Hegel, Haute Couture and the Ivy League: Why the objectively indefensible “brand names” aren’t always superficial
Haute Couture and the Ivy League have much in common: they’re both often used as archetypes for the categories they represent (being fashion and higher education respectively), they’re both extremes of these respective categories, but more importantly, they’re both highly criticized and at times incredibly controversial. To some, the financial selectivity of haute couture, where a Dior couture dress can cost several hundred thousand to a million dollars, and the academic selectivity of the Ivy League, where admissions rates consistently fall below 10% (and less than 1% for international students), are the excessive results of an unwarranted amount of value placed upon what are essentially the societal constructs of “brand names”. In the 21st century of empiricism, defenders of couture and Ivy League universities have to argue that they do have objective value: citing superior tailoring in the case of couture, or low teacher-to-student ratios in the case of the Ivies. But within the Hegelian dialectic of absolute idealism where the formation of the truth is predominantly influenced by social thought, perhaps it can be argued that it is the collective – the intangible, objectively indefensible value of “brand names”- that ultimately matters most, and that the need for objective argument comes from society’s own undervaluing of the collective.
We all live in a virtual reality utterly shaped by society. This was Hegel’s thesis of absolute idealism, where the formation of knowledge arises from a dialectical process of the struggle between our perception and the ideas of others – an attempt to achieve stable and truthful categories of thought in this conflict between subjective and collective. Hegel called the collective consciousness the “Spirit”, and within the enclosed system between the self and the Spirit, our truth is always relative. We can thus decode the Spirit’s placement of value on the Ivy Leagues, because being the few first universities formed in the United States, other objects in the category of thought (higher education) would be seen in relation to the original objects. Most original couture houses also serve as points of reference for contemporary fashion, as they derive their unrivalled status from the creation of that which has been assimilated into modern fashion norms, and the originality still demanded to even considered by the chamber syndicale means that ready to wear items are usually seen in relation to their counterparts in the couture season. Couture and the Ivy League thus embody the Spirit as the ‘universal quality’ by which the subject’s unique knowledge of either fashion or higher education must be judged against. It is their inherent recognizability within a system of thought that compels valorization – not a perceived, objective characteristic.
Yet, Hegel acknowledged the conflict between our mind’s own attempt to grasp the nature of the thought category through sense perception, and the imperceptible social constructs that determine how we should see that thought category, which inevitably produces skepticism and discomfort. The world of fashion is open in its recognition of the value of Haute Couture based on the Spirit, or the collective consciousness of intangibly relativist social norms. Magazines deeming ‘fashionable’ clothing as that which mimics the trends set by haute couture best, and fashion bloggers create silent ranks of inequality based on ownership of brand names closely related to couture houses. In response, the frustration inherent in the Hegelian dialectic between subjective and collective leads many to condemn the fashion world as shallow for simply pandering to the collective. In contrast, in the world of higher education and the Ivy Leagues, this discomfort leads us to seek transcendence. In Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, the constant struggle of the subject being trapped in the relativist dialectic led people to religion in an attempt to seek something isolated from the system of our virtual reality, but in the 21st century of individualist, empiricist thought, it is objectivity we turn to instead. By denying the importance of the collective, we instead seek qualitative and quantitative arguments to form a more solid basis for truth, such as the accessibility of professors and quality of teaching assistants, or the number of courses offered and the teacher to student ratio. People are told to judge higher education by these objective markers that attempt to isolate thoughts from the relativism of the Spirit of collective consciousness, whilst fashion is condemned for refusing to do so.
I won’t dismiss those objective markers as unimportant. But it is impossible to deny that the Hegelian view of the absolutely idealist world, whilst not entirely flawless (we’ll get into Schelling’s post-metaphysical work in a later article), does offer a powerful case for the importance of socially determined values. We are told to spurn “brand names” for objectivity, but when the collective consciousness of the Spirit is a factor in our determination and creation of knowledge and the truth, it is impractical to try and disregard what society deems to be valuable in our considerations of what we deem to be valuable. The Ivy League differs from Haute Couture in that they try to dissociate themselves from the collective consciousness, but in reality, students don’t choose universities in the Ivy League because of their “diverse range of nationalities” or “strong core curriculum” – the brand name is an important, if not the most important, factor. And why shouldn’t it be? The discomfort provoked by discrepancies in idealist ‘truths’ is not necessarily something to fear. In a world ultimately determined by the synthesis of the subjectivity of our own perception and the collective consciousness of society, brand names aren’t superficial constructs – they’re essential to how we live.
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