Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Notes on Alex and Ani

Alex and Ani Jewelry is a popular brand of designer wear that has elicited discussion of late due to it's rather notable jump within ten years from a minor brand based in Cranston, RI to a major player in the industry.  Writers like Steve Ahlquist and Bob Plain at RIFuture.Org, a progressive blog host, have complained about issues as diverse as worker's rights to advertising with certain radio personalities and other business practices of the company, but few have noted the detail that, in my perspective, both defines the success and the problematic nature of Alex and Ani as a brand, namely, its wholesale invocation of 'Orientalism', as defined by Edward Said, a sort of Western set of cultural opinions and coordinates based upon the confrontation with the exotic and erotic 'Oriental Other'.
First, it is important to define what Said means by 'Orientalism', and more importantly, what the implications are, because the implication of Said's logic are two-fold.  Said he argues that our modern discourse and even basic impressions about the East are patently false, that the West continues to view that span of landmass from the Gold Coast to the Japanese nation, historically called 'The Orient', as a singular, unified, mysterious body, not unlike how Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Edgar Rice Burroughs described the land and its peoples in their fictions of Victorian conquest a century and a half ago.  This false notion of the Orient and the Oriental, in turn, impacts public opinion and ultimately worldwide military policy towards Africa and Asia, always portraying Western notions of free trade and neo-liberalism as liberatory in the face of 'Eastern Despotism'.  Said, who was a politically active Palestinian American, associated this view of 'Orientals' as not unlike the structural content and ideological underpinnings of Victorian-era anti-Semitism, especially in regards to projections of sexuality, religious propriety, scandal, and finance, equating Shakespeare's Moor Othello with the Jew Shylock.
In Steve Ahlquist's most recent piece, the basic coordinates of Alex and Ani's tenuous theology are drawn back to the 2006 New Age best seller THE SECRET, a typical offering from a genre of pop-philosophy that has been invoking a grab-bag of Orientalist symbolism in the name of profit since the Enlightenment.  From alchemist movement's attempt to formulate a Philosopher's Stone to the Freemasons unto the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Anton LaVey, the history of particularly Western philosophy, science, and medicine is littered with trends and hypes around borrowing Hebrew, Arabic, Buddhist, Sikh, or Muslim notions of the spirit in a superficial fashion to formulate theologies of almost no insight for the rich and famous.
However, the one insight offered is profound and also damning.  The basic logic of the Alex and Ani charm design is simple, use the popular imagery to make money.  As such, there is nothing spectacular about seeing the Eye of Horus (an Ancient Egyptian symbol), a Saint Christopher's medal (Catholic), a Star of David (Judaism), Buddha, or any other number of combinations on a single bracelet.
This is the definition of capitalist imperialism and appropriation.  I highly doubt that any staffer at an Alex and Ani boutique can explain the real theological significance or cultural meanings behind their charm jewelry, but they do understand the imperative of sales commissions.  As such, we see a sort of ideological construct where, on one hand, it is socially forbidden to challenge the religious believer to honest dialogue around basic humanitarian issues, but on the other, this sort of shallow communion of faiths at the behest of capitalism creates a false notion of both security and solidarity, exclusive to those who cannot afford a bracelet.
And because those excluded from such benefits are indeed the very populations whose cultural imagery was invoked in the first place, the benefit becomes negligible.  Instead, one is left with a rather callous and shallow world-view as portrayed in these brands, Orientalist to the core, and on the converse, abject poverty and disease in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East due to trade policies that are supported by brands like Alex and Ani.
This goes far beyond the notion of 'sensitivity', in that I would not be satisfied in my view if one particular executive or designer were to either re-direct the angle of these presentations or discontinued such designs.  No, what is truly damning is not that a business would sell jewelry with such a mindset of cultural imperialism, but that children, of all people, would buy into, damage that cannot be undone.  Alex and Ani does not communicate misogyny, or women's liberation, or even equality in the workplace.  Instead, it continues the un-original invocation of a set of designs in the vocabulary of jewelry designers that are underwritten with false notions about the role of American manifest destiny and its relationship to the rest of the world.
The recent annexation of Crimea by Vladimir Putin, for example, is symptomatic of the clash of Russia and America over trade dominance in the region, especially regarding African oil.  Putin's own invocation to his constituency of 'Ukrainian fascism' and 'anti-Semitic nationalists' during the crisis functioned much in the same way our modern Orientalist ideas about Africa and Asia work in America.  The Eye of Horus in public discourse is symbolic of mystery, danger, magic, and the pre-Abrahamic pagan, and Putin's invocations tapped into similar signature talking points of mythology about the Ukraine.
This is how signs and symbols function in our society.  Alex and Ani do not intentionally make buyers behave dangerously.  In German Fascism, the Volk, pure Aryans, were encouraged to be actively militant in their imperialist government's agenda.  When the Nazis invoked Fatherland and expansion over the Russian landmass so to not just encourage the military but also enlist the aid of the population, they effectively crossed the line between radicalized and non-radicalized societies.  The success of German Nazism depended on common German shoppers boycotting Jewish stores, participating in book burnings, and being effectively active in the political theater that was Weimar Germany.  This was an ideology and brand defined by active participation.
But, with Orientalism, as seen in the designs of Alex and Ani, the passive acceptance of the discriminatory, the approval of racism, still underwrites the project, but from the non-radicalized perspective.  Most of the people involved with the very designs of these charms do not recognize or think of their library of design motifs as either unacceptable or wrong, as do none of the sales clerks, the buyers or the wearers of the jewelry.  No one really notices the underlying ideology of this product, meaning not as much that the reality itself is non-existent but, rather, that the idea is so accepted it has become part of the acceptable, the non-controversial.  However, even if an ostrich sticks its head in the sand, the ideas underwriting fashion, film, television, and fiction continue to impact our own perceptions of the wider world.
The failure of Alex and Ani is that the brand, like all others, is intellectually devoid and therefore vacuous when dealing with real events.  How many Alex and Ani bracelet wearers with the Eye of Horus charm can explain the pros and cons of the Egyptian Revolution and why the military coup had an effect on the American relationship with both Israel and Palestine, to the point John Kerry has effectively turned any hopes for the Palestinians into a catastrophe not unlike the displacement of the Armenians (especially considering Rhode Island, home of Alex and Ani, has so many Armenians)?  How many customers who bought the Star of David charm are mature enough to actually have a conversation about Zionism?  These symbols are not neutral, they carry real ideological messages, oftentimes which are in direct confrontation with each other in contemporary newspapers, and this brand of cafeteria multiculturalism in the capitalist dining hall is both preposterous and underwritten with a sort of negative view of the East and its heritage that ultimately does impact our political process.  To praise Alex and Ani for re-selling on charms old religious symbols bought at flea markets is to praise the intellectual logic of the aether research scientist and the cold fusion physicist, in that all such efforts do is prove the oneself to be oblivious of modern reality.  But this level of oblivion also defines the dialogue about notions of Orientalism and Zionism in both the Democratic and Republican Parties, resulting in real effects on the decision making processes in American policy.  The Orientalist mindset is one, alas, that supports American drivers, our reliance on it insures the gas pump prices, which itself remains wholly outside this essay's realm.  But it does show the direction in which it aims; that the clothes we wear, the food we eat, and the coffees we drink are not autonomous and neutrally occurring commodities.  Whole elements of the creative process include insuring the political palpability of these commodities is clear.  Alex and Ani's philosophical politics, their appropriation of Orientalist ideas and symbols, is indicative of a deeper American sense of perspective on the Middle East, shaped so to benefit the major industrial powers and their lobbies in Washington.

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