Love is the great mystery. Even “like” can be a perplexing enigma. What is the mechanism or the magnetism that draws people together? What bonds them together to the extent that they’re willing to share their fates and their lives and gamble at least half their fortunes in a roll of Cupid’s dice?
Is it similarity or diversity? Is it animal magnetism, some genetic programming intended to promote the survival of the fittest? Is it a stand in for mom or dad? (Have you seen your mother baby, standing in the shadows?) Is it the psychological imprint of siblings? (Studies frequently quoted in womens’ magazines claim that youngest siblings tend to get along best with an only child or first born. Yadda yadda.) Is it in the stars? A pattern hidden in the mechanics of the calendar and the dance of the planets. (Is that why most of my girlfriends and wives have been Virgos?) Or is it something much simpler and more basic. Like big tits. A Beyonce style butt. Blonde hair, bottled or not. Is it being archetypal, like a movie star, remanistcent of say Julia Roberts or George Clooney? You know, being that type.
Is it thick wavy hair a little too long?
Is he tall?
Well, I’ve got to look up.
What color are his eyes?
I don’t know he’s always wearing shades.
I hear he’s bad.
Mmm, he’s good bad, but he’s not evil.
Do you have a type? You don’t think so? Yeah, I know that sounds a little downscale, a little common, no? Okay, lets make it sound a little more sophisticated. Do you have a trope? That’s a little more respectable. At least it sounds smart, intellectual, scientific, chic. I mean why say “mix” when you can say “conflate.”
A trope is a type, but it’s a bit more than that. Trope is Greek for turn (as in heliotrope, turning toward the sun) and it began its career meaning a figure of speech. By the time it got to us it meant a sort of loaded cliché. But I like it to describe having a type you’re attracted to because it’s close to the word tropism. Tropism is an involuntary response in an organic entity. Something that is triggered. And god knows sexual attraction is triggered. It’s sure not planned out.
I know I have a trope. Redheads speak to my genes. Girls in glasses trigger that old Hollywood movie thought, “Why, Miss Jones! Without your glasses you’re beautiful!” I guess my trope is the nerd siren.
Is having a trope bad? Well, maybe it’s sort of sleazy, but I’m not sure. I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Gray yet. I know that in the gay world having a trope preference is, if not repectable, redeemable at least. Bears, that is gay men who are quite hairy, hirsute and chubby or beefy are a trope that has actually organized. They have clubs and magazines. They have their own flag, for god’s sake! Leather men are an older and more established trope that is not ashamed of its stereotype, but militantly proud. In fact the Village People were a sort of Gay Trope Liberation movement, a band of tropes!
But for many of us sexual tropes are at least a guilty pleasure. I guess they’re guilty because they are kind of involuntary. Ask me more about redheads later. I’md drawn to them like I was a mosquito. Meanwhile let’s consider the classic “Dumb Blonde.” Men of my generation were more or less trained if not bred to respond to that one. Marilyn Monroe, yeah, but Jayne Mansfield and Judy Holliday are perhaps even more emblematic of that type. It’s a trope where anti-intellectuality combined with innate craftiness is the key. Think Marilyn in How to Marry a Millionaire. But exaggerated physical attributes were also essential. Michael McClure penned “Defense of Jayne Mansfield” which he wrote before the death of Marilyn Monroe, to which he dedicated it, as the Perfect Mammal. McClure sees in Jayne a larger than life figure, an avatar of the goddess.
Anyone who knows their Homer or Hesiod knows that a god or a goddess is basically a type. It’s not a perfect being. The Olympians were more flawed than we are. No it’s more about universality. As Ezra Pound wrote “A god is an eternal state of mind.” There are Athena Apollo and there are the dumb blonde and the absent minded professor. Both sort are eternals.
If there is a dumb blonde goddess, a type with those popular attributes, it is because there was a need. If Aphrodite exists today she is a blonde with a D cup. It has been suggested that the big breasted woman came in at the end of World War 2, the time of the Baby Boom, because populations needed to regenerate and, perhaps, diversify. We needed a fertility goddess and we got them in the form of seemingly (but perhaps deceptively) dumb blondes.
Times change of course, as needs do, and in the 1960s we experienced a radical reordering of culture—it was a time of revolution, including sexual revolution. As a psychedelically experienced student radical I recall sincerely believing that Nixon would be the last American President. (Perhaps in a way he was.) We were naïve, of course. Steven Stills had a hit with a song called “Almost Cut My Hair.” But I believed in cultural revolution, including the sex part. Yes, sex would get wilder and freer, but the dumb blonde would be over. Girls were growing hair under their arms and marching and storming and picketing.
The trope seemed to be turning from Aphrodite into Artemis. Her breasts were small enough for fast running. She was more into dogs than dudes. We liked this new A to B cup type and believed that female sexuality would transform itself, wort of like Jane Fonda, from Barbarella bimbo into the Jane Fonda who went to Hanoi at the height of the Vietnam War. The hot new tropes were Joni Mitchellites and hair-ironing Joan Baezes and Twiggy. There were a million Twiggys.
There was a new androgyny in the air. The boys looked like Brian Jones and Mick Jagger and the girls looked like…Brian Jones and Mick Jagger. And just as I believed in my soul that Nixon was the last president, I believed firmly that in my lifetime there would be NO MORE BIMBOS. Woman would throw off her chains of mink and satin and march alongside us into the future.
Boy was I wrong. Not only did the bimbo not disappear from the face of the earth, she mutated into a form that was even more fierce and deadly. Feminist bimbo! It seemed that Madonna was was transforming the type, but now we see that she was more like a bimbo executive, a bimbo with a whip. The bimbo didn’t die, she declared independence, mastery even. Christina Aguilera walking around in see through shorts and a G-string, stomach hanging out, singing a sisterhood is powaful anthem, lecturing B-boys for coming on to her, accompanied by Lil’ Kim in a streetwear bikini.
What is it about types? Why do we have tropes pushing our lives around?
Well, for one thing, our culture is ruled by show business. America is ruled by television. The government, being the congress and the president and such August institutions as Homeland Security and the Food and Drug Administration, is a network of TV shows. In democracy, the form of government is inevitably public relations. The actors in the drama of government are supposed to be Representatives. We are supposed to identify with them, so it’s important that they be types. It’s all typecasting.
Congressmen are types. They are 55 years old males, married to women and they have 2.5 children. They go to Church, and probably believe the world was created in 7 days 5,000 years ago. They aren’t really the government, though. They are the government drama show. The real government is a coalition including Fox, MSNBC and CNN.
Originally society had a class of performers, but in the digital age, the reality TV age, almost everyone is, if not a performer, then an actor of some sort, a type. Today almost everyone can stand up to deliver an eyewitness account to Eyewitness News and do a professional job. They can even offer their Man on the Street opinions on the controversial matters of the day—from “quarterback controversies” to economic policy and foreign relations.
People are trained to understand that getting on TV and getting a job are pretty much the same thing. Casting. Everyone in our society has a role to play, so if you can hone yourself down to a recognizable type you have a fair shot of becoming a character actor in your local media marketplace. We’ve all become character actors.
Real individuality is inefficient. Technology changes fast. We don’t need permanent specialists anymore, we need people that we can fill with the skills we need today, tomorrow they can be reprogrammed. They can do the jobs we need and buy the products we need. And in this instant this instant that society we need to know who are your just by looking at you. I’m sorry but I don’t have time to read resumes and check references. I’ll hire the guy that looks like Johnny Depp and the chick that looks like Selma Hayek.
There’s another key factor in trope-casting. As consumers we are taught that essentially our personalities are containers. We are boxes, more or less, to be filled with data that varies over time. Our tastes and allegiances define us. What we perceive as our personality is the product of a collection of consumables: fashion designers, fave television shows, books, magazines, media idols, consumer foods and beverage brands, sports allegiances, churches, clubs, schools, prescriptions, and much more. This model of personality is more about commonality than individuality. Our points of departure from the norm or the mean are often seen as pathological. If I didn’t know better I’d think that civilization had hit bottom.
One of the most common forms of enforcing type is the medication of children to induce conformity. Plastic surgery is another. Big noses are beautiful, but alas, out of fashion. How many women with lovely svelte breasts have inserted plastic bags in them to follow a physical fashion? And of course there is Hair Club for men, where you can become much more attractive to women by having hair moved from the back or your head to the front surgically, without the use of a comb.
Humans have become branded, like the things they consume. It is by our brands and our fashion we are recognized. In his monumental Time and Western Man, Wyndham Lewis declared that we lived in a Romantic age, and that Advertisement is “a pure expression of the romantic mind.” The world in which Advertisement dwells is a one-day world. It is necessarily a plane universe, without depth. Upon this Time lays down discontinuous entitites, side by side; each day, each temporatl entitly, complete in itself, with no perspectives, no fundamental exterior reference at all. In this way the structure of human life is entirely transformed…The average man is invited to slice his life into a series of one-day lives, regulated by the clocke of fashion. The human being is no longer the unit. He becomes the containing from for a generation or sequence of ephemerids, roughly organized into what he calls his ‘personality.’”
Our world is not like that of our parents. It’s different every day. Every day, in every way, it gets better and better. As long as we can keep up. As long as it’s out with the old and in with the new. And so we put ourselves together into time sensitive tropes. A moustache here, a tattoo there, let’s try a fedora, a Norfolk jacket and some of those rugged looking boots.
I find that people today look far more interesting than they prove to be when they open their mouth. In my youth men tended to look rather conventional, even the alcoholics, the veterans of savage wars, the sexual minorities. You went to the ballgame and everyone wore a white shirt, a suit and a hat. In the stadium we looked like one people. Today you go to the ballgame and the men look like characters from a Pixar animated feature, wearing cheese wedges on their head, or pig snouts, their faces painted in the team colors. They are wearing team jersey’s with somebody else’s name on them.
But it’s even like this at the office. The guy who comes to the office to fix the copier looks like an off duty pirate, with an earring and a skull inked on to his neck. The new girl, who is almost too shy to speak, has her nose pierced. Today ordinary average people look like the criminals, outcasts, gang-members and psychopaths of my youth. The baby sitter looks like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. But don’t worry. It’s just a look. We are simply longing to have a history.
In Blade Runner we meet robots or genetically engineered replicants who are self-aware, aware that they are robots and determined to transcend the societal role for robots by running from the society that invented them and that would now destroy them after outliving their four-year life span. The Nexus 6 model has become problematic . One prototype who works as an assistant to the replicants’ designer is unaware that she is a replicant, having been implanted with human memories.
And even for us, who are apparently not replicants, memories are harder and harder to acquire. Society isn’t what it used to be. We are a hive society. We’re organized more like ants than in the cities of old, our lives devoted to specialized tasks. In ancient days we could do many things, we had to, but today one small skill or area of expertise is the usual function of an individual. We don’t have careers, most of us, but jobs. We put ion time. Sometimes our job goes away and we have to be re-trained. Thus the average person has become more plastic, that is more malleable and flexible—their personalities have become more temporary. But oddly, as their personalities have become less unique, they have affected these visual roles. They have tropified themselves. They know that if they want to succeed they have to face society’s central casting. If you want to be a Real Housewife of Beverly Hills, you’ve got to look like one first. To be a trophy wife, first you’ve got to look like a trophy.
And so the girl next door becomes a ho. Your teenage song becomes an outlaw biker, at least until he gets into law school.
Oh my god, why is this happening to us?
How do we explain the popular emergence of the personality trope—this reduction of personality to assemblages of visual signifiers– historically or cosmically?
Okay, here comes the “crackpot theory.” Or historical pattern stuff. In A Vision William Butler Yeats created a complex mythology of personality based on symbolism of the phases of the moon. He saw an historical progression of the personality over time occurring over a periods he called the Great Year, after Plato, and which was approximately two millennia in duration. He saw the individual soul moving through twenty eight distinct incarnations during which its karma would be worked out. In Plato the Great Year referred to the Precession of the Equinoxes, the time it would take for stars to return to their original position, as determined by the Earth’s axis of rotation completing one full cycle (a period of about 26,000 years). This would be divided into twelve ages, each characterized by the astrological sign it was under and each approximately 2,166 years in length. According to the calendar of Yeats’, we are in or near the time of the final phase, the 28th , The Fool, while the first phase of the next cycle waits in the wings. “The world of rigid custom and law is broken up by ‘the uncontrollable mystery upon the bestial floor.’”
As we know from the Tarot deck Fool, the joker has his bag packet and is out and about, a-wandering. He seems, in fact, to be about to step off a cliff. (Is it the Fiscal Cliff?) But according to aficionados of the Tarot, the Fool is free of worries, spontaneous, living in the now. He is probably not concerned with the end of the Mayan calendar since he doesn’t know what day it is.
And as we all know, this is allegedly the dawning of the Age of Aquarius (for more information, watch the movie Hair) and Aquarius has been dawning more or less since the counterculture exploded upon the world in the sixities. Peace, love and harmony have been predicted. What comes next as Aquarius kicks in fully? Yeats says of Phase One, “no description except complete plasticity.” He sees this as a supernatural incarnation of complete objectivity. This pole of Yeat’s system stands opposite the other supernatural incarnation, complete beauty where complete subjectivity holds sway. In a way we could interpret this time of plasticity as what Mallarme described as “an age that has outlived beauty.”
But not to worry.! Time marches on and, as Arthur Rimbaud said, “Why not turn about face?” At any rate I’m not worried about the age of the Fool, or complete plasticity, or the end of the Mayan calendar because I live near Times Square. Time actually starts here in New York and from here it is broadcast around the world where they’re all trying to catch up. You could say that some of us are living in the future, where we are more or less safe as long as the weather holds up, while a lot of the people we see on television seem to be living in the eleventh or twelfth century which are quite dangerous and, if you ask me, boring. And when those put on a veil or pick up a sword, they’re not kidding.
Sometimes in my dreams I travel back to the good old days of the Bronze Age, an epoch similar to ours in terms of Yeatsian historical theory. And you know lot of these trope-trip people of today remind me of the kids in Knossos on Crete, during the days of Minos. They were foolhardy, leaping off the back of bulls and walking around with their tits hanging out. In fact, my interpretation of Theseus slaying the Minotaur is that he was tired of the monstrous bullheaded influence of that bullshitter on the youth of Athens, tired of kowtowing to a horny idol. With Theseus civilization took a trope for the better.
Originally published in Garage magazine.