subjected, given a content that is not its own and which it can never fully assume; between pure presence and kitsch. In this broader sense, fashion finds in film, in moving photographic images, as hinted at in the modern novel by the likes of Proust and Woolf, its true home: cinema as the ‘pervert art’ that ‘teaches us how to desire’ (as Zizek puts it), as the “mystery machine” for “making something common…between the image that separates and the sentence which strives for continuous phrasing” (Ranciere 58), as the fluid form of the photographic image which itself is credited with carrying out a “Surrealist takeover of the modern sensibility” (Sontag 51). It flashes back at us a vision of ourselves in the guise of an other – completing the shroud, cementing the two halves. This is not to suggest a relationship of negative opposition between a ‘fake’ subject and a real, or its flattening; rather, an conjunctive antinomy between the living being and an emptiness in which it remains trapped as a subject but can never truly assume itself, its kitsch. Fashion – in the visual form of clothing, but by extension one may also speak of fashions of the intellect, popular ideas, etc – is a language of kitsch, of what Deleuze terms memory as ‘essential forgetting’ or pure past; and it is by precisely this type of operation, one could argue – essential forgetting as ‘lack’ - that Laclau’s ‘chain of equivalences’ is constructed and the distance bridged between competing political groups in a popular movement. It is this surreal shroud of fashion, the subject of the enunciated that founds the virtual object as ‘eternal half of itself’ – that even the most subversive, surrealist art cannot truly penetrate or undress, and which is the deliberate target of Jodorowsky’s resigned closing gesture in the Holy Mountain: indeed, ‘real life awaits’.

By Boris Knezevic


Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz : the witness and the archive (1999)
Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, London (2004)
Foucault, The history of sexuality. Vol. 1, The will to knowledge (1998)
Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1980)
Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1999)
Ranciere, The Future of the Image (2007)
Sontag, On Photography (1978)
Woolf, To the Lighthouse (2000)


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