Reviews — From the December 2013 issue


A theory of glamour

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Discussed in this essay:

The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion, by Virginia Postrel. Simon & Schuster. 288 pages. $28.

In the mid-1970s I was walking down Heath Street, a vertiginous road in Hampstead with the Heath at the top and the Hampstead Tube station and the high street full of fancy shops below. From the top of the hill I saw a bright glow down by the Tube, an aura of light easily outshining the daylight, dazzling, gleaming. People are always filming in Hampstead, using its quaintness to signify older times, when it was a village, in a garden of which Keats wrote “Ode to a Nightingale.” I supposed that was what was happening: floodlights and the strange mixture of limbo and fevered activity of a film crew on the street you are walking along when your day bumps into them. But about halfway down the hill I could see there was no technical equipment, just a small circle of regular-looking people standing around the origin of the illumination, two quite small figures. Closer still, the pair’s features became clear and the mysterious shimmer resolved into Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Or as we called them then, “Richardburtonandelizabethtaylor.” They had been taking a stroll around Hampstead and were waylaid at the station entrance by a handful of people soliciting autographs. These were the starriest stars I’d ever seen in everyday life, top-of-the-tree stars, and I still remember their physical presence as actually glowing. It struck me that they had absorbed and accumulated all the decades of spotlight and limelight that had shone on them, all the excitement of eyes that focused and peered at them, all the waves of attention, adoration, and curiosity that continually engulfed them, and now, like fleshy batteries, they radiated it back at the world. Without their core of specialness, they would have been a slightly overdressed (some priceless diamond or other glinting on her hand, his hair more tailored than cut), moderately handsome though plump couple of tourists, American probably, no different from the others who wandered around Hampstead on the same itinerary. With the light, they were Marc Antony and Cleopatra, the VIPs, Faustus and Helen, George and Martha; the Oberon and Titania of Hollywood, stepping out of the big screen into the small street and shedding some of their fairy dust over the pavement.

“Crystal Girl no. 41,” a photograph by Noé Sendas, whose work will be on view next year at Michael Hoppen Contemporary, in London. Courtesy the artist and Michael Hoppen Contemporary, London

“Crystal Girl no. 41,” a photograph by Noé Sendas, whose work will be on view next year at Michael Hoppen Contemporary, in London. Courtesy the artist and Michael Hoppen Contemporary, London

That was my only face-to-face encounter with indisputable glamour. Meeting ordinary famous people is different. They are what they do, what you admire or despise them for. They’re interesting or disappointing. You engage with them as experts or producers. This high glamour was electrical and electrifying. There was no way an onlooker could engage, only look and be amazed. I wondered whether there was an on/off switch: either they were lit up all the time (even when they were alone together, or alone alone?) or their lights clicked on as soon as they were recognized and hands reached out, ostensibly for autographs, but really to feel the tropical warmth of their glamour.

Virginia Postrel, in her book The Power of Glamour, would suppose the latter. Glamour, she tells her readers,

does not exist independently in the glamorous object . . . but emerges through the interaction between object and audience. . . . One may strive to construct a glamorous effect, but success depends on the perceiver’s receptive imagination.

According to Postrel, Mr. and Mrs. Burton’s light would be in the eye of the beholder. A member of the Yanomami tribe in the Amazon rainforest wouldn’t have seen their gleam, unless the missionaries and anthropologists had brought a copy of Cleopatra to his neck of the forest and given him a lecture on the cultural history of Western cinema. But what about that shimmer I perceived in the distance long before I had the faintest idea of its source?

In 1913, Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary defined glamour as “a kind of haze in the air, causing things to appear different from what they really are.” This rather nebulous explanation makes glamour free-floating, existing prior to or separate from either object or beholder — unattached fairy dust, magic looking for somewhere to settle. This is not really glamour as we understand it in the twenty-first century, but it does have something of the etymology of the word. “Glamour,” first used in literary English by Sir Walter Scott, is a corrupt form of the word “grammar,” from the French “gramarye” or “grimoire,” originally meaning “enchantment,” “sorcery.” It transformed from a book of spells to knowledge both occult and academic to Richardburtonandelizabethtaylor. Postrel finds the word in Jane Eyre, who has “the glamour of inexperience . . . over [her] eyes,” enabling her to see Rochester’s gloomy mansion as splendid. It is a veil that deceives. For Joseph Conrad, the young are especially susceptible to glamour: “Oh, the glamour of youth!” and “the deceitful feeling that lures us on to joys, to perils, to love, to vain effort.” A haze again, a sleight of eye that fools us about the humdrum world. In real life, according to the etymology, nothing is glamorous.

Today, even more than in Conrad’s time, glamour is something that doesn’t exist in and of itself. It consists in yearning and lies. If magic’s not your thing, then call it editing, which some people, those concerned with “glamour businesses” — film, photography, fashion, publishing — feel lends respectability to their endeavors. According to George Hurrell, the photographer of Hollywood’s glory years, whom Postrel repeatedly quotes: “All of us glamorize everything, including the documentary photographers who glamorize filth and squalor.” The fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi follows up with an attempt to dignify glamour workers: “If glamour is magic, if it’s really about casting a spell, one should happily confront the manipulation of it all. It’s adult to manipulate and only human.” (It doesn’t seem to me that the second part of that statement is explained by the first, though it must be supposed to.) Postrel herself quotes Garbo, as the world-weary, loveless, and disguised Queen Christina, discussing the differences between Swedish and Spanish methods of courtship with John Gilbert’s Spanish ambassador, Antonio. She calls his Latin ways “glamorous, and yet somewhat mechanical.”

christina: Evidently you Spaniards make too much fuss about a simple, elemental thing like love. We Swedes are more direct.

antonio: Well, that’s civilization — to disguise the elemental with the glamorous.

(Films in 1933 trusted their audiences’ wit enough to play metafictional games around their most glamorous and disguised pair of movie stars.) There is, Postrel emphasizes, “something civilized, and distinctly human, about glamour.” You can’t really argue with the humanness of glamour: very few other animals, as far as we know, edit reality. If they could, it would presumably seriously hamper their life span and reproductive chances. Survival in the natural world is about knowing what’s what and whether it wants to eat you. The word “civilized” slips into Postrel’s argument rather too easily. Expressions like “adult,” “distinctly human,” and “civilization” pack a lot of assumptions. For Postrel, they are endorsements — she’s out to rescue the concept of glamour from any accusation that it is malign, and to show that glamour “is a life-enhancing force.” But none of those appellations is automatically or easily positive in a postnuclear, post-Freudian world, and Postrel signally fails to examine her use of them.

This is odd because Postrel’s stated intention in the book is to provide the popular understanding of glamour with the theory that has been lacking even, apparently, among cultural-studies scholars. A theory of glamour, she says, is needed to prevent these scholars from falling into such “ludicrous” errors as the historian Stephen Gundle’s claim that Paris Hilton is “indisputably glamorous,” when clearly she is “the anti-Grace Kelly” — who, Postrel tells us, is indisputably glamorous. Her aim is to sort the Kelly wheat from the Hilton chaff. Hilton is merely “rich, famous, photogenic, sexy, pretty, and stylishly dressed.” Subjectively speaking, you might expect her to add, given her insistence, just four pages later, that glamour springs from the “perceiver’s receptive imagination.” But not so: with Hilton and Kelly and so much more in this book we are handed a Postrel-dictated objective truth.

Postrel chides the cultural-studies scholars for lacking theory, but she has an evident animus toward what she calls “intellectuals”: “Sophisticates often kid themselves that they’re realists immune to [glamour’s] influence.” She is responding here to a contention by the historian of science Rosalind Williams (who Postrel says “lectures her readers”) that “truth is not found by dreaming.” Postrel continues:

One job of intellectuals is to puncture glamour by reminding us of what’s hidden. But intellectuals are by no means exempt from glamour’s effects. They simply have their own longings and hence their own versions of glamour, including in some cases the ideal of a life without meaningful illusions.

She nowhere shows that intellectuals exempt themselves from the concepts they engage and analyze. I’m aware of no unified job description for “intellectuals,” but if there were one it would have to do with examining ideas, their origins and development, not merely with bursting everyone’s favorite balloons. In fact Postrel makes reference to very few “intellectuals,” namely Rosalind Williams and the critic John Berger, in order to dismiss their negative views on the subject. This lack of substantial sources makes her text as light as whipped egg white. She counters Berger’s association of glamour with social envy by invoking an irrelevant quotation from Jay-Z (“when you see me, see you!”) and a paean by Naomi Wolf, in Harper’s Bazaar, to Angelina Jolie. “Over the course of the essay, Jolie’s life functions as proof that the longings that inform Wolf’s own oeuvre are attainable,” she writes, blindsiding the 99.9 percent of the world’s population who have not attained and never will attain an iota of Jolie’s life. She discusses the pop singer Fergie’s 2007 music video for her song “Glamorous,” and quotes Cate Blanchett’s ruminations to an interviewer for the Sunday Telegraph:

You can go mad trying to control your image. . . . In Elizabeth’s day a painter would take a couple of months to paint your portrait. Now you can be photographed walking down the street in your pajamas and there’s nothing you can do . . .

But nowhere do we get Lacan on the unconscious gaze, Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, or Roland Barthes’s Mythologies, all of which concern our perception and creation of icons. I would have thought it impossible to write a book on glamour without a single reference to Sontag’s 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp’ ” or some philosophical and historical background on the nature of beauty and taste, yet all this is absent. Nor is there any mention of Guy Debord’s 1967 treatise The Society of the Spectacle, or Walter Benjamin’s 1939 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” both of which reflect directly on the idea of representation taking over from direct experience and rendering it a distortion. The nearest we get is an Annie Leibovitz advertisement for Louis Vuitton, in which Angelina Jolie sits moodily alone on a wooden boat in Cambodia, clad in earth tones and carrying a completely inappropriate LV Alto tote bag; this scene, Postrel explains, is intended to appeal to a high-end consumer who dreams of authenticity but rarely tries to live it. Evidently this is enough to prove her point that glamour is about optimistic transformation and escape. Either she believes that intellectuals have nothing to tell her, which is more arrogant than any intellectual I’ve come across, or she doesn’t want to muddy her book with anything that might look “difficult.”

Instead, she seems satisfied to make glamour virtually synonymous with the function and activity of advertising: “By binding image and desire, glamour gives us pleasure even as it heightens our yearnings. It leads us to feel that the life we dream of exists, and to desire it even more.” This she directly equates with the undeniable fact that advertising is the heart (if that’s the right word) of capitalism. Her first precondition for glamour is “the willingness to acknowledge discontent with one’s current situation along with the ability to imagine a different, better self in different, better circumstances.” Western commercial culture, apparently, is what facilitates this:

By opening up opportunities for economic advancement and offering goods and services that beautify, educate, and otherwise promote self-improvement, modern, commercial societies provide many such avenues.

Being able to take seriously Postrel’s theory of glamour finally depends on whether you can buy into her complacent, approving view of the divisive society in which glamour thrives. In order to rescue glamour from its negative aspects, she sets up Berger as her arch villain. She does so by reducing his groundbreaking and humane 1972 investigation into the social perception of art and advertising, Ways of Seeing, to a few sentences. She calls it an “influential theory,” rather undercutting her claim to be providing the first theory herself. But, she tells us, Berger (who has read Benjamin) argues that glamour “elicits social envy in order to sell commercial goods, by showing us people who have apparently been transformed . . . and are, as a result, enviable.” Although she admits that his description captures “glamour’s transformational promise,” it seems his “desiccated view” misses many of glamour’s “most potent appeals.” “He is blinded by envy, conflating it with desire.” There are few people less dried-up in their thought than John Berger. In Ways of Seeing, Berger proposes that advertising offers images that “make the spectator marginally dissatisfied with his present way of life”; it offers pictures of how the spectator’s life could be — “glamorous day-dreams,” Berger calls them — that leave a palpable gap between his reality and what he would like his reality to be. Envy and desire are indeed coterminous in the dream on offer. The spectator envies his own dream self, as if he were present in the advertising image, and links that to the idea of being envied by others — of becoming the distant unachieved object that seems to constitute success. “The happiness of being envied is glamour,” he says. This is parallel to the modern desire to be famous — to be known and envied by others whom you don’t yourself know. We want to become these glamorous creatures, but we don’t want everyone to be them; we want the exclusivity, the unreachability that makes glamour glamorous, what Postrel calls glamour’s necessary mystique or mystery. “Publicity does not manufacture the dream,” says Berger, whose thesis is in fact hardly different from Postrel’s ostensibly novel one. “All that it does is to propose to each one of us that we are not yet enviable — yet could be.”

The break between Berger and Postrel comes in their underlying positions. Berger is a Marxist thinker who relates social and cultural formations to structures of power and authority. Advertising and glamour do not use the discontent they stoke to suggest other social possibilities; on the contrary, they use it both to sell the product and to maintain the status quo. Maybe if you saved up you could buy the Louis Vuitton bag that the astronomically rich Angelina Jolie is being paid to sell. Advertising offers snippets of the glamorous life (a scent, a handbag, the real money-making product) to those who will never have the means to buy the life itself. Commerce offers to make you happier in the world as it is, rather than proposing a world in which desires might be different, less constituted by envy. Postrel appears to be quite content with the world as it is:

To understand glamour as no more than deception is to miss the psychological truths — and the real-world possibilities — it reveals. . . . Every unironic evocation of the American Dream is an exercise in glamour and, however illusory the dream may sometimes be, the country is better off for the inspiration.

Apparently the value of glamour is that it can “point its audience towards a better, more satisfying way of life.” Such as sitting alone beside a Cambodian river (not a Cambodian in sight) with a Vuitton bag? But the key here is “unironic.” An unironic evocation of the American dream is one that would need to deny almost all discussion over the past half century of the nature of the American dream and how it has actually worked out for individuals, American society, and the rest of the world. So much passionate political debate, and so much of the literary, dramatic, and visual arts of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries — from The Great Gatsby and Death of a Salesman to DeLillo and Pynchon to The Sopranos and Breaking Bad — would have to be disregarded in order to speak unironically of the American dream. It is impossible to imagine that such a deluded, partial, narrow view might inspire a nation. As it stands, Postrel’s statement says no more than that unexamined sentimentality is what keeps America dreaming.

Actually, it’s worse than that. According to Postrel, the nature of the dream offered by glamour, then and now, depends not only on dusty pinhole visions but also on the most spirit-draining, life-crushing clichés. She says that although “[W]e may appreciate the longings stirred by the New York skyline, a red-carpet moment, or a sports car on an open road,” her “fuller theory of glamour allows us to expand beyond the obvious.” It “lets us understand what a little girl sees in a princess or a young man imagines in the Marines.” But a theory of glamour is not the thing we need to unravel those depressing longings. Looking at the gloss that is glamour’s form does little to explain anything except its superficial effect. There is nothing surprising in the fact that commerce produces material, imaginable versions of transcendence, which is a well-established hankering of the human race. The great mystery is why people are genuinely beguiled by such transparent manipulation, why the contrivances of advertising represent the transcendence they crave. But Postrel’s book never gets beneath the skin of her subject. She accepts the world that the glamorizers portray more or less uncritically, even when some of those glamorizers have started to move on from dreadfully obvious notions of little girls and princesses and young men and the Marines. Postrel looks backward and likes what she sees, but that world has for a long time been the object of struggle by little girls who have grown up to examine their desires and to whom those desires really belong.

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’s most recent book is What I Don’t Know About Animals (Yale). Her last article for Harper’s Magazine, “Unfaithful,” appeared in the January 2012 issue.

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