[Back to the Reviews Menu]

All Consuming Images: The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture
by Stuart Ewen


(Basic Books, two hundred something pages, hard cover) [Book Cover]

Does it ever cross your mind that, perhaps, our society values "looks" over substance? Whenever you get ready for work, and you slip into your carefully designed Armani underwear, or jump into your sensually sculpted econo-car, do you ever ponder the apparent obsession we seem to have with making everything (especially ourselves) "look" good -- even if these things happen to be complete pieces of junk?

In our contemporary consumer culture, we have a preoccupation with the appearance and style of the objects around us - we are surrounded by carefully stylized commodities. And why not? The style of an object is meant to mean something: to symbolize an ideal and reflect the values of the user, viewer, or purchaser. The value we place on the style of an object is equal to or greater than the value we place on its function.

Producers and product designers are also pre-occupied with the style of the objects that surround us. Designers rely upon the appearance or style, of basically all the things they create, to convey information and (often abstractly) add meaning and value. More work is often put into stylizing products than into making sure they actually work well. Once mundane consumer products now have the trappings of elegant heirlooms and "authentic" works of art; household products have never been so sleek, sexy or aerodynamic!

In our image obsessed society, where we're continually bombarded by a plethora of decontextualized images, stylization is often meaningless or misleading. It's used to make commodities appealing to the consumer by connoting various positively associated values or qualities (qualities often totally unrelated to the use of the product), and ends up being a surrogate for substance or value ("Oooo, the look of real walnut!"). In short, we consume style.

Style has become the modern logic of the marketplace -- it's mass produced and merchandised: anything can be sold if it looks right (or, if at least, the packaging looks right). From fashion, to architecture, to cultural expression, to product design and packaging, to politics, to the definition of one's self, the application and ideology of style has infiltrated nearly every facet of our society.

The obsession of image and style has even gone as far as to affect they way we value ourselves and those around us. (even though we were explicitly told by our Mothers, "Not to judge a book by its cover").

In All Consuming Images, Ewen attempts to get to the bottom of this preoccupation on the image and style, and examines its far-reaching implications; from the emergence of an all-pervasive style industry, to its ability to assert social control and promote a dominant "way of seeing."

Beginning with the proliferation of the image and the phenomenon of stylization, which followed new developments in reproduction technologies (photography and lithography), during the late nineteenth century, Ewen leads the reader through a detailed examination of the politics of style, the rhetoric of contemporary commercial image production and the consumption-based culture it occupies.

Ewen does a fine job of tackling the prominence and legitimacy given to style in our contemporary culture, and ultimately reveals it to be the result of a society in transition, (moving from a less complex mode of living, to a depersonalized and ever-changing industrial paradigm) and the prodigious efforts of industrial designers and advertisers.

He outlines how the mechanical reproduction of styled goods, previously possessions of extreme wealth, signalled the beginnings of a mass market in style and led to the re-definition of class and self. Of special note is the chapter, "Goods and Surfaces;" an excellent historical look at the emergence of a style conscious society.

Following the origins of our widespread style fetish, Ewen delves into the many associated ramifications of this new reliance on style (over substance): from the feelings of un-reality that it produced in society, to the new avenues of social control and influence such a prevalent acceptance of the validity and truth of the image has allowed. In this effort, he exposes the incredible influence the style industry has had on the psyche of our society, to the degree that, in our non-personal urban society, style has become a way of evaluating and defining others and the self -- leading us to present an acceptable (and carefully constructed) personal "image". In our image obsessed culture, we all learn that image is everything, and that to change oneself is to change one's image -- it's salvation through style.

Ewen then moves on to examine the logic of the style-obsessed commodity culture, and how it revolves around perpetual changes in style, an essential process in the profit-based convention of designed "stylistic obsolescence". The rule is that, style is to change, and therefore, stylized products are to be continually replaced with newer, more stylistically "correct" products: a perfect mechanism to ensure continued consumption of almost every product made today. The chapter, "Form Follows Waste," is an excellent critique of such a self-perpetuating style system.

Overall, "All Consuming Images" is an eye-opener to the prominence and near mythic status of style in our society today. It's engaging, well written, and pulls few punches in its quest to deflower the sanctity of the image, and the over-bearing influence of style in our culture. Indeed, the "triumph of the superficial" hasn't escaped Stuart Ewen.

Diagnosis: Effective in "shaking the reader's tree" as it were. May lead to the systematic questioning of everything the reader wears, eats, watches or purchases. The reader my never look at their Armani underwear the same way again. Precautions: Could be hazardous to one's "sense of style." "Trend-oids" and style mavens may want to avoid this book, however, doing so is at the cost of continuing to be a tool of the style industry and never fully getting beyond the thinly veiled, and hollow promises of the image.

Shawn Rafuse rafuse@sfu.ca

[Back to the Home Page][Back to the Main Menu][Top of the Document][Send Us Feedback at cmass-info@sfu.ca]