"For this reason fashion, which represents the variable and contrasting forms of life, has since then become much broader and more animated, and also because of the transformation in the immediate political life, for man requires an ephemeral tyrant the moment he has rid himself of the absolute and permanent one. The frequent change of fashion represents a tremendous subjugation of the individual and in that respect forms one of the essential complements of the increased social and political freedom."498
498 Simmel (1971:318)
Ever since Douglas and Isherwood pointed out that consumption is a ritual process, marketing theorists have tried to make this insight fruitful for their activities.
"To manage without rituals is to manage without clear meanings and possibly without memories. Some are purely verbal rituals, vocalised, unrecorded, but they fade on the air and hardly help to limit the interpretative scope. More effective rituals use material things, and the more costly the ritual trappings, the stronger we can assume the intention to fix the meanings to be. Goods, in this perspective, are ritual adjuncts, consumption is a ritual process whose primary function is to make sense of the inchoate flux of events."499
Instead of developing greater consciousness in producing and nurturing this social practice with social responsibility, marketing tried to misuse the concept of ritual power solely for its own economic goals. Rituals became the new weapons of marketing, whereby consumers were not only to buy and consume, but also to enact a ritual. The proclaimed collapse of religion is to be compensated by ritualising the consumption process. Consuming was the new religion, which welcomed the advent of the "primitive" as an alternative to the more and more abstract world we live in. And consuming needed new rituals, of course with ritual power in the production sector. The brand community was to be held together by means of rituals. Bolz and Bosshart articulated all this and dreamed the following marketing scenario:
"When we think to the end the demands of rituals, it is easy to see that it is possible to enforce ritualisation with even tougher means. In this way, one could achieve a kind of dependence which is very difficult to overcome or not at all."500
It is sheer madness to want to produce consumer junkies, who are possibly hooked to a particular brand. While Simmel feared that the consumer could become a slave to the trend industry, to the fashion industry in particular, Bolz and Bosshart go a step further. The relation of master and slave is replaced by the relation of dealer and junky. Both concepts are frightening. Here, Miller's notion of consumption as a sacrificial act of devotion undergoes a primitive
499 Douglas/Isherwood (2002:43)
500 Bolz/Bosshart (1995:260)*.
transformation, turning shopping into an act of devotion to the brand.501 But in both concepts, the god is replaced by other more secular, "transcendental goals". It might, therefore, not come as a surprise that during the seasonal sales the visual dramatisation also "transcends" the everyday window dressing practice:
< The window display of this fashion boutique is illumined by several spotlights. Six naked female mannequins are placed in it, wrapped with a red and white striped ribbon, the kind used for cordoning off construction sites, so that it looks as if they are wearing bikinis. The back wall is empty and painted white. On the floor lie a few pairs of shoes and some handbags. Written on each of the glass panes are the words: "WIR SCHLIESSEN - EINZELTEILE (bis zu) 50% REDUZIERT".502
Instead of designer clothing, the mannequins are dressed in a ribbon used at construction sites. The ribbon normally signals that entry is prohibited. But what does it mean on the naked body of a mannequin? Maybe that the garments are under construction and the new ones will be introduced soon? What should we buy if all the mannequins are only wearing ritual dresses? As we find no answer, we go on and stop again a few storefronts later:
< In the show window of this fashion boutique are four mannequins. A sales poster hanging from the ceiling shows the black and white image of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh. The mannequins are wrapped in a transparent plastic sheet. This could be interpreted as dress, but also as mummification. They are all wearing gold bracelets, but the one in the back dons a golden cylindrical hat or crown. Its arms point forward. Thick black eyeliner and golden eyebrow pencil make the eyes of the mannequins look Egyptian. A few gold vases and bowls are placed on the floor. Written over the entire height of the show window is: "1/2". The scene is reminiscent of an ancient Egyptian ceremony from pharaoic times.
In his "mythologies", Roland Barthes, reflecting on the nature of plastic, called it an alchemic substance that represents the idea of endless transformation.503 Going by this premise, it is also the best material during the seasonal sale as replacement for everyday garments on the mannequins. It truly transcends everyday clothing
501 Miller (1998a:78) and Bolz/Bosshart (1995:254).
502 "We are closing. Single pieces reduced up to 50%"
503 Barthes (2000:97).
Death of and becomes the endless transformation of fashion. But this dramatisation also has a more tangible dimension. The staging of an ancient Egyptian scenario - a scenario evoking associations to mummies and pharaohs - turns the show window into the stage of a low cost production. Instead of prestigious garments and gold jewellery, we see transparent plastic and gold-sprayed pottery. But beside artistic concerns, we also found a critique of the retail theatre. Wolfgang Fritz Haug was among the critical voices against the commodity theatre. He described shop fittings as "aesthetic weapons" in the fight for the consumer. And he commented the trend among the stores to create stages for their commodities as follows:
"The exhibition of commodities, their inspection, the act of purchase, and all the associated moments, are integrated into the concept of one theatrical total work of art which plays upon the public's willingness to buy. Thus the salesroom is designed as a stage, purpose-built to convey entertainment to its audience that will stimulate a heightened desire to spend (...) This aesthetic innovation of the salesroom into a 'stage for entertainment' on which a variety of commodities are arranged to reflect the audiences' dreams to overcome their reservations, and provoke a purchase was a pioneering exercise at the time marked by general change in the selling trend."504
Haug included the way goods are presented, and how this presentation has changed the shopping experience, in his critique of commodity aesthetics. The goods are dispersed in the dramatisation; the consumer no longer faces a product but a scenario.505 For the seasonal sale, the nullification of the commodity is the overall concept. No other product is used, and the pure scenario remains. The seasonal sale is the radical formulation of the tendency by which the things disappear in the scenario so that only wishes and fears remain as the basis of the dramatisation. Use value and exchange value of the commodity transcend into the fear of the new fashion trend's arrival. Surprisingly, more and more contemporary writers are now corroborating the "new" trend of the shop as theatre:
"The new entertainment twists, caught in phrases like 'retail theatre' and 'experiential' selling, gives the old bricks-and-mortar setting an edge."506
505 It should be noted that the use of scenarios is not so new. It goes back to the very birth of the big department stores
506 Molotch (2003:157).
While "retail theatres" stage the wishes of the consumer during the year, during the seasonal sales, the fears of the consumers are expressed in the form of a Dionysian drama. The fashion god is dead. The products have disappeared form the stage. Nakedness remains, sparingly covered with transparent plastic, representing the endless change of fashion.
"German design may not be as decorative or beautiful as the products Italian or French designers place in their boudoirs, but even in its ironic and so far horrendously unpoetic nuances it is honest and credible."507
During the 1980s, Hamburg - beside Düsseldorf, Cologne, Stuttgart and Munich - was one of the centres of radical German design.508 New German design was the counter movement to the notion of "good design".509 In contrast to German industrial design, the emphasis of this movement was mainly on arts and crafts. Significant here was the use of everyday objects as a starting point for the design process. Design was more akin to art than to the social dimension of the everyday object:
"Form, function and material are liberated of their dependencies, whereby the freedom of disposition is undoubtedly trailed by the dependence of disposition. And this alone is of consequence: away with social worker culture! This means that the designer is first and foremost a designer and does not have to be a sociologist, but it also does not mean that he takes no notice of social conflicts or has no opinion about them. But a designer is never a sociologist, and a sociologist never a designer. Social worker culture means that
507 Albus/Borngräber (1992:7)* on the German radical design movement of the 1980s
508 Albus/Borngräber (1992:37).
509 For a design historical discussion, see Selle (1994) and Fischer (1988)
Death of social benefit should be apparent immediately and the protest must be trend-setting."510
The protest was not only directed against beautiful German "good design", but also against the notion of the involvement of design in social processes, as Gert Selle pointed out a few years ago in his "social theory of design". The ugly seemed to make the beautiful uncanny:
"'Timeless', 'eternal' design is a product of fear. We proclaim unrest as the normal state, restlessness as resting place. We take loving care of our neuroses. We rejoice in the onset of emotional confusion."511
The German seasonal sale window is not any different from the ones in the other cities we have visited. Since it, too, stages the ugly, the following would be a fine homage to German radical design:
< A chrome rod held by chains hanging from the ceiling is the central element in the show window of a men's fashion boutique. On the rod are several jackets on wooden hangers. Each of these fashion items bears a red price tag. Folded shirts are exhibited on the right side, and each of them seems to be crossed out by a tie. Written on the window is: "SALE SALE SALE SALE SALE..."
The symbolic capital of the retailer, the image risks being damaged to augment the commercial capital.512 The next show window takes us back to design and sociology:
< The two huge show windows are located in a modern building. The decoration of both windows is identical. One half of each window is totally blocked out with red, paper posters, while the other half is open. Four mannequins clad in red T-shirts and black trousers stand in a row. Each T-shirt bears one big white letter: "S-a-l-e". The backdrop, the sidewalls and the floor are painted white. On coming closer to the window, we see that one of the posters is damaged. When we peer through the gap, we see several naked mannequins behind a red wall. And behind them is a huge red flag with the word "sale" written on it.
511 Brandolini (1990:20)*.
512 For the different capital types of market agents, see Bourdieu (2002a:192)
In his outline of a "social utopia of design", Gert Selle questioned the impact of good and bad design on society. Contrary to the radical German design movement, he was convinced that a progressive approach in design should be based on sociology. He was angry about motivational consumer research, for him the outcome of design based on it was merely styling.513 He argued that social behaviour ought be just as designed as the materiality of objects.514 For Selle, communication is a key function of design. And he sees his utopia in a communication that is no longer under the influence of commercial forces:
"Since the social utopia of design insists that falsified norms of communication be dismantled and at least the potential for a non-hierarchical communication be ensured in the design, we must find ways of undermining the norms of product conformity that falsify meaning."515
Selle argued that instead of producing culture, the system is only reproducing the commodity fetish.516 The seasonal sale window is the bridge between the fetish generations. The temporarily sacrificed symbolic capital of the retailer fills the vacuum between the fetish generations. Thus, social utopia of design is related to the deep-seated basic needs of the consumer:
"It is of utmost importance for the strategies of concrete design utopias to correspond to the probably suppressed structures of consumer need/demand in such a way that a spontaneous expression of demand/need results."517
But especially the seasonal sale, with its intuitive symbolic communication, would have the possibility of fulfilling these premises of utopian design. It is a shame that the seasonal sale is not free of the commercial power of the production sector. Is it only possible to achieve utopian design when production forms and targets are redesigned?518
< The show window of a men's fashion boutique shows three torsos. The torsos are placed shoulder to shoulder. The first and the third
513 Selle (1997:117)
514 Ibid. p166.
516 Selle (1997:104)
518 Selle (1992:174)
Death of ones display winter-garments, while the middle one is wearing a red pullover with a white inscription on the front: "SALE !" The backdrop of the window is bare and white, but then we discern tiny red arrows attached to the individual items. The arrows are pointing to the scarf, to the pullover, to the tie and to the striped shirt and they are attached to the items with pins so that they seem to be floating with only their points touching the fashion pieces. On coming closer we found that the little red arrows bear the word "sale!"
Lucius Burckhardt claimed that "design is invisible". With this notion, Burckhardt wanted to describe those achievements of design, which do not remodel material but our social life and environment.519 And our show window does not show invisible design. It is hidden somewhere between the fashion items and the little red arrows. This "invisible design" in the seasonal sale is beyond what we see. It is not the red painted backdrop or the packing paper dress of the mannequin, it is the periodical redesign of social interaction based on changing fashions. The ritual is the perfect "material" for "invisible design" because rituals shape social practices. We stop in astonishment before a huge storefront. It is nearly empty, invisible design quite obviously needs little materiality:
< The show window is very long. There are only two elements inside it: a sales poster and a clothes rack with just a few items. Both elements are supported by two scaffolding rods. The backdrop is white. The show window is unusually empty; its army of mannequins has been removed.
This is very functional and cheap show window dressing; it is a window chock-full of emptiness. We have the feeling that we have come too late. Everything has been sold out. The battle against the irrational was fought by the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm in Germany after the Second World War:
"In Ulm the dominance of the rational is rooted in many things. Firstly, we all remember fascism as an experiment that robbed people of their rationality and consciously enslaved them with the help of symbols and irrationality."520
Belief in the rational ignored all design issues that dealt with
519 Burckhardt (1995:31)
520 Lindinger (1987:83)*
fashion and taste. "Those monks on the hill"521 dealt with only those areas in which they could work on the basis of rational reasoning:
"By excluding from the very beginning art as well as products of good taste and fashion from education, we have to some extent also liberated ourselves of the emotionally charged and irrational character of these fields. We initially operated in areas where we could celebrate rationality unencumbered."522
Design that is free of aspects of fashion, taste and art was a short-lived utopia. Rituals are not technical matters and cannot be solved by technical means.523 But as we have seen, the use of irrational symbols in the field of design raises the question of ideology. The main question why rationalistic design denied ritual constructions is answered by Catherine Bell's definition. According to her, if a cultural action serves no practical purpose, then it is a ritual.524 This is reason enough to banish the ritual from the rational design process. The ritual of the seasonal sale belongs to this "irrational" area of fashion and its dramatisation of the seasonal sale. Red again in the next show window:
< Fixed to the back wall between two dressed mannequins is a large seasonal sale poster. It shows a huge percentage sign in dark red against a paler red background. On the floor between the mannequins stands a three-dimensional percentage sign highlighted by a spotlight.
We have already heard about the irrational use of symbols. Can this also be said of the percentage sign? For the graphic designer Adrian Frutiger, this sign is only used in literature on economics.525 But the percentage sign is the powerful logo of the seasonal sale. We see it everywhere and it is not limited to a single language. It is a sacred symbol that shoppers worship. Whether handwritten, or as a poster; on the back wall, alone or together with the amount of reduction in percentage, the percentage sign indicates the sacrifice of the past fashion. It is the ritual knife, which cuts the throat of the commodity. And so it is the red which usually accompanies the irrational symbol of consumer culture. When it appears twice a
521 Branzi (1988:40)
522 Lindinger (1987:85)*.
523 For Slater (2003:86) modernity, according to the Frankfurt School, sees all problems, including those of identity as technical matters that can only be solved by technical means.
525 Frutiger (1989:218)
Death of year, the consumers go into a frenzy. Otl Aicher, founder of the Ulm Accademy of Design, found the irrationality of rituals and their articulation in design objects highly annoying:
"The ritual consecrates just about anything, from nonsense to even inhumanity."526
For Aicher, objects that lose their functional properties in favour of heightened symbolic communication are merely ritual adjuncts. They should rather be for sacrificial purposes than for everyday use. Design theorist Michael Erlhoff asked whether it is the designer or the artist who should design the ritual object for liturgical (sacrificial) use. And his solution is surprisingly not the artist, but the designer.527 The answer to the question whether the object acquires its aura by its use or by materiality can be found in Walter Benjamin, who describes the origin of art in the context of the ritual. The aura of a piece of art is always connected to its ritual function,528 and the use value of art comes from its ritual use. This was before art liberated itself of its parasitical dependence on the ritual through technical reproduction.529 Erlhoff reasons his insight by explaning that the artist thinks from the point of view of material and form, while the designer, with his social knowledge, develops the idea in view of symbolic communication and the ritual. But designers often forget that myths are not narrated by authors, but by storytellers. New burial rituals that introduce a symbolic language not shared by the community would fail in this endeavour. They would cause a ritual crisis, as described by Clifford Geertz in a report about a burial in Java. The corpse could not be buried because no one could be found to perform the right rituals in time. And what right rituals are is not a singular idea (of the designer), but a notion commonly shared by a group of people. The official in Java said that he had no knowledge of the ritual that had to be performed for this particular cultural group. The mastery of the rituals for the seasonal sale is possessed by the fashion industry. Its agents are the retailers. When the burial of the past collection is prepared, all the customers are invited to participate in the ceremony. The reaction of the fashion consumer is quite similar to the reaction that accompanies a death. The recurrent death of fashion collections triggers reactions that are mediated by the ritualisation of
526 Aicher (1992:117)*
527 Erlhoff (1998:54).
528 Benjamin (2003:256)
530 Geertz (1973:142-169).
the burial. We should not run away in panic (this does not only mean buying the leftovers), but neither should we follow the corpse into the grave (that is, stick to the old fashion and wear that instead of the new one). So, the dramatisation is carefully orchestrated as a performance of mythical character. As we have so far observed, the degree of invention is limited by a rigorous ritual script and a commonly shared symbolic language. Consumer culture ensures the death of the commodity. The commodity's burial is more unified than the ways in which people are buried according to their religious beliefs today. Continuing on our walk, we spot one of the few windows that has used a photographic image for the seasonal sale:
< The entire length of this glass façade is covered by a poster. Half of it is red, and the other half shows the closeup of a face that is distorted into a grimace. The eyes are wide open, the nose seems to be pressed against the glass of the show window, and the mouth is wide open. The expression is somewhere between surprise and fear. The red part indicates one price for several different garments.
According to Nietzsche, the "ugly face" is the result of wild reactions, great physical efforts or fear. Creating fear belongs to the archaic strategies of survival and has thus also become part of the ceremonies.531 The ugly face, therefore, belongs to the strategies of the ugly; it is a part of Dionysian aesthetics. The distorted face or the grimace is used in all cultures, although the interpretation of each may differ. In any case, it signifies a difference to the everyday facial expression as Richard Schechner points out here:
"All we can be sure of is that both ordinary behaviour and aesthetic behaviour are codified. Ordinary behaviour does not appear to be codified because people perform ordinary behaviour day in, day out - it's as "natural" to them as speaking their mother tongue. Are ordinary behaviours as culturally distinct as spoken languages? The answer is both yes and no. Whole suites of gestures, signs, inflections, and emphases are culture-specific. At the same time, even when persons can't converse in a spoken language, gesturing gets meaning across. Some expressions - the happy smile, lifting the nose in disgust, the wide eyes of surprise, for example - occur in all human cultures."532
531 Liessmann (2000:236)
532 Schechner (2003:184)
Maybe in former times people would have created masks with stunning grimaces to celebrate the period of bargaining, and processions would be held in the big shopping streets. Thousands of people would celebrate the ritual period of thrift. Masks are related to power. The fixed expression on the face of a god becomes a figure that does not change and is the image that will be worshiped. Elias Canetti, describing the obdurate nature of the mask, said that the mask is the opposite of the permanently changing expressions of our face; it is rigid and constant. The mask does not transform, its power comes from the fixed meaning:
"The more distinct it is, the darker everything else. No-one knows what may not burst forth from behind the mask. The tension created by the contrast between its appearance and the secret it hides can become extreme. This is the real reason for the terror the mask inspires. 'I am exactly what you see' it proclaims 'and everything you fear is behind me.' The mask fascinates and, at the same time, it enforces distance. No-one dares to lay violent hands on it; if anyone but the wearer tears it off, he is punished by death."533
Those who wear the masks have to ensure that their real identity is protected. The mask creates a fear that does not come from the actor. The mask is like a weapon. But even the actor has to take care; under no circumstances may he lose the mask,534 for the mask is a weapon for influencing the masses. And in the mass, humans beings do not think logically, but in intuitive, in totemic images.535 According to Werner Jetter, symbolic communication has four properties: (1) Symbolic communication is simple. It is easy to understand, because the material it is built on is quite basic. (2) Symbolic communication is complex. Its layers of meaning do not unfold one after another, but at the same time. Conscious and unconscious are transmitted at the same time, thus the expression can be more complex than language. (3) Symbolic language trespasses, and limitations of class and different world-views do not hinder the communication process. (4) Symbolic communication does not formulate solutions, but involves participation in approaching the symbolically expressed truth.536 These insights come from religious studies. And as our new religion is consumption, it comes as no surprise that this knowledge has been incorporated
533 Canetti (1973:376)
534 Canetti (1973:377).
535 Warnke (1980:148) is quoting Gustave Le Bon and his psychology of the masses from 1895
536 Jetter (1978:48ff.)
into the discussion on design as well.537 And religion, too, is greatly experienced in using images to create power, especially in Germany, where Luther's influence triggered a war of images. This was a battle between Protestant and Catholic aesthetics.538 Images are dangerous because they activate intense emotion. Marketing consciously deploys this emotional intensity of images, which, sooner or later, leads to iconoclasm as we have seen in the history of religion. The seasonal sale contains this iconoclastic moment as well because it turns the everyday practice of advertising images upside down. Here, the beautiful face is replaced by the grimace. And there is yet another clue from religious production of images: the images must be opaque;539 they must obscure vision, and they must redirect attention.
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