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Sunday, October 22, 2006

Notes on sneakers 

I've been doing a little research into sneaker culture -- that subculture of collectors and fans loosely overlapped with skater and hip hop culture, mostly centered around permutations of the Nike Dunk -- and have been struck not only by the sheer number and creativity of sneaker designs, but by the ardor and devotion of the fans. People (almost always youngish men) line up overnight to pay hundreds of dollars for rare artist-designed limited editions, and spend hours online (here, and here, for example) documenting and ogling sneak peeks of future releases. The much-touted female fascination with Manolos or Choos pales in comparison.

To be sure, sneaker subculture smacks of otaku, the Japanese word that roughly translates as "nerd." Young men now collect sneakers with the same intensity with which they might have earlier collected comics or baseball cards or transforming, mutant robots. But unlike those obsessions, sneakers are fashion items. As clothing, they are more intimately tied to self presentation and identity. They're there, not just for the wearer, but for other people as well. As my husband has noted, signature sneakers are an easy way to jazz up your look without going metro (-sexual, that is). And wearing unusual shoes, as many a woman can attest, is a quiet way of saying you're unique.

I think the high demand for these "special" shoes is a response to the ever-increasing homogeneity of our cultural environment. With the ubiquity of online stores and the same chains selling the same merchandise in every mall in America (and abroad), unless you make your own clothes, buy vintage, or can afford custom designs, it's hard to differentiate yourself. These limited edition designer sneakers are the closest approximation of couture in our mass-produced world. They give their owners a sense of belonging to a small elite of cultural insiders, and most importantly, the impression that they are different.

And it's almost an authentic feeling. There's something nearly artisanal about the whole thing -- artists and celebrities design limited editions in much the same way as a printmaker or photographer. The phenomenon pushes mass production to approximate personalization, dividing and subdividing the differences between products -- sometimes it's only a color or insignia that differentiates a special edition from its widely available counterpart -- into thinner and thinner slices. (In the world of online retail, the concept of the "long tail" comes to mind -- the way in which a company like Netflix can afford to carry specialty movies because they increase the overall number of rentals and customers.) Certainly, the basic structure of the shoes remains the same. Each style -- Dunk, Jordan, whatever -- is a blank canvas for selected colors, patterns, and textures. It's a brilliant marketing scheme -- introducing barely perceptible differences as a way to sell what is essentially, structurally the same shoe over and over. But even though it's a classic example of aesthetics superseding use-value, it's also a way for people to express themselves within the logic of consumerism. And in a world where there's nothing else, that's better than nothing.

8:14 PM

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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Apocalypse now (again) 

I know the 80s have been back for awhile, but can there be such a thing as Cold War nostalgia? Or perhaps it's not nostalgia, but renewed fear that accounts for anxieties over nuclear holocaust that have cropped up recently in our favorite alternate reality: TV. It's hard to think of a scarier scenario than the (very real) one that came to light these last few days: nuclear arms in the arms of Kim Jong Il. But two new dramas -- "Jericho" and "Heroes" -- both revolve around nuclear attacks on the U.S. Something's in the air, because the other day, flipping channels, I came across a re-broadcast of The Day After (1983), that momentous made-for-TV movie that envisioned an immediate post-nuclear future with a stark, heart-breaking realism intended to turn us all into anti-nuke activists.

I haven't seen "Jericho," but my first reaction to the "Heroes" premise was "Come on! Can't they think of a more original cataclysm than a nuclear blast in Manhattan?" As someone who came of age with the (real or imagined) daily threat of nuclear annihilation -- "War Games," "Mad Max" -- only to see the issue all but disappear (thankfully) from popular consciousness, these re-treads of the "end of the world" scenario feel lazy. What a conveniently extreme circumstance around which to create drama! But then I realize that we are once again in an anxious nuclear age, although both the game and the players have changed. Instead of a chess match between two superpowers, it's a Wild West free-for-all: much less predictable, much more frightening.

Yet, these new representations of nuclear holocaust for me don't hold nearly the horror and impact of that original broadcast of "The Day After." Perhaps that first reaction was just a function of being an impressionable teen. Or perhaps I still haven't re-awakened to the fact that in one instant, the world as I know it -- the physical, tangible world -- could be utterly decimated. Does it seem less horrific now because I'm jaded, or because it just (naively) feels impossible? Or perhaps the threat of nuclear holocaust has become such a regular presence in our world that it really is just another dramatic scenario.

9:56 PM

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