Vanity Fair’s “Best Dressed” includes

Lady Gaga, as pictured here:

(This is only our fifth post mentioning her, and we are not  obsessed!))

Well, why not?  It’s hard to make sense of selecting her unless dressing well includes wearing uncomfortable clothes to attract a great deal of attention.

This outcome seems to me connected with David Brooks’ latest column in the NY Times.  “A Case of Mental Courage” starts with a description of Fanny Burney recounting  her breast surgery, without anaesthetic.  But it is actually about an ethos of self-discipline, which he thinks we have lost.  He also takes this to be the source of a lot of obvious problems today:

She lived at a time when people were more conscious of the fallen nature of men and women. People were held to be inherently sinful, and to be a decent person one had to struggle against one’s weakness.

In the mental sphere, this meant conquering mental laziness with arduous and sometimes numbingly boring lessons. It meant conquering frivolity by sitting through earnest sermons and speeches. It meant conquering self- approval by staring straight at what was painful.

This emphasis on mental character lasted for a time, but it has abated. There’s less talk of sin and frailty these days.** Capitalism has also undermined this ethos. In the media competition for eyeballs, everyone is rewarded for producing enjoyable and affirming content. Output is measured by ratings and page views, so much of the media, and even the academy, is more geared toward pleasuring consumers, not putting them on some arduous character-building regime.

There’s an obvious connection between his comments and the appearance of Lady Gaga on VF’s best dressed list.  But I wonder if there is not also a less obvious one.  That is, one factor in the loss of the culture of self-discipline may well involve a loss of generational leadership in the early 60’s.  You couldn’t trust people who were horrified at, for example, the Beattles’ hair or Elvis’s wiggle, while so many thousands were being killed for the sake of democracy in South East Asia.

There are many other factors, of course, with capitalism being a large one.  But for university teachers, the question of generational authority is a major one.  And now we have the capitalists substituting their goals for ours in educational institutions.

So maybe I’ll lay off any problems with Lady Gaga.   

What do you think?


**As aside:  it seems to me there’s a lot of talk of sins, but they are conveniently others’ sins.

2 thoughts on “Vanity Fair’s “Best Dressed” includes

  1. On Lady Gaga: I know a lot of people focus on her as an example of media-constructed feminine sexuality (if that clunky phrase is what I really want–Nancy Bauer manages much better with English), but she’s also interesting for anyone who has a non-sexual interest in costuming. I have been experimenting with attempts to build her telephone hat out of origami (Sonobe units, for anybody else who likes modular origami). So I guess I consider her well-dressed enough to imitate her hats. That lightning hat above also strikes me as kind of awesome, though impractical.

    On self-discipline: Maybe we should distinguish between meaningful self-discipline in pursuit of some end, and self-flagellation for its own sake. It’s hard to get good at anything intrinsically rewarding without doing a lot of boring exercises, but I don’t see the point of treating the boring exercises as intrinsically valuable.

  2. I agree about NB’s prose and I want to think about Lady Gaga and origami. I do conditionally disagree with you about self-discipline that is not in the pursuit of a known goal. Meditation might be seen as in part about self-discipline and, like a lot of religious exercises in self-discipline, it’s suppose to re-orient one’s sense of what’s really important. There are things that make one stronger, I think, in reasonable amounts. E.g., learning to delay gratification. One might practice not giving into the wants well stirred up by commercials and be rewarded by having a life less jerked about. (Maybe that’s goal-directed, as also detaching from the internet might be, or trying those experiments we mentioned a while ago, such as picking 6 items only to wear for a month.)

    My reservations have to do with the fact that a lot of our lore about self-discipline is connected to beliefs that we are not fully material. I think read recently that there’s some evidence that one’s capacity for self-discipline is actually limited and can be expended on relatively unimportant things; this sort of thought gets more of a grip if one thinks one is dealing with finite amounts of energy, systems that will stop responding, etc. There’s another question about whether self-discipline in one area transfers over to another. I don’t know. I’d guess that learning to delay gratification (as most academics do since we pursue longer term goals) in one area transfers to another, but I wouldn’t be that none of us are impulse buyers.

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