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Sunday, April 23, 2006

Joys of Close Reading

Most of what passes for cultural criticism in the American press is nothing other than an antiquarian's run down of famous coffee-press designers who went to school with each other.  The impulse seems to come from the worst kind of competitive drive, collecting for collecting's sake, in which even names and mini-histories become a sort of fetishized commodity traded on the free market of in-the-know-ism.

 For those of us with advanced degrees in the humanities who take these things very seriously, this is all a little depressing.  I can think of at least two reasons why my heart is currently sinking:
  1. do people really have so little to talk about?  prime time television successions can't possibly be that interesting.
  2. do people really have so little curiosity about their fellow human beings?  people, haircuts and dress and posture really *do* tell you an absurd amount about your friends' pasts and fantasies of the future, even if you sound like a snob for discussing it in public.  there's so much to be psychoanalyzed.  think, people!
Which is why it's such a charming, refreshing thing to come across a bit of solid cultural criticism in the press, as this morning's marvelous article by Jaime Wolf (three cheers for Jaime Wolf as America's next Susan Sontag!)
On his desk sit copies of Playboy from the 1980's, their pages carefully annotated and tabbed with colored stickers denoting their depiction of socks, pants, T-shirts, electronics, car designs and other markers of style from the period.

Next to these is a stack of come-on letters from television and film casting directors hoping to get Charney to supply them with the kind of fresh and unusual faces on display in American Apparel's provocative print ads.

Further over you'll find some books that Charney has been consulting, including a
collection of Andy Warhol's early hand-painted works; "The Concise 48 Laws of Power," by Robert Greene; and "The Medium Is the Massage," by Charney's fellow Canadian
Marshall McLuhan.
- Jaime Wolf, "And you thought Abercrombie & Fitch Was Pushing It?", The New York Times, April 23, 2006

Close reading, that cherished skill we learned in Comp Lit seminars, is out of fashion in History Departments, relegated to an old-world skill.  In English and Literature departments it's been a downgraded by the importance of identity studies. 

Close Reading seems to be most prized by advertising and fashion industry superstars who have caught onto the fact that people follow patterns and are manipulable. 

One assumes that politicians are interested in such patterns for their own reasons, as, historically, have been Departments of War and Propagana.  People trained in close reading have, historically speaking, been quite important. 

Dov Charney of American Apparel, discussed in the NY Times article above, seems to mostly have caught onto the fact that Americans of a certain racial profile are currently nostalgic for the world they grew up in and paranoid about its imminent demise (following the media-belabored threats of immigration, terrorism, etc.; nothing makes the heart grow fonder...) 

Closely reading current fashion for the savor of nostalgia, Charney then distills that nostalgia into an essence and tries to replicate it, in mass quantities, featuring facial types and twenty-year-out-of-date language.  Fascinating.  What else would one learn if one had one's pulse on American culture?

I find that my heart pines for this kind of Close Reading.  Oh, for a journal or a blog that strictly featured Close Reading.  Oh, for a seminar.  Oh for a decent book of essays!  For the moment, by way of deep analysis we must settle for David Brooks' opinions of the American suburb; Slavoj Zizek's labyrinthine tangents on foreign policy, and the weekly provincial complaints of the New Yorker .  But a scholar can dream.  

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Blogger Abby said...

Close reading! Jo, you never should have left the philologists behind. You're a closet Classicist. [duck].

6:15 AM  
Blogger Citadin said...

There is an interesting and somewhat similar article in the current Cal Alumni magazine about the organic food industry and consumer perceptions thereof, with a similar portrait of an industry leader:

The NYT article on Charney really doesn't dive deep enough into the social and psychological consumer drivers behind American Apparel, but that's perhaps becuase Wolf realizes that Charney is more of an amalgamist than a true original.

Very interesting read, as is your comment on the article, thanks.

8:34 PM  
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