Nature as Culture. Essay by Maria Ben Saad

Nature as Culture. The Rise of the Thinking Body

By Maria Ben Saad

While researching this text I returned to Barbara Kruger’s iconic picture from 1983 with a black and white image of a woman’s face partly covered with the words: “We won’t play nature to your culture.” True to a feminist agenda, the picture rejects artificially determined gender roles, building on the dichotomy of “culture” (superior and male) versus “nature” (inferior and female). Kruger challenges not only the dichotomy itself – the binary opposition of nature and culture – but also the legacy of a power structure, where culture is considered to be of higher rank than nature, as well as the tradition of associating culture with male and nature with female. It was such a wake-up call when I first saw the picture in the mid-eighties, because Kruger, by re-appropriating the visual language of advertising, made complex theory (basically Derrida-influenced, post-modern deconstruction) direct and approachable. She effectively made me think about the power of representation; that I as a fashion communicator, dealing with mediated bodies, objects and language, have the choice to either conform to norms or to look at them critically. She also made me think about the relationship between nature and culture in a fashion context, which is the topic of this article.

Although there are a lot of references to natural beauty in the fashion press (no make-up make-up, for example), it seems to be more or less understood that looking natural requires work, i.e., the natural needs to be constructed, as several theorists would have it. Barbara Vinken, for example, speaks of fashion as a sort of “mise en scène,” drawing parallels to ballroom culture as it is presented in Jenny Livingston’s film Paris is Burning, where authenticity is just an effect, and exposed as such. “The ideal woman today is the transvestite: the staged mimesis of the ball of Harlem brings it to light,” as she writes in Fashion Zeitgeist (2005). “For, as is well-known, women are not born, but become ‘women,’ make themselves into ‘women.’”

But does the idea of fashion as a construction put fashion in the category of culture as opposed to nature? (Barbara Vinken actually refers to fashion as “the erotics of intelligence”: “What is exposed – and disguised – with fashion is not, in the first place, the attractions of the body, but rather the erotics of intelligence…”). No, the situation is more complicated than that, considering that the gendered power order is still in function, even if the borders are blurring between male and female in today’s fashion. There is also the pivotal role of the body. No matter how disciplined, regulated and abstract (male), the body with its flesh and fluids has for long been consigned to the bottom of the Western cultural hierarchy, understood as the opposite of mind (the classical Cartesian dualism). And by association, everything close to the body, such as clothes, jewelry and make-up, have been subject to the same discrimination. As fashion critic Colin McDowell stated in Dressed to Kill (1992): “Fear of fashion is a paranoid intellectual state.” In the book, he attributes the reluctance among intellectuals – including many of his fellow fashion critics – of dealing with the subject seriously to fashion’s connection with bodily matters. “It shows that even in the last decade of the twentieth century, after generations of free, universal, compulsory education we have not laid the ghost of our bodies and their sexuality.” There are signs though that a shift in attitudes towards the body is taking place, as more and more research is being done on fashion as an embodied practice, neutralizing the dichotomy of body and mind in the process. The body has gone from being purely a naturalistic body (a physical object) to a feeling and thinking body, as theorist Lisa Blackman concludes in her book The Body (2008).

Instrumental in paving the way for a body-oriented understanding of fashion is theorist Joanne Entwistle. In her book The Fashioned Body (2000), she writes: “Studies of fashion and dress tend to separate dress from the body: art history celebrates the garment as an object, analyzing the development of clothing over history and considering the construction and detail of dress; cultural studies tend to understand dress semiotically, as a ‘sign system,’ or to analyze texts and not bodies; social psychology looks at the meanings and intentions of dress in social interaction. All these studies tend to neglect the body and the meanings the body brings to dress.” Entwistle suggests that we should look at dress as a “situated bodily practice,” i. e., dress as embodied activity embedded within social relations. It means looking at dress as both a social and a personal experience, an activity (as in “getting dressed”) where the individual negotiates cultural norms with personal agency but also takes into consideration emotional, spatial and haptic properties.

Some theorists go so far as to proclaim a new paradigmatic shift when it comes to fashion studies. In the anthology Thinking Through Fashion (2016), the editors Agnès Rocamora and Anneke Smelik discuss “the material turn”, which implies an approach to the body as corporeal experience (or the “felt” body) instead of cultural representation (the body as image). They argue that “the linguistic turn” (a term proposed in 1967 by the American philosopher Richard Rorty) with its emphasis on language, has led to a situation where fashion has become a purely visual phenomenon, dissociated from the body. In a text by Llewellyn Negrin on the legacy of French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose work was rooted in phenomenology, the concept of “embodied existence” is introduced, the view that our bodies are the medium through which we come to know the world. By suggesting that the mind is situated in the body, he questions the whole Cartesian dualism, and looks at the body as active process instead of passive object. As Negrin writes: “The idea that we can somehow subject our bodies to scrutiny from an external viewpoint is based on the mistaken premise that the mind can be separated from the body. The mind, however, does not have an existence independently of us as sentient beings, as presupposed by Cartesian dualism, but is always-already embodied.” I have a body, therefore I am? The rise of Merleau-Ponty within fashion studies seems to point in that direction.

Maria Ben Saad is a fashion journalist and senior lecturer in fashion communication at Beckmans College of Design in Stockholm. This essay was first published in our “Nature as Culture” issue in the Fall of 2016.