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Ed Driscoll

Interview: Virginia Postrel on The Power of Glamour

November 3rd, 2013 - 8:46 pm

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Okay.  So that’s the promise.  But then key elements in sort of making that sense of projection and longing work, one is grace.  Glamour hides the difficulties, hides — you know, like those pictures of Mad Men, that vision of the sixties, you know, they don’t look schlubby.  It’s a sort of perfected idea of the less — the less polished elements are hidden.  Glamour always hides some difficulties.  And in fact, I have a piece up on Bloomberg View at the moment about how some of the problems of the Obamacare exchanges come from this kind of infatuation, this sort of glamour [inspired by] databases and computers.  We have this notion that they just kind of work by magic.

And there was a kind of overselling of how easy it would be to solve this problem.  Regardless of whether you like Obamacare or you don’t like Obamacare, these exchanges were going to be really, really hard to put together, but that was not told to the public, and I suspect it was not told to the President either; that he had this kind of push-button idea.

So glamour has promise of escape and transformation, grace, and then the other element is mystery; so that in a lot of glamorous portraits, either the person is looking away or not entirely toward the camera or partially in shadow, or alternatively, they may be looking at you, but they’re looking through you.  And it’s a different sort of portrait from the kind of friendly snapshot or the kind of cover picture that you often see on American fashion or celebrity magazines, where the person is just looking like they [are] your pal.  You know, they’re very familiar.

If you really want to have glamour, you need to have an element of mystery and distance that both helps the grace by hiding things and also is intriguing; it pulls the audience in so that people want to sort of project themselves into whatever that glamorous scene is.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Virginia, at one point in the Power of Glamour, you explore the difference between glamour and charisma. What are some of those differences?

MS. POSTREL:  Well, glamour is something that occurs between an audience and an object.  And it’s really in the audience’s mind.  Glamour is like humor.  It’s something that depends — it only works because the audience is receptive.  And it’s not something that is owned by a glamorous person.  And in fact, it doesn’t even have to be a person that’s glamorous.  A car can be glamorous or an idea can be glamorous.  The idea of central planning was glamorous in the early twentieth century.  The idea of going Galt is glamorous to certain libertarians.  Glamour is not a quality of a person.

Charisma is like intelligence.  It’s something that the person owns.  And it’s something that is felt by the audience in person or possibly in a video.  But when the person dies the charisma goes away.  And the meaning of the charisma comes from the charismatic person.

Charisma was originally a religious concept.  And the idea was that you would sort of follow this charismatic person in a greater cause.  It’s come to mean a sort of stage presence.  But that notion of a personal quality is still there.

Whereas glamour is in the audience’s mind, and in fact, one of the good ways to maintain your glamour, if you’re a person, is to die young, which is the opposite of charisma.  And it also is not under as much control — well, charisma’s not under the control of the person in the sense that they’re sort of born with it, often.  But the glamour can vanish if the audience’s aspirations change or if they learn too much.  It’s very much in the audience’s mind.

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I think the reason the Jolie photo would have failed in the '50s, aside from the truth of what Ms. Postrel observed of how different generations observe the telling of a story, is that it scores low marks on the 3 most important elements of mid-century presentation of product: design, technical ability and vision.

There's little point to going to Asia if you don't employ Orientalist tropes rather than make it look like Jolie is taking a break from turtle-snatching in Louisiana.
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