22 August 2012

Mood indigo

Blue Jeans: The Art of the Ordinary, by
Daniel Miller & Sophie Woodward
(University of California Press)

Denim is both malleable and obstreperous. Jeans have long had legs as a metaphor in pop, for a kind of dissident eccentricity (Bowie’s “The Jean Genie”, 1972), or dissident sex appeal (Lana Del Rey’s “Blue Jeans”, 2012). But now, two anthropologists argue that jeans’ capacity for meaning is fading fast: that some jeans now signify nothing at all except ordinariness.

Miller and Woodward interviewed 67 residents of three streets in North London, eliciting from each “a kind of life history through jeans”. One man remembers being given his first pair “by an American GI in the mid-1940s”; a woman recalls “a relative who in 1958 or 1959 was one of the first women in the area to wear jeans and was promptly beaten up for her effrontery”. These days, jeans are ubiquitous among all age groups. People say they feel “comfortable” in them — which primarily means, the authors observe, socially comfortable. Blue jeans, people also say, go with everything — even though, as the authors astutely point out, another fabric dyed indigo, or a different colour of denim, wouldn’t go with everything. The very colour of blue jeans has become invisible.

Likewise, blue jeans may allow the wearer to become invisible. Some interviewees use jeans to make a point or mark a new beginning in life, but many others are quiet rebels, wearing jeans as a way to opt out of the onerous choices of fashion, to avoid making a “statement”. These jeans-wearers are a revolutionary cadre. The book’s most powerful chapter explores the usefulness of jeans’ aesthetic and social neutrality for migrants who want to resist the pressure to express an “identity”. Instead, wearing jeans helps them to fit in, since jeans are “global”. This idea prompts a rather lovely, if melancholically subjunctive-free, flight of optimistic fancy from the authors:

What if there was some technique of neutral abstention from culture? What if instead there was an imagination of a global ecumene to which all people have an equal right and in which all have an equal stake, because it says nothing about them at all, makes no claims and creates no issues? What if people could literally become nondescript?

Such is the liberating power of “the ordinary”. Of course jeans still come in many different styles (baggy, skinny, the “boyfriend” jean), colours (red jeans on a man today, I surmise, reliably signify a buffoon), and expensive “luxury” lines. (Miller and Woodward suggest intriguingly of one man that his former devotion to costly Japanese selvedge jeans was a “dry run” for his current devotion to Islam.) But it is “basic” jeans that are what the authors call “post-semiotic”, having escaped all other associations to indicate, at last, nothing but the quality of being ordinary. (The authors accept that this is still signifying, so that “post-semiotic” is incorrect, but they fondly continue to use the term anyway.)

There is a puzzle, though, about this alleged category of ordinary, post-semiotic jeans. Who makes them? Examples that arise in this book include Levi’s, Wrangler, Lee, M&S, Primark, or Next. But those are all individual brands, with special advertising emphases: they mean different things, both to the wearers and (presumably) to the trained trouser-spotter. (As Miller and Woodward elsewhere half-accept: “Clearly Marks & Spencer marks a kind of hyperordinariness, just as Levi’s well-known 501 style marks a male hyperubiquity.”) It’s hard to find a pair of jeans that is completely unbranded, and brands mean something. (That is their entire purpose, to plaster meaning upon commodity.) So the genre of “ordinary” jeans cannot be quite as homogeneous and evacuated of signification as the authors hope. Or, as Helen Marnie sings in “Blue Jeans” by Ladytron: “Blue jeans won’t cut at the seams like you want them to”.

Like a fashion garment festooned with shouty brand logos, this book is, unfortunately, riddled with adverts for itself. It boasts of “original insight”, heralding news about “humanity”. Despite an early sneer at philosophy, it promises later some “esoteric academic and philosophical arguments”. (The ordinary, supposedly, “stands against the normative”: the argument is confused and unpersuasive.) Other styles of anthropology and “current academic fashions” are brought up only to be scorned, in favour of “our particular version of material culture studies”. This, the best of all possible disciplines, empowers the authors to notice crucial facts about people’s lives of which the people themselves are not “conscious” or “aware”. For this humane and often fascinating story, which insists that “being ordinary is far from something to disparage”, the authors have been careful indeed to dress themselves in the intellectual equivalent of the most exclusive possible jeans.