Identity, Class and Contemporary Contexts

It has been widely noted by many who know me well how binary I can be  – that is, I am prone to extreme moods, fancies, etc. Most of the time I don’t even realise this but it struck me symbolically whilst organising some recent photographs. I could split photographs featuring myself in two distinct categories. I was either wearing ripped jeans, heavy metal hoodies and flannelette shirts with my hair pushed in a messy ponytail. Or I had full makeup, manicured platinum blonde curls and the Marilyn Monroe look with either a fussy frilly structured dress or a neat business casual outfit. It was rather perplexing. Who the hell was I? And if I didn’t know, how were others meant to know? Was this endemic of the fabled late modern identity crises? Or simply, as friends would jokingly point out, an ‘Anoushka problem’?

We live in a world of multiple roles (parent, sister, daughter, wife, friend, boss, colleague etc), confusing messages that identity can be worn and discarded like clothes (the ‘sex kitten’ that one’s partner likes is hidden in the proverbial closet when Mum comes over for tea and cake!) and perhaps most importantly, within an advanced capitalist system with a sophisticated consumer culture that also sends many messages regarding self-authenticity and identity. Social media allows us to carefully construct an ideal self alongside these contradictions, perhaps worsening our crises. Many wring their hands over a supposed explosion in narcissism and self-absorption, which over-simplifies the very human social need to be accepted and liked.

These phenomena do not allow for a straightforward and fluid narrative. However, as I am exploring in my thesis, there are some cultural codes that are becoming embedded in global contexts – and potentially, emerging as a globalized linguistic sign. Such as the luxury symbol. Regardless of language spoken, the luxury brand symbol, some makes/models and styles, are recognizable across linguistic barriers and sociocultural lines. For example, luxury goods are experiencing strong demand in China – and a show of the ‘right’ clothing, watch or bag when doing international business may engender more trust or a display of power/class than carefully chosen translated words. This could explain how ruling classes dominate in civil societies; how power is shown symbolically without the show or suggestion of violence or force. This may even assist us in moving towards understanding why the lower classes fawn over the elites like giddy tweens at a One Direction concert.

Social identity is a shifting construct that moves, often depending on who you want to see it – a ‘conspicuous consumption’. I would not wear my jeans and shirt to get a bank loan or do anything professionally related. This is likely related to class-positioning – or my cultural capital, if you will. My mother was brought up in a upper-middle class home with old-fashioned bourgeois values and manners; which she pushed on to my brother and I. My father was raised by his traditionalist Scottish-British grandparents whilst his radio star mother flitted around the world and his father drank himself stupid. To say I was raised with old-fashioned cultural values is an understatement – and admittedly, this accumulation of cultural capital is something that often benefits me. As I examine my thesis data that shows how wealth keeps compounding at the top of society, despite the quantity of social theories proposed since, I return to Veblen and Bourdieu, because few theorists describe the symbolic power of class and capital better. People can often guess if you are not ‘one of them’, regardless of how well you may imitate them. Masks slip, or prove to never be very good anyway.

Returning to the problem of self-authenticity, it may be debatable whether it is even an issue for sociology to be concerned with. There exists a body of work in philosophy and the psychological sciences that treats the issue rather extensively. It is doubtlessly a bourgeois puzzle – an existential self-query that troubles the caricatured ivory tower academic.  Recently, I have come to realize that I like a lot of ‘stuff’ that I probably should not dedicate my scholarly career to studying. For me, an onus exists for the sociologist to interrogate society, locate it’s problems and legitimize discussion about urgent issues such as socioeconomic inequality – unpacking this to causes, drivers and results. Writing about phantasmagoria and culture is enjoyable; but not particularly socially important. To utilize a Marxian term, it provides little ‘use value’. As what can be considered Australian society extends via technology and markets, the sociologist is pressured to keep up with the reflexive social changes and the constant shifts in winners and losers of this transformation. This is no small challenge…

Remembrance of Things Past: The Misty Wraith of Lost Time

 

 

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Lost time. Things past. Echoing memories, sensations, twinges and the ghost of muddled emotions. What we believe happened – but in reality, nothing but extant feelings. Sometimes, what happened alongside dreams, stories and histories from the lives of others. I mean for this post to be unabashedly Proustian – with a rambling narration that reflects on life lived – or, what may have happened. Because, in the aftermath, all we have of lost time resides in our imaginations. The imagination, as our scientifically rationalist society may argue, cannot be trusted for accuracy. Phenomenology as an academic discipline battles for epistemological respect in the social sciences – the rigor of the personal experience is questioned.

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As we travel through our life course, we rely on memories, histories and stories, often without interrogating the architects of their construction. Nietzsche (and Foucault, among others) has problematized meta-history in his Genealogy theory, which argues that history is written by individuals with certain interests and privileges. Shared accounts of events recalled may conflict with one’s own recollection. And stories are notoriously slippery and difficult to grasp. Do these thoughts render one’s memories untrustworthy – or do they imbue times past with new vibrancy and meaning?

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I know, when I recall some emotionally difficult times, these memories and thoughts are coloured dramatically by emotions, latter reflections and realisations. I might immerse myself in a memory and transport myself to the time past, my imagination conjuring images, smells, sounds and emotions. I can stop, rewind and skip parts. Sometimes, I change outcomes, taking the role of movie director or god. In one’s memory, unlike in reality, control over circumstances is perfect and untouchable.  If unpleasant emotions or images invade our fantasy, we can block them, erase them. The continual practice of interrogating the past and analysing one’s self sees the integrity of memory blur. However, due to our subjectivity and personal ontological positioning, a perfect and accurate recording of lost time can never be attained. It is literally time that is lost; only unreliable simulacra float in our imaginations, stories that tell us who we are and where we have come from. Does this render a narrative of identity and personal history obsolete? Or does it give us the existential freedom to keep trying to get things right; a second chance to soothe uncomfortable feelings and rationalise bewildering events?

 

 

 

The Semiotics of Ageing in Advertising: Our changing discussion on age

:: Culture Decanted ::

“Semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie. If something cannot be used to tell a lie, conversely it cannot be used to tell the truth: it cannot in fact be used “to tell” at all.”

Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics

Getting long in the tooth

This is the second part of an analysis of concepts of ageing and immortality in modern times.   The first part looked at the mythology of immortality, its prominence as a central theme of the first written story in history to its rise to dominance within Hollywood storylines.   Over time there has been a shift in how we look at immortality, from it being the provenance of deities and mythological races that are immortal because of eating and drinking magical fruits or drinks, to the contemporary obsession with eating another’s life to be immortal, fantastically brought…

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Emotions, Culture, Sign value and the Asymmetry of Meaning

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The engagement ring can be seen as an exemplar of an object or symbol ‘doing work’ as a signifier. When worn on a certain finger; or when given to someone in a particular manner, it’s meaning is clear. However, what I want to explore is how this sign-value can be ‘damaged’  – or altered, through alternative forms of consumption. Let me pose a scenario: married man and woman divorce – she sells her engagement ring to a second-hand shop or another kind of retailer. The ring, once a symbol of the love in the marriage and ’til death do us part, now signifies the destroyed relationship for the woman. She just wants to ‘move on’ – the emotional losses she is suffering are somewhat soothed by re-selling the ring that symbolized her relationship. It gives her a bit of power in a situation where she feels helpless and alone. Now rid of the ring, she can perhaps put this money towards her new life – a deposit for a new home, a piece of jewelry to signify this new period or something else entirely. But what of the ring? Now sold to a second-hand retailer, it has lost it’s original sign-value and it sits in the glass cabinet, in limbo, waiting for someone else to decide what it can mean.

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It could be that a new couple purchases the ring to signify their engagement and impending marriage. However, superstition bestows ‘bad karma’ on these kinds of rings. The new couple are more likely to purchase a new ring from a jeweler; a ring without a tarnished torrid past. The new engagement ring is seen as a better signifer; without the dark cloud of where the ring may have been and what it may have meant to another couple. A friend of mine likes to buy diamond engagement-style rings at Cash Converters because she knows that they have been symbolically de-valued and she gets the diamonds re-set into new rings. She doesn’t say it like that and looks at me strangely when I do. She just likes getting diamonds cheap.

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The wedding dress is another example of this. Any woman who has been married will tell you that purchasing a new dress is expensive. But buying one second-hand is much cheaper. I bought my wedding dress second-hand. In the shop, the new ones were $5000 – $10,000. My second-hand dress, looking identical to those other dresses, cost $2000. Family and friends still think I’m weird for wearing a dress ‘with a history’ or with ‘mileage’. One asked me, ‘What if the other couple got divorced? A second-hand wedding dress is really unlucky’. My pragmatism could not justify the price difference and I thought the superstition around weddings was illogical. I didn’t enjoy playing the role of ‘bride’. The relationship I had (and still have!) with my partner superseded all this frou-frou and cultural custom. I was a poor sport going through some of the motions; I changed out of my dress after entree at the reception. I was antagonistic towards the sign-value of the bridal dress – I felt objectified and unauthentic. It did not symbolize my relationship and the generic bride culture left little room for uniqueness. I had the traditional wedding in the beautiful old mansion on acres of garden that my mother wanted for herself but couldn’t have due to her father’s ill health. It was a wonderful day with my family and friends; yet my grouchiness at having to ‘be’ something probably dampened the mood at times! My gorgeous sister-in-law just got married – and she was not only a vision of beauty and grace, but a class act. I cried like a baby several times that day, moved by her glorious womanhood and happy relationship. Only now can I see how ‘the bride’ can be conceptualized by loved ones – when someone special is playing the role, the role becomes a prosthesis on top of your warm feelings towards the person. I didn’t see my gorgeous little sis as a generic bride that day; she was The Bride – glorious, elegant and regal. I was in awe of her and I can’t wait to see the wedding pictures in a few days (I was her bridesmaid and didn’t get the chance for happy snaps).

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There could be divergences to my thoughts – such as a beloved family heirloom wedding dress or engagement ring, rich with happy narrative and stories. Vintage objects fascinate me as a material culture researcher and theorist. They are rich with potential stories, symbols and romance. I find it interesting to think on the object – and it’s sign-value, how it can be asymmetrically understood. By this, I mean to address how we can keep secrets from each other. What if your fiance didn’t tell you that he bought you a second-hand ring? Would it change it’s meaning if he told you later about it? And what happens when couples disagree on the use of heirlooms to signify their marriage? I think that this is why the lead-up to weddings can be so emotionally charged; there are multiple worldviews – and familial cultures – colliding. It can be messy – like some awkward weddings I have attended – or it can be so loving and beautiful that it moves one to tears – like the union of my in-laws and my sister-in-law’s new family.The wedding also became a celebration of a widening family. When symbols, shared meaning, love, culture and emotions collide, it can be an incredible human experience.

High-End Malls, Dead Malls: Consumption in Surfers Paradise

I just recently holidayed in Surfers Paradise, Queensland (Australia) and observed many interesting sites of consumption. Although my current research uses Melbourne, Victoria (Australia) as it’s case study, mostly due to Melburnian’s widespread fixation on luxury consumption, Australia’s Gold Coast could have also been an excellent site. What Surfers Paradise has which Melbourne does not is ‘dead malls’. In the USA, a mall is deemed ‘dead’ when less than 30% of its retail space is untenanted (so, a mall 70% full of tenants is declared ‘dead’ and closed). However, it seems apparent that Australian retail has no such ruling. Piazza on the Boulevard is a shopping mall/arcade on Surfers Paradise Boulevard, in a relatively prime retailing position. From the details on a plaque, I was able to ascertain that the 1980s mall had a face-lift in 2002. However, I would estimate that this mall reversed the US ‘dead mall’ ruling: about 30% of its retail space was tenanted and 70% was vacant. In this mall, ‘for lease’ signs were more common than shop signs! At 6pm, when other malls in Surfers Paradise were a-buzz with activity, this mall was completely, and eerily, empty. Few shops even bothered to open. The lighting was on, the doors open, the escalators working…but there were no customers, or even people taking short-cuts. I felt like I was in one of those post-apocalyptic horror films…2015-03-10 19.09.51

The entrance, a prime space in an arcade, was messy as it was being used for storage (see above). Although it was fairly clean, the mall was not immaculate, as most of the highly used malls such as Chevron Renaissance were (more on that later). And although it has been updated in 2002, the decor did not quite reflect this. It felt like the aesthetic amendments were minimal and cheaply done. It also felt like too much of the dated 1980s character had been retained. Malls boomed in the 1980s – as did Surfers Paradise as a holiday destination. Piazza on the Boulevard is a weird ghost of the boom, somewhat maintained but mostly disregarded, shabby and forgotten – despite its top location on the main strip of town. It’s street frontage is small and does not scream for attention. The sliding glass doors, possibly added to an older arcade opening, almost look like an entrance to a mundane old office building. I only found this place on my third day, despite having walked past it perhaps ten times or more, during mornings, afternoons and evenings.

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I have taken the pictures at night, but it was the same during the day. Empty, spacious, lonely. My footsteps echoed loudly as I walked through the place, snapping pictures and musing on how the Piazza may have died. My postmortem was the only attention being given to this mall.

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I have made this image ridiculously immense so you can begin to get the feeling that the mall had. The musty air was rich with frustration, sadness and toil. I thought about what I would do if I owned it, much like ‘well-meaning’ jerks will tell a ‘fat’ girl that she has a pretty face. Across the street from the Piazza, stands the Chevron Renaissance. If The Chevron Renaissance was human, it would be Charlize Theron: polished, old-style classical beauty, almost unmarked by age and stunningly beautiful. Designed in 1999 and finished in 2003, the Chevron is of a similar age to the Piazza’s renovations. Could the Piazza have dolled herself up as much as she could afford to so she wouldn’t look so dowdy against – and possibly lose tenants and customers to – Chevron?

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Like other phenomena that I observed in Surfers Paradise, this in some ways is a materialisation of stratification. The Piazza has a website that presents itself as alive and well, with its landing page showing images of its external body. The shops facing the Boulevard and Elkhorn Avenue were tenanted by everyday businesses such as pharmacies and franchised eateries such as Subway, suggesting a degree of security, perhaps even life, for the Piazza. At the end of Elkhorn Avenue closer to the beach, high-end luxury-branded fashion shops such as Hermes and Louis Vuitton have recently cropped up, sandwiching Piazza between Chevron and a luxury strip. Like everyday women next to Charlize Theron (importantly; without the access to the cultural capital that being a superstar entails), the Piazza looks startlingly ordinary against the showy Chevron Renaissance and even worse when considered against the tasteful beige row of pretty new luxury shops (see below):

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Whether we can start eulogizing Piazza just yet remains to be seen. It is likely that she is next in line for a Pretty Woman moment in the form of some serious gentrification. Last time I holidayed in Surfers Paradise was 1991, so I was surprised by some of the changes. Although I intend to come back sooner this time, I am sure that my next trip will show me a new side of Piazza, and a new Surfers Paradise. The city was buzzing with life at all hours, just like how I remember it in the 1980s and 1990s. But faces had changed – some locals complained of an alleged ‘Asian takeover’ but I see this as an opportunity for Surfers Paradise to grow into a more cosmopolitan city. Surfers Paradise is, therefore, an interesting case for consumption – but also, it provides us with some deeper thoughts about modernity and our current culture. Australia can attest that the process of maturity is a difficult process and current high-tech, and high-stratified, norms complicate this further. The agency of the individual is stressed; yet the binding problems of structure often get left out of media or social interactions about class mobility and change. As with most things in life, there is always so much more than what meets the eye….

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