fifth column

Notes on Normcore

By Benedict Seymour, 29 May 2014
Image: New ambivalence? Normcore as the return of the normal, with added exchange value

Written in a (normcore-appropriate) low fever, reading these notes over they seem mad enough to make some sense. A response to the great Tom Frank's analysis of normcore, and matters arising


At a certain point reflation tips into deflation. 'Normcore' is radically ambivalent. On one hand it's a simple technique for adding exchange value to mainstream use values, shifting units in a tenuous (and jobless) 'recovery'. This is how it will work for certain items  or *genres* of item nominated, Duchamp style, for subsumption under the term. On the other, the speculative trend consultants have seized on something real, or possibly real, or a real possibility. Normcore may be fictitious, but as such it is performative. A retroactive manifesto for (enclosing) an anti-fashion tactic, a way of owning a set of tactics for not being owned, or not caring, of refusing fashion, or of dodging the depreciation OF fashion (under oligarchic demand? the nouveau riche devaluation requires some counter-measures?). Either way, it's the capture of a set of dodges whether these are conceived as snobbish and dandy-like or more unconscious, a slackening of aesthetic strictures for one reason or another.

The phenomenon of 'normcore' is as exceptional as what it claims to name, the whole thing as recursive as a derivative. Just positing price produces - or at least shifts - value. Trend nomination is performative, if it works at all. The main thing is to have a formula, a schtick to get you into the market - as any trendspotter or (other) speculator knows. Go long on cargo shorts.

But normcore may also be the harbinger of a singularity, a black swan song for the current metastable nightmare of austerity+reflation. Its ambivalence as a bundle of tics, as the gentrification of the (disappearing) middle, speaks to the general conditions, wherein one cannot say if things are going up or down, or both at once. Implosion as the symbolic form of polarisation.

Does normcore gentrify, elevate the middle, flip the bland into the exalted status of fashion's found but 'sublime objects'? If so, normcore is like denominating your terraced semi in East Ham a warehouse. Why not? We are in the (post)hipster zone, the magic circle where formerly punk or outsider styles got transvalued is now reserved for the beatification of the mainstream itself. Where once the shock was the shit turning to gold, the toxic waste of the system, translated to style heaven, today, post-austerity, the last shock is the shock of the bland. A bland shock, a fashion Volker, sudden deflation by ambiguous elevation (and vice versa).

For nomcore creates, thrives upon, ambivalence, and it echoes ambivalence. A state of exception in style and price, it is an unclarity over whether the wearer is falling or rising, disguising wealth by slumming or papering over a crisis by repositioning straitened circumstances AS style.

Is it 1% fear of revenge from below, a preemptive abasement, or a further twist of the knife, a refined form of condescencion? Is it looting the last vestige of latency, a sucking in of anti-fashion and anti-oligarch tactics or simply the rich hedging their bets? Isn't every celebrity nipping out for a carton of milk in mundane mufti a proto-normcore figure? And as such, isn't this a new way of signalling distinction - at the price of a certain loss of distinctness?

Either way it requires a sharpening of the eyes to discern whether one is observing a dandy's act of gentrification or one of the preterite in their absolutely unironic routine plumage. As Frank suggests, it could be read as a (high) society adopting or extending existing forms of wealth-camouflage, of camouflage as a sign of wealth. Normcore as a cognate of the black windowed limo, a harbinger of polarisation, caught in a historically novel variant on the old dialectic of less-as-more. (One also remembers the meme-like trends from other parts of the dis-integrating market, such as the New Aesthetic, speculative realism, and accelerationism. The most rapidly replicating ideological forms of our time are all essentially speculative, leveraged, arms-length, liens on a conception which no one exactly stands behind but which make the market happen, gets you into the game, raises your (brand) value.) 

The following are initial thoughts, a swirl coinciding with the ambivalent victories of the right in the EU elections; call it magical positivism, but could these trends by any chance be connected? Correlation is not causation, but it may be a condition, and even, sometimes, as in 2008, the trigger for a collapse.


'The symbolic poles of our world have been completely reversed, and it is time we recognized it.' (Thomas Frank)

Is to be middle class, or to remain able to dream of becoming so, the last revolutionary drive?

Normcore as the simulacrum (from above) of the vanishing middle, the oligarcho-aristo-creative's objectification of what is objectively vanishing? Normcore as dressing-up-as-shepherds-style pre-revolutionary elite condescension. Or post-Occupy spasm - of shame and appropriation? A fashion derivative, a spread, various forms of insurance at once, a mugging against being mugged, a dressing down in defensive anticipation of a further attack.  Or as proof of the failure of the last assault? Apotropaic? Sort of crowing, a smug assimilation of the last uprising?. Mimetic psychosis combined with overweening confidence in the power to assimilate and transmogrify?

One thinks of Rameau's nephew (a dandy who could nominate and gentrify the merest bit of life into art, the first conceptualist or estate agent) at the end of his spiral. The sovereign decision on what is cool and what is not taken to its ultimate conclusion? An inversion of quantity into quality or vice versa - the endgame of culture, couture, the reproduction of the classes? In short, normcore as the harbinger of class appearing nakedly as a polar relation of haves and have nots.

The last selfie of the global post-bourgeoisie...


Normcore is what happens after the final dregs of the punk negativity/self-fabrication process have been rinsed out x 1000, when the latest in diffuse negation coincides with a simple and unconscious affirmation. The short circuiting of pragmatism and style. The end of the Bourdieuan cycle of distinction, in that this valuable anti-value takes the form of the simply functional and (for the remaining middle) already valued.

The last value, the utopia of the normal?

The dialectic of post-war fashion's expiration coincides with the end of the pseudo-conflict between left and right, with the normalisation of the right from Palin to Farage and the general rightward trend of the centre, the establishment of a kind of homogenous naffness or continuum of the historically inert, a pan-reactionary politics. The truth as ever is out there, all over us. Normcore posthipsters, softmodernist styleless apartment blocks, swathes of cack housing planned for the frackable home counties, James Heartfield telling us we have to believe in the transformative power of volume housebuilding or the radical aspects of a massive vote for border control and national self-determination (tho tis true there are good commie arguments for despising the EU). Normcore just is so now, so absolutely the state of things, the state of stunned dumb inertia, of implosion 3.0. It's the UCU of fashion, the british left (and right) of sartorial dialectic, the undead parallel of all the other forms of indifference; the hedging and heterogeneity of peckham harlequins in a state of terminal realism, adapted to future prospects of un/employment, seeking oligarchic sponsors but not wanting to offend residual welfare state funders, keeping all options open, spouting Marx and playing the networking game, hunting for a monastery with wifi, sanctuary with significant opportunities for expansion. Normcore is what the age demanded. One could go on indefinitely, indifferently. Writing this in a state of actually existing nausea, but in fact the 'writing down' of fashion, as of politics, is also emancipatory. (Re writing down, are not stats a form of normcore, a kind of collapse of high and low into a vacuous middle? And have you noticed how, in a condition of global mediocrity, everything is always about 40% - the UCU turn out of which 50% didn't want to not mark papers, the EU vote, the percentage of my own disgust regarding all of the above; 25% of 40% - the stats are normcore botches, the centre is racist and homophobic but on the other hand no one is central any more)... The end of dressing up - which has been announced before with the grunge moment in the pit of the precursor early 90s' recession, could also indicate the end of any necessary uniform for negation. A rampant negativity liberated from style; pace Theorie Communiste and contra John Waters, why not the end of needing an outfit in which to revolt, along with the end of any specific party of revolt? What if revolt were to become as normal as normcore, the value form hipsters and the masses to merge in a post-middle of melée, a continuum of noes that melts the erstwhile poles (just as the poles are melting away and the year has become one universal season, a grey or green winter)? The end of the 'social critique and the aesthetic critique' as a simple real movement against everything existing is something everyone would look good in. What if the content went beyond the phrase at last, not just a get up but an outburst - an *activity* -so ecstatic it marked the dissolution of the whole? Surely the revolution wont be about a new set of signs, but rather the complete transformation of all relations? In this sense the bland convergence of normcore could be subject to its own dialectical involution, could be turned inside out and made to manifest its silver if logo-less lining? It could be the premonition of that condition 'exactly the same but just a little different' Benjamin speaks of. This hedging of bets could be advanced notice of a systemic convulsion. The votes in the elections of the world can be read as a sad rightward motion, irreversible, all conquering, but it's also the political sign of the bankruptcy of the reigning representational systems, the political registration of the obsolescence of the political, of the unfixability of all economic problems, of all problems tout court, within capitalism. And the next set of crises is just waiting to break, the interest rates are beginning to strain at the leash, the growth rates to totter. Perhaps beyond normcore is another normal altogether, an aberration devoutly to be wished.....


'The urgent need of our age is not individual self-actualization or even a really innovative artisanal cocktail; it is to hold on to that middle-class society the counterculture thought was so soulless and unfulfilling. All the signifiers have changed. Today corporate managers routinely declare themselves to be disruptive and revolutionary fellows, while average, uncool workers fight desperately to hang on to their pensions and healthcare benefits. The symbolic poles of our world have been completely reversed, and it is time we recognized it: flat-accented Wisconsinites and dowdy suburban moms and mulleted union guys, all of them watching their world fall apart, often show a kind of bravery these days that is far more transgressive than anything you will see at Fashion Week this year. Or ever.