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A Power to Persuade

The deeper meaning of glamour.

Mar 29, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 27 • By VIRGINIA POSTREL
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Paris Hilton cannot be glamorous, one astute reader commented, because she “is immediately ‘knowable,’ to the bottom of her (undoubtedly) well-shod toes.” She lacks glamour’s essential mystery, an element Gundle, who pays little attention to the nature of glamour’s illusions, almost completely ignores.

By contrast, for Judith Brown in Glamour in Six Dimensions: Modernism and the Radiance of Form, glamour is all about mystery, distance, and “impenetrability.” An assistant professor of English at Indiana University, Brown sees glamour as a debased, 20th-century form, or “magical remainder” of the 18th-century sublime, with its aesthetic of the “delightful terror” of the overwhelming and infinite. Like that more transcendent quality, she suggests, glamour “moves one out of the material world of demands, responsibilities, and attention to productivity, and into another, more ethereally bound, fleeting, beautiful, and deadly.” And like the fearfulness of the sublime, glamour produces a pleasure born of negative emotions, in this case “the pleasure associated with not having.” Glamour is all about “impossible desire.”

Brown dismisses the moralizing Marxists who see in glamour nothing more than a false and manipulative tool of capitalism: 

Rather than condemning glamour by focusing on its nefarious links to profit-making and political repression, I am interested here in considering glamour beyond good and evil, as a negative aesthetic that courts danger, finds in it powerful creative potential, yet is not entirely subsumed by a political or moral ideology. 

This is a bolder statement than it might initially appear. Brown represents a younger generation of cultural studies scholars who dutifully nod to the politicized theory of their elders but refuse to be limited by it. Even when entwined with commerce, she recognizes, art and desire have purposes and logics of their own. 

More subversively, she is challenging the view—as ancient as Plato and as contemporary as the celebrity muckrakers at TMZ—that glamour is evil, or at least undesirable, because it is illusory. Ours is a culture of full disclosure, which extols frankness, transparency, and self-revelation, all of which destroy the mystery required for glamour. Arguing that glamour is intrinsically neither good nor bad, and may be valuable even though it carries the likelihood of disillusionment, challenges more than just a few academic Marxists.

Brown treats glamour as a phenomenon with “its own recognizable aesthetic that finds its ideal conditions in the clean (synthetic, cold, abstract) lines of high modernism.” This approach leads her sometimes to overemphasize particular “glamorous” styles, disregarding the translucent veil, for instance, in favor of the opaque polished surface. But hers is a much deeper and more psychologically nuanced analysis than Gundle’s glitz-oriented account. (It’s also, unfortunately, more clotted with jargon.) Instead of reveling in celebrity culture, she engages such subtle issues as the relation between glamour and timelessness, stasis, and death.

As a literary scholar, Brown also has an advantage over the visually oriented Gundle. Her close readings of Wallace Stevens, Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Nella Larsen not only connect glamour with modernist literary ideals and forms. They give her access to descriptions of what the experience of glamour feels like from the inside. Thus she writes of the protagonist of The Beautiful and Damned:

When Anthony Patch, one of Fitzgerald’s failed heroes, learns that “desire cheats you,” he refers to a phenomenon we now recognize as the power of glamour: “It’s like a sunbeam skipping here and there about a room. It stops and gilds some inconsequential object, and we poor fools try to grasp it—but when we do the sunbeam moves on to something else, and you’ve got the inconsequential part, but the glitter that made you want it is gone—.” We may demand the sparkling surface, like a cellophane coating, yet what we are able to grasp will be of little consequence. Glamour wields the power to capture its viewers’ attention as if by a spell that fascinates and arrests. .  .  . Transfixed, one gazes at a world of possibility that is foreclosed, inaccessible, yet endlessly alluring.

Glamour, of course, can gild not only inconsequential objects but deeply consequential ones, including political leaders, policies, and ideas. Here, although she never discusses such subjects, Brown’s analysis offers a useful warning: “Glamour did not emerge from human warmth, morals, and the messy emotions that define the everyday,” she writes of Hollywood glamour photography. “Rather, in their place was the coolly aloof and beautifully coiffed personality, hovering over the multiple indignities of life on the ground.” Glamour not only makes things look better than they really are. It also tends to edit out human complexity—including, in the political realm, the complexity of disagreements, of clashing values, of diverse wants, of technological, economic, and moral tradeoffs.

Political figures as glamorous as Obama are rare. But glamorous policy proposals are not. Fitzgerald’s description offers a valuable warning—and one that C-SPAN viewers might keep in mind, whether they rail against political glamour or succumb to it.

Virginia Postrel, author of The Future and Its Enemies and The Substance of Style, edits a group blog at 

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