Thoughts on Style & Comportment

This is a snippet from a much longer piece I wrote a few years ago. I feel some odd obligation to proclaim this, as if Blogger were a priest of spontaneity and this my sin....

Style is not an essence. It does not exist prior to the thing. Nor does it reside deep inside, pushing the buttons, driving the ship. Style is not the means one adopts to liven up an otherwise boring performance. Style shows itself, or rather, forges its very existence, in the process of production, emerging at the point of contact between and amongst bodies.

Style is not just a heeding of the world. It is this manner of heeding the world, a singular mode of engagement with things. Style is what this body does with the world, how this body does with the world. Style is metabolic, a singular body's manner of consuming and distributing the world and, in the process, of creating itself: a productive consumption. It is the rate and mode of consumption and distribution, the manner and speed with which a thing takes up the world and put it to work.

Look around. See the different ways different bodies hold themselves, the different speeds and postures with which they tend, and attend, to everything around them — other people, information, light, hair, eyes, scent, air. Every thing consumes the world in its own way and, in so doing, creates itself. This is called comportment, the way a thing hangs in the world, the way it carries itself in the world. Comportment is at once a mode of interaction with the other things — an appetite as well as a touch — and the manner in which a thing holds its different elements together. A swimmer, a linebacker, a German Shepherd, a Chihuahua, a toddler, an adolescent, an elderly woman: each carries itself differently, assembles itself differently, emphasizes certain things and not others, leans more or less forward, more or less quickly, more or less upright, more or less attentive to different things. Each thing is more than a set of traits. Each thing is a way of going.

Style is not something done to the world but with the world. Our very perception of the world is already a particular configuring of that world; it is a giving shape to the many elements that present themselves to the perceiver. You and I are walking down the street. I notice some things, you others. And we do very different things with those perceptions. There is no moment we can possibly experience that is free of our styles.

Even so-called inanimate objects enjoy a style. Put any two drinking glasses together and you’ll quickly see two modes of making sense of beverage, container, and consumption. And these different styles, these different glasses, interact with other styles. Drink tequila in a whiskey glass and you’ll lose the delicate nose of the agave; drink whiskey in a tequila glass — tall and thin — and the whiskey will fail to open. This world calls for the right style for the right thing on the right occasion.

A thing — a text — is a multiplicity of elements, physical and affective, hanging together by the emergent, and ever singular, function of style.


drwatson said...

I'm taking a class in the fall that's called something like Issues in Contemporary Rhetorical Theory: On Style and it's taught by one of the few people in the department that I've really enjoyed being in class with. So hopefully I will be thinking about style a lot in the coming months.

I basically agree that style emerges, rather than being something that is prior to, but what about when you're teaching and you ask your class to write like someone else? Like, try to adopt Whitman's style or whatever. In that case, what does Style become? Before I "found my writing voices" - I think I have at least 2-3 - one that's forced on me because of academic conventions and one that's more or less the way I write when I'm blogging - I copied, sometimes painfully copied. After I read Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, I couldn't write anything without coming off that a crappy version of him.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Wow — good to know classes like that are being taught.

One of the best classes I taught was to MFAs (fine artists) called The Phenomenology of Style. I broke the class of 24 into 3 groups of 8. Each group was assigned an artist. Everyone in the group had to present found images in the style of that artist. At the end of the semester, each student had to create a work in the style of their artist — but in a different medium.

So: the point of copping someone else's style is (amongst other things) to learn what style is. And to learn some good, nasty moves from that person that you can incorporate into your own style.

Emeka Amakeze said...

We all pride ourselves in having styles which in most cases translate to something insignificant in the aura of another person perceived to have a more acceptable style.

Who has the best style and upon what parameters does the adjudged best style emerge?

Daniel Coffeen said...

I don't think it's matter of judging the best style. If style is a way of going, some ways of going resonate with me but not with you. I love William Burroughs' style but I don't expect everyone will share my love. This love of mine is born of a certain resonance — Burroughs literally resonates with how I go, with my own speed and metabolism.

So the criteria of assessment are local.

Anonymous said...

I liked how you related style to our differences in perception. Recently saw a great film which my friend despised, but I loved. It's a different way of looking at shit I suppose.