What happens when we substitute illusion for reality and fetishize fashion.
“But certainly for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, fancy to reality, the appearance to the essence, …illusion only is sacred, truth profane. Nay, sacredness is held to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness.”
These words were written by the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, in the preface to his book The Essence of Christianity, reborn as an epigraph to Guy Debord’s famous critique The Society of the Spectacle, first published in 1967. In it Debord, one of the most famous French postmodernist philosophers, posited that we live in a world where the only thing that matters to us are appearances, which leads to an alienated existence, mediated and untethered from a lived reality. We conduct our lives for the sake of appearances. The result is a postmodern (Debord would say post-capitalist) personality in which acting takes precedence over living, appearing over being. To anyone who’s partaken in the contemporary culture driven by the social media, this is felt intuitively and does not require much persuasion. But it’s worth delving into the mechanics of this cultural system and fashion’s role in it in particular.
Debord’s slim but dense book is organized into a series of theses; the first of these posits, “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.” If this sounds vaguely familiar, Debord was referencing the first line from Karl Marx’s magnum opus, Das Kapital, “The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as an immense accumulation of commodities, its unit being a single commodity. Our investigation must therefore begin with the analysis of a commodity.”
This investigation is worth repeating, because it’s the crux of the matter at hand. Marx posited that an object has a dual value – a “use value” and an “exchange value.” A use value is what we get out of the product by using it as intended – shoes for walking, bags for carrying our personal belongings. An exchange value is the worth of an object in other people’s eyes – what would they give in return to own it. This is how we esteem objects and what gives them, and us by virtue of ownership, status. Marx argued that in the modern economy the exchange value of a commodity is what we prize the most, which leads to product fetishism. We worship the product because of what it represents – mostly, status – instead of simply using it as intended. We no longer prize a shoe because it protects our feet and helps carry us over long distances, or a bag because it allows us to comfortably transport our belongings. We prize objects because of what they signify. Thus a shoe becomes a Nike x Sacai collab sneaker, and a bag becomes a Gucci bag. We get satisfaction from objects we own from an occasional glance of appreciation or envy, a comment from a friend or a stranger in the street, and increasingly from social media likes. And when we concentrate on exchange value and not on use value – we alienate ourselves from the objects we own. If you purchased something only to resell it in a few months on Grailed because you are chasing the next thing instead of enjoying the garment because it serves your needs (physical or emotional), you have alienated yourself from that coat. If you rented that coat on Rent the Runway, only to give it back in a week, doubly so.
As outlined above, commodities have turned into symbols. (Though one may argue that they have been symbols since the dawn of civilization. It’s just those symbols weren’t accessible to the masses, but they were to a small elite. This is something I would have liked both Marx and Debord to address.) Each symbol consists of two components – the signifier and the signified. Obviously, the most direct signifier is the logo. The primacy of logomania today is not accidental – it is the direct result of the society of the spectacle, where appearances are all that matters. Other things are also the result of the same society – the rabid intellectual property laws that protect brand signifiers but not the objects themselves, the proliferation of fakes, and the rise of the aforementioned rental services. If all that matters today is a picture on Instagram, does it matter whether your bag is fake or real, whether you own it or rented it?
The more pernicious result of such a society is of course that we begin to see everything and everyone, including ourselves, as carriers of signifiers and of exchange value. In short, we are alienated from everything and everyone, including ourselves. Indeed, how can we have genuine selves if we consume fakes, rent objects as props, or for that matter buy the so-called “real” thing whose use is no longer important to us? In such a society, developing a genuine emotional connection to people and things – and I would argue that having an emotional connection with things is not only not shallow, but intrinsically important to a genuine life – becomes impossible. Look at the very language we use – we are “on/off the market” when we date, we have “personal brands,” and we “sell ourselves” at job interviews. No wonder that in 2010 The Supreme Court of the United States ruled that “corporations are people.”
Debord argued that in our time (in his time already) we have gone further. Having is not enough to satisfy us – we need to be seen and often by total strangers. “The present phase of total occupation of social life by the accumulated results of the economy leads to a generalized sliding of having into appearing, from which all actual ‘having’ must draw its immediate prestige and its ultimate function,” he wrote. In other words – who cares if you are a rich Atlanta housewife with a closet full of couture, if no one sees it? You must show it off on social media. You must go to Paris or New York to be seen. Otherwise, your couture is worthless.
Of course corporations themselves want it this way. When you live in the world of fetishized commodities it is easy to manufacture demand and convince consumers they must have things they don’t need. And corporate fashion is the Olympic champion of manufacturing desire. Since the ascent of social media, which has turbocharged the shift from having to appearing, corporate fashion has been especially egregious in giving the primacy to the logo over the object. We see this in the decrease of quality of the product across the board, and in the ensuing logomania. What today’s luxury fashion consumer gleefully pays for is mostly marketing, celebrity endorsements, the PR army, and the scores of pliant journalists and influencers flown in to fashion shows in exchange for favorable coverage. In other words the consumer actively subsidizes his/hers/theirs alienation.
Debord posited that we are active participants in building the society of the spectacle. And at the end of the day perhaps we have no one to blame but ourselves. We have made “the illusion sacred, the truth profane.” We can’t help but want status and validation from others, even though it’s ultimately a hollow exercise. I have long thought about why the Canal St. fakes feel valid. And I realized that it’s not only because the so-called genuine Balenciaga hat is made from the same trashy materials as the fakes, so there is not much difference in buying a fake one, but also because we truly live in a world where appearance is the only thing that matters. A fake – or a rental for that matter – allows people without the pecuniary means of enjoying the “real” thing to enjoy the appearance. And since the object doesn’t matter, why bother with it? This is how we get to people reselling Rick Owens totes that one gets for free with a purchase of a pair of his jeans or shoes, and Hermés shopping bags (and how we get private jet and even flower rentals by the hour for social media photo shoots).
How do we rebuild a society where faking it is making it? Debord did not think it was possible, and neither do I. But I do think that there is such a thing as authenticity, that it is possible to participate in consumer society and have a genuine relationship with objects without fetishizing them. If you have a coat that you bought because you liked the design, the cut, the materials it was made from, and because of these things you have worn it for years and received not only protection from the elements but enjoyment from looking good in it and even from an occasional complement – this is fine and it is genuine. We don’t have to go back to a need-based society – those tend to be rather bleak. But the only way forward, if we are to combat alienation and to regain a feeling of connectedness not only to objects but to people and to ourselves, is a considered life, one in which we stop fetishizing commodities and appearances.
(Author’s note: this article is heavily indebted to a Guy Debord episode narrated by Stephen West on his podcast Philosophize This! I encourage everyone to listen to it (and the entire podcast for that matter), and, obviously I encourage everyone to read The Society of the Spectacle.)