Proof 2010: Journalists Defending Journalism
Set 2, September 2010   Politics, Postmodern Journalism, and the Public
Contradictions in iconic, postmodern editors

Richard Sharpe

David Harvey says of postmodernism: "The collapse of time horizons and the preoccupation with instantaneity have in part arisen through the contemporary emphasis in cultural production on events, spectacles, happenings, and media images." (Harvey 1990: 59) And there can be few subjects more about events, spectacles, happenings, and media images than fashion and celebrities.

There are two iconic editors in fashion and celebrity: Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of the US edition of Vogue, and Mark Frith, ex-editor of Heat and now at Time Out.

Before getting into the details of Frith and Wintour's lives as editors, let's take a wider look at the role of the editor in what some have called the postmodern world. This from Roland Barthes, doyen of postmodernism: "The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author." All is text, to be interpreted as we wish, rather than dictated by the Author. If the Author is dead, then, at least in the modern version of their relationship, so must be the Editor. Yet these two editors , as all editors of magazines do, spend a lot of their time in the act of selection, with behind that selection implicitly or explicitly, meaning and purpose. After all, the pages have to be in some order.

Take the selection of magazine cover content. Here, if ever there was one, is a hierarchy, constructed and maintained by the Editor throughout the process of deliberate selection and prioritisation in the attempt to appeal to the reader and to project values to the reader. Now, the most influential postmodernists say "the text" lacks ultimate meaning, since meaning is perpetually deferred; there can be no privileged interpretation of "the text". But privileged interpretation there is in the day-to-day, issue-to-issue performance of the editor's job, notably in the selection of the cover, in the order of the pages, in saying what's in and what's out of the publication.

For postmodernists, the meaning of "the text" has, in the past, been tyrannically centred on the author, their person, their history, their tastes and their passions. Frith and Wintour are such tyrants. Their persons, their histories, their tastes and their passions flow through their work. Day in and day out they did not say "I don't know"; they have said "do it this way" and "this in and that out".

Wintour has become a celebrity beyond the realm of fashion through the September Issue documentary and the feature film The Devil Wears Prada, said to be based on her personality. She has been interviewed widely. And when interviewed we see her person, her history, her taste and her passions, even if the passions are kept under a glacial demeanour. There is a US TV interview with her where she is asked if she makes all the decisions about the coverage in Vogue. Yes, she says and turns her head away from the camera. She is, I think, a fundamentally shy person who uses self-control to overcome her shyness. Self-control is not in the postmodernism handbook.

It's all about surface

Yet, fashion is a classic postmodern subject: it's all about surface. It's not what you do; but what you select to put on your body. It's not what you achieve; but how you present yourself. In the world according to fashion, as in the world according to postmodernism, there is no metanarrative giving consistent meaning to the entirety. But is not fashion a construction of the person through selection. And the postmodern stance is, surely: "how does the world construct me?" But fashion is construction of the self by conscious action. And that conscious action has a privileged interpretation of the world: fashion is, after all, a privileged interpretation of selection. This is right, that wrong. These go together; those do not. Watch Wintour in the documentary, making her selections: it is done with deliberation, with a certain knowledge (even though the criteria are rarely revealed).

Similarly, Frith had the know-how to turn round the ailing Heat, which he has written about in his memoir The Celeb Diaries. And celebrity is another, classic post-modern subject. It's not who you are but who they are and how you relate to them. And, in Heat's case, it is not aspirational as in OK! and Hello, but ironic. And celebrities are, by definition, known people. They are not on the margins but in the centre. This creates another contradiction in the stance of the editor. Postmodernism is supposed to be concerned with the margins, not restricted to known quantities. Allegedly, the known is blasé, is already selected for us, carries too much of a hierarchy for us to contemplate in a postmodern world which rejects hierarchy. Yet the world of Heat and other such magazines depends on the identification of those who are celebrities because they are known, and again on the identification of those A-list celebs who are more widely known than the others.

Wintour welds the two subjects of fashion and celebrity together by putting celebrities on the cover of Vogue. She gets clothes from labels onto the backs of celebs, into Vogue and into the other publications covering celebs as they wear these clothes. Here she is working with two hierarchies at the same time: the celebrity hierarchy and the fashion hierarchy. This is indeed a privileged interpretation of the world. She knows who is B-list and who is on the A-list. And she's not using the B-list for her covers.

Wintour claims to laud women for what they've accomplished. Neither, she says, does she exploit women: it's all about ambition not insecurity. They've accomplished something, these women, inferring a set of criteria for what should be achieved. There never was a more modernist statement.

Missing

Yet what's missing from Vogue is what we would expect to be missing from a postmodern publication. There is no actual criticism of designers: we are not told why some people are not in the magazine; they are just left out. The reason for the hierarchy, the criteria which drive it, are not shown: why this and not that is not discussed, just assumed. And there's no examination of the fashion scene; there's no debate about the role of fashion or of the working conditions of the thousands who toil to make the fashion statements on our backs. That would be too much like a metanarrative for it to be told in the pages of Vogue. There's just the fashion. The statement. The image. The symbol. "The text".

But at the centre of Vogue and Wintour's role there is yet another contradiction which further unpicks the postmodernist stance. This is, after all, "high" fashion. It is not public fashion available to all. There can be no discussion of the real prices of this fashion, so there is no need to raise the issue. Yet the focus is on high fashion. And this high fashion is a matter of taste, not only of choice and spending power. So the selection is again hierarchical.

Rubble of taste

Postmodernism is built on the rubble of modernism: the rubble of a society in which taste was an arbiter. The rubble of a society in which things could be known, meanings transmitted with authority, struggles undertaken to make the world meaningful, even in its chaos. Postmodernism surely lauds the lack of taste; it undermines the role of an elite which will state what taste is for the rest of us.

Yet this is precisely Wintour's role: to tell the rest of us what taste is. Not by revealing the criteria but by revealing her selection; not to tell us the criteria of taste, only to choose by a set of criteria which are not revealed to the rest of us. Just look at the September Issue documentary. Can you discern her criteria for choosing one fashion item over another? I don't doubt her taste: she would not be able to edit for so long such as successful magazine without taste. But what are the criteria? They are shielded from us all. We would have to look at all of her decisions to discern what her criteria are, and even then we may get it wrong.

Some wrong and some right

In short, unlike the idea of the postmodern world where all is relative, in the Vogue world all is not equal. Some decisions about fashion are wrong and some are right. It's Anna Wintour's job to decide which is which.

Harvey has something to say about the role of celebrity: "The acquisition of an image becomes the presentation of self in individual identity, self-realisation and meaning." (Harvey 1990: 288) A central part of this is a focus on celebrity, the self-realisation of others which informs our self realisation.

It is revealing that Frith had chosen his top 10 moments as editor of Heat. That, if you missed the point, is a hierarchy again. These top 10 are recorded in an interview for The Mirror ( http://www.mirror.co.uk/celebs/news/2008/09/03/video-exclusive-ex-heat-editor-mark-frith-reveals-all-about-victoria-beckham-george-michael-elton-john-more-115875-20722734/) Although we should not judge Frith's statements about these events at face value: he is, after all, a postmodernist.

Literally

When he says that Posh and Beck's wedding in July 1999 was "A reality wedding...people felt part of it", we need to understand that this fantasy event was far from reality and we were decidedly excluded on the grounds that more money could be made by the happy couple through selective coverage. This is a classic postmodern method: the inversion of binaries. Cool is hot; hot is cool. What was at the centre shall be put on the margins, and what on the margins at the centre. So literal interpretation is shed in favour of statements whose meanings are perpetually deferred. When Frith later says that the alleged affair between Becks and Rebecca Loos was "literally what everybody was talking about in Britain", again we should not take that literally. But he does mean it, there's the rub. In his world, everybody was talking about the affair. He has, in the postmodern stance, his own world. In the postmodern stance, there is not a singular world out there to be described, grappled with and changed.

Again and again in Frith's comments about the top 10 events there are statements which have to be taken as postmodern. When two celebrities started to get interested in each other in I'm a celebrity... in 2003 he says the impact of that was "to be there when that was happening." But he was not there. He was watching TV. Such is the binary nature of postmodernism: to be there is to watch it on a TV screen while not being there.

Attached, involved and beholden

As Frith describes his top 10 he uses the same types of phrases repeatedly: to be there, to be involved, to be empowered, and to be excited. Here is his central contradiction: postmodernism is about detachment and irony. The postmodern world does not have an ultimate meaning; there is no tyranny of choice; the world constructs us and not the other way around; there is no known. And yet he is attached, wants to be involved and is, clearly, beholden to his subjects. He, in short, takes a modernist position with purpose, with choice, and with the construction of the known which he presented to us in the pages of Heat.

Yes, life is a spectacle, a set of actions with no ultimate meaning, the postmodernists would say. So Frith shows us the spectacle. Yet, ruinous to his postmodern position, he is The Spectator, the selector, the person pointing to what the rest of us should take notice of - in other words, a reincarnation of Addison and Steele, the editors who founded the Spectator magazine at the onset of modern times (1711).

It seems that these two iconic, postmodern editors can't get away from modernism. Just look at the term "postmodernism". Its advocates could not come up with a term of their own which does not include the very stance they wished to destroy: modernism.

Yet these editors are postmodern in that they are not required to resolve, or even acknowledge such contradictions as such. That would be a modernist stance. That would involve the work of grappling with contradictions and, at the very least, papering over them. Frith and Wintour really are postmodern in that all they have to do is operate with such contradictions rather than struggle to resolve them or make them explicit. The rest of us need to recognise their skill in doing this, at the very least. It is questionable how much any of us are currently capable of engaging with such contradictions in a less reactive, more pro-active manner.

Richard Sharpe is Senior Lecturer in Journalism at the University of East London, and a partner in ETC, the editorial training consultants.

Bibliography

Harvey, David (1990) The Condition of Post-Modernity, Oxford: Blackwell