Bricolage & Pseudo-individuality

Those who do oppose mass culture, such as subcultures, are eventually brought back into line by being incorporated within it. Subcultures may be defined by commodities (and the lack of them), but it is usually by using commodities in a way they were never intended. Although, at first perhaps, the subculture may be revolutionary, differentiating itself from mass culture, eventually it will be assimilated back into the system. The subculture will be turned into a commodity, a style which people can buy. Everything that is Other will either be normalized, by making it familiar or part of mass culture, or exoticized, by making it so strange and romanticized that it becomes an unthreatening fascination.

Especially since the punk movement of the 1970s, Bricolage has been both a way for subcultures to defy the meanings of mass culture, by joining together separate worlds of meaning which somehow contest or resist mass culture conceptions, and a way for commodity culture to appropriate and incorporate subcultural styles. For example, punk culture combined the safety pin with something unsafe.. through the nose or whatever. Punks challenged middle class norms of propriety and violated modernist commandments. However, punk was reappropriated back into mass culture and made a commodified style by combining punk trends into advertising.

The Union Bay ad {toggle on, off} is an insane example of bricolage...Skate culture, dreads, a pierced lip, tattoo (on her back) and retro style (thanks, steve) are all assembled under the name of Union Bay (once it the shirt they are selling??). The meanings attached to each of these semiotic accessories -- the dreads, the pierced lip, the tattoo, the mismatched retro attire (itself minimally composed of seven fashion items) -- have been reincorporated to stand for a style of individuality.

But there is a fundamental difference between the first-order bricoleur and the second-order advertising bricoleur. The first-order bricoleur, stands outside the mainstream culture by virtue of race, class and gender power relations. But unbound by the ideological boundaries of the middle classes, the bricoleur combines things that otherwise "oughtn't" go together. Their bricolage challenges prevailing conceptions of taste. The second-order bricoleur, however, is motivated by the exchange value of images that appear different. The original cultural significance of each stylistic ingredient is lost. Once connected to a subculture which stubbornly resisted or refused the norm, through the effort of counter-bricolage, as seen in this ad, mass culture has been able to pull culturally subversive subcultures back into the commodity system. Ads incorporate signifiers of subculture into commodities to create the idea of individuality, but this same action normalizes and neutralizes the uncommercialized versions of individuality which define a subculture.

In both of these ads, we are sold shirts/companies that really function in the same way, but the meanings injected into them make them seem different. Perhaps when I wear that plain white Gap shirt, I will some how be set aside from the masses, carrying an aura of the exotic, smelling of spices and opium. Or I have the choice of wearing a generically striped shirt and being down with all the latest individual fads.

As well as the illusion of choice, these ads reinstill and remotivate desire. Desire to be individual, to be beautiful, to be hip. But these are desires which can never be fulfilled, which we will forever be occupied in achieving because they are created in the perfect world of adverting. In many ways, Adorno believes that it is this illusion of choice and the generating of unfulfillable desire that keep us as the quieted masses, that keep us from change and revolution. Thus, bricolage helps to fuel this pseudo-individuality that gives us the illusion of choice, feeding our desire to be individual and reincorporating those who do attain individuality back into the system.

written by Jessica Kreutter