September 20, 2010

Tongue in Chic

I’m in with the in crowd
I go where the in crowd goes
I’m in with the in crowd
And I know what the in crowd knows.

–Dobie Gray, “The In Crowd”

For many years now, I have been fascinated by the human desire to be “cool,” to be perceived by others as in the know, “hipper” than all the rest. I recall one fellow-student in my dormitory, during my first year at university, writing an essay on the subject for a class in English or sociology. This was in the early years of the sixties, when the work of Vance Packard (The Status Seekers, The Pyramid Climbers, etc.) was very much in the air. In any case, this student interpreted the actions of everyone on campus–students, staff, faculty, administration–as attempts to demonstrate that one was more sophisticated than everyone else. He wasn’t far off, as it turns out: a student guide to American universities subsequently described the ambience of the place as that of “one-upsmanship.”

I was impressed by the analysis of this student’s essay because it corresponded to my own experience. Thinking back, it seems to me that virtually every conversation I had or witnessed during those years had as its subtext the desire to impress. Not much of a basis for friendship, of course, and it is not surprising that I never returned to the place, never attended a class reunion, and never kept in touch with anyone from that era.

But it would be wrong to assume that university is where all of this begins. The phenomenon of cliques and in-groups dates at least from high school, which sets the template for all our future relationships. I remember one extremely intelligent student, Roger S., deciding to run for class president one year. There was a school assembly at which each of the candidates had five minutes to present their “platform.” After a series of morons in suits talked about how they would institute free coke machines or whatever, Roger got up, dressed in everyday clothing–definitely uncool–and quietly told his audience, “I’m not here to impress you. I don’t intend to dress up for you. I have no free gifts to offer you. I’m just going to give you honest student government and a real opportunity for you to participate in it.” Roger was the epitome of unchic and was consequently slaughtered at the polls, end of story. (Well, not quite: Roger went on to become Chief of Cardiology at one of the largest medical schools in the country. As for the guy giving out free Coca-Cola, he has long since disappeared from the historical record.)

In a sense, we remain in high school all our lives. This is pathetic, but it finally is what politics, and our social lives, are all about. I recall the wife of a famous psychiatrist–a guru, really–telling me that if she had friends over for dinner, the next week all of the women who had been at her house adopted her style of dress and cuisine. If she then changed these, they followed accordingly. It was as though they believed in a contagion theory of chicness: if they copied her, some of the “glow” would rub off on them. Absurd, yes, but this desire for chicness is no small force in human psychology or history. It’s the norm, not the exception.

The truth is that trying to be cool is a behavior that dates from the Paleolithic. When Paleolithic skeletons are dug up from roughly 35,000 years ago, and are found wearing jewelry–beads, pendants, necklaces–what else can this indicate but an attempt to say one is special–in fact, better than others? The same goes for “special” grave sites for the elite. Personal adornment and special graveyards are about status differentiation–Vance Packard in the Stone Age, one might say. All the evidence points to a new type of personality organization around that time, which made possible culture as we know it, and which also included the need to feel superior to others–in particular, wanting to be seen as superior to others. After all, being cool is something that has to be publicly agreed upon; it is essentially other-defined. Which means it is as insubstantial as gossamer; who or what is cool can change in the twinkling of an eye. But human beings pursue it as if their lives depended on it. In fact, very few human beings manage to escape the lure of superiority. When you meet Zen masters who are proud of their humility (an experience I’ve actually had), you know, as André Malraux once observed, that “there really is no such thing as a grown-up person.”

Chasing status may be puerile, said John Adams, but it nevertheless seems to be hard-wired. In his Defence of the Constitutions of the United States of America (1787), he said that history makes it quite clear that man is driven by vanity, by a desire for social distinction. “We may call this desire for distinction childish and silly,” wrote Adams, “but we cannot alter the nature of man.”

As a result, literally anything can be made chic, even garbage. There is a famous scene in Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Blow Up in which a band leader goes crazy and smashes his guitar to pieces on the stage. The central character (played by the British actor David Hemmings) leaps onto the stage, seizes the guitar “carcass,” and runs off with it, pursued by the crowd, who is convinced he is in possession of something extremely valuable. He manages to give them the slip, and standing alone in an alley, trying to catch his breath, looks at this broken piece of guitar. What is it? A useless piece of trash, really. He tosses it on the ground and walks away.

Even the anti-chic can be made chic. A Canadian magazine, Adbusters, became somewhat famous for ridiculing the need to be chic. It is now one of the chicest journals around–“underground chic,” as it were. If you are not aware of this publication, you are definitely out of it, and not as good as the people who are aware of it and read it on a regular basis. You are leading a diminished, unchic life.

This brings us to the causes of chic. If it really is as frivolous as it looks, why are we all doing it? Why does all of life finally boil down to high school? Alfred Adler, the psychoanalyst whose major concepts were “superiority complex” and “inferiority complex,” argued that the two were intimately related: the desire to be superior masked a deep sense of inferiority. If I care that much about being chic, it must be because I know, on some level, that I am terribly unchic. And this feeling of being inadequate, which dates from infancy, can finally never be overcome; which means that chicness is infinite: you can never be chic enough. Malraux was right: we never grow up.

Imported into politics, all of this points to the limit of any egalitarian experiment. Status always manages to sneak in through the back door. Somehow, so-called left-wing writers in the United States (Noam Chomsky excepted; he really is the “real thing”), in their arguments for a just society, compete for influence and visibility, for being the important cultural critic. (I know of one case in which a major left-wing guru actually showed up at a lecture hall in a stretch limousine, surrounded by paparazzi.) The apparatchiki of the former Soviet Union all had dachas (villas) near the Black Sea or in the countryside, and got to buy forbidden Western goods at special stores reserved for them alone. In the end, Lao Tzu was right: the only person you want as a leader is the one who is not interested in the job. (Man, that dude was really chic.)

I recall, early on in the Clinton administration, the attempt to institute a program that would have involved holding and loving infants for the first three years of their lives. I don’t think the Clintons were trying to be chic here; I think they were genuinely committed to the fundamental concept of child psychology, that feeling secure and loved as a child means one will be less likely to be aggressive and competitive as an adult. Of course, the whole thing fell out of sight in less than a month, as the news media moved on to the next trendy topic. But it was a utopian project, in any case: if we are going to have to restructure human child-rearing in order to restructure our politics, we are going to be waiting for a very long time. The yogic idea that social transformation is personal transformation multiplied millions of times sounds good in the ashram, but has very little applicability in the outside world.

“Out of the crooked timber of humanity,” wrote Immanuel Kant, “no straight thing was ever made.” On the individual level, the antidote to chic is probably a good sense of humor. I mean, there really is something hilarious about it all, no? But in social or institutional terms, I don’t see that there is very much that can be done. Although lately, I’ve been working on a movie script, in which a large, dark, unchic force comes out of nowhere and sweeps across the planet, de-chic-ing everything in its path. I think of it as a kind of a reverse horror film. So stay tuned to this station; I’ll let you know how it all turns out.

©Morris Berman, 2010