Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Think you stand out in a crowd?

A few months ago, I could have sworn I read an article about doppelgängers in Scientific American, discussing the idea that every human being could potentially have up to eight genetic doppelgängers running around the planet. Trying to find the research which actually backed up this remembrance proved utterly futile, so I suppose I’ll have to bury that little factoid as inaccurate. Still, it is an interesting supposition, that each of us may have a (or more than one as the case may or may not be) genetic mirror going about the business of existence in some other part of the world. For some reason it was the curiosity of the doppelgänger that I thought of first when I came across a review of a photography exhibition in last Sunday’s Observer. The photographer Ari Versluis makes his living proving to us individualistically minded twenty-first centuryites that we aren’t nearly so individual as we like to think we are. Or as Wim van Sinderen, senior curator of the Museum of Photography in the Hague neatly puts it in the article, Versluis and Uyttenbroek (his stylist) provide “an almost scientific, anthropological record of people’s attempts to distinguish themselves from others by assuming a group identity.”

Human beings are such curious creatures, seemingly trapped in a cruel dichotomy between group vs individual. We (especially teenagers and twentysomethings) are emphatically insistent upon our own individuality. Some friends seem to spend their lives obsessively editing their own personal fashion collections, acquiring endless books and records, and permanently keeping one eye open so that no esoteric theatre, film, or comedy performance is missed, which might mark them out as an “individual,” a “radical” with unique (and thus, the implication says, better) taste in the finer things in life.

It is intriguing then, that Ari Versluis concentrates his photographic efforts on illustrating his point that individuals are in fact conformists in disguise. Sure, you might argue, Versluis selectively edits his subjects and only photographs or includes those who comply with the manifesto of his tribe du jour. Boring beige dresses for Bordeaux housewives, old men with flat caps and high-waisted trousers in Cape Verde, jeans and tiny tees for yuppie New Yorkers and so on. So Versluis notices a trend and exploits it for art. Well okay, it’s clever, but it is truly reflective of society as a whole?

Psychology, biology, and Rousseau maintain that humans are interested in belonging, if only to ensure our own survival, and we subconsciously mimic those around us because it behoves us to do so (not to mention that the fashion industry is pretty heavy handed in influencing what we wear – but that’s another post altogether). Even if you aren’t shopping on the one-size-fits-all high street, say you predominately shop in vintage, charity, or independent shops, the idea of what’s fashionable or intellectual or desirable in music, books, cinema, and fashion is still dictated by those who produce and those who review. What shows up on shop shelves, radio waves, and theatre stages is all down to the designers, authors, musicians, and producers who are responsible for the creation of these “consumables,” which we proceed to invest with considerable cachet and consume wholeheartedly as evidence of our markedly individual personalities. Are these personalities really constructions of our own making? Surely we should be giving at least some credit to the journalists, buyers, promoters, etc. who make sure we know these things are a) available and b) fashionable.

Certainly I’m generalising, but to me most people appear to be relatively passive (if not mindlessly aggressive) consumers; they buy what they are subconsciously directed to buy. Take, for example, the display of “bestselling” or “top ten” books located near the entrance to almost every major bookstore. What’s so interesting about this concept is that it’s a self-perpetuating cycle of consumerism. The local branch of, say Waterstones, is told by its Head Office which books to display on the “Top Ten” shelves. The Head Office makes its decisions based on a number of factors: how heavily the publishing company is promoting the book, television press from people like Richard & Judy or Oprah, or enthusiastic reviews in newspapers or literary magazines. When average Joe the customer enters the store, one of the first things he sees is the display and he ends up buying the book in the number one (to ten) slot. His rationale very sensibly being that if the book is in the top ten, it must be worth reading. Because so many people consistently purchase these top ten books, the books then become best sellers (even if the dirty little secret was that they weren’t always best sellers to begin with). The thought that other people have validated this particular book as being worthy enough to purchase reassures us as to its quality. We choose to participate in group mentality because it comforts us knowing that we’re safely investing our time and money in an item which others have already vetted. Why explore uncharted waters when you don’t have to?

And maybe there’s nothing wrong with that. Knowing what I know about sociology and biology, it would be somewhat delusional for me to swear that I am 100% my own individual, uninfluenced by the stimuli around me and uninterested in being part of a social community. After all, it is only within the context of the group that being defined as an individual makes any sense. Most people, including myself, who desire to be original and individualistic, do so because they want to stand out from this group. Not necessarily separate from the group, but to be distinctive within it in some way.

And it's not that I’m interested in originality for originality’s sake, more that I’m always on the lookout for the new and the previously unknown. Because while I’ll always have a soft spot for the Jhumpa Lahiri I read my first year at University, I can only read the same book, listen to the same music, watch the same films, and wear the same clothes so many times. And in some strange, slightly naïve way, I find the quest for individuality to be developmental - character building you might say.

We evolve, we change, and we grow. Our tastes fluctuate. I occasionally wonder why we even bother thinking about individuality and personality in the way we do, as if it were a coherent, continuous straight Roman road of a line and not the switch-backing Lombard Street it really is.

What Versluis seems to ignore in his photographs is that individuality is like perfume: two people can wear the exact same fragrance and yet smell completely different..

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Palate Cleanser

Because the post I actually want to put up is still in progress, I thought I'd assuage the self-inflicted guilt and make a mini photographic posting of some shots from last Sunday's mammoth walk round London town.

Friday, 8 February 2008

A Postnominal Honorific

I bought the March edition of Esquire on my way home this afternoon. Seeing as I am not of the gender of the intended target audience, my excitement for men's magazines strikes friends of mine as slightly curious. But I tend to find that men's magazines are free of the catty, insulting, patronising 'wink-wink' knowingness which abounds in their female counterparts. Certainly I am not generalising about all men's magazines, of course. I wouldn't say the same about Nutz or Ladz or any other such nonsense, but Esquire (perhaps GQ as well?) has always held a special place in my hierarchy of magazine appreciation.

Perhaps it is because the style editors of men's magazines refuse to print such inane things as the 'importance of investing' in a £1,000 briefcase. When such an item is featured in their pages, it is recognised for what it is. A frivolity. A nice, gleaming, expensive frivolity, but a frivolity nonetheless. None of this, 'it will save your life and look after you in your old age' nonsense that permeates women's magazines, encouraging us to be more neurotic about fashion than we need to be or perhaps already are.

Another thing I particularly appreciate in men's magazines is that information is not dumbed down to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Curiously, this also seems to be something I'm lately noticing about men in general. My favourite professor at University had the curious habit of assuming everyone knew exactly what he was talking about when making references to obscure, French, sixteenth century literature. And though I of course had not the slightest idea what he was on about, I still found it gratifying and flattering that he spoke to me (and to everyone) as if I did. I am not certain why I haven't been more aware of this before, but men tend to treat me this way. They expect I know what they are talking about. If I do know, I appreciate the assumption. But even if I don't know, I still appreciate that the assumption is made. It is considerably more pleasant to ask for clarification of the unknown than to be treated like an infantile imbicile.

Women's magazines do not do this. And I am beginning to wonder if this isn't because women tend to assume you won't be familiar with what they are making reference to anyway. For example, in March's Esquire, page 46 introduces each of the month's contributors with a bit of relevant information. The first contributor is Ross Raisin whose debut novel, God's Own Country, is given an astounding six pages of space in the magazine for the printing of the first chapter of his novel. The whole first chapter (so what if it's only six pages, that's still six pages of lucrative advertising space) is printed in the middle of magazine. This in itself is absolutely astonishing. But more intriguing is that Raisin is introduced by a glowing recommendation from J.M. Coetzee ('this is what J.M. Coetzee has to say about Raisin's debut novel...'). Now if this were, say, Glamour or even Harper's Bazar, the recommendation would have said something like, 'this is what J.M. Coetzee, novelist and winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, had to say about Raisin's debut novel...' The assumption being that women who read women's magazines have no idea who J.M. Coetzee is and need a prompt to fill the gap in knowledge, whereas men are so attuned to modern culture (and if we take Esquire's word for it, business, politics, fashion, and sport as well) that they need no such helping hand.

The conceit of assumed knowledge doesn't end with the Contributors page though. It carries throughout the whole magazine. There is a brilliant section in Esquire (delineated from the rest of the magazine by its being printed on thicker, coloured paper) entitled 'Critics' which when compared to the films, books, etc. reviewed in women's magazines makes men appear to be the sex far more interested in and informed about modern literature, art house cinema, pop music, and art exhibitions around the world. Reviewed in March's Esquire: the film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a future review/plug for the 80th Academy Awards, Nick Cave's Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, a Jasper Johns exhibition at The Met, and JG Ballard's Miracles of Life. And I should point out that these reviews are, at the minimum a full page, not the three sentence monstrosities which masquerade as reviews in women's magazines. In addition, Esquire has a regular section, 'The Brief,' which does reviews 'women's magazine style' for when you've had your fill of the proper reviews, but still want to know a bit more about what's going on in the month.

In the current issue of Elle on the other hand we have reviews of: Duffy (4 sentences), Joe Lean & The Jing Jang Jong (4 sentences, none have anything to do with music), Goldfrapp (5 sentences, one is four words long), Lenny Kravitz, Sebastian Teller, Jack Johnson, The Feeling (1 or 2 sentences each). Frankly I am bored already and I have yet to start on the books (Confessions of a Fallen Angel, Beginner's Greek, Silver Bay, The Point of Rescue, I Play the Drums in a Band Called Okay, The Clothes on Their Backs, His Illegal Self, Submarine) or films (Be Kind Rewind, Fool's Gold, Margot at the Wedding, There Will be Blood), but I can tell you it's much the same as the monstrosities detailed for the music 'reviews' above. The reviews are no more than two sentences long and for the book 'reviews' at least, the page appears more concerned with the aesthetic presentation of a pretty stack of books rather than telling us anything about them.

Elle is 410 pages. Esquire, 224. While I enjoy the fashion features of Elle, I get more enjoyment out of Esquire. There is something vapid and shallow about women's magazines. They take little to no effort and the only parts of the body which are engaged in their reading are the eyes ('look at all the pretty colours') and the fingers (mindless page turning). Men's magazines are interesting, compelling, informative, and pretty to look at, especially if you are as partial to tailoring as I am. Not that every page of Esquire is worth lauding; the feature detailing 'the rise and fall of an A&R man' holds little interest. But when all is said and done, my money is on men's magazines. Or at least it will be until the editors of women's magazines get it together and realise that when women say we want it all, we really mean we want it all. Fashion and intelligent features, reviews, and comments.

That, and we don't need to be told who J.M. Coetzee is.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Waking up with Prynne

‘A dream in sepia and eau-de-nil ascends
from the ground as a great wish for calm. And
the wish is green in season, hazy like meadow-sweet,
downy & soft waving among the reeds, the
cabinet of Mr Heath. Precious vacancy pales in
this studious form, the stupid slow down & become
wise with inertia, and instantly the prospect of
money is solemnised to the great landscape.
It actually glows like a stream of evening sun,
value become coinage fixed in the grass crown.
The moral drive isn't
quick enough, the greasy rope-trick
has made payment an edge of rhetoric;
the conviction of merely being
right, that has
marched into the patter of balance.'

from ‘A New Tax on the Counter-Earth’ by J.H. Prynne

Woke this morning very abruptly after rolling onto the sharp corners of the five hundred and something page volume of J.H. Prynne’s Poems. Until about a week ago, I had been neglecting Prynne for some time. It isn't so much that I had forgotten about him, but rather that I had to push his massive tome to the back of the bookshelf to make room for new additions. However, a recent glance through a friend's photo album unearthed a snapshot of said friend and Mr. Prynne, which only made me long to thumb through the pages of his words again. So back I went, tail between my legs, seeking forgiveness.

And what forgiveness I did find! Prynne's gift for language is paranormal. His poems are like the Centre Pompidou: the skeleton, the construction supporting the structure in its entirety, is as visible as the building itself. Yet this detracts in no way from the overall essence of the building, from the feeling of it. Each is as integral to the other and neither could exist independently, however frequently we take this element for granted. But with a building like the Pompidou, these assumptions are turned upside down (or inside out) and what we typically take for granted is displayed in all its magnificence. The skeleton then becomes as much a part of the spectacle as the normally fêted exterior.

Prynne's poems scream architecture. The scent of construction and meticulous craftsmanship is pervasive, almost overwhelming. And yet there's a delicacy, an effortless crisp lightness to his writing that makes it such a joy to read. Being unable to resist such an obvious enticement, this morning I turned to page 172 and, not having anyone to read to me, read the poem (the above quote is culled from the poem I read) out loud to no one but myself. Without wanting to belittle his subject matter, I find Prynne to be one of the few poets of my knowledge who has the ability to move through cadence, rhythm, tone, and resonance alone. He moves with language. And reading this morning, I let the sound and the feel of the words carry me, even ignoring the intended meaning of the poem, simply enjoying the feel of the words, the syllables, the consonants and vowels, sticky like toffee in my mouth.

A good way to wake up.