British novelist David Lodge wrote of a parlour game called Humiliation, which made its first appearance in his 1975 novel, Changing Places, a satire about the pretensions of “knowing.” The protagonists, university professors participating in an academic exchange program, are required to confess the books they’ve not read. One academic admits to never having read Hamlet, ultimately winning the game (and losing his job); Lodge himself confesses to Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Hugely entertaining, and with an enduring legacy, Humiliation has become a popular game at dinner parties in the middle-class, college-educated consciousness. But the game speaks to a universal truth, and a brutal one at that: everyone has the capacity to experience humiliation. That hot, flushed feeling arrives without notice, like an unpleasant dinner guest, and we are all vulnerable to its wrath.
Jimmy Kimmel knows humiliation, too: as an ecumenical abuser, and an emotional equalizer. Plus, it makes great television. His “Lie Witness News” segment is either a light-hearted jab at human folly, or a searing indictment of the American education system. These short clips typically feature unwitting people pulled at random from a crowd, who are then presented with a series of questions regarding quasi-apocalyptic events: alien invasions, the return of Godzilla, the ascent of Justin Bieber, that sort of stuff. It warrants a call to Congress. Despite the fictitious nature of the interview, there are people prepared to talk at length about nothing in particular. This year Kimmel returned to Lincoln Centre at the tail end of New York Fashion Week to interview the guests. These people, swathed in all sorts of gratuitous garb, were eager to discuss obscure fashion designers (so obscure, in fact, that they don’t even exist). Mentioned on this year’s roster were sitcom personality Chandler Bing, plush toy Teddy Ruxpin, and Supreme Court judge Antonin Scalia.
It no longer seems enough to read books—the capacity to talk about them, to near author’s authority, has elevated to the same status. So, too, have other forms of creative participation, including music, film, and art. Consider the indignant furore surrounding band shirts, the people who wear them, and the question of sincere fanaticism. What struck me most about Kimmel’s clip, however, is the enchanted sense of superiority that surrounds “fashion”: that carefully cultivated, curated manner of being able to understand, and justify, fashion as separate from clothing, to ennoble something so average and everyday to an exclusive art form. “My name is Dr. Courtney A. Hammons,” coos the first guest, dressed in a patterned suit and wide-rimmed tortoiseshell glasses. It prompts wonder over whether “Dr.” is a formal designation, or a self-made, stylised moniker. “And I’m here for fashion week,” he declares, proudly. Another guest, with a pompadour, a feat of top-head topiary and German haircare engineering, seems equally oblivious: “Very stylish, very elegant,” he says of Bartles and Jaymes’ (a beverage company) collection. Later, when he tries on Kimmel’s headless dress, he admits that it feels like being suffocated.
It’s a familiar feeling. We pretend to know the things we are “supposed” to know because through some tenuous commitment and investment it seems appropriate. We nod along nervously, hoping that nobody calls our bluff. We hate to lose: face, composure, our cool. Fashion, to the elitist, demands an absolute allegiance—love everything, know everything, without qualm and question. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu knew all too well the difficulties of navigating a society reliant on this exhausting system of strategy. In his seminal work, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Bourdieu proposes that taste—far from a unique and personal affair—is powered by our ability to mobilise cultural capital. In a study throughout the 1960s and 1970s, he and his researchers interviewed over a thousand people, posing such questions as, “Given the following subjects, is a photographer more likely to produce a beautiful, interesting, meaningless or ugly photo?” He offered a selection of classically photogenic subjects (a landscape, a pregnant woman, still life) and, then, more jarring options (a butcher’s stall, a car crash). The responses, he found, showed that taste was closely linked to certain defining measures of social class, including our profession and highest degree.
Most interesting about Bourdieu’s research is his focus on audience participation. Of film, he wrote that fans of theatre and cinema more easily identified with plots that proceeded logically and chronologically toward a happy ending: “The desire to enter the game, identify with the characters’ joys and sufferings, worrying about their fate, espousing their hopes and ideas, living their life, is based on a form of investment.” If the content was not only approachable, but accessible, it held a greater chance of audience reception. In regard to photography, respondents rejected that idea that photography, however artful, could have universal appeal—there were only certain subjects that were “presentable,” and, therefore, “entitled to demand admiration.” What was it about seemingly complex, aggressive film and photography that made people feel alienated from the subject matter? Bourdieu considered the simple fact that not everyone had the same opportunities to engage with so-called high culture; more telling, though, was that seemingly aimless art claimed its fame by its very aloof nature. “Not knowing what the ‘intention’ is, they [the respondents] feel incapable of distinguishing a tour de force from clumsiness, telling a ‘sincere’ formal device from cynical imposture,” Bourdieu wrote.
And there, I think, is where Jimmy Kimmel derives all his jitter and joy. He can smell the desperation on some of these people. He can sense how much they want to participate. They are aware of the precariousness of their position, and want so, so badly to “understand” and “know” fashion—the fashion that’s raw, ready, and still warm from the models’ backs. But there is no shame in simply not knowing, as Bourdieu, who denounced the accumulation of gratuitous knowledge (modern translation: obnoxious name-dropping), would agree. Suzy Menkes, International Vogue editor, once asked, “If fashion is for everyone, is it fashion?” And is it? If fashion is clothing and creation, together with the opportunity for inspired encounters with the art (through, say, runway shows at Lincoln Centre), then yes, it’s for everyone. It need not make sense to everyone. And it need not strike everyone’s soul with the same fire and music. But to pretend, for cameras, for a fleeting sense of self-importance, is hardly worth the humiliation.