i'm going shopping -- but i'm not telling you where!
What does one do when one opens the pages of one's favourite style bible -- in this case, the British magazine The Face -- and finds one's aesthetic choices stereotyped remorselessly? This unfortunate scenario confronted a humble graduate student a few months ago when I opened the March 1999 issue to find an article titled, appropriately, "Shopping". Written by one of The Face's staff journalists -- identified only by the initials 'JS' -- and subtitled "The yuppie's not dead. He's just changed his shoes", the article made a comparison between current aesthetic practices I am only too consciously aware of and that dreaded and reviled icon of the eighties, the yuppie. What I did -- once I recovered from the melodrama of being aesthetically outed in an international style magazine, that is -- was to think about the politics of aesthetics. In particular, about the connection between popular aesthetic practices and emergent class formations.
of porterage bags and obscure label sneakers
"In the Eighties everyone wanted to be a yuppie -- young, successful, status-driven, consumerist" begins the fateful article, "living the high life with a low regard for anything that wasn't flash, fancy or requiring gold credit". It wasn't enough to simply have money, you had to demonstrate it too. But the turn of the decade brought an end to this malignant species -- or so at least The Face says, and who am I to disagree with them? But in the dying days of the current decade, The Face believes it has identified a new breed of consumer -- the "consumer of alternative pricey products" or more succinctly, the cappie. Unlike the yuppie, for whom -- discursively, at least -- no act of consumption could be too conspicuous, the cappie is very particular about their consumer practices. If it's not obscure, if it's not hard to get, it doesn't rate. The cappie is fussy about their choices, about their consumer satisfaction. They don't know compromise: they want it, they can buy it -- and, if it's the right thing, at any price.
Examples of consumer goods which attract the eye of the cappie include -- and it was here that I started to get worried -- obscure label trainers, rare Japanese denim (didn't you ever wonder what the story behind G-Star was?), the Massive Attack box collection and porterage bags. As someone who has scanned the streets of Brisbane to make sure not too many people have porterage bags like my own and who won't buy trainers unless they have a very high scarcity value, I felt unwillingly but undeniably interpellated by this article. Particularly when it concluded by saying "make no mistake -- [the cappie] is no less a consumer than the yuppie was". Ouch.
However, it seems to me that The Face, as is so often the case, only got it half right. Not that I'm not a consumer (that would be special pleading!): after all, as a citizen of a client state of the United States, the economic function of which is to absorb the overproduction capacity of our host nation, I could hardly be anything else. No, it is the particular origin of the aesthetic of consumption practised/performed by cappies like me that The Face got wrong, and there is both textual and anecdotal evidence to support this claim.
Textually, there is a significant difference between the aesthetic of consumption of the yuppie and that of the cappie as they are presented by The Face. The yuppie aesthetic was based, The Face argues, on the public display of a "common currency of success": "the wide-wheeled flash car, the wide-shouldered Italian suit, the celebrity restaurant" -- the conspicuous consumption of a set register of signifiers that denoted the exercise and possession of economic capital. In contrast, the cappie aesthetic as defined by The Face eschews the display of economic capital in favour of a fluctuating and eclectic register of signifiers -- the preferred labels are obscure and niche, their recognition unnecessary: "if you haven't heard of it, so much the better. ... He knows it's right, he doesn't need you to know" [italics and gender-exclusive pronouns in original]. Anecdotally, the consumption patterns practiced by myself and others who share a similar sense of aesthetics have been honed through years spent scouring op-shops for good scores. The trainers I like are not merely rare, they're also extraordinarily cheap. The football jersey I spent months searching for had to satisfy two important criteria on top of looking good: it had to be obscure, and it had to be a bargain.
Now, to be sure, I was searching for the football jersey in the UK, which for an Australian is not a cheap holiday destination, and the trainers I prefer are cheap by my standards but not necessarily in an absolute sense, so I'm not trying to argue that the cappie -- assuming I am a suitable example of one -- is without economic capital. However, what I am arguing is that this aesthetic practice does not privilege the mere possession of economic capital, except as it enables the performance of the preferred stylistic register: that the determinant of last instance of the cappie aesthetic is not the ability to buy the appropriate significatory register but the knowledge of what it constitutes and how to read it. If there is the public display of distinction taking place in this aesthetic -- and I would suggest that, like all aesthetics, there clearly is -- it is not economic capital that is being conspicuously consumed, but cultural capital: i.e., knowledge.
If the origin of the aesthetic of consumption identified by The Face as 'cappie' is the possession of cultural capital rather than economic capital, then it is both significantly different from the aesthetic of conspicuous consumption metonymically represented in the figure of the yuppie and considerably more interesting. The ubiquity of the yuppie subject in the Eighties can be read, as a number of scholars including Jane Feuer and Fredric Jameson have argued, as a representation of the embourgeoisment -- either practically or spectrally -- of the professional-managerial class as it grew in importance to the functioning of the US economy and its satellite nations.
Jane Feuer, the American scholar of television and soap opera argues, for example, that 'yuppiedom' as it was manifest in the USA in the 1980s was ideologically and aesthetically elitist (Feuer 14), and combined "fiscal conservatism and relatively liberal social values" (44). Feuer equates the class identity of the young, urban, highly-remunerated and ambitious professional with the more general and more ambivalent 'professional-managerial class' of educated and managerial workers who nevertheless didn't own the means of production. "In a sense", says Feuer, only somewhat facetiously, "during the 1980s Marxist academics were yuppies who couldn't afford BMWs" (46). Feuer supports this assertion by arguing that during this period, the 'yuppie audience', as she designates the demographic segment who positively responded to their interpellation, and the professional-managerial class shared similar aesthetic and lifestyle values -- that is, they shared the same discriminators of taste and distinction, in the Bourdieuan sense.
As a result, the rise of this new consuming subject, the cappie, which eschews the aesthetic codes of conspicuous consumption in favour of an aesthetic based on the possession and performance of accumulated knowledge, of cultural capital, suggests that it represents the aspirations and affectations of a significant class fraction outside existing class structures -- outside, because its aesthetic codes are based not upon economic capital, the determinant of last resort of class location within capitalist economies, but of embodied knowledge: of cultural capital. However, this is not to suggest that the cappie aesthetic is better or more democratic than an aesthetic based upon the conspicuous consumption of economic capital. There is enough scholarship that contributes to "the alliance between cultural studies, liberal multiculturalism and transnational capitalism", as the Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton caustically puts it, without me contributing to this sorry corpus as well. For although the cappie does not depend upon economic capital for its ultima ratio, it is still, as an aesthetic practice, a regime of discrimination. As such, there are a number of possible future trajectories available to the cappie aesthetic, the selection of which will define retrospectively what it always was.
Firstly, it is possible that the cappie is the latest in a long series of subordinate aesthetic practices -- that is, subcultures -- that exist below the dominant aesthetic practice of conspicuous economic consumption and which value forms of capital de-valued by the hegemonic aesthetic. In this way the cappie might take its place next to the beat poet, the mod, the punk and the raver, as an iconic representation of a (predominantly youth) subculture that defines itself against and in relation to the dominant aesthetic practice. It is also possible that the cappie might follow the same trajectory that the yuppie did. As Feuer argues, the yuppie began as an aesthetic practice that valued cultural capital at least as much as economic capital, but which, through its interpellation as the 'yuppie audience' of a significant fraction of the recently economically enfranchised professional-managerial class became, briefly, the hegemonic aesthetic practice in the US in the 1980s. There is also a third possibility, however, that I am most interested in: that the emergent cappie aesthetic, independent of but not unresponsive to existing aesthetic practices, is the subjective manifestation of ongoing changes in the mode of production in advanced capitalist economies from an industrial base to an informational one. There isn't the space here to argue the existence of this transformation, and so I shall instead direct the reader to the magisterial 3 volume work by the Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells, The Informational Age: Economy, Society and Culture. However, given the reality, in whatever form, of this gradual transformation from an industrial mode of production to one that is primarily informational, then it follows that the simultaneous product of and precondition for this transformation has been the ongoing commodification of knowledge, or more precisely, the "integration of knowledge into commodity production" (Frow 91). As a result of this transformation, the expertise and credentials possessed as cultural capital by the emerging knowledge class become more generally and reliably convertable into economic capital: cultural capital becomes a means of production.
What the emergence of the cappie aesthetic is doing then is marking the coming to power of this particular class fraction through the conspicuous display of artefacts that signify not money but skill: knowledge. Furthermore, the cappie aesthetic signifies this emerging power of a knowledge class not qua economic enfranchisment, as the yuppie did, but on its own terms, through the reification of the form of capital -- cultural capital -- that is peculiar to itself. The cappie thus brings together the three forms of cultural capital, as the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has defined them, in the body of the 'cappie subject': institutionalised, in the form of educational qualifications, the certification of which is done by the university system through which this article is being circulated; objectified, in the cultural products of the cappie; and embodied "in the form of long-lasting dispositions of the mind and body" -- that is, as aesthetics (243).
In particular, it is this embodiment, through aesthetics, of cultural capital that interests me about The Face's construction of the cappie. For this embodiment of certified knowledge and expertise manifest through its performance of deliberately obscure and shifting aesthetic registers implies a particular awareness of the self, one that is very similar to what Michel Foucault, in a somewhat different context, has called enkrateia. In The History of Sexuality, Volume 2: The Use of Pleasure, Foucault defines enkrateia as a combative relation of the self to the self, "a domination of the self by oneself and ... the effort that this demands" (65). Distinguishing enkrateia (translated into English as 'continent') from 'moderation' (sophrosyne), Foucault argues that the 'continent' self "experiences pleasures that are not in accord with reason, but [is] no longer ... carried away by them" (66). For Foucault, enkrateia is one of the "technologies of the self", those techniques which
permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves. (Technologies of the Self, 18)
That is, the subjective constitution of knowledge of the self as self-mastery is what gives the subject the ability -- and for Foucault, following classical Greek philosophers, the right -- to govern others. In this sense then -- and without wishing to diminish my own awkward interpellation by this aesthetic mode -- as a description of the popular consumption practice named by The Face as 'the cappie', (although I might wish to expand that acronym simply as 'the consumer of alternative products'), this notion of enkrateia -- power over others gained through knowledge of and power over the self -- pointedly locates the emerging class privilege and power enabled through and by this particular aesthetic practice. In a society in which the dominant form of capital is increasingly becoming information, and in which capital is increasingly regarded as information, the conspicuous display of exclusive forms of knowledge by the cappie aesthetic is not so much a reaction against capitalist consumption aesthetics as a recognition and performance of the rising social power and influence of the class fraction interpellated and addressed by this aesthetic practice.
If aesthetic practices are distillations and embodiments of class aspirations and expectations -- and I hope I've argued that they are -- and if the aesthetic practice signified by The Face's 'cappie' is in fact markedly different from the practice of conspicuous consumption that came to be reviled, rightly, as 'yuppie' -- in as much as 'the cappie' disregards ostentatious displays of economic capital in favour of no less arrogant displays of embodied cultural capital -- then the cappie is the marker of the emergence of a new class formation. And although mapping the precise topography of this class fraction will consume the entirety of my doctorate, and even then not exhaustively, I can say that the 'knowledge class', identification of which is based upon possession of a necessary quantity of cultural capital -- that is, of education, aesthetic modes and inscribed competencies --, is both the result and engine of an emergent mode of production that is bringing about a transformation of apparatus of contemporary capitalism. And that this isn't necessarily a good thing.