The Top 5 things I didn’t get to in 2013
New Year’s is a time for reflection and aspiration, but these are fueled by fruitful regret! Over the next week or so, we’ll be looking back longingly at art, comics, books and music I should have paid more public attention to in the 12 months just past — and pledging to make all our cultural appreciation immediate and immortal!
The Power of Glamour by Virginia Postrel
Time had a good run for four billion years or so, but it’s been replaced in our priorities with space — our understanding of dimension, in the theoretical-physics sense of parallel realities and not just geographic expansion, has overtaken our nostalgia for an idealized past or optimism for a perfected future; we could have the better life, the cleaner environment, the fairer society now, if we could make the right choices we know every moment’s particle pivots on and just bring the perfect world into focus with the space we occupy, like two projected film frames being synced up.
Virginal Postrel maps this perception of possibility in her fascinating study, out last December, The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion (Simon & Schuster).
Her subject is the allure of what we don’t have and feel we are in line for, be it social utopia or personal wealth or fulfillment in romance and creative expression. She shows how popular figures, widespread symbols, sought-after objects incarnate or refer to these desires, and how, by the nature of their personal significance, these icons are subjective, and subject to shifts in context of era and culture — how, for instance, the impoverished Depression era could glamorize sleek luxury (without taking account of industrialization’s costs in pollution and drudgery) while the comparatively materially satisfied current generation of Americans elevate the rural and organic (editing out the agrarian life’s difficulties and disease).
This is not a book about style (Postrel has done one of those too); the author is examining not intrinsic worth or beauty, but an appeal that is ascribed to things. The icons of glamour — wind turbines, sporstcars, Marilyn Monroe — are not the Platonic “forms”; not the ideal, but the echo, the symbol that plays the superlative on television (or movies, or political conventions or sports arenas or shop-cases) and projects it on our dreams…or is the screen for them.
Postrel excavates with diligence and insight many things you recognize but realize you don’t know — the Rosetta Stones and commercial scripture of our current era, e.g., who actually held the first fashion show, and when the open theater of billboards and store windows first collected around a community whose aspirations they both spurred and articulated. In images we can see as icons of the old-fashioned, like the proper and put-together Gibson Girl (a late-1880s magazine- and print-illustration archetype), Postrel illuminates the roots of a later empowerment that this affluent and leisurely yet often solitary and always self-possessed figure, a significant departure for its time, set in motion and marked the progress toward.
The book takes care to be true to the sensory enjoyment or spiritual attachment under discussion, with phrasing and interpretations as artful as its subject matter, and an observant interplay between the text and images which specifically illustrate or thematically resonate with it, from art-deco murals to the Shanghai skyline to one particular valedictory photo that echoes back to the book’s first page in a way that shows Postrel’s encompassing vantage point and persistent attention.
She makes novel connections and certifies unpopular but incisive outlooks — as with the reasoning that early automation, with its fear of (then mostly male) workers being replaced, helped bring on the glamour and fantasy of cars (a machine you control) and self-reliant hyper-masculine movie gangsters and superheroes; and the realization that rappers’ supposedly crass bling obsession is not garish consumption but conspicuous positive visualization, from a class to whom economic and household-technology advances that the majority considers basic are not at all evenly distributed.
Too many sociologists deny the inexactness of their science, but Postrel understands that the observer must admit, embrace, their participation to report with any authenticity on how cultural influences work on the human mind; to this end her fluency in pop culture, her accounting for a range of its sources from 1600s Japan to modern hip-hop, and her consideration of the most seemingly ephemeral or widely dismissed expressions of it — comics, Star Trek fandom — are all the more persuasive.
As a scholar who partakes of as well as reflects upon the phenomenon, Postrel’s reasoning respects the public’s ability to discern the effect of glamour on them, as a connection we “know to be false but feel to be true,” as with superheroes, a symbol cited as clearly aspirational because the popular audience knows it is purely unattainable. Postrel builds a good case for why those aspirations (of the powerful being, the beautiful princess, the esteemed writer or accomplished adventurer) can be beneficial — not just in mentally escaping misery but successfully striving to leave it behind, or in envisioning the not-yet-possible to create needed inventions, etc. — as well as the dazzle of glamour’s more common critical identification as a spur to admire tyranny and terrorism or see life as one long disappointment.
The flaws are barely notable in the book’s captivating whole, though scrutiny of the type Postrel herself practices directs our attention beyond the surface. A faint market bias seems to poke through in passages like the one where Postrel catalogues the (very real) drawbacks of wind power in detail while only alluding to the illusions of nuclear by pondering if wind will go the way of “electricity too cheap to meter,” which only readers of a certain age or wonkiness will recognize as the Peaceful Atom’s old slogan. Editorial adjectives are reserved for counterparts Postrel has an apparent personal hostility toward — the “crabbed” and “desiccated” John Berger is a lot more fun to read that those who haven’t would surmise from the way he’s portrayed here, though Postrel has good points about the limitations of his inquiry.
And at some points she seems to overrule her own arguments to back away from even mildly dissident conclusions — in a spotlight on the visual archetype of The Striding Woman, she marshals many quotes from across history and from men, women, political individuals and commercial institutions alike to confirm the encouragement or exploitation of a feminist impulse in this image, then at the end says it conveys “a more universal allure.” But as rightfully universal as this vision is as a symbol of freedom and assurance, it always draws its appeal from an implication of what women couldn’t do before — and that can be a symbol to men who want to expand their possibilities too (like fashion photographer Richard Avedon, who is quoted as being inspired by the photos of Martin Munkacsi, an auteur of the confident, striding professional/fashionable woman image in the 1930s), but it is always keying to a specifically gendered sense of restraint and liberation (even the unconventional male identity reflected in Avedon’s interests and form of expression); sometimes a symbol isn’t “more” than it seems because what it seems is everything.
Nonetheless, Postrel’s omnidirectional frame of reference rejects checklists. Any concern a reader of a given ideology can raise finds the book revolving around to a full and considered context (as when, apropos of the above, the chapter on contemporary glamour takes account of the action-heroine as icon of what viewers feel persistently missing in their life and society). Postrel processes events and adjusts the shape and breadth and texture of her observation to the profusion and evolution of its subjects in ways that diverge from the distance and retrospect of much social criticism and study; avoiding either political agendas or prior intellectual conclusions, her ability to assume the perspective and engage the vocabulary of many contexts and tastes, to navigate among multiple cultures (both historically established and spontaneously synthesized), makes Postrel one of the most indispensible intellects and credible observers in our perpetually morphing and exponentially diversifying social fabric.
Postrel’s eye takes in and evaluates with attentiveness and originality a panorama of human condition, period and place, and all its fine details and ephemeral shades of feeling and impression. The Power of Glamour is the almanac of the space we occupy as ever-differing people in the shifting world we collect around ourselves, a history-in-progress of the destiny we make up as we go along.