Saturday, June 2, 2012

Suits (Meditations on a Uniform)


The business suit is a uniform which indicates that one's purposes are mainstream, lawful, and subject to a higher principle of organization. Its ubiquity is even more astonishing than its homogeneity. It has existed in its current form, with certain modifications to accommodate the entry of women into the corporate workforce, for nearly a century. It is even more astonishing to realize that within every single business suit is an individual who awakens each morning, purges their body and mind of the exuberant formlessness of borne from the wilderness of sleep, dons the suit and, before allowing themselves to be seen by anyone other than their families or lovers, examines themselves carefully in the mirror – some with a sense of pride, and some with a vague feeling of dread which must, like the tableaux of images and longings still lingering from sleep, be excreted, buried, submerged, drowned before that individual is ready to earn the day's living.

The suit is not Christian, or Jewish, or Muslim, or Buddhist, or atheistic, even though persons belonging to all such belief systems and more commonly wear them. What is its purpose, in all societies? Its purpose is to establish trust. And yet, trust by itself is not enough. It is the particular kind of trust we wish to establish with someone who will, in some way, prepare for, or safeguard, or recover our wealth. Which is to say, a depersonalized trust. The suit is there for when we wish to trust someone with whom any form of personal emotional attachment is absolutely forbidden. We must not allow ourselves any significant amount of repulsion or attraction to their personalities and their form – indeed, both personality and physique must be attractive only in a generic sense, sufficiently mild and malleable so that no possibility exists of imagining the wearer's true passions and personal inclinations. Even among the most beautiful, the excitement of viewing the contours of their bodies must be kept carefully in check.

Normally, the colors of an outfit are supposed to distinguish one from nature, or from the crowd. But the wearer of the business suit means to identify himself with the crowd, the mob, the profession, by assigning to himself the absence of: color, the flush of life, the threat of passion and mortality. When, years ago, I worked as a cashier in a chain bookstore, the employee handbook instructed me that I was to dress as though I was “an extension of the store itself.” It became clear that by “the store itself,” the manual meant the building, the shelves, the carpeting, and the wallpaper. Not the books.

There is a phenomenon called depersonalization disorder, which occurs in the following circumstances: a child abandoned or abused by their parents, a person subjected to or forced to witness a violent event, a soldier exposed to the frequent stresses and horrors of war. It has several symptoms in common with schizophrenia. The individual may experience the sensation that their limbs are growing to abnormal lengths, or that they are physically detached from their body altogether. The events of the waking world pass by them as if on a movie screen, a fixed recording played out in a fixed order by mechanical means. They may hear babbling voices as they drift off to sleep, and witness gray, humanoid shapes creeping at the corners of their vision.

Another component often associated with the condition is something known as “visual snow,” in which one's field of vision is constantly filled with a kind of noise resembling television static, a randomized wash of pinks, greens, and blues that in the aggregate form a grayish haze. These visual artifacts do not in any way interfere with or block one's ability to see the details of the outside world – they merely fill its blank spaces with a dance of tiny, pointillist watercolors. In the darkness they boil over completely, billowing like clouds of smoke and tumbling like spiderwebs on a breeze, or jellyfish in the ocean.

One's trauma is therefore mitigated with a kind of primal cinema, in which ghostly actors weave a veil of safety between the lost individual and the outside world, with its aggressive colors, its hardness. These bottomless anti-colors and anti-forms are, in essence, a sense memory of the womb, that most senseless and timeless of places. The humanoid figures in the corner of the depersonalized field of vision are formed from this restless blackness, and the figure in the suit mimics these figures. The suit is the color of unconsciousness, of isolation. It is the comforting un-color of absolute helplessness and removal from the outside world.

In a world without suits people would be forced to wear uniforms of a different meaning, or, perhaps more likely, to abandon the use of uniforms altogether. It would become impossible to pretend that the person claiming to take responsibility for your wealth – to whatever extent you have any – was not an individual human being with passions and flaws and labyrinth of dreams their own. In other words, it would be more difficult for them to win your trust. Trust, then, would have to be won entirely by deeds – there would be no generic "business" phenotype in the common currency.

Imagine a world where every office space is filled with people, not in uniform, but wearing their own true selves, where workplaces are not clean and crisp like mirrors or glass voids, but are filled with the objects of the home, with plants and pets and crockery, with the odors of sweet decay. Imagine office spaces that look lived in, where in fact the homeless or outcasts could live at night if they needed to.

Corporate culture has ruled the world for centuries -- but that is how things will look when this era finally meets its end.  It will be a world in which business is conducted without pretense, in full view of reality.

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