Review of Virginia Postrel. The Power of Glamour. Simon & Schuster, 2013. 269 pp.

 

The imaginative dimension of politics has received increasing attention over the last couple of decades. A splendid new book sheds light on the process of how the imagination works. In The Power of Glamour author Virginia Postrel, former editor of Reason Magazine, explores the phenomenon of glamour by describing what it is, what it does, and how it works. While the topic is not explicitly political, the concept of glamour has serious ramifications for a proper understanding of politics. This review discusses Postrel’s depiction of glamour and how her adept elucidation of the elements and nature of glamour apply to political analysis.

Glamour is universal. All human beings are subject to appealing images. However, what is perceived as glamorous is subjective. The appeal of glamour depends on cultural context and personal character, which is why glamour, while universal, substantially differs between cultures and across time. A particular image may appeal to a particular people and not to another, but this process of appeal is the same phenomenon no matter where it takes place. Postrel writes, “The same imaginative process that leads an orphaned child to see her ideal self in a photo of a ballerina has sent nations to war and put men on the moon, transformed the landscape and built business empires” (4).

Postrel describes glamour as “a form of nonverbal rhetoric, which moves and persuades not through words but through images, concepts, and totems” (6). Glamour is a form of communication. It cannot be reduced to a style. Postrel dismisses the description of glamour as a mere appeal to envy as shallow and misguided. Desire for something does not require envy. Images are able to elicit yearning in a person because of pre-existing discontent; they do not create that discontent. Glamorous images focus discontent on an object. Glamour gives form to desire.

Etymologically, glamour traces its roots back to an old Scottish word meaning “a literal magic spell,” closely related to “fascination” (10). Considering the real power of glamour, this is an apt definition. Postrel describes glamour as “an illusion…that distorts our perceptions”(11). It requires a stylization, a distortion that deceives the viewer. “[G]lamour presents an edited version of reality” (12). For Postrel, this synthetic aspect of glamour is not bad in itself. Reality can be edited for good or for ill.

The editing process is the result of dialectic between the image and the audience. Postrel writes that glamour “emerges from the interaction between object and audience” (12). A glamorous object can only affect an audience in a particular way if the potential for the response is already present. “One may strive to construct a glamorous effect, but success depends on the perceiver’s receptive imagination” (12). There is a give and take in glamour that depends not only on the imaginative quality of the glamorous object but also on the quality of the imagination of the viewer.

Images of glamour show us what we dream of and, because we are allowed to imagine it, we are convinced that it exists. The effect of such glamour is to inspire action. Professions seem glamorous on television, so we choose careers based upon that depiction. The sports car seems glamorous, so we buy it over a minivan. While glamour is often dismissed as “trivial, frivolous, and superficial,” it strikes at the heart of human emotion and inspiration, the imaginative center of the human person. Postrel writes, “Glamour shapes our most fundamental choices and illuminates our deepest yearnings. Although often perilous and always selective, it is not intrinsically malign. Glamour . . . is a pervasive, complex, and often life-enhancing force” (8).

Postrel describes how glamour works. It is “a form of communication that elicits a distinctive emotional response” (8). Glamour accomplishes this through stimulating projection and longing in the viewer. These feelings are produced by three aspects of glamour: “a promise of escape and transformation; grace; and mystery.” Escape and transformation require the depiction of an ideal, a yearning for something that is not realized within a given society or culture. This longing for an ideal does not have to be destructive, although Postrel admits that it can be. Longing can be an inspiration for salutary change. A glamorous image of what is not can serve to inspire action, both socially and personally, to realize a vision of what could be. “[B]ecause [glamour] recognizes and concentrates real desires, the mirage can also prove a valuable, life-enhancing inspiration” (48). The glamorous image appeals to a longing for transcendence, a vision of overcoming our present limitations. The image of an iPad offers an extension of power, and the image of new clothes offers to transform one’s identity.

“For individuals and for societies, the chance to imagine a different life in different circumstances is essential to progress” (60). It feeds dissatisfaction with the status quo and a desire for change, and it offers an image of that change, a vision of what that changed state would look like. Postrel praises this aspect of glamour, but it is qualified praise. The image that offers a vision of escape or transformation is an abbreviation, a shortcut that obscures the actual work it takes to achieve that state. Such an image is touched by the concept of grace, the second aspect of glamour.

Grace is the ability of glamour to provide a sense of “effortlessness” to the image of transformation or escape. It is the “actual or apparent elimination of flaws, distractions, weaknesses, costs, support structures, or frictions” (80). In a car advertisement, sports cars speed along country roads without ever getting stuck behind a tractor-trailer. In a movie montage, what seems like a few reps at the gym transforms one’s physique. This aspect of glamour is necessary in the sense that a glamorous image is necessarily an abbreviation of a vision. However, Postrel notes, “Grace is what makes glamour so dangerous and so alluring” (80) because it obscures the work necessary to the transformation—if the change is even possible at all.

The transformation depicted by glamour often comes at great effort and cost. A healthy physique or a successful career takes years of hard work and sacrifice. But a glamorous image is about being, not becoming. It is the abbreviation of the image that makes it seem attainable. By pulling “a living human being out of time and space” glamour is achieving a real deception. Its depiction is not how human life actually works, and it is not how the imagined state depicted in the glamorous image can actually be achieved. Postrel writes, “We yearn to possess grace and to inhabit a graceful world, to escape friction, struggle, frustration, and decay” (92).

The illusion that glamour creates is fragile. The genre of utopia possesses that classic glamorous component of grace and demonstrates a relationship between glamour and politics. In such a state there is neither conflict nor change. The ideal is perfectly instantiated. Happiness and peace exist without the real work of self-transformation and negotiation with other human beings. Postrel writes, “At the extreme, [utopias] become deadly, as the quest for grace becomes a demand for purity, with no room for anything or anyone that might disrupt the guiding vision . . . Perfect grace cannot tolerate the unpredictability and diversity of real human beings” (98).

The third essential element of glamour is mystery. A glamorous image must be “visible yet veiled” (110). Sunglasses play such an essential role in glamorous advertising because they provide a sense of mystery, veiling the eyes of the glamorous object. Mystery is important to glamour because it “provides imaginative space for the audience to project its own desires on the glamorous object” (113). The imagination of the viewer fills in the gaps, projecting himself into the glamorous image, and filling out the abbreviated image with his own desires. Mystery is the element that “enhances grace by obscuring preparation and flaws” (113).

Mystery appears in three forms. Each conceals in its own way. The first is the glamour of shadow. Black and white photography endures, despite technological innovation, because it contains inescapable concealment, by omitting color and enhancing shadow. The viewer wonders what is contained beneath the shadow and can project his own yearnings into the image. The second aspect of mystery is glitter, which captures the eye’s attention as well as conceals the source of light, confusing the eyes and distorting perception of the image. The third form of mystery is complexity, the layers that make an image alluring. “This form of mystery hides information not through concealment or confusion but through complexity and depth” (121). Even after repeated exposure, an image is still glamorous because the complexity of the image never loses its depth or its fascination.

Postrel describes two ways to use glamour, “as an imaginative respite and as an inspiration for real-world action” (95). For Postrel, the first is not generally dangerous. It amounts to a means of providing rest from the struggles of the real world. The second has the potential to be dangerous. The glamorous image can serve only as a guide, not as a destination. Because glamour provides a means of escape, it can easily become the latter.

Is there something inherent to glamour that makes it tend toward dangerous escape rather than salutary guide? Postrel does not think so, but she explains that the allure of escape is a very real potentiality within glamour. If one forgets that glamour is inspiration, not destination, only dangerous disillusion or the tyranny of “subordinating the complexities and flux of life to a unitary and artificial ideal” (97) can result.

As explained above, the crux of the effect of glamour is how it is received by the viewer. Postrel writes,

A “glamorous” person, setting, or style will not produce glamour unless that object resonates with the audience’s aspirations, and unless the audience is willing to entertain the illusion. Conversely, one audience may find glamorous something another audience deems ordinary or even repulsive. (12–13)

The imaginative construction of the perceiver will determine to a great extent whether the effect of glamour is salutary, a mere respite from real world struggles, or an inspiration to chase illusive transformation. It is possible for both means of using glamour to be destructive, although Postrel argues that the second has more destructive potential.

The first way of using glamour could be a means of achieving rest that allows a person to rejuvenate and recover from the trials of real life, in which case it is largely salutary or, at least, harmless. However, this same manner of using glamour could be a means of frustration, entering a dream world as a means of escape, not respite, from the tribulations of life. Escape is the flight from life’s inevitable conflicts and the painful struggle of self-improvement into an imaginative world of egotism where the self is already perfect and needs no improvement and where conflict, the ability of others to disagree and oppose one’s self, is forbidden. The manner in which a person uses glamour in this first sense indicates the quality of the person’s character and the type of imagination such a person possesses.

The second way of using glamour is as inspiration to action. This can be either a means to salutary action and improvement of self or society, generally incremental, or as a means to effect radical transformation, generally destructive. The action to effect radical transformation itself is a result of the egotistical potential inherent in the first way of using glamour, in dreaming of escape. If the impetus for the dream is egotism, in the sense of imagining a perfect self, then the action it inspires will be action for radical transformation of the world around the ego to meet the demands of the ego and to flatter the image of the flawless self.

What determines whether glamour is a means of respite or escape? Whether it is the inspiration for salutary change or destructive revolution? It will be determined by the imaginative orientation of the viewer. In Democracy and Leadership, Irving Babbitt articulated a distinction between two types of imagination—the moral imagination and the idyllic imagination—that correspond to the two responses to glamour that Postrel outlines.

If the perceiver has the moral imagination, then the effect of glamour will be as a respite, not escape, from the struggles of the real world for the purposes of returning to those struggles with vigor. Glamour will be a means of inspiration for a better self and a better world, but the perceiver will be restrained by accepting glamorous images that are neither idyllic nor utopian. Such images will point to salutary change within the realm of the possible, those things over which the perceiver has control. While an image may inspire, the viewer will understand the nature of the abbreviation, that implicit within the inspiring image is the work necessary to achieve that state.

As an example of a glamorous image that contains implicit struggle, Postrel discusses the St. Crispin’s Day speech from William Shakespeare’s Henry V. The speech “skims over present difficulties to paint an evocative picture of future fellowship and hearty celebration” (142). The image of a future of victorious comradery obscures the imminent struggle against great odds, which would involve immense suffering and loss, if victory were even possible at all. Nonetheless it is a stirring image that inspires the necessarily difficult action to bring about the hearty celebration. Indeed, the suffering is essential to the ensuing fellowship and merriment and explicit in the process of reaching that goal. Celebration is called for only after and in response to striving and suffering for victory. Before one can “strip his sleeve and show his scars” he must acquire the scars. In such a manner, the abbreviation inherent in a glamorous image is a salutary image of inspiration.

Glamour is not limited to such epic contexts. Modern versions of glamour find their origins in the image of aristocratic luxury. But it is not aristocratic luxury as such that is glamorous; rather it is the imitation of aristocratic luxury by the bourgeoisie that is so alluring. The appeal of glamour is the appeal of upward mobility, of becoming a better self that is implicit in the bourgeois imitation of aristocratic luxury. Such images of luxury do not necessarily inspire envy but could inspire the work necessary to attain simple improvement of one’s economic and social lot. Postrel attributes much of the economic innovation of the last two centuries to this use of the power of glamour.

The role of glamour in self-improvement is not limited to material improvement. It could also include moral improvement. Postrel points out that innovation and improvement in any sphere requires the imagination of something different and better. Even simple improvement in character requires a goal of what one ought to be, an image of a morally improved self. An image of a better self need not be a model with finer and more expensive clothes. Saints and heroes have their place as glamorous icons as well.

Postrel’s discussion of religious glamour is especially interesting. There is a sense of escape and transformation of the self, of grace, and of mystery in religious imagery. This is not restricted to eschatological aspects of religion, where the presence of glamour’s components are more obvious. Martyrdom too has a glamorous allure. “In the glamorous version [of martyrdom], the martyr’s faith never wavers and is thereby demonstrated to be true. Death comes gracefully, with dignity, resolve, and, at least in the artistic portrayals, calm beauty” (145). Certainly real martyrdoms do not possess such effortless grace; surely they are less dignified and peaceful. However, such a glamorous portrayal of martyrdom serves as inspiration to believers to acquire the dignity and grace depicted in the image even while being aware that, if the time of martyrdom comes, it will indeed be a trying experience. The glamorous image of martyrdom is an abbreviation, but its essential glamorous elements provide something for aspiration.

The danger of glamour emerges when the perceiver is endowed with an idyllic imagination, when he yearns for transformation to an impossible ideal. When a vision ceases to be a means of inspiration by providing an image of the end goal that one can achieve and when it becomes a vision for transformation to a perfect ideal, then it is destructive of the real good that actually exists in the real world.

At the heart of the idyllic vision is the self-flattering ego. Disillusion results when the ego realizes that the vision of escape cannot be realized in the real world. The idyllic imagination creates an ideal world and inspires action to transform the world into that image. Disillusion does not dispose of the idyllic image but either drives one to seek radical transformation, which requires radical destruction, or to bitterly withdraw from the imperfect world. Even if the individual does not pursue radical transformation, the presence of disillusion leads to disengagement with the world and precludes both the sort of gradual transformation necessary for real improvement and any self-examination necessary for self-improvement. The world around the idyllic dreamer is at fault and not the dream itself nor the character of the dreamer. For example, in the idyllic imagination, advertisements for sports cars and healthy physiques cause binge spending and destructively intense, and unsustainable, exercise regimens. Disillusion with the actual effort to acquire the means to purchase a sports car responsibly or to craft a stellar physique leads to bitter envy and to sulking cynicism.

Glamour is essential in politics as it is in much else. The elements discussed above apply with equal force in the political realm. Postrel writes, “By focusing imaginative yearnings, glamour motivates not just momentary fantasies but real-world action: buying vacations, sports cars and condos; moving to new cities and pursuing new careers; even electing presidents” (16). There can be no doubt that President Barack Obama was elected in large part because of his glamorous appeal. He exuded the mystery of complexity and claimed transcendent grace. The public knew little about him and was able to imagine the sort of president he would be, projecting its own longings for “hope and change” onto the glamorous presidential candidate. The public’s disillusion was inevitable when the president engaged in real-world politics and could not exhibit the effortlessness of his campaign’s glamorous grace in his actual governing.

As with the individual, so with political society at large: the most dangerous aspect of glamour in the political realm is when a people is endowed with the idyllic imagination. Leaders can present an image of a transformed world, appealing to their people’s longing for escape. The image can be glamourous, possessing grace and an effortlessness to achieve the leader’s promised changes. In politics, as in all else, the devil is in the details. The type of people who use glamour as an escape, and not a respite, are the type of people who find such visions appealing. They are the type who will be inspired by idyllic rhetoric and the type who will take radical political action.

In the final analysis, it is the character, the imaginative orientation, of a people that will determine whether glamour is destructive, both in politics and in advertising, both socially and personally. Babbitt’s idyllic imagination will be personally destructive when a person uses glamorous advertisements as a means of escape rather than respite. Those episodes of escape will contribute to disillusion and cynicism regarding potentialities in the real world, even if destructive action is not ultimately taken. This applies to an attraction to idyllic political schemes as well. A person endowed with the idyllic imagination will seek escape from the struggles of real politics in the fantasies of abstract political schemes.

There is an inherent abstraction to glamour that makes the eradication of idyllic dreaming impossible. The moral imaginative character will perceive the sort of abstraction that serves as inspiration to salutary action as an image of concrete improvement, albeit unrealized concrete improvement. And the sorts of glamorous images inspired by the moral imagination will be concrete in some way. However, the nature of an image that does not yet concretely exist—even if it can concretely exist—because of its abstraction, opens itself to idyllic dreaming of the destructive sort, both in terms of escapist imagining and of inspiration for radical action. A soldier endowed with the idyllic imagination serving under Henry V certainly could have been disillusioned and cynical after the battle of Agincourt. He would remember his wounds with bitterness rather than pride. The image of concrete fellowship was a yet unrealized image when Henry spoke, and the idyllic imagination could have interpreted it in an idyllic manner, glossing over the suffering implicit within the ensuing celebration, leading only to disappointment and disillusion. This potential for abstraction and idyllic dreaming is an ineradicable condition of glamour.

This danger in glamour does not mean that glamour can be avoided. Postrel writes, “[W]e can abjure the glamour of evil without declaring the evil of glamour. Simply to condemn glamour as a lie is to damn imagination. Every innovation requires perceiving a world different from the one that exists, and all art demands selection” (22). Civilization itself can be understood as a product of glamour, a product of selection and salutary disguise. Postrel cites a scene from the 1933 movie Queen Christina in which the characters are discussing courtship. One character complains that the trappings of courtship are a deception of its real center, which is a primitive sexual drive. The character Antonio remarks, “Why, that’s civilization—to disguise the elemental with the glamorous.” Postrel writes,

By using the word disguise, Antonio acknowledges that glamour is a falsehood, an illusion. But, he declares, civilization itself is defined by such illusions—by art and artifice, customs and manners. To Antonio, disguising the elemental is a great achievement, not a base fraud. Glamour makes desire more than an animal impulse. Its purpose is not simply to camouflage sexual passion but, by bestowing meaning upon it, to transform it into something more enduring and significant. (23)

Here Postrel echoes Edmund Burke’s discussion of the “pleasing illusions” of the moral imagination that made “power gentle and obedience liberal.” Burke does not deny that “the decent drapery of life” is unnatural. He relishes the fact that it is through the trappings of our traditions—including the illusions of our glamour—that we “cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature.” It is through such images, to the extent that they are “furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination” that we preserve the best of civilization.

Glamour can be good or bad, destructive or constructive, enhance civilized society or pull it down. It depends both on the nature of the glamorous image and, more importantly, on the character of the person who views and is moved by the image. This imaginative aspect of the person is not new; it is not a product of the modern age. Postrel writes, “The longing for ideal beauty is ancient, and so is the art that expresses it” (88). The martial glamour of Achilles drove Alexander the Great, who yearned to be like Achilles, to great conquests. Helen of Troy drove men to a devastatingly destructive war because her glamorous beauty stirred longing that overcame virtue, honor, and, especially, reason (145–50). Postrel’s perception of the ancient pedigree of glamour and its power makes The Power of Glamour worth reading, even for students of politics.

 

Luke Sheahan is a post-doctoral fellow in the Duke University Department of Political Science