Objectification and Sachs fifth avenue - from an old essay

If I get the sugar
would you get me

If we were to resurrect Acteon, that Greek hunter torn to bits by his own dog for gazing upon Diana bathing nude in a stream, he would find the equivalent of his divine thrill not in strip joint America, but rather in women’s clothing boutique America. While I would be the last person to deny the thrill that comes from watching a woman undressing, whether in a bedroom or to the booming of Gimme Gimme over the sound system, it is no longer the unguarded moment – it is no longer the secret of the goddess, it is no longer worth being torn apart by your dogs in the heart of the forest, the hunter hunted, the vig on the male gaze. No, the secret of the goddess has migrated to women dressing up, not taking off. Acteon would better look for his kicks in Sachs Fifth Avenue, in By George, in any number of upscale boutiques in the midsized to supersized urban playlands of America.

I was first taught this lesson by my friend M., back in New Haven. New Haven, in those days, was Yale University, a few streets of affluence, and neighborhood after neighborhood of mythical violence. In actuality, there wasn’t that much violence, just a severe class difference – on the one hand, the scions of America’s wealth, on the other hand, the victims of America’s wealth, all neatly folded into six square miles. At this time, in the nineties, there was – as M. told me over and over – a gross and heartless lack of women’s clothing stores. Nevertheless, she would sometimes, when bored, make the round of what was there – the Laura Ashley to Ann Taylor circuit – and I would tag behind her. This was my first real experience of watching a woman buy clothes – and it was exhilarating. Of course, the real thing was happening in NYC, and when M. and I went there, the first thing we would hit would be clothing stores.

A woman’s clothing store survives on the atmosphere it creates. It does this through a proliferation of huge posters of very pretty people engaged in celebrity moments – laughing sexily at each other; through a color scheme that tends to skin complementary pastels; through a staff that, if they know their business, will make the customer feel, on some level, the need to prove herself to them; and through the music, which will always be as though piped from some marvelous club. It is, in a word, a very dramatic place, although the drama here might seem, at first, no different than any other store. I think that if there were a totally nude culture – by which I mean a culture in which there was no body ornament at all – a culture such as, to my knowledge, nobody has ever encountered – that this culture would have no drama, no ritual. Drama begins with the tattoo, the mask, the feather, the earring. With the beginning of drama, we have, as well, the beginning of stage fright – that marginal anxiety that accumulates as, day by day, year by year, one is looked at. Looks accumulate inside a person as a sort of jury. In response to this, there’s a utopian dream of going beyond these things. This is expressed, in philosophy, by the perennial anxiety about the human as object. In this philosophical dream, nudity is a mark of purity. To the pure, all things are pure. Acteon, in this utopia, would have seen nothing but what there was to see. In fact, what he saw was that there was no exit – that even the goddess wears her nudity. There’s doubleness all the way down.

Given the choice, I imagine Acteon would have chosen to live in the world where he saw more than there was to see, even if it meant ending up in the mouths of dogs in the end. I’m with Acteon here. And certainly I’m with the women’s clothing boutique designers, who don’t need Greek mythology to go about their business. You are immersed in the gaze – in some kind of gaze – the minute you enter a boutique. If the male gaze is defined as an objectifying one, than one might say that here is the very workshop of objectification. Myself, I find this vocabulary to be so out of synch with what happens in a boutique that it is absolutely distorting. For objectification implies, of course, a cool mastery, an absence of effect, and this is just what the classical male gaze is not capable of. The male gaze wants a strip tease, not an x ray. At the heart of objectification is, as I said, drama – the drama of making the object. We are the objects that make the objects, including the object that we will be, with the clothes that we wear – it is the moment in which the body is ornamented that we become both body and the body that we are making, both master and slave, both object and subject, and there’s not a gaze sharp enough or thin enough to get between those two things. We’ll never be naked again. The theater of dressing up in a boutique, usually to the most affectless techno sound possible, is the recapitulation of the happy fall, the original sin, that moment of becoming our own double – with clumsy fig leaves or the first clothing, which was manufactured by the first fashion designer, the Elohim: “Unto Adam also and to his wife did the LORD God make coats of skins, and clothed them.”