Anthropologist Tereza Kuldova, author of many book reviews here on antropologi.info has recently defended her PhD-thesis Designing Elites: Fashion and Prestige in Urban North India". Now she has turned her thesis into a museum exhibition and an edited volume called Fashion India. Spectacular Capitalism.
Researching fashion means researching society and economic systems at large, she explains in this antropologi.info interview. In her case studying fashion means especially studying inequalities.
antropologi.info: So you turned your PhD thesis both into an exhibition and then into an edited volume?
Tereza Kuldova: Yes, that is correct. At the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo (part of University of Oslo) where I work, we were just in the process of restructuring the museum and developing new creative vision for future research based exhibitions, when I proposed to translate my PhD into a visual form.
– I wanted to create an exhibition that is about Indian fashion as much as about Indian society and the context of fashion production, capturing the complexity of the relationships of production and consumption - the opposite of the India: Fashion Now exhibition at Arken, Denmark, where they presented selected pieces by a handful of famous Indian designers on dummies, basically as art pieces, devoid of any social or economic context, a practice I tried to oppose in my exhibition.
– So I went on a curatorial hunt for the exhibition objects to India and spent one month shopping in New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Lucknow and shipping huge boxes of ethnographic artefacts and props for the exhibition to Oslo. In Kolkata I even commissioned life size glass fibre statues of Gandhi, Shah Rukh Khan, and goddess Lakshmi from the Kumartuli artisans. When I got back, I got a team consisting of conservators, photographers, PR expert, project coordinator, graphic designer and handyman to help me getting the exhibition together. I was then responsible for design, texts and the overall concept and organization. But I also got to nail things on the wall and got all messy painting and so on.
– The edited volume of the same title as the exhibition, Fashion India: Spectacular Capitalism, was based partly on a conference I organized in December 2012, The Indian Phantasm, where I invited some of my great colleagues working on contemporary Indian and popular culture, and then I invited some of the authors especially for the volume. However, each chapter is visually represented in the exhibition, so that the book functions as an in-depth extension of the individual exhibition windows and installations.
– It's a book with some catchy titles! Was “Fashion India - Spectacular Capitalism” your idea? What was the idea behind the title of the book?
– Well, it was my idea in a way… In fact, I was reading Gilman-Opalsky's Spectacular Capitalism: Guy Debord and the Practice of Radical Philosophy, while putting the exhibition together and the concept just seemed to capture what most of the authors in the volume were relating to and no less, what I have been researching.
– Spectacular capitalism refers to the dominant mythological understanding of what capitalism is and what it does in the world, i.e. to a "mythology about capitalism that disguises its internal logic and denies the macroeconomic reality of the actually existing capitalist world"(Gilman-Opalsky 2011: 17), such as the classical statements like "anybody can make it if they work hard enough" or "capitalism will eradicate all inequalities."
– What is spectacular about capitalism?
– There is nothing spectacular about capitalism, except for its mythology.
– It was precisely this mythology that I tried to unpack both in the exhibition and through the volume. While we may cynically take distance from such statements, they are some of the most powerful illusions to which for instance the Indian business elites subscribe and reproduce in their everyday acts. I think that each author in the volume addressed some part of this powerful mythology, be it from historical, anthropological or aesthetic perspective.
Samant Chauhan with his collection during the opening of the exhibition Fashion India at the Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo, 13 spetember 2013. Photo: Adnan Icagic
– How it is addressed in the book?
– For instance, I talk about the notorious meritocratic ideal, and the way it becomes part of the self-justification of Indian elites. The problem with meritocracy is that it systematically legitimizes social inequality by arguing that success depends on the individual's abilities and talents, while ignoring all together the structural conditions of opportunity in the first place.
– Shamus Rahman Khan, in his study of America's elite St. Paul's college, argues that the US lives in an era of democratic inequality, the same applies for India. Democratic inequality refers to a state of affairs in which a certain amount of diversity (few publically recognized self-made men, such as selected famous designers) is combined with the dominant narrative of meritocracy thus creating an illusion of an open society, something that obscures the underlying structural inequalities that are being systematically perpetuated.
– "Laughing at luxury and mocking fashion designers" is the catchy title of one of your contributions. That makes me of course wonder who and what you are writing about!
– This chapter addresses the relationship between designers and village based craftswomen in the chikan embroidery cottage industry in Lucknow, who partake in the production of the high-end luxury fashion pieces, but who resist the patronizing discourses of the designers, who position these women as "poor, illiterate, and in need of rescue" (while positioning themselves as the very rescuers providing precious jobs).
– These women often reverse the assumed dynamics of dependency on the powerful urban designers, by showing the designers that it is them who are dependent on the women's craft skill and not the reverse; showing them that without them the designers are nothing. The village women often mock these designers and laugh at the way they run after money, are always stressed and under pressure, never laugh and so on.
From the opening fashion show at the exhibition "Fashion India. Spectacular Capitalism"
– The city is here opposed to the village, which is paradoxically idealized by the villagers themselves, against all its lacks; the urban poverty which creates real dependency on money with its stress, exploitation and hectic life are increasingly recognized as undesirable. However, it must be said that this is a slightly gendered perspective, as the women appear to idealize the village life far more than men, who tend to focus on the lacks and wrongs.
– The women also often laugh at ideas such as "national pride" or "heritage" and the fact that they are so celebrated within the nationalist discourse and yet remain invisible to the state. So the chapter investigates some of these ironic reversals in the relation between designers and these craftswomen.
– And Paolo Favero writes about How to spend a few hours waiting for a delayed flight in the middle of the night at the Delhi airport and receive an ethnographic enlightenment?
his is a very enlightening and entertaining chapter, where Paolo traces the modern history of Delhi, while reflecting over his own engagement with Delhi throughout his research career - all of this triggered by the newly refurbished Indira Gandhi International Airport, that becomes a material, aesthetic and as such also ideological representation of the current search for Delhi's identity as a powerful global city obsessed with search for and display of "Indianness".
– Paolo then walks us through some of the iconic places in Delhi that reflect these trends. I then describe some of the same process in another chapter of mine in the volume "The Maharaja Style: Royal Chic, Heritage Luxury and the Nomadic Elites".
– What is so special with the newly refurbished Delhi airport?
– The Delhi airport has been then transformed into a glamorous gallery-like, or if you like, Disneyland like, space displaying the opulence of Indian heritage, a clear search for identity within the global order.
The exhibition is based on Tereza Kuldova’s doctoral thesis and research conducted between 2010-12 in Lucknow and New Delhi. The thesis followed traditional hand embroidery from its production in Lucknow, via collaborations with Delhi-based fashion designers to its consumption by Indian elite clientele, thus throwing light on an anthropologically understudied phenomenon of fashion.
– This space can also be read, such as Nilanjana Mukherjee does in one of the book chapters, through the historical lense of the nineteenth century world exhibitions with their temple paviollions, through the royal durbars and the emergence of shopping arcades, all predecessesors of contemporary theatrical fashion shows or miss universe and the like.
– At the Delhi airport, this spatial aesthetics is used to strategically re-brand Delhi as the city of the future global rulers, the hypermodern hub from which poverty or any social problems are photoshopped, at the same time as it re-invents its past in order to project it into the future, thus creating dominant (often branding) narratives of what it means to be Indian, with iconic symbols like Gandhi, traditional handicrafts and so on, symbols that can be easily consumed and displayed in order to show one's belonging.
– You can see these dominant tropes all around, in one space, all bombastically mixed up. Another chapter, by Nemesis Srour for instance looks at the related changing masculine ideal in the Bollywood cinema, that of the powerful, muscular, global Indian, who at the same time remains firmly rooted in tradition, while being the prototypical "consumer patriot".
– What can people who are neither experts in fashion nor in India learn from your book?
– Well, the book is written in an accessible language, and it is accompanied by numerous images, so the readers can get a glimpse of contemporary India through fashion and popular culture and realize that researching fashion means researching society and economic systems at large. It is not a matter of few designer heroes or fashion magazines. To the contrary, it concerns us all in most pressing ways.
– A short/long answer to this would be T. Hoskins's book Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion. I think we all need to understand how this multi-billion industry operates and rethink our wardrobes accordingly.
– And so even though the stories may appear local, they speak to processes that are global, and you can easily see how what is happening in India is uncannily replicated in our own contexts.
– What kept you studying Indian fashion for so many years?
– Maybe precisely the fact that it is not about fashion - fashion is just a lens, a starting point for understanding commercial cultural, design, art, capitalism, desire, prestige, role of material culture, emerging economies, social networks, various forms of capital, emotion and affect, seduction, sexuality and erotics and so on.
– How is your life after the PhD? Still at the museum?
– Yes, for a while. Since I delivered my thesis on time, which happens to be rare in Norway, I received a one year extension grant – that is when I put together the exhibition and now I turning my thesis into a monograph which should come out next year.
– And what do you plan to do in future?
– If everything goes well, I want to start up a new research project on emerging fashion cities and the relation between India and the Gulf, in particular Abu Dhabi.
– Some last words?
– Come and check out the exhibition in Oslo, it is on until 13th of June
>> My look at Tereza Kuldova's master’s thesis about the Chikan embroidery industry in India: That’s why there is peace
>> Her book review No fashion outside the "West"?
Book Review. Consuming Space: Placing Consumption in Perspective edited by Michael K. Goodman, David Goodman & Michael Redclift. Ashgate, 2010.
Tereza Kuldova, PhD Fellow, Department of Ethnography, Museum of Cultural History, Oslo
Chicken industry in UK, the violent history of luxury teak wood in Burma, boutique hotels in New York, chewing gum and the ‘tropical paradise’ of Cancun, seduction and commodity fetishism, ethical local and organic food, Chilean wine in UK, internet and consumption…Wondering what they have in common? The answer is: they are all amazingly catchy cases for developing a theory of consumption, production and the role of space – and they are all to be found in one edited volume - Consuming Space: Placing Consumption in Perspective.
This edited volume is one of those in which one finds something new and valuable every time one returns to it. It is literally packed with both interesting facts and great theoretical insights. Even though most of the contributors work within the field of social geography, I believe that the volume contains many interesting perspectives for anthropologists.
The focus of the volume is on understanding the ways in which we produce and consume space, as much as ways in which we produce and consume nature – the various case studies all relate to this topic. It looks at the space of social practice, which is “occupied by sensory phenomena, including products of imagination, such as projects and projections, symbols and utopias, which describe and contain consumption cultures” (xi). It looks at how space is made and remade along the trajectories of the social relations of production and consumption, in other words, this volume is an exploration into diverse contemporary capitalist political economies.
I have selected several of the book chapters for the review. It is those chapters that I enjoyed reading the most and that also shed some light on the red thread that goes through the edited volume: the conceptualization of space in relation to consumption and production.
Michael Redclift looks at the ways in which the histories of production and consumption are tied to histories of particular locations in his chapter Frontier Spaces of Production and Consumption: Surfaces, Appearances and Representations on the ‘Mayan Riviera’.
He shows how a place, its nature and social relations were transformed first as a result of the emerging popularity of chewing gum and later on as a result of transforming this place into a globally popular tourist destination. He brings the reader to the Mexican Caribbean Coast and looks at its layered histories that point to the hybridization through which nature and society meet and refashion space.
Redclift weaves together a narrative of chicle – the raw material from which chewing gum was derived – a story that transformed the landscape and ecology of the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. He shows that “the boom of chicle production eventually gave way to other forms of production and consumption, notably in the development of international tourism on an altogether more ambitious scale” (86). He then goes on to tell the story of how Cancun, the ultimate tropical ‘artificial’ paradise, was created, how it emerged as a major touristic destination and how it lost its appeal in the 90s.
This chapter shows the importance of setting the space which is consumed in a historical context. He reveals also how the “fortunes of New York are closely linked with those of the Mexican Caribbean, and those of the Caribbean are linked with generations of people elsewhere, especially in Europe and North America, whose daily life depend on connections that they were usually only dimly aware of” (94). The story that Redclift tells is complex and interesting and I encourage anyone with interest in Mexico, Caribbean or the workings of tourist industry, to look into it.
A brief video on the history of a chewing gum:
In The Cultural Economy of the Boutique Hotel: The Case of the Schrager and W Hotels in New York, Donald McNeill and Kim McNamara deal with another kind of space, namely the ‘boutique hotel’. The ‘boutique hotel’ has been one of the biggest stories in the hotel industry since the 1980s and its popularity has spread worldwide. The chapter maps its cultural economy and the processes of the ‘economy of qualities’, where the boutique hotels are perceived as having a life, or a career.
They show how the hotel’s lifecycle is “closely related to the specificities of local markets, the urban economic sectors that dominate central business districts, and the physical structure of existing buildings” (151) and thus how creation of particular spaces is always part of larger processes. They look in particular at the development of Ian Schrager’s boutique hotels in New York, which coincided with the transformation – from the 70s onwards – of the city into a fashion capital and the hub of music, art, design and disco-lit nightlife.
This chapter nicely portrays the shifts in aesthetics and design as much as in consumer demands and the ways in which desires are manufactured. It also portrays how the boutique hotel concept was appropriated by competitors and boutique hotels suddenly emerged all around the globe. I have stayed in many boutique hotels in India and this chapter definitely sets them into perspective for me.
A brief video on boutique hotels:
In Manufacturing Meaning along the Chicken Supply Chain: Consumer Anxiety and Spaces of Production, Peter Jackson, Neil Ward and Polly Russell look at a different dimension of space. They analyze spaces of production in relation to consumption to understand how meaning is manufactured in this process.
They reexamine the contemporary trends of re-connecting producers with consumers, where consumers increasingly wish to make qualified choices, where for instance – those with capital – prefer eggs from free roaming hens, or meat from small local producers. This chapter focuses on “identifying where and how the distinctive cultural meanings of food are created and negotiated” and it argues that “this process of ‘manufacturing meaning’ has direct economic consequences in a commercial climate where food is increasingly ‘sold with a story’” (164).
They thus set out to explore “role of subjective ideas, like myth and memory, within contemporary understandings of food industry” (164). They map the terrain of the intensive (broiler) chicken industry, an industry which epitomizes the recent industrialization of agricultural production.
The interesting question they ask is when and under what conditions chicken becomes perceived as either a sentient living being or as commodity - a question of the commodification of nature. They show how the “food producers are not simply manufacturing a product (broiler chicken) but they are also simultaneously attempting to manipulate the meanings which consumers attach to that product” (169).
They approach this through life history interviews with people who have been for years involved in the chicken industry; some of these interviews are certainly interesting and point to the ambivalent relationships between these people and chickens, which are often understood in terms of profit, as a commodity, but still – a special type of commodity, a living commodity.
These life histories show that “the ‘invisibility’ of chicken production has direct consequences for the way consumers relate to the product” (173) and that “the mechanization and acceleration of poultry production creates a distance from any emotional connection with live chickens intended for slaughter” (174).
They argue that “in managing the risks associated with chicken production, (…) the food industry is faced with a number of tensions most readily apparent in the desire to justify premium prices through revealing more about animal welfare, quality and provenance without making consumers ‘squeamish’ by providing too much information” (184). According to them, consumer anxiety is “an inevitable consequence of the intensification of the industry, a direct result of the commodification of nature and the increasing distance separating consumers from producers” (184).
For an interview with broiler farmers see this video:
In Consuming Burmese Teak: Anatomy of a Violent Luxury Resource, Raymond L. Bryant looks at how space as much as people’s lives have been transformed and even devastated by the desires of elites for luxury wood.
This chapter brilliantly uncovers how the history of the premier world luxury wood – the teak tree – has been implicated in a history of violence, oppression, exploitation, and civil war. He shows the dark side of the story of this luxury commodity which nowadays adores the yachts of the wealthy.
In Burma, “political interests centered on controlling teak forests and their inhabitants. Burma’s rulers – pre-colonial monarchs, British officials, post-colonial civilian and military elites – have all grappled with this problem, even as forest residents – shifting cultivators, villagers, timber traders – have sought to evade central control. In short, teak has been a perennial focus of struggle” (240).
His version of the story of the teak is certainly not the ‘official one’. He calls the Burmese teak a blood timber – “a resource whose record of exploitation can be viewed as a bad thing” (240). The accounts he argues against in this chapter are those “written by and/or for elites”, accounts that “present one particular version of history that is ‘factual’ in tone, partial in scope and de-politicized in presentation” (240).
In pre-colonial Burma teak tree was preferred by the Burmese royalty and nobility; it was used in ship-building and the 18th and 19th century were marked by a thriving export trade. “As a valued timber, there was a royal monopoly on teak from at least the eighteenth century that was enforced in the forests by specially appointed guards empowered to fine or arrest anyone involved in its illegal extraction” (241).
The British in search for new timber supplies to build war ships discovered the potential of Burma, the home to the largest teak forests in the world. And so “from the mid-nineteenth century to the Japanese invasion of Burma in early 1942, the consolidation of British control went hand in hand with the elaboration of the world’s leading export-oriented teak industry.
As such, teak became prime imperial resource” (242).
Teak was shipped to markets in both Europe and British India, where it was used in everything from park benches, railway sleepers to warships. After 1900 the forests in Burma were ‘privatized’ and became dominated by foreign companies, a fact that generated considerable local resentment. “Official revenue earned from the lucrative teak industry was used to sustain the British Indian colonial administration (of which Burma was a part)” (243).
After Burma gained independence, the situation has not changed much, it in fact worsened. “As in pre-colonial and colonial times, post-colonial teak production generates enormous profits that are not reinvested in the economic improvement of the country, but are rather used to improve the lives of those who control Burmese State as well as their political and economic allies” (243):
“Even as teak wood contributed to imperial grandeur and post-imperial fine living by providing a marker of distinction for both the already well-to-do and the socially up-and-coming, it was also the focus of vicious strife in the forests from where it came. (…) Burmese teak extraction has been a brutal and tawdry tale of state repression, local displacement, popular fear and loathing, and out-and-out murder” (248). This story of production of teak, is a story of production “whose anatomy combines extinction and distinction in a way and to an extent that perhaps only violent luxury goods can do” (253).
An interesting older video:
The last chapter which I have selected is – paradoxically – one of the introductory chapters. These chapters are all theoretically oriented and are definitely a must read. Yet one of them stands out in my view and that is The Seduction of Space by David B. Clarke.
All the above case stories suggest the omnipresence of the commodity and the saturation of space with commodity. There is literally no escaping commodity and the market. In this situation, it is most appropriate to reexamine Marx’s notion of commodity fetishism, and that is what Clarke does in his chapter.
This notion has become over time unpopular among many social scientists that tend to favor the idea of full consciousness of the consumer eliminating thus any traces of false consciousness. Yet Clarke shows that Marx is “undoubtedly far closer to acknowledging unconscious effects than many recent theorizations of consumption” (57).
Taking this as a starting point he then goes on, using Lacan, to focus on the alignment of the pleasure principle and reality principle. In the final section he looks at the way in which “the reality principle and the pleasure principle have been deflected by their due alignment”, which manifests itself in the “deregulation of the reality principle and the consequent emergence of an unprincipled reality” (58).
To reach to this point Clarke uses Baudrillard’s notion of seduction – seduction, and not consumption, is here opposed to production. Seduction diverts, takes aside, it is everywhere and at all times opposed to production. Clarke then argues that “fetishism has come to saturate social space in its entirety” (59), and looks at the shift from the scene of consumption to its obscenity, from the production of space to the overexposure of pornogeography.
Clarke nicely shows through his chapter that “it is simply not the case that these polarized positions – either full consciousness or false consciousness – are the only alternatives on offer. Indeed the particular framing merely reproduces the terms of a longstanding idle debate – by beginning with the unquestioned premise of a pre-given individual who may or may not be duped, and coming down on one side of the argument or other” (63).
He shows the potential of approaching the issue of fetishism through psychoanalysis, which “acts transversally to this misleading opposition by refusing to begin with a pre-given subject. For psychoanalysis, the subject is constituted as much as it is constitutive and it is never fully present to itself” (63).
This discussion then goes on to attack the core of consumerist logic, in which, as Zygmunt Bauman pointed out, “a satisfied consumer is neither motive nor purpose” (66) and at which “heart lies a fundamental contradiction between the promise of satisfaction and the persistence of unfulfilment, the proffering of pleasure and its withdrawal” (68).
He then goes on to talk about the desire, which is created through the creation of something that the subject supposedly lacks – to repair this lack the subject has to go and shop – for Lacan desire is the metonymy of want-to-be. Clarke argues that the fundamental importance of fetishism lies in its “seductive potential, which relates purely to its form” (74) and so as Baudrillard puts it ‘fetishism is actually attached to the sign-object, the object eviscerated of its substance and history, and reduced to the state of marking a difference, epitomizing a whole system of differences (Baudrillard 1981: 93)’. “It is this characteristic that is responsible for the seductive power exerted by consumerism” (74).
This chapter is all in all a great mixture of Marx, Lacan, Baudrillard and Bauman, and though this little tasting does not do it full due, I hope that it at least draw your attention to it.
Here is a nice video on commodity fetishism:
Baudrillard, J. 1981. For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign St. Louis Telos.
Tereza Kuldova has written several book reviews for antropologi.info. Some of her recent ones are Lookism: Why we don’t want to be perceived as “ugly” or “different”, No fashion outside the “West"? and Religious globalization = Engaged cosmopolitanism?
We are living in a visually biased society. Bonnie Berry has written a book about prejudice and racism based on looks. Antropologi.info contributor Tereza Kuldova has read the book. Here is her review.
Book review of The Power of Looks. Social Stratification of Physical Appearance by Bonnie Berry, Ashgate 2008
By Tereza Kuldova, PhD Fellow, Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo
The Power of Looks deals with one of those topics that impact all of us in our everyday lives every single day, one way or another. Namely our prejudices and conceptions of beauty and attractiveness and the ways in which we act on those and discriminate people based on their looks.
“When we consider the disparity in what we spend our money on, we find the depressing fact that, in the US, more money is spent on beauty than on education or social services. This fact shows the vacuousness of our society, but also may explain why we persist in the mainly pointless behaviors of buying beautifying products and services. If we are not educated, we may believe that physical appearance is more important than being learned, and we may rely on looks to accrue power instead of using our brains” (p.69).
Bonnie Berry calls this phenomenon ‘lookism’, which is one of the many ‘isms’ we have to deal with in our world, such as racism, or colorism.
The book shows very clearly how the bias towards attractiveness and beauty creates profound social inequalities and determines our access to both social and economic power. It is not news that people who ‘look better’ have better chances to succeed, get jobs, pass oral exams and so forth. In the same way in which beautiful people are positively ‘discriminated’, those not beautiful enough are negatively discriminated.
This appearance bias, the beauty ideal created and supported and perpetuated by the media, advertising and cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies, creates a feeling in ourselves, a feeling of ‘not being good enough’, the result is anxiety (p. 57). We tend to constantly fix ourselves, be it through make up, clothes, plastic surgery, liposuction, teeth whitening (and more), in order to be perceived as ‘acceptable’ or ‘normal’, if not beautiful. Being perceived as ‘ugly’ or different often leads to social exclusion, isolation, economic, social and romantic discrimination as well as lack of access to social and economic power.
What distinguished The Power of Looks from other popular books on this topic, such as the Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf or Beauty Junkies by Alex Kuczynski, is that it has a distinctively sociological take on the topic. This is a great advantage over the book Bonnie Berry published earlier, Beauty Bias, which was much more ‘popular’ and part of the same discursive realm as the books mentioned above. The Power of Looks has even two chapters on theory, method and possible approaches to the problem of social stratification based on our looks and to what she calls ‘social aesthetics’, from functionalism to symbolic interactionism. It is no doubt that this book can serve as a great introduction into the topic for students of sociology and anthropology.
For greater awareness about lookism
The most important aspect of this book in my view is however not its originality or its bravado of writing, but it is its message and the aim to build awareness about social stratification and discrimination based on looks. This is a message of acute importance in our world that is too often driven by media images of what is beauty and what it means to be beautiful, messages that fuel our continual sense of inadequacy and force us to recreate ourselves according to these images through consumption of products that often do very little to improve our looks. In the worst cases, these images, ideals and messages drive us under the scalpel where many have died. (See for instance this ABC news story Mother’s Death Highlights Dangers of Plastic Surgery).
The book is important in its focus on and analysis of these phenomena. And since it adopts a sociological approach, it not only builds our awareness about appearance bias and the way it shapes hierarchies and inequality, but it also gives us a conceptual apparatus to grasp these phenomena, to be able to conceptualize them, pinpoint them and talk about them. This is what I consider the greatest contribution of the book. And in line with the message of the book, I wish to draw your attention, in this review, to certain issues that the book raises and that I feel are interesting to think through and reflect about.
The topic of discrimination based on skin color is going through the whole book and it is interesting to think in this respect of the work of Nina Jablonski – Skin: A Natural History, which is a more evolutionary take on the topic of skin, yet definitely interesting – particularly the fact that from a biological perspective, white skin which is considered socially superior is in fact biologically inferior, in that it is easily prone to cancer and other environmentally caused damage. For more you can view a TED talk by Nina Jablonski here
Bonnie Berry also refers on many occasions throughout the book to facial and bodily disfigurement and what life can be like for those people in such a visually biased society. The awareness around this issue seems to be growing. Take for instance the popular show by a British fashion designer Wan Gok called Beauty and the Beast: The Ugly Face of Prejudice, which speaks directly to the topic of this book
For more on facial disfigurement see this video:
Skin lightening cream commercials - The intersection between racial ideology and capitalist consumer culture
The role of media and advertising in shaping our tastes, likes and dislikes has been already well documented. The interesting thing is how these commercials try to associate a whole universe of meanings with the products they are trying to sell us. The paramount example is the Indian Fair & Lovely commercial for the most popular Indian skin lightening cream. All of the company’s numerous advertisements follow the same logic which we will see in the example below. These commercials reflect and shape notions of beauty and therefore we should be aware of how they are constructed. Let us look at one of their commercials, as this might ‘flesh out’ the book for its future readers, since it tends to focus little too often on the structural and does not include many concrete examples.
Fair skin is in India often associated with higher status. Now watch how this is played out and reconfirmed in the commercial.
It begins with a father sitting and reading newspaper, then he asks for a tea with milk. His wife looks back at him with her sad big eyes and says that there is no milk, since there is no money. The father then goes on to complain: ‘I wish I had a son’ – meaning someone who would be able to provide for them. His daughter overhears the comment and starts crying, then the TV in her room features a Fair & Lovely facial cream commercial. At that moment she spots a newspaper job advertisement for an air hostess. She connects the two together (the same way as the audience is supposed to). After applying the cream, she is beautiful and fair, and therefore empowered. She gets the job and the surroundings suddenly turn glamorous, at the end she sits with her parents at what seems to be an airport coffee shop and her father with a happy face comments: ‘now we can get a tea, I guess’. The message is simple, beauty and fairness equals higher status, happiness and success. This nicely portrays the “the intersection between racial ideology and capitalist consumer culture” (p. 40).
Watch the commercial here:
The book itself points to many examples of prejudice and racism based on looks. An interesting one comes from Japan and the apparent racism against Koreans and Chinese prevalent in the popular Japanese comic books, such as manga. It is especially physical features that are being mocked in these comic books. (see for instance Asia Rivals’ Ugly Images Best Sellers in Japan or Racist Cartoons in Asia - An Example of Japanese Racism Against Koreans).
Looks, poverty and power
It is not a coincidence in this respect that, as Bonnie Berry points out:
“South Korea, incidentally, has had, as part of the new economy of Asia, the largest group of aesthetic surgeons practicing in Asia in the 1990s, primarily doing nose and eyelid alterations. (…) These westernizing surgeries, as undertaken by the middle-class Japanese, Vietnamese and Koreans, may be more about signs of achieving middle-class status than achieving and “American identity”, confirming once again that the desire to look a certain way is motivated by the pursuit of economic and social network power” (p. 41, emphasis mine).
This last sentence is possibly the most important here. If you do not look certain way, if you do not conform to the beauty ideals or at least try hard to approximate them, you are prevented from acquiring social and economic power. As Bonnie says:
“For those of us who are not naturally attractive, which is most of us, we must spend time, energy, and funds to make ourselves as acceptable as possible if we want to capture social and economic power” (p. 51)
It is instructive to see how the problems of obesity are correlated with poverty and lack of access to social power:
“The thin ideal is also maintained by social network mobility. Notably, thin women are more likely to marry in an upwardly mobile direction. Heavier women marry men of the same social class or lower” (p. 45).
Another important topic is the surgeries people surrender to in the name of beauty and improvement.
“There have been a growing social acceptance of plastic surgery and growing numbers of people engaging in it. The stigma is gone. Many of us are unhappy with our appearance and we greatly exaggerate to ourselves what we consider to be defects, with this dissatisfaction very likely culturally and socially generated. We compare ourselves to mass media images of beauty; indeed we want to look exactly like them, as it turns out. If full lips are in fashion, we can have them. High cheekbones? Tan skin? Blond hair? Blue eyes? Full lips? No problem” (p. 57).
In her book, Bonnie mentions French artist Orlan who has throughout her career experimented with surgeries and her own body. It certainly does raise questions. That all I leave up to you after watching this video
Succumb to lookism?
As a conclusion, I wish to ask you a question together with Bonnie:
“Should we feel pressure to change and succumb to this pressure? Of course not. But until or unless we are no longer judged and stratified by our appearance, only the bravest of us will not ‘fix up’” (p.63)
“If history is any judge, based on social reactions to other ‘isms’, lookism will remain a discriminating social attitude and behavior, even as it declines in social acceptability. There are signs that appearance bias is being at least discussed. There is greater social awareness. There are a few public policies leveled against lookism. And there are social movement organizations that are making small inroads into consciousness raising and legislation. It will take a long time. Most major social changes do” (p. 125).
Among the books that encourage critical thinking about contemporary world, this one is of those you might like to read.
By Aleksandra Bartoszko. Oslo University Hospital, Equality and Diversity Unit
Nancy Scheper-Hughes is currently working on finishing her book, which will summarize more than ten years fieldwork on organ trafficking. In this interview she tells us about A World Cut in Two: Global Justice and the Traffic in Organs and she shares her reflections on challenges of doing and disseminating multi-sited research.
AB: What is your upcoming book about?
– It’s about trafficking - trafficking kidneys and other organs and tissues from people living on the edges of the global economy.
– There is also a chapter on the body of the terrorist, which is about cases of the medical abuse of enemy bodies harvested for usable tissues and organs at the Israeli forensic institute, as well as in Argentina during the dirty war and in South African police mortuaries during the anti-apartheid struggle when Black bodied piled up in the morgues.
– So I’m looking also at the harvesting of the dead body during periods of warfare and other conflict, a story that is a hidden subtext of modern warfare. Sometimes this is done as a kind of retaliation or retribution or as a punishment or as way to reinforce the fabric of individual bodies and the Body Politic.
– Since Margaret Lock did such a wonderful work on brain death, I also tell some stories about the very different ways that brain death is calibrated and understood from country to country. You can be brain dead in one country and not in the country next door. Or in US, you can be brain dead in one state, but not in another.
– So this is a very indeterminate form of death and this continues to contribute to people’s anxieties about donating organs. People sense this indeterminacy. How do you know he’s really dead? And the answer might be: “It depends on whether you are in Philadelphia or in New York City how dead you are”. And that is not very consoling answer.
AB: When can we expect your book?
– I am completing two books next year, one in January and the other in June. Right now I am working on a small monograph based on one of the chapters, which was too big for the organs trafficking book. It is about a war within the dirty war in Argentina, a war against the population of mentally and cognitively impaired at the war national asylum, Colonia Montes de Oca. It is called: “The Ghosts of Montes de Oca: Naked Life and the Medically Disappeared”.
AB: The working title of your trafficking book, “A World Cut in Two”, which refers to the countries of buyers and the countries of sellers, the rich and the poor, but also the world of the body, as you said. Speaking of body – if we move back to your article on three bodies you wrote with Margaret Lock in 1987. Has your view on the body in anthropology changed after your work with organ trafficking?
– Well, I always said that three was simply the magical number. People remember it. But I liked what Per Fugelli said – about the “missing body” in anthropological writings – the body in nature. And that would be not a naturalized, universalized body but the body as it is lived /interpreted in different times and places, as part of, and responding to, the given natural world. And I think that’s more important than all the promises inherent in genomics, biotechnologies and biosocialities.
Nancy Scheper-Hughes. Photo: UC Berkeley
– Nonetheless there was a truly radical breakthrough on the particular day in Berkeley that Paul Rabinow had an a-ha! moment when he recognized following a particular class meeting on the AIDS epidemic as it was emerging in San Francisco that people in afflicted communities, who grappling with an epidemic that was not yet well understood, were forming social movements, alliances, identities, and affinity groups based on their T cell counts, that is on something that was invisible and unknown to them about human biology prior to the HIV/AIDS crisis. Thus, bio-sociality.
– So these other understandings of the body go beyond the ‘three bodies’ that Lock and I wrote about in ‘The Mindful Body’. Foucault anticipated it, of course. But I think that were I to revise the ‘Mindful Body’ today it would definitely include the body in nature, as both Per and Benedicte Ingstad have paved the way in their writings.
– And of course I would have to talk about biopolitics and biosociality and its effects. The advent of genomics, personalized medicine which also connote a different kind of body, a body that is potentially infinitely malleable. And in case of organs and organs transplant, which has been with us already quite a long time, the idea of the body is seemingly endlessly renewable.
– My colleague Lawrence Cohen refers to bodily “supplementarity”, this is the idea that I can supplement my body with your body parts and with all the bio-available materials I can get, legally or not, ethically or not, from the living or the dead.
– Bio-supplementarity is a more theorized version of what I called neo-cannibalism, to refer to the conditions under which I may have permission or assume the right to cannibalize you. While neo-cannibalism or compassionate cannibalism derives from a long anthropological tradition, it proved quite offensive to some readers, as you might imagine.
– And I suppose if I wanted to add a fifth body, it would probably be the body in debt. Because everywhere I go on behalf of the Organs Watch project I find that debt, debt peonage, debt to family, debt across generations is the cause of the redefinition of the duty to donate organs while still living, a phenomenon I have called the “terror and the tyranny of the gift”.
– The duty to survive and the duty to deliver organs has created a new and alarming form of embodied debt peonage. The debtors are the kidney sellers who, even as they dispose of their organs, no longer feel that they own them, there are claims being made on their bodies that they are unable to resist.
AB: Do you think these books will change anything or you feel that you’ve done enough and people who should know about the situation of the organ trade already have this knowledge?
– Well, I don’t know. What I really wanted to challenge and to change was the international transplant profession. I wanted them to acknowledge what was happening within their field, how it was being transformed by organs markets. And I think that that I have accomplished that.
– Indeed, I know I have gotten the profession to move beyond its initial denials – first that it was an urban legend that did not exist at all; then that it was the result of a few bad apples in the field; and third, and the most dangerous, the problem is small and we have corrected it.
– Now, since the Istanbul Summit on Organs Trafficking in 2008 (in which I, as director of Organs Watch, participated) the transplant world reached a consensus that accepted the reality of human trafficking in organs and the role that surgeons have played, knowingly or not, in its development. They acknowledged that trafficking in humans for organs is not like other forms of medical migration or medical tourism. It is unique.
– But as for the general public, so to speak, I think there are many people who still think this trafficking in organs is surreal, that is grist for horror movies not for scientific study. I have worked on several excellent documentaries on various dimensions of human trafficking in organs, but many people say: “I’m so surprised”.
AB: Who do you see as readers of your upcoming book?
– We used to say that we wanted to aim for a broadly educated public, “the readers of the New Yorker Magazine”. Easier said than done because we have dual obligations to write for anthropologists and social scientists, to develop social theory, and at the same time to educate and engage the public. To be a good citizen, to be a public intellectual. And these dual obligations often come into conflict.
– So, my book combines narratives within narratives, some aimed for the anthropologist and some for the public. It has plot, character development and is an anthropological detective story, you might call it a social thriller, perhaps. A new genre of ethnography. And why not?
– As in my previous ethnographies, Saints, Scholars and Schizophrenics and Death without Weeping, I want there to be food for thought for people who want to read ‘thick description’, thick interpretation, and others who will skip that and go for the action. I hope they will enjoy reading about some of the unforgettable characters that I have had the good fortune to meet along the organs trafficking trail.
– The hardest thing for me was that there were so many sites and so many countries I visited that the book was fragmented. Is there such a thing as a multi-sited over-load factor? If so, I have certainly suffered from it. And then, the world of transplant trafficking was always in flux, always moving to new sites, new organs, new arrangements. So I have written the book three times. I am now revising a fourth version. And some of it is still a bloody mess because I am jumping from Turkey to Israel or to the Philippines, to Europe.
– It’s like seeing the world through the animated kidney. Part of the book is also a reflection on the role of the anthropologist in studying organized crime and kidney pirates.
– A friend and former owner of a famous book store, Codys, in Berkeley, that (like so many other bookstores) collapsed under the pressure of Amazon.com suggested that I change the title of my book to “Kidney Hunter”. That is with reference both to the kidney traffickers and to the anthropologist who is another sort of kidney hunter. Or Notes of an Apprentice Anthropologist-Detective”. So I am playing with writing a sequel along those lines.
AB: But aren’t you afraid that when you are jumping from one place to another that we don’t get enough knowledge of each of these locations?
– You get to know enough about what you need to know to understand the meaning of transplant and the body in that particular location or country. I am not an ethnographer of Turkey or of Israel or Moldova, or of Argentina, or South Africa but I am an ethnographer of global organized crime, an ethnographer of global outlaw transplant. So perhaps it’s not traditional ethnography but it is anthropology, if you can accept that distinction.
– It is not a Malinowskian ethnography and has no pretence to be that. But it is using all the tools of anthropology and of ethnography, which is approaching people as having local worlds, local ethics, local morals, local bodies, and those are the ones that I have to understand, having at least minimal empathy for everyone involved which I always have.
AB: In many occasions you, as well as other anthropologists doing multi-sited fieldwork, have been accused of not being anthropologists for that anymore. How do you meet these comments?
– The problem for traditional ethnography is globalization, of course, which impacts all of our former research sites and populations. The people want to study are in movement, small communities are in flux, they are influenced more by what goes on outside their villages and slums and cities than what goes on inside them. So, we follow different objects.
– If I am following kidneys, others are following migrant labor, or looking at other forms of border crossing, at tourism, or financial markets, or humanitarian workers, or soldiers of fortune, all the ways that people are involved in maintaining lives at all levels of society.
– What’s happened to the practice of traditional ethnography is also the legacy of the savage attacks on the authority of the anthropologist and on the history of our discipline and its links to colonialism and, in USA, the relationships of some anthropologists with defense work and collaborations with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and so forth. We weren’t always on the right side of things.
– Beginning in the late 1960s we tried, my generation in particular, to “reinvent” anthropology, to address colonialism and imperialism and the Vietnam War as critics. Then, in the 1980s we began to turn those critics on ourselves as agents and to engage in brutal self-critical reflexive writings, deconstructing the objects and aims of anthropology.
Video: Already in 1998 George Marcus wrote a book about multi-sited research: “Ethnography through Thick and Thin”
– In the end we were deconstructing ourselves, as anthropologist, as Americans, as gendered persons, as social classes, to the point that we became so self-conscious of our personal, cultural baggage that many anthropologists simply gave up doing ethnography and became moral philosophers of a different sort.
– The idea that fieldworkers could, in fact, become friends, co-producers, co-workers, colleagues and even comrades, was thrown out as an affectation an artifice of the anthropologist. How could you really develop anything more than methodological empathy with the people you were studying? Younger scholars became uncomfortable with the idea of the anthropologist as both “stranger and friend”, as my mentor, Hortense Powdermaker put it. Where does the authority of the ethnographer come from, what gives one the right to infiltrate a community and to use intimacies to generate theories?
– Well, I still think that doing traditional fieldwork is essential, but I would say in the last few generations of our graduate students think that ethnography is an archaic approach. The world is no longer localized. There are always local communities but they are more influenced by what goes on outside of it than what’s going inside of it. So you have to engage these communities through what my colleague Laura Nader calls vertical slice, that is looking at power relations, at relation to the state, global relations.
– Today, in medical anthropology many graduate students now do science studies and they do so for variety of reasons. They believe that biotechnology is totally transforming bodies, psyches (the inner life), what is means to be human. Ethics, power, meaning – all of these seem linked to the possibilities of biotechnology. They also feel, following Paul Rabinow, that the only way to truly have a friendship with ones informants is to share knowledge experience and a social class relation.
– So the idea of studying up as Lauren Nader called it many years ago became the fashion. You studied Wall Street, insurance companies, bankruptcy courts, and global pharmaceutical companies, not the underdog, the exploited and the oppressed. But that was a misrepresentation of what Laura Nader was really saying. She said, study both. Don’t just study sugar cane cutters. Study the owner of the sugar plantations. Don’t just study the sweat shops workers in Asia. Study the American corporations that are using, buying and consuming their products.
– So as result of all these different forces, how you situate yourself, who you are, your class position, your historical background, it almost naturally emerged that people would do much more fragmented, partial and mobile approach to ethnography.
– So maybe the idea that we now engage in studying global assemblages and leave behind traditional ethnography is an over reaction. But it’s a real reflection of what the world looks like now. And, personally, I think it would be completely tragic to give up the Malinowskian approach altogether. I tell that to my students all the time. Some of the students of Benedicte Ingstad said: “What I learned from Benedicte was to write about what you know, and what you know well”.
– In that empirical, interpretive and Clifford Geertzian notion of thick description you cannot do thick description doing multi-sited anthropology. You can do thick theoretical analysis, you can do a lot of analytical work, but the thick description requires that you just dig in your heels, as we say, and stay. Stay as long as necessary. With many happy returns.
Russia has one of the fastest-growing rates of HIV infection in the world, and the Church remains its only resource for fighting these diseases.
Antropologi.info contributor Aleksandra Bartoszko reviews Jarret Zigon’s recent book „HIV Is God’s Blessing”. Zigon takes the reader into a Church-run treatment center near St. Petersburg that employs both priests and psychologists to work with the HIV-infected drug users.
Review: HIV Is God’s Blessing. Rehabilitating Morality in Neoliberal Russia by Jarret Zigon, University of California Press, Berkley, 2011
Aleksandra Bartoszko, Oslo University Hospital
When I read it, I was slightly surprised. I asked myself if we read the same book and why have I focused on totally different points while thinking of Zigon’s work.
I believe that one of the reasons for the huge discrepancy between what the two of us have learned from reading is our fields of research and interests we had in this book. As I am not too familiar with anthropology of morality and ethics, and many theoretical discussions in the book were pretty new to me, I must admit that this book did not invite me to further exploration of the subject. The book was difficult to read, a little bit chaotic and badly edited.
What Is this Book About?
Jarrett Zigon’s book „HIV Is God’s Blessing”, according to the publisher:
„examines the role of today’s Russian Orthodox Church in the treatment of HIV/AIDS. Russia has one of the fastest-growing rates of HIV infection in the world - 80 percent from intravenous drug use and the Church remains its only resource for fighting these diseases. Jarrett Zigon takes the reader into a Church-run treatment center where, along with self-transformational and religious approaches, he explores broader anthropological questions of morality, ethics, what constitutes a “normal” life, and who defines it as such. Zigon argues that this rare Russian partnership between sacred and political power carries unintended consequences: even as the Church condemns the influence of globalization as the root of the problem it seeks to combat, its programs are cultivating citizen-subjects ready for self-governance and responsibility, and better attuned to a world the Church ultimately opposes.”
As an ethnographic case Zigon takes a rehabilitation centre near St. Petersburg called The Mill, which is a cooperation between secular NGOs and Russian Orthodox Church, employing thus both priests and psychologists to work with the HIV-infected drug users. Zigon follows his informants both in the rehabilitation centre as well as the recruitment process in the city, and he is attending events arranged by the NGOs and Church outside the Mill.
Writing and the Art of Repetition
How the book is written and its style is usually mentioned at the end of every review. Unfortunately, when it comes to this book, the writing style was so disturbing that it influenced my overall reception of the book. I like some of the stylistic choices, like the description of the road leading to the rehabilitation centre, which I read as a metaphor for the social position of the centre and the life history of the rehabilitants (p. 33).
But unfortunately the book suffers from a very poor editorial work. There are a lot of redundancies, repetitions and the language itself creates at times confusion. It is hard to read this book. The excessive repetitiveness is most disturbing. Usually, there is nothing wrong with repeating, especially for learning purposes, but in this case this is just too heavy and achieving, in my opinion, a ludicrous dimension.
Mass media and intellectuals have typically portrayed them as aggressive, uneducated, and morally spoiled. In his recent book, anthropologist David A. Kideckel challenges these views and lets the Romanian working class speak for themselves.
“Most east and southeast European scholars tend to avoid labor and workers in postsocialist science, a topic that Kideckel embraces", writes Simona C. Wersching in her review in the Monthly Review.
Kideckel points out the scholarly and political indifference toward the workers’ lives, their physical states, and embodied perceptions. Workers are only visible when they appear threatening and protest.
In Getting By in Postsocialist Romania. Labor, the Body, and Working-Class Culture, he provides according to Wersching “refreshing perspectives” about life coping strategies of two distinct working-class groups in Romania, the miners of the Jiu Valley and the industrial workers of the Nitramonia factory in Făgăraş/Transylvania:
Kideckel’s contribution pays particular attention to workers’ words and thoughts about themselves, their work, their families, their societies, their fears, and their dreams, and highlights the diverse legal and illegal practices of “getting by” (a se descurca) in this changing world after 1989.
Health, living standards, and consumption possibilities have deteriorated. Postsocialist pressures on labor and bodies produce “frustrated agency”. These problems have according the anthropologist nothing to do with ‘socialist legacies’ or ‘culture’, but should be understood as responses to “neo-capitalism", “a system that reinterprets the main principles of capitalism in a new way and that promotes social injustice much more than does the Western model from which it derives":
Kideckel interprets the workers’ words as typical preoccupations of workers confronted with the “effects of the forced diet of neo-liberalism” (p. 8), such as changing and uncertain status of property due to privatization, inequalities, instrumentalization, commodification of basic social relations by the market democracy, weak state structures that allow the existence of mafia and corruption, the misusage of funds and foreign assistance, the decline in agricultural markets, the return to subsistence farming, and emigration. Kideckel connects the effects of neoliberalism to his critics’ notion of “transition” as an academic representation of triumphalist politics.
Kideckel, who conducted his first fieldwork in Romania in 1974, also claims that the workers’ “selective perception of the past” (when workers had high status) and their present feeling of alienation from society at large, create a feeling of frustration that hinders effective agency.
More and more journals have gone open access, now it’s time for open access books!
OAPEN - Open Access Publishing in European Networks is an initiative in Open Access publishing for humanities and social sciences monographs. Several European university presses have joined the initiative that aims to improve the accessibility and dissemination of academic books. “The traditional book publishing model", they state, “is no longer sustainable".
Searching for anthropology gives 289 hits, among others these books. All books can be downloaded as pdf-files:
- The cultural context of biodiversity conservation; seen and unseen dimensions of indigenous knowledge among Q’eqchi’ communities in Guatemala (by Petra Maass)
- Citizenship in the Arab World : Kin, Religion and Nation-State (by Gianluca P. Parolin)
- Gender, ritual and social formation in West Papua; A configurational analysis comparing Kamoro and Asmat (by Jan Pouwer)
- Illegal Migration and Gender in a Global and Historical Perspective (Schrover, Marlou, Leun, Joanne van der, Lucassen, Leo & Quispel, Chris)
- Europe’s Invisible Migrants (by Smith, Andrea L., ed.)
- Witchcraft continued: Popular magic in modern Europe (by Willem de Blécourt & Owen Davies)
- Democratisation in the Middle East : Dilemmas and perspectives (by Birgitte Rahbek)
- Nuussuarmiut :Hunting families on the big headland (by Keld Hansen)
- Diaspora and Transnationalism : Concepts, Theories and Methods (by Thomas Faist and Rainer Bauböck)
- Braving Troubled Waters : Sea Change in a Dutch Fishing Community (by Rob van Ginkel)
- Ethnic Minorities and Regional Development in Asia : Reality and Challenges (by Huhua Cao)
“The subject of fashion in non-Western world is largely understudied. The whole research community is to be blamed for viewing fashion too narrowly", Tereza Kuldova writes in her new book review for antropologi.info. She has read a new book on fashion studies: Fashion in Focus by sociologist Tim Edwards.
Review: Fashion in Focus: Concepts, Practices and Politics by Tim Edwards, New York: Routledge, 2011.
Tereza Kuldova, PhD Fellow, Department of Ethnography, Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo
Fashion in Focus by Tim Edwards is mainly an overview work, summarizing most of the texts predominantly within the confines of sociology that deal with various aspects of the fashion system.
Nilofer: Pakistani fashion in Dubai. Foto: Mark Kirchner, flickr
The book is not a revelation in any sense and it does not develop the theory of fashion in any major way, though one might find traces of such attempts within the text. Considered as a summary of the most influential theories in fashion studies, it is a very good one. The language of the work is marked by clarity of expression, though there is a tendency towards excessive repetitiveness (though again, this might come handy to students)
However, the book considers almost without exception only western fashion, leaving the emerging non-western fashion centers unnoticed and the ‘East’ thus remains simply an (exploited) producer of fashion, rather than being treated as more and more important consumer. Considering the fact that Louis Vuitton’s sales are higher in Asia than in Europe and US together, this is a severe omission.
This omission is however not the mistake of the author summarizing the existing work, the whole research community is to be blamed for viewing fashion too narrowly, as a modern particularly Western phenomenon, focusing on consumption while neglecting production. With the exception of a handful of anthropologists, the subject of fashion in non-Western world is largely understudied and production and consumption remain separated in most of the studies.
The author is of course not unaware of the situation and to fill the gap he includes a chapter (7) on the production of fashion. There is a nice section that says it all in a few lines, let me quote:
“Fashion, even in its second-hand market versions, is sold according to illusion or the notion that dresses, jackets or shoes are somehow invested with the transformative magic to make us more than what we are, that clothes may somehow make up for what we lack or more simply help us to fulfill our fantasies. Fashion’s production is a grim reminder that they are no such thing, that they are just material assembled and sold, often at a rip-off cost to our pockets and at the expense or the exploitation of someone else” (121).
However, one might want to add, even though clothes and other fashion objects are in principle just assembled materials, their power over the minds of the self-fashioning individuals and the magic has real effects. Thomas’ theorem works here perfectly, ‘if people define situations as real, they are real in their consequences’.
Though as a person involved in the research on production and consumption of fashion in India I was looking forward to this chapter in particular, I was disappointed to a degree. The author hardly goes beyond stating the “popular”, i.e. ‘fashion production is exploitation’. Yet, as my own fieldwork can tell, it might be both, exploitation and empowerment. The omnipresent idea of a dreadful sweatshop is without doubt true to reality in some cases; however the incredible variety of destinies within fashion production can hardly be reduced to it.
A balanced and empirically grounded view is what is needed here. Only an in-depth qualitative research seems to be able to reveal the actual processes and meanings of and within the incredible complex rollercoaster of fashion industry. It appears as if too much of the theorizing done in the book is from the table, based on one’s perceptions, local bias, and readings of other scholars equally speculating from the warmth of their office chairs.
Edwards however makes up for certain omissions by paying attention to other rather neglected topics within the fashion studies, and that is men’s wear, children wear and recently also the topic of media, celebrities, designers and desire. In the third chapter he turns his attention towards the case of western suit, discussing topics of gender and masculinity in relation to the evolution of suit as a nexus of the consumption of men’s fashion in the West. There is a nice point in the chapter that Edwards makes about the oscillation of men’s dress throughout centuries from extravagant and lavish to simple and modest and back, he calls it “playboy” vs. “puritan” tendencies (45). These concepts might have broader application, not only being useful in conceptualizing the recent rise of the ‘metrosexual’ man, but also in conceptualizing fashion in other non-Western contexts.
In the fifth chapter he then turns towards the children fashion. This chapter being based on the actual original research by the author is definitely one of the more interesting. It draws on interview material with retailers, designers and consumers of children fashion in UK. It touches on the topics of branding of child wear, increasing fashion consciousness of children and the relationships between parents and children as consumers, as well as the tendency of parents to turn the child into a “mini me”.
Children fashion show in Singapore. Photo: Choo Yut Shing, flickr
Edwards concludes that in respect to children fashion in the UK market “the overwhelming key variables were age and gender and not class, geography or ethnicity” (100), which is hardly surprising. However what is possibly new (though the question remains to which degree) is “the rise of a more adult sense of fashion consciousness in the children’s clothing market, whether in terms of the wishes of some parents to dress their children more fashionably or in terms of wider trends of ‘mini-me’” (100).
The last chapter is then devoted to a trendy and until recently also neglected topic of desire, designers, branding and celebrities. He presents a good introduction into this topic, but it also becomes obvious that it is an area which needs more thorough investigation. Let me give you a tasting of this chapter in a quote that at the same time in a way makes obvious why fashion needs to taken seriously as a research object. It is “the combining of the desire for a designer label – whether sexual or more diffuse – for another person that turns contemporary fashion not only into a process of desiring objects but one of desiring subjects. More problematically still it also becomes a process of desiring subjectivity per se. Not only is the fashion consumer a desiring subject who desires both objects and other subjects but a desirer of alternative forms of subjectivity” (158).
Further the book includes summaries of both classical, modern and postmodern fashion theory, as well as a discussion on fashion, feminism and fetishism and ideas on the politics of dressing and self-expression. It is apparent by now that the book will make a good resource for students of fashion in various disciplines and it might thus stimulate further development of fashion theory, not less because it points towards the blind spots in the theory and towards areas that need to be investigated with greater sensitivity.
See more reviews by Tereza Kuldova, among others Religious globalization = Engaged cosmopolitanism?, The deep footprints of colonial Bombay and Hindi Film Songs and the Barriers between Ethnomusicology and Anthropology or Colonialism, racism and visual anthropology in Japan: Photography, Anthropology and History and my look at her master’s thesis about the Chikan embroidery industry in India That’s why there is peace