Archive for the 'Criticism' Category

Menswear Books: Dressing the Man by Alan Flusser

alan-flussers-dressing-the-man-1.jpgWhen I bought my copy of Alan Flusser’s Dressing the Man: Mastering the Art of Permanent Fashion, it was not the book I was looking for. I was actually searching for one of his other books I had heard about on Styleforum (either Style and the Man or Clothes and the Man), but they were unavailable. In any case, Flusser is very famous for being the guy who outfitted Michael Douglas in the 80s film Wall Street. The fashions in the film are not at all to my taste, but it is obvious to everyone who watches it that Flusser was very good at his craft. An article in The Rake tells me that Gordon Gekko’s wardrobe ate up nearly a fifth of the budget. I also always enjoyed the anecdote about Michael Douglas’s shirts requiring shoulder padding, because his natural shoulders were not photogenic enough.

lumberghThe Gordon Gekko outfits have now come full circle and become meme-worthy satires of the aspiring middle-management guy in his power tie, but Flusser’s books are still very good reading. Dressing the Man is more focused on clothing than Bernard Roetzel’s Gentleman and there are fewer lifestyle items. Rather, Flusser is wonderfully obsessed with proportion, pattern and color. In short, he talks about classic menswear a lot and has his feet firmly planted in the golden age of men’s fashion. There are a lot of wonderful pictures and drawings to help you figure out what you should wear and how. It’s a great practical guide with a solid historical perspective.

One of the things you could be critical of in Flusser’s book is his way of dressing people based on their body type and complexion. Can’t I wear what I want to wear? If there is a garment whose color does not really suit my complexion and I really like it, should I just simply skip it and adhere to Flusser’s rules? When it comes to proportion and silhouette, I think you should listen to Flusser. It’s obviously something he knows a lot about and he is also very good at translating that knowledge into something the rest of us can understand. With color and complexion, I would be more adventurous were I someone who likes to experiment with color. There are restrictions your body shape and complexion place on your clothes, but there are other factors at play as well. For one thing, fun. Clothes are a serious matter sometimes, but they should also bring you joy. One of the joys of wearing clothes is breaking the rules. So, I guess what I want to say is that you should read Flusser, learn the rules and then break them wisely.

Menswear Books: Gentleman by Bernhard Roetzel

A friend of mine recently asked about a menswear book I had mentioned on social media somewhere and I thought it would be interesting to write a few reviews of the ones I have in my bookshelf. I should preface this by saying that I am not an expert. If you want expert advice on a large number of menswear books, I would suggest you go to the Gentleman’s Gazette’s list of a 100 menswear books. After that, you might want to come back to this blog to read about my take on the subject.

gentleman roetzelOne of the first books I bought was Bernard Roetzel’s Gentleman: A Timeless Guide to Fashion (2009). I was looking for menswear books by Alan Flusser after reading the A Suitable Wardrobe blog. Out of curiosity, I ordered Roetzel’s book as well. More recently, I found his interview on the Gentleman’s Gazette YouTube channel and then followed him on Instagram. I also found out that he writes for Parisian Gentleman. But when I first bought Gentleman, the book was a random find and I had no idea what to expect.

The foreword told me that my copy was the revised new edition and that the original was ten years old already. Some of the information in it has not aged at all, but other things do seem a bit outdated. A section on tobacco, for example, does not seem quite appropriate any more – and I say this as a casual pipe smoker. Nevertheless, it goes over the basics very well. There is a lot of material in the book on a number of topics and I will not even try to summarize it all.  It tells you a little about grooming, clothes (of course), accessories, cultural differences and a few other gentlemanly activities. It will tell you how to fold your pocket square, how to pack your suitcase, what to wear on a fishing trip and how to wear tails. It is very nicely illustrated as well.

I understand that Roetzel’s book was a pioneering work. Today, there is more information available than we can handle, so times have definitely changed. This book required old-fashioned research and lots of time on the road and in the library. I guess the one critical thing I could say about it is that it does not go into great detail when discussing most of its topics. If you go read online forums today, people are obsessively geeking out over every little detail of every garment or code of conduct they can think of.

Roetzel deals in breadth in this book, which I do find a bit healthier than debating the merits of the hand-stitched Italian buttonhole by various regions of the country, but this unfortunately has to be counted as the book showing its age. You can still read it as a small encyclopaedia of menswear and there is nothing wrong with that, but if you want something a little more detailed, you might want to look elsewhere. For example, you may want to try Roetzel’s more recent writing. Having said all that, I do think this one is a must-read if only because it is one of the classics of the genre.

The Carters at the Louvre

Flanööri asked me to write about the new video by the Carters. I am not a fan of their music. I’m completely the wrong person to write about the topic, but that might make this interesting. The song sounds like it follows the common theme of bragging about how much money and stuff the artists have, which I don’t find interesting at all. Of course, all this has very little to do with music and everything to do with the video shot at the Louvre. So, I’ll put the new Death Grips album on and have a closer look at the visuals.

carters 1It begins with a very nice panning shot of the ceiling paintings in the Galerie d’Apollon. They look great in fancy lighting. We get a few close-ups of paintings I do not recognize, and then move to the Mona Lisa room with the Carters. They are dressed wonderfully throughout the video and play their part as celebrity royalty very well.

They change into white costumes and there is a wonderful shot of the Nike staircase with dancers lying on the stairs. Then, there is dancing, tilted shots of a few paintings and a bit more ceiling art. And many shots of the Carters who look very defiant in most of them.carters 2

There is more dancing and singing in front of Napoleon’s coronation, Nike and the Sphinx. There is a quick shot of David’s Sabine Women, after which the Carters take another meaningful look at the camera. I don’t know what they are trying to convey, but they look like they mean business.

carters 4Overall, there are not that many instances where our stars interact with the paintings and sculptures in a meaningful way, but I do get some of the points Sarah Huny Young writes about in her piece in Elle: that blackness is an art form in the video. There are a few shots where we see people mimicking the actions of statues, and a strange image of a man standing on a horse that somehow reproduces a Géricault painting. The latter looks interesting, because it obviously carnivalizes the original image of a Napoleonic officer. The man’s clothing mimics the stars and stripes, he’s wearing a cowboy hat, and he is standing on his horse. It would probably be my favorite image in the video were it not for another one that occurs a bit earlier.

carters 3It’s another David, his Portrait of Madame Récamier. Reclining on the floor under the painting, dressed in headgear that echoes the madame’s dress, are two women who also seem to recreate the symmetry of the strange sofa of the painting. There is a morbid parody of the painting by Magritte where the madame has been replaced by a coffin. I would have loved to have seen it in the background instead of the original. In any case, the Neoclassical dress and general setting of the image point to an idealized version of Ancient Greece, the socialite madame to contemporary ideals of beauty. The two ladies point to something else.

The Carters’s strange poses, defiance, intentional vulgarity (the song is called “Apeshit”) and all the rest of it seem to be aimed at creating a new standard of beauty through a commentary on European aesthetics. The plan still rests on the tradition it criticizes, but the critique does remind us of everything that has contributed to it, and of the fact that it’s still an ongoing tradition. The pieces in the Louvre are not preserved in the past. They are here with us in the present.

I guess that’s what I take home from this: aesthetics is never a theoretical exercise and always entangled with history. To quote Death Grips: “It’s a shitshow.”

What Is It Like to Teach a Course on Nihilism?

nothingnessI noticed some time ago that my Kindle was filling up with books on nihilism. These were mostly related to philosophy and literature. The philosophical works covered topics like anti-natalism and suicide. The literary studies discussed a range of literature from French existentialists to Lovecraft. Among my books I found the following:

There were a lot more. It was interesting to see so many books, many of them quite recent, discuss the meaninglessness of life. Some of them analyzed nihilism into different kinds or types: theological nihilism, political nihilism, semantic nihilism, epistemological, alethiological, metaphysical or ontological, ethical or moral, existential or axiological nihilism. Oddly enough, what I thought was a taboo subject had become the centerpiece of modern philosophy and art. Nihilism also showed a surprising taxonomical richness. If life really was meaningless, it seemed like this fact was immensely interesting and meaningful to a lot of people.

There is a history of nihilism in literature as well and it can be traced for the purposes of an English literature course. Many works have to be excluded, but that always happens. One can begin with the decadents and the fin de siecle hellraisers, go through Joseph Conrad, T.S. Eliot, Hemingway, Faulkner and Beckett. One can read popular writers like H.P. Lovecraft, William Burroughs, Hunter S. Thompson, and the more recent American Psychos and Fight Clubs. And one can end with the criticism of David Foster Wallace and the dystopian glory of Cormac McCarthy and Thomas Ligotti. That’s precisely what we did.

The history traced the ways in which artists and thinkers dealt with the disenchantment created by modernity. Again, immensely interesting and meaningful works of literature. Going through this rich vein of bleak poetry and prose, students often began their comments with “I know nothing really matters, but …” One could see Western thought turning in on itself, trying to wiggle itself out of the abstract hell it had knotted itself into. We knew something like that would happen, but it was nevertheless fascinating to witness. There are two more lessons to go and that’s a shame, because it has been one of the most rewarding courses I have taught in my almost ten years of teaching literature. Something can come from nothing. Quite a lot, actually.

The Stagnated Rhetoric of Political Extremism

m_90621Helsingin Sanomat published an odd story about a Finnish neonazi group this Sunday. Apparently, the reporters infiltrated an online forum where members, several whom were doxxed and had their names printed in Finland’s largest newspaper, discussed the group’s planned propaganda campaigns. The London Review of Books published Slavoj Zizek’s piece on the Charlie Hebdo attacks where he concludes that “we have to abandon the idea that there is something emancipatory in extreme experiences, that they enable us to open our eyes to the ultimate truth of a situation.” He calls this perhaps the “the most depressive lesson of terror.” Tariq Ali has been promoting his new book The Extreme Centre: A Warning where he seems to go Russell Brand on readers who have become totally apathetic with politics. Prince Charles expressed his concerns about the radicalization of young people on the BBC.

Warnings about political extremism have become a tool for established politicians and media personalities to promote their stale ways of thinking and to maintain their hold on power. An unthinking person might jump to the conclusion that to refuse to participate in this circus is a suggestion to join an extremist group, but this would be missing the point. Politicians have recruited radicalism and extremism to serve their own ends. Anyone who embraces extremism, it seems, will only be a useful idiot to those already in power. The discourse has been appropriated into the system and resistance seems futile. What, then, is to be done when the possibility of a revolutionary vanguard has been pre-emptively neutered by the clammy hands that guide the media?

Perhaps the first thing we could do is to recognize the stagnated rhetoric of political extremism and the even more foul-smelling use of the rhetoric of extremism by those already in power. Politicians who claim to be the only bulwark of reasonableness between us and extremism are not there to keep us safe and spotless. Their job is to get into office and their rhetoric does not essentially differ from the propaganda of extremist groups. Extremist groups, on the other hand, are hardly an option for most people who like to think themselves sane.

We should remember that great old William James quote: “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” We should recognize that what is being presented to us instead of thinking are thinky toys© which we are then expected to play with, preferably in the privacy of our own heads. Their use in journalism and the media to sell papers and books should be made more obvious to everyone. Eventually, the media might do it all by itself just by producing more lazy journalism and spouting tired rhetoric as news. If the ruse becomes grotesquely obvious, people will notice, get bored with them and finally resist them. That’s a big “if”, but where there is banality, there is hope.

A Spectrum of Misery

A little while ago, I wrote a short article about Thomas Ligotti’s book on nihilism and H. P. Lovecraft for the Finnish philosophy journal niin & näin. It should be published in the next issue. Usually I put the piece out of my mind as soon as I submit it, but something about this one stuck with me.

Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (2010) seemed to skip over skepticism, pessimism, cynicism and cross over to nihilism. At least that was my unacknowledged little hierarchy of -isms that I used to read him. What I did not make clear in the article was that I do categorize and file away authors according to whether they think like skeptics, pessimists, cynics or nihilists. What the actual qualities are that make someone fall into these categories is not quite clear. It is perhaps the forcefulness of their doubt. Skeptics and Pyrrhonists doubt relatively reasonably, pessimists doubt that there is no reason to attempt anything but doubting, cynics do nothing but doubt and the nihilists’ doubt is transcendental. Or perhaps the spectrum could be organized according to hope: little hope, very little hope, no hope, the negation of hope itself. Or it could be organized according to belief, certainty, motivation or reasonableness. Ligotti’s book is somewhere at the bottom end, whatever the scale is or how it really functions.

I usually reach for Richard Popkin’s History of Scepticism from Savonarola to Bayle (2003) when I start to think about my favourite miserable philosophers. Popkin’s book is probably the best account of the history of skepticism, and it’s also quite clever. He thinks of Descartes, for example, as the “conqueror of skepticism” instead of the man who founded western philosophy on a ridiculously overamplified doubt about everything. By doing what he did after his skepticism had been inflated to absurd proportions, Descartes saved western thought from imploding. Or that’s what Popkin thought. We may need another conqueror fairly soon for our postmodern irony-saturated culture. This time we need someone to save us from nihilism, but it is very difficult to bet on a nihilist to do anything that would serve common ends. Ligotti does what he does brilliantly and it is difficult to read the book without being entertained by his bleak philosophy, but he’s probably not our man.

Because the book is so entertaining, I came to think the supreme quality of my spectrum of misery may in fact be aesthetic. To categorize philosophers as either skeptics, pessimists, cynics or nihilists by using beauty as a tool of measurement sounds too strange to work, but it’s the best answer I’ve come up with thus far. There is beauty in the destruction of thought. It is like a dance that pulverizes the edifices erected by the reader in order to protect himself or herself from the world. After they are gone, the philosopher takes a bow, leaves the stage and he or she is left with nothing. That’s the one thing I now regret: I wish I could have found a way to say his book was beautiful.

Je suis Charlie

je suis charlie
In the spring of 2013, I was nervously putting together a defense for my dissertation on satire. I had played it safe and written a study about eighteenth-century satire, but I wanted to link what I had to say to contemporary issues in a little speech. There was no shortage of ridiculous attempts at censorship by anal bureaucrats and there were many examples to choose from when it came to moronic retaliations against those who had taken the piss and succeeded rather too well. Today, we have seen yet another retaliation far more hideous than the ones I had to choose from. Fine (and sometimes crude) wits and people around them have been shot down in Paris by monsters who have disgraced themselves and their cause in an unimaginably cruel attack.

It’s an attack that will fuel the fires of extremism, be it Islamic fundamentalism or the hardcore right-wing xenophobic cause. It’s an attack that will “accelerate history”, as the author Michel Houellebecq put it in a recent interview. He was referring to his own book, but the effect of the attack will be the same if not more dramatic. The faces of extremism are more or less identical, especially when two sides are engaged in furious battle. And this is how the catastrophe unfolds: two sides locked in a life-and-death struggle. Bad journalism will make it worse. It’s our time to grow up as a multicultural Europe, but try saying that to a bunch of immature children with guns and antiquated political ideals. What we should never forget in this affair is that there are not two sides to the story. There are at least three, and the representatives of one of those parties are now dead.

In the seventeenth century, one of the great men of the country I currently call home wrote wise words about the role of the satirist in society. The poet, playwright and critic John Dryden had absorbed the best lessons from those Greeks and Romans who were foundational for Western culture. One of their lessons was that a common culture was a fragile creation. The Greek notion of paideia was created to keep it healthy and strong. What is not always emphasized enough is that not only Greeks could take part in its maintenance. If you were part of its sphere of influence, you were a true participant in its creation. No matter where you came from or where you had been. Dryden, musing on these issues, noted that one of the tests of its health and soundness was satire. Satirists were the people who held in their hands the instrument of determining how mad we had become. When the satirist was persecuted, we could be sure that there was something gravely amiss.

Now, brave satirists are dead because of their work. They are dead because they did their civic duty as satirists. In the grand scheme of things, they were not part of the opposition or the status quo, right or left, West or East. They were the minders of our sanity, as satirists have always been. Now, more bravery and more satire is desperately needed. More ideological rebellion, more fuck yous, more determined piss-taking, more mockery of those who would bring all of us to our knees. Make fun of that pompous idiot in a dress who wants to tell you how to think. Make fun of the corrupt politicians who want to tell you how to act. If you do that, great things may happen. If you don’t, they’ve already won.