Picture by A.M. Hanson

GB Does style matter?

NR Style is confusing. On the one hand we tend to think that pursuing style is somewhat trivial or superficial—that there are far better things to do with our time. But on the other hand, we tend to admire people who we think have style. They can dazzle and amaze us and make us wish we could achieve the same. The confusion is also reflected in more basic ways of thinking about style. We tend to think that a person’s style is just their way of doing things. It seems to follow that pretty much everyone has a style, since everyone does things in one way or another. But we also think that style is special or rare—that having a style is an achievement. So does everyone have a style or not? Is style worth pursuing or not?

I think this is where philosophers can help. Whether style matters might be revealed, in part, by making sense of these various strands of thought about it. Maybe we can articulate a notion of style that makes sense of the idea that it’s a worthy pursuit or a kind of achievement. I have published some work arguing that we can (and I’m writing more about the issue). I think that we can appreciate a way in which style matters quite a lot—more than people tend to acknowledge. In fact, I think style is awesome (in a technical sense that I’m developing).

GB It seems to have been written off by a lot of intellectuals as being largely related to social status. Do you think that style still represents social aspirations? Or is it more related to expressing something about our values?

NR I think philosophers and the like have fastened onto the less flattering threads of thought about style—those that suggest it’s trivial, easy to achieve, or all about social status. The issue about social status might confuse style with fashion, but fashion is a whole different beast—one that also tends to be unfairly dismissed by intellectuals. Style is a matter of self-expression, and the means we use to express ourselves stylistically might have little to do with fashion and the fashion world. But I do think style has an important social dimension. In expressing ourselves through style we present ourselves to others and give them an opportunity to notice and respond.

GB Is style an expression of personality?

NR This is a tricky question. Style is self-expression, but which aspect of the self is expressed? A natural thought is that it’s one’s personality. Lots of philosophers of art have held that artistic style is, in some sense, the expression of personality. But I don’t think this can be the whole story about style (for people or art) because it’s just so damn easy to express our personalities. We do it all the time with little effort or interest. So it looks like the idea that style is the expression of personality will have trouble making sense of the thought that style is not easy to come by, that it’s an achievement of some sort, or that it’s attainment is of special interest.

GB Would you say it has more to do with wanting to be loved by others or expressing one’s own self-worth? Is it always somehow linked to biology – to being sexually attractive?

NR The view that I like is that style is the expression of our personal ideals, so style is essentially aspirational. Our ideals articulate features of the self we would be at our best or most excellent, so yeah, I think style has a lot do to with expressing one’s sense of self-worth.

I’m not sure about the connection to sexual attraction. Plato thought that beauty was the object of erôs and style is a beautiful thing—we’re certainly attracted to people whose style calls our attention. But I don’t think the pursuit and reception of style is always sexual. I think it involves a kind of intimacy, a love-like intimacy that is communal and aspirational but not necessarily sexual.

GB Do you think it can be a defence against people seeing our true selves? Perhaps it is constantly changing in subtle ways according to whether we want to attract people or disguise ourselves?

NR I don’t really believe in the notion of a true self, at least as it’s commonly understood. I think we’re complex, incessantly ambivalent, full of conflicting desires and aspirations. The function of our ideals—and so of the stylistic expression of them—is to organize this mess a bit and cultivate aspects of ourselves. I think our style can change in various ways, but that’s more a reflection of our complexity than it is of our deceptiveness. That said, people can exploit the practice of style, and of self-presentation more generally, to mislead others about their cares and concerns, or to get others to do what they want. I call them ‘fake ass people’, and it’s interesting to think about the different types—douchebags, self-effacers, and others.

GB Is the fact that people change their style related to a need for novelty on an aesthetic level – as well as a need for style to serve different purposes? There seems to be a grey area here between needing new things and compulsive consumerism.

NR I think people who pursue style are attentive to new and different means of expression, whether through clothing, interior design, music, or whatever. A threat of consumerism lurks nearby, but I don’t think it’s a strong threat. Or, rather, a strong threat is not internal to the pursuit of style. I think people who have style are as inclined to make something of their own—whether it’s clothing, something for the apartment, art, or whatever—as they are to buy something that someone else made. Also, style isn’t only expressed through materials; it can be expressed primarily and powerfully through demeanor.

I think radical changes in style are really fascinating, and I’m not quite sure what to say about the issue. One of my philosophical heroes, Richard Wollheim, thought that it was really rare for artists to change their artistic style. He thought it happened in art, if ever, only in exceptional circumstances. As he puts in in Painting as an Art, “one artist, one style.” (p. 38) Of course artists can lose their style (as he argues Guercino did when he came under the influence of Classicism), but it’s exceedingly rare that their style radically changes. But when you think about persons, it seems obvious that their style can change quite dramatically. Have you seen those makeover shows where something as simple as a new haircut, or a new way of arranging the furniture, makes a person start uncontrollably crying when they see it? I’m amazed by that, and it suggests that people can come to identify with radically new ways of understanding their style. It suggests that “one person, one style” is not true.

GB We are all inevitably influenced by the visual ideals we’re surrounded by in the media and the arts. Does this play a role in the way we express our own ideals?

NR Absolutely, but I think we have to be careful. Style is a kind of communication with others, and it’s important that what we “say” is intelligible. If you’re too much of an individual, you risk being unintelligible to the wider culture—you risk coming off as a kind of self-promoter, a blow-hard, a fake-ass person, or just wack. But if you’re too deferential to the wider community—too ready to take up its stylistic tropes—then you risk being overlooked or uninteresting. You risk coming off as “lame” or as a bore or wet blanket, as if you’re not really trying to “say” anything at all. In general it’s a real struggle to strike a balance between developing our individuality and being part of a community, but we desire both, so we have to find ways of dealing with that tension.

GB Is spending time being concerned with your own style morally questionable?

NR I think focusing single-mindedly on anything is not the best way to live, though it can produce wonderful results. I’m glad that Beau Brummell is part of cultural history, but he probably suffered in ways that could have been avoided if he hadn’t been so obsessed with style. The same can be said of the saints and martyrs who single-mindedly devote themselves to some conception of “the moral life.”

But on my way of thinking about style—as the expression of ideals—it’s not especially morally questionable. Having moral ideals might even require having style. Imagine that someone at a dinner party does something embarrassing and everyone sees (or hears). Being polite arguably requires you not to laugh or point out the gaffe, even if you kind of want to. So if being polite is among your ideals, then expressing those ideas in this context is a matter of style. And even people who have more robust moral ideals—people who, say, want to be moral saints, or who want to master Aristotelian or Confucian virtue—have style because they strive to be moral exemplars. As exemplars they present themselves as that which they exemplify—as those who live by moral ideals of, say, simplicity, austerity, or modesty. Just think of those Thai forest monks and their saffron robes and calm demeanor. Such considerations make me think that style is at least compatible with morality and might even be required by it.

GB Monks and nuns wear the same thing every day. Could you ever choose a uniform for life, like the Steve Jobs black turtle-neck and jeans? If so, what would it be?

NR I would get so bored by a uniform, especially the ones that we associate with Jobs or Zuckerberg or President Obama (though I think I understand their reasons for dressing like that). Some days my skater side is calling out; other days it’s my academic side, or something else. It would be easier to always wear one color, like all black or shades of grey. There’s a woman in my old neighborhood (Carrol Gardens, Brooklyn) who always wears lime green everything. It’s a little weird but mostly rad. But if I had to choose something I could wear every day, then it would be blue or grey raw denim, black lace-up boots, and a simple collared shirt made of some interesting fabric. I’d roll up the sleeves and cuff the pants, or maybe peg them, which I’ve been doing lately—tapping into my ten-year-old ‘90s self.

Read more by Nick Riggle on style here.


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