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Zero History
Zero History
William Gibson
G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2010
416 pp., 26.95

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Brett McCracken

Zero History

William Gibson's anatomy of cool.

At the center of William Gibson's Zero History—the concluding entry in his "Blue Ant" trilogy, which includes 2003's Pattern Recognition and 2007's Spook Country—is a phantom fashion designer who works under the name Gabriel Hounds. Hounds specializes in a secretive, "anti-brand" line of jeans that are "dropped" at secret locations and never advertised, jeans that are highly sought after in the fashion world precisely because they are almost impossible to find.

The plot centers on the high-stakes quest of marketing magnate/cool-hunter Hubertus Bigend (who figures in all three books in the trilogy) to locate the mysterious creative force behind Gabriel Hounds. The novel's resulting adventure is characterized by an ambiance of paranoia and curiosity, where characters exhibit a palpable urgency to observe details and recognize meaning (preferably marketable meaning) in objects. As a result, the book dwells in the realm of hyper-specificity, where "cool-hunting" is a life-or-death, James Bondian mission to recognize the next big thing before it's on anyone else's radar. This is a world where observational acuity (being able to look at a garment and describe it as "a sort of post-holocaust drum majorette jacket") is more important than proficiency with a gun.

But what exactly is it about an object that tips a cool-hunter off to its coolness? This is a question that Zero History explores, particularly in the person/idea of Gabriel Hounds.

Like Banksy, Britain's reigning secret punk artist/provocateur (who is name-dropped at least once in History), the mystery designer behind Gabriel Hounds is cool largely because of his or her anonymity, spectral exclusivity, and refusal to play the system in the typical way. Gabriel Hounds is "about atemporality," one character notes. "About opting out of the industrialization of novelty. It's about deeper code."

But how elusive is this "deeper code," really? One of the problems of "cool" in the fashion world today is that, with the proliferation of cool-hunters, market research, and commoditized rebellion (think Urban Outfitters, H&M, or other "counterculture" retailers), the cycle from trendsetter to mass consumption is ever shorter and the high-low cultural divide ever narrower. Cool is more quickly copied and mainstreamed these days, which makes the task of being cutting-edge and truly exclusive ever more arduous.

The nature of fashion—both the idea of it and the accompanying industry—is that it must constantly be moving along so that some measure of esoteric inaccessibility is maintained. "The fundamental dysfunction of the fashion industry," notes one character in History, is that it's like a shopping cart with a missing wheel that must nevertheless keep moving. "You can only keep it moving if you lean on it a certain way and keep pushing, but if you stop, it tips over. Season to season, show to show, you keep it moving."

The instability of the fashion industry is integral to its success. If it becomes too much of a well-oiled, predictable machine, it becomes easy to figure out and reproduce en masse (the point at which hip dies). Thus, someone interested in becoming powerful in the fashion industry must be willing to live in a wobbly world, "harnessing chaos" and valuing that liminal space between the known and the unknown, the found and the hidden.

But as much as uncertainty and elusiveness are assets in the fashion world—and indeed, for anyone striving to be "cool"—they also represents its most menacing threat. For within this wobbly, necessarily cannibalizing culture is also an uncertainty about what truly constitutes quality. Is a jacket desirable chiefly because it is well-made, or because it is one of only 50 Gabriel Hounds jackets of that kind ever made? Is "cool" ultimately about something being good, or something being esoteric, operating on a "deeper code" level of "most people will never really get why this is cool" semiotics?

In one of fashion's best theoretical texts, The Theory of the Leisure Class, Thorstein Veblen argues that the reason the latest fashion is felt to be good or beautiful rests not in its actual beauty but in the "code of reputability" which it carries as a symbol of privileged status. "Our transient attachment to whatever happens to be the latest rests on other than aesthetic grounds," writes Veblen. Rather, it stems from how unique or élite an object is: Handmade is better than machine-produced; things that are cask-aged and patinated are more valuable than quickly produced readymades for the masses. It's all about whether something is within reach of many or accessible to only a few. Veblen puts it this way:

The objection to machine products is often formulated as an objection to the commonness of such goods. What is common is within the (pecuniary) reach of many people. Its consumption is therefore not honorific, since it does not serve the purpose of a favourable invidious comparison with other consumers.

One of the reasons I wrote Hipster Christianity is that I'm interested in what these inherent qualities of cool mean for Christians and the church. If something is "cool" in large part because it is esoteric, exclusive, and beyond the reaches of the masses, what do we make of "cool churches"? Both individually and corporately, are we as Christians consuming certain "cool" cultural items—iPhones, keffiyeh, the latest glo-fi indie band from Brooklyn—because we recognize inherent value in them, or because we like the power and cultural credibility that comes with them? Part of the brilliance of Zero History is that it portrays just how blurry this distinction is in the worlds of fashion and marketing. Things that are cool are clearly valuable, but where exactly that value resides—whether in the thing itself or in the way it is spun—is unclear.

Christianity and "cool" seems like a crude mix to me, in part because cool is so much about this sort of exclusionary secret-keeping. But also because cool is necessarily transient. It can never pause to truly dwell on goodness, truth, or beauty, because its primary focus is on the cycle of newness and the cutting edge. It's about moving on to the next thing and disposing of the old whenever it is widely discovered. Not only is this exhausting and soul-deadening, but it also represents a bias against longevity and populism, against something being known and appreciated by large numbers of people, that seems to fundamentally conflict with a Christian faith that should rejoice in sharing as widely as possible the unchanging truth of Christ's victory over sin and death.

This is not to say Christians should have no part in the fashion industry, or that the world of fashion is bereft of any goodness, truth, or beauty. It's simply to suggest that fashion and its currency of cool, founded on envy, exclusion, hiddenness, and temporality, can easily crowd out our ability to cultivate a taste for that which is truly valuable, cool or not.

Brett McCracken is managing editor for Biola University's Biola Magazine. He is the author of Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide (Baker).

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