September 23rd, 2005


Sharks, skulls and coke

The sneering skull snorts a huge line of coke into her broken nose then turns to you. "I'm going to kill you," she growls.

That's a reductio ad absurdum of the iconography I pick up from a single edition of sharky UK style magazine Dazed and Confused, a magazine which recycles fashion-punk attitude endlessly. Publisher: Jefferson Hack, ex-partner of Kate Moss, the model currently forced into a big public mea culpa over her coke habit. (Personally, I'm with Tracey Emin on the issue. Coke sucks.)

I call this "sharky style", and the West is full of it. It's how we picture ourselves. We have sharky cars, sharky watches, sharky bands, sharky sports stars, sharky buildings, sharky white teeth (even when sharky tobacco companies are selling us cigarettes that first yellow our teeth then leave us dead in the water, static in a cloud of blood). They're all fit, these sharks, in the Darwinian sense. They kill their competitors. They're likely to kill you too... unless you can make yourself look and act like them!

The reasons the sharky style attitude (sneers, skulls, coke, killing) is so prevalent in the West (and just how much further can it go? Style mags filled entirely with bloody-toothed sharks? What if sharks become extinct and look like losers?) are various:

1. It's cool to kill: Yeeh-hah! It's very hard, confronted by someone who's threatening to kill you, to assert that they're trivial or uncool or a loser, just as it's hard not to admire an actor waving a pistol in a Hollywood poster. A sneer, a threat or a pistol transforms a model or an actor instantly from a passive, plaintive object, vulnerable and desperate for our approval, to a powerful subject, indifferent to our cries for mercy, not only genetically superior to us (and therefore more fit to reproduce) but on the verge, here and now, of snuffing out our DNA with a single shot to the head.

2. Empowerment: A woman can never be a sexual object when she's about to kill you, even if she's naked. A working class or black youth never looks like a sad victim, ready for a visit from a social worker, if he's pointing a gun at your head. Violent imagery is empowerment, innit? Like those killer-girls in "Baise Moi!", women too can be rapist-murderers, and all's right with the world! Instant justice from the barrel of a gun! A level swimming pool for all sharks, regardless of race, colour, gender or creed!

Actors, models and musicians are, of course, all a bit gay and girly to be "just about to snuff out our DNA". But it's the nerd's revenge, isn't it? No wonder it takes its inspiration from punk; who could be more nerdy than Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious? I mean, they were more like minnows than sharks, weren't they? Yet one of them, sharked up by drugs, turned out to be a real killer.

3. Drugs as a metaphor for consumerism: That great long line of coke the skull is snorting... it's a metaphor for the addictiveness of the consumer end of capitalism, just as the skull is a metaphor for the murderousness of the producer end of capitalism. You're not supposed to enjoy consumer societies. That would lead to widespread epicureanism, to wholesomeness, to health. No, plethora is supposed to lead to addiction, to guilty pleasures, to sin, to death. At the production end, well, if you get in the way of the producers you'll be disposed of, your body dumped in a quarry in Columbia. One human life doesn't matter much, my friend. If you're at the consumption end, your duty is to get addicted to the product, to buy it reliably, and to die promptly, without placing too much strain on the social health network of your state (if it has one).

And meanwhile, your style sharkiness is just for show because it's a metaphor for the real sharks, the ones on the floor of the brokerage, the ones in business suits, the ones with the power for which "empowerment" is a mere metaphor, a bit of fancy dress. Yes, the middle-aged, balding men in suits are the real sharks. They don't look like sharks themselves, though. They look more like elderly pigs or walruses.

"Dazed and Confused has found innovative ways to present brands to a uniquely influential readership that demands to be addressed on its own terms," waffles the Dazed and Confused press-pack. "Dazed has translated the following blue chip brands for the style audience: Coca Cola, Nike, Evian, Converse, Motorola, Canon, Hilfiger, Tiger Beer, Topshop... to name only a few."

"Demands, translated". The "style subculture" who read Dazed speak a different language from the language of capitalism (or at least some heavily-accented dialect) and therefore "demand translation". Once translation occurs (largely a process in which dominant values become visual metaphors in the subculture, because the subculture doesn't tend to read much), the basic concepts of the mainstream culture can appear, quite unchallenged, in the subculture.

The thing that interests me is this: not all social systems model themselves on Darwinism, and not all style mags require everybody to look and act like a shark. In fact, it sometimes seems like only the Anglo-American model does these things. There is nothing inherent in systems of production that demands shark-like imagery, or "empowerment" through skulls, sharks, and snorting.

Yes, you guessed it, I'm about to tell you that Japanese magazines have peaceful nature imagery, and unashamedly feminine women (the women of the future!) and reassuring pictures of cakes and cafes instead of skulls, sneers, and coke. That Japanese capitalism seems to be a production system with less viciousness and vulgarity than any other. Well, not quite. I'm going to show you.