How to explore the relationship of fetish, brands, and identity? What might have formerly been thought of as belonging to two very different spheres–commercial brands and products on one hand and personal attributes and style on the other–are no longer distinguishable. Commercial brands and products are the building blocks of modern lifestyle. They identify a person’s place in society or at least their aspirations to a particular place. They also identify locations, here a banal modernist building of the sort to be found everywhere, given an identity thanks to Deutsche Bank. Brands and products must fit within our aspirations and the image we are constructing of ourselves.
“Is it me?”
Shopping bag–Lidl, Sainsbury’s, Iceland, or Selfridge’s? Drink–Coke, Diet Coke, V Water? Apart from commercial brands, most other products, especially clothes, have developed a similar function. Thought of as “expressing” personality, they may rather be its construction. It was once the luxury of the privileged–clothes that served no role (apart from covering the body), but to distinguish the free individual from the undistinguished, poor peasant or worker whose clothes were dictated by his means or by their function.
Heiress Doris Duke in an old press shot
Opening of an exhbition at the Guggenheim Museum, NY
August Sander, Handlanger
This privilege now extends to almost everyone in modern consumer society. Where this privilege does not extend to, its absence is painfully felt and justifiably interpreted as social marginalisation and a lack of individuation.
Brands or product types–the leather jacket, trainers, a tie, or a 3-piece suit, tattoos, a hairstyle, a particular fashionable mannerism, e.g. the gangsta walk, the high five–all exist on a continuum. If my aspired to image is “butch”–which is to masculine as camp is to feminine–I will not drink Diet Coke; Coca-Cola has especially created Coke Zero for me (if my beverage needs to be sugar-free because I am a health and body conscious kind a’ guy). Likewise, a red Mohican gives the message that its wearer sees himself as a bit of social rogue, certainly non-conformist. The plastic shopping bag sends off a very different message to a jute bag without corporate logo.
Every detail carries with it a world of associations, which are absorbed into a person’s identity. All those identity bits are assembled by the process of consuming, typically, but not necessarily, involving a commercial transaction. This assembled identity fits the idea of lifestyle, which implies a deliberate and self-aware choice, the consumer choice. Here, objects–and the term includes all of the aforementioned and virtually every possession or attribute–have become signs, unrelated to any practical use or need, according to Jean Baudrillard. Each sign acquires the role of a fetish, a pars pro toto, which itself becomes the object of desire instead of the thing it refers to–from those Manolo Blahniks in Sex and the City to the football socks and sneakers of a sportswear fetishist. The use of eroticism in advertising carefully establishes the fetish character of products.
© ninthplanet 2009
The gay world, in particular, has embraced this to the extreme as it is already set apart by its sexuality. Men refer to each other by their online nicknames, their assumed identities; they buy and wear the outfits that embody their sexual lifestyle identity, and they share this lifestyle (by lifestyle I do not mean sexual orientation as such as that is not chosen) with like-minded others. The world of Recon, a commercial company that runs an online gay dating site based on fetishes, comprises an online shop that sells the outfits and accessoires, gay fetish “events”, and the aspirational role models in the form of professionally photographed and post-produced shots as well as pictures of ambitious members who present themselves in the best possible light both as products and as consumers. Each member profile lists the product’s attributes alongside the shots. Recon, like so many other sites, sexual or not, has created an entire lifestyle world, here equating sexuality, personal and group identity with consumption.
It demonstrates how people not only express their personality, but actively assume and construct it by purchasing products. This process changes how people conceive of each other and of themselves, i.e. as products.
In a meta-fetish sort of way, Recon brand their own events and some of their products with their logo, thus fetishising the fetish shop/website itself. The brand becomes part of the core of a person’s personality, sexuality.
Fetishes are specific, as are lifestyle identities. Incongruence or being out of context kills them instantly. Fetishes lose any notion of being sexually arousing; they become comical or ambiguous.
Incongruous lifestyles are either eccentric or a bit tragic, depending on social class. A rich person may quite comfortably adopt working class mannerism, but a lower middle class person with upper class mannerisms is Hyacinth Bucket. The poor prole who drives a ridiculously overstyled car, the lower middle class family that have tarted up their council house with leaded windows–they are all the familiar butt of jokes. Rich people “acting down” may be complemented on their “lack of airs” or their modesty, or they will, at least, always command the respect their wealth bestows them. But for a Jordan to be exposed as a chav slapper, will always trigger the “well, she’s no better than she should be” response of the HEAT readership.
Lifestyles must possess an air of authenticity; they must be perceived to be a true expression of a person’s personality, as opposed to just expressing an aspiration. Any clues that do not fit the image risk revealing its aspirational and deliberately styled nature.
Western consumer society leaves no escape. Even the act of not participating is understood as a lifestyle choice. People not basing their lives on career advancement and aspirations for status, wealth, comfort etc, do not do so because they had not “thought about it”. They cannot escape from these lifestyle choices; they must be made, even if in the negative. The individual is framed within a social paradigm that is not of his own making and mostly beyond his own control.The only people that do not build their lifestyle through consumer choices are those who cannot afford to. As a consequence, we are blinded to their identity and personalities; their poverty serves as an impenetrable surface, which defines them and which is illegible to us due to the absence of the familiar cues. They become effectively invisible, as in Neil Gaiman’s book Neverwhere. Their poverty becomes a sort of moral blemish, behind which the individual disappears.
by Jim Goldberg
In the image at the very top of this post, the dildo is overkill. No one would flirt with the man. “Getting it right” requires a high degree of awareness of products and their meanings. Every fetish and every consumer lifestyle has a point where the cracks become apparent. Look behind the ears and you see the scars of the face lift. Witness a catty “domestic” scene between the glamourous and pervy ‘A’ gay fetish couple, and the lustre of their “lick my boots you dirty pig” routine will never be restored. Ever more refined consumption, a high awareness of one’s image and its constant monitoring are the essential ingredients of a successful lifestyle identity. One mistake and the whole construction is exposed as, at worst, a fake and the person as inept or dishonest, with doubts over his true identity raised.
Authenticity and humanity can only be found in the cracks of this lifestyle image. Be it the Celine Dion disk in the pervy skinhead’s music collection, the secret pair of frilly knickers in the back of some hairy builder’s chest of drawers, or the preposterous chandelier in the living room of a small council flat–in the gap between reality and aspiration is where true life is found. It’s like the gap below the skirting board, or behind the sofa where the detritus of a life lived accumulates. The surfaces are swept and tidied in order to be presentable, but those corners and cracks–how embarrassing!–we can trust to tell it how it is. I guess as a psychiatrist, I find psychological cracks fascinating; they reveal a humanity and truth that never fails to move me.
Where I assemble images from several others, I want those cracks to be visible on second sight; maybe it is the light, the perspective or the colour temperature, a sloppy mask or some other detail. It has to be almost invisible at first glance, so as to be believable, and then, on closer inspection, reveal its construction. As a life styled.