Body Iconograms: The End of the Symbolic Construction of Fashion

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Long live the new flesh!

David Cronenberg, Videodrome

1. Beyond a fashion? “Elle est contemporaine de tout le monde”

In a world without the metaphysical foundation of beauty and reign of the sublime, the categories of contingency and chaos have long since lost the meaning of modern aesthetic values. Instead, technically-scientifically shaped forms of life take on the task of decorating the surrounding world. The process of aestheticization covers all areas of life. However, in that gap between the worlds—one that strives to preserve by collecting objects and traces of the past and another of integral reality that, like a soap bubble, bursts in the air—there is going to be something disturbing and, at first glance, uncannily spirited. This event signified the experience of German literary romanticism and psychoanalytic-philosophical insights from E.T.A. Hoffmann to Sigmund Freud and Martin Heidegger. We should here call to mind the uncanny experience of the world (Unheimlichkeit). The fantasy of an unusual object of the universe, which is at the same time close and strange like a puppet or a cyborg in a virtual space, as assumed in the movie The Matrix, belongs to one of the iconographic foundations of fetishism in modern culture. To even think of the loss of beauty and the transition to the world of decoration as a world of fashion, it might be necessary to find out what is going on in the world and in time that is disturbing and uncanny as conditions of the possibility of the reign of the fetishism of objects. Is it a unique and universal world and a unique and universal time?

      The answer to this question seems to be an insight into the disputes between the postmodern deconstruction of truth and the new cognitive realism. It seems just like a dispute between those who deny the universal truth of reality and its existence outside of the context and situation and those who depart from the idea of transcending the long conditionality of our knowledge of the world. If it is about a unique world of things, what can the identity of contemporary art and fashion be? If, however, a multitude of worlds and different perceptions and experiences of time proves the primacy of that “ontology of things,” then the question of the essence of contemporary art and fashion and the question about the status of the contemporary metamorphosed body as a visual matrix of the machine and the cyborg has to be found in the new concept of life. What if it is about the other world and the disappearance of time? If, therefore, a homogeneous area and heterogeneous bodies lie in it, and its deployment of immigration-emigration constitutes an entirely new situation at the end of history, how is it possible to access that hiatus, namely, one in multiplicity? This could be the exact situation of all things, just as nomadism, loss of homeland, and transgression have been successfully represented in the installations and critical reflections concerning the fashion of the designer Hussein Chalayan (Evans 2005, 8–15; Quinn 2005, 46–51; Steele 2001). In his aesthetics, Immanuel Kant assumed that ideas of beauty as disinterested spectators belong to the field of court taste. Such a judgment cannot be objectively legalized. The reason is that it should be not a category of mind, irrespective of whether they are antinomically defined, such as, for example, the case of the idea of God. However, the idea of beauty may have a general scope that should take the place of aesthetic judgment. So, it is always culturally determined or customarily arbitrary. This assumption has undergone a new interpretation in the semiology or semiotics of Saussure and Barthes. For them, the signifier is a cultural order, not the natural condition of communication. Is not that something that we can add to contemporary fashion? It cannot be otherwise thought of as an essential cultural and decentralized order of meaning—as an apparatus and whether it is an enabler[1] —at the time of the transition of social relations to the network of visual communications. If there exists a universal language of fashion (la langue), then the multitude of speeches of fashion (la parole) might be equivalent to a multitude of cultural orders. We should note, in advance, that the ideal speech situation in the postmodern context encompasses the assemblage of ready-made and designed fashion objects. The multitude is reflected in one. Instead of the autonomy of the discourse of fashion, the apparatus of fashion still has to be in the operation of the heteronomy of fashion. This could be the attitude of Gilles Lipovetsky in his famous book The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy. The concept of open fashion determines our fluid and very complex age.

Fashionable clothing is less and less a means for social distancing, more and more an instrument for individual and aesthetic distinction, an instrument of seduction, youthfulness, and emblematic modernity. Ever since it began, fashion has blended conformity with individualism. For all its openness, contemporary fashion still has not escaped that basic structure. But there is a difference: individualism has become by and large less competitive, less concerned with what others think, and less exhibitionist. (Lipovetsky 2002, 127)

Contemporary fashion, thus, stems from an uncanny blurry aesthetic and a transgressive encounter. In all manner of manifestations of transgression, the transition to the norms limits the fields of autonomy. The peak of transgression is represented by the taboo of eroticism. Although the notion of transgression was developed by Michel Foucault in his analysis of the will, knowledge, and biopolitics of the modern age (Foucault 1977, 29–52), it was undoubtedly Georges Bataille who gave this concept the power of reflection for the upcoming era. Transgression is, namely, directed towards eroticism, exile, taboo, sacrifice, violence, divinity, sacred, ritual, craving, and exclusion. While Foucault describes transgression as a boundless boundary and the emptiness of excess after the death of God and the establishment of new frontiers towards infinity, Bataille, in the victim’s economy determined by crossing the limits of the allowable excess, searches for quite different features of the same order of things (Bataille 1985).

      In his analysis of the differences between Foucault’s and Bataille’s concepts of transgression, Chris Jenks shows that the term may refer to:

  • the negative
  • the scandalous
  • the subversive

In order to understand transgression, it is necessary to break the idea of a cause, to establish what is decentralized from the covenant that announces the end of the idea of man, and, last but most significantly, the end of the idea of representation (Jenks 2003, 91). Life becomes a torture of self-affirmation in the cruelty of life’s power. Within this, sexual urge forms the structure of all social structures of kinship. Of course, the boundary between all possible beauty and the deadly zone of decadent fetishism arises and leads to the uncanny nature of eroticism (Fernbach 2002).

Whereas Baudrillard would view fetishism in terms of the desire to inhabit self-contained formal codes that overcome all internal ambiguity and external materiality, Derridian post-Marxists would locate the fetish in semantic indeterminacy and the ambivalent oscillation (hence dialectical resolution) between contrary determinations, a “space” where codes and their logic break down in a materiality that is conceived in terms of pure difference, contingency, and chance. (Apter and Pietz 1993, 125)

The scandal of the body in fashion suggests that unspeakable situation. It is the only way to stop the communication between body-like objects. The body can appear as a subject of desire only by transforming itself into a thing. This thing is exchanged for the whole thing in a real and symbolic market. However, all this is happening beyond the instrumental function of the language. Starting from the fetishism that objectified desire in the language of the appropriation of changes observed by the object, we might be aware that this has directly impacted the notion of contemporary fashion. Thus, language assumes mastery over things that matter due to strengthening the thing itself. The power of that order represents the symbolic condition of the actual subjugation of the desires of the Other (Lacan 1996). But without oral experiments in the world of the touching object of worship, there is no kind of fetishism regarding the desiring object. Surely, things are revived only due to the magical power of language. They are appropriated by oral communication. That is why the taboo of cannibalism denotes a real-symbolic order of the law, which is the act of the cruelty of nature punished by the ban on swallowing, chewing, and eating the Other in the form of the human body. It is a paradox of Christianity that it is in the Eucharistic act of the mystical bonds between Jesus Christ and the community of believers where the ban is experienced together with the desire for them to generalize another symbolic act of swallowing the Other. Without this, it is not possible to understand the thought of transgression as contingent on the connection between the body and the soul in the encounter with death. It becomes a strange fact that this experience is at the same time the meaning of philosophy from Plato to Arthur Schopenhauer (thanatón méleté) and the taboo of eroticism as a cosmic-anthropological sacrifice from the Marquis de Sade to Georges Bataille. Transgression might be defined as the inner logic of the aesthetic overcoming of body boundaries in contemporary art and fashion. It is nothing external to the time of fashion but rather to its “essence.” That is a reason why we cannot designate fetishism as a scandal. Quite the contrary, it could be necessary for the excessive creative freedom of the body in the event of its universal symbolic and actual sacrifice.

      As Amanda Fernbach argues, fetishism changed the very heart of contemporary fashion during the 1990s due to the transformation of bodies from the representation of subculture styles to the personalized identity of the media-constructed reality. But what should be noted when we speak about such a thing as fetishism? No doubt that subcultures try to perceive fetishism as a celebration of difference. So, all that set of beliefs about gender, sexuality, and the body might be transgressed in the theatre of contemporary spectacle, where we can find these features articulated in the film but also in feminist and postcolonial criticism. For many theorists, fetishism has a very complex meaning due much to Freud’s interpretation. As we know, for him, the fetish could be interpreted as a supplement for the mother’s missing phallus and a disavowal of her sexual difference. But, with a little help from current critical theory, fetishism might be regarded as being almost the same as the production of posthuman “Otherness.” Fernbach, thus, claims that the mainstream interpretation of old fetishism is not and never has been acceptable for analyzing the phenomenon of cultural fetishism. We can see that all the different forms of fetishism—decadent fetishism, magical fetishism, matrix fetishism, and immortality fetishism—have strong impacts on realizing a strange and uncanny potential for contemporary fashion regarding the mixture of styles and tendencies. In any case, Fernbach argues that fetishism—which we should describe as making a difference, unlike the old concept familiar to modern fashion and art—cannot have the function of representing the subculture, but rather the new fetishism emerging from “inside” wants to determine a fetishism as a bodily-designed adventure without any kind of previous limits and borderlines (Fernbach 2000; Fernbach 2002)

      The freedom without body transgression denotes an illusionary activity of the mere decoration of the world. In doing so, it always comes to fight against the subjecting freedom of body institutions of social control. The freedom of the body designates a pretense of the law to the event of its sacrifice. However, the sacrifice always takes place in the name of the metaphysical reduction of the body in its holiness of freedom. Being free means having and holding on to its “own” body. It is projecting-protecting the existence in all kinds of events and situations. This is called the existence of the body. Having a body and being a body are not quite different things, although it does seem so at first glance. The existential experience of freedom means truly having the ability to dispose of your body without compromise. But the notion of possession is always determined by the will of the Other, and this forms the structure of the capitalist economy of the exchange of objects on the market. In the case of fetishism concerning contemporary fashion, the existential experience of freedom becomes a search for a different form of identity and the construction of a lifestyle. It goes so far that the question of the life and death of a man is a question of the physical existence of his freedom to lead his life decisively, even to make sacrifices in the context of social deviations. Fashion today has more kinship with the ethical-political turn of aesthetics than ever before. It is sufficient to take the example of what Karl Lagerfeld did when designing a dress for his muse and mannequin Claudia Schiffer by incorporating text from the Quran into a lascivious design and thus provoking that part of the world where fashion is still considered as a decadent Western eccentricity and the sign of total power as such.

      Death and suicide give the body what is unkempt, scandalous, and subversive. In the first case, it is the ultimate limit of finiteness to infinity, and second, the negative freedom of sacrifice in the name of something “higher” or a nameless name of nullity. Socrates’ death seems to be the most tragic case in the history of Western metaphysics. The victim is unreasonable, and the punishment, of course, seems quite unforgivable. Finally, the congregation of death by suicide represents the last act of encounter with that overcoming in the universe—the soul in immortality as an illusion and as the truth of human existence. Both the illusion and the truth make that encounter tragic. The illusion of truth shows the truth of illusion in the absence of the metaphysical justification of life, more than anything other than the unavoidable power of the life of the body itself. The performed actions of contemporary artists with the intervention and participation of their bodies in a pre-ideological-political and culturally predetermined social history—such as the works of Marina Abramović and Tomislav Gotovac—overlap the issue of the status of artistic work at the time of the new media as well as the issue of the singularity of the body in the live event without representativity (Fischer-Lichte 2004).

      Art cannot be a mere imitation of life. It is always reproductive in creating life in an artistic work as an event. The documentation of contemporary art and fashion is, therefore, a question of the limitations of the endless repeatability of the event in the virtual space and the actual time of the actuality of the digital image. What is truly uncannily indefensible and inexpensive in modern art and fashion? Fernando Pessoa, in his unique The Book of Disquietude, written under his alternate writing name of Bernardo Soares, synthesized the modern world in his reflexive mythopoetical experience into three essential characters of the foregoing of the coming time:

  • the fantasy of the immortality of the body-soul in the labyrinth of interwoven texts of tradition and contemporaneity;
  • a vision of the multiplicity of being as the metamorphic identity of a man whose dreams live in the dreams of the cruelty of passing reality; and
  • the paradoxical logic of the coexistence of the avant-garde and decadence with the idea of fetish facility beyond the apparatus of desire as a transgression of love and death into the pure complicity of death (eros and psyché).

What is the point of The Book of Disquietude? Undoubtedly, the most memorable statement that should be noted is that we are faced with the psycho-drama (writing the soul in the text) of the modern age. Psycho-drama is concurrent, thus, with the confession of a modern subject about the history of one’s own world experience as a language. Who speaks profoundly inside The Book of Disquietude? No one else but the subjective language of modern man’s experience. But what does the language of The Book of Disquietude say about the world and human existence? Precisely that the language reveals the inner history of the modern human psyché. Pessoa’s idea of the book signified the world as a concept and performance from the experience of the language itself as a concept and a performance. It is already apparent that contemporary art might be understood by way of being in the process of play. We can assume that the open work is always a conceptual-performing act in the process of the event. So, in it, the relationship between the author and the public audience acts as an interactive meeting of the subject/actor and the object of the same performance. Unlike the avant-garde scope of the destruction of language in futurism and dadaism, Pessoa attempted to make public the non-ideological idea of the purity and perfection of the language beyond the presence of Being and beings. It is the crystallized saying and the fantastic interpretation of the world, not the sign or the symbol of something sublime and unreachable. This language is addressed to anyone and everyone. In addition, the identity of a modern man might be identical to the multiplication of beings. Pessoa himself was the best example of the metamorphic identity of the Other in himself. The beginning of endless identity bias as bodysuits of the Other begins with the endless process of marking the bits as the eccentric and de-centered network of meanings. What is valid for the “writing scene” of Pessoa is valid for the entire manner of postmodern identity from the body as a language. In this case, the language here appears to be identical to the soul (psyché). Language has a soul. It shows the meaning of the world in creative chaos and construction. Every word is spoken and written (grammé) on the surface of the earth like a trail. The Book of Disquietude shows Lisbon and its objects through dreamlike landscapes of language reflection. Mirrors and shadows, twilight and sunrise, the infinite escapes of the soul, and the perception of the subjectness of a modern man require another life outside of the current fury. Language, therefore, does not strike at the phenomenon of the world but rather the world of repeatability and traces of speech. All of that can be said in the traces of the deconstruction of Jacques Derrida (1967).

      Without language, the soul cannot travel through the labyrinths of fantasy, water, and the compressed networks of everything that is. Strangely, it seems that this corresponds to the media concept of the implosion of the meanings of the message. Bernardo Soares represents the true, fictitious, and imaginary state of the soul in the transformations of the subject/author. It is a constant state of flux figures and masks in a chaotic order of changing their essence on epochal occasions. It considers the late Heidegger, and his postulate “stability in change” describes the way of fighting the scientific-technical system to boost the consumption of objects (Heidegger 2005).

All three features of the coming era are already like new symptoms in this “time.” In the language of psychoanalysis of Freud and Lacan, the symptom repressed the hermeneutic notion of a sign and the process of identifying and revealing something that is concealed in signs and symbols. This suppression, however, is the result of the temporary state of the triumph of the logic of the scientific spirit of psychoanalysis over the archaeological combination of original thinking. Like any suppression, like that of Freud himself, one can contribute to the traumatic conflict of the subject with one’s own identity. Symptoms are not stacked and are secret signs. Here we are faced with the question of the process of marking a subject as a traumatic field of the psyché in the modern age. The difference between symptoms and the marked difference is a difference between the text of psychoanalysis as the world and the hermeneutics of the world as the text. Indeed, it should only be the sign of modern times that satisfies the definition of the modern assemblage of stability in constant change. Actuality, hence, corresponds to the “true” ecstasy of modernity.[2] Without immodesty in the present, there is no rootedness in the stable soil. In immense fashion, there are astonishingly dizzy styles. Everything works perfectly in the circle of its profane features. But we could not find its oppositions in a scale dress of some imaginary tradition without the entirety of history. Of course, it seems to be naive today if we seek to interpret the study of the anthropology of culture concerning the question of the idea of nature and culture in the un-Western history of the world. We could only speak about transgression within the modern world as a progression of the stable system of things. Just from the idea of a straight line, the development of societies in history may have binary oppositions of fashion as progress/development and dress as a bounty on the continuity of tradition (Lévy-Strauss 2001; Loschek 1991).

      The puzzle of the emergence of fashion derives from the emergence of a social form of capitalism. Therefore, the very idea of the new is realized when this becomes a pure form of the scientific-technical production of things and objects in the form of the social organization of life. This form also belongs to the structural matrix of contemporary capitalism. As Ezra Pound once said—Make it new!—nothing can be left untouched by this marvelous desire for change, nothing at all. We should not forget that fashion and capitalism arose at the end of the Middle Ages. From that point of view, fashion historians have argued that this happened in Italy at the end of the 14th century. The emergence of fashion, thus, corresponds to the origin of the symbolic value of abstracted work as the condition of possibilities in this world (Blau 1999). Without the abstractions of all social relationships in the form of goods fetishism, as Karl Marx determined the essence of the ideological-political system of liberal capitalism to be, the idea of newness cannot arise without the slightest transformation of man into the market. The end of the new might be cracking in the very mode of presenting a fetishism of commodities when fashion as goods goes beyond the use of ready-to-wear and exchange values (the symbolic function of fetishism). What about confirming this upcoming time beyond the paradoxical act of visuality regarding the three forms of presence in a contemporary era and all its effects? Among them, fashion has become the emergence of all phenomena. But in contemporary fashion, it is not only its sultry form from the modern industrial society to liberal globalization and capitalism but rather its simpler form that determines that every fashion object itself possesses the fetishistic character of the commodity as a prey of the desire. If, at the end of society, no form of fashion disappears, the sort of mode of presentation in the sense of the role of the social theatre and the cultural stage of the struggle for the creation of a new identity, then it might be the right time to approach the attempt to deconstruct fashion as the fetish body of the posthuman “nature.” The entire set of metaphysical symbols has disappeared from it. Fashion has, thus, been moved to the media world of communication. In any case, we should note that the linguistic messages lost their meaning and received a multitude of new significations (Baudrillard 1998). The assumption for this radical deconstruction of deconstruction of fashion itself is to move from one side to all theories of symbols and signs, all theories of the representation of fashion, and all the theories that define fashion as this or that phenomenon (social or cultural, ideological or otherwise). But what if contemporary fashion does not appear anymore? If, then, the fashion that determines the techno-scientific image of the world and the visual creation of identity takes over all of the decomposed forms of art and all that stumbles upon them, and by re-joining their “genetic code” is revived in the project of creative body design, can we still hold the eye to its fundamental initiator, which is at the same time the fundamental driver of the contemporary age (society, culture, history)—the very idea of the new? This question in modern times could be a quest for autopoietic strategies producing the life of the spirit and might be determined by current information-communication technologies. In the meantime, the only remaining field of action for fashion reflected as the total design of the world in the spatial implosion of information and the time of the ecstasy of the communication might be the total aesthetics of the world and its transformation into the fetish archipelago of things.

      The only thing it has left now is to be a “symptom” of the disappearance of what has so far been considered a phenomenon. How can we understand and interpret it? In any case, it will not be strange if we assert that this has already happened in the thinking of Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Søren Kierkegaard. A turn from consciousness to language or from the spirit to the body occurred throughout the 20th century in the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl, the philosophy of language of Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the criticism of Western metaphysics as the destruction of traditional ontology performed by Martin Heidegger. The appearance is never present in its purity. The use of a sign as a substitute for or addition to the original phenomenon of consciousness determines the possibilities and limits of semiology and semiotics. In short, the path to the very occurrence assumes a critique of the path of each phenomenology, which is based on the separation of the system world and the world of life. This thought of the late Husserl was and remains active in the theories of postmodernity by Jean-François Lyotard and the theory of communicative action by Jürgen Habermas (Paić 2008). The question of how to rid the world of the irreducible life of subjugation is certainly a formed instrumental activity, and the order of the mind and discursive rationality still remain a challenge for understanding the theory of contemporary fashion (Evans 2003; Sawchuk 1987).

      If we were to go only to items of Derrida’s deconstruction, or even Deleuze’s philosophy of the immanence of the body without organs, we would see some extremely “scandalous” things: namely, the body can no longer be determined by any other stuff outside the body itself. This media project in the context of the current situation and its conceptual performativity remains the only real territory of contemporary arts and fashion as such. In the second turn, thus, the only remaining territory of contemporary art and fashion has been deterritorialized. It could be everywhere and nowhere. So, deterritorialization denotes the process of deploying art and fashion from previous aesthetics to the aesthetics of the occult transgression of the body. The act of deployment itself also carries the possibility of a new placement. It seems very interesting to note that contemporary art in its spatializing space is derived from being merely the setting of a subject as a thing/object in space. The installation of the object in space supports the work and the event of just placing the space on the side of the subject and the object. But space opens a way to modern times before the work of deterritorialization liquidates in the same direction. Undoubtedly, the only remaining territory might be the interactive communication of the body as moving toward that spectacle in the body’s iconograms. How should this assemblage be understood? First of all, the body is no longer perceived as a place of decoration and space for entering features from the social theatre of different roles as it was in the era of modernity. Instead, we are witnessing a cultural modification aimed at strengthening the position of the body beyond gender/sex differences. Consequently, we find ourselves in an occasion of constant transformation of identity, as was evident in David Bowie’s fashion travesty.

      Almost all theories of contemporary fashion still speak of it as a phenomenon that refers to the rule of something else. So, fashion has always been frivolous and superficial. It was understood only as a function of social adaptability to order or, in turn, the liberated identity of a person, constituted by the movement of creating an autonomous lifestyle (Polhemus 1996; Polhemus 2006). The phenomenology of the world is always a sign or symbol of something else. The problem is understanding fashion as a phenomenon that the object/thing over nothing means nothing represents. That is why contemporary fashion can be perceived as a rebellion against what has remained of the appearance of its long-standing rulers. But that was possible only when the body as a creative design of life had to be taught by the current language of such a rebellion against the system of fashion. The ideological rule of fashion, however, is today established by a visual code of surveillance (Emberly 1987).

      Thus, the order is established by the media formation of reality as:

  • the image of fashion,
  • the language of fashion, and
  • the world of fashion.

In this three-form pattern, Barthes’ structure is represented as a rational theory of text and fashion. But the emphasis is not only on the text but also on the pictorial language of the object (Barnard 2001; Paić 2007). In the semiotic theory of fashion performed by thinkers from Barthes and Eco up to contemporary theorists such as Volli, Calefatto, Barnard, Davis, Evans, Steele, and Wilson who apply interdisciplinary methods of visual studies, it should be common to talk about image aspects of fashion that have primacy over language (Barthes 1964, 32–51; Barthes 1983). We cannot forget that the metaphor of the image (of fashion) includes the third symbolic element of excess meaning that forms the meaning of the image in the process of transforming the entire assemblage. The relationship between language and image is often sought to be clarified through the traditional logic of science based on the concept of cause and effect. However, we cannot understand how the visual language of fashion at the same time assumes the reign of the sign and the signification process with which the subject becomes a complex system of references. The fashion object, though not as it works in the assemblage of traditional dressing customs (Indian sarees, for example), has taken on the very changeable nature of the image. Put in other words, in the context of contemporary fashion, it might be anything under the condition that fluid cultural values determine the body as a master-signifier of the spectacle as such.

      The triad of fashion in the presence of the contemporary age and its superseding has been shown through:

  • syncretism,
  • hybridity, and
  • eclecticism.

All that is happening is in the spectacle in the integral reality of syncretism (ideas), hybridity (identity) and eclecticism (performance). The radical concept of ideas, identity, and performance point to the fundamental determinants of the Hellenistic period in the history of art after the classical period of Greece. Symbolic historical decadence marked the cosmopolitan city of the encounter of different religions, spiritual worldviews, artistic styles, and cultural orders of meanings—Alexandria. Modern decadence, however, primarily has its direction in the ambivalence of the term. And this is in the very notion of the relationship between modernity and tradition. It may be paradoxical that decadence no longer marks the awareness of the crisis and the rift of classic ideals. The concept of decadence now points to the symptoms of the alienation of the post-historical world. It is a modern appearance resulting from the autopoietic apparatus of the capitalist power structure. The fetishism of goods and artifacts, as a rule, and symbolic power facilities represent a new form of modern decadence.

      In the 501st fragment of The Book of Disquietude, Pessoa writes:

Modern things include:

(1) The evolution of mirrors;

(2) Wardrobes.

We advanced to being clothed creatures possessing body and soul.

And since the soul always conforms to the body, it developed an intangible suit. We advanced to having largely clothed souls. In the same way that we advanced – as humans, as bodies – to the category of clothed animals.

It’s not just the fact of our suit becoming a part of us; There’s also the complexity of this suit and its curious quality of having virtually no relation to the elements of natural elegance found in the body and its movements.

When I asked to characterize my soul’s condition, explaining it with the senses, I would speechlessly point to a mirror, to a hanger, and to a fountain pen. (Pessoa 1991, 294)

Pessoa’s turn towards the living body of objects (of fashion) conceals in itself a response to the overall effort of the fall of the avant-garde of the first half of the 20th century to overcome the split between spirit/soul and body in the image and the language of “primitive and archaeological modernism” (Agamben 2009a, 29–30). The disembodiment of language by Russian futurist poets, dadaists who turn language to the performativity of the body to the public area, expressionists’ nature of the world as a scream and experience of trauma, the surreal dismemberment of the body in the assemblage, procedures of the radical deconstruction of the body as an object of aesthetics of perceptual shock as a condition of the possibility of all forms of shock and provocation (e.g., Antonin Artaud’s film The Seashell and the Clergyman and Salvator Dalí and Luis Buñuel’s An Andalusian Dog), and, finally, the division of the artwork into the event of an interactive spectacle are the gifts of the subject/actor of artistic practice to open the media art of today as a matrix of complex methods of objectifying the body as a language and an image (Mersch 2002; Paić 2021).

      A quite common interpretation assumes that even insightful theorists should articulate how fashion was creative in designing the body’s appearance still only assimilates the tendencies and styles in visual arts that spearheaded the 20th century but is not the right companion with its discursive games, science, art and design (Evans 1999, 3–32). Such a position might be present even in the theoretical introduction to the multidisciplinary field of fashion studies. Thus, it is not uncommon that the relationship between art and fashion in modern times is considered further in the same tone as pure “illustrations” and “determination” in fashion (Barnard 2007). Another form of the same old story shows that fashion has always represented only the occurrence of a super-determination of the structure of social or cultural order with ideological-political significance. Never considered autonomously, as a rule, there should never be a consideration of the sovereignty of its unobtrusive appearance. Hence, the exceptions from the semiotics of fashion in the works of Barthes, Eco, Lipovetsky, and contemporary approaches from visual semiotics to the deconstruction of language and images. But turning around the body in modern art and fashion, of course, has quite another face. If one person confirms this idea of the “empty transcendence” of language in modern literature, especially in the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé, then the other person should note that something that occurs as a flaw in the very concept of modernity, in general, conceals the entire assemblage of consequences. That face denotes a metamorphic face under the mask.

      The first novel in the history of Western culture, Petronius’ Satyricon, in which the writer reveals the dark glory of the decadence and transgressions of the Roman Empire under Nero and consists of a series of fragments and can thus be regarded as a far-reaching historical predecessor of postmodern literature, was the inspiration for Federico Fellini’s film Satyricon, which deals with the impossibility of identity outside the fragmentation of the multitude of faces. Fellini, thus, interprets Petronius starting from the labyrinth of images as an allegory for the contemporary decadence of Western culture. We know very well that this carnivalesque has a deep impact on our postmodern crash of values and styles. But this decadence is not only the utmost aesthetic pleasure, it is also possible. Life beyond the pleasures of aesthetic appearance would be deserted and empty. Therefore, the allegory in the era of image culture instead of text culture—as the paradigm shift of culture in the contemporary era was determined by Foucault—shows how artists might be able to think reflexively in the images. Their images are conceptual views and presentations of the disturbing reality. In any case, the theatricalization of life corresponds to the theatricalization of death in the endless series of masks. The original Roman or Latin expression for the mask is persona. Hiding behind the masks is not the real face. Indeed, the new weight below that is not in niches other than what Pessoa prophetically signified as forthcoming in the 399th fragment of The Book of Disquietude:

My destiny is decadence. (Pessoa 1991, 230)

Breaks within the basic line of modernity introduce the experience of contemporaneity that encompasses the entire set of discursive practices and exercises. Therefore, the reflective thinking of eccentric and de-centered subjects can no longer be measured in terms of Lacanian psychoanalysis. Lacan’s main thesis is that the unconscious is structured like a language. Put differently, it applies to all other structuralist and poststructuralist interpretations of the world in the game of the signifier, the signified, and the sign from Barthes to Derrida. In contrast, it has openness in the immanent structure of the events of the body itself as a language and a picture that interprets the world in general. The body prevails in the world as technology precedes fashion. The point is that the body is now visible in its pure immanence and the depths of the fetish object are visualized before any possible interpretation. The figure of the body as an event in motion precedes the general language of the body’s interpretation. The visual semiotics of the body no longer uses any of the traditional semiotic meanings such as the sign, the signifier, and the labeled. On the traces of Eco’s concept of iconograms from his semiotic interpretation of the open work, we shall try to prove the setting for image-dividing language as a distance communication instrument. Instead of the semiotic concepts of language experience, it should be noted that we are now faced with a corporeal complexity that is otherwise structured. Contemporary fashion as a total creative lifestyle design takes over the language of the deconstruction of the body and the image of life. What is it? Total creativity? Since the beginning of the historical avant-garde, it has been self-explanatory: the idea of functional design by Bauhaus corresponds to the idea of the modern world as the formation of the aesthetic object. The prohibition of beauty, decoration, and narratives is related to the historical canon of beauty in decorative and ornamental decadent art of the late 19th century. If we keep that in mind, we have chosen the path of interpretation in close connection with some strange and uncanny event. What is at the core of that matter?

      The avant-garde fashion in the works and concepts of futurism in Italy in the 1920s and the suprematistic ideas of Kazimir Malevich’s radical unpredictability of the world were established in the concept of the total design of life as a social and aesthetic transgression of the figurative art of decadence. Like Adolf Loos’s notion of “an ornament as a crime,” Malevich’s total design was primarily directed at the radical aesthetics of a new socialist society. Since the very beginning, fashion has been the avant-garde deconstruction of the surrounding world and the entire world of life. This is indirectly witnessed by the fact that fashion design, with the appearance of Coco Chanel, was at the same time a child of the avant-garde because, in the 1920s, clothes began to be released from the beauty and exaltation of the previous Victorian era. Fashion became, according to the ideas of functionality and minimalism, a new style of body styling that almost resembled the architecture and design of Bauhaus.

      Finally, that is a reason why Walter Benjamin’s allegorical image of Paul Klee entitled Angelus Novus has been interpreted from the apocalyptic perspective as a catastrophe of the coming future. Guy Debord, on the contrary, in The Society of the Spectacle, termed this strategy détournament (Jappe 1999). Therefore, decadence cannot be perceived without a more radical contrast with the concept of the historical avant-garde and its destructive logic and the destruction of the entire ancient world. Avant-garde and decadence are not hostile binary oppositions. This was due to the ideological-political establishment of the historical avant-garde as the aesthetic-political (totalitarian) order of the world from 1917 to 1989 (Groys 2008).

      Since it is only the body seam between the strength of radical modernity and the ecstasy of radical decadence, it might be clear that the whole order of contemporary fashion, which occurs after the end of the aesthetic-political (totalitarian) system, can be considered as a facility in the posthuman condition. That matter denotes a state of a new mythical consciousness and retro-futuristic vision of the upcoming era as the end of humans and the world. At the same time, this leads to a change in the point of view of the notion of the body and hence of fashion as a total body design in the context of contemporary art. That would develop the setting of the end of the symbolic formation of fashion and the disappearance of fashion as a phenomenon in the contemporary era of a radical form of the world as techno-scientific environmental logic of new media. The next consideration will try to determine the concept of the open event of a transgression of the body in analogy with Eco’s concept of open work. What is the body as an open transgression event? Can any kind of body in its posthuman (in)completeness, which today is genuinely determined by biomedical interventions and cosmetic surgery, be understood outside the horizons of historical metaphysics? In all its variants, the metaphysical conception implies that the body of a human is understood dualistically:

  • as a body or apparatus of a body in the mechanical paradigm of life, and
  • as a spiritual machine or unity of life with the definition of a human as an animal rationale.

In both cases, we must keep in mind the essentialist concept of the body, either as a matter or as a spiritual substance. Only in Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, Lacan’s psychoanalysis, Derrida’s deconstruction, and Deleuze’s nomadology did the body become an immanent event of life itself as a synthetic unity of spirit and matter. The turn to the body of fashion is primarily seen in the openness of the events of the bodily inscription of identity (Grosz 1994). In any case, with a new notion of identity concerning the globalized tendencies in art and fashion, we have to emphasize the overlapping relationships between nature and culture, dressing and fashion, and the adorned and the designed body without any reference to previous metaphysical signifiers.

      The beginning of postmodern fashion denotes, thus, the deconstruction of the body’s surface and screen. It looks like an open-hearted skin on the drama of the idiot. It is about the political-cultural strategy of forming the Other as queer identity. Vivienne Westwood and her anti-fashion subversion politics of high order lead into the world of the metamorphic identity of the Other. Street fashion at the same time destroys the decadent fetishism of high society, taking on its figures of eroticism and death in the new mantle of anarchic techno-freak fetishism (Fernbach 2002, 135–181). Only with the turn of ecstatic bodiliness does true dignity return to the metaphysical understanding of being human. If one thinks that the body indeed begins to exist only within the contemporary age of digital production of fashion, then that statement is about the possibilities of the body in the posthuman condition or about the possibilities of living based only on realized odds of non-living in the cybernetical order of network and rhizomes. Technology now precedes the life of fashion, not vice versa. The appearance and body posture of the fashioned fictional feature of contemporary fashion cannot exist. So, the fundamental assumption of new media is that, unlike the old media, they operate synthetically. It means that the existence of the past is technically and technologically allowed in the form of the virtual presence of the body. The synthetic “nature” of new media allows the body in the posthuman state to orient itself towards the past. Due to the digital picture body in its immersion, what “real” object has been determined no longer applies. Namely, the digital image does not appear and does not have a place in any external or internal objects. Starting from that perspective, it generates and synthesizes reality as a reference system, referring to other media. In this way, within the meanings of fashion, it has the features of the transmedial Matrix. Its reference system derives from the media’s creation of the body. The existence of the body in the assemblage of the posthuman condition as a robot-android-cyborg condition now proves that real odds of the existence of the living body are realized in contemporary fashion and its associated world of globally networked identities. That is a reason why the problem of contemporary fashion is lacking in the symbolic code of fetishism. When we are faced with that matter whereby it is completely penetrated with fantasies about the fetishism of objects, then something “scandalous” exists in that synthetic fetish. This is Baudrillard’s answer to the question about the end of the representation and coming to the integral reality of hyperreality. Namely, the sign does not represent the subject because the subject is a sign itself. In the vicious cycle of the disappearance of the signification reference, the idea of the sign of the signifier disappears altogether. Fetishism, thus, refers to the opacity of objects without the desire for the subversion of obscurity. The coldness of the techno-futuristic object of transgression in the state of the “perverse” cyborg can no longer preserve the essence of fetishism at all. If there are no taboos or scandals in the very nature of that which is elevated as inexpressible and inexhaustible, then in the convention remains only a new interpretation of the past like the upcoming delays of another, more uncanny “nature” than a so-called “natural nature.” That is a reason why contemporary fashion in the age of the world as image-fetish tends to be a scandal. If it reflects Baudrillard in his analysis of another version of “joyful nihilism,” then it is not about traveling through time in the past. On the contrary, the past is staged in a virtual presence in the form of neo-style, and its assemblage designates a combination of past and future. Retro-futurist fashion, hence, could be somewhat uncannily stable in its term. We can say that it should be called a myth in the more distant sense, as for dystopian movies like A Clockwork Orange directed by Stanley Kubrick and Alexander McQueen’sfashion show Plato’s Atlantis. However, the return of myth to contemporary fashion occurs in a double operation:

  • the gender/sexual equilibrium of desire for a fetish object, and
  • the technological-scientific creation of the decadent fetishism of the object as a synthetic material (“third skin”) and as a synthetic form of posthuman beings dressing in the “costume” of current fashion.

In contemporary art performances, Stelarc goes far away from the issues of the posthuman body. Orlan is also famous due to her experiments with the transplantation of skin, and fashion performances like McQueen’s indicate the disappearance of the biological body in a techno-cybernetically structured laboratory (Fortunati, Katz, and Riccini 2003). Although we still distinguish between art and fashion in the contemporary era of the rule of the technosphere, it is obvious that this distinction is beyond any action of metaphysical rank and assemblage of being. Art and fashion belong to the sphere of the posthuman body in the event of a total design of life. Fundamental concepts that link the synthetic unity of the network and rhizomes in the open process of constructing art and fashion are:

  • the fetishism of objects,
  • the transgression of the body, and
  • the conceptual-performative design of a body as an object in a virtual space and real-time.

The end of the symbolic representation of fashion, therefore, is nothing more than the beginning of the body’s staging as an open event of the visual script of fashion in its presence in the distance. Everywhere and nowhere, fashion is taking place in the media environment of dialogue and discourse about its assemblage. What does that mean? Namely, fashion becomes a complex relationship system that can only be decoded if we know how its bio-cybernetic code works. We do not need to go far. We could just look at the design of a posthuman body that has been found in TV series like Star Trek since the end of the 1980s. Contemporary fashion, hence, is not a fashion that refers to something as fixed as society, culture, ideology, or politics. Its reality encompasses the media event of dialogue and discourse about fashion. This is only the case in the constant staging of scandals and the subversion of the body in transgression, and the dialogue and discourse about the mode of action present a blend of banality and gnostic extraction, as well as “specialist” hermetic knowledge about the things and its blow-up along the way. How this could happen and with what terms and modes of the subject’s performance will be the topic of our next considerations.

Alexander McQueen – Savage Beauty (2011)

2. Fashion as an open transgression event: Corpus hermeticum, eroticism and death

If any of the famous 20th-century writers belonged to the lineage of Jorge Luis Borges as an emblematic figure of new mannerism and postmodernism at the end of the modern era, then it was surely Umberto Eco in all his fictitious and also theoretical works. His books date back from the idea of beauty in Thomas Aquinas and medieval life and through the aesthetics of the open work with the experimental works of Stéphane Mallarmé, James Joyce, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and John Cage up to semiotic theory, which seeks to establish a conceptual framework in the “search for the perfect language.” And it is not by chance that Eco turned their ideas into text and interpreted the text. So, entering into the post-historic times of the realm of networks and rhizomes, the global world of information communication, new media, and transgressive identities correspond to the concept of contemporary fashion (Evans 2003). But what kind of relationship might there be in his sophisticated notion of the world as a text with the ambivalences and paradoxes of contemporary fashion? For Eco, the primacy of the interpretation of the text derives from Charles Sanders Peirce’s semiotic set of unlimited processes that are being labeled in modern times. It is determined by a multitude of different interpretations of the same text in its multiplication. This does not mean that unlimited semiosis can conclude that the interpretation does not have criteria. Paradoxically fresh and powerful, Eco’s semiotic interpretation of the text and Bataille’s economy victims in the eroticism of death is seen in something that at the same time entirely belongs to the aesthetics of the open event of transgression and what goes beyond the starting of a symbolic end of fashion. This was the case with the last event of an interactive show by British fashion designer Alexander McQueen before his suicide—Plato’s Atlantis—in the spring of 2010. The iconogrammatic structure of interpreting the body as an open-ended event of transcendence goes beyond the very concept of transgression and its allegorical figures, which appear as the key literary figures of the interpretation of the text.

      Eco’s semiotics is directed at advancing the concept of interpretation. This is true for all three phases of its development: from the early concept of aesthetics of the 1960s (open-concept work), general semiotics with its emphasis on the concept of a reader in the process of signifying the text of the 1970s, up to the age of the text in the interpretation of works from the 1990s (Eco 1976; Eco 1989: Eco 1990). If we apply it in fashion as a cultural communication system and as a text of interpretation in an author-user-work triad, we encounter the language of contemporary fashion in all its ways. Visual semiotics can be understood as a complex theory of communication or as a theory of culture. It consists of the language-speaking competencies of subjects/actors of discourse and dialogue in networked texts. Semiotics designates the theory of interpretation, which does not pose the question of what the sign signifies to some object of consideration. On the contrary, it is fundamental to understand the signs in art, literature, medicine, design, and ultimacy in general linguistics. Every single communication should be comprehended as a matter of interpretation. In another, pragmatic-interpretative spirit, Eco’s theory encompasses a critique and extension of the concept of Derrida’s deconstruction in the following aspects. If Derrida argues that it is all just a matter of deconstructing the text in its difference (différance) in the production and reproduction of texts differences, then Eco’s attempt is all just a question of interpretation of the text. In both cases, there are different approaches and different insights into the features of text as such. While for Derrida, in the traces of de Saussure, Barthes and Lacan, the signifier determined the process of signifying in the text, Eco’s assumption is included in the semiotics of culture as communicating the aesthetics of reception, namely in a pragmatic horizon of the exploration of the other feature of the sign. Each sign is read by the symbolic code of interpretation of culture. It has its place (space) and the power of the signifier (time). The word is always made utilizing the interpretation of codifying communication. That is a reason why the concept of open work can be understood from the horizons of subjects/actors of interpretation.

      What should be noted about Eco’s determination of artwork? The semiotic definition is that it is a work that is understood by a plurality of messages, and it consists of many signifiers contained in one single meaning bearer. The open work, therefore, inevitably reveals itself in multiplicity. It is well known that the concept of polytheism in Barthes and Derrida is key to the interpretation of the text. But in Eco, the theory of interpretation recognizes two degrees of openness:

  • limited openness to which the observer or user (viewer, listener, reader) gives meaning, and
  • a free space of interpretation, which is limited only by the structure of the work itself in the movement of its form and the indefinite sense of final meaning.

Thus, Eco’s concept of open work can be linked to an open body as the horizon of writing without a transcendental signifier. This body is open to all possible interpretations of its inscription. If they come from the interactivity of author and audience as subjects/actors of the communication of work that is completed only by its interpretation, then the fate of contemporary art and fashion is an incomplete event of interpretation of the event itself, which leaves a trace of actual controversy in the picture as a visual facility. Due to the interactive nature of new media, contemporary fashion determines the body’s iconograms, not a linguistic coding text (Eco 1976). The theory of interpreting works from the immanent structure of the work itself is, first of all, challenging for understanding contemporary art and fashion. The point is that the concept of the openness of the work now shows the openness of body events in transgression. The interactivity of a performance event, whether it is a conceptual career in a new media or a physical act of provocation of a beast in the public space in real-time (Marina Abramović versus Plato’s Atlantis), at the same time leads to the mingling of art and life and their new frontier. All that should be significant here is achieved in the lust for corporeal self-presence and the presence of distance as a transgression of the event itself.

      Since human language is multifaceted, loaded with culturally coded symbols and metaphors, it is obvious that the universality of truth cannot be attained, but it is always the work of infinite interpretations of the same in differences. Each object has its secret, and each secret is revealed by hiding another secret. The idea that each medium is related to the other medium, which is at the center of Marshall McLuhan’s theory of media from Vilém Flusser to Jean Baudrillard, results in the corpus hermeticum developing in the dream and the visions of the coming as opaque and inadmissible. The Hermetic doctrine must take place within the world as a stage. The world should be regarded as a linguistic phenomenon in theatres without speech because communication is possible only beyond language. This is, however, the essence of Barthes’ semiology and his theory of fashion. The meaning of what is shown through a linguistic, iconic, and symbolic message lies beyond that of language. That is a reason why Eco rightly says that Hermeticism in the heart of the decadence of the West at the same time makes it impossible to dream of mingling the same things of art and life through

  • mysticism and alchemy, and
  • poetry and philosophy.

Impossibility cannot be understood as the inability to realize the concept. Quite the contrary. Impossibility can only be understood virtually as an opportunity to imagine something different from reality and what precedes it. So, the open transgression of the body in contemporary fashion is necessarily a virtual impossibility of the only actual reality. Put in other words, if it is the essence of contemporary fashion in its visual creation and if the body iconogram is already a predefined image mode as a condition of real fashion in the image of the object in the real world, then the dream visionary project of modernizing contemporary fashion in the metamorphic body is without any other attributes than the infinite right of the subject to “have” and to “carry” his body as an experience of absolute freedom. Mysticism and alchemy point to the gnostic secret of creation. In Hermeticism, this corresponds to the idea of an ur-matter known as nigredo. It is about darkness before distinguishing between light and darkness. In contemporary visual arts, however, a series of paintings by Anselm Kiefer entitled Nigredo, part of the Saturn and Melancholy cycle of the 1990s, is directly related to the ambivalent order of the avant-garde and decadence, Gnosticism, matter, and Hermeticism in modern re-interpretation experiences of the human body. What is transgressive here is nothing more than the experience of overcoming and the difference between the historically devoted body experience of corpus mysticum and corpus hermeticum. Nowhere is all that has been mentioned so transparent, shocking, provocative, radically transgressive or so intense in its paradoxical reaction to the experience of open art/fashion as the event than the conceptual embodiments of McQueen in his fashion shows, from Highland Rape (1993) and Dante (1996) to Plato’s Atlantis (2010).

      Contemporary fashion is a creative body design. It rests on freedom and contingency. Freedom has no other “purpose” except in the metaphysical justification of the sanctity of life in the gloomy body. Its fate might be placed in the transgression of everything that has been established as a natural order, but also the transgression of everything that has been established as a standardized cultural order of power control over the body. The ambivalence of contemporary fashion combines two things: the aesthetical nature and the naturalization of culture as taboos and scandals. Claude Lévy-Strauss called it the universality of incest as the order of the primitive figure of kinship and the particularity of culture as a universal ban. Without the transgression of incest taboos in contemporary fashion, it cannot be a scandalous-subversive theatre. Therefore, contemporary fashion as the radical “theatre of cruelty” (Artaud) and the radical “eroticism of death” in the latest transgression leads to the apocalypse of the body in the mythical act of the creation and destruction of the body. We have seen that Eco, in his semiotics of a text’s interpretation, opened up the issue of the visual art of modern art and fashion as an act/event. In it, the author-work-audience communicate with each other due to the experience of the pre-ontological notion of the body as the openness of the world at large. But despite the semiotic or, indeed, the Gnostic reading of the text and the interpretation of the body’s history as a corpus (mysticism and hermeticism), in its labyrinth, like Borges in the world of text, it remained too pure, with almost virginal innocence, and that means that the imaginary is unfinished in his historical drama of embodiment. The naked body in contemporary art and fashion is by no means Eco’s or Borges’ body of mysticism and alchemy, poetry and philosophy. On the contrary, it could be a radically transgressive body of the eroticism of death, as in Bataille’s thoughtful attempt to sacrifice and sanctify the thought beyond the historically established discourse of polytheistic and monotheistic religions. In contemporary art and fashion, there is no transgression without scandal and subversion. And what could be still more scandalous and subversive nowadays in the uncanny vehemence of holding a candle to the objects of the mythical apocalypse of the body and the decadent fetishism of objects of perversion as an apparatus of fashion at its ultimate stage of transformation from an inanimate object into posthuman technology—from puppet to cyborg (Paić 2011)?

      What is the meaning of the transgression of the body as an event in the eroticism of death? It is not necessary to point out the evidence that the actions, performances, and conceptions of contemporary art and fashion in their most radical and, at the same time, most aesthetic and transgressive events are directed at the first and last mystery of the mythical and historical destiny of man in the face of his existence. The body points to the end of the being in time. Eroticism is obviously not just a life-giving confirmation of the power of the body in its primordial instinct of existence. It is far more than the impetus for death. The eroticism of the pre-Socratic metaphysics to Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis might be at the center of considerations of governing oneself and others. The question of the power of mastery over the self and others is nothing but the question of the new definition of a subject in his bodily extravagance at the edge of life and death. Foucault’s and Bataille’s notions of transgression are not just an alternative order of the life-power of nature, which in parallel also exists as a kind of “cannibalism” at the heart of the dominant discourse of the suppressive impulse and its repressive sublimation in the setting of Western culture from the early Middle Ages to the late modern era. Similarly, neither transgression is identical to violence or the ritual sexual perversions of psychopathological forms. Limits are necessary to exceed, scandalize and subvert the body in contemporary art and fashion to have the possibility of marking a radical eccentricity. Without the ban, there are no metaphors or scandals of the allegorical designation of excessive events in the world of art and fashion. There is no doubt that the whole of the 20th century has determined a sign of a radical critique of this mode of suppression of the devastating nature. The body, therefore, might appear under the signs of surveillance and control. This is carried out in the various institutional forms of torture and self-punishment of the second phase of its negative narcissistic liberation in Western culture (Pitts 2003).

      The self-victimized body might not just be the way to the masochistic body but also to the discovery of the subject of the body’s freedom. It passes down the path of self-identification through the pain and suffering of its decentralization. That should be a reason why contemporary fashion, in its decadent scenes of the transgression of the body, no longer deals with the naked body as a function of releasing the drives and dignity of persons. It is obsessively preoccupied with inter-medial inscriptions of pain, suffering, torture, and self-torture; the whole imagery of abjection and monstrosity represents that the sublime in the act of perversion is already right there (Steele 1985). Like a dark shadow, the history of the body in the West is determined by the position of its ambivalence. What does this mean? It is at the same time a sign of emancipation in the sense of rationalism and a trace of self-sacrifice as an internal duty and command that comes from the referential framework of the patriarchal society. All that Foucault analyzed as the history of knowledge/power over the body is also related to the practice of typing traces of submission and emancipation. Hence, fetishism has to be reinterpreted, beginning with its subversive side, destroying the order of the power/knowledge of the body, which, as Baruch Spinoza said, we still do not know about either. That is an additional reason why the fetish object of a decadent and avant-garde modern fashion is an abject or ultimate point of the perceived negative sublimation. Liquids and metamorphic bodies, blood and sperm, dread and monstrosity are no longer figures of the negative aesthetics of ugliness. Eroticism transcends the instinctive structure of sexuality and life’s excesses beyond the distinction between “nature” (incestuous and cruel) and “normal” (culture’s sublimation in the techniques of disciplining and controlling the body).

      In his writings, especially in Eroticism and Theory of Religion, Bataille established a new profane discourse of holiness (Bataille 1957; Bataille 1989). The body appears to him in the total openness of death as the “inner experience” of the world. With that, we should go beyond any definition of discipline, society, control, morality, and aesthetics. It should not be so surprising, therefore, that his thinking is drawn to the ideas of contemporary art and fashion as the most important areas of the overlapping discourse of post-metaphysical philosophy and literature. As Derrida’s way of thinking and writing seems quite synonymous with the practice of the deconstruction of texts, writing on the edges, palimpsests, marks, and dissemination, so Bataille’s thinking and writing might just be good practice for transgression in the text itself. In other words, eroticism is not just a taboo in Western culture. Through eroticism, the scandal is a scandal and subversive to the negativity of the text itself as an experience of overcoming the metaphysics of the body. The writing method simultaneously shows the epistemology of reading the text as a transgression of the “sense” of what is historically-metaphysically determined by the sacrifice of the body and the sacredness of the soul. For resignation on contemporary art and fashion as the radical transgression of the body in the fetishistic facility of post-human beings, which transcends the binary oppositions of inanimate-live, it is sufficient here to point out the following ideas of Bataille on eroticism, death, transgression, taboo, and violence. First of all, his general economy of expenditure indicates criticism of the rationality of capitalist production and spending on objects as matter. The exchange between bodies and objects is the exchange of life and death in the form of an unconditional life gift. Sexuality in the form of desire has the form of the appropriation of the Other. But this is at the same time the desire to acknowledge the subject in the very self. The sexual act in itself has the power of life and death, and the body is ecstatic, completed in orgasmic death, which, like the apocalypse, in itself affects repeatability. Bataille says the following about that paradox and the aporia of economy and sacrifice:

…the extension of economic growth itself requires the overturning of economic principles—the overturning of the ethics that grounds them. Changing from the perspectives of restrictive economy to those of general economy actually accomplishes a Copernican transformation: a reversal of thinking—and of ethics. If a part of wealth (subject to a rough estimate) is doomed to destruction or at least to unproductive use without any possible profit, it is logical, even inescapable, to surrender commodities without return. Henceforth, leaving aside pure and simple dissipation, analogous to the construction of the Pyramids, the possibility of pursuing growth is itself subordinated to giving: The industrial development of the entire world demands of Americans that they lucidly grasp the necessity, for an economy such as theirs, of having a margin of profitless operations. An immense industrial network cannot be managed in the same way that one changes a tire… It expresses a circuit of cosmic energy on which it depends, which it cannot limit, and whose laws it cannot ignore without consequences. (Bataille 1991, 25–26)

The fundamentals of Bataille’s writings, the continuation of Nietzsche’s thinking of life as being in the eternal return of equal, is nothing but the experience of the border. Being and nothing cannot be understood dialectically. Anyway, we can argue that these are the same thing. Transgression, thus, represents the point of difference between the two in the process of affirming their differences. But without the knowledge of the first and last border, there is no possibility of experiencing the temporality of the body. The sacrifice of the body and holiness in contemporary art and fashion is necessarily articulated in rituals of violent and excessive approaches to the body. Eroticism cannot have its subversive power of transgression if a set of prohibitions founded by religions does not legally exist. In this case, the difference between polytheistic and monotheistic religions is a question of distinguishing between traditional and modern societies. The secular holiness of the body does not exclude the archaeological power of sacrifice by other means in modern times. The question of tragic victims in contemporary art and fashion sets starts from the distinction between myth and the science of the body. Transgressive situations such as conflicts between cultures and different conflicts around identity in the globalized world of today mean that sacrificing the body becomes inevitable. Bataille says that the first metaphor of faith belongs to the knowledge of death. The next assumption seems decisive. It makes the credo ofany further consideration of the idea of the transgression of the body open to the event of contemporary art and fashion. This is Bataille’s claim that transgression does not signify the extinction of incest or the taboo of all civilizations from “exiled” to “contemporary.” On the contrary, transgression designates the overcoming of the taboo and its completion in the conscious sacrifice of the body. Since sexuality and eroticism form principles that break up the order based on the rational exchange of objects/things on the symbolic and the real market in human societies, the inevitable consequence of a transgression in the self-affirmation of life forces eroticism as such. This is the same as how it creates the world altogether and destroys it. The ambivalence of contemporary art and fashion represents just that, and it should be defined as a transgression of lively corporeal exchange facilities with something from the other side of living. What is beyond the very heart of the art goes beyond contemporary art to go away. In this way, a total design of the body transforms it into a decadent fetishism abject without an object. Eroticism now crosses its boundaries. It thus becomes the perversion of the object itself as an abyss, as is evident in the cultural fetishisms and techno-fetishisms of contemporary art and fashion, as was excellently described by Fernbach (2002, 182–226). What can we conclude concerning that matter?

      Abject without a facility means that eroticism goes beyond the limits of the sacred in the negative sublimation of the body. The most radical act of cosmic-anthropological transgression might be a kind of opposite to the resumption of the logic of symbolic and real exchange facilities on the market within capitalist-organized social production. Instead of Marx’s critique of the political economy, which puts forward the idea of a liberal idea of the freedom of the individual as a private owner of his workforce, Bataille talks about the victim’s economy. In that context, it should be noted that the body is in its unconditional facticity and always realizes the only facility of the thing as such. The sacrifice of the body goes beyond any utilitarian logic of the subject. In any case, the body has no use or sacrifice. It is always just that the means are dedicated to the purpose. In this way, the “naturalness” of the capitalist economy functions in the way in which fashion determines the occurrence of value. However, Bataille’s “solar economy” has a metaphysical aura and goes beyond the idea of using or utilizing the value of objects/objects. This means that fashion in modern times can no longer be understood by the symbolic act of presenting something beyond its uselessness and total controversy. Once the usable value of the fashion as the object/thing serves, at the same time, as a metaphysical or symbolic representation of the fashion (sign-signifier-signified), it is lost. The body is the absolute sacred sacrifice in the name of the unconditional “solar economy.” Therefore, the last truth of eroticism derives from extinguishing the usefulness and working of the body as an object/thing. When it no longer exists, it is the most sacred of all holiness—the sacrifice of the body as the “solar body,” an astral-stellar gift returning to its origin. An apparent feature of this is the eroticism of death for us in spending the object as an object. Hence, the apocalypse of the body itself happens in the contemporary era of visual communication in the information society.

      The fetishism of contemporary art and fashion decadence is represented as an interactive spectacle of narcissistic subject/actors in the life of iconograms beyond sanctity and sacrifice. This life is auto-poetically generated by new digital technology, and it consists of the fragmentation of identity in the networked space of the media world of art and fashion. The victim, of course, was a narcissist banalized as a victim of the subject in the cruelty of the world of culture and fashion. The reality show remains the only space of this banal-sublime neutralization of fashion, which ironically perceives its senselessness in stylizing the anonymous factory of “glorious empty gags.” The abject becomes an object of monstrousness in the form of stickiness and disgust. Everything that belonged to the imaginary aesthetics of ugliness now appears unhuman initially for fetishized features of the body itself in a posthuman condition. The difference between the main feature of literary decadence, as found in Victor Hugo’s Quasimodo,and the main prototype of the monstrous corpse of posthumanism, as seen in Alien, is that Quasimodobelongs to the other side of the humanistic idea of beauty and sublime, while the aliens “holy monster” is beyond good and evil, a pure posthuman machine living-life of the contemporary age. Winning the abject over the object of the fine arts finally appears to be a true transgression in general—in the pure negative jouissance of the body in its physiological-aesthetic modes of being-to-death. Eroticism represents a transgression of death itself, which needs a form of the body for its sacrifice, reaching the state of pure mimesis—an imitation of the spiritual sacrifice of the body by repeating the ritual sacrifice to infinity (Nancy 1991, 20–38).

Alexander McQueen – Highland Rape (1995)

      This is based on the contemporary economy of fashion as a spectacular event of body transgression. Nancy, in his interpretation of Bataille’s problem of metaphysical victimization and erotism, indicates that the victim’s body is always a mimetic act of repetition of what is naturally “predestined.” Thus fashion, in its representational-communication function of body transgression events, returns to its starting point. Obesity with that virginal “natural” has a mythical structure of violence against nature as such. There is no significant difference between films such as Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring or James Cameron’s Avatar and Alexander McQueen’s Highland Rape fashion show. Nature can exist in the form of a virgin or primordial body in rape or violence against it. The paradox is, therefore, scandalous: without violence or rape, nature does not exist per se. We have seen that Lacan’s primacy of the symbolic order or culture serves as a taboo that reigns over nature. But McQueen’s Highland Rape should be noted simply as a paradigmatic event of a monstrous surge because it speaks directly of blood and sperm as the violence of the institutional patriarchal order against the Other—a woman as a mythically exalted virgin (Evans 2004). If the victim is “an institution of the absolute economy of absolute subjectivity,” as Nancy argues in his interpretation of Bataille, then the endless repetition of the sacrificial rites in contemporary art and fashion events of the transgression of the body as abject go on further without its symbolic object of desire. Fetishism inevitably becomes a consequence of the order of cultural decadence in the synthetic, hybrid and eclectic form of the new identity of the body. It is not, therefore, the fetish and the character of contemporary art and fashion that “objects perceive me” in observation right now, as Paul Klee wrote in his diaries. The rebellion of objects belongs to the fictional character of the worldliness of the contemporary world. There goes everything that is ready-made or body-to-wear (ready for use or carrying). They do not notice objects; instead, the entire world of objects is transformed into an abstraction of art as an addendum or a substitute for the primary path of body sacrifice. What is happening in contemporary art and fashion might be the choice between simulacra and the nothingness of objects in the form of visual communication, the iconograms of the very body of life. No one can foresee the final boundary of this deadly sacrificial body dance in virtual and actual life. But what is in the process of transforming the body identically into differences in the true transgression of body events in the space of life and death? The self-destruction of the body as an object/thing takes on the ancient ritual techniques of crucifixion, stretching, tattooing and engraving of signs on the body, dissolving its “black holes” and opening wounds to the limits of pain and suffering. In this unhappy sacrifice of the body, contemporary art and fashion transcend the boundaries of art and life by paradoxically setting a new frontier. That new frontier between art and life becomes the technosphere itself. A technically engineered body changes the biological nature of the living body of plants, animals and humans. This represents the disappearance of nature in the immortality of the posthuman body. The absolute subjectivity of this body at the same time designates its deepest perversion and opacity. That body, ultimately, cannot be naked. Furthermore, there is nothing in the universe that is anything but human-all-to-human. Stelarc’s performances, Orlan’s experiments with transplanting the skin, and McQueen’s theatricalization of cruelty in the transgression of gender/sex fashion labels point to the same common denominator—extreme horror as the ultimate truth of eroticism and death. We should note that our daily experiences in designing the surrounding world in globally networked societies confirm this extreme and exaggerated condition. Whatever the sovereignty, it represents the mode of the transgression of the body beyond a fashion—the death of the fashion and its unique symbolic form.[3] We have to know in advance how this happens and what really stands behind it if any kind of matter should still be a supplement for the lost innocence of the world.

Alexander McQueen – Plato’s Atlantis (2010)

3. Mythical regression of the future: Allegory without text

Let us go back to another explanation of fetishism. The differentiation of so-called classical fetishism and all its postmodern forms can be summarized by distinguishing imaginary fantasies about prosthetic bodies of women as castrating man in Freud’s key psychoanalytic interpretation of the perversion of facilities and generalized fantasies on the entire world of objects as perverse facilities’ desire to possess the sublime structure of objects/things. In classical cases, fetishism is the worship of pseudo-dominant objects (dominatrix-type women as cruel rulers in skin, latex, and gum). It is a symbolic replacement for the cruelty of the natural power of the patriarchal order. In the second case, the above-mentioned rule applies techno-morbid abstractions without objects. The more man is not in the function of the reflexive self-object of the masochistic desire for the vengeance of the Big Other, the fewer men and women are lying in the posthuman body of the uncanny perversion of objects/things themselves. This is a distinction of the “ontological” as such. This can be set as the typological distinction between “politically conservative” fetishism, which serves as a mere theatricalization of the current order of cultural power in which the perverse worship of women’s shoes, leather goods, and various forms of bondage only establishes the order of the normalization of violence in a liberal, permissive society, and the radical fetishism of the world of global corporate capitalism. Classic fetishism produces the icon of perverse women’s beauty. She is uncanny and monstrous. After all, it must cut up the “normal” assemblage of body and culture like a Medusa’s head. Postmodern fetishism is, therefore, basically transgressive, and it is structurally based on the decadent separation of the binary oppositions of male-female and nature-culture from the established order of worshipping clean and indifferent abjection facilities (Fernbach 2002, 72). Put in other words, the criticism of nature as a meta-language of ideology makes postmodern fetishism active in the path of negative freedom. This assumption shows that contemporary visual culture and its related art and fashion are self-reflective narcissism: “We know that faith in nature is a lie and that’s why we believe in its radical opposition—the fictional objects of culture as a lie of lies.” The body that appears as abject/object cravings in a posthuman machine or body without organs is seductive. It depicts objects as objects/things of deep trauma and jouissance experiences. Now pleasure appears as a visual fascination of objects. And they are in the interactive network of the relationship of the perversion of life itself.

      The fetish of the subject, therefore, appears in the classical model as a function of normalizing the original perversion of heterosexual relationships in civil society. Freud’s psychoanalytic criticism of the history of Western civilization is almost identical to the sociological analysis of Norbert Elias. The sociologist of the civilization process speaks of the power to rationalize social institutions and the traumatic suppression of physicality in the public domain, which raises all forms of violence of the patriarchal order in the private and intimate space of the development of civil marriage (Elias 1989). This ambivalent process of public virtues and private sins establishes a model of fetish fantasy. We can see here the dominant form of “blowing out” or catharsis, but not a radical transgression, as the obsession with fetal objects is kept within a strictly public-private divide in civil society. All of this can be perfectly seen in the conceptual-performative actions of Alexander McQueen. The reason is that contemporary fashion as a radical open event of the body itself on the stage of the “society of the spectacle” embodies the experience of radical fetishism as an experience of the transgression concerning the eroticism of death. We can use the term embodiment for the act of forming the lofty-human body as an androgen-cyborg-angel from the incarnation of the abjection of all the innate insurgents of the traumatic existence of humans (women and men) in a globally networked society. We may say here that dispelling the speech about the symbolic creation of the identity of the contemporary body in fashion derives from the inner need for confirmation and confession of the facts of emotional determination in permissive culture. Instead of any symbolic representation of identity, it should be the return of allegories in the pure mythical-visual form of the image beyond the text. This is a reason why all conceptual-performative project designs might be an interactive spectacle of body iconograms.. For contemporary fashion to exist, it might be necessary to finally “bring forth” the body that, in its absolute freedom, lives by “carrying” life as the work and the event of a radical artistic project of transgression.

      In Plato’s Atlantis in the spring of 2010, McQueen not only reached “the greatest depth of impersonality,” as James Joyce wrote in 1905 from Pula to his brother in Dublin but also touched the deadly area between art as life and fashion as a show or illusion of the same life. Conceptually speaking, he completed his artistic work. Is not it strange that this is precisely what is more about the contemporary era of media production and the absolute staging of the “experience society” than the entire industry of contemporary minds in its boring reinterpretations that were already seen in the avant-garde and the early 20th century? Is it even possible that a fashion show in its visual event, the iconograms of the body, speaks more of dogmatic contemporary art as a reflexive subversion of the world itself, which has been signified as global, post-historic, digital, information-communicative, post-ideological, heterotopic, and the dystopia of the deep notion of time? The answer is confirmed in advance. Moreover, not only is it possible, but it might also be necessary and inevitable that the allegorical event of the body as a mythical feast of contemporaneity is represented as a radically reversed metaphysical feature of contemporary art. So, this just means that fashion can no longer pass by the appearance and banality of life. From the rhizomatic structures of the world’s worldliness which is beyond spirituality, and is therefore symbolic, nothing in the air, that is to say, in the future, lies in the imagination of the experiment of the world as the total design of the posthuman body and its life. In any case, fashion and art meet the experience of body design in artificial life (AL). Authenticity bestows the resurrection of neo-Platonistic or Hellenistic concepts—syncretism, hybridity, and eclecticism. The blending of differences in one—creating a new one from a plurality of different compounds and relating to reality as a relationship to the system reference based on understanding the world of fashion as an interpretation—might be the structural unity of this triad in the concept and practice of the contemporary body (art-fashion). The design has its origins in the aesthetics of the surrounding and inner world, and fashion as a total body design no longer adorns the clothing of a stable body, but the metamorphic body constructs identities with its inscriptions, such as the absolute whiteness of Mallarmé’s The Book or the absolute sound of Stockhausen’s and Cage’s musical compositions—the absolute point of the condensation and compression of the body itself, the thought acoustics in anything that exists in space and time.

      McQueen has an exceptional place in the theory of contemporary fashion. A New York Times journalist wrote that his fashion show is not just a vision of tomorrow’s future, but a vision of the future as a future at least 30 years in advance. The future of fashion in contemporary fashion is no longer considered from the point of view of the utopian imagination of some “naive” anti-fashion Barbarella or Solaris in the starry space of the night. Rather than the SF speculation of fashion, in the contemporary era of the reign of new media and digital images, it acts as a virtual transgression of reality. The term “iconograms” started to introduce considerations that would show how euphoria no longer has the essence of contemporary fashion. We cannot confirm the continuity of styles or the removal of provocation and shock in the discontinuity of history. The overwhelming tendencies of neo-historicism, neo-avantgardism, and inadequate decadence with the tendencies of futuristic vision and dreams lead to the fact that contemporary fashion can only be understood from the perspective of the body as an image-creation or, following the contemporary concept of reality, the pictorial trace of the event of the interactive spectacle. All boundaries are accepted and destroyed. And the question of the identity of the body in the age of transgression in contemporary fashion is precisely a question of the limits of the living body. In the metamorphic process of emergence, the posthuman body of the androids and cyborgs of the boundaries of the living and inactive become fictitious. Jean-Paul Gaultier, in his vision of the upcoming fashion of the techno-futuristic environment of digital architecture and networks of the world ahead of him, dreamed of creating a collection of clothing at the end of all imaginative collections.

      In that dream, which resembled a faint body apocalypse and a mysterious state of instability of fashion, his fashion always indicated its signs of crossing gender/sex boundaries, religious bans, racial differentiation, and everything else that history has labeled with the lines of the symbolic rule of fixed differences and more homogenous identities (Evans 2003). Cultural history is the history of clothing in the sense of developing cultural hegemony. Gaultier’s visions coincide partly with McQueen’s radical triad. But the difference exists in the fact that McQueen starts from the assumption that the social form of fashion has broken up. The fragments belong to the visual representation of the spectacle of the body itself. This is a reason why fashion trends are faced with the spectacle of a performance event. Behind that, there is nothing more. Furthermore, there is no secret of the symbolic stone or the sublime object of desire. The abject without an object represents the center of the “big narrative” (the show). Without it, fashion no longer has its visual signifier. When nothing is left behind, then fashion becomes the design of the body in a techno-futuristic disguise of fetishism. In other words, the lifestyle of transgression becomes a new body of the fatal deconstruction of fashion. McQueen’s “fashion,” in addition, represents the allegory of the future as the upcoming mythical apocalypse of the body. In it, sacrifice, eroticism, nihilism, death, and transgression are the fundamental figures of the reflexive interpretation of the end of a symbolic form of creation. Fashion is dead—long live the new body!

      We cannot forget the fact that Walter Benjamin used the concept of allegory in the meaning of the substitute sign. In it, the image structure of the message assumes the task of interpreting the narrative structure of the event. Benjamin alleges that “allegories are, in the realm of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things” (Benjamin 2009, 78). The allegory is not merely a substitute mother of cultures towards metaphors and symbols as the “biological” father of marking things. The figure of allegories always appears as what goes beyond the marking process. It is a true iconic turn in contemporary culture that visual identity codes precede every possible reality of the object as a body. And although one of the founders of the “pictorial turn,” Gottfried Boehm, rightly refers to the function of the metaphor as a concept and figure of thought beyond the representation of “things,” pointing to the traces of the phenomenology of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, the philosophical fundamentals of Wittgenstein and Austin, and the deconstruction of Derrida, it is undeniable that the allegory of postmodern criticism of the representation of the referent of reality is decisive in the figure of the artistic subversion of the very unity of life and art (Boehm 2007, 34–53; Jameson 2009). We should remember how, in postmodern architecture, ornament overcame its position as a “crime,” as Adolf Loos condemned every form of decoration in modern architecture and art, and became the second nature of the narrative structure of the new image—so much so that we became modern in architecture with the code of the digital age of new media, based on the logic of transcoding the message, rising above the devastating ideological and aesthetic advance of the avant-garde and decadence in the 20th century on the obsolescence of ornaments and the progress of function, that is, the relation between the narrative and the event in conceptual-performing art. This connection should be transgressive. It goes beyond binary oppositions like nice-ugly, good-evil, male-female, or nature-culture. So, the allegory of contemporary fashion as a transgression of the body in the event of the eroticism of death could be precisely the transgression of “meaningful” visuality in general. Now, we shall see that visual media are not at all an inherent feature of the digital age. After all, this has been stated in self-criticisms of visual studies and the pictorial turn, as the founder of this theoretical paradigm, W.J.T. Mitchell, already did in his late works (Mitchell 2005, 257–266). If the media of our digital age are not visual, then what does the word mean? Do we have to talk only about turning back to the deconstruction of Derrida with the premise that everything should be just a text?

      The problem of triggering a symbolic form of creation cannot be defined just as the problem of a new and contemporary interpretation. This would be the most important issue of the contemporary body as a condition for the possibility of being a subject and object of contemporary art and fashion. For this condition of opportunity to be fulfilled, it must hit the third end of the idea of man. It is no longer the end of the metaphysical idea of a man (Heidegger) or the post-metaphysical deconstruction of the essence of the human (Derrida), but the idea of the human as the bodily-synthetic unity of nature and culture in the form of a posthuman machine (androids, cyborgs, monstrous objects of abject). This event also denotes the beginning of true fashion experimentation with what precedes it as well as the idea of civilization as such. The foregoing can be nothing but a myth of bliss and the virgin source of civilization before civilization, the astral-starry body before the corpus mysticum-hermeticum and before modern embodiment and embodiment in a mechanically organized body. Before making the final stroke of the idea of fashion as a spectacular banality and frivolity of decadent Western civilization, McQueen came out of the body’s perception as a concept for use and consumption, which is evident in Plato’s Atlantis show. In the 1990s, two aesthetic and cultural-political shows concealed the idea of nature and beauty through the systematic action of the “natural” and “cultural” logic of the late (the fetishist) sublime object of global capitalism. The first show was named Highland Rape (1993) and the second Dante (1996). The first allusively represented the aggression of men and the rape of women. These are the emerging aspects of cruelty and the feminine culture of the adoration of virginity and motherhood. Although the politico-cultural allegory of the show, according to McQueen, is that, historically, England “raped” Scotland with hegemonic rule and the war between England and Scotland was a genocide of the Scottish people, the problem of interpretation cannot be simply reduced to the historical and political aspect of the allegory. McQueen reveals that, with the contemporary fashion within the conceptual-performative turn, the show is referring to the horror and the uncanny thing in the world. The uncanny and the sublime determine the spectacle of extreme frivolity whereby genocide and ethnic cleansing in the global age are understood in the media representation of social reality. The form of presentation has become like a postmodern soap opera. Laughter and the banality of life are becoming the media environment for the tragic experience of the present, which has deep roots in the past. The best example of this aesthetic of a soap opera in the odour of a political issue is represented by Roberto Benigni’s film about the Holocaust titled Life is Beautiful (Žižek 2000).

      And there is no doubt that the problem that McQueen put on the scene was greater than it was visually witnessed by the cruelty of the scenes of raped girls in torn clothes, and brutally beaten with broken limbs. Rape in the permissive culture of the narcissistic West, paradoxically, attempts to be justified by the uncanny beauty and guilt of the object/thing of man’s desire. In addition, the sublime backdrop of this aggressive crime against nature appears in the idea of the subject of redemption—the Mother as a holy virgin and a donor of life. So, Lacan’s two deaths, real and symbolic, can be applied here by alleging that the allegorical death of a sign in the narrative of the relationship between England and Scotland goes beyond the symbolic death of culture and the real death of nature in the birth of the posthuman body. This body, of course, is still gender/sexually distinct and is characterized by a figure of a doll that, as in Artaud’s surrealist dramas of the 1920s, appears with the scattered body of the object itself. The feminine body in contemporary art and fashion is necessarily something superficial, perfectly aestheticized, sculpturally determined by a seduction function, and an aesthetic object as a fantasy of a fictional character. In this double figure of the beauty of a woman’s fashionable body as a colonized space, the corporate economy of fashion is written as a global sign of the structural perversion of the meaning of primordial nature and decadent culture. Fashion and postmodern advertising strategies have the visual function of the ideological-political signifier and are marked when it comes to the colonization of the cultural means of the postcolonial subject as Other (e.g. Christian Dior’s concept of “Les Coloniales” in the 1980s). The body of women in the posthuman body of androids and cyborgs remains the body of an endless field of skin instinct, facial interventions, cosmetic surgery, and transgressive S/M aesthetics. McQueen does not model a new “look” for a new woman in contemporary fashion but radically deconstructs the idea of female beauty as a natural and cultural fact in the world of consumer signage. We might comprehend cruelty as the basic notion of these neo-avant-garde and decadent aesthetics beyond that of beauty (Evans 2003, 141–161). It looks like McQueen was no longer dealing with the beauty of an idealized female body but with the transgression of the idea of divinity as a display of inadvertence in the monstrously cruel thing that belongs to the outer and inner worlds of the global media age of narcissism, apathy, and dystopia. It is rare that we have such a case that goes beyond the boundaries of so-called frivolity and triviality in fashion design. Moving across the borderlines and leaving a sign of authenticity belongs to transgression in the very concept of freedom. The body is a medium of freedom, and McQueen knows perfectly well what the point of it is.

      In the Dante show in 1996, we are faced with experiencing the decadent beauty of a woman as a femme fatale. The figure is appropriated from fin-de-siècle literature and painting. Let us make a few more clarifications here. When we introduce the figure of a femme fatale to this discursive game, we do not think only of the problem of female emancipation and the deafening beauty that radiates and brings discomfort into the existing order. On the contrary, with this figure, we want to emphasize supremacy and bodily contingency in the understanding of contemporary fashion. Like contemporary art, fashion at the end of history is determined by its sovereignty to no longer takes account of anything other than itself. In this way, decadent beauty lies in the position of transgression in all directions. The paradox is that the concept of beauty from modern aesthetics under the auspices of the aestheticization of the world of life takes on the task of emancipating the subject, starting from the inscription of pure physicality as a provocation of the social tastes of modernity. The body, therefore, becomes subject to double emancipation, both from the rule of the male principle of permissibility and from the dominant performances of the female body as something predetermined by the affective and sensual features of “nature.” This completes the history of the body as submissive and subjected. The freedom of the human body starts in the decadent beauty that is the direction of death, which marks the moment of the emergence of contemporary fashion. Therefore, fetishism has liberated apostasy nowadays, no matter how we should interpret this kind of cultural turn. Still, we could note that there is not something undeniable here. Namely, fetishism is denoted as expanding in all areas of design in contemporary fashion simply because the body is a territory of the “libidinal economy,” which also denotes the space of realizing everything that a great spectacle has to give to its enchanting participants in its appeal to aesthetic objects (goods in the form of excess desire). We are talking about fetishism that no longer has any external or internal resistance to the ideas of society, culture, or politics. This fetishism lies in itself as a spectacle of the narcissistic adventure of a subject who strives to become what he adores and works on his discipline of obedience to the object’s self. To determine the difference between the fashion object and the performance of a body that does not wear clothes as a burden of historical elegance but as a lifestyle chosen from the multitude of opportunities of today’s consumer society, one needs to perceive what we call a semiotic difference.[1] And it is a sign of the symbolization of a body that is no longer a result of society and culture. Instead, the fashion object and body as an event create new social relationships and cultural orders of meaning. The sexual impulsivity of the woman gains new symbolic meanings, such as aggressive and dangerous beauty, cruelty, and the eroticism of death. But what is new is that McQueen introduces the elements of lesbian decadence, so it breaks the classic model of beauty and the elevation of the fetish object of desire. But what is most interesting in this performance event is the radical deconstruction of the historical-symbolic concept of decadence. Instead of the deadly beauty remaining in the romantic vision of inexperience in the unrestrained encounter with the object of the sublime, now cracks enter the idea of decadent beauty. It is an intervention in itself at the center of the object-oriented transformation of women’s fashion from the period before the aristocratic order of haute couture and the French Revolution. McQueen deconstructs a woman’s body with inscriptions of sexuality and eroticism as perversion and cruelty, fetishism, and death: a plastic skeleton in a corset in photographic footage of a woman’s body reverses a self-taught order. Fashion is a form of the socio-cultural perversion or fetishism of goods in the spectacular visual order of signs. When the form of decomposition works in the logic of an image without a sign, as shown by Baudrillard, instead of the visual semiotics of fashion, it is the transgression of the body itself as an image. The only thing left in contemporary fashion, and this is shown in Dante, is a shocking and provocative performance on the scene of the body as a subject and fashion as an object of shyness and the sublime.

      At the turn of the 20th century, the idea of deadly feminine beauty deconstructed the very idea of fashion as a natural bond of the dress with the transformations of the idea of beauty. But that is the real problem. Fear of illness that appears with the paranoid fear of the contemporary age is at the same time a real sign of the decadence of the global age. In the 1990s, disease-to-death took the form of a planetary disease such as AIDS, and in the social meaning of this disease is first a disease characterized by decadence because minority groups of sexually different and racially oppressed in the Third World were vulnerable to it (gay populations and African peoples). Second, in this way, it is not just the other side of Western Eurocentrism but the eccentric and hybrid identity of the Other as an unreal threat to the stable order of modern body politics in the fashion apparatus or dispositif. McQueen’s politics of transgression entered into a discussion of the character of the ambivalence of the inadequate style of the late 20th century in fashion. It is simultaneously a craving for perfect beauty and an act of the destruction of beauty, a fascination with the object of beauty as a sublime and strange reaction to the unfinished event of the meeting—the terrorist act of breaking organs in the public space. What remains is the ultimate stage of social apathy and sexual liberalism, as in Michel Houellebecq’s novel The Elementary Particles—loneliness and autism, apathy and narcissism in search of the lost idea of love. It is only apparent by an allegory that the fashion spectacle of the transgression of the body is placed at the center of the decomposed social system of the body (as fashion).

      Symbols are no longer “symbols” because they lack a metaphysical reference of reality, whether it is an aristocratic order of high taste, which persists in the performances of John Galliano, or of the libertine civic society in which the body functions in the context of the total openness of so-called marginal or aesthetic differentiation, which is a keyword of the theoretical attempt of Lipovetsky. Simply stated, this means that lifestyle allows an individual to be the subject of his/her own body and when he/she stands on the edge of social survival. Anti-fashion clothing allows, thus, the kingdom of the illusion of a narcissistic postmodern subject. Its body is represented as a tabula rasa on which signs of affiliation are entered. In addition, its body signifies a totem without taboos and taboos without a totem, the perfect emptiness of all the definitions, punctum and surface, screen and stage. Finally, we are talking about a body with the same assemblage as a template for the architecture of deconstruction of the modern body as a fixed and stable identity. Architecture and fashion, thus, are the only areas of entry into the body of the metamorphic obsession and the sublime of the contemporary age. Both are happening in the digital scape of the object as the process of objectifying the body in the world as a ready-made of post-industrial civilization. Chalayan’s metamorphic architecture corresponds to the nomadic destiny of man in temporary cities and networked societies of virtual schizophrenia of identity. On this, Caroline Evans says that:

Chalayan’s design motifs of technological progress were shadowed by the darker motifs of displacement, exile and uprootedness. This shadow generated a bleak beauty that haunted the modernist purity of his installation-like shows. (Evans 2003, 288–289)

But the body has not come out of being-to-death ever since. It did not come out of a genetic brand without a name and did not deny the subjection of the digital social control machine in the global age. In contemporary fashion, everything is bizarre and extravagant: from the structure’s fetishism to the transparency of the body as a desiring machine. So, what seems most significant comes from the technosphere as the way the body works in the situation and in the context of its obsolescence. The eternal youth of fashion stands in opposition to the traumatic destiny of aging and the amnesia of the living body. It might therefore all be so artificial and so replaceable as implants and appliances in the flesh that we are faced with an experience that reminds us of the liquidity and fluidity of cultural strings.

      The last show of Plato’s Atlantis (2009)brought McQueen to the pinnacle of his notion of body history as the history of sacrifice and the transgression of nature and culture. Sacrifice should be understood symbolically and ontologically. If fashion is due to the discovery of the unconscious and desire (Freud’s psychoanalysis) and the steps in the transgression of all social and cultural boundaries (Bataille’s theory of religion) relative to the body as to its incarnation into the world of events, then its destiny might be on the verge of avant-garde and decadence. In other words, fashion denotes transgression in the very language as an unconscious production of desire. Many theorists of design and fashion explain the concept of the history of the body by the absence of any reference to pastoralism and the divine innocence of nature in the age of romanticism, although it should be apparent that the idea of transgression is the uncanniness of nature and the sublime drifts directly into romanticism. In addition, we have a lot of proof that the concept, just like Unheimlichkeit, was born in the very heart of that revival of ancient history as a myth. Of course, it is a distinctive feature of the German programme of a rebirth of the Greek paradigm in art and philosophy in the 1800s. But, unlike the reversion of Galliano’s neo-historical interpretation of history as a bricolage of styles and criticism of the historical exclusion of Other—racially diverse, gender/sexually eccentric, extravagant bodies of European decadence—McQueen perceives history as a traumatic experience of the pain and suffering of the body. Let us remember that this is very similar to how we comprehend the birth of the subject in Lacan’s psychoanalysis. Trauma precedes consciousness just as freedom in its contingency precedes the modern notion of existence. In Plato’s Atlantis, the body was exposed in contemporary fashion as a concept of liberty in opposition to the tyranny of society, politics, and ideology. The alliance with Sade’s criticism of civil society as a rationalist theatre of cruelty and perversion in the “heart of darkness” is evident in all the allusive procedures of the great presentation of the traumatic body of a contemporary subject. As for Lacan, he says he is no longer a master in his home. What does McQueen point to in this ambiguity of history as traumatic allegories from Highland Rape to Plato’s Atlantis? Nothing but the paradoxical self-referral of eroticism and terror, horror and beauty. In the 1990s, this was underlined by the increased morbidity and aestheticization of the narcissistic society of the spectacle. Debord himself spoke of three stages of the spectacle:

  • concentrated,
  • diffused, and
  • integrated (Debord 1994).

The last stage represents the realization of the universal perversion of the world as the fetishism of goods/objects in the form of a digital image. The decadence of the contemporary era is that the whole of the enlightening social life became aesthetic in all aspects of that concept. A man emerges, thus, as an illusory entity in the figuration of a lifestyle, not as an authentic individual in all kinds of skills and attributes. This manner of perverted identity transformation, in which fashion becomes an open event of an interactive spectacle of body transgression, occurs in the likeness of a global reality show. This is not just a shocking exaggeration in the media world. Plato’s Atlantis undoubtedly represents an attempt at a radical change in the overall view of the contemporary body as a transgression. Sometimes it seems to us that this uncanny thing—contemporary fashion—has come to the final border of the impossible and that there is no longer anywhere further to go. Everything has already been seen in neo-avant-garde art as shock and provocation strategies, and supposedly this would have to end with the repetition of events that was a core of the aesthetics of Romanticism when it propagated the idea of the ugly as a counterweight to the beautiful. But we should not detect a problem in causing monstrous feelings and experiences of negative catharsis. Instead, one needs to see why there is a permanent need for the fascination with the sublime object of desire to come to the fullness of cruelty and abjectness. Let us see how that matter evolves.

      The show begins with the mythical scenes of the blue water, the sky, and the archaeological power of being born out of the darkness. The snakes and the human body in the torment of birth put the body in an event of mystery to the sound of new age music. But the event should be perceived as allegory, and the performance has a feature of the unrepresentable/sublime. McQueen uses the neo-avant-garde poetry of writing the body as a picture in the interplay of interacting bodies in the play itself. Cinematic references to this fashion show are obvious in SF films such as Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), James Cameron’s The Abyss (1989), and John McTiernan’s Predator (1987). McQueen’s main intention was to reveal some inner links with Charles Darwin’s theory of biological evolution and posthumanism/transhumanism, where we can find the set of ideas that try to operate in our assemblage of visions through the mediation of biological and technological features concerning human advancement. The first cause and final purpose of evolution might be realized in fashion as our dreams and hyper-reality. No matter how deep it goes under the first, second, and third “human skin,” these fascinating image-effects produce strange and uncanny effects in the spectator’s attention long after he/she has watched that spectacular inscenation of bizarre and extravagant images. Plato’s Atlantis is perfect proof that the “iconic turn” encompasses bodies, brains, eyes, and emotions in the synaesthetic adventure of contemporary fashion.

      We cannot deny that, in this case, different strategies fascinate spectators with the aestheticization of life, starting with the creation of the body as experimentation. In this respect, it should be an attempt to think of the beginning and end of the body concerning the indivisible world of objects that surpass us. The visual achievements of contemporary technology are mobile cameras, which, on both sides of the stage as monstrously elevated Aliens, have no limit in every moment of life in the show on two moving platforms that screen what is going on. What transparency and what a sublime experience of the mixture created by the technosphere! The choice of the title of the show undoubtedly signifies the provocation of the theory and the overall postmodern interpretation of the world as a text. Not coincidentally, it is the allusion to a myth that incorporates ideas of the collapse of civilization (decadence) after its golden age and the idea of the restoration of civilization on just another element. Water has the esoteric meaning of ancient elements and new features of the world and humans as a whole.

      Atlantis is mentioned by Plato in dark mythical designation in two of his dialogues—Timaeus and Critias. But McQueen does not use postmodern irony, bricolage, pastiche and carnival figures to point out the dimensions of the inexpressible. When models come out onto the scene, everything is established as a mythical regression of history. The future as an upcoming time of uncertainty and unexpectedness is no longer traumatic and full of anxiety. It is a self-sacrificing body in a retro-futuristic display of inadmissibility. Women’s bodies glide on the runway like the hybrid posthuman bodies on the set of the TV show Star Trek. So, what remains of all that is mythically constructed for the body is not clothing for cyborgs and androids but the extravagance, like so many bodies, of the snake shoe design, which figure the female body up to the living/dead new-age fetishism. We can say that the body is no longer a body. It is (not) the birthplace of the posthuman era of myth regression, which is nowhere beyond this civilization, nowhere beyond this world, beyond Baudelaire’s empty transcendence from Paris Spleen—anywhere out of the world. The iconograms of contemporary fashion are “here” and nowhere else. They are in the virtual things of the apocalypse and the sacrifice of the world as a mythical Atlantis, which is always born again in the moment of the radical nihilism of forever secluded history. McQueen came to the threshold of the impossible body project—the death of fashion in the decadent vision of the mythical regression of history. There is nothing left behind the body. The event has already happened when fashion has become the body design of life itself. The threat of fashion does not come from the techno-fetishism of objects that become more and more clumsy forms of cold indifference. On the contrary, the danger is that there is no longer a free body with its own autonomy that is searching for its right to enjoyment and liberation from all the repressive actions of society, politics, and ideology in the global order of capitalism. Instead, we encounter a vacant space spotted by new alienation. Now it is feared that inside is pure anxiety and nothingness. Looking at it from another perspective, the body’s transgression has its profound meaning only when we are faced with uncanny circumstances in our comprehension of the culture in which we might be witnesses and guardians of collective memories. And fashion as a creative body design holds that issue in all aspects of life, from youth to old age.

      The paradoxical conjunction of avant-garde and decadence begins and ends with the mythic regression of history. Fashion has been avant-garde since its inception because it is the most visible phenomenon and symbol of modernity. In its final stage of integral fetishism, the body became an image without a world, an abject without objects, a mirror and a wardrobe of the modern age, to rule things as objects and things as things. In the process of purifying fashion from all external references, we witness the emergence of a total fashion that is now not only exempt from the tyranny of society and politics-ideology but has also become the liberating power of writing differences into the body of one’s disobedience. Fashion has become a creative design and visualization of life as such. But when design escapes the aesthetic life and bestows it with its metamorphic appearance in an endless series of lifestyles, then all that remains exists in a different and radical way in this world outside the ecstasy of communication and the tyranny of the new.

      Returning to the mythical in the allegory of contemporary fashion is the only way the body exacerbates its nullness of disease-to-death until its last breath. However, does the body in all its metamorphic conditions not become obsolete? Without the idea of the new Atlantis and the unborn world of “things,” it could necessarily all be becoming just a new body celebration as the object of the enjoyment of energy. Creatures, animals, humans, machines—everything just disappears into the endless archipelago of dreams and nightmares. The disappearance of fashion designates the beginning of a new body history. But what if the event of this new history is just a glimpse at the upcoming darkness of the world in visions and images of dreams? And there is nothing more than this endless space of the uncanny and fascinating—a deep blue.

Alexander McQueen – Plato’s Atlantis (2010)

[1] The concept of the apparatus or the device of power is taken from the late ideas of Michel Foucault. It is a term that replaces discourse and marks a set of rules, codes, language norms, socially structured structures, scientific and religious discussions, economic contracts, and collections of straight rules in structuring the power of life by itself (Agamben 2009b).

[2] Agamben’s contemplation of the relationship between “modernity” and “contemporaneity” on the traces of Nietzsche and Barthes shows that the true contemporariness of our age is nothing but the “non-modern,” that is, the spirit of our time is at the same time radically beyond the actuality and is paradoxically within itself. Agamben, in his analysis of the “spirit of the time” of contemporaneity, places the concept of fashion at the center. Contemporaneity denotes paradoxically the presence/absence of anachronism and modernity because actuality means to be “à la mode” by being out of fashion. So, fashion is synonymous with “now,” the moment, and the style of timelessness. In order for fashion to establish its power as a system, although Agamben does not use this key Barthesian notion of the semiotics of fashion in his analyses, it could be necessary to establish a transition between “still” and “no more.” That is a reason why the testimony in Paris of a modern woman at the end of the 19th century decisively emphasized her figure for the modern situation of fashion or the contemporary world as such, based on the logic of self-production and newness as the inner driver of global capitalism: “Elle est contemporaine de tout le monde” (Agamben 2009b, 30–31).

[3] “It is in this tradition, of spectacle, excess, and showmanship, that one can locate the London shows of John Galliano and Alexander McQueen in the 1990s, and their respective shows in Paris for Dior and Givenchy. McQueen’s models walked on water (apparently), and were drenched by ‘golden showers’ or smeared in blood and dirt. Galliano’s narratives were loosely based on a series of spectacular women from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For each show, he created a fictional character around whom the narrative edifice was built. Each model in any one show had only one outfit—there were no quick changes here—and was encouraged really to play the part. These shows moved into the realm of pure entertainment. Generally, the collection had been sold beforehand, and the show thus became a kind of showcase of the designer’s mind. The ‘aura’ that Walter Benjamin ascribed to the artwork had become detached from the goods and associated with the designer’s ‘vision’” (Evans 2001, 301–303).

[4] The term semiotic difference assumes what is derived from Barthes’ notion of meta-language. As is well-known from his study entitled “The Rhetoric of the Image,” Barthes introduces this term that is extremely important for understanding the relationship between society, politics, ideology, and culture in shaping messages in the advertising image of a consumer lifestyle. The object becomes the bearer of meaning, and this also means the place of mediation between the structures of social production of myths that now no longer have a narrative perception of the world but are primarily determined visually as a coded message. The ideology of a fashion object works directly in the transparency of the sign, the signifier, and the signified. So, the semiotic difference might be regarded as the key feature in the media-constructed assemblage of photographic and film reproduction in contemporary fashion. Barthes says: “We will only study the advertising image. Why? Because in advertising the signification of the image is undoubtedly intentional; the signifieds of the advertising message are formed a priori by certain attributes of the product and these signifieds have to be transmitted as clearly as possible. If the image contains signs, we can be sure that in advertising these signs are full, formed with a view to the optimum reading: the advertising image is frank, or at least emphatic. (…) It can thus be seen that in the total system of the image, the structural functions are polarized: on the one hand, there is a sort of paradigmatic condensation at the level of the connotators (that is, broadly speaking, of the symbols), which are strong signs, scattered, ‘reified’; on the other a syntagmatic ‘flow’ at the level of the denotation – it will not be forgotten that the syntagm is always very close to speech, and it is indeed the iconic ‘discourse’ which naturalizes its symbols. Without wishing to infer too quickly from the image to semiology in general, one can nevertheless venture that the world of total meaning is torn internally (structurally) between the system as culture and the syntagm as nature: the works of mass communications all combine, through diverse and diversely successful dialectics, the fascination of a nature, that of story, diegesis, syntagm, and the intelligibility of a culture, withdrawn into a few discontinuous symbols which men ‘decline’ in the shelter of their living speech” (Barthes 1980, 270, 283).


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Author Profile
Žarko Paić

Žarko Paić is a Professor at the University of Zagreb, where he teaches courses in Aesthetics and Media Theory. He publishes frequently in philosophy, social sciences, and art theory. His publications include Theorizing Images, eds. with Krešimir Purgar (2016), and Technosphere Vol. 1-5 (2018-2019), White Holes and the Visualization of the Body, (2019), Neoliberalism, Oligarchy and Politics of the Event – At the Ege of Chaos (2020), Aesthetics and the Iconoclasm of Contemporary Art - Pictures Without a World (2021).