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reflection : nothing to wear
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Nothing to Wear
by Jean-Claude Guédon translated by Timothy Barnard

Borders, fringes: often, the most important things take place in these border zones, where signs are reversed and functions distorted. Eroticism, Roland Barthes essentially said, is located between the sleeve and the glove; another era would have found excitement in the distance between the ankle boot and, precisely, the fringe of the skirt. But the chosen interval is of little importance. It's enough to demonstrate that whatever covers, also uncovers, is silent, speaks, and conceals, reveals, and so on. The Banff New Media Institute's gathering on the technologies of intimacy, Intimate Technologies / Dangerous Zones (we might note in passing this amusing inversion of terms that associate intimacy with technology, and not with a precise area of the body, even as danger is connected with the latter) brought together some forty people, many of whom were dressed in stylish and even distinguished-looking clothing, without breaking in any apparent way with current fashion rules. The event was a more discursive (and visual) exploration than it was performative, and an outside observer would probably not have noticed any peculiarities in the way the participants were dressed. And although clothing was the star of the party -- the zone being explored -- another fringe, perhaps was located between experience and design.

Clothing is peculiar in the sense that it conceals in its very conspicuousness and reveals what it appears to hide. Draped closely over the body, clothes smooth out or expose some of its features, whether these are remarkable or not. I'm thinking, in particular, of the tombstone in a crypt in the cathedral of Lund that is admired at the end of Ingmar Bergman's film Wild Strawberries. A ceremony honouring the old professor is held. A couple is depicted on the stone. The woman, from her cowl to her feet, is caught in the vice of two straight lines, which annul any potentially disturbing shape. We only recognise this being's sex through the reference, in a broadly Gestalt manner, to the triangle of a dress, because the rectilinear design eliminates everything else. Is she skinny or fat? No one knows. Attractive or repulsive? It doesn't matter: this is the degree zero of "Woman", the most generic possible, which is to say the most abstract and at the same time the most essential one could imagine. In contrast, the man is wearing a jerkin, which reveals very precisely the fundamental attributes of his person: slim, well-anchored on two strong legs, he seems to be planted in such a way as to direct our gaze towards the most virile part of his person -- a highly obvious fly upon which all the worthy labour of preserving the lineage appears to be inscribed. The man is indicated by the masculine clothing of a sire, while the woman is elided in an abstract form in which, perhaps, we can see a veiled reference (how very veiled!) to a vessel or receptacle. And yet there is nothing obscene about this man with the somewhat indiscreet fly. There is simply an unavoidable reminder of the duties and functions of virility in the preservation of a "House".

To conceal by revealing and reveal by concealing: this old topic, which we see already in the old Swedish cathedral, was, needless to say, taken up in the discussion of clothing in Banff. Taken up, and amplified as well, in order that the participants could begin to decline various grammars for distinguishing individuals and identities.

Taken as a whole, clothing forms a partially open ensemble (and I'm not referring here to low-cut dresses or peek-a-boo clothing) in which each element can only claim to exist by maintaining a distinguishing tension among those who wear these different materials (weaves, knits, etc.). This is a partially open ensemble because the innovative spread of clothing, even though it is always circumscribed at every moment of its history, can be extended indefinitely. Clothing thus serves to remind us that social existence does not lie with the image of the atom, with all due respect to those who adore the concept of "property". (How curious it is that the atom too is endowed with "properties", kinds of predicates which are sufficient to guarantee autarkic forms of existence.) On the contrary, clothing recapitulates, in a certain manner, all the effort expended by those who consider existence to be a question of being different within a system where difference reaches its limit in what is recognisable (like being, as it turns out). The difficulty in this sort of distinguishing exercise is that it is not completely, or even excessively, located within alterity, which is to say within a state of incom- municability. Indeed, any distinction pushed too far metamorphoses into alienation. It thus functions like a mysterious phoneme in an unknown foreign language: essentially inaudible, it is therefore inadmissible. But the word has slipped out: The model for clothing's existence is indeed that of the phoneme and not that of the atom. Here the plot thickens, and this is also true of social existence.

Why the phoneme? Let's recall that the phoneme, which is thought of as being something like an atom of sound, a building block of language, nevertheless distances itself from this concept in that it must negotiate the problem of fluid borders -- in the case of language, the problem of accents within it. Because very diverse accents exist within every language, and because these present only a relative degree of difficulty for reciprocal understanding among various speakers, we must think of these basic sounds as not being subject to a finite set of predicates or "properties". As opposed to such overly rigid definitions, the proper way to consider the question is to establish the fact that a phoneme exists only because it maintains a set of stable distinctions with neighbouring phonemes. In some languages, such as English and French for example, the letters b and v are distinguished from each other, and also p and d, etc. In Spanish, p and d are distinguished but b and v are no longer well differentiated. In Spanish, a single phoneme covers two letters, while in English, French, and many other languages, two phonemes are required. In another vocabulary, that of Palo Alto, we would say that phonemic existence is a difference that creates difference: in sum, a difference that creates a fringe.

Let's call this distinctive mode of existence "phonemic individuality". Applicable to the lives of authors, scientists, and artists, phonemic individuality can easily be extended to the realm of clothing. Indeed clothing distinctions can only be understood as the material expression of human distinctions (and vice versa). We could moreover comment in regard to distinctiveness what Victor Cousin said about glory: it is always in the right; we need only become aware of its titles to see this. In the same way, every appearance of distinctiveness is not just appearance but a true distinction. What remains to be understood is the sense in which this distinction functions. Thus to analyse a piece of clothing involves specifying the level of meaning upon which a set of characteristics considered to be noteworthy is arranged. An example of this would be the viewpoint of the noble lineage in the case of the tombstone in the cathedral of Lund.

The participants in Intimate Technologies / Dangerous Zones, naturally enough, debated this line of enquiry every which way, probably because it is the most apparent, the most accessible, and also the most easily exploited. This corresponded to the "design" aspect of the meeting -- an aspect that quite easily brought to mind the stage in which a new fashion collection is conceived. But this is not, in my view, where the most important element of the meeting lies. The reference to phonemes and languages, as the reader may have guessed by now, leads in fact to a level of experimentation that has more to do with communication than existence. All the more so, given that communication is hardly ever thought of any more as being located outside the constant intercourse between individuals and communities of individuals.

It is interesting to note that clothing, as a vector of communication, must decide between its most common role of separating, and the "ligatory" role (please allow me this invented word) that it is also capable of playing. That clothing can be produced to create common spaces is already well known from the example of student couples who go to U.S. football games dressed in a shirt or T-shirt designed with two people in mind. As a technology containing no danger of intimate zones, these adolescent togs nevertheless reveal the communicative function of clothing. In doing so, they impart to clothing all manner of communicative abilities -- like the dildos which, quite unexpectedly but also quite humorously, began to circulate among the participants in the Banff conference during a particularly amusing presentation. Try to maintain a proper bearing when one of these objects is handed to you right in the middle of a presentation which is otherwise quite serious...But this message (the time has come to say it) is passé.

From there, it is only a short step to begin touching upon computers that are worn as pieces of clothing, and from there to exploring the kinds of human relationships that develop when clothing choices are closely controlled (whereupon some of the questions posed by David Brin in Transparent Society were raised). These steps were blithely taken: From that point on intimate zones had become, in effect, dangerous, and dangerous technologies had become terribly intimate. Once this role reversal was complete, clothing came to be seen as the possible key to sociability, individuality, and identity: essentially, to all human existence. As the being's double, clinging to its skin, clothing appeared in the end to be the appropriate material basis from which to grapple with the existence of both individuals and their tribes. To be radically unclothed -- which is to say, to be beyond a state of nudity, which is merely the absence of clothing and not its negation -- human beings would be no more human than they would be without language. To think this question through properly, consider the fact that a chimpanzee can quite easily don a pair of pants, but that it is not then clothed! Clothing is like a language's lining, and ultimately this explains why clothing functions like a fringe -- a distinctive, separating fringe that leads us to the social fact of human existence. This may not be as paradoxical as it might initially appear. Language and clothing are intimate technologies indeed. And their absence would be, without any doubt, a dangerous zone, because an inhuman one.

As science historian recycled into cyberspace, Jean-Claude Guédon, a professor of Comparative Literature at the Université de Montréal, becomes easily unbuttoned on the most diverse of topics, from electronic publishing to technological arts. Pass it around!

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