Consuming to Grieve, Consuming to Provoke: Thoughts on Tragic Product

In the age of social media and mass-consumerism, we interact with tragedy in interesting ways, and there are arguably consumptive elements to some of these interactions. I view a lot of the behaviours we engage in on social media as consumptive practices. In many ways, your Facebook profile is a mannequin on which you can pin certain decorative features and characteristics, and as you post about certain topics or share images, you are consuming those things just as much as you are broadcasting them.

Sharing a news story, posting a meme, political statuses and so on; these actions are just as much about attaching their meanings to our own identities as they are about spreading the message itself. Before moving forward, I should clarify that my analysis of some of these behaviours shouldn’t be interpreted as a criticism of the people who enact them or me questioning their intentions. I am simply interested in the mechanisms of grief and trauma and the way we, as a consumer society, manifest these emotions in different ways, or even consume tragic events long after the event itself.

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In the aftermath of particular terror attacks, such as the attacks in Paris in 2015 or the 2016 shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, people placed translucent symbols of solidarity over their profile photos; the French tricolor or the LGBT rainbow flag, respectively. People around the world were rightly shocked and in trauma about these events, and wanted some means of broadcasting their grief to those around them. These decorations provide a means of aligning ourselves with causes, signaling our solidarity with particular groups of people and placing ourselves within a broader, global dialogue.

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Something similar can be observed with product releases that are released in the aftermath of tragedies or in support of certain causes. After Japan was hit by a tsunami that displaced over 200 000 people and claimed almost 16 000 lives in 2011, a number of streetwear brands released limited edition product with proceeds being donated to relief efforts. Notable examples include Supreme’s ‘rising sun’ box logo t-shirt as well as t-shirts by the likes of WTaps, Neighborhood, Stüssy and Bape. Likewise, Noah’s recent ‘Black Lives Matter’ t-shirt, donating proceeds to the official BLM movement, is an example of aligning people’s political beliefs with their consumptive practices to benefit a worthy  cause.

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These are examples of positive consumption; using people’s eagerness to align themselves visually with the causes they support to generate support, promote solidarity and, in some cases, raise money that will go to those causes. There are other moments, however, where our consumption of tragedy takes a different form, and I sometimes wonder if they aren’t two sides of the same coin.

Heaven’s Gate was a religious cult founded by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles in the 1970s. Underscored by the two friends’ fascination with science-fiction and extraterrestrials, the cult was underscored by a belief that planet Earth was a quasi-limbo designed for the harvesting of souls and that all human constructs beyond the soul itself — sexuality, gender, family, name, job, and so on — were meaningless. Members referred to their bodies as “vehicles” and committed themselves entirely to the Heaven’s Gate cause.

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Fundamental to the system that Applewhite constructed was the belief that Earth would eventually be wiped clean, and that the only way to survive this erasure was by escaping the planet. In 1995, two amateur astronomers discovered the Hale-Bopp comet, garnering heavy attention in mainstream media. Over the next 18 months the comet would gradually brighten, at some points even becoming visible to the naked eye. Applewhite argued that the comet was being closely followed by a spacecraft intended to take the congregation on to the “Next Level”; that they should prepare to “exit” their vehicles.

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On March 26th, 1997, 38 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult committed mass suicide in a rented mansion in an upmarket neighbourhood of San Diego by drinking apple sauce mixed with phenobarbital, before asphyxiating themselves with plastic bags tied over their heads. Each member followed a strict protocol in order to insure acceptance onto the spacecraft. When their bodies were eventually discovered by the police, each person wore black sweatpants with a five-dollar bill and three quarters in their pocket, identical black shirts with an embroidered “Heaven’s Gate: Away Team” badge on the sleeve, a large purple shroud which covered their faces and torsos, and a specific pair of Nike Decades running shoes.

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Though the incident understandably received a lot of media coverage, there was a particular fascination with the shoes. The shoes corresponded with the color scheme of the rest of the uniform, and some have posited that Applewhite believed the Nike ‘swoosh’ as resembling a comet. As one might expect, Nike were less than delighted with having their brand name associated with  a mass-suicide. The shoes were pulled from shelves and, to my knowledge, have never been re-released.

A few years later, during the Dunk craze of the early 2000s, images surfaced of a sample Nike Dunk High SB in a familiar colour way; black body, white swoosh, with some panels around the heel and lace eyelets in a familiar shade of purple. They were quickly nicknamed the ‘Un-Heaven’s Gate’ Dunks and never saw a full release. This hasn’t stopped them, however, from becoming one of the most coveted Dunk colourways among collectors.

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It was this which got me thinking about our relationships with grief, tragedy and trauma, both as individuals and as consumers. Just as there are traumatic events which generate global solidarity and outpourings of grief, there are similar tragedies which carry a certain kind of controversy or “edge” that makes them appealing to consumers not as causes to be supported or opposed, but as controversial events to be consumed in and of themselves.

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The allure of the Heaven’s Gate Dunks lies not in any particular aesthetic or stylistic aspect of the shoe itself. It is built to the same silhouette as any other SB Dunk, and its colourway is relatively bland compared to some of the more exciting sneaker releases out there. Their appeal is directly related to their association — implicit, inferred or merely interpreted —with a tragic and morbid event; one which claimed dozens of innocent lives. Not only that, if we interpret that Dunk colourway as more than an unfortunate coincidence, that same notoriety that Nike initially distanced themselves from, was then exploited to create hype around a sneaker release — whether the shoe was ever intended to be released or not.

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The same could be inferred from other products; t-shirts with pictures of Charles Manson; skull graphics that bear more than a passing resemblance to the SS-Totenkopf symbol; Western fashion’s current fascination with Soviet Union symbology, a topic which I’ve already written about at length. The same could be argued for streetwear military designs that channel imagery from the Vietnam War, or Nike’s well-documented release of merchandise featuring ambiguous phrases that could be attributed as quickly with gang culture as they could with sports.

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In his book ‘The Man in the High Castle’, Philip K Dick shares an alternative history of the second World War in which the Allied Forces lose to the Axis and the conquered United States is divided in two, controlled by Japan on the West Coast and Germany on East. Part-fact, part-science fiction, though the book’s central “what if?” storyline is pretty straightforward, the broader concepts and queries that it explores arguably make for more interesting discussion.

In this alternate universe where the bomb was never dropped on Hiroshima, Japan has colonised the western coast of America, subjugating the American population who have become second-class citizens, their culture erased and slowly vanishing. American culture endures, however, in antique shops, where wealthy Japanese businessmen collect trinkets of Americana, romanticised relics of a bygone nation, not unlike present-day America’s own fascination with Native American culture.

At one point in the novel, we learn how items associated with significant moments in American history sell for a higher price. As a result, items which carry this “historicity” are highly sought after, leading to the propagation of fakes. There is a desire for physical product to be adorned with the intangible concept of its attachment to American history itself; for its authenticity to be made more authentic. But the supposed significance of an item through its association to a fleeting moment or use — the gun used to shoot Lincoln; a lighter once used by FDR — is itself a human construct; a fabrication. Through this interplay of real, fake, significant and mundane product, much of it mass-produced, Dick poses interesting questions about what it is about items and their proximity to particular moments that grants them a greater “authenticity”. It’s worth noting that at one point in the book, a fake is identified not through physical characteristics or tell-tale signs, but its distinct lack of “historicity”. It simply didn’t feel significant.

Perhaps we are also looking for products with some sort of historicity. We like to believe that t-shirts, hoodies, sneakers or any other consumer good has a greater significance than being a product that we have purchased. We see the way people engage with tragedy — with sincere and commendable intentions — and understand that these events carry a certain importance. Then there are more notorious symbols that are consumed not out of some emotional attachment or desire to effect change, but through a morbid curiosity with the notorious historicity of the event itself. Our consumptive practices interact with significant events in both good and bad ways, and I’m interested in understanding how these behaviours diverge.

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It would be easy enough to simply say it’s because certain events are, for one reason or another, “edgy”. Charles Manson is a pop culture figure. Religious cults carry this strange sensation of the familiar (religion) made other. The idea of a mass-produced, indiscriminately-sold product like a running shoe becoming a symbol of 38 particular deaths transforms it from Fordist product into cultural artefact. But where do we draw the line between tragic and edgy? How do we better understand the weight that we carry with each purchase? What are we saying when we consume certain tragedies as events of global mourning or solidarity, and others as a means of standing out from the crowd; as statements of individualism; as an opportunity to shock or provoke?

This is a complex and oft-confusing conversation, and I understand that I’ve probably not shed much light with this piece. I’ve been weighing up different ideas in my head for about six months now, and plan to return to this again. Feel free to get in touch and let me know your thoughts.

Read also:
Timeliness/Timelessness — My Problem with Gosha Rubchinskiy

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