An essay on style; originally published in M/I/S/C Magazine
Friday, September 28, 2012 at 12:55 pm
Gangnam Style is the most ‘liked’ video in the history of YouTube. Drive is the film material of almost pure style. Facebook acquires Instagram. Steve Jobs, Steve Jobs. Justin Bieber’s swag coach says goodbye. Richard Florida produces research to sell. Academic-consultant-journalist is very much a thing. Kony and Old Spice have been viral. Jonah Lehrer recycles and plagiarizes and makes stuff up. Kanye West “just fucked Kim so hard.” Several of my friends, on LinkedIn, purport to be Social Media Gurus. This is the age of thought leadership, reputation management and personal branding.
Brand, in the most contemporary sense of the word, is synonymous with style. Your brand is the expression of your character, your values and the work you do, but only so much as those things fit into the decisions you make about how you project yourself outwardly. Style today, as the architect Alexander Josephson tells me, is “the way you interface with the problem of celebrity.” If that makes style a discipline in itself, it is the talent of self-knowledge – getting to the bottom of who you’d like to be, and then having the power to clearly and deliberately articulate that being. How do you exaggerate or downplay your character? How do you curate yourself? Who and what do you associate with? What do you obfuscate? How much do you reveal?
It can be trendy to talk about avoiding engagement with these questions, to quit social media, or to aim for the absence of style. Writers, designers, artists, mathematicians, software developers and chess players all strive for stylistic invisibility in their work, cutting to the shortest, most elegant solutions. It is an admirable goal. But the proposition that style is escapable is as illegitimate as the proposition that celebrity is escapable. Ours is a culture of real-time autobiography, of cultivating a public self for our circles and fields. To reject those activities only draws more attention.
The absence of style may be desirable, but to call it absence is a lie. Style is a totality of decisions. Aiming for neutrality is one such decision, that more likely has the effect of revealing distinct stylistic features, even your brand essence. In this way, the avoidance of style can be the distillation of style. As the art critic Erwin Panofsky put it in his 1936 essay, Style and Medium in Motion Pictures, “The problem is to manipulate and shoot unstylized reality in such a way that the result has style.” The same may be said of our public presentation today.
The word ‘style’ comes from a tool for carving, what to this day we call a ‘stylus.’ Etymological evolution has seen style turn from a purely impressive etching tool to an expressive tool, one that conditions the creation of whatever.
Style is the sum of factors that either coat meaning onto or expose meaning in a given experience, much the way a fresh coat of paint or exposed brick lend affect to the functional wall or the way an expensive coat or an exposed shoulder make meaning with the body.
Style is the use, combination, permutation, and dismissal of various techniques, applied within a discipline, toward an overall mode or character. In the most successful executions of whatever, style and content (or style and function) will seem inextricable, as though no stylistic decisions could’ve been made. And what is produced feels produced exactly as only.
Two annoying things someone inevitably brings up in casual discussions about style and especially fashion are the observations that nothing is original and that style is cyclical. These points are true of fashion where heel-heights and hem-lengths rise and fall with tides of style. Similarly, artists, filmmakers, musicians and designers leverage nostalgia, sometimes suspiciously discreetly, ‘paying homage’ to the past. As a rule, whatever was stylish two decades ago is stylish again right now. That creative output always involves lingering stylistic elements or revivals of other times precisely aligns to the function of the term style as an analytical tool. Taxonomy is style’s utility. When we talk about styles we are classifying things, according to macro-groupings and microfeatures. If style were not cyclical and derivative, if everything were unique, we wouldn’t have the ability to make sense of whatever by putting it in referential categories like movements and oeuvres. Historical placement is just one of the reference points we use to do this.
We group styles according to geoethnic and chronological tags, emotional and tonal descriptions, technical and technological devices, by genres and the philosophies that power them, and by tactics and processes. Some stylistic groupings have proven productive for classifying work across disciplines as in jazz, punk, funk, baroque and Italian futurism. This is important because it shows that we can learn about one practice by looking at another. It also helps to illustrate the indefinite number of potential styles, and suggests some courses to arriving at new ones.
That nothing is original doesn’t negate newness. New styles will always be named for new calibrations and new combinations of practices. May we never run scarce of hyphens.