In the city, we are barraged with images of the people we might become


In the city, we are barraged with images of the people we might become. Identity is presented as plastic, a matter of possessions and appearances; and a very large proportion of the urban landscape is taken up by slogans, advertisements, flatly photographed images of folk heroes - the man who turned into a sophisticated dandy overnight by drinking a particular brand of drink, the girl who transformed herself into a femme fatale with a squirt of cheap scent. The tone of the wording of these advertisements is usually pert and facetious, comically drowning in its own hyperbole. But the pictures are brutally exact: they reproduce every detail of a style of life, down to the brand of cigarette-lighter, the stone in the ring, and the economic row of books on the shelf.

Yet, if one studies a line of ads across from where one is sitting on a tube train, these images radically conflict with each other. Swap the details about between the pictures, and they are instantly made illegible. If the characters they represent really are heroes, then they clearly have no individual claim to speak for society as a whole. The clean-cut and the shaggy, rakes, innocents, brutes, home-lovers, adventurers, clowns all compete for our attention and invite emulation. As a gallery, they do provide a glossy mirror of the aspirations of a representative city crowd; but it is exceedingly hard to discern a single dominant style, an image of how most people would like to see themselves.

Even in the business of the mass-production of images of identity, this shift from the general to the diverse and particular is quite recent. Consider another line of stills: the back-lit, soft-focus portraits of the first and second generations of great movie stars. There is a degree of romantic unparticularity in the face of each one, as if they were communal dream-projections of society at large.

Only in the specialised genres of westerns, farces and gangster movies were stars allowed to have odd, knobbly cadaverous faces. The hero as loner belonged to history or the underworld: he spoke from the perimeter of society, reminding us of its dangerous edges.

The stars of the last decade have looked quite different. Soft-focus photography has gone, to be replaced by a style which searches out warts and bumps, emphasises the uniqueness not the generality of the face. Voices, too, are strenuously idiosyncratic; whines, stammers and low rumbles are exploited as features of 'star quality'. Instead of romantic heroes and heroines, we have a brutalist, hard-edged style in which isolation and egotism are assumed as natural social conditions.

In the movies, as in the city, the sense of stable hierarchy has become increasingly exhausted; we no longer live in a world where we can all share the same values, the same heroes. (It is doubtful whether this world, so beloved of nostalgia moralists, ever existed; but lip-service was paid to it, the pretence, at least, was kept up.) The isolate and the eccentric push towards the centre of the stage; their fashions and mannerisms are presented as having as good a claim to the limelight and the future as those of anyone else. In the crowd on the underground platform, one may observe a honeycomb of fully-worked-out worlds, each private, exclusive, bearing little comparison with its nearest neighbour. What is prized in one is despised in another. There are no clear rules about how one is supposed to manage one's body, dress, talk, or think.

Though there are elaborate protocols and etiquettes among particular cults and groups within the city, they subscribe to no common standard.

For the new arrival, this disordered abundance is the city's most evident and alarming quality. He feels as if e has parachuted into a funfair of contradictory imperatives. There are so many people he might become, and a suit of clothes, a make of car, a brand of cigarettes, will go some way towards turning him into a personage even before he has discovered who that personage is.

Personal identity has always been deeply rooted in property, but hitherto the relationship has been a simple one - a question of buying what you could afford, and leaving your wealth to announce your status. In the modern city, there are so many things to buy, such a quantity of different kinds of status, that the choice and its attendant anxieties have created a new pornography of taste.

The leisure pages of the Sunday newspapers, fashion magazines, TV plays, popular novels, cookbooks, window displays all nag at the nerve of our uncertainty and snobbery. Should we like American cars, hard-rock hamburger joints, Bauhaus chairs ... ? Literature and art are promoted as personal accessories: the paintings of Mondrian or the novels of Samuel Beckett 'go' with certain styles like matching handbags. There is in the city a creeping imperialism of taste, in which more and more commodities are made over to being mere expressions of personal identity. The piece of furniture, the pair of shoes, the book, the film, are important not so much in themselves but for what they communicate about their owners; and ownership is stretched to include what one likes or believes in as well as what one can buy.

34 What does the writer say about advertisements in the first paragraph?
A Certain kinds are considered more effective in cities than others.
B The way in which some of them are worded is cleverer than it might appear.
C They often depict people that most other people would not care to be like.
D The pictures in them accurately reflect the way that some people really live.

35 The writer says that if you look at a line of advertisements on a tube train, it is clear that
A city dwellers have very diverse ideas about what image they would like to have.
B some images in advertisements have a general appeal that others lack.
C city dwellers are more influenced by images on advertisements than other people are.
D some images are intended to be representative of everyone's aspirations.

36 What does the writer imply about portraits of old movie stars?
A They tried to disguise the less attractive features of their subjects.
B Most people did not think they were accurate representations of the stars in them.
C They made people feel that their own faces were rather unattractive.
D They reflected an era in which people felt basically safe.

37 What does the writer suggest about the stars of the last decade?
A Some of them may be uncomfortable about the way they come across.
B They make an effort to speak in a way that may not be pleasant on the ear.
C They make people wonder whether they should become more selfish.
D Most people accept that they are not typical of society as a whole.

38 The writer uses the crowd on an underground platform to exemplify his belief that
A no single attitude to life is more common than another in a city.
B no one in a city has strict attitudes towards the behaviour of others.
C views of what society was like in the past are often inaccurate.
D people in cities would like to have more in common with each other.

39 The writer implies that new arrivals in a city may
A change the image they wish to have too frequently.
B underestimate the importance of wealth.
C acquire a certain image without understanding what that involves.
D decide that status is of little importance.

40 What point does the writer make about city dwellers in the final paragraph?
A They are unsure as to why certain things are popular with others.
B They are aware that judgements are made about them according to what they buy.
C They want to acquire more and more possessions.
D They are keen to be the first to appreciate new styles.

In the city, we are barraged with images of the people we might become

Text: Oxford University Press

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