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Searching for the New Luxury?

Nike Air Pocket:

Fashionable Ecology


In this essay, I contemplate the recent concern with ecologically conscious luxury in fashion alongside similar developments elsewhere—such as the ‘cli-fi’ blockbuster in film or ‘hedonistic sustainability’ in architecture—in the context of and, indeed, as an expression of a distinct yet increasingly prevalent and pervasive cultural dynamic, a shift in our collective mood or what more popularly tends to be called zeitgeist: the passage from postmodernism to metamodernism. I consider this, the movement to the mood, to the passage, by recourse to two metaphors that I have long been thinking and writing about which both, metonymically, pertain to fashion and have been the subject of much debate in studies of the post- and post-postmodern: briefly, the metaphor of the shoe and, especially, at some length, that of shopping mall. Indeed, this essay considers contemporary fashion by way of the likes of the Adidas x Parleys and the Nike Flyleather, the All Bird shoes made from eucalyptus tree fibres, and the locally sourced Veja sneakers that are increasingly visible in our shop windows today.

The titular phrase ‘Nike Air Pocket’ links the brand Nike Air with the notion of the ‘air pocket’. Nike Air, as I imagine the reader knows, is a sneaker whose sole is advertised to be so soft that it feels like you are walking on air, floating above the ground, unperturbed by the realities of that ground—gravel, rocks, tree roots, etc. An ‘air pocket’ is a misnomer for a sudden shift in airflow, in updrafts and downdrafts, that makes air passengers feel as if they are dropping from the sky whilst in actuality the plane merely changes ‘wind lanes’—turbulence, in other words. The Nike Air Pocket is a shoe whose sole lifts us from the realities of the ground so as to fly into virtual—or, in any case, virtualised—obstacles. My argument is that what the editors of this issue call the ‘new luxury’, a movement in fashion that values the environment as much as it does indulgence—or that, as the architect Bjarke Ingels (2011) once put it in a TED talk, is as “sustainable” as it is “hedonistic”—may well resemble this: the performance of the effect of the environment, its sentiment as an abstraction.

A Feeling for Metaphors

By way of introduction, I would like to contextualize my argument by explicating two not altogether unproblematic implicit assumptions. First, by thinking of distinct cultural developments by recourse to general metaphors, I assume that the latter may help us make sense of the former. As those familiar with critical theory and continental philosophy will know, this assumption is not at all uncommon, though it too rarely receives the critical reflection it deserves. Just think of the frequent, often short-lived invocation in recent times of metaphors like the ‘archipelago’, the ‘desert’, the ‘plateau’, the ‘virus’, and the ‘swarm’ to describe current phenomena and processes. Indeed, if we were to take stock of the last fifty years of cultural theory, we’d find a wasteland, a scrapheap, of exhausted metaphors. By returning to two such exhausted metaphors—the shoe and especially the shopping mall—I am interested in tracing their afterlife: what do they tell us about the continuities and discontinuities of experiencing the ‘present’ over an extended stretch of time.

I think it is important to clarify here that it is by no means my intention to reduce complex phenomena and multifaceted processes to word play—not intentionally, in any case, since, as Nelson Goodman (1978) has suggested, we often use metaphorical designations literally that have been used for so long we have forgotten they are metaphors. An experience such as love, especially an individual person’s love for another (say, John’s for Mike, or Cindy’s for Omar), obviously exceeds any and every long song ever written, just as a war film does not exhaust the experience it sets out to communicate to its audience. I further agree with the likes of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980) that the use of metaphors to describe processes is inherently and problematically political. For one, metaphors fictionalize—that is, they treat one thing in terms of another that it is not. They also focalize. They frame. In the process, metaphors select, exclude and supplement, foreground, obscure and transfigure the phenomenon they set out to communicate. Love can be a journey and paradise and heroin and a whale singing and a picture window and a closed door and whatever. Each metaphor reterritorializes its reality along different procedures and affords and limits different thought processes and affective engagements. Whether you discuss war in terms of sports or a slaughterhouse will impact what you can and cannot say about it.

At the same time, of course, metaphors open up an alternative perspective onto an experience that is otherwise difficult to frame, in its entirety but even in part. It steps in, you might say, where empiricism and logic take off. This is why people still write popular songs about love and filmmakers return again and again to the subject of war: there is always more to be said about these experiences. Worryingly, I imagine this is also why politicians and opinion makers can scrupulously use metaphors in opposition to facts so as to persuade electorates of one argument or another. In this essay, I turn to the shoe and the shopping mall to disclose a novel point of view onto a complex metamorphizing experiential register of the here and now: the reterritorialization of postmodern simulation to metamodern speculation. Specifically, I draw on these metaphors so as to shed light on the manners in which designers, artists, and architects respond to environmental developments that they know, in an abstract sense, to be real but that are of such magnitude or dynamism that many of us cannot envisage or perhaps even comprehend them—the sublime, or what Timothy Morton (2013) calls hyperobjects, I guess.

Second, I follow a long line of thinkers who argue that there are, in any culture or society, feelings that are shared so widely so as to be called collective, or, in Raymond Williams’s apt terminology, structural: “structures of feeling” (1977). This is not to say that these structures are universal or exclusive, that they are the only conceivable responses to the socio-political or material conditions at hand, the sole available feelings at a particular moment in time or a place. Nor does this mean that they are necessarily expressed in a single fashion. Indeed, as Williams points out, they allow for a range of expressive languages. What the notion of the structure of feeling suggests is that culture is an affective register as much as, say, a semiotic one or material one; that the culture of the Enlightenment and the culture of German Romanticism, or the soixante-huitards and the Reagan era, feel differently about the state of the world as well as think differently about it. Or rather, each culture feels differently about the state of the world and correlationally thinks differently about it.

A structure of feeling is not just a feeling that is structural; it is a feeling that structures. A mood, if you will. As Noel Carrol writes, discussing the relationship between art and mood, “when I am irritable, in an irritable mood, there is no one in particular who irritates me. Everyone and everything that falls into my pathway is likely to become the locus of my foul mood” (526). If you are in a foul mood or an optimistic one, if you feel depressed or elated, this will influence how you think and can think about things—not to mention how you act. In this essay, I draw on the notion of the structure of feeling to discuss postmodernism and metamodernism, understanding postmodernism, per Fredric Jameson, as “senses of an end of this or that” (1), often but not always an ironic disposition, whilst arguing that we should think of metamodernism, as I will explain shortly, as an “informed naivety”. This essay, thus, considers the phenomenon of ecologically conscious luxury metaphorically—so as to contemplate it at all—as an expression of a collective sentiment characterized by informed naivety.

Postmodernism – the Shopping Mall as Simulation of the Environment

I want to recount here in some detail a metaphor I developed a while back in an essay on art and cultural change: the metaphor of the shopping mall to think both the postmodern structure of feeling and the metamodern one (Vermeulen and van den Akker, “Thoughts on the Space of Contemporary Sculpture”). Towards the close of the twentieth century, there was a sense, shared by many in the West, though of course not by all and not necessarily elsewhere, that most of the universalist utopian projects propelling that century—in philosophy, in art, in politics—had come to an end. For a progressive thinker like Jean-Francois Lyotard, grand narratives such as the Enlightenment and communism had failed to deliver on their promise; indeed, they had turned decidedly dystopian and should be abandoned. The conservative Francis Fukuyama (1992) suggested, on the contrary, that it was precisely because of a grand narrative’s success—more specifically, that of liberal democracy—that the search could be relinquished. But whatever the reasons, there was consensus that the modern momentum had stalled, had perhaps even come to a standstill. As Fredric Jameson put it in the early 90s:

The last few years have been marked by an inverted millenarianism, in which premonitions of the future, catastrophic or redemptive, have been replaced by senses of the end of this or that (the end of ideology, art, or social class; the ‘crisis’ of Leninism, social democracy, or the welfare state, etc., etc.) (1).

The label most often attached to this “inverted millenarianism”, to these “senses of an end”, is postmodernism, though of course the label covers significantly more conceptual territory than that single notion—indeed, depending on the context, postmodernism can refer to amongst others a philosophical regime and a sociological liberation, an emancipatory programme and a cultural critique, an analytical tool and a distinct style, each of these suggesting that if postmodernism designates an end, it also, certainly, signals many, many beginnings—whilst the phenomenon in turn is not the exclusive property of the postmodern.[1] Jameson categorizes postmodernism along three lines, which in many respects demarcate our cognitive map of the current moment as well. The first of these is ahistoricity. What is meant by this is the impossibility of cohesively thinking our current conditions beyond the immediate parameters of the present—which have expanded to include the entirety of the past and future—which are defined by neoliberalism. As Mark Fisher has so aptly put it: it is “easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism” (2). As examples, Jameson mentions eclecticism and pastiche: history as gesture, as style, history as gimmick. But one could also think here of scenario planning—or, in terms of fashion, trend forecasting: the colonization of the future for market purposes.

The second category is depthlessness, the implosion of depth-models such as dialectical schemas of appearance and essence, semiotic codes distinguishing between signified and signifier, and psychoanalysis with its interest in the latent and the repressed. Depthlessness precludes the possibility of the hermeneutic gesture: there is no one or nothing behind or beneath the surface to which to reach out. Here, one of Jameson’s examples is the simulacrum. I will return to depthlessness in more detail later, when discussing shoes. Thirdly, Jameson observes the “waning of affect”, the desubjectivisation of our affective registers. This doesn’t mean, to be sure, that we no longer feel anything, as is sometimes suggested. What it means is that without firm footing in history or depth, our emotions are found wandering all over the place, are everywhere and nowhere all at once, up in the air, if you will, rather than our body.

A metaphor that is frequently used to describe this theory of postmodernism is the shopping mall, particularly megamalls like the West Edmonton Mall or the Mall of America. The end of history was not announced, as Hegel suspected, by Napoleon on his horse at Jena. Nor was it laboured, as Karl Marx prophesied, by the force of a united proletariat. At the close of the twentieth century, what comes to signify the end, not just of “Utopian hope … but of history itself” is the shopping mall (Alexander 55). The shopping mall, Ian Woodward writes, is the “exemplar of postmodernism” (48). “To walk in the contemporary place of pleasure, the shopping mall,” Richard Keller Simon remarks, “is to walk through the avenues of the postmodern mentality” (248). As Anne Friedberg puts it: the postmodern subjects are “flâneurs du mal(l)”.

The reason for the recourse to the metaphor of the shopping mall is not just that towards the close of the twentieth century, as most writing on postmodernism is published, “malling”, spending time in the shopping mall, is the “chief cultural activity in America” (Kowinsky 24). Woodward points out that the reason is rather that most accounts of postmodernism could just as well be descriptions of the sociology of the mall. Postmodernism treats life as if it were a shopping mall. Certainly, as architectural historians and geographers like Margaret Crawford (1992) and Rob Shields (1991) have demonstrated, and as many novels, photographs, films, and series from the era attest, a mall is a heterotopia of the present substituting for a utopia of the future, suspended from the world at large so as to simulate a world in miniature, eclectically copy-pasting styles and tastes from everywhere and nowhere regardless of their original context and compatibility, mimicking life by prescribing the range of people’s behaviour, scenario planning our routes according to financial models, encouraging us to take a left here, at the chain sneaker store and a right there, at the franchise jeans seller, hurry towards the McDonald’s and pause at the Starbucks. It is “a sugar-coated dream world”, writes the architectural historian Peter Hemenway, “where we can shop, play, and experience danger and delight without once stepping outside” (qtd. in Backes 6).

The shopping mall blurs the boundaries between the public and the private, the outdoors and the indoors, indeed, reterritorialising place, as the architectural critic Mark Pimlott (2007) has observed, into one, single “public interior”. It similarly abandons the separation between the civic discourse of the street and the commercial ideology of the shop and between subject and object, turning every encounter into a commercial one, every gaze and every glance into a commodity fetish, an undifferentiated euphoria of self-realization through and as objects. The shopping mall further shares with the postmodern sensibility a proliferation of surfaces, of facades and shop windows, screens and mirrors. Appearances, indeed, which, too, are commodified, telling the customers ‘buy this’, ‘buy me’, ‘buy you’. Indeed, what Jameson talks about in his account of postmodernism is this: a momentary suspension in and of time and space, a “holiday from history” (Krauthammer) for those with the available cash flow.

Unsurprisingly, one of the buzzwords in accounts of the postmodern is simulation. The shopping mall is a simulated eco-system, a nonplace (Auge). There are storefronts simulating history—or perhaps time, duration—and food courts simulating locality. There are carefully designed parks and planters of various sizes, some with real trees and bushes and flowers, others with fake ones; there may even be grottos and water falls. Street planning simulates our behavioural patterns, our rhythms and, indeed, our spontaneity. Corporate security simulates law and order, just as the credit card simulates the bill of human rights. Temperature can be simulated. In the shopping mall, of course, even the air is simulated. The name for this is air conditioning: a process that feigns ventilation—that is, a relationship between the inside and the outside—by blowing out the very air they suck in.

Hal Foster has distinguished between a postmodernism of reaction and a postmodernism of resistance. The former is critical of modernism, but affirms the present. The latter both deconstructs modernism and resists the status quo. Both agree that the modern project has, for whatever reason, been abandoned; but whereas the former celebrates our point of arrival, the latter laments it. However, because the latter assumes the utopian drive is exhausted, its lamentation can take no other form than critique.

As Friedman suggests in her study of the “flâneur du mal(l)”, postmodernism is a closed circuit, a Möbius strip looping from front to back. There is no way out. There are mirrors everywhere but no windows. There are doors, but not exits. The exits are locked, from the inside, mind you, allegedly to protect us from the ideological Chernobyl outside, a historical disaster zone unfit for life anytime soon; but no one is sure, exactly, who has the keys. (There is evidence to suggest they were once passed on by Margaret Thatcher to Tony Blair. He, however, alleges to have inadvertently misplaced them during a visit to his friend Rupert Murdoch.) If we think, therefore, of postmodern practices that resist the status quo, we think of the critique of the inside—because the inside is all there is, because everyone and everything is on the inside: the writing of Michel Foucault, questioning our assumptions about what is natural and unnatural, normal and abnormal; or of grunge, criticizing consumer society; or of the photographs of Cindy Sherman, decrying patriarchy; or the novels of Efriede Jelinek, lamenting the loss of (moral) compass; or, indeed, the installations of Wim Delvoye, whose Cloaca, a machine that mimics the human bowel system so as to produce poop, was a critique of late twentieth-century’s culture fetishization of every interaction, person, or object as a commodity, including excrement, as well as an acceptance of its inevitability, since as far as I am aware, the individual excreta were sold on the art market.

Metamodernism: the Shopping Mall and the Speculative Environment

In times of oil shortages and desurbanisation, of server parks and distribution centres, scholars have all but abandoned the metaphor of the shopping mall. Yet surely we still find ourselves in the shopping mall, so to speak, in an eclectic, hybrid, infinite interior ecosystem ruled by the logic of the market. It is just that the conditions have deteriorated considerably. Shops are boarded up. Middle-class mallers unexpectedly find their credit cards declined. There are cracks in the floorboards. The air conditioning splutters. Toilets are clogged. People feel ill. The mallers fight over who and what is to blame—the system, the shop owners, the shop employees, the shop window decorators, the mall technicians, the mall security team, the consumers who buy in all stores, the consumers who buy in only one store, the people who buy nowhere, the architecture, the screens, the food, the air. It is no surprise that there have been so many films and series recently where the shopping mall is home to zombies.

There are four manifestations of decay, specifically. The first is a political-economic crisis, boarding up the shops and bankrupting the costumers; the second is a generational fatigue, a general feeling of unwellness; the third is the technological revolution initiated by social and locative media; and the fourth is pending ecological doom, or, the unexpected return of the outside. This essay considers the response of the mall’s dwellers to the last one, specifically; but in order to understand this response, we need to take into account how it relates to the other three changes as well.

If I speak about a political-economic crisis, I am talking in part, of course, about the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 and its aftershocks in the global economy. Though this widespread crisis initially appeared to set in motion a radical restructuring of our financial system, it ultimately deepened its foundations, in the process widening even further the rift between the wealthy jet set and the global dispossessed. Indeed, as the abyss of neoliberalism expanded, it was those in the middle who disappeared. However, by political-economic crisis, I also mean the corollary changes in politics, both on global and national levels. Globally, as symbolized by the decline of the so-called ‘PIIGS’ and the rise of the ‘BRICS’ as much as by new proxy wars, power is decentralized, dislocated from its former concentration in the West to the east and the south, turning countries such Russia and China in particular to hubs of negotiation, but also the likes of India, Brazil, and Saudi Arabia. Nationally, of course, I am thinking here of the decline of liberal democracy and the rise of populism, or ‘illiberal democracy’, disintegrating the political centre, abandoning compromise, a balancing out of everyone’s demands, for exchange, a market place of demands, where demands are traded as currency not content. Civilization and its discontents once again make way for Eros and Thanatos.

In his brilliant essay “Coming of Age at the End of History”—in many a sense the inspiration for the thought-experiment you are reading presently—Camille de Toledo describes the generational fatigue with postmodernism as an “asthma of the soul” (7). All of us who came of age at the end of history, he writes, suffer the same condition, a respiratory disease of the spirit, a claustrophobia of the chest resulting from an acute awareness we are unable to see beyond the “transparent walls” that surround us “on all sides” (4). “This world, the world we live in now, is all there is. There’s nothing left outside it and there’s no other world possible” (2). It is tempting to trace the origins of this “asthma of the soul” to the dust clouds resulting from the collapse of Lehman, but as de Toledo notes and as anyone who has ever read the essays of David Foster Wallace or other writers associated with ‘New Sincerity’ can attest, this illness precedes this event by some years. It is not dust we are choking on; it’s the draft of the closed circuit: the floating signification—systemic, arbitrary, relative—of air conditioning.

If the political-economic changes necessitate an alternate state of mind and the generational fatigue suggests a will for another sensibility, the development of social media has provided some means for achieving it. Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter and Snapchat and whichever corporate algorithm hits the investment jackpot tomorrow allow each and every single one of us, for better but more and more often, I guess, for worse, to contribute to the mall’s privatized public sphere, its “public interior”. They have radically different implications, in any case, than zapping did in in the 1990s, or buying a ticket to a concert in the 1950s. We can publicly question the mall’s architects. We can enter a debate with others about the whereabouts of the keys. Indeed, we can form ad hoc communities, interest groups. But more than anything, I am always surprised to find, we can confuse structures and individuals, mistake the latter for the former, and either threaten, abuse, or shame them for their inability to share our point of view. All of this is to say: in the midst of the mall’s deterioration, we can find momentary common grounds affording and limiting particular types of action to counteract, accelerate, and/or escape its possible collapse.

What frames each of these developments, these crises of capital, communion, and consciousness, like a soundtrack in a film, is a faint but increasingly present drum. Padam. Padam. Padampadam. As the mallers become aware of the drum, they gradually realize it comes from the walls, from outside their scripted but spinning life. It is—yes, they are certain—a knocking.

For a while, there is some dissensus about its cause. Is it a technical glitch? An issue with the lighting, maybe? A problem with ventilation? Yet as the sounds increase in tempo and volume, amping up the suspense like in a horror flick, most people begin to wonder: is there life out there—could it be? Or is what we are hearing the reverberations of the end of the world, after all? The name that they, that we, give to this uncertain phenomenon that is ubiquitous yet invisible and, even more, incomprehensible, is climate change.

What I and others talk about when we talk about metamodernism is the lived experience of this hermetic hyperreality by all accounts and appearances coming apart at its seams (cf. Vermeulen and van den Akker, 2010, 2014, 2017). Necessitated by the political-economic crises, delirious because of the thinning air, and desperate to confront the knocks on the walls, a new generation of mallers hallucinates that they discern images of elsewheres on the walls, like a desert dweller believing in spite of better judgment in the oasis in the far distance. They are indeed hallucinating; it is a false consciousness. Many of them, though not all, realize as much—the term van den Akker and I have previously used to describe this awareness is “informed naivety”. They are hallucinating because they cannot in actuality see the outside nor can they with their exclusive knowledge of the inside virtually imagine what that outside may look like. But once they’ve seen these images, they cannot unsee them. The outside is suddenly once again a possibility—even if it is an entirely fictional one. In other words, in this scenario, simulation is what necessitates but also what affords speculation, a speculation, in turn, which is at once restricted to the terms of the simulation but not its debate, nor its ‘reality’. People can imagine, that is reassemble, the parameters constituting their experiential register into an as of yet inexperienced or even impossible modality—indeed, into just about whatever they feel like, and generally without responsibility or in any case accountability, since the outside is still unregulated territory.

Depthiness and Shoes That Straddle Two Realities at Once Without Ever Inhabiting One

It seems to me that over the past years, culture has responded to the return of this hallucinatory horizon—or, as a student at the University of Art and Design Linz whose name I unfortunately do not recall aptly put it a few years back in a discussion about this, ‘horizhome’—in three ways. The first is to stick, foolhardily, to the laws of the inside, either disavowing the boarded-up shops and cracks in the floor and, especially, these knocks on the walls, pretending to take them into account, or recontextualizing them so that they conform to your beliefs. This is the route, I suppose, that Third Way politicians such as Angela Merkel and Emanuel Macron, Hilary Clinton and Justin Trudeau take. I also think that this is what a cultural scaremonger such as Jordan Peterson and, seemingly paradoxically, a number of activists concerned with identity politics propose. The single difference between these is that the former would like business to continue as usual, whilst the latter prefer it to continue as usual but under the explicit auspices of (white) men or, alternatively, the inclusion of a range of distinct and/or not mutually exclusive minorities.

In fashion, I would presume, this disavowal is that of the multinational corporations whose practices haven’t changed, haven’t been altered, really, in response to the knocks of geopolitical developments, generational concerns, or the environment. Here, unfair labour practices aren’t so much reconsidered in light of economic redistributions or political regulations, but moved about, inscribed elsewhere, in other systems. Similarly, environmental policies—in terms of sourcing materials, chemical processes, waste, or carbon footprints—aren’t so much tightened as they are broadened to include other countries or bilateral agreements, alternate legal loopholes, and so forth.

A second way artists and writers, especially, appear to have responded to these circumstances is what I have elsewhere described as the “new depthiness” (“The New Depthiness” and “Periodising the 2000s”). Here what happens is that a hallucination, i.e. a virtuality, is painted, that is to say, actualized, on the inside of the walls as if it was an accurate or possible or conceivable intimation of what may or may not exist behind them, of an outside—so as to be able to imagine the outside at all. The flat surface—in other words, the surface whose formal qualities or texture reveals no depth—is treated as if it nonetheless hides depth. Depth here is less an ontological quality than a performative one; or indeed, a reality whose ontology depends entirely and exclusively on its performance. The term depthiness is a reference both to Jameson’s notion of the new depthlessness and to comedian Stephen Colbert’s joke about truthiness: a statement of truth whose truthfulness cannot be empirically verified—or indeed, which is proven to be false—but is felt to be true in the gut.

In Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Jameson distinguishes postmodernism from modernism by way of an analysis of two artistic renderings of shoes: Andy Warhol’s ‘Diamond Dust Shoes’ and Vincent van Gogh’s ‘A Pair of Shoes’. The former is a glossy, monochromatic photograph of a variety of individual women’s shoes cropped closely and against a uniform background, making it difficult for the viewer to reach beyond the picture—to either the artist’s state of mind or a particular localizable or historical objective reality. The picture might just as well refer, Jameson writes, to a shop window or the aftermath of a dance hall fire or, indeed, the remainders of a concentration camp. This is to say: it floats, is everywhere, and nowhere all at once; it isn’t anchored anywhere.

‘A Pair of Shoes’ by Vincent van Gogh (c)Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Van Gogh’s ‘A Pair of Shoes’, in contrast, is painted in thick, textural brush strokes, vibrant in colour, figuration, and composition, the shoes worn out and dirty, not just allowing the viewer to peek beyond the painting but indeed giving the viewer little other opportunity than to see into the artist’s state of mind or observe the lived reality that the shoes suffered—the hard, unforgiving labour of the peasant. These shoes, in other words, are very much grounded in—and grounded by—a particular, localizable, historical reality.

Warhol’s shoes, it seems to me, are comparable to the Nike Air Max—or similar Adidas or Asics types—of the late 1980s and 1990s. Their purpose is precisely to float, to be obstructed by the particular qualities of the ground as little as possible. The shoes Clinton and Macron wear—indeed, there are pictures online to prove this—are updated versions of the Air Max: the Nike Zoom, or the Adidas Ultraboost. Van Gogh’s peasant shoes are sandals: if you walk around in them, you register every bump in the road, every gush of wind, every raindrop.

Nike Zoom Kobe V

What I am talking about when I talk about the new depthiness is the Nike Air Pocket. It is a shoe that has the simulated comfort of the Air Max and its relatives, but performs the reality of the sandal: the bumps, the wind, the rain. If Van Gogh excavated depth from the surface and Warhol flattened depth by means of the surface, then the Nike Air Pocket applies depth onto the surface. Examples of shoes like these are, I guess, the five-finger shoe and, more recently, the free runner shoe: each use techniques of simulation similar to those modelling the Nike Air Max, but they employ them precisely to allow our feet to be closer to the ground, to the sentiment of the ground; they allow us, allegedly, not to float above it, but to experience the ground more intentionally. We don’t often think of these shoes in political let alone environmental terms, but I would argue that in their engagement with the environment, they are very much shoes of our particular moment: hallucinations of the outside without even the slightest chance of realization, idealizations of our register of reality that can exist exclusively by the abnegation of the logical terms of that reality.

Depending on your situation, you may consider this model—and, indeed, this model may well be—either liberating or prohibitive. You might think it liberating because though not a condition of change itself, it is the index of the possibility of change, the sign that suggests that change is still feasible, even if just in theory. But it is also prohibitive. After all, as Jodi Dean has argued so convincingly, it constitutes the dissolve of limiting but stable symbolic laws—first amongst them truth—into unattainable liquid imaginary controls—where, indeed, everything could be true, depending on the scenario. Here the subject isn’t interpellated by social strata but by “creative potential” (Dean 66) and individual fulfillment—often masquerading as community needs: I must be better, it should be like this, we must make it like we imagine it to be, and only like this. It is the inverse of that phrase by Dostoyevski: here nothing is true and because of that everything is true; nothing is possible anymore and, as a consequence, everything is possible.

The third way, finally, that I think culture integrates these knocks on the wall into the mall’s ecosystem is what we might call the ‘seismographic method’, or the parable of Plato’s mall. This is, I think, another method people in fashion studies and design often think of when they talk about the ‘new luxury’ or ‘sustainable hedonism’. If the new depthiness responds to the historical silence on the inside and the knocks it imagines coming from the outside poetically, the seismographic method is more of a pragmatic approach—though not, it is important to note, empirical; its modality, too, is entirely and exclusively performative. The seismographic method, as the name suggests, listens carefully to the reverberations coming through the wall so as to echo their effects inside. The knocks are taken as guiding principles for the rhythm and organization of the inside.

The shoes I am thinking of here are the shoes I mentioned in passing at the beginning of my essay: the Adidas x Parley, Ultraboost shoes made in part from upcycled plastic recollected from the ocean, or the Nike Flyleather, produced in part from reclaimed leather fibre, or indeed the Veja collection, organically and locally sourced in its entirety. These shoes echo, in slightly different manners, the reverberations scientists have measured in the environment: the plastic islands polluting the ocean, changing in concrete ways the oceanscape, affecting the diets of fish, manipulating migratory streams, even turning water in to land; the needless slaughter of animals; systems of waste disposal; carbon footprints; and so on. Indeed, what they echo, I would be inclined to say, are generalized feelings about diagrams and datasets, about statistics; in other words: sentimental abstractions. The wearer of the shoe experiences environmental change in the same manner that the player of that Pokémon game experiences their surroundings: by an epistemic, abstracted detour, an encounter with a reality that they never actually encounter.

Adidas x UltraBoost Parley in Deep Ocean Blue

I don’t intend this to sound as cynical as I imagine it may do—though I am very sceptical of this development. What I want to highlight here is that these shoes, too, are still very much products of the mall, property of the inside. They listen to the knocks, move with them, dance to them, but they don’t return the call. Importantly, I think we should therefore ask ourselves whether these shoes are made for the inside as well, or rather, I guess, whether they could ever be worn ‘outside’, whether they would sustain whatever it is the outside holds.

What I have attempted to think through in the above is a distinct relationship between a number of increasingly widespread phenomena and their cultural context: the shoe and the deteriorating mall, the Adidas x Parley and environmental change. In many senses, my thought experiment has been both indirect and inappropriate, a generalizing, entirely metaphorical account of a very specific, very real problem. But what I hope to have achieved is a frame, or, I guess, in Jameson’s words, a cognitive map, in which to consider this problem cohesively and coherently. In a time where so much happens all the time, we tend to lose track not just of what happens but also of where we find ourselves. By discussing in a single vernacular or genre some of these occurrences, I hope to establish some sense of clarity. For understanding but also for action. Because if we don’t understand where we are, we certainly would find it difficult to know where to go—outside of the mall.


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[1] It is difficult to overstate the importance of understanding both that ‘postmodernism’ can describe a variety of experiences, objective realities, and indeed theoretical models; and that each of these is more nuanced and indeed complex than they are often assumed to be these days. This is important especially in the context of the recent wholesale dismissals of postmodernism as a ‘cultural Marxism’, responsible for, well whatever those dismissing it—who are, it seems to me, mostly frightened and frustrated reactionary white men—need it to be responsible for at any moment in time. I am reminded here, ironically, of Hal Foster’s critical analysis of postmodernism’s critiques of modernism:

In cultural politics today, a basic opposition exists between a postmodernism which seeks to deconstruct modernism and resist the status quo and a postmodernism which repudiates the former to celebrate the latter: a postmodernism of resistance and a postmodernism of reaction. … The postmodernism of reaction … is singular in its repudiation of modernism. This repudiation, voiced most shrilly perhaps by neoconservatives but echoed everywhere, is strategic: as Habermas cogently argues, the neoconservatives sever the cultural from the social, then blame the practices of the one (modernism) for the ills of the other (modernization). With cause and effect thus confounded, ‘adversary’ culture is denounced even as the economic and political status quo is affirmed—indeed, a new ‘affirmative’ culture is proposed. (xi-xii)

Timotheus Vermeulen

Timotheus Vermeulen is a scholar and critic. He is associate professor in Media, Culture and Society at the University of Oslo, Norway and Director of the PhD Programme in Media Studies. His research interests include cultural theory, aesthetics, and close textual analysis of film, television and contemporary art.  

Vermeulen is the author of the monograph Scenes from the Suburbs (EUP, 2014) and joint editor with Martin Dines of New Suburban Stories (Bloomsbury, 2013). Together with Alison Gibbons and Robin van den Akker he further edited Metamodernism: Historicity, Affect and Depth after Postmodernism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017).  ‘Notes on Metamodernism‘, an essay he co-wrote with van den Akker, was translated and published in book form in Germany as Anmerkungen zurMetamoderne (Textem, 2016).  

Vermeulen publishes in academic and popular contexts alike, writing for amongst others The Journal of Aesthetics and Culture, Screen, Monu, The American Book Review, E-Flux, Texte Zur KunstTank, Metropolis M, and De Groene Amsterdammer, as well as various reference works, collections and catalogues. From 2009 to 2016 Vermeulen helped maintain the now defunct arts and culture platform Notes on Metamodernism. He is a regular contributor to Frieze. 

Vermeulen has served on numerous committees and juries for art prizes, most recently the Nam Jun Paik Award, the Bonner Kunstpreis and Coast Contemporary. He also advises and consults on exhibitions.