Radical Banality: The Materiality of Sameness
A host of fashion gurus, marketing mavens, and subcultural theorists have long championed spectacular stylistic distinction as a politically empowering and self-affirming force. These observers define style as an aesthetic and material expression of selfhood that confirms our uniqueness and displays our links to circles of like-minded people. This month, though, New York magazine’s Fiona Duncan was the latest observer mystified by the emergence of sameness: that is, instead of seeking out distinguishing style and visibly discernible brands, many consumers instead appear to be embracing the plain and non-descript, trooping off to secure the innocuous jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers hawked at the likes of Old Navy and Abercrombie and Fitch. Instead of looking to the red carpet for our fashion cues and monitoring the elite for material standards, at least some of us appear to be parroting Jerry Seinfeld’s garb and venturing to Costco for household material tips.
Archaeologists and style-makers alike tend to assume that personal and group identities will inevitably be marked off by visible difference, making style a visual code that somewhat theatrically displays our singular identities. Stylistic distinction certainly has not been read its death rites, but aesthetic and behavioral uniformity can no longer be reduced simply to disempowering assimilation. The archaeological question is how stylistic homogeneity and the appearance of banality may have radical political implications and not simply reflect the sheep being led to consumer culture’s slaughter.
The trend forecasting firm K-HOLE coined the term “acting-basic” to describe the pattern of neutral dress that intentionally melts into visual banality. Acting-basic may be less about embracing banality, though, than a rejection of style simply as an expression of a unique self or a display of group affiliation. Robert Park visited the social implications of style and homogeneity a century ago when he suggested that “What one actually finds in cosmopolitan groups, then, is a superficial uniformity, a homogeneity in manners and fashion, associated with relatively profound differences in individual opinions, sentiments, and beliefs.” In an analysis that now seems to capture the potentially empowering dimensions of stylistic homogeneity, Park argued that “So far as it makes each individual look like every other–no matter how different under the skin–homogeneity mobilizes the individual man. It removes the social taboo, permits the individual to move into strange groups, and thus facilitates new and adventurous contacts.”
A century later the margins have become a normality of sorts that does not dispense style tips as much as it expects difference. K-HOLE argues that acting-basic is a retreat from such compulsory uniqueness, suggesting that this material aesthetic rejects contrived fringe styles. Their analysis of the transparency of marginal styles dispensed in the likes of Pac Sun and Hot Topic persuasively captures a widespread disaffection with the mass-marketed edginess that characterizes every American mall. Nevertheless, it risks dismissing that self-conscious, non-descript style may strategically evade surveillance and provide consumers social mobility, much as Robert Park had hypothesized in 1914.
The very notion of performing normality has led many observers to see acting-basic as yet another form of hollow theater. Some consumers may imagine themselves to be capturing normality, but the acting-basic parroting of the mainstream has its own insulting pretentiousness. Flustered by the whims of fashion, foiled by class-climbing, and eager to appear stylish without conscious reflection, the bourgeois appear to mimic normative styles that will somehow relieve their sense of inauthenticity.
K-HOLE’s analysis of sameness sees “normcore” as a distinct lifestyle in which people are fundamentally flexible consumers of experiences and styles, disinterested in staking a claim to authentic in-group membership and instead conforming to the context: normcore effortlessly floats from a comic book convention to a rap concert, securing pleasure from disparate experiences without any guilt of being accused as a poseur. This dynamic normcore is much the same as the fluidity that Andy Bennett has referred to as neo-tribal identity.
Where sameness and homogeneity have some historical roots across the breadth of consumer culture, normcore and neo-tribal identities do seem to describe something distinctive that revolves around rich and novel experiences in a broadly defined consumer space. As K-HOLE argues, fluid identities were once considered unique to youth cultures busily testing a variety of selves, but now that notion of youthful creativity has been extended well into adulthood.
Aesthetic and material sameness lie at the foundation of both acting-basic and normcore voyeurism, raising the question of how and why some consumers favor normative materiality. Perhaps, as K-HOLE argues, these movements reflect an increasingly powerful search for community. Yet authenticity and distinction still matter to many communities, even if various social collectives simply use authenticity to reject those who appear to lack sufficient passion for the community. We remain persistently wedded to a sense of normality in style if not social practice, so even if we reject authenticity we still tend to assess difference and sameness alike against a backdrop of imagined if not real normality.
K-HOLE is simply one of the many trend forecasting firms that wield ethnographic (if not archaeological) methods to analyze consumption beyond sales patterns alone (compare DIS magazine). K-HOLE’s method is described in their own words as “speculative fiction,” and in ethnographic and archaeological terms K-HOLE’s reports efface all data analysis: it is not at all clear if they conducted interviews with teen consumers, wandered about Brooklyn, analyzed the living rooms of 20-somethings, or watched television. Rather than launch into a conventional consumer analysis, the K-HOLE reports embrace a polemic, theory-rich rhetoric that is often aggravating and provocative but consistently compelling. The K-HOLE reports resist reducing consumer behavior simply to sales statistics and demographic summaries; perhaps this recognizes that consumption is not readily explained or predicted by rationality, and perhaps it acknowledges that they seek out hashtag-worthy tropes to unseat fossilized concepts like youth culture. The source of their insights is sometimes frustratingly unseen, and they may take more rhetorically from The Onion than MBA programs, but their textual style poses tantalizing questions and certainly might find interesting allies in contemporary archaeological circles.
1999 Subcultures or neo-tribes? Rethinking the relationship between youth, style and musical taste. Sociology 33(3): 599-617. (subscription access)
Robert E. Park
1914 Racial Assimilation in Secondary Groups With Particular Reference to the Negro. American Journal of Sociology 19(5):606-623.
Gap tweet image from Editd
Normcore example image from New York Magazine