Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Guest Post: The Cordial Churchman: The Semiotics of Style

Husband of the ever-talented ELS of bow-tie fame, and frequent poster/commentator The Cordial Churchman wrote this very thoughtful post. It is a fantastic post, following up on my previous post, "Trad Semiotics." His title is so much better.

I'm honored to have been invited to guest post on Conor's delightful blog. I've thought from the first time I navigated to it that the way he has chosen to frame his posts in a young man/old man scheme is perhaps the most clever blogging strategy I've run across.

I've enjoyed the recent discussion about the philosophical and sociological entailments of style, and specifically of the style Conor and I share. I've especially found it refreshing that a fellow young man without a born-and-bred instinct for this style has begun to weigh in on his approach to these entailments. It seems to me that there are generally two types of clothes blogs: the reflective, story-rich blogs of those who have grown up in contexts where there was no real conscious decision to adopt "the style"; and the not boring, but still relatively timid blogs of the somewhat recently converted. I'm glad Conor has opened up a line of thoughtful discussion that gives voice to those of us who know that we're the new kid on the block, and yet have been chewing on what this style means to us, all the while continuing to appreciate reading about what the style means to those who never knew anything different.

So I submit this guest post as a way to advance the present discussion, from one whose history with this style is more similar than not to Conor's.

Let me offer another way to possibly nuance Conor's interesting observations on "The Semiotics of Style."

I don't think that linguists' insistence that the sign/signified relationship is ultimately arbitrary is quite the same thing as the observation that a tweed jacket on a college kid leads different people to different assumptions about that tweeded student. The arbitrariness of sign/signified is about agreed-upon conventions or codes that we use to eliminate or reduce ambiguities in interpersonal communication. The indeterminacy of the tweed jacket-sign, on the other hand, is a result not of the arbitrariness of an agreed-upon sign/signified relationship of convenience, but a result of the very real postmodern condition in which we live.

Whatever you think about Derrida, et al., it's a brute fact that, like Conor says, everyone is costumed. It seems as though there used to be a time when people could wear clothes relatively un-self-consciously. There was a uniform for you, depending on what caste in society you were in. (Of course everyone tried to dress their best and the lower classes often approximated the upper classes, but I think the point is still valid).

But now-a-days it's impossible to wear, say, walk, drink, smoke, shop, parent, worship, or do anything else un-self-consciously. That's why when the J. Press guy or whomever it was in some interview I read recently said that for trad types, it's not about style, it's about clothes, I applauded in agreement, and then immediately deconstructed that nonsense. The about-clothes-not-style posture among trads is just that: it's a posture. It's adopted. It's a strut. It's a sensibility that's held not un-self-consciously.

Mistakes in basic alphabetic semiotics are not the same kinds of mistakes in interpretation that are involved when someone sees you wearing a tweed jacket on campus. The former is the result of clumsiness and inefficiency in diction or writing, or in the decoding of those communicative devices. The latter is the result of the cultural condition, which upon further reflection, perhaps is not postmodern. Perhaps it started with the sans culottes.

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