David Hammons, “Fresh Hell” (1993) via threadbared
The recent series about fashion design and politics continues today in the form of a synthesis of the conversation I had with Mimi Thi Nguyen, co-editor of Threadbared and associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies, and Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. This conversation is one of the two sample podcasts available on The Funambulist’s podcast platform Archipelago that will veritably begin in January 2014. As you can see, this project will also fuel the written feed of The Funambulist in what I believe is an interesting dialogue between two mediums (conversations+written synthesis). In this present case, I will introduce this text in two parts as they occurred more or less deliberately in our conversation (Oct. 10, 2013).
Part 1: The Clothe as an Object Crystallizing the Power of the Norm(s)
I often write that no architecture can possibly be politically neutral; Mimi is convinced of the same thing as far as clothing is concerned. We started our conversation by evoking an article she wrote four years ago when she first started to teach. Untitled “Brief Notes on the Unreliable Stories Clothes Tell,” this text simply introduces a question that many of us are familiar with: what to wear, to say what, to whom? In this regard, one of the first assignment that Mimi asks her students to do is to write a text about why they decided to wear what they are wearing this given day. The politics of appearance of the public body are indeed complex as they involve many levels of individual and cultural weight within a piece of fabric (or any other material for that matter). When I decide to wear a piece of clothe (or not to wear one), I act on the following levels:
– The relationship that I want for me vis-a-vis the norm.
– The expectation that the norm establishes vis-a-vis this piece of clothe.
– The degree of ‘misunderstanding’ relatively to these expectations (for example, Mimi and I talked about students who wear sweatpants in class, and how there is something much more complex than the simple conclusion that they are “lazy”).
– The uncompleteness of my own understanding of these mechanisms of norm (this usually increases as my location does not correspond to the milieu to which I belong).
The mechanisms that produces the norm carry a proportional social violence with the visible signs of distance with the same norm. As I often wrote in the past, no body completely incarnates the norm; however, we all have a different degree of distance of this norm that we can act upon for a part of it, but that are inherent of our race, our gender, our social and geographical origin etc. for another part. Mimi and I thus discussed about the expectations that a piece of clothe can carry in a context of racism and xenophobia. In a 2010 article entitled “Clothes Epidermalized, as Republican Representative Targets ‘Illegals,’” Mimi wrote about U.S. Congress Representative Bill Bilbray who commented on the recently voted state immigration law in Arizona that authorizes the police to control the legality of the immigration status of any individual. Bilbray, in favor of the law, made a point in insisting that the potential controls from the police would not be based on ethnical characteristics, but could be done by an observation of an individual’s clothing. “They will look at the kind of dress you wear, there is different type of attire, there is different type of — right down to the shoes, right down to the clothes” (Bilbray, 2010).
The “epidermalization” that Mimi often writes about, consists in the way that our public body (mostly composed by our clothing) ‘offers’ a surface to the public that can be interpreted as a new skin. The tragic case of Trayvon Martin’s murder is another proof of the set of expectations that are created by the mix of the actual skin (black in this case) and the other skin that clothing creates (the hoodie in this case). As said in her article “The Hoodie as a Sign, Screen, Expectation, and Force,” as well as in a previous article I wrote after reading it, many of the murders that are motivated by what I came to call as an absurd oxymoron “preemptive legitimate defense,” occur for the sum of (racist) expectations that are placed in the consideration for the nature of this public body.
Part 2: The Colonial ‘Promises’ of Freedom and Beauty
The first part of the conversation was dedicated to the immanent mechanisms of the production of norms. The second part, on the other hand, tackled the transcendental enforcement of clothing and/or its colonial cultural introduction. The example of Iran is expressive in this matter. In a 2009 article “You Say You Want A Revolution (In a Loose Headscarf)” about what was unfolding as the Green Revolution, Mimi insists on the binary scheme of the country’s relationship to the hijab (veil): before the 1979 revolution, the regime of the Shah was enforcing the unveiling of women, while the Islamic republic (consecutive to the revolution) was enforcing the veiling. In view of the current debates in countries like France (that passed two laws in the last years against religious/Muslim clothing in schools/public space), it is important to insist on the fact that the piece of clothe itself do not represent either an object of oppression or liberation; only the practices around it do. As Mimi herself says, “it’s important to situate this moment, in which we must recognize how both forced veiling and forced unveiling operated as disciplinary state edicts –often enacted violently on female bodies by male soldiers or police– at discrete political times to instrumentally shape a feminine civic body.”
The colonial imposition of Western norm upon other nations is an important part of Mimi’s work. In 2012, she published The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages (Duke University Press) and currently works on a book entitled The Promise of Beauty whose essence can be already found in the text “The Biopower of Beauty: Humanitarian Imperialisms and Global Feminisms in an Age of Terror.” In the latter, she analyzes the work of American NGO of Beauty Without Borders that introduces the Western norm of beauty in an Kabul at war to supposedly empower Afghan women in a mix of condescension (proper to colonialism) and ignorance. Mimi cleverly insists on the nature of the name of the organization that chose to register within a genealogy of borderless (“sans frontière”) NGO. Here, the absence of borders corresponds more to the annihilation of the borders that separates the identity of a nation from another (as Edouard Glissant often describes it) in the constitution of an Empire that acts militarily but also economically (introducing “beauty” also includes introducing beauty products) and culturally (what is beauty, what is freedom).
The politics of visibility of the public body, its epidemalization, are therefore unfolding through clothing whether they activate themselves through the immanence of the norm, or the transcendence of violence (the law or the war). What is true for clothing is also true for the other designed objects that populate our world (architecture included) yet, clothing in its ability to ‘travel’ with the body crystallizes the relationship that society creates and impose on us, and of which we cannot not be a part: the naked body also expresses something through its (absence of ) clothing.
Listen to the Podcast conversation with Mimi Thi Nguyen on Archipelago.