Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Schaufenster Puppen

Sometimes I'll been on a subway car that's so quiet and lifeless, it seems filled -- myself included -- entirely with showroom dummies. Everyone's face is expressionless, everyone's eyes hollow, looking off into space at nothing, not even pretending to read the ads for Dr. Zizmor or the Language Institute. They seem like mannequins in a department store, inviting judgment on how well they have been dressed up. This attitude, this atmosphere of constriction and anti-sociality and wariness of strangers is what the fashion industry thrives on -- just as commercial ideology espouses isolation as a transcendental good, an ultimate form of liberty from the hassles of cooperation and compromise, fashion celebrates haughtty disdain and mutual alienation, so each can judge the other in lofty repose. Fashion relies on the adoption of death masks and a climate in which judging the surface appearance of others replaces social interaction and is regarded as good sport, as high entertainment. WHen people refuse to show animation, refuse to be anything other than images, when people emulate the passive stillness of fashion magazine spreads, they demand to be judged as images, not as humans. They submit themselves by their silence and their dour lifelessness to be judge by the harsh standards we bring to looking at people in photos in lifestyle magazines, the entirely unsympathetic glance one has when one knows that what one is looking at can't look back at one. And this critical attitude only reinforces our reluctance to trust anyone or to open up and reveal any life in public spaces. We are already on the defensive, already shutting people out, already concerned about how we are being judged and already looking for opportunites to gaze and judge ourselves.

If one person were to begin a conversation with a stranger, as the odd soul will bravely attempt, the stifling hermetic mood would lift, and people would relax fom their plasticity into humanity again. People will begin exchanging social glances as opposed to wary judgemental ones, and a joviality will spread -- even if the loud invasive talker is held to be crazy, the animation he will have brought to the car will let others form a human bond in laughing at him.


  1. While I agree with much of your critique, I found myself asking, What of the people who don't really spend much time worrying about how they look? Sure the subway and the city are filled with people for whom the fashion-industry spillover idea would work most heartily, but are those who just wear what they wear to be clothed somehow failing in this paradigm? Why do they remain silent or still or avoid eye contact? Could it be that there are other similar but different social mechanisms going on?

  2. Good question. Perhaps they are browbeaten by the social pressure to conform to those industry standards for appearance, cowed into silence by their sense of failing to meet expectations, and receiving no sense from those around them that those expectations are a myth.