Black T-Shirts: The Original Invisibility Cloaks

Much like Louis CK, Žižek makes public appearances in a black t-shirt so often that the garment becomes a uniform. In my mind's eye, Žižek's t-shirt is stained, threadbare, faded, ready to be discarded at a moment's notice. If Louis CK adopts the symbolic and aesthetic qualities of the black t-shirt for camouflage, then Žižek actively embraces the shirt's strategic quality of being replaceable.

Those qualities emerge partly from the material conditions of the t-shirt's creation: cheap labor and cheap materials combine to offer a purposefully temporary product, one that doesn't deserve even commodity status. One of Žižek's behavioral ticks draws constant attention to the shirt's material form: a frequent pinching at its surface below the neck, visible during lectures and interviews. No matter what Žižek is talking about, he's also always talking about his t-shirt.

However, Žižek does not simply don clothes so as to later strip or discard them. Instead, the shirt becomes yet another example of theoretical reversal. The black t-shirt has an agenda based on erasure and anonymity, but it is also reflexive, turning on the body that wears it. Žižek wears the black t-shirt as a mask, as a way of making sure that he looks like the mass of slobs that Louis CK hides in. When Louis CK dons the black t-shirt, he becomes the average American man. When Žižek does, he becomes a parody of himself: from erratic philosopher to caricature, intellectual to crackpot. From that position he is free to do or say anything that he wants. By creating a joke of himself, Žižek undermines the very words he speaks.


Jobs on stage at WWDC 2007 (Flickr/Ben Stanfield)

Former Apple CEO Steve Jobs didn't wear black t-shirts, not exactly. After rebooting Apple in the late 1990s, Jobs always wore a futuristic black turtleneck for his famous keynotes. Even though he took the stage like a comedian or a revolutionary might do, Jobs' uniform was always more Star Trek than country trek. Turtleneck tucked into dark jeans, Jobs aspired for the look of an artist more than that of a working stiff. Black shirt as a symbol of the purity of form, of design itself. It seems straightforward enough.

But then, why did Jobs always push his sleeves up? In photo after photo you can see Steve Jobs holding the latest iPhone aloft. His long sleeves are pushed up toward his elbows. Is it to disassociate the turtleneck from the gadget? Does low-tech black cloth risk infecting the shiny future of the technology in photographic close ups? Does the flesh of hand and arm make our connection to devices feel more human?

Louis CK and Slavoj Žižek show us how the black t-shirt can become a strategic garment: powerful, white men use these shirts to make themselves seem anything but.

For Steve Jobs, the black t-shirt isn't a camouflage or a mask. It is a gesture of good will. It is a signal that, yes, we are all in the same boat here. The sycophants who flock to Jobs' products, events, and legacy buy into the common belief that Steve Jobs was just like us until he put together metal, plastic, and labor in such a way that he could corner a market. By connecting his public self with the black t-shirt's image, he's made black stitched cloth more universally human than it ever has been before. You could have been like Steve Jobs, and more importantly, Steve Jobs is just like you.

Jobs can turn anything he touches into a pop idol by holding it up for the cameras at just the right angle. He turned Apple into a business that makes the consumer electronics equivalent of black t-shirts. Look around you; who isn't wearing an iPhone? And if they're not, who doesn't want to? That's why he rolls up his sleeves: it's not the gesture of the craftsman or the model, but that of the magician.

Like any magician, Jobs' gesture is really just a trick, a slight-of-hand that converts something familiar and well-trod into something seemingly new. It shouldn't be surprising. After all, this is the man who changed the world with a smartphone featuring a faux-wood newsstand. Keep the old methods of production, of sewing shirts from dyed clothed from cotton imported from across the world, but recast it as innovation. Žižek would be giddy with excitement over the most appropriate phrase to describe this phenomenon: here's the new boss, same as the old boss.

Such is the mantra of the black t-shirt: the same old thing in the guise of something new and different. Louis CK walks around onstage under bright lights in front of thousands of people while giving a long monologue about flying first class and we still idolize him as an average American Joe working his way through the world. Slavoj Žižek sells tens of thousands of copies of his esoteric books and speaks to audiences of adherents who hang on his every word, but we still think of him as a joke, an outlier, an oddity, someone who has barely made it. Steve Jobs left us an enduring image of design that gets out of the way, but iDevices and MacBooks only do so by remaining constantly in the way, in everyone's hands and on everyone's desks.

The black t-shirt never succeeds in eradicating the person who wears it. We can always turn the shirt inside out and look at the carefully-stitched seams or the tag that's printed or pressed into the inside. We can always find the material history of the shirt if we look for it carefully and ignore the way it presents itself to us without a history, totally clean.

It's trickier to do the same with the shirt's acolytes. We recognize Louis CK and Slavoj Žižek and Steve Jobs when they stumble onstage, but the t-shirt is always there too, making it harder to see whoever is behind it. They stand in front of us as powerful figures who only become more powerful when they appear to be as weak as possible, thanks to their black t-shirts. A disillusionment might be necessary, a revolt against the shirt's magic that causes us to take these powerful men, flip them inside out, and trace how we came to think so much of them.

Presented by

Cameron Kunzelman

Cameron Kunzelman writes regularly about video games, comic books, film, and philosophy at This Cage Is Worms.

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