Monthly Archives: January 2014

The Final Choice: The Materiality of Last Meals

In 2012 Gary Carl Simmons sat down for an enormous meal including a Pizza Hut Super Supreme Deep Dish pizza; 10 8-oz. packs of Parmesan cheese; 10 8-oz. packs of ranch dressing; one family size bag of Doritos; 2 large strawberry shakes; two cherry Cokes; one super-size order of McDonald’s fries; and two pints of strawberry ice cream.  By about 4:45 one observer reported that he had eaten roughly half of the nearly 30,000-calorie feast before he was marched off to the Mississippi death chamber.  At 6:16 that evening he was declared dead after he was executed by lethal injection for a grisly 1996 murder.

Henry Hargreaves' interpretation of John Wayne Gacy's last meal (image from )

Henry Hargreaves’ interpretation of John Wayne Gacy’s last meal (image from New Zealand Herald)

The last meal has become a standard ritual in the contemporary execution, an oddly fascinating public episode in the final moments before society passes its ultimate judgment on one of our own.  Today the ritual of a final meal and the last words of the condemned are the only particularly public dimensions of a death sentence.  Last meals seem to provide us a final idiosyncratic insight into the mind of the irredeemable; they provide exceptional clarity for the notion of “comfort food”; and the ritual itself may rationalize capital punishment or even humanize the ultimate sentence.  The final meal is symbolically fascinating because it balances a fine line between, on the one hand, human compassion and fascination for irredeemable citizens, and, on the other hand, a vengeful mob instinct that bourgeois execution ideology hopes to deny. Read the rest of this entry

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American Apparel and the Politics of “Natural Beauty”

The unshorn mannequins in Soho's American Apparel window (image from American Apparel NYC).

The unshorn mannequins in Soho’s American Apparel window (image from American Apparel NYC).

This week an American Apparel store in New York secured a flurry of attention after it installed female mannequins whose sheer lingerie reveal dense pubic hair.  The Valentine’s Day window display in the American Apparel Soho store includes three mannequins in sheer white underwear exposing netherhair and nipples.  The international media attention has focused on American Apparel’s calculated history of “shock” advertising, and delicate sensibilities may stop at this point and choose not to survey the range of the corporation’s provocative advertising, much of which is not-safe-for-work.  American Apparel has been predictably superficial in its defense of the mannequins as symbols of “natural beauty” that confirm the “rawness and realness of sexuality.”  In the hands of American Apparel the unshorn mannequins are marketing mechanisms that are, at best, an ironic illumination of ideological beauty standards.  American Apparel’s mannequins underscore our social uneasiness with deviations from unexpressed feminine beauty ideals; they certainly emphasize how complicated it is to address such deep-seated ideologies in consumer space and in the hands of corporations like American Apparel.

An ad for American Apparel's transgendered and transsexual model search.

An ad for American Apparel’s transgendered and transsexual model search.

American Apparel fancies its mannequins are statements of a novel notion of uncontrived, “natural” beauty.  In a press release last week the company indicated that “American Apparel is a company that celebrates natural beauty, and the Lower East Side Valentine’s Day window continues that celebration.  We created it to invite passerbys to explore the idea of what is ‘sexy’ and consider their comfort with the natural female form.”  American Apparel’s defense of the “natural female form” is a strategically uplifting celebration of “real life” bodies, and perhaps it inches away from the notion of beauty materialized in super model aesthetics.  For instance, last year the firm ran ads with a transgendered model and was crafting campaigns with more transgendered and transsexual models.  The corporation has likewise long argued that it refutes the clothing industry’s ideological notion of beauty, suggesting last week that the hirsute mannequins reflected the philosophy of “our advertisements which avoid many of the photoshopped and airbrushed standards of the fashion industry.” Read the rest of this entry

Roadside Desperation and the Aesthetics of Panhandling

A roadside panhandler in the midst of winter (image from J. Ronald Lee).

A roadside panhandler in the midst of winter (image from J. Ronald Lee).

In the past decade a host of panhandlers have stationed themselves along American roadsides, off-ramps and street corners appealing to drivers for support.  Panhandling has resided at the fringes of urban consciousness for centuries, and now the desperation of the unemployed, homeless, and impoverished is a commonplace fixture along American roadsides.  Stationed along busy thoroughfares, patrolling the medians, and standing vigil on expressway ramps, roadside panhandling sounds some age-old challenges of poverty even as it adds the new wrinkle of taking aim on the unquestioned sanctity of car culture.

California streetside panhandler (image from ).

California streetside panhandler (image from joshuaseye).

Personal ill fortune is a familiar display in the fashion, bodies, and handmade signs dotting early 21st century streetsides, and some communities aspire to render that desperation publicly invisible.  The presence of impoverishment and panhandlers in public space has long vexed ideologues: Some urban centers have tried to abolish “aggressive” panhandling (spearheaded by a 1987 Seattle ordinance, and now followed by over 100 cities including Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Evanston, Illinois, and San Antonio), and a few communities have tried to expressly outlaw or manage roadside solicitation (e.g., Ocala, Florida, Montgomery County, Maryland, Durham, North Carolina).  Much of this apprehension responds to no especially concrete threat, even though most communities cite ambiguous worries about danger to pedestrians.  Instead, the effort to legislatively control roadside solicitation reflects that uncomfortable class and privilege anxieties are fueled by the visibility of our most desperate neighbors. Read the rest of this entry

The Time Capsule Effect: Pristine Abandonment and the Ideal Ruin

Stepping into the 1960s shoe store "time capsule" (image from tadaw).

Stepping into the 1960s shoe store “time capsule” (image from tadaw).

Sometime in the late-1960s the proprietors of a modest shoe store closed its doors, leaving the stock neatly stacked along its walls.  It remained there apparently untouched until a year ago, when a descendant opened the doors to find a mountain of shoe boxes and footwear and a typical small business seemingly as it had been left the day it was shuttered.  Shoe collectors’ hearts leapt at the prospect of the magical specter of “old store stock” in its original packaging transformed to the status of “vintage.”  The implied riches of the assemblage on ebay have captured much of the popular curiosity with the little store, but the more fascinating story is the “time capsule” effect of the assemblage and similar “pristine” abandonment spaces, not simply the allure of a pair of vintage wingtips.

Shoe boxes line the walls of the preserved shoe store (image tadaw).

Shoe boxes line the walls of the preserved shoe store (image tadaw).

Ruins are material and aesthetic vehicles for the imagination, sometimes simply for a “lost time” and in other hands as moral statements about the collapse of cities, industry, or communities.  The undisturbed shoe store is an example of perhaps the most compelling of all abandoned sites: the “time capsule” left as it “really was” in an un-staged moment arresting the flow of a distant material life.  The archetype for the time capsule site is Pripyat, the nuclear city rapidly abandoned in April, 1986 after the Chernobyl disaster.  Tours now venture to Pripyat to walk amidst the detritus of everyday life and the specter of disaster apparently arrested in time. Read the rest of this entry

Branding Urban Decline: Style and the Imagined City at Urban Outfitters

Repaired denim overalls from the Urban Renewal line (image Urban Outfitters).

Repaired denim overalls from the Urban Renewal line (image Urban Outfitters).

Observers who doubt marketers’ capacity to package nearly any concept may be impressed by the ambition of Urban Outfitters’ “Urban Renewal” line.  Urban Outfitters aspires to make the notion of urban renewal a desirable style that signifies a “totally one-of-a-kind” vintage aesthetic disconnected from urban displacement and decline.  The branding is perhaps an irreverent or innocent play on Urban Renewal’s symbolic link to urban youth culture, invoking “streetstyle” in the strained ironic juxtaposition of “new one-of-a-kind vintage.”  Yet Urban Outfitters is a carefully constructed “lifestyle” brand consciously selling a caricature of urban decline to a youth demographic that their CEO described in 2012 as “the upscale homeless person” with “a slight degree of angst.”  Urban Outfitters aspires to evoke the authenticity of urbanity by linking urban decline and displacement to a style embodied in its “vintage condition” wear.

The aesthetics of youth angst as imagined by Urban Outfitters (image Urban Outfitters).

The aesthetics of youth angst as imagined by Urban Outfitters (image Urban Outfitters).

Urban Outfitters has a reputation for appealing to hipster chic, catering to the consumer who is indifferent to being labeled a hipster.  Most consumers accused of being hipsters are raiding thrift stores and flea markets, constructing makeshift assemblages of mixed styles and old things and typically skirting the charge of being labeled “hipster,” but the Urban Renewal line promises genuine vintage (or a persuasive reformulation of it) without descending into the flea market.  Nevertheless, because the vintage shopping experience occurs in “real” places outside consumer space, the Urban Renewal line often refers to its garments’ spatial or social roots.  Urban Outfitters’ British web site, for instance, invokes the garments’ ambiguous American origins by touting the Urban Renewal line as a “vintage destination” that offers everything from “one-off finds in LA warehouses to awesome pieces from the world’s most obscure flea markets.”  The Urban Renewal line’s “vintage mechanic shirts” do not come from a specific place, but they secure some origins by implying class roots that evoke their salvage from proletarian closets.  The Urban Renewal garment descriptions on its American web page routinely herald their “handcrafted” production in Philadelphia, where the chain was established near the University of Pennsylvania campus in 1970.  Ironically, the neighborhood was transformed by genuine urban renewal that a University archival exhibit refers to as “a lasting public relations disaster” addressed by the 1990’s introduction of local retailing that included Urban Outfitters. Read the rest of this entry

Race and Global Subcultures: Materiality, Style, and Metal Fans in Botswana

A Botswana metal fan performs (image Frank Marshall)

A Botswana metal fan performs (image Frank Marshall)

Some observers suggest that mass culture has homogenized once-clear lines of difference, with the marketplace reducing difference to a rich range of pre-manufactured “resistant” styles.  Yet South African photographer Frank Marshall’s work on metal subcultures in Botswana provides an exceptionally compelling statement on the aesthetics of race, empire, and mass culture.  Marshall’s images of African metal fans illuminate the question of precisely what constitutes difference in a 21st-century consumer culture:  a stock of universal commodities and popular symbols circulate through a global marketplace, somewhat counter-intuitively producing social formations like the utterly multicultural and international metal subculture that includes Botswana’s metal fans. Read the rest of this entry