Friday, July 11, 2008

The Ultimate in Self Advertising

Here is a selection from Fit Bodies, Fat Minds by Os Guinness (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1994), 89–90.

At its heart, style is a term of identification, as substance is. But style and substance are in direct contrast. Substance is a matter of who or what someone or something is; style is the manner through which that distinctiveness is presented and perceived.

The term “style” has traditionally identified the leading characteristic or ruling taste of a period or school—in the sense that we refer to “Romanesque” and “Gothic” architecture or to “classical,” “impressionist,” and “cubist” art. Each new style is in some ways a break from the past and embodies a different way of seeing or doing things. But what matters in this usage is that style is viewed as the outer expression of the inner character of the period. The style, therefore, is as enduring as the period itself.

Today, however, style has become an end in itself. No longer expressive of substance or inner character, style is all that matters now. No longer enduring, it is transient, changeable, and fashion- oriented. As a glance at any magazine rack will show, style is the number one mantra of late twentieth-century America. Used more often on magazine covers than even the word “sex,” style is a leading source of anxiety, hope, and fascination for millions.

To be up-to-date and in touch with one’s style is essential; to be out-of-date or out-of-touch is unforgivable. At a time when permanence of personality is as forlorn as permanence of place, change is the order of the day. Identity is now a matter of perception and presentation. And style is the art of skillfully presenting illusions as we walk down the corridor of images that make up modern society.

From the perspective of its purveyors, style is the official currency of marketing products. From the perspective of consumers, style is the leading idiom of the image of one’s choice—the desired sense of projected meaning and belonging. Style, image, and consumption are foundational to modern identity and discourse. In a world of increasing anonymity where scrutiny by unknown others is our daily norm, style is a sort of armor for city life. Wear something and walk down the street and you don’t just say, “I like this,” but “I’m like this.”

As Stuart Ewen shows [All Consuming Images: The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture, New York: Basic Books, 1988], style is the sorcery that turns the banal necessities of our everyday world into an enchanted utopia of mouth-watering freedom. This is the illusory world where no conflicts grate and no needs are unmet. If modern society is a Vanity Fair of consumable styles, style itself is the ultimate in human self-advertising.

No comments: