The Final Article in our series: “The End of Heterosexuality?”
by Michael Angelo Tata
If the edifying Versace Bildungsroman has taught us anything, it is that fashion evokes and invites death, that to be chic is to court death as the lusty courtesan flashes the inflamed King, that death is the ultimate reward for being fashionable, for being fashioned, for being able — and willing — to be made and remade time and time gain in the kinds of self-fashioning that epitomize the restless self of capital, eternal shopper looking to alienate his subjectivity in just the right foreign material, perhaps even arriving at the point when, as if emulating a pop princess whose psyche has circled back upon itself one too any times, he is finally able to claim he has renounced identity altogether in the pursuit of pure egolessness, the greatest illusion of territoriality.
True, the death of Gianni Versace is a morality tale on almost every level, but the lesson to be learned from his demise is not a homophobic story about vulgarity and sexual favors in which demented gay men reap what they sow, as Maureen Orth presents in her facile exposé Vulgar Favors, but instead a larger and more genetic lesson about the implicit connection between fashion and death, the one tied inextricably to the other like a sparrow stapled to a shadow or a cinderblock roped to a cankle, the effect being that the more we embrace fashion, the louder we call out to death, who awaits the sound of our voices and finds us all the quicker simply by following the light reflecting from the embellishments of our surfaces (yes, this is also how the sun finds the moon). For it is only via the stuttering, chatterbox language of ephemerality that we may communicate with death — and by embracing the transitory that we turn our bodies into so many transistor radios searching for just the right frequency to deliver a message that can never be recalled once its syllables achieve telepoetic status, radiating out into space along with every other radiowaved record of human civilization broadcast to the furthest reaches of the cosmos.
Maurice Blanchot has much to say about the chatterbox in the essays grouped joyously under the title Friendship: for him, the one who chatters paradoxically redeems the “idle talk” (Gerede) lamented by Heidegger in his Being and Time as discardable stage along the path to authentic Da-sein, at its best a productive social obstacle that must be superseded — yet another trap put forward by the world to ensnare a being-there which is really a being-here-and-now (what I refer to as Spacetime Da_sein), preventing it from coming to a knowledge of itself through the simple, seductive ruse of distraction.
Like Blanchot, I’ve always found a charm in idle talk, in particular as I discuss in my work on Existentialism at the Mall, myself unsure that discourses priding themselves on clarity, like logic or the philosophy of mathematics, ever go beyond the strange circularity of idle talk, this infinitely recursive yet clueless and a-discursive stammering that is first and foremost a playing for time, as in the title of Perf Art troublemakers Kiki and Herb’s smash 2000 show. In Blanchot’s words:
This is, as it were, the point of departure, an empty need to speak, made of this void and in order to fill it at all costs, and the void is himself having become this need and this desire that still treads only emptiness. A pure force of sorts, of melting snow, of drunken rupture, and often obtained under the cover of drunkenness, where the being who speaks find nothing to say but the flimsy affirmation of himself: A Me, Me, Me, mot vain, not glorious, but broken, unhappy, barely breathing, although appealing in the force of its weakness (“Battle with the Angel,” 131).
For Blanchot, the point is to find beauty in this bastardized, desperately mortal and randy speech that propels itself forward motivated purely by a linguistic horror vacui, not to oppose it to more authentic, genuine, immortal modes of verbal communication as good infinity confronts bad, but to embrace it in its cluttered majesty and to revel in the ambiguities it authors. And it is the vestimentary chatter between death and fashion that marks both the Chelsea Boy and Metrosexual as creatures flirting with disaster.
For the later Lacan of Encore, the capitalist subject also babbles, speaking lalangue, a sonorous nonsense at the discursive limits of speech, and yet so very much at the core of the linguistic project without which there would be no socially meaningful symbolism, no Borromean knot, no need to ever abandon oneself to the tortures of a mirror. And yet unlike the Chelsea Boy, who cannot step outside the circle of language, the Metrosexual does not babble: in fact, he barely speaks at all, except to grunt, chic Caveman ever on the verge of inventing a system of referents, yet lost hopelessly in the red and orange play of flames lapping the wall of a troglodyte’s paradise. Yet while his lips swallow their syllables, except to utter DUDE, his fashion cannot help but prattle on, and death is nothing if not skilled in interpreting the silent speech of the inorganic as it reaches out toward a kindred spirit, there two allies, privately aligned in a constellation lighting up the night sky of identification with all the irony of a reality TV producer who knows in advance his masterpiece will never air, never bothering to inform its cast that their stunts, challenges and juries will be left on a memory stick inhabiting a shelf next to the Mob Wives digital archive to decompose slowly and silently while a holographic Big Ang who might also be a grounded weather balloon smokes a Nat Sherman menthol, nonplussed by the flammability of helium.
Behind the Pleasure Principle
That fashion and death have struck an accord Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi intuitively grasped when he wrote his famous “Dialogue between Fashion and Death” (1827), and that this accord is only deepened by an advanced culture of getting and spending far exceeding the predictions of Romanticism Walter Benjamin comprehended when he took Leopardi’s observations at their word and incorporated the poet’s skewed dynamic into his famously fragmented Arcades Project (Das Passagen-Werk), laying out a vista of social optics in which fashion becomes phantasmagoria, the unseemly pornography of the visual delighting the eye in the disarrangement of its many elements, uncountable as a Cantor set and just as promiscuous in its blossoming.
In the words of Eugenia Paulicelli from her masterful Fashion under Fascism, Leopardi’s version of la moda “…expresses a new sense of time in capitalist society that is epitomized by the close relationship between fashion and death and by the race in which both compete…This is how Leopardi draws attention to his sense of the non-linear time and narrative of both fashion and history that questions the celebration of progress” (Conclusion, “Beyond the Black Shirt,” 151). In uncovering the mutual complicities of fashion and death — a system in which death reaches out to fashion at the same time that fashion summons death, for clearly the relationship is symbiotic — Paulicelli underscores the existence of a politics of fashion that applies to Mussolini and Ferragamo as much as to the Metro, as he co-opts a pre-existing look after first draining it of sexual content much as an enterprising beignet mogul might squeeze the raspberry jam out of a jelly doughnut only to fill it with dulce de leche and call it Cuban Fusion: and yet what in the fashion world does not bespeak the anxiety of influence or betray the open secret of cultural theft? In the sumptuary War of All Against All, it’s all smash and grab at the core. We play fast and loose with semiotics in this, a world where the real and the virtual have ceased being terms capable of demarcating experiential zones and instead only obliquely refer to a time when the global had not yet gone digital and it was possible to believe in a reserve of meaning outside reproducibility, bone-hard in the density of a truth we quietly feared it could never deliver — for after all, truth requires expression, and we only express what can be repeated.
As with Freud’s famous Pleasure Principle, the mystery is that fundamental cytological division between germ cell and somatic body: how one aspires to a germinal future, while the other contents itself with reproducible articulations condemned to inert identicality, outside of the random mutation. The allure of the inorganic speaks to the metrosexual’s problematic existence: that, in choosing fashion, he goes the route of mitosis rather than meiosis, cloning himself over and over again in a game of mirrors that always begs the question of the inherent pleasure of repetition, even when what we repeat is a source of pain in this protracted round of jouissance without release. With the notion of death’s sartorial dialogue in mind, it seems that for the metrosexual, there is the arrival of death to anticipate, the sweetest compensation for dressing and acting à la mode, as time itself comes to suffocate him with its tentacles, the standard punishment meted out to those who are of the moment and hence obsolescent by definition. For to be of the moment is to be owned by the momentary: not so much a slave to fashion as idol of the instantaneous, that one temporal category which even for the Sartre of L’Être et le Néant does not exist with any existential integrity per se, since it eludes every act of measurement that might establish its limits and insert it into the system of triple ecstasies dividing the temporal.
This notion is a direct consequence of the logic put to use by Walter Benjamin in the Convolutes of his Arcades Project, the ultimate repository for modern reflections on appearance and obviation, a precious safe where the tacit alliance between the fashionable and the corruptible is stashed, along with copies of their wedding vows and a slice of rotting cake. Of course, for Benjamin, corruptibility is a female problem, as it is her silhouette which summons death and its various corruptions, her habitation of the moment which finds itself one precarious step away from total subsumption — Edmund Burke’s beautiful object of delectation, regularly curvaceous and above all smooth, identical with a passing of time that interests men (for Flügel, the Ugly; for Burke, the Sublime) differently, as neither the Ugly nor the Sublime can aspire to Beauty’s synonymity with the immediate.
The condition of possibility of the silhouette’s beauty is the promise of her disappearance, as fashion and death enter into a heavily choreographed skirmish according to whose rules the chic woman dances from one moment to another as she reinvents herself continually in the face of a voracious death which can only consume her when she stops moving. Convolutes read: “And boredom is the grating before which the courtesan teases death,” and “Here fashion has opened the business of dialectical exchange between woman and ware — between carnal pleasure and the corpse. The clerk, death, tall and loutish, measures the century by the yard, serves as mannequin himself to save costs, and manages single-handedly the liquidation that in France is called revolution” (B, 62-63). As “bitter colloquy with decay,” fashion articulates itself only through the schizoid call to death and simultaneous sprint from it (B, 63), a race not without its cheekiness as both parties know in advance what the outcome will be, and in every sense embrace the final demolition of the chic as death’s most precious gift — the kind of present one fears to open, as if it might release a jack-in-the-box wielding a razor, true pharmakon that is at the same time cure and contagion, sugar and strychnine.
And so I ask, as this meditation on the metrosexual draws to a close, at least for now, my chatter running out as my own play for time finds itself finally stifled by the limits of decorum: what will become of the marriage between the masculine and the beautiful through which the metrosexual has been able to bound into existence before our very eyes, leap-frogging over the backs of women and Chelsea Boys in his grand theft of beauty? How will he be punished for establishing this disquieting disequilibrium? And how will this alliance survive the ordeal of time, which can only ravage, and ravish, always there with the promise of a More that is the momentary’s undoing as minute follows minute on the grand conveyor belt of time’s cold march forward? In The Politics of Friendship, Derrida lodges death at the center of every friendship and friendship-event, each relationship coiling around a potential epitaph through which mourning will one day become a reality: “Our hypothesis here is that no great discourse on friendship will ever have eluded the major rhetoric of epitáphios, and hence of some form of transfixed celebration of spectrality; at once fervent and already caught in the deathly or petrified cold of an inscription, of the becoming-epitaph of the oration” (“The Phantom Friend Returning,” 94). This is the Law of Friendship pure and simple: and it is quite possibly the only philosophical truth that matters, especially if we agree with Socrates’ definition of philosophy as love; Derrida’s Work of Mourning is nothing but homage to this surreal law of survivorship, the agnonies of a conflicted survivor cursed with the dubious gift of more time, a time that exceeds the time of friendship, a time that is too much to bear, and so it must be defused through palliative acts of écriture, desperate in their tenderness, even apotropaic, another tributary tribute must take before being handed over to the gods and ghosts who can dissipate the guilt of the uncommitted sin. For, truly, in each couple, one will expire before the other, even during a tragic event, like an explosion or plane crash — leading to my question of how the metrosexual will write the epitaph of his beauty, or how beauty will write the metrosexual’s epitaph, whichever comes first as the power couple submits to the Law of Friendship. And even: how the metrosexual, who must one day bow to gravity, will survive beauty, as well as how beauty will survive the metrosexual, who will take on other projects, leaving him behind to play with the fragments of his world-historicity in Hegel’s playscape.
As we know from Leopardi’s fable, which I would identify as seminal to the discourse of dressed bodies, fashion and death vie for domination of time; the spawn of weakness, they each peck away at temporality in kind, the one reinforcing the other’s handiwork:
Fashion. Yes. And don’t you remember that we are both the children of Frailty?
Death. How should I remember? I am the deadly enemy of memory.
Fashion. But I recollect it very well, and I know that both of us are busy continually destroying and changing the things of this world, though you arrive at this effect by one road and I by another (48).
In this struggle, human beings use fashion to outrun death, unaware that its very obsolescence is a guarantee that they, too, will one day find themselves gaily riding a trebuchet toward oblivion. For this twisted couple, the greatest mystery is the generosity of time: in other words, that there is always more of it unfolding around them, implicitly demanding that they do something with it. And so the one constantly decorates it while the other effaces it, the two engaged in this game of pluses and minuses that spans the centuries, testament to the adamantine strength of that open set of moments we label time: time, which is never a child of Frailty, and which in its essence is pure expendability, an accumulation without limit, an infinite collection of temporal shards jagged as polygons thrown out a skyscraper window during a diva’s Saturday Night tantrum and left to shatter on the sidewalk. If time were to be assigned an affect, it would be indifference, the affect of no affect: and it is this coldness that oppresses the filial—perhaps incestuous —pair Fashion/Death, causing each to act on time’s products with the compulsiveness of an obsessive whose rituals allay anxiety by causing time to be spent.
In addition, fashion’s interrelated tasks of revealing the body at the same time that it conceals it and of transforming the body into an instrument of culture place beauty and death within striking distance of one another, since the body’s fleshy material is alive, and hence temporal: vitally and viciously plastic. In Leopardi’s dialogue, Fashion articulates its multiform tortures:
Fashion. …I brand the flesh of man with hot red stamps which I make them impress on themselves for ornament. I fashion babies’ heads with bandages, and other contrivances, making it a rule that all the men in a country must have their heads of one shape, as I have done in America and in Asia. I lame folk with small boots. I choke the breath and make the eyes start out with tight lacing and a hundred other things of the same sort (49).
Fashion is not the grand finale of death, but rather a series of obligatory sufferings that allude to the looming end: through fashion, we learn the value of pain, as we contort ourselves according to its capricious dictates. Leopardi’s words also speak to Flügel, whose comments on the insalubrious effects of fashion constitute a further admission of the collusion between beauty rituals and death, as it is never with an eye to wellbeing that fashion issues its edicts (this even Oscar Wilde as Dress Reformer realized). Specifically, in opposition to the argument that fashion serves the purpose of implementing hygiene and protection, as the anthropological argument goes, and as any visit to Tierra del Fuego disproves, Flügel comments with no shortage of irony: “Up to a few years ago, when women appeared in décolleté dresses or ‘pneumonia blouses’, men might envy them their coolness, but could take comfort in the fact that they themselves were not courting disease and death as were their sisters” (“Individual and Sexual Differentiation,” 206).
The pneumonia blouse is no longer the express property of women, or of gay men: it is now the metrosexuals who flaunt their cleavage, exposing their décolletage to the world which tracks its manifestations and showings, and it is thus they who on a biological level literalize what transpires on a metaphorical level: that is, they court death, and not merely through a physical exposure to the elements. The pneumonia blouse is ever with us: for to be chic is to flaunt one’s calling forth of death, to put on display that one has the luxury of dying, as one announces to the world that death simply does not matter: literally, that it laterally transcends the material, so far beyond the place where extended and thinking matter can achieve any significance that its indifference becomes an object of difference, causing it to be hastened, not avoided, heralded with a bear hug and not hidden from in the night’s obscure corridors and alleyways. To be chic is thus to accede to mortality, to accept, embrace and accelerate death, and in doing so breaking the cycle of frailty: the Chelsea Boy and Metro know this each in kind, the one explicit in his dark flirtation with a grim reaper whose pectoral implants have just arrived from Brazil, the other implicitly winking at an abyss he has mistaken for an orchestra pit, blissfully unaware that his clothes will one day get him killed.
To Risk the Fabulous
For Leopardi, as well as Benjamin, fashion is gendered feminine; one crucial strand of the Arcades Project involves meditations on the ephemeralities of the feminine, with its attachment to a fashion always racing time and attempting to outfox it, a doomed project it will lose biologically (the body will one day give out) and chronologically (time will render all fashions outmoded, as it is the nature of every fashion choice to risk being relegated to a box marked demodé). With the metrosexual, a man allied to a beauty theorized by Burke not to belong to him genetically and somehow stolen by the Y chromosome which for certain theorists is only a broken or damaged X, the problems plaguing the fashionable woman become his as well, making it possible to transfer the sense of Benjamin’s observations onto him, just as the Chelsea Boy served as the perfect screen on which to project their calligraphy in beauty’s original transfer. For Benjamin, fashion represents the inorganic, both in the form of death’s obliteration of organicism and in terms of the dead or inert material with which clothing, even the most revealing, is constructed (the sacrifices of the cotton bush are many). Consequently, the problem of the inorganic, to which the Chelsea Boy is very much attuned, haunts the metrosexual, who, through it, comes to confront his own mortality, as well as the potential crash of the wave he and his brothers as members of a subculture or para-culture have so cavalierly ridden, their board shorts soaked with brine. “In fetishism, sex does away with the boundaries separating the inorganic world from the inorganic. Clothing and jewelry are its allies. It is as much at home with what is dead as it is with living flesh. The latter, moreover, shows it the way to establish itself in the former” (B, 69). As fetishist, the Metro constructs an inhuman site of sexual gravitation, revealing a tension between the organic and the inorganic resonating wildly with the one Freud originally posited between germ and somatic cells in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the space between Eros and Todestrieb/Thanatos quickly becoming nil, and actually marking a zone of nebulousness where sex courts life and death simultaneously, and fervently, hoping for the ultimate ménage-à–trois.
Beyond this innate fetishism of fashion, there is in addition the promise of contemporaneousness, of presiding autarchically over the present, of freezing its flux for just long enough to dominate it, of dissipating death through a conquest of display — and this domination is existentially enough. Consequently, “To be contemporaine de tout le monde—that is the keenest and most secret satisfaction that fashion can offer a woman” (B, 66). As such, the fashionable woman becomes everyone’s courtesan, trafficking with the present and its presence through an engagement of the Everyone, an Odette Swann concoursing with space and time themselves.
With the case of the metrosexual, the burden of the contemporary is now his, as is the role of courtesan which accompanies it into realms where the fetish, corpselike, orchestrates an anemic dominion over the living. As with all friendships, the alliance of metrosexuality and beauty will one day disintegrate, for beauty is the most fickle of partners, ever exhausting its supply of mannequins. Its epitaph will be written with protein shakes, gothic t-shirts littered with studded Celtic crosses and Gotti-worthy mounds of hair gelnthe hue of punk rock jellybeans. To be worldly, the metrosexual must accept and risk death, just as his Chelsea Boy predecessors did, and fabulously so. His end promises to be similarly spectacular — a true spectacle to behold, and to be televised, and to be reprised in the crypts of fashion history, where his bold monopoly of the moment squeezes the juice out of life along with the pulverized pulp of sun-drenched oranges and one or two soaked cashmere Juicy Couture tracksuits tossed cavalierly on the sands of a Pacific beach where stereotyped revelry plays out like a surf movie marathon witnessed only by extraterrestrials whose planets are completely dry.
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About the Author
Michael Angelo Tata is the Executive Editor of the Sydney-based electronic journal of literature, art and new media nebu[lab] and a member of the editorial collectives of the journals Kritikos and rhizomes. His Andy Warhol: Sublime Superficiality arrived to critical acclaim from Intertheory Press in 2010. His lyric essays on poetics, psychoanalysis and philosophy appear most recently in the collections The Salt Companion to Charles Bernstein and Neurology and Modernity: A Cultural History of Nervous Systems, 1800-1950 as well as the British journal Parallax (Routledge). His poetry and graffiti are featured in the British journal Rattle and in the American journal Xanadu. He also writes reviews of contemporary Aesthetics titles for Temple University’s and Mount Holyoke College’s Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism.