During the 2018 Christmas shopping season, a revealing blip appeared on the consumer radar when Payless Shoesource surreptitiously opened a Beverly Hills boutique under the Italianized label Palessi. They invited a group of sixty select fashion “influencers” to attend the launch and give on-camera testimonials about the new line of designer shoes. (An influencer, if you are new to the term, is like the social media version of the cool kids in high school—the ones who taught us to listen to Depeche Mode and trade in our Velcro sneaks for Doc Martens; both groups have followers, but influencers can get paid for product name-dropping by advertisers, who stick like ticks on their posts.) The twist with Palessi was that the shoes were nothing more than Payless’s latest line of low-budget products. The social media sophisticates bestowed their enthusiastic blessings on what were, as the shoe company soon revealed, thirty-dollar faux-leather poseurs listed at a gargantuan markup. It was an egg-on-the-face prank that won a nod of approval from the broader media audience. Having already filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, Payless had nothing to lose.
To lick their wounds, some of the influencers went to New York City in February to attend Fashion Week, an event at which the fetish for designer wares is annually consecrated into a cult of the brand. It’s true that the spectacle isn’t for normal people per se. It’s for fashion culture itself. But as it fortifies its own image, Fashion Week grossly aestheticizes the fantasyland of desire in our social imaginary. And in come the influencers to set the trends a-trending with real-time Tweet-storming, Instagramming, and emoji-winking commentary on all the gaudy swank of live-streamed runway shows parading outfits that often climb north of $100,000. No one pretends we are going to buy this ridiculous stuff. It’s a strategic calculation to stoke consumer desire by provoking our sense of alienation from stylized satisfaction. Lend us your screens and the fantasy will be yours.
But all the hoopla was itself indirectly pranked by an off-runway product coming out of New York at the same time. A different sort of influencer, the Pushcart Prize–winning writer Melissa Broder, published an unusual personal reflection in the New York Times, “Life without Longing.” In the article, Broder relates how she came to realize that her adventures in search of stylized romantic love were at root a “yearning for yearning itself.” What had been driving her was the hope of “making meaning in this life” and sustaining “the sensation of a forward motion…a reason for being.” But when the “illusion” of finding erotic “completion” gave out, she found herself with a “spiritual longing…for some kind of eternal beauty or ineffable truth” that was “more nebulous, always just out of reach.”11xMelissa Broder, “Life without Longing,” New York Times, February 9, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/09/style/love-infatuation-longing.html.
Broder’s testimony reveals more than she may have realized. Although they seem synonymous, longing wants something different from what desire wants—and not just in the sphere of fashion or romantic love. Desire is the particularizing and possessive agenda of self-creation—the self in the mode of a performance aesthetic. Longing is the self’s yearning to be grounded in something irreducible to the object in front of it or the designs within it—the self in the mode of a storied aesthetic in which it is not the primary author and satisfaction is not its ultimate endgame. But the trouble today is that longing must vie with a state of affairs in which desire is shaped by those influences of commercial finery and technologically mediated fantasies that supervene on the very ways we sort out who and how we are in the world. Although desire appears to be that which is most our own, it tends to be cultivated in us and places us at a distance from the true experience of longing. Desire has become longing’s counterfeit.
It’s time to pull a Palessi and call desire’s bluff. To do that, we need to work our way through a formative paradox: The nature of desire is expansive and the nature of longing is restrictive, but longing is the better influencer in our authentication of identity and truth.