VITAL VOGUE – a biosocial perspective on fashion
In 1940, the psychoanalyst, political theorist, biologist and pioneer of body therapies Wilhelm Reich taught at The New School in New York. The course, “Character Formation: Biological and Sociological Aspects,” introduced students to the outlines of Reich’s theories of psychosomatic dynamics, and how the psyche is caught between the bio-electrical energies of the body and social currents, between freedom and fear, sexuality and fascism. This speculative project asks the question; How would Reich’s ideas be interpreted by a student of fashion, and put to use in the realm of dress?
Reich’s theories were controversial throughout his lifetime and have been disputed over the decades, yet today his ideas are curiously aligned with the frontiers of many academic discussions, even if his name is seldom mentioned. Reich’s focus on embodiment and cognition, material agency and the vibrancy of matter, the ecologies of vital affect and the social desires of fascism, have come to echo throughout our times. These ideas also bring new light to the vital dynamics of fashion.
What if we understood fashion as a bioelectrical energy and as a form of flirting? Could bioelectric orgone energy, which Reich claimed could charge organic materials, charge and recharge fashion? What if fashion is not about so much about clothes, but primarily a biosocial affect and motility, a cognitive interface between living organisms, hungry for connection and love? How would such shift in perception change our approach to fashion and sustainability? Reich’s ideas would not only shift the definition of fashion from the industry to the wounded individual, but what also move the locus of fashion from the fashion system to the biological processes of life itself. How would such radical shift affect the way we think of fashion design?
The exhibition and booklet Vital Vogue interprets Reich’s ideas into the realm of fashion. It also asks new questions, addressing fashion as an energy sparkling of life, a form of biosocial flourishing, or more precisely: a vital vogue.
[It is important to note that the props and experiments within this project are of the artist, and that they do not in any way represent Reich's original and experimental work. For accurate data on Reich's work, please go to his original writings.]
von Busch, Otto (2018) VItal Vogue: A biosocial perspective on fashion, (2nd edition) New York: SelfPassage [PDF] (corrected and expanded 2nd edition as of October 2018) - order on Amazon
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[Image: Test of Electrodermal activity (EDA) with subject touching fashion accessories, Feb 25, 2018, Brooklyn (photo by Ari Elefterin)]
-- Download research questionaires [pdf1] [pdf2] [pdf3] [pdf4]
When fashion works at its best, we feel it in our bodies. It may be a sense of excitement, allure, or arousal. Fashion is a passion, a sensibility of aesthetic desire, an ephemeral wave of pleasurable anticipation rushing through the body. It is sexually charged, but not necessarily in a narrow genital sense. Fashion can trigger our erotic imagination, a stirring dream world, but as with sexual fantasies this may include a wide variety of relationships, events and scenarios that are not always explicit or speaks to our more rational side. When fashion works on us, it changes our posture, we feel seen and on top of things, we expand emotionally and socially, open up our sensibilities towards the world. We feel a plasmatic pulse of energy streaming along the spine and through our bodies. The eye contact, the affirmative comment and looks, its like a kick, and once you have experienced it you cannot get enough. Yes, at its best, fashion is that thrill of appreciation and adoration and a surge of aliveness sweeping as a wave of pleasure through the body.
But when fashion does not work, we also feel it in our bodies. We feel the anxiety, humiliation, and shame that emanates from what is jokingly called wardrobe malfunction. We may not pay attention to it in an everyday occasion or when we have no witnesses around, but like a numb limb or broken tool, we first recognize it in the moment of failure, and then we realize the agonizing effects of the enclothed wound. The anxiety makes us cringe, our posture changes, we feel wounded, contract into a ball and try to escape from sight like a suffering animal. We may rationally know that looks do not matter, but the experience the social pain in a humiliating situation may be just too much to bear. Fashion connects not merely to our identity, but to the emotional grounding of the body, the very core of our biological being.
[Image: Test of Electrodermal activity (EDA) with subject reading Vogue (October 13, 2017, New York)]
Applying Reichs ideas of biosocial energy and plasmatic motility to the realm of fashion would rearrange the spatial configuration of agency and action within the everyday realm of fashion. The locus of fashion is not in the “system” or in the “industry,” even if these are its commoditized vectors, that is, the channels or infrastructure through which most of the energy is fashion transmitted. Instead of being out there, in the system, an energetic perspective puts the locus of fashion in the body, in the plasmatic flows of energy rushing our excitement when our cognition is attuned to the expression and allure of another peer or the “object” of our cognition. Fashion happens inside and between organisms in the excitation of emotional and plasmatic movements.
[Image: Test of Electrodermal activity (EDA) with subject touching fashion accessories, Feb 25, 2018, Brooklyn (photo by Ari Elefterin)]
Thus you know something is fashionable when it makes your body pulsate with desire, when your erotic emotion and imagination is intensified, and you feel the steam from the arousal of your sensibilities. You know something is fashionable when you can’t tear your eyes off it, when it captures your sensibilities, anticipation and passion. At its best, fashion is more than a wearable signifier: it is a seamless alloplastic extension of pure flesh. Fashion is a prosthesis for orgastic potency, a technology of imagination, excitement and allure, making the human more god-like. As Freud famously argues;
“With every tool man is perfecting his own organs, whether motor or sensory, or is removing the limits of their functioning […] Man has, as it were, become a prosthetic god. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent: but those organs have not grown on him and they still give him trouble at times.” (Freud 1962: 42)
This means fashion does not happen in isolation. It is fundamentally a social phenomenon, a pulsating coupling between two bodies. Fashion is a form of flirting. Enacted socially, it grabs attention and holds it: you know fashion works when you can’t tear your eyes off its wearer. This attention excites and affirms the other, radiates a sense of attractiveness, sends a pulse of affection and pleasure. It is a co-creation between two people, a look of recognition and allure. At its best, fashion connects two people; it ties their attention together to form an emotional charge of attentive togetherness. There is such a thing as a biosexual “sexual aura” or “sex appeal,” which Reich sees as “the contact of two fields of orgonotic excitation.” (Reich 1982: 7)
Flirting in this sense should not be limited to the narrow experience leading up to sexual intercourse, but a much wider sense of emotionally changed practices connecting the living bodies of organisms. Flirting is a series of practices, behaviours and rituals capturing the attention of a peer, drawing their sensory apparatus into an intimate world, inviting them to attune their sensations to each other in order to share a world of anticipation.
[Image: fashion/imaginal work in progress at Parsons/The New School, December 2016, (photo: Ari Elefterin) ]
The process of orgone flow in fashion escalates in a series of steps. Firstly, the core of the organism is expanding from interest, reaching out towards the world and orients itself towards others in an affirmative way. Secondly, as another organism opens itself, and the orgone orientations and cognitions of the two bodies catch each other, their streamings “feel each other out” to connect. The third stage of the affirming flirt is a co-joined streaming of bioelectrical affect, intertwining interests and pulses of affection that makes the two organisms expand their worlds together. Thus the biosocial energy that affirms life, connecting two bodies to the currents of the time through healthy flirting and orgone streaming, is fashion.
[Image: diagram showing process of plasmatic excitation between two individuals engaged in fashion/flirting]
If I have dressed up, and I feel at my best, I build up an excitation in the body, a willingness to be seen and be judged by my looks. Through my dressed sensorium, I reach out into the world and seek to touch the attention of others. Then, if someone gives me an affirming look or acknowledgement, I feel a rush of excitement, a release of tension, and pleasure rushes through my body. A passage has been opened between us. A build-up of excitation and then a wave of affirmation surges through my nerves from being seen and acknowledged. My neurons fire, dopamine rushes: I feel a sense of life affirmation, alive in my body in the most positive sense.
What an biosocial theory of fashion highlights is that garments act as vital interfaces, alloplastic extensions or prosthetics to the living organism; they are functionally integrated to the sensorial body. As such, they live through the excitement and expansion of the organism in search for pleasure, erotic enchantment, and orgastic potency. We search, touch, caress and capture our sensorial world through them, and we can of course also use them to reject others, regulating access to our attention. Yet fashion flows between us, moving our bodies. Like the excitation of the protoplasma, fashion is an affectual motility at the core of our being. Fashion design is the orchestration of these energies.
[Image: first imaginal provotype for testing orgone transfer between shoes and hanger, December 2016, (photo: Ari Elefterin) ]
[Image: test of imaginal provotype of orgone fumigator, December 2016, (photo: Ari Elefterin) ]
The fabrication of fashion, however, is controlled by the fashon industry, which thrives in the social anxieties produced by the aesthetic competition and rivalry through positional goods. The industry makes consumers dependent on fashonable stuff, rather than learning to cultivate their own self-esteem and ways of flirting. The willing submission of consumers to the fashion industry as its workings increasingly makes social life “nasty, brutish and short” and turns man into a wolf towards his fellow man. Under such settings, the industrial fabrication of fashion is per definition unsustainable, as its purpose is to continuously undermine the self-esteem of its consumers, making them addicted to new goods, and in need of the industry to help fabricate a sense of self.
Thus the fabrication of scarcity and rivalry, with the promotion of narcissist pride, greed, and envy, makes the fashion industry much like the arms industry, thriving in a setting of perpetual civil war, providing cheap arms to fearful combatants. As the force of flirting is processed through such social dynamics a Realist game of power may easily take over the pleasures of plasmatic movement, cultivating more armoring even though it seems like “anything goes” in the market of style. More and more identities are offered at the expanding market, yet the basic fear of exclusion still drives the race and consumers willingly give up their freedom and ask to be led. Or even further, as Reich points out, they desire to be led and willingly give away their freedom.
Thus, it is not more cheap and accessible clothes that can alter this dynamic. As Reich would argue, it is not the accessibility of pleasure that can challenge the armoring, but “only the liberation of the natural capacity for love in human beings can master their sadistic destructiveness.” (1970: 197) Indeed, “the human longing for life and pleasure cannot be banished” Reich argues, “but the social regulation of sexual life can be changed.” (1970: 191) A longing for flirting and connection through fashion is not going away, but we may rethink the way designers understand and operate with the living functioning of fashion in order to avoid funneling fashion through the fabrication of branded scarcity and the power-grid of positional goods.
Thus the question designers should address is not “what will be the new exclusive look?,” but what “new workings of plasmatic motility can we promote?”, or to put it differently, “how do we support an abundance of flirting and desire?” With such questions, Reich’s perspective on energetic functioning may help us think anew on the future of sustainable fashion.
[Image: symbol for orgone research into feral fashion]
A last note on the transformation of Reich’s symbol of functional identity/antithesis on the back cover of this volume (and above). Adding tentacles to this symbol has a “designerly” addition to Reich’s original ideas. It serves to reveal a key insight brought from Reich into fashion. By adding limbs, pseudopodia, antennae, or tentacles to the core or source of the living energy, the new symbol highlights a crucial lesson from the biosocial approach to fashion. That fashion has tentaculum, from the Latin “to feel” and “to try.” It reaches out, feeling, while simultaneously entangling its prey. These appendages reaches out from the body itself. The source of fashion is life, and there is not only light at this core, but a seeming endless depth. Fashion has this uncanny and feral deepness: if we gaze long into it, the abyss will look back at us.
[Image: imaginal test of orgone fashion capacitor, December 2016, (photo: Ari Elefterin) ]
[images from Vital Vogue exhibit at Aronson Gallery, Parsons, March-April 2018]
The artist recognizes that the props and experiments within the exhibition are his own, and that they do not represent Reich's experimental work. Reich, for example, measured voltage changes at the skin surface in varying states of emotion, which is different from measuring the skin’s electrical conductance. Furthermore, Reich emphasized that the accumulator created mutual excitation between the energy field of the organism and that of the accumulator. Thus, the idea that items of clothing could be "charged" in any way that would influence a human being is the author's notion, that contrasts with Reich's experimentally-based findings about orgone energy.
Freud, Sigmund (1962) Civilization and its discontent, New York: WW Norton.
Reich, Wilhelm (1970) The function of the orgasm, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Reich, Wilhelm (1982) The bioelectrical investigation of sexuality and anxiety, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.