Monday, November 20, 2006

Let me hear your body talk

Right now I am all about the return of the rolled-sleeve t-shirt. What I like about this look is its collision of signifiers. The way it combines the 50s bad-boy t-shirt, which is about revealing the body by tightening and decreasing the length of the sleeves, with the 80s version, which references exercise wear, in which the sleeves are rolled to make a baggy shirt fit better. Of course, Springsteen's style in the 80s was an ironic pastiche of the all-American white t-shirt and blue jeans - signifiers not only of nostalgic masculine rebellion, but also of the disappearing 'authentic' American working class (the same one Billy Joel sings about in "Allentown") of which Springsteen's music was emblematic.

I love the way that Olivia Newton-John's version is also about work. Except her kind of t-shirt work is exercise. Look at how wet she is. But I especially like "Physical" because it links clothes and affective states to communication: "Let me hear your body talk." Here it's the t-shirt that facilitates the 'body talking', or corporeal orature.

This has been my epistemological preoccupation over the last three years - how ideas are communicated by the way bodies occupy space, make themselves visible, interact and collide, and the embodiedness of affect. I've been finding it very difficult to situate this interest in a particular field of study, because I'm interested in a cluster of related cultural spaces and practices - the party, the street, the shop - that fall somewhere between 'fashion', 'popular music', 'branding', 'the everyday' and 'subcultural studies'. It was very frustrating last week when I went to the Melbourne University bookshop to look for relevant literature, and found the work I was looking for variously categorised under sociology, marketing and philosophy. They have no cultural studies section. This astounded me.

But back to body talking - lately I have been trying to ask people straight-out why they chose their clothes, and what inspires them. And I'm fascinated by things like Vogue Street Chic or New York's Look Book that deliberately set out to make people explain why they wear what they do. But it isn't always a useful exercise, because I'm finding people are much less cognitive and more intuitive with their style. Or rather, they tend to favour the cognitive aspects of their dress - the stuff that's easy to explain - over the more intangible intuitive - or, should we say, affective - stuff.

Last Friday, I admired Chris's outfit - he was wearing pointy-toed shoes, black stovepipe jeans, a fitted black short-sleeved shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and a black and white striped tie tucked into the shirt several buttons down. It's a very specific look that you could even call subcultural because it's shared by a certain clique in Melbourne who deliberately dress that way. I've been told that the pointiness of the shoes is very important - the pointier the better. But when I asked Chris why he tucked his tie into his shirt - a perennial question for me, it seems - he replied that it was to stop the tie falling into his food and drinks.

I was extremely dissatisfied with this response.

In "Symbols of Trouble", Stanley Cohen problematises sociological and cultural studies research that argues for the semiotic and political richness of style:
"It seems to me ... that somewhere along the line, symbolic language implies a knowing subject, a subject at least dimly aware of what the symbols are supposed to mean. ... My feeling is that the symbolic baggage the kids are being asked to carry is just too heavy, that the interrogations are just a little forced. This is especially so when appearances are, to say the least, ambiguous or (alternatively) when they are simple, but taken to point to just their opposite."
I love the way Cohen teases the Birmingham School for their reliance on bricolage as a deus ex machina - ie, when things appear contradictory, it's because their power comes from those very contradictions. And he neatly delineates my own analytical problems:
"the problem of intent; of polysemy (a single symbol standing for many things); how people's interpretations of what they are doing might contradict how they actually behave; under what conditions the observer must go beyond indigenous interpretaitons because of what he [sic] knows of the context."
I'm keen to investigate affect as a way of addressing these problems. I've got some books on my shelf right now that I'm hoping will help me out. I'm particularly excited by Empire of the Senses: The Sensual Culture Reader (ed. David Howes). And I'm also revisiting the genre of criticism of all the old Birmingham-era subcultural theory to see if there is any wiggle room (a pun I embarrassingly included in my booty dancing paper) for the idea that bodies don't have to explain themselves in words.


glen said...

I agree! I love how my enthusiasts always ask "What'll she do?" because it allows me to run away from the cult studs question of "what does it mean?"

your friend tucking his tie in can be read in terms of affect, ie so as not to experience the affects of embarrassment when he dips his tie in food or whatever. It is 'easier' (reduces the probability of something untowards happening) to tuck the tie in rather than have it flapping about. I also tuck my tie in when working. No rolled up sleaves or pointy shoes though. I am trying to bring the tie back into fashion. Apparently my ties look like some sort of 1950s jazz style. I need to get some 1980s skinnies.

Also another reason foir the tie-tucking is perhaps to signify a certain kind of street toughness, where the tie is tucked in so as to not get in the way while fighting. That is one reason I was told for the sharpies or whoever for having tightly cropped mullets in the early 1980s. this may be reading too much into it though.

Anonymous said...

Was Bruce being ironic? I thought he was incapable of irony. More fool me, perhaps.

Mel said...

Maybe I'm just wanting Bruce to be ironic. Lately I have realised that irony is the last refuge of the disappointed. I realised this when trying to come to terms with Billy Idol's new Christmas album.

Glen, I love the image of nattily dressed street toughs punching on. Evidently so did researchers, hence the wealth of material on mods and teds. "Reading too much into it" is the perennial problem, isn't it.

I'm hoping to get into some more phenomenological analyses to avoid the focus on texts that tends to drag cultural studies down.

Also, GET THIS! My word verification is "hipsr" !!!!!!!!!!!!!!