‘The thong is centimetres closer to areas of arousal,’ writes Natasha Stagg in Sleeveless: Fashion, Image, Media, New York, 2011–2019, ‘which means it is that much closer to the truth.’ As any millennial who has ever tried to get ‘closer to the truth’ will know, it is not to be found in the places we were brought up to expect. ‘With the naming of call-out culture,’ writes Stagg in a section on internet idiom, ‘we’ve had no choice but to become confused about who tells the truth.’ ‘Without the moral compass of the newspaper,’ she recalls, elsewhere, of an early professional foray into new media, ‘we were all in some horrifying reality show about who is the most credulous at any given moment.’ In the city and the decade that Sleeveless represents, what matters to bloggers, influencers, trolls, aggregators, ‘journalists’ and callers-out is not the truth of facts or of insights, but of traction: likes, forwards, follows, views. Stagg, whose essays, op-eds and fiction of the 2010s the book collects, is personally intimate with this distortion. In the decade that straddled her twenties and thirties, Stagg followed the growth of the internet’s traction-dependent ‘attention economy’ in a day job writing as a branding consultant. There, she wrote for fashion brands, having known and grown tired of the financial struggle of writing, as a journalist and magazine editor, about them.
The atmosphere of disorientation running through Sleeveless’s pages is sustained by two premises, each of which, Stagg contends, have tangled the lines of thought her generation (also my own) once followed as guides to life: the withering of print media, for one, and the marketing-driven impulse underlying everything that replaced it. As Stagg briefly puts it, ‘[o]ur awareness of native advertising, artificial intelligence and data mining has impacted levels of trust in all forms of communication’. Fighting against this awareness, as she less briefly elaborates in essays applying her insights to the dynamics of contemporary fashion media, is a canny and uncompromising ‘comms’ machine. In an analysis of the ‘Micro-Trend’, for instance, Stagg points out that the apparently small overheads of the online influencer’s ‘personal brand’ renders them more trustworthy in the eyes of the media consumer than the online arms of existing print magazines. When readers become wise to the advertorial nature of a given media form, novel means of extracting the attention of those readers must be sought. Stagg’s own relationship to such techniques of consumer deception and control veers between complicity and critique – earnest and admonitory here, coolly defiant there. In an article originally written for Sleek magazine on how the violence of online idiom affects us IRL, Stagg expresses the hope that we might learn to swim through an internet once imagined as water – to ‘surf’, handling its torrents and streams rather than drowning in ‘viral’ clickbait and Trumpian provocation. In another, more circumspect, commission for Sternberg’s edited volume on ‘intersubjectivity’, she unapologetically describes joining the ranks, in the midst of the 2016 Trump campaign, of a data mining app that would ‘use facial recognition to do something’ (what that something might involve, of course, being by-the-by as far as the company’s owner was concerned).
What, you might well ask, is the deal with this author’s politics? If this is the question that comes to mind, perhaps your own idea of ‘politics’ has itself been influenced by the terms of online discourse – a world of poles and binaries (like, dislike; viral, cancelled) that feeds on exposure and forgets no wrong. In social media’s court, a person’s or their avatar’s ‘values’ are seen to reside not in what they fairly consistently do, nor in what they generally claim to believe, but rather in the strength of that consistency itself. Opening Sleeveless is a short narrative piece written from the point of view of a publicist. Its characters, while weary of their own broke-ness, are overheard airing their solemn disappointment at the recent collaboration between an artist famous for critiquing capitalist values and Topshop. Stagg, who gently pities such people, is distinctly unsold on the avoidance of hypocrisy as a metric of respectability. ‘I’m here for the money,’ she declares elsewhere in the collection, ‘since all of publishing is corrupt.’
This scepticism towards the millennial imperative to cultivate consistency punctuates each of the book’s four sections, on ‘Public Relations’, ‘Fashion’, ‘Celebrity’ and ‘Engagement’. Just like the inherently duplicitous ‘spin’ operations that define public relations – and which pervade an increasingly public, social-mediatised existence – so too fashion (examined in Sleeveless as ‘industry’ rather than art) finds itself doomed to hypocrisy if it wishes to stay both woke and financially afloat. Missoni’s zig-zag pussy hats, for example, trade on the emotive symbolics of resistance to patriarchal capital, whilst their luxury branding simultaneously ensures that such novelty objects appeal to those who can pay. ‘It’s past the time’, according to Stagg, ‘we should admit that the fashion world can’t solve political problems.’
In essays on fame and, finally, in sketches of the ‘self’, Stagg turns her argument towards the efforts of self-construction, suggesting that resistance to the influence of marketing here is futile, and denial of such influence tragic. ‘Makeup’, she writes with hot disdain in one of her personal columns, ‘as a thing to be passionate about outwardly.’ We have surely lost all handle on our existence, she argues, when it flies to admit ‘not only that the pressure from a misogynistic and image-obsessed society has flattened you (it has, come on), but that you’d rather become a spokesperson for image-alteration than be called a phoney.’
So Sleeveless and its author work together to reject a paradoxically disingenuous obsession with coherence and authenticity. As the reader moves through the fruits of so many editorial briefs (details of first publication are hard to gauge at first but there, de-muffled, in the endmatter should you wish to check), the author’s voice fragments enough to confound her own consistency of position, but never enough to cleanly divide the fiction from the essays. ‘This, what I’m writing,’ Stagg flags at one point, ‘is a think piece, or an op ed, or a rant, depending on who you ask.’ ‘Maybe it’s a work of fiction,’ she adds, ‘(have we any need for fiction now, when nothing can be proven to be nonfiction?).’ What seems to ground this project of intentional inconsistency is a belief that both politics, and the consistency with which they are performed, diminish in sense as the central chaotic principle of life – at this advanced stage of neoliberal media hegemony – becomes nothing other than desire. Desire so aggressively mediated and intensified as to crush any higher commitments, values or beliefs. Mirroring the role of the thong, which ‘relies on oppositional tugging to assume its preferred shape’, which asks ‘how far one can be pulled in any direction’, Sleeveless makes a case for the inevitable incoherence of the modern desiring subject.
Foremost among the book’s systematic proofs of this necessary contradiction is the vexed millennial dream of the glamorous life. In compromised conditions of earning (the trademark millennial curse), the desire to live according to a certain aesthetic (that, say, of bohemian glamour or ‘radical chic’) requires a baseline of cash that generally can’t be accrued in any manner consistent with that aesthetic, nor with the set of values that aesthetic connotes. Quitting the world of glossies, where an editor’s social life and salary expectation are ‘two parallel lines on a chart, never bending or crossing each other’, Stagg gives up Eames chairs, potted orchids and skylights for a laminate table and a cheap grey loveseat from which to make PowerPoint presentations and a larger amount of money. Asked in a radio interview how she manages to live as a writer of columns with zero constraints on subject matter or length, her answer is simple: ‘I also work in advertising.’ Her belief that fashion, by design, is an elitist game, ‘and therefore will always necessarily be ugly and hypocritical’, expands across the pages of Sleeveless to suggest an entire model of life whereby a person’s political relationship to the world depends less on their beliefs than on what they are able to stomach – the ugliness of actions weighed, in every case, against the ugliness of wardrobes. Fashion may be riven with ugly behaviour, and yet, Stagg concludes, ‘this inability to resolve into some moral right or wrong is what makes it so irresistible.’
This playful genre of fatalism makes for a compelling read, and certainly did around the time of the book’s publication, amid the exhaustion and confusion of the lost decade’s close. For years many had been bored by the pointless hand-wringing that characterised the standard response to Trump, whose rate of scandal-attrition seemed to disable any meaningful critique beyond facile disapproval and frustration. Stagg, by contrast, was interested in the manipulations of desire that had sustained his position of power. In ‘Consulting’ she describes her own inveiglement by The Real Housewives of New York City to sympathise with Trump-supporting women, observing how ‘[r]eality TV, like political campaigning, is all form, all narrative devices. We’re tricked and then tricked again until the only redeemable character is the one everyone started out hating.’ Witnessing yet another housewife’s beautiful apartment building, Stagg is drawn to wonder: ‘if my life got swapped with one of theirs, would I act any differently?’
In banishing romanticised ideas of the self as naturally aligned with any specific values, Stagg depicts a world in which all of human relations, rather than converging around a shared ethics, are reduced to little more than desiring transactions. The world of Sleeveless is constituted by lovers – objects of lust – and instruments – non-love objects who serve as accessories to lust’s eventual fulfilment. The best you can hope for in New York, Stagg suggests, ‘is to make friends who make time for you and who would not disagree when you publicised your closeness.’ In a story on the sharing of scabies, a character believes that she has officially become friends with someone on the grounds of her sexual connection with a person to whom that someone had introduced her – a reflection of how nothing is real until heard or seen. Another story sees a writer extemporise some gushing on the trailblazing originality of an artist’s work (‘not just boundary-breaking, but boundary-re-establishing’) despite knowing nothing of the work beyond its popularity, in the hope that one day the artist will make portraits of her. Stagg’s is a world of babies and daddies in which sexual organs could aptly be imagined as bank accounts to be emptied and filled. Mesmerised, in her personal column, by the economy in which sugar babies are paid for their patrons’ pure pleasure in remitting payments, Stagg observes the mootness of a partner’s financial success when, for the ‘cashdrainers’, ‘[w]hat matters is that there is no partner, only the money itself, an extension of no one, an expression of nothing, only a representation of pure desire entering another.’
Sleeveless harnesses fashion as just one highly visualised iteration of capital’s helpless cycles of being, where a highly produced libidinal charge becomes, itself, the object of lust: ‘We want and we display our wants and we self-flagellate for wanting…. Eventually, the very same impulsive behaviour that fashion inspires is its own icky inspiration.’ Hence Stagg’s belief in the superior epistemic value of the thong as it chafes our desiring nerves. If noble impulses once were held aloft as expressions of political agency, the manufactured desires that stamp these out make any kind of coherent political ‘self’ look like a punchline. As proved by #MeToo, Stagg observes, feelings of aversion to injustice don’t always translate into feelings of desire for its opposite. ‘I wanted to watch the patriarchy go up in flames’, she concedes, ‘but I wasn’t excited about what was being pitched up to replace it.’ In short, she was afraid ‘that guilt would destroy the classics and there’d be no one left to fuck.’ Anyone who has ever loved someone ‘bad’ – someone whose tendencies have courted or afforded them righteous cancellation – will know that one’s desire is often liable to judgement as a kind of politics in and of itself. Those who loved Louis CK’s M.O. when he did it on TV might have given him cause to believe it was attractive in real life, thinks Stagg. ‘It was my fault too’, she goes on – ‘[m]aybe I shouldn’t have loved his comedy’. And yet, she affirms, she did.
Perhaps the most appealing thing about Stagg’s claim to corruption is her lack of apparent interest in forgiveness. Her horizon is ambivalence rather than absolution. Among the prominent essayists of Stagg’s generation are writers such as Anna Wiener and Jia Tolentino, whose consumer choices around how to shop (on Amazon), for what (e.g. luxury spandex accessories to body-optimisation), and with what money (acquired by tutoring rich children or via Silicon Valley bonuses) are presented as guilty confessions whilst also being products of a dubious degree of economic insecurity and an apparent social mandate. Such writers have rightly been criticised for attempting to justify what are, of course, choices via a maneouvre a friend of mine now casually refers to as ‘informed exceptionalism’ – the effort to write oneself out of corrupted alignments by conscientiously demonstrating an ability to comprehend them. Stagg, however, both understands herself and refuses to beg for approval. The difference between Catwoman and Batman, she sees, is ‘the difference between marginal and not’. She understands the forces that have made Catwoman the personal, intimate, manipulative creature she is, but ‘[t]his’, she says, ‘could never save the city. This could only save her.’
Stagg, to a degree, avoids the mistakes of informed exceptionalists by refusing to indulge in their disingenuity. She is both aware of the nefarious provenance of her own desires and willing to announce her informed decision to indulge them nonetheless. Her refusal of simplistic binaries is deft, her wild entanglements with living seductive. ‘Like the devil on one shoulder’, she says of her most-pondered Kardashian, ‘Kim suggests, again, and again, that we might be happier as all visuals and no voice. Give in, she says, to the way the world is.’ Much as you might try, the book tells us, to shape yourself into something less ‘basic’ than the Instagram sellout; still you will find that her skin makes you prickle with envy. Just like the teenage faces of Abercrombie and Fitch who, ‘sexy and blissfully stupid’, resurface for deconstruction from the author’s sartorial youth. Of course this should make for a thrilling read (when is desire not a desirable object of contemplation?) and a tempting immobilisation of guilt. Knowing what she knows about desire’s formation, coupled with the tenuous nature of ‘truth’, Stagg is confident and cool in designating the quest for some kind of ethical correctness as an errand reserved predominantly for fools. We are told that among her circle she mostly avoids the ‘sensitive subjects’ (‘immigration policies or affirmative action or minority representation in the media’). If everyone’s opinions are ‘uninformed’, ‘we may as well not mention any of it’.
Perhaps, in the 2010s, the atmosphere of Stagg’s New York, as in my London, allowed for the sense that it might be acceptable, refreshing even, for the white millennial – often defined as moral agents by our economic ‘marginalisation’ in comparison with boomer parents – to dismiss the usefulness of any kind of moral reckoning with life. ‘I’m lazy,’ Stagg admits when reflecting on her writerly subjects, ‘and look at what’s shown to me, which is a lot of trash, stupidity and attention seeking.’ Of course, that was then. Her admission predates the ‘great unveiling’ effected by a deadly pandemic which has fed on the horrors of racial capitalism, emphasising – even to the laziest of readers – not only the stakes of immigration policy, but the entrenchments of ‘liberal’ racism and economic immiseration too clear to be further ignored. This was before the onset of a mass public reckoning, before André Leon Talley was calling Anna Wintour a ‘colonial broad’. Before Edward Enninful was moved to rebut the jaded line that fashion can have no role in politics, and affirmed to the contrary its unique power to shift imaginations, while calling for the industry’s systemic overhaul. It was also before the backlash against ‘cancel culture’ became so widely synonymous with refusal on the part of certain rich and powerful writers to account for their cruelties and regressive opinions.
In such a situation, the incompleteness of Stagg’s justification for a nihilistic stance on political life – her justification, that is, for choosing to facilitate the problems she critiques as opposed to attempting resistance – is thrown into somewhat sharper relief. Stagg’s impression seems to be that hers is the wisest in a set of bad choices. As though if millennials want to live as we truly want – in a world of beauty and glamour – we must either sacrifice ourselves (as she does) to the judgment of a rampant and indiscriminately moralising online public, or engage in the arduous and intellectually bankrupt project of cultivating an image of well-meaning, if informed, helplessness in the face of those wants. To deny ourselves life’s prizes – its guest lists, luxury clothing and dates with your ‘celebrity crush’– on the grounds of political commitment makes no sense, she seems to imply, since such a life demands that we forgo desire. And what are our desires in this mediated life, where thongs can readily signify ‘truth’, if not the same thing as our commitments?
What seems to be missing here is the acknowledgement that desires are not merely amplified and exploited by the machinations of a digital media beholden to marketing imperatives, but rather are formed by them. Ads and ‘news’ (in its contemporary form) are of course targeted according to existing interests, as well as to the real-time extrapolation of our moods, but are also, in turn, conceived to manipulate and instigate new interests, new moods. Much like the informed exceptionalist’s schtick, which rests on the idea of indomitable forces that mitigate the moral weight of individual actions, Stagg’s reasoning belies a failure to contemplate that individuals, when acting collectively, might be capable of building a world in which desire were mediated by something other than neoliberal capital and its media handmaidens; in which desire had a different set of objects. Might there not remain a worthwhile politics in the attempt to imagine and realise a world in which we might want for something else? In which glamour need not be subtended by ugliness?
Of course, if the exploitation of desires were as inevitable as it sounds here, were desires the product of forces so strong and so basic as to defy any mortal resistance, they wouldn’t have recourse to incisive marketing minds such as Stagg’s to act as their architects and shepherds. Were political agents, rather than exposing venality only to bemoan it as a given, to commit themselves to more emancipatory forms of (ideally collective) action, then it seems reasonable enough to believe that the contours of a desirable career and covetable ‘lifestyle’ might eventually look different from what Stagg as a writer and we, as readers, are currently able to envisage. ‘I’m cynical because of what I study (marketing, celebrity, influence, etc., ugh) but I also study what I do because I’m cynical,’ she comments. Cycles of intent such as this can surely only limit possibility. Stagg thinks of raves, in their former uncommodified state, as comparable to socialism’s dream – ‘too optimistic to come true in one try’. Meaning, too optimistic to come true ever?
In Sleeveless’s final section, the truest to Stagg’s vision of the book as ‘a personal account of a very strange time’, she describes how ‘sometimes depressing shit just piles up and becomes a stack of evenly flat turds’. From this, she finds diversion in online interaction, a debate in which arguments mount in their outrageousness ‘until we see the grotesque and gorgeous avenues the human mind is capable of’. As any wish on Stagg’s part for approval is burned alive by her own design, there does emerge in Sleeveless a darkly gorgeous display of desire in the midst of disillusion and despair. And yet, as a lethal pandemic collides with existing capitalist crises, fast-tracking social schisms that already supervened on the latter, it becomes harder than ever to see the turds as being evenly stacked. Perhaps until the mind is capable of avenues beyond the ideological map that produces all the grime – the city’s bleak plastic, its ‘hot dirty hands’, the even or uneven turds – these avenues will stay, like the lives of those who lead them, forever, in a sense, grotesque.