In Asians Wear Clothes on the Internet, Pratt Institute Professor Minh-Ha T. Pham addresses the changing nature of the traditional fashion industry and details its recent infatuation with the styles and taste of Asian internet/social media influencers. Pham calls this process the “rise of the Asian Superblogger,” a group she defines as elite fashion bloggers who themselves identify as Asian or as part of an Asian ethnic group. She states very early in the introduction, that their textual, visual, and sartorial representations are what she calls practices of "taste work" (p. 15). She emphasizes that their self-representations via images posted on the internet and social media do transformative work to re-negotiate the racialized terrain of western fashion to be visible in very specific ways. She makes it clear that although these bloggers maintain an art to being distinctively Asian, they don’t aim to be any different from their White counterparts. Pham also believes that these online personalities represent themselves as authentic bloggers who are racially different from the fashion mainstream but whose race also cannot discount their unique abilities.
One of the main arguments Pham makes throughout the book is that she seeks to change the cultural perceptions of what an "Asian fashion worker" is. She seeks to discredit much of prior scholarly discourse that has focused on the Asian fashion workers as merely those whom are exploited in the “sweatshops” that produce much of the textiles and garments for the Western fashion industry. It is because of this work that Pham believes that all Asian fashion workers in the garment industry are generally victimized because of their race, gender, and class.
While acknowledging that much of the scholarly and media attention on Asian fashion workers represents them as poor, voiceless victims, Pham glorifies the stories of elite Asians in the new digital fashion economy as proof that Asians have far more power to represent themselves and to define they participate in the fashion world. She explores within this very different context of fashion labor--race, gender, and class -- superbloggers are re-shaping what "Asian fashion work" means. She uses this backdrop to state her opinion that Asian fashion workers have always also defined their own identities and created alternative working conditions even within the very limited sets of available options they have.
This is a key issue in the book. Although Pham acknowledges the Western fashion industry is still a very white industry and that are only a small handful of non-white bloggers, models, and designers who are quite successful, she seeks to attempts to explain why Asians occupy a very tenuous position as racial minorities in a white industry. Thus, she also acknowledges throughout the book that most Whites in the fashion industry only accept Asian superbloggers’ success as a novelty, a very temporal moment in elite fashion trends.
Pham maintains that the resentment that Asian elite bloggers uniquely face comes from, on one hand, being some of the most visible non-white faces and names in fashion and, on the other hand, from out-lasting and out-growing their expected roles as novelties of fashion's digital turn. They're proving to be not just temporary visitors or tourists in the western fashion system but here to stay and possibly change fashion and fashion journalism's racially-homogenous business as usual.
These new cults of personality created by Asian superbloggers differ from their traditional counterparts through collaborative, co-constructive and communal interdependence between “culted” figure and follower. While I would maintain charismatic authority has its source in the innate and exceptional qualities of an individual’s personality, Pham submits that in consumer culture’s current era of consent, the ‘culting’ of Asian superbloggers is not just a triumph for the individual bloggers but a victory for racial diversity in the Western fashion industry at large.
I'd agree with Pham that the bloggers she speaks about may be challenging many of western fashion's business practices and assumptions. The enormous popularity of Susie Bubble and BryanBoy's blogs have forced the mainstream industry to take blogging seriously whether they liked it or not. I also would agree that the success of their blogs show that Asian people can be style leaders, successful entrepreneurs, and tastemakers among western fashion audiences.
However, I believe that Pham over-romanticizes the idea these elite bloggers have the leverage to disrupt the industry they're trying to seek the approval of. In many of her examples, the milestones of success for these bloggers only tend to occur when white industry leaders (such designer Marc Jacobs did with BryanBoy) re-appropriate their work. That said, it doesn’t seem as though these superbloggers have necessarily forged a permanent path to reproduce a true community of Asian gatekeepers in the fashion community. I wasn’t quite convinced that these bloggers are as “threatening” to the status quo as she would want her readers to believe.
In distilling Pham’s arguments, I found it easy to relate her work to Pierre Bourdieu and his theoretical models on social and cultural capital. Her arguments about Asian fashion taste-making extend upon more traditional Bourdieu ideas of capital categories such as social capital, cultural capital, financial capital, and symbolic capital. Pham proclaims that in blogging and posting about fashion, young Asians occupy a unique position in a new multidimensional world of style; one where they are not simply members of the Asian community but also well informed brokers of every single kind of capital they can articulate through their websites and social media accounts.
One of the best parts of this book for me occurred when Pham discusses how the superbloggers got met with increasing resistance from traditional industry insiders as fashion houses began to pay them large fees for their efforts. On page 60, Pham writes about Bourdieu’s formulation of “aesthetic intolerance” to speak about racial “aftertaste” and how public curiosity towards Asian superbloggers quickly changed once their voice threatened to become permanent fixtures in the fashion media industry. She subsequently details a backlash among the industry that came in the 2010’s after many of the bloggers began to gain access to and wield more influence on the more exclusive fashion shows. She carefully dissects the published stories of mainstream fashion publications that used the Asian superbloggers to represent the face of the fashion blogging industry at large and in turn discount their true relevance in the labor market. Pham makes no qualms about her belief that much of this backlash can be traced back to the historic marginalization of Asian laborers in the fashion industry saying that mainstream fashions criticism of the superbloggers was undoubtedly racially charged.
Not so privy to the innerworkings and customs of the Western fashion industry before reading this book, I still found this piece to be very fascinating and engaging. Pham’s interviews and commentary about various Asian superbloggers indicate that these individuals have in fact managed to turn the narrative of the Asian fashion laborer “on its head” and are utilizing high fashion preferences with images that strongly tie in with their social position; and showing that subtleties of “cute culture” and Asian identity can be a major factor in their social mobility. Overall, Pham presents a compelling argument on why Asian fashion bloggers are gaining tremendous attention within the modern fashion industry and why their success represents cultural and economic shifts in the digital fashion media economy.
The Ringtone Dialectic by University of Minnesota Professor Sumanth Gopinath enthusiastically tells the history of mobile phone innovation and how the dematerializing of music led to the phenomenon of the ringtone. The Ringtone, as he describes in this book, was created almost by accident and was a fashion/vanity accessory for individuals purchasing their first cellular phones. Though a low-end innovation, the music industry and telecommunication startups took advantage of the rising trend of mobile phone entertainment to charge mobile phone users for individualization of their phone ringers and ring backs played to incoming calls. After reading this book, I think that Gopinath carefully presents the ringtone as a remarkable cultural phenomenon that demonstrated a high degree of popularity and polarity therefore, that makes it (surprisingly) worth historically assessing.
Gopinath starts off the book by talking about the murky yet fabled story of origin for the ringtone. He states that the commodification of the ringtone occurred in several stages. These stages provided the outline of a model for ringtone development, whereby functional tones became: 1) monophonic ringtones or simple melodies; 2) polyphonic tones (MIDI synthesizer music); and, 3) digital sound files (the most associated with the development of MP3 files). Gopinath points out that these developments in the ringtone industry did not take place the same way in different regions around the world. Instead, convergences of national legal systems, consumer preferences, and the interests of local wireless firms and handset manufacturers led to differing rates of acceptance for each type of ringtone, as well as ringtones generally.
Gopinath recounts that sound file ringtones heavily favored the music industry, since legally sound files fall under the more lucrative category of sampling rather than covering or arrangement. For monophonic or polyphonic synthesizer arrangements of tunes, only a small royalty would to the original music’s composer or songwriter via a publishing company. For a sound file ringtone, however, sampling rights allowed the music label that released the original sound recording to claim 40–50 percent of these more lucrative ringtones. Sound file ringtones gave higher returns to their right owners because of their ability to accurately reproduce current radio hits, their higher price, and their relative ease of production.
During the early 2000s, ringtone sales were often outpacing the recording single sales of the same song and music industry officials leveraged ringtone sales to help them recoup their losses from stagnant record sales and budget expenses for various artists. Gopinath points out in Chapter 2 that many major record label executives believed the ringtone could “save the music industry.” With the music industry’s efforts to reclassify sound file ringtones as being record single sales rather than licensed products, the recording industry moved briefly in the direction of equating record sales with ringtone sales and profited handsomely. During this era, the biggest U.S. music trade magazine, Billboard Magazine, even created the Hot Ringtones Top–20 list for polyphonic ringtone sales in North America.
In thinking about our class discussions, Gopinath’s discussions of some of the global cultural implications of the ringtone industry attempt to explain, from different perspectives, a small set of arguments. First, he says he believes the appearance of the ringtone itself helped to create new forms of high–tech production and consumption, demonstrating a broad “continuum” between those employed as ringtone composers and those involved in forms of consuming/using and representing the ringtone, such as professional artists, songwriters, and composers on the one hand and average mobile phone users encoding their own ringtones on the other. Second, he uses his historical analysis to state that the shift from preset monophonic ringtones to sound file ringtones resulted in numerous disturbances in the ringtone industry, the music industry and broader society. Gopinath believes that although these disturbances were very subtle, they were taken for granted as part of the general instability of the high–tech and entertainment industries, ignored and deserve recognition. Finally, Gopinath believes that the ringtone can be understood as the intersectionality of social conflicts, in which age, national, ethnic and gender divisions are present.
Before reading this book, I never even thought about the idea that the ringtone industry had some ethnic implications as well. As noted on page 28, Gopinath smartly noted that during the “ringtone movement,” African Americans that rarely bought digital music downloads or had access to personal computers now had the option to purchase their favorite music through personalization their mobile phones. Gopinath backs up this point by showing that the top musical recordings of the ringtone charts frequently looked like a replication of Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Charts of that era. I suppose one could even argue in retrospect that the ringtone industry demonstrated the future importance cell phone access would have in helping to close the “digital divide.”
Ultimately, the ringtone industry thrived because it made a commodity of personalization. Personalization was what Gopinath referred to as the ringtone industry’s “ideologeme” (unit of ideology) in the Frederic Jameson sense. The “dialectic” of economics and cultural form existed because this personalization of ringtones was something that the music and mobile entertainment industries exploited for profit, something that musicians and composers freely exploited for inventiveness and digital creation and something mobile phone companies used to build databases of information on customers to better customize devices.
Frederic Jameson’s Marxist stance provides a brilliant synthesis Gopinath’s argument, in which the analysis of ideological utterances, class struggle, and modes of production are combined in overlapping temporal frameworks. Gopinath titles the ringtone industry as a “dialectic” by creating two parallel sets of time scales devoted to cultural production — in this case, economics and cultural form— the two of which are interwoven together, with the economic taking greater priority as the latter time–scale broadens.
For me as a person who spent over a decade in the music industry and sold ringtones as an artist, I never considered anything about the ringtone industry to be worth re-examining before reading this book. However, after reading this text I realize that there is some validity to the author’s claim that besides bolstering the economy of the music landscape, the ringtone ushered in society’s obsession with mobile content and was the pre-cursor to the mobile application craze of today. Keeping this at the forefront of his examination, Gopinath proposes a framework for analyzing the phenomenon of the ringtone, in which we should consider the ringtone as “a high–tech fad, as a conflict between larger and smaller forms of capital, and the ringtone as indicative of a long–term shift in productive capacity from the United States to all the way to Eastern Asia.” Even still, the Ringtone bubble would ultimately burst in a similar way as the dot com bubble did: with empty promises of sustainability for a redundant micro-industry. Gopinath details the rise and fall of this process very tediously but with great precision and gives an interesting take on what many scholars wouldn’t naturally consider a “historical” moment in the mobile entertainment industry.
Raised on the East side of Chicago. Globally Local. Cheers!