Labels & Letting Them Wash Over You (Gibson’s Pattern Recognition & Aesthetic Groups)

I’ve recently re-read William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition as his new book Zero History concludes the so-called ‘Bigend Trilogy’ of books and I felt I needed refreshings on the first two books before diving into the new release.

Something that has struck me so much about the book is the condition that the protagonist, Cayce Pollard, suffers from throughout the book—a sort of literal allergy to trademarks and labels, something of a byproduct of her other strange condition, this one more positive, where she’s able to preternaturally ‘detect’ future popularity of cultural trends, specifically related to products. This has gained her the self-explanatory slang job title of ‘coolhunter’, brought in as a very niche sort of medium by advertising agencies looking for the Next Big Thing.

The problem for Cayce of course is that she’s so sensitive to Past Big Things, sometimes to a violent degree (the Michelin Man, Bibendum, for instance, seems to be the worst for her, inducing phobic-level anxiety attacks).

Besides all the more inherent, fascinating things about this condition in the context of the novel, it always sticks with me because it makes me wonder why more people in our day and age haven’t ever seemed remotely averse to the absolute flood of trademarks in our daily lives; it’s always intriguing to me to realize that marketing, particularly from clothing and fashion companies, has somewhere along the way managed the insanely convenient trick of not only making it so everywhere we wear makes us ostensibly walking billboards / endorsements, but that as a society we’ve more or less cultivated an obsession over doing so. We buy certain clothes / glasses / handbags / etc. if for no other reason than to have a Coach bag with all those ‘C’s, a status symbol of course, but the object can only even work as such by being worn / carried as to be seen, and by being seen; there’s no convincing here, none of us are paid for this—we’re the ones paying of course, often paying a lot, not just for the object but for being a person who owns such an object, carries it to lunch, wears it to class.

This mostly is interesting to me as a way of thinking about labels, and the way in which the majority of us are often so eager for labels (again, on our shirts, handbags, shoes, watches) yet in other ways so vehemently defensive about them; we cringe or feel put off by other kinds of labels—white, black, African-American (even the kinds of labels can rub people the wrong way, i.e., being annoyed by political correctness, if one happens to feel as such, etc.) Young, old, fat, skinny, smart, stupid, working-class, rich, student, professor, traditional poet, experimental poet…

This is of particular interest to me, the defensive manner most poets I’ve observed conversing (or have personally conversed with) go about resisting labels. The fear I think stems from fearing a label (or even a set of labels?) will forever curse one into being regarded in only one way, the way of that most well-known label, fear of being too simplistically reduced or categorized, because in art of in nothing else, categorization seems far too objective an exercise to be regarded with positive feelings.

I think I agree with this; I think often labels are too simple, too temporally-based somehow (a poet may begin in one aesthetic before maturing into another, or intentionally breaking their own aesthetical ‘category’, trying on something new), but I also think there’s room for one to embrace a label, whether bestowed by another or self-professed, as labels are, even if too simplistic, often necessary and even fruitful in many discussions, including conversations of aesthetic. I think too often poets want the best of both worlds—want the comradery and all that goes with being in a ‘group’, a safety-in-numbers perhaps, but they also don’t want to be nailed down into that group forever, or feel themselves ‘too unique’ to belong to any one label.

I think the solution is somewhere between these two extremes; I don’t think there’s anything wrong with embracing a label, but simultaneously acknowledging the complexity, problems, and fragility of artistic labels (not to mention labels, of, mostly, all kinds). Constellatory labels, like tags on a blog post, embracing an excess of labels, an overlapping. Get enough labels on on yourself & you start looking complicated & unique indeed.


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