UNIQUE – NATURAL-DISTINCTIVE- SPONTANEOUS-LIBRE-ME-INTUITIVA-MOI-NATURE-
These are some of the words that feature in the background of the ‘Une’ cosmetics website.
What this company is selling is more than a make-up range, made with ‘natural’ products that is kind to the environment. This company is selling a version of the self. THE version of the self that dominates our culture, the version of the self that is vital to keep the post-modern world spinning.
This of course is the neo-liberal individual: autonomous, self-actualising, Self-sufficient, self-regarding, narcissistic.
Whilst much has been written on this development in modern capitalism of the importance of the individual, economically and socially, the narcissistic nature of that individual has not been addressed so carefully. Why does this self-actualising individual also have to be so…vain?
Why is it via cosmetics adverts, fashion spreads and sportswear lines that the contemporary self is being sold?
Mark Simpson has attempted to answer this question. His ‘metrosexual’ model of masculinity(and femininity) is all about the narcissistic individual.
‘Narcissism is outside of tradition’ writes Simpson, ‘It’s literally self-referential. So narcissism is both a product of and a helpmeet to rapid change – producing ‘individuals’ in identical loft apartments. Heterosexuality, as a system of sexual division of labour and loving rather than cross sex attraction, is a strongly conservative force. In fact, it literally makes a fetish of its conservatism. Corporate capitalism doesn’t like tradition because tradition doesn’t like change. Whereas all us individuals in loft apartments require lots of gadgets and accessories and gym membership.
Narcissism, the original eroticism, is both pre and post sexuality. Pre because autoeroticism and one-ness with the mother are, in Freudian terms, the origins of sexuality. Post because narcissism is in a sense undifferentiated – it’s not about The Other. Or sexual difference. As I said elsewhere, metrosexuality isn’t about flip flops or facials, or men becoming ‘girly’ or ‘gay’, but about men becoming everything. To themselves’.
But as can be seen in the advertisements for cosmetics such as this, and in the gyms and the shopping malls, in the characters on our TV screens and in our own mirrors, the most chilling characteristic of these narcissistic, ‘unique’ individuals, is that they are all so utterly similar. (look at the neutral tones of the products showcased on this advert-the blankness of the model’s expression-making the ‘look’ easy to emulate)
The fact is that contemporary consumer capitalism has appropriated and dissolved-maybe even destroyed-the one thing that radicals have tried to use to resist its alluring powers: difference. And when it comes to sexuality this is a problem.All those gays, all those ‘transgender’ people, all those queers, dykes, butches, homos, who as sert their right to be ‘different’ to the norm, could actually just be buying into that consumer capitalist model of the unique, narcissistic, homogenous individual.
Michel Foucault was ahead of his time, aware of this self-absorption of the contemporary sexual ‘dissident’ always concerned with his or her identity:
‘If identity becomes the problem of sexual existence, and if people think they have to ‘uncover’ their ‘own identity’ and that their own identity has to become the law, the principle, the code of their existence; if the perennial question they ask is ‘Does this thing conform to my identity?’ then, I think, they will turn back to a kind of ethics very close to the old heterosexual virility. If we are asked to relate to the question of identity, it has to be an identity to our unique selves. But the relationships we have to have with ourselves are not ones of identity, rather they must be relationships of differentiation, of creation, of innovation. To be the same is really boring.’
So if we really want to change the world what is there left for us to do? Maybe we have to start focussing on what we have in common as human beings, rather than how uniquely individual we all are. Maybe we have to stop asking ‘who am I?’ but rather other questions like ‘what needs to be done?’ ‘why is the world how it is?’ ‘How can I contribute?’ ‘What can I say? What can I make? Maybe we have to resist the calls from self-help books, adverts and our own, over-developed psyches to always look inwards, and start looking outwards. Sounds quaint doesn’t it? But I think it is our only hope.