Sunday, April 9, 2017

That Sweater is a Part of You

You're in Georgia. This means that the weather is can do 30 degree swings from the morning to the afternoon, and then be freezing the next day. You being you, however, have forgotten a jacket, and it's quite chilly today. In order to simulate a jacket, you stand, quickly rubbing your hands up and down your arms. It kind of works, and you're okay until you get back inside.


You're back at home, sleeping. You have that nightmare, where you are completely naked at school. Seeing as you aren't an exhibitionist, this is quite traumatizing. But why? Is your body really that different from the machinery of other skeletons around you?

That's where clothes come in. At some point along the way, someone became ashamed of their nakedness. The Bible tells us that it was Adam and Eve who first looked in to covering up, but this phenomenon seems to have happened at some point in almost all cultures.

I don't think this was done just because sweaters are cute. And French philosopher and sociologist Bruno Latour would likely agree with me, as his pseudonymously published 1988 article "Mixing Humans and Nonhumans Together: The Sociology of a Door Closer" argues for the inclusion of nonhumans into the sociological discussion. Throughout the article, Latour suggests words that one should use when including nonhumans into sociological discussion, with the majority of them focusing on the idea of "delegation", in which a human delegates an action or some degree of work to a nonhuman. His introductory example of this is a door and door-closer (that little metal thing that uses hydraulics to close the door (hopefully) gently behind you). The door itself is delegated the action of breaking a hole in a wall a la a prison escape, and then painstakingly building the wall back up with bricks and mortar. The door-closer, on the other hand, is delegated the actions of either teaching all people to be considerate and close doors behind them, paying someone to close the door behind others, or letting the doors stay open as people pass through, which is at best a nuisance and at worst a grievous security problem.

This idea enters into sociology when we consider what the objects in turn tell us to do, or "prescribes", in Latour's parlance. We as humans delegate actions to nonhumans, and they in turn prescribe actions for us to take because of them. The door-closer prescribes that you walk through the door quickly, lest you get hit in the face. The nonhuman actors we delegate action to shape our behavior, and should therefore be included in sociological discussion.

But back to clothes, which are nonhumans that we delegate a startling amount of actions to. Without clothes, our best-case scenario is that humans would have to somehow find a way to love their nude bodies and the nude bodies of others, or at least tolerate them at all times. However, the more likely and sad option would be that humans would spend their entire days covering themselves with their arms and hands while avoiding looking at others, making all human interaction as awkward as a locker room and turning all the world into a nude beach. Those of us who a bit more reserved about our bodies would find themselves as shut-ins who can barely sprint outside to get the mail, and all contact sports would be incredibly awkward. But, thanks to clothes, humans can walk about without worrying about stretchmarks and lovehandles, that are now discreetly hidden (and are, whether you realize it or not, a beautiful part of you).

Alongside the ability to hide the majority of your body, clothes can keep us safe from the elements. Imagine being outside in the Swiss Alps in nothing but your birthday suit! Without clothes, you would either have to rapidly rub your extremities to keep the frostbite at bay for a few more minutes, make a small igloo to stay inside, run screaming to shelter, or die. Clothes do all that work so you don't have to. Layers of clothes, a heavy ski jacket, and warm waterproof boots let you go out and enjoy the Alps instead of forcing you inside with some hot chocolate that you could potentially spill on your naked body. Not fun.

And while those are just some of the numerous practical functions clothes serve, clothes can be an expansion of cognition and of human minds. Clark and Chalmers write in "The Extended Mind" about how the mind does not stop at the skin, and extends outward into the objects we use every day to aid in or work with our cognition. Clothes work in this regard as well. For instance, I usually wear black on Valentine's Day to outwardly express how I feel about being single. On a happier note, people often come in beaming when wearing a new outfit, or wear clothes they feel that they look good in in order to brighten their mood. Clothing can often be the outward expression of inward thoughts.

This, of course, does have its limits, as many lower income people cannot always afford the luxury of an outfit to express every mood, so it is not always accurate to judge one's emotional state by their clothing. Here is where the danger of clothing comes into play: clothing can be delegated the work of presenting social class. Unfortunately, clothing can be very expensive, and this expense can be shown just by having the label of the clothing. Clothing can become a stand-in for a sign with your income on it. The expression clothing can do is limited by the fact that not everyone has equal opportunity to it. And as clothing is something that is work every day, one's identity can be shaped by the clothes they wear and the reaction of others to those clothes. Look no further than any public high school to see this in action. Some schools can attempt to mitigate this with uniforms, but those are more often used in private schools where few are affected by the stratification and stigmatization that comes from the varying clothes people wear, and uniforms limit the variety of expression that anyone wearing them can utilize.

Even with this caveat, clothing and fashion are forms of expression by many people, and can even shape their sense of identity. Clothing is a remarkable invention that we would not be able to function without in our current state, and the way that we shape it and the way it is shaped by us is incredibly important to consider in sociology.