So. Somewhat surreally, Vice just published a fashion spread using recreations of famous female writers’ suicides or attempts thereof. (They’ve subsequently pulled the item from their on-line version, with something approaching an apology.)
There are a lot of reasons to hate this piece. Others have already dealt with the sexualization of violence in it, and the complete lack of any mention of the writers’ work or legacy—a depersonalization that contributes to the sexualization mentioned above. (The Jezebel article linked here does display the imagery from the original piece, despite its having been pulled from Vice‘s on-line site.)
When I read it, I immediately thought of the beginning of William Gibson’s 2007 novel Spook Country, second in an informal trilogy begun with Pattern Recognition, and finishing with Zero History. In Spook Country, the protagonist, Hollis Henry, a retired musician-turned-journalist, is doing a piece on ‘locative art‘, and is taken to the street in front of the Viper Room where River Phoenix died in 1993. With virtual reality gear, the scene of Phoenix’s drug-induced heart attack is recreated to the last detail.
When I read Gibson, I often experience the openings to his novels as simultaneously opaque and relentless. He introduces new vocabularies that draw the reader into the worlds he creates and modifies, engaging the reader in a process of decipherment. But, unlike most of his earlier material, this series is set in a world all too (eerily) recognizable. The idea of ‘locative art’ is neither technologically nor conceptually challenging—it was being discussed long before Spook Country was published. Google Glasses have already made this a reality for the reasonably well-off consumer. Still, the opening felt like being shoved out on stage in front of an audience with no understanding of the part I was to play.
I think that what threw me when I first read this book was the unanswered question of why, exactly, this particular scene was the one that introduces locative art in the novel—why it is Phoenix’s death? I have found myself thinking a lot about this since I first read it six years ago, and eventually realized that the commodification of Phoenix as a celebrity, dying in front of the club revived by Johnny Depp (amongst others), allowed a sort of socio-cultural locative ‘fix’ to be established.
Gibson’s entire series ruminates upon this layering of socio-cultural elements—branding, art, ‘cool’—as a sort of meta-GPS. It is the pre-history of the world imagined in Gibson’s cyberpunk novels. Phoenix-as-corpse imbues the spatial coordinates not of 8852 W. Sunset Boulevard, West Hollywood, but of The Viper Room. Of West Hollywood. Of Los Angeles. Places that are more than places. Content that is more than death. ‘Space may be the final frontier, but it’s made in a Hollywood basement’ (Red Hot Chilli Peppers, ‘Californication’).
Vice‘s ‘Last Words’ is utilizing a similar logic, but with neither irony nor reflection. Annette Lamothe-Ramos and Annabel Mehran, the stylist and photographer responsible for this spread, have seized upon the suicides or attempted suicides of Virginia Woolf, Iris Chang, Dorothy Parker, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Sylvia Plath, Sanmao, and Elise Cowen as brands in and of themselves. They rely on our spatio-temporal engagement with these authors’ works, lives and the notions of their legacies to construct a logic of identification.
Our reaction to this is very similar to that of Cayce Pollard, the protagonist in Pattern Recognition, who suffers from a remarkable sort of allergy to branding and corporate symbols. At the beginning of the third chapter, she gives her first clear picture of how labels affect her:
She’s gone to Harvey Nichols and gotten sick.
Should have known better. How she responds to labels. Down into menswear, unrealistically hoping that if anyone might have a Buzz Rickson’s [the only jacket that she will wear] it would be Harvey Nichols, their ornate Victorian pile rising like a coral reef opposite Knightsbridge station… But down here, next to a display of Tommy Hilfiger, it’s all started to go sideways on her, the trademark thing. Less warning aura than usual. Some people ingest a single peanut and their head swells like a basketball. When it happens to Cayce, it’s her psyche. Tommy Hilfiger does it every time, though she’d thought she was safe now. They’d said he’d peaked, in New York. Like Benetton, the name would be around, but the real poison, for her, would have been drawn. It’s something to do with context, here, with not expecting it in London. When it starts, it’s pure reaction, like biting down hard on a piece of foil.
A glance to the right and the avalanche lets go. A mountainside of Tommy coming down in her head. My God, don’t they know? This stuff is simulacra of simulacra of simulacra. A diluted tincture of Ralph Lauren, who had himself diluted the glory days of Brooks Brothers, who themselves had stepped on the product of Jermyn Street and Savile Row, flavouring their ready−to−wear with liberal lashings of polo knit and regimental stripes. But Tommy surely is the null point, the black hole. There must be some Tommy Hilfiger event horizon, beyond which it is impossible to be more derivative, more removed from the source, more devoid of soul. Or so she hopes, and doesn’t know, but suspects in her heart that this in fact is what accounts for his long ubiquity. I was immediately struck by the juxtaposition of both of these elements of Gibson’s series—the locative celebrity death and the brand revulsion—in the context of ‘Last Words’. The purposeful treatment of these women—these people—as if their lives are commodities to be reproduced and branded. (I am tempted to think that this is indeed the ‘Tommy Hilfiger event horizon, beyond which it is impossible to be more derivative, more removed from the source, more devoid of soul’.)
The response to ‘Last Words’ has been a nearly universal ‘Suicide isn’t fashion’. But this is missing the point of what is so troubling about this spread. What is troubling is that the very process being tapped by this deeply misguided piece is at work all the time around us. This is advertising. This is an attempt to draw on our most affective characteristics as human beings to motivate actions apparently far removed from our personal interest or the desire that is being manipulated.
This piece simply did it badly. Its authors were ignorant of the degree to which the fascination and attraction that we feel toward mental illness, depression, suicide and scandal in the lives of artists we love may often be through a sense of identification with those very elements in our own lives. This piece therefore makes a mockery of the entire audience that would have had any understanding of it whatsoever, because it displays nakedly the process that only works if we remain blissfully unaware of it.
There’s a reason that I re-watch Carrington every so often. I know how it ends. I understand it. I respect the artists that brought to life this version of a narrative of her life. I don’t relish her suicide. But it’s part of why I love her work. Part of what attracts me to her story and her art. And yes, I know that people have profited from telling this story. But I’m also aware of a line between this degree of commodification and one that seeks blindly to manipulate or exploit that story.
Obviously, the editorial staff at Vice is not. But, more troubling to me is the fact that it takes an egregious offence like this for us to react to the exact same elements with which we are constantly faced in the advertising world. We have become passive.