Normcore and politics of fashion

Deciding to grow your hair to shoulder length, or shaving them and growing a mustache (in a proto-twentieth-century quote); deciding to wear a bandana on your head or a scopoleta over your eyes; deciding whether to dream of a Ferrari or a Porsche; carefully follow television programs; knowing the titles of some best-sellers; dress in powerfully fashionable shirts and trousers; have obsessive relationships with ornamental, trophy girls, while pretending that they are “free” etc. etc. etc.: all these are cultural acts.

Pier Paolo Pasolini, 24 giugno 1974. Il vero fascismo e quindi il vero antifascismo, in Scritti Corsari (1975) [1]

broadcity

One of the latest tendencies of the post-90s / Internet era is “normcore” (* definined in the urban dictionary as a subculture based on conscious, artificial adoption of things that are in widespread use, proven to be acceptable, or otherwise inoffensive. Ultra-conformists), trend that took off after New-York based collective K-Hole’s conference at the 89 plus Marathon nearly a year ago. We are already too late talking about it. Since then however a wide-ranging debate has emerged around the attempt to define (as written by the collective in the intervention Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom) those who “want the freedom to be with anyone”. It is surprising to notice how the use of language and consequently of signs have evolved, almost overturning its same definition. Consider the world “normal”. In English, it entered usage around the sixteenth-century, meaning  “typical” or “common”, deriving from the Late Latin normalis “in conformity with the rule, normal” or “made according to a carpenter’s square, perpendicular” from norma “rule, pattern” literally “carpenter’s square”. [2] If originally the world was used to define a pattern or a model in a material sense for carpenters, it later assumed a more social connotation shifting from the field of measurement to that of behavior. In fact, the definition given starting from the early nineteenth century was of “conforming to common standards, usual”, “normal person or thing”. We can therefore immediately notice how the idea of “normality” evokes  one of justness, probity, conforming to rules. What is normal is what righteously adheres to the rule. It is impossible here to give a proper, deep and exhaustive analysis of the etymology of the world “normal” and its derivatives, however it is importanat to refer to the re-definition and study made by Georges Canguilhelm and Michel Foucault in the twentieth century.

normcore kittens

Le Normal et le pathologique [3] published in 1943 (and completed in 1966) is one of the most important and influencial texts for medical anthropology and the history of ideas. Doctor and philosopher, Canguilhelm writes a text for theoreticians and scientists  aiming to demolish the presumption of the positivistic medicine to define disease as a purely quantitative difference compared to objective norms rather than considering the whole experience of the living subject. The analysis starts by describing concepts of normal and pathological in the nineteenth century and the idea of variations of quantity liable to be positively analyzed; thus by defining the pathological, we recognize the normative character of the normal. But it is not possible to express with purely quantitative terms the notion of normal because setting a simple measure implies a choice of value. If the disease is not only the rupture of an equilibrium but the creation of a new qualitative limit, this means that the “normal” (man) is the “normative” (man), one who is able to establish new norms, also organics. [4] The final and revolutionary consequence of the impossibility to determine a biological invariant in life is therefore for Canguilhelm the introduction of history in life. [5] The crucial point of this study, and the evolving one undertaken by Michel Foucault, lies exactly in the social genesis of the concept of biological normality. In Naissance de la clinique: une archéologie du regard médical [6], published in 1963, are the beginnings of one of the key concepts of Foucauldian thought of the seventies, that of normalization, acknowledged as a sort of social normativity that considers the mutual conditioning between biological aspects and the production of social life. [7] According to this definition social normativity is an historically defined anthropological and cultural experience. Here in fact we identify the basis of the notion of biopolitics, defined as the relationship between political power and the body. [8] With the explosion of the capitalist system the body has become the most important tool to govern in order to regulate social life, accordingly, the politics of coercion manages the disciplines of the body, correcting and training it. Thus, power guarantees life and accesses the body. The consequence of this analysis is that behind all notion of normality there is always a claim of normativity. The mechanism of disciplines transforms the law into norms and regulates social life. The conclusions of the reflections made by Canguilhelm and Foucault were revolutionary at the time and still relevant for today’s societies and forms of power. The processes of subjectivations and normalization act on the body as a platform of work, rendering visible and easily recognizable the codes to which we adhere in order to be normal. It is not just a question of appearance but also of behavior and attitude, way of being and habits, that integrate in the depths of  biological life the logic of power. The norm adapts itself to history and context, changing the limits of normality. But what if the diversity becomes the norm? Will it be possible to recognize and distinguish the normal from the contrary? And what about if no difference exists at all, just sameness?

normcore-map

The concept of the “Normcore”, developed by the K-Hole collective, tries to overturn this impasse juxtaposing the “Acting Basic” model who want to differentiate themselves through evasion and difference from “Normcore” who through empathy reaches the sameness and celebration. However, both models are models, patterns, norms, stereotypes that have been defined to be identified, differentiated from the rest. Even if “Normcore” tries to establish a certain zero degree of differentiation, where clothes and habits do not convey a message of belonging to a group and tries to adapt to all situations, this does not mean escaping the logic of power and normality. Everything that tries to desert or resist the circle of normality returns to be part of the dominant system that controls every illusion of difference. Following once again the notion of Foucault, power feeds itself with this exercise of capturing forms of resistance and by putting them back in the society of norms. In the quote chosen to open this intervention, we read an excerpt from the Scritti Corsari by Pier Paolo Pasolini, a series of articles written between the 1972 and 1975. In several of these texts Pasolini focuses on notions of fascism and anti-fascism considering the revolution of the 1968 as a turning point in the history of fascism and in general of capitalist society (Pasolini specifically writes about Italy but it is reasonable to widen his reflection). His analysis tries to understand and indentify the political changes of that period through the behavioral, physical and verbal language that shows the anthropological mutation of individuals and their homologation to a unique model. This is in line with Canguilhelm’s and Foucault’s lessons on normality as a social and cultural act. But the very problem for Pasolini is not that all young Italians do the same things and have the same physical style; rather that this somatic language is shared by all social classes and is no longer  possible to distinguish an employer from a student exclusively by their body. The new fascism masks differences to hide itself and penetrate all fields of society, homologating and standardizing bodies, governing human capital according to the needs of the dominant power. “The old fascism, albeit through a rhetorical degeneration, distinguished: whilst the new fascism – which is totally different – does not distinguish anymore: it is not rhetoric in a humanistic way, it is pragmatic in an American way. Its aim is the reorganization and the homologation brutally totalitarian of the world.” [9] With these wise and prophetic words we conclude, it is difficult to think that Normcore is a model and mode of escaping this logic and basing its motto on the absence of difference. When the difference is the norm, the norm becomes the difference and, even if the act is led by empathy, it does not exclude its dependence from the power.

obama

[1] translation by Giulia Bortoluzzi and Jan Novacki. Original text in Italian: “decidere di farsi crescere i capelli fin sulle spalle, oppure tagliarsi i capelli e farsi crescere i baffi (in una citazione protonovecentesca); decidere di mettersi una benda in testa oppure di calcarsi una scopoletta sugli occhi; decidere se sognare una Ferrari o una Porsche; seguire attentamente i programmi televisivi; conoscere i titoli di qualche best-seller; vestirsi con pantaloni e magliette prepotentemente alla moda; avere rapporti ossessivi con ragazze tenute accanto esornativamente, ma, nel tempo stesso, con la pretesa che siano “libere” ecc. ecc. ecc.: tutti questi sono atti culturali.” Pier Paolo Pasolini, 24 giugno 1974. Il vero fascismo e quindi il vero antifascismo, in Scritti Corsari, Garzanti, 1975 Milano.
[2] Cf. the Oxford English Dictionary. Also online here
[3] G. Canguilhem, Le Normal et le pathologique, Presse universitaire de France, 1966 Paris.
[4] “Il nous semble que la physiologie a mieux à faire que de chercher à définir objectivement le normal, c’est de reconnaître l’originale normativité de la vie.” in G. Canguilhelm, Le Normal et le Pathologique, p. 116.
[5] Cf. G. Canguilhelm, Essai sur quelques problèmes concernant le normal et le pathologique, La Montagne, Clermont Ferrand 1943.
[6] M. Foucault, Naissance de la clinique: une archéologie du regard médical, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris 1963.
[7] “La médecine ne doit plus seulement être le corpus des techniques de la guérison et du savoir qu’elles requièrent; elle enveloppera aussi une connaissance de l’homme en santé, c’est-à-dire à la fois une expérience de l’homme non malade et une définition de l’homme modèle. Dans la gestion de l’existence humaine, elle prend une posture normative, qui ne l’autorise pas simplement à distribuer des conseils de vie sage, mais la fonde à régenter les rapports physiques et moraux de l’individu et de la société où il vit.” in M. Foucault, Naissance de la clinique, p. 35.
[8] “L’homme occidental apprend peu à peu ce que c’est d’être une espèce vivante dans un monde vivant, d’avoir un corps, des conditions d’existence, des probabilités de vie, une santé individuelle et collective, des forces qu’on peut modifier […] L’homme pendant des millénaires est resté ce qu’il était pour Aristote: un animal vivant et, de plus, capable d’une existence politique; l’homme moderne est un animal dans la politique duquel sa vie d’être vivant est en question.” in M. Foucault, La Volonté de Savoir (Histoire de la sexualité I), Editions Gallimard, Paris 1976, p.187.
[9] translation by Giulia Bortoluzzi and Jan Novacki. Original text in Italian: “Perché il vecchio fascismo, sia pure attraverso la degenerazione retorica, distingueva: mentre il nuovo fascismo – che è tutt’altra cosa – non distingue più: non è umanisticamente retorico, è americanamente pragmatico. Il suo fine è la riorganizzazione e I’omologazione brutalmente totalitaria del mondo.” Pier Paolo Pasolini, Il potere senza volto in Scritti Corsari, Garzanti, 1975 Torino.

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