Sunday, February 3, 2013

Slaves to Fashion

The readings this week were a downer.

Lazarsfeld tells us we are "pawns upon a chessboard, losing the spontaneity and dignity which is the basic characteristic of the human personality." Horkheimer and Adorno believe we are manipulated by the culture industry to the extent that our "inner lives" have disappeared and we don't even realize it. We are enslaved and miserable, unable to resist the forces that grind us down and keep us underfoot.

Surely, this can't be true.

To borrow from the movie Airplane!,  it is true...and don't call me Shirley.

A few years ago, I saw an exhibit at Sheldon that demonstrated the impact of mass culture in our lives. The artist had traveled to large cities around the world, photographed icons of mass culture and then displayed the series of pictures in sections through the exhibit. For example, one area had pictures of people holding Starbucks coffee cups in Rome, Chicago, New York, Mumbai, London, Singapore and other cities. The next section focused on Victoria's Secret shopping bags or Gap t-shirts. It was a vivid example of how homogeneous our world is becoming. 

Another example of mass culture is demonstrated by a scene in the movie, The Devil Wears Prada. Fashion magazine editor, Miranda Priestly delivers a withering attack on assistant Andy Sachs, when Andy scoffs at the choice of which blue belt should be chosen as an accessory. Priestly says Andy is wearing a "lumpy blue sweater" from a Casual Corner store that was chosen for her by the fashion industry.

"'s sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room from a pile of stuff," says Priestly.

I have to admit, sometimes I wonder if we are hypnotized by a mass culture that is growing so uniform that someday we we won't know if we're in Kuala Lumpur or Fargo. 

And that is depressing.


  1. Thank you for your post, MJ:
    I know what you mean by the increased uniformity of many areas of culture. Part of me thinks that this is almost inevitable. Even Starbucks started off as a small coffee roaster. I'm not sure how someone completely extricates themselves from this uniformity. I personally try to make a conscious choice to not give chain companies my business. Not so much because the quality is better or worse, but because I want to experience something different. And I think to some degree this idea of being able to participate in a new experience in life, big or small, is what some members of the Frankfurt School were getting at.

  2. Hey Mary, thanks for bringing out this idea. That exhibition of Starbucks cups around the world just reminded me of the obsession of people with taking photos of their cups and uploading them on Instagram. I personally admit that I fell on this "mass culture trap" some time. Well, my explanation for this is that I personally love coffee so much that I just wanna immortalize my personal encounters with coffee :) but I think some other people might do it for a sense that Starbucks coffee might give them a sense of status or being "classy".