Monday, August 22, 2011

From the Arab Spring Fashion Collection


By the time I post this, Moammar Gadhafi may be among the ranks of the unemployed, if not the unliving.  Despite the dramatic events in Libya, this picture of rebels advancing on Tripoli struck me as rather familiar: It looks like a shot from a Banana Republic ad campaign.  

Our Striped Pique Polo Shirts keep the rebel on the go feeling cool and comfortable -- and the horizontal stripes are slimming, just in case dodging rockets has kept you from the gym.

Our Relaxed Fit Cargo Pants have roomy pockets that can carry extra ammunition for a firefight, or your digital camera to capture the good times on your own Road Trip to Tripoli!

A Swiss Military Classic Watch can take whatever punishment Gadhafi's goons can dish out.  What time is it?  It's time for regime change!  Spring Break Libya-style! 

Banana Republic 2011 Spring Collection
My imagination here is not far off the mark from some fashion ads I have seen.  They seem to follow advice similar to that offered by a blog about fashion photography:  "Location, location, location! Getting the right location is important if you want to convey a narrative within your shot.  For example if the clothing and beauty styling are edgy, hard or provocative you may want to consider an urban setting , alternatively for spring/summer and natural fashions find a rural environment like; a field, meadow, beach, woodland or river bank."

Fashion photographers, such as those for Banana Republic, often place their subjects in settings that contrast interestingly with the clothing being worn by their beautiful models.  Apparently the incongruity of the backdrop with the clothing draws the reader's eye and can excite the imagination.  The settings also can make the clothing seem more interesting, suggesting an intriguing though often cryptic narrative -- look at the amazing lives of people who wear clothes like this!  

Banana Republic 2010 Holiday Collection
My rugged four-by-four will take me wherever my Milan  platform peep-toes won't!

Hey, babe, look at this firewood I chopped myself in these Clarks Desert Boots!  Sorry about stepping on your windshield wiper!   

(What does Banana Republic have about people standing on their vehicles?)

On the one hand, these ridiculous fashion images -- unrealistically beautiful people in "real" situations -- prepare us for images such as the one from Libya, images of real people in extraordinary situations.  And yet an image like this from Libya also show us how ridiculous the ad campaigns are.  How adventurous would these anorexic hipsters be when the gunships move in?


Thursday, August 18, 2011

... and walk humbly with your dog.

Meet Gracie.  She is my newest teacher.

She is an older dog that lives at my mother's house in Fort Worth, Texas.  This year she had a stroke.  You cannot tell from this picture but now she is rather lopsided.  Her head tilts markedly to her left.  Her left legs are weaker than her right legs, and so she takes a somewhat circular route where ever she goes. 

Gracie has learned to get around pretty well, considering the obstacles she now faces.  For instance, she leans her weak side against the kitchen cabinets and furniture.  She seems to use some of these objects to help guide her to where she wants to go.

During my recent visit to my mother's house, Gracie was on my mind a lot.  As I watched her move about, as I admired her perseverance and her adaptability, I thought of her situation as an apt analogy for the experience of being human.

Gracie must concentrate to take simple steps.  She must be patient not only with her slow pace but also with her unsure ability to head in the right direction.  If only humans would learn to be so mindful of each step -- literally and figuratively -- that we take.

Although most humans are not as visibly impaired as that old dog, they are not as agile and capable as they assume themselves to be.  Too often we veer off our intended paths and wind up, like Gracie, somewhere we did not desire.  Too often we move too quickly.  Too often we are confident in abilities we do not possess -- or that we should possess more carefully and with greater appreciation.

The word we would use for Gracie, and for humans in a similar predicament, is "disabled."  It is true that her stroke has impaired her physical and mental abilities, but as I watched her move around the house and in the yard I kept thinking that being a human can be seen as a kind of disability.  Even if we have not suffered a stroke, we all move through the world with imperfect bodies and minds.

Walt Whitman
My time with Gracie raised issues that I contend with each semester that I teach the sophomore-level American literature survey at my university.

On the one hand, we read "Song of Myself" by Walt Whitman.  In it, Uncle Walt tries to inspire his readers by the miracle of their bodies and their souls.  He tells his reader, "You must habit yourself to the dazzle of the light and every moment of your life."  In other words, you must become accustomed to the miraculous nature of life and of yourself.  In the introduction to the book that contains this great poem, Leaves of Grass, he writes that if the reader follows his instructions, "Your very flesh shall be a great poem."  He wants you to believe that you possess great abilities.

Stephen Crane
But on the other hand, in class we also read Stephen Crane's short story "The Open Boat."  In this famous story, a group of men are in a lifeboat after a ship wreck.  They need to get to shore, but they must approach it at the right place and in the right conditions or risk being drowned.  They do not know where along the coast they are located, for instance, nor what currents lie between themselves and the shore.  Their ability to act effectively is seriously impaired by their inability to accurately perceive and understand their surroundings.  Crane does not seem to share Whitman's optimism.

Yet, I think they are both right.  Humans are miraculous.  And humans are seriously impaired.  Our humanity should be the source of great inspiration and great humility.

Gracie has adapted to her loss of balance and control by leaning against the kitchen cabinets.  Is this much different from the man who has been hurt too often by others and has learned to keep up his defenses, to trust few people and let few people get close to him?  Is this that much different from the woman who has received little support and love from others and so has learned to not trust herself or value herself?  Is that much different from the man who is mean and aggressive because he assumes everyone is out to treat him that way too?

I realize that you may not agree with me at first.  After all, Gracie's adaptations seem admirable, but aren't my  human examples unfortunate rather than praiseworthy?

I am not so sure.  Our emotional defenses in many ways are good friends to us.  That is one reason we cling to them: They have helped us.  Gracie's system works.  That fortress around a human heart has kept out some injuries and pain.  That lack of confidence has reduced the risks taken and therefore has reduced the number of failures.  Aggression has many times dominated others and kept them at bay.

Defenses are types of adaptation, are they not?  This is not to say our defenses always serve our best interests in the long run.  This is not to say these adaptations are the only options.  This is not to say that we never outgrow our adaptations.  But this is an attempt to better understand them and to be more patient with them.

My thoughts bring to mind  a quote you may see from time to time: "Be kind.  Everyone you meet is fighting a great battle."  Although there is confusion about who said this or the exact wording of the quote, watching Gracie reminded me of the truth of its sentiment.

When I come across these adaptations or defenses in others I try to keep in mind that, like Gracie, these people are trying to make their way through the world with impaired abilities to accurately perceive or navigate their paths.

When I come across these things in myself, I try to be mindful of my own impairments and my own adaptations.  I keep Gracie in mind, and I look at my own adaptations with compassion.  I want to be like Gracie and to keep moving and learning and adapting.

+ + +

P.S. -- My title is taken from one of my father's favorite Bible verses.  Micah 6:8 -- "What does the Lord require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."

Monday, August 8, 2011

Preschool: The Government's Sinister Plot

Listen to "The Case for Preschool" at Planet Money.
Can nap time, juice boxes, and finger painting save the nation?

A study by Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckamn indicates those things -- in the form of preschool -- can certainly help.

He studied two groups of underprivileged children: one group that was enrolled in preschool and one group that wasn't.  When those students were contacted years later, Heckman found that the kids who had attended preschool were HALF as likely to have been arrested and on average earned a THIRD more money than their non-preschool counterparts.

While those who attended preschool benefited personally, society in general benefited by having fewer people in prison and people contributing more to the economy.  Therefore, Heckman concluded, the government reaps big rewards from every dollar it spends on preschools.

What did those students learn in preschool?  Important skills for communicating with others and controlling their emotions (among others).  Those skills are often times lacking in adults who have trouble staying in jobs (or out of jail).  But it seems that learning those skills after our earliest years is very difficult. 

Rick Santorum fighting The Man.
But to Rick Santorum, whose presidential aspirations are little more than fodder for The Daily Show, preschool is just another way for the American government to get its hands on young minds so it can indoctrinate them.

He said recently, "Of course, the government wants their hands on your children as fast as they can. That is why I opposed all these early starts and pre-early starts, and early-early starts. They want your children from the womb so they can indoctrinate your children as to what they want them to be. I am against that."

Santorum has a point.

Preschool is about indoctrination.  So are all schools.  And churches.  And newspapers.  And television shows.  And movies.  And even families.

Think of a society as a biological organism.  One of the major purposes of any organism is to reproduce itself.  Human societies are like that.  They work in ways obvious and hidden to reproduce themselves, and they do this through things such as preschools.

Living things pass on their traits to the next generation through their DNA.  We could think of a society's DNA being the stories and activities that embody its values (traits) that it wishes to pass on.  As children, we learn values through games we play and from activities as simple as forming a single-file line.  In narratives ranging from Horton Hears a Who to The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, from the Oregon Trail to the Trail of Tears, from Rosa Parks to South Park, American society imprints itself on its members.  This is especially true of those narratives that are used and studied in educational environments, such as school. 

An institution through which a society reproduces itself was given a name by French cultural critic Louis Althusser: Ideological State Apparatus.  (You can see that he was an academic and not a poet.)

You've been pwned, comrade!
He attempted to understand how the ruling class of a society educated its working-class population to not only accept its lower rank in the pecking order but to participate eagerly and defend it as correct and good.  He wanted to understand how people, like the Borgs from Star Trek, were assimilated into a vast organization, how they became like cogs in a machine.  Althusser wrote:

To put this more scientifically, I shall say that the reproduction of labour power requires not only a reproduction of its skills, but also, at the same time, a reproduction of its submission to the rules of the established order, i.e. a reproduction of submission to the ruling ideology for the workers, and a reproduction of the ability to manipulate the ruling ideology correctly for the agents of exploitation and repression, so that they, too, will provide for the domination of the ruling class....

Louis Althusser
Althusser's pessimism in understanding how socializing institutions work is not necessary.  I believe all societies do this -- reproduce "the rules of the established order," even if those rules include skepticism about those rules.  The distinction between the pessimistic understanding and the optimistic understanding is that the pessimist calls this indoctrination and the optimist calls this education.

Since he is so suspicious of government schools, we should not be surprised to know that Santorum has home-schooled his children.  I doubt he would say he has indoctrinated them.  That is what happens at the state brainwashing centers.  I am sure he would say that he is educating his children, instilling them with the proper values.  But I believe what he has done at home could be easily described as indoctrination.

But one wonders just how dangerous are the ideas being pounded into the heads of our three-year-olds.  Sharing?  Using words?  No hitting?  Taking turns?  Putting away your toys when you are finished with them?

While those skills make people more pleasant to be around in general, those skills do make for better workers in a capitalist system.  Or in a socialist system.  Or even on a pirate ship.  So in that sense, Althusser's critique of schools as assimilating people into an economic system holds true.  But what else could they do?

I realize that part of Althusser's real critique is that the workers he described were being persuaded to participate in a system that was not designed for their benefit.  But that is a matter of whether what is taught is true or false, is good or bad.  My point is that all societies "indoctrinate" their children with their values, regardless of what those values are.

According to Heckman, preschool instills important foundations for a successful life.  According to Santorum, preschool is instead Big Brother's groupthink training program.  

They're both kind of right.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Can't afford a Kardashian? How about a Molinaro?

Melissa Molinaro in Old Navy's "Super C-U-T-E."
The second half of Don Quixote is peculiar not only for the reader of Miguel Cervantes's book but also for its protagonist.

Some of the folks Don Quixote encounters have read the first half of the book and are now running about claiming to be the old man and imitating his antics.

The old man does not like this, and so Mr. Q  forces at least one of these impersonators to carry official documents declaring that he is NOT Don Quixote.  Sort of like UNidentification papers.

I thought of this when I saw that Kim Kardashian had filed a lawsuit against Old Navy over a TV commercial featuring Melissa Molinaro.  You can watch the commercial, titled "Super C-U-T-E" here.  I admit that the first time I saw this commercial, I thought it was Kardashian.  However, when I compare photographs, the resemblance seems minimal.

Reggie Bush might disagree.  The professional football player is Kardashian's ex-boyfriend who is now dating Molinaro.

Melissa Molinaro & Kim Kardashian
In Molinaro's defense, while there may be some physical resemblance, there is little personality resemblance to Kardashian.  Molinaro is flashy and cute in the ad.  Her sexiness is more cartoonish, fitting the tone of Old Navy ads.  Although The Kim's curves are outrageous, her demeanor is more calm, her behavior more reserved.  Sultry rather than sassy.

Her suit against Old Navy is somewhat similar to one filed by Bette Midler against an advertising agency for hiring one of her former backup singers to cover one of her songs for a 1985 Ford car commercial.  Midler claimed the singer was instructed to imitate her as closely as possible.  That would have been like getting Midler without paying for Midler.

The Divine Miss M sued for $10 million but received a judgement for $400,000.

Karl loved cargo shorts.
Whether Kardashian has a case against Old Navy is not what interests me.  Instead, I am intrigued by what this means about the cult of personality in a media-saturated, capitalist system.  There are two ideas that seem to be mixed up here in some kind of Marxist Theoretical Martini: the alienation of labor and commodity fetishism.

On the one hand, Marx wrote about alienation.  He wrote about how a worker becomes alienated from his own labor.  In a highly developed capitalist system, the worker is less directly invested in what he produces, since that belongs to someone else.  The worker merely sells his labor.  He is alienated in the sense that there is a division between himself and his product. 

The worker is also alienated in that he feels that much of his working life is dictated by other people -- his working conditions, his wages, his future employment, etc.  He may have some influence on these things.  He can try to dictate his wages, but those are also influenced by the wages being demanded by others.  If someone is willing to work for a cheaper rate, he may have to lower his price.

"Do I turn you on?"
On the other hand, Marx also wrote about commodities and how they take on a life of their own in a system that depends upon the flow of commodities to consumers.  This quality is what Marx meant by the word "fetish."  Today we tend to think of this word in its Freudian sense, which means to obsess over something, to invest it with an inordinate amount of emotional energy, often times an erotic energy.  You know, to be erotically attracted to toes (a foot fetish) or leather (a Hermes bag fetish).

But Marx meant "fetish" in a more anthropological sense, referring to the human tendency to endow an object with spiritual or animated qualities.  A rabbit's foot is a kind of fetish.  If we associate luck, speed, or agility with a rabbit, we believe these qualities will be available to us if we carry the rabbit's foot.  A more complicated understanding of the fetish, though, would allow it to bestow or withhold those qualities, depending upon our behavior or our treatment of the fetish.  The fetish is not always in our control. 

Marx said that commodities can become like fetishes.  The value or desirability of those commodities is not in the control of the people making them or the people buying them or selling them.  Of course, people have some influence on those things, but they are ultimately decided by this abstract thing called "market forces."  It is as if the commodities are controlled by a higher force or are motivated by some personality they possess.

What happens when the product of your labor is a commodity called yourself?  Can you become alienated from that?

What happens when your image/identity becomes a commodity, exchanged and valued by other people?

Kardashian's lawsuit implies both ideas.  It states she has worked hard (labor) on developing her image (commodity), which has considerable value in the marketplace.  The lawsuit states she "has invested substantial time, energy, finances and entrepreneurial effort in developing her considerable professional and commercial achievements and success, as well as in developing her popularity, fame, and prominence in the public eye."

Kim has discovered that her value does not adhere as closely to her self as she had thought.  Other people can be valued for qualities that she has cultivated.  The value of what she has produced, the brand called "Kim Kardashian," does not necessarily adhere to her self.

There is Kim Kardashian.  And then there is Kim Kardashian-ness.  She thought she was selling and controlling the former, when it turns out she was selling the latter.  And that can be alienated from her.  That can be produced by others.  Once Kardashian-ness is circulating freely in the market, its value will be influenced by those market forces and less by Kim.  (The commodity starts to take on those fetish qualities.)  The danger for Kim is that once Kardashian-ness becomes a commodity, its value can decline -- I doubt a Molinaro endorsement fetches the same price as a Kardashian.  Once others can produce it, The Kim could find that she cannot charge as much as before for her Kardashian-ness.

With Kardashian, we can find a convergence of alienation and the fetish.

If Kim does not win the lawsuit, she will find herself competing with others for the product she had originated and had once held a monopoly on.  If she does not win the lawsuit, she will have been, to some degree, alienated from her own labor.  Others will have greater influence on what is produced and what price it fetches.

This is not to say that Melissa Molinaro is a counterfeit Kim Kardashian.  She is not claiming to be Kim.  This is not identify theft.  This is different from the Don Quixote situation.  It will not do Kardashian any good to make Molinaro carry a sign that states, "This is not Kim Kardashian."  Authenticity is not the issue. 

This is all very ironic, since what Kardashian sells with her products is the promise, implicit or explicit, that if you wear her perfume or makeup, you can be like her.  You, too, can possess Kardashian-ness.

One could say that Molinaro is guilty of doing what Kardashian has been encouraging all along: Be like me!

Except now she is finding that she can be outsourced.