Thursday, April 20, 2023

Power Clashing and the Structure of Practices

guest post by Nick Riggle

Some things just go together. Medjool dates and salted cashews. Hot pink and cyan. Unagi and oloroso. Sunshine and grass. Put these together and please enjoy your happiness. Other things not so much: manspreading and crowded subways, espresso and cottage cheese...

Zebra stripes and plaid?

Fashion is an aesthetic practice full of rules and restrictions: navy and brown yes, but no navy and black. No socks with sandals. No denim on denim (boooo). The long history of fashion provides a background of formalities and traditions whose dictates guide us in often unseen ways.

What, if anything, justifies these rules? In poetry, rules tend to serve other values, e.g. the value of complex and powerful prose. The strict rules of a pantoum key us into subtle changes in the meaning of a repeated and repurposed line, amplifying the power of the line and of the poem and poet in turn. The basic rules of pop song construction (~3 minutes, 4/4 time, no key changes, intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus structure) provide a kind of sonic public playground, an accessible template for fun and endless variation.

In the case of mixed patterns the justification seems simple: mixed patterns clash. You don’t mix zebra stripes and plaid because you don’t mix visually conflicting prints and patterns, perhaps especially when one is a South African animal print and the other is Scottish tartan. They do not look good together. It seems that the rule couldn’t be easier to justify, since fashion is a practice that cares about aesthetic value. Mixed patterns are visually confusing and displeasing. Fashion is about looking good. No mixed patterns. QED.

That might seem easy, simple, and true. But it is a wildly superficial account of the practice.

[image source]


Aesthetic practices are full of rules that cannot be justified by such simple appeals to aesthetic value. A recent paper by Guy Rohrbaugh discusses the example of  Western classical music performance, where score compliance is strictly necessary. The rule, play all and only the notes of the score, is so forceful that it does not matter if playing a different note would have greater aesthetic value. Playing other notes might sound better, be performatively expressive, or shock the audience—none of that matters because one must play all the notes. Why is there such a rule? And why is it so forceful?

Drawing on work by Aron Edidin, Rohrbaugh argues that there are indirect aesthetic reasons for the rule. First, some works have a complexity of thematic repetition, inversion, and sonic play that cannot be realized improvisationally—for their value to be realized they have to be written down and played as written. (This of course is not to say that improvisational works cannot be extremely complex.) Second, writing the music down and playing it as written allows for repetition and dissemination—more people can hear it, and everyone can hear it again. Third, this allows people to develop and deepen their understanding and appreciation of the work. And fourth, performers can bring this understanding and appreciation to bear on their performances in ways that realize different expressive, performative, and appreciative values.

The rule cannot be justified by individual-level evaluative considerations, but it can be justified at the wider practice level. The rule helps realize the goods of collective aesthetic life—sharing complex aesthetic value, deepening our understanding and appreciation of it, and expressing that understanding in our performances, experiences, and interpretations of the work. And since these goods structure aesthetic practices in general, our individual aesthetic actions must bend to them.


There is a kind of uber-value in fashion that mirrors this, generating various individual-level rules. Fashion is an art of self-expression. As such, anything goes, as long as it works, and what works is what captures something about who one is in a way that communicates with one’s audience. In this way, fashion goes hand-in-hand with style, where style is the expression of ideals. But expressing yourself and having style through clothing are not easy. So it helps to have more and less stringent rules addressed to individuals who, by following them, can’t go too far astray—guardrails that keep people on track and the group more or less together.

To use an entirely random example, it might befit a philosophy professor to wear cargo pants, t-shirt, and unbuttoned button-down shirt every day. The rules approve. The professor can make some limited choices within that general look – a colorful or a black tee, maybe with some philosophy reference on it, or a plaid overshirt that’s a bit ‘90s Seattle/lumberjack. The look conveys a lot; people have an easy time putting the professor in the right social group, noting a thing or two about their sensibility. The professor can rest assured that they don’t look too bad, but expression trumps looks: it matters that this look is self-expressive—a beautiful and expensive Italian suit would look great but it wouldn’t work.

To see this even more clearly, enter the power clasher—my favorite example of expression trumping looks in fashion. Power clashing has been around for some time, long enough, at least, for future Jack Donaghy (“Alterna-Jack”) to brag about his mastery of it. Power clashing is about clashing boldly—wearing animal prints with tartan and throwing naval stripes in there for good measure. Clashing patterns are primally visually confusing—hence the rule against—but visual confusion can ground expressive power and expressive power always wins. The power clasher says Yeah, I’m shining a flashlight in your eyes—what are you gonna do about it? The hope of fashion is that you shine back in your own way.

The individual-level rules of fashion are not ultimately justified by appeal to visual appeal. They typically help us look good, true, but more importantly they help us meet minimal conditions of self-expression. Power clashers prove that an apparently ruly practice can be deeply unruly at its heart, because the practice’s heart is the powerful and elusive value of self-expression through dress. We should think of the rules of fashion not as strict rules—ones that obviously change all the time anyway—but as communal notes on how to realize the practice’s governing value.


This makes me wonder about philosophy, which is full of stringent norms and standards, and full of people ready to enforce them—implicit and explicit norms of logic, form, voice, argument, address, and interaction. There are so many that our vigilance in observance of them threatens to make our essays and books oppressive to write and exhausting to read, as if we always had to wear formal dress lest we be regarded as unserious at best, dumb at worst. Is it too easy to forget that philosophy can be done without adhering to such norms? Like poetry, the beauty of philosophy can shine through and because of its rules, but poetry has embraced its ‘free verse’. I sometimes wonder if we collectively lost our sense of philosophy’s potential for literary creativity.

The sad truth is that philosophers can be extremely dismissive of those who fall out of line with philosophy’s conservative standards of writing, painting Wittgenstein as a charlatan, Nietzsche as a madman, the novels of Iris Murdoch as irrelevant, the dialogue as a lost genre, or anything outside of the standard form professional publication as lesser. I don’t know whether we can literally power clash in philosophy but I wouldn’t mind a few more flashlights in my face.


Tim Smith said...


You are growing on my mind. Thanks for this clever bit.

Though Philosophy is stolid, it strives for solidity, even as it oppresses. Oppression is the greater evil over aesthetics, and yet aesthetics are what I spend my conscious moments pondering much more than my privilege.

The rules of classical music are changing, and that is another story. Ultimately I am a jazz man to take my blues away.

Your stuff is solid.

My thought may mean little in a blog post, which is to your point. I want you to know I am reading and appreciating you. Aesthetics are where it’s at. I see you, and now I see myself better through your work. It is awesome.


Paul D. Van Pelt said...

I concur. Accessible style and relaxed delivery. Not much word salad.

chinaphil said...

I think I disagree with this. It's quite a common sentiment: discipline X seems to be rather hidebound; perhaps it could gain more life/popularity if the rules were relaxed a bit. We've seen it in Shakespeare and novels and science and classical music and politics and elite universities... And I'm sure in some of those cases, there was a benefit to eliminating certain types of social barrier. But in general, I wonder if it wouldn't be better to let the rules/barriers exist, and just make the thing so good that it's worth paying the cost of entry.
I dunno. I'm not against outreach or democratisation or popularisation. But I feel like they could be an "and" rather than an "instead of." I guess... I'm not seeing where this pool of untapped talent lies, in philosophy or any other discipline, that will suddenly be accessed if we reduce barriers to entry. Flashlights in the face would be great, and it's not clear that style restrictions are the factor that stopping them shining.

Tim Smith said...

@chinaphil I'm not sure what your "this" is, or the "thing" that could be given access with another "and". The outfit pictured above integrates on line and clashes on pattern. The woman's smile speaks to your question?

Most people walk out on Pat Metheny when he plays Ornette Coleman harmolodics, but I have never met an artist who was comfortable being pigeon holed.

Philosophy is not an art. I agree with that. It is oppressive in its rules, as is science. The oppression drives the dye, and the necessity for the "instead". What comes out in the wash is anyone's guess.

Ursula Leguin is a lit crit counter to your question of what there is to see, but oppression is the root of the "thing". The beauty is "here" we don't need to agree, and can use our torches with impunity.

Arnold said...

That 2500 years ago Who was 1,500 yrs settled, and replaced with What...
..2500 yrs later, most of philosophy has hung on to Who and gone deep into psychology...

That philosophy is scientific (what) today...
...What I am, puts me in touch with Observation and...

Advancing the phenomena curve to place...