What is style? The question has long preoccupied philosophers and literary critics as well as fashion designers and marketing executives. We speak of an artist’s style—a Van Gogh or a Cézanne—as if it were something involuntary, a person’s particular, inimitable way of being in the world. But if style is how we see the world, what we choose to pay attention to and what we leave out, it is also what makes us recognizable to others. Even our most unintentional characteristics and gestures—our manners of walking or speaking—signify. Knowing that we convey signals all the time—even without meaning to—how do we manage the appearance of ourselves that gets projected to the world? In other words, is style something we consciously hone, or is it something we are born with, inescapable, like our bodies?
We’ll look at three responses to the blend of opportunity and anxiety that an awareness of style provokes. In the late 19th century, a group of writers and artists, so-called “aesthetes” or “dandies,” decided to consciously exaggerate style, “styling their lives” so as to control every aspect of their appearance. Challenging the old opposition between style and substance, dandies made it difficult for others to pigeon hole them in usual ways, showing forth a succession of masks. In consumer capitalist society, advertisers have turned the anxiety of style to their advantage, and people style themselves by choosing brands that signify in recognizable ways. A choice that seems “natural” (we buy a pair of shoes because we like them) is arguably determined by mass advertising (we buy a pair of shoes because they convey belonging to a particular social class or other information within a codified language of signs). Finally, in our information age, style emerges as a criterion for selection—a filter or strategy for organizing attention insofar as it helps us determine what to take in and what to leave out. Given vast options and the amount of information available to us, it is increasingly necessary to cultivate style as an art of discernment.
The event will be held on Thursday, November 26 at 7.00pm at IE University (Segovia) Room 142. A light refreshment will be served
Amanda Dennis (Ph.D. Berkeley) is the 2013-2014 IE-Berkeley International Teaching Fellow.
The IE Humanities Centre Symposium is organized by Victor Beckers and Vegard Haveland.