Friday, February 13, 2015

Élan Vital and Vaporwave

A life-form.

The other day my friend Lizzie asked me how I felt about vaporwave. Lizzie is much more attuned to the diastolic thumpings of culture than me, so by now I'm used to having to run what she's talking about past Google before giving her a reply.

I've been falling out of touch. It's true. I've resisted getting a smartphone; that's been a big part of it, I think. Slate was once my ear trumpet to the conversations of the middlebrow intelligentsia, but I had to stop reading it two or three years ago when its gratuitous contrarianism and clickbaiting got on one nerve too many of my nerves. The Quaker center had subscriptions to magazines like The Atlantic and Mother Jones, but I haven't lived there since 2013. The undergraduates and young radicals have taken their discourse to Tumblr, a forum I find too stressful to participate in or visit more than sporadically. Same goes for Reddit, really.

My tuning out and dropping off has been exacerbated over the last month. To review: I relocated to a tropical island for love and for fun. The house I'm living in has a television, but nobody ever really watches it, except when a bored housemate is catching reruns of Seinfeld, Friends, or Sex and the City. The only time I've seen television news during the last month was when the all bars switched their TVs from ESPN to CNN to catch the overdramatic blizzard coverage. There's not much in the way of journalism here: the only newspaper you're apt to find is the Saint Thomas Source, and I've really only seen it in racks at gas stations. If there's a newsstand on this island selling The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or The Economist, I've yet to see it. (Correction: if there's a newsstand on this island, I've yet to see it.) The household wifi router isn't the most powerful or reliable, so I'm not always guaranteed an internet connection in the bedroom. I'm not driving a car anymore, so I'm not listening to NPR or CSPAN Radio (a hangup we'll talk about another time) very much these days—except for Saturday mornings, when the missus and I stream Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me!, and exchange surprised looks for the whole forty minutes. "What? Did you know that happened?" In short, my conception of the culture sphere has dramatically decreased in resolution. I can hardly keep track of the rotation of mainstream talk show hosts, let alone stay abreast of the latest pop art/art pop movement. (I even hesitate to use the word "latest;" vaporwave has already been around for a couple of years.)

So. Vaporwave: smooth, seductive, soulless beats synched with collages of corporate emblems, classical statuary, video game and anime staples, and strings of Japanese text. It sounds like cyberpunk muzak and looks like an old GeoCities page as viewed the lens of amphetamine psychosis. Its raison d'être is to express the desertification of the soul effectuated by global capitalism, and to this end it apparels itself in the colors of the thing it ostensibly pillories. There's something of it that reminds me of Andy Warhol and Takashi Murakami, which might account for why I find myself unable to look away.

It's been said that vaporwave's intellectual moorings lie in the philosophy of accelerationism, which holds it a given that the raving demons of Wall Street will not be persuaded or compelled to turn off the music and call it a night. The solution, then, must be to join the danse infernale, to crank up the volume, hand out ecstasy and booze until the DJ collapses from dehydration, all the toilets back up, the dancers succumb to exhaustion, and the dance floor caves in beneath their weight. A cleaner metaphor might be one in which Planet Earth is a living human body and the culture-consuming, resource-depleting, alienating effects of capitalism enter as a malignant alien parasite. Accelerationism would seem to prescribe bathing the monster with radiation to facilitate mutation and more rapid growth, to feed and feed it until it gets so big and consumes so much of the patient that it starves to death from malnourishment. Maybe the patient doesn't survive, but hell—he was going to die anyway, right? At least this way there's a chance he might make a recovery after the parasite dies. And if our physician has a mad scientist streak, maybe he's hoping that the radiation warps both the patient and the parasite such that they fuse together, bringing some prodigious new birth to the light of the world (cf. transhumanism).

The other day I swam with a green sea turtle (endangered, thank you us very much) in the bay. No joke. I followed her at a distance of about ten feet while she meandered about the seabed, munching on turtle grass. What endeared her to me was her calmness—she demonstrated none of the skittishness I've come to expect from reptiles and sea critters. She regarded me with some caution, but never lost her cool, never blasted off in the opposite direction. Every four minutes or so, she'd reorient herself and rise like a quilted balloon to the surface, where she'd pop her head out over the waves for a second—probably less than a second, really, and only exposing her eyes and beak—and in that time the sea turtle inexplicably gulps down enough air to keep her underwater for another four to five minutes.

At one point I deflated my lungs and descended to the bottom (maybe ten, fifteen feet below the surface), placing myself face to face with the turtle. She wasn't afraid of me. She stayed right where she was. She waited until she'd finished chewing and swallowing her mouthful of seagrass, then looked drowsily up at me and said "fuck your middle class morality." And then she was gone, kicking bubbles into my face as she sped out to sea.

Okay, that last part was another fib. But there was a turtle.

And until recently there was a gecko living in our bedroom. We saw him skittering across the ceiling beams at night, but it wasn't until a few days later that I caught him snooping around my shaving kit. And I was worried that he wasn't getting enough bugs to eat in the bedroom, so I took him down the block and dropped him off at the termite's nest at the edge of the woods.

The termite's nest is really a sight to behold. The damn thing is the size of my torso, and looks something like a combination of a burl and a Borg ship. I've been noticing them everywhere now; I usually notice the tunnels first, and can easily follow them to the main hive. At a glance, these might be mistaken for vines creeping up tree trunks, or roots snaking out over the walls and walkways of derelict or underused buildings. But on a closer look, you see that they're actually composed of dry, grainy dirt. It's actually a combination of wood pulp and whatever else the termite workforce has in its digestive tract on a given day. Break into one of them, or jab a hole in the nest, and the termite workers come pouring out. Watch them for a few minutes. Once they finish surveying the damage, they stumble over each other to stick their butts out over the edge of the cleft and repair the breach to their fortification log by log (we might say). They're very efficient at their job; I've broken one of their passageways and returned after an hour and a half to find it better than new.

By every indication, geckos enjoy termites as a delicacy. I've seen groups of lizards camped out at a by a ruptured termite tunnel, devouring the whole procession of workers come to investigate the site. The bugs never see it coming. (No, really; the members of their hardhat caste are all blind.) I've never been able to observe the banquet for much longer than a single course, so I'm not sure how it ends. Perhaps the survival of the colony depends on the extent to which the profusion of the swarm outdistances the reptilian attention span.

I got a lesson the reptile brain's capacity for focus as I tried to persuade my erstwhile guest to just chill out and eat some of the termites I'd gone to the trouble of liberating for him. I was practically dangling them in front of his face, and he refused to eat any of them. I guess the survival algorithms of his executive control meat assign greater priority to vigilance against predation/squishing over feeding.

I miss the gecko. I loved him. There's a sense of dysphoria, even impotence in loving something that can never love you back, will never understand you, and really can't respond to you in such a way that you feel the satisfaction of a reciprocal exchange made in good faith. But I also believe in the potential for edification through communion with things that are alien to our nature, even if there's a fundamental and unbridgeable culture gap between the participants.

Wait. What do these things have to do with the aesthetic/philosophical underpinnings of vaporwave and the millennialist nihilism of accelerationism? Nothing. And that's just it.

If vaporwave is the expression of this moment of our culture an an augur of what's ahead, we find a present and a future devoid of the wild. It is irrelevant. More's the pity for the turtles: by neglect or design, we shall exclude them from the blueprints for our continent-spanning airport terminal futureworld because they don't exist today.

They suffer the misfortune of being real in an epoch where that which is communicated supercedes that which is substantially present. Vaporwave strikes me a one facet of a worldview in which the contents of digital spaces (the fact that we ascribe characteristics of dimension and volume to the flat and temporally impersistent contents of a screen is tremendously significant) enjoy a status of elevated immediacy over physical existence. A world in which the medium is not only the message, but the world itself. (In such a world, that which is wild and beautiful is not something to be found in one's physical vicinity, but as photogenic simulacra posted and shared and upvoted and reproduced ad infinitum.)

It speaks to the penury of a digital existence. Imagine an urban landscape erected over the pastures of the imagination, a city that's looking less and less like, say, Boulder or Asheville than like Robocop's vision of Detroit, or a Manhattan in which Times Square has expanded to encompass more than half the island. Like any metropolis, it tends to foster a kind of parochialism, a belief that the city is the world itself, or the only part of the world that matters. A hall-of-mirrors myopia is the issue of overanthropized environments, and I'd posit that a more digital existence amounts to a kind of overurbanization of the spirit (for lack of a more scientific description).

The kind of place the web is turning into can't be discounted here. I might feel more at ease with our migration from Earth to cyberspace if the web weren't so squalid. ClickHole is as lucid a portrait of the twenty-first-century spirit as you can ask for, and I often find it too soul-chilling to be funny. And the realities of digital capitalism should really worry those of us who aren't already spending a few hours a week in a board room somewhere. (Fortunately we have entertainment like ClickHole and the constellations of sites it parodies to keep our minds off of it.)

When such a world is one's only world, or is the neighborhood in which one takes up residence, one can't but be acclimated to the aesthetics and sensibilities vaporwave represents; one will more readily bob his or head to sleekly sterile mashed-up muzak, find charm in mosaics fetishizing corporatism and nostalgia, and conclude that the victory of the bankers and bastardizers can't but be inevitable because they are (from one's point of reference) everywhere, they have their tentacles in everything (as far as one can see), and there's no escaping them (within the confines of the world one inhabits).

This has all been a roundabout way of admitting to myself that it might be a good thing that I'm not as tuned into the frequency of the cultural moment as before. So why have I actually struggled with it? Why have I found myself occasionally feeling anxious, even a little guilty for not following my Facebook timeline as closely as before, for not reading The Onion anymore or falling into Clickhole, for not clicking on the very important links that my friends tout as being worth the while of everyone they know, and for—fuck, for not knowing what vaporwave is?

Earlier this evening I noticed a  piece in Nicholas Carr's blog about the ethical imperatives our new world foists upon us:
Just as the clock and the railroad gave our forebears lessons in, and indeed models for, industriousness, thrift, and punctuality, so the computer today offers us its own character instruction. Its technical features are taken for ethical traits. Consider how the protocols of networking, the arcane codes that allow computers to exchange data and share resources, have become imbued with moral weight. The computer fulfills its potential, becomes a whole being, so to speak, only when it is connected to and actively communicating with other computers. An isolated computer is as bad as an idle computer. And the same goes for people. The sense of the computer network as a model for a moral society runs, with different emphases, through the work of such prominent and diverse thinkers as Yochai Benkler, David Weinberger, Clay Shirky, Steven Johnson, and Kevin Kelly. We, too, become whole beings only when we are connected. And if being connected is the ideal, then being disconnected becomes morally suspect. The loner, the recluse, the outsider, the solitary thinker, the romantic quester: all such individuals carry an ethical stain today that goes beyond mere unsociability — they are letting the rest of us down by not sharing, by not connecting. To be inaccessible to the network is to waste one’s social capital, a deadly sin.
Quite so. I suppose it cuts both ways: as per the new ethics, not keeping track of the conversation is as profligate as not contributing—but sitting in audience can be sad as hell. I think I might prefer to think of myself not as disconnected, but habitually tuning in to a different frequency.

The other day I was sitting on a cliff overlooking the sea and spent ten minutes just watching a magnificent frigatebird wheeling across the sky like a swallowtailed dragon from another world. There were cactus blossoms in the vicinity, and they were attended by at least three hummingbirds. (There are two species of hummingbird here, and I've gotten pretty good at distinguishing between them at a quick glance, which is often all they give you time for.) On the walk home, I kept passing more hummingbirds. I've seen more of them in the last month than in the last thirty years of my life.

Later that day I mentioned to an acquaintance that I'd seen maybe eight hummingbirds, and actually got to observe one building a nest in a royal poinciana tree down the hill. She gave me a puzzled look, and said that in eight months living on the island, she'd never seen a single hummingbird. Then she raised her iPhone to her eyes to look at an Instagram photo of a stranger's lunch.


  1. This was very impactful and well-written, though possibly not the best thing to read as I drifted off to sleep last night. I definitely had some dystopian future dreams that I can't quite remember in any detail, maybe because they are now be property of Google.

    I can imagine after a series of mergers, there will be weaponized Amazon delivery/surveillance drones with "Don't be evil" stamped on the side, and the most "rebellious*" thing we'll be able to do is yell gibberish at them to fuck with their data.

    Also, fun fact: AZ has like, dozens of species of hummingbird. Roving packs of them patrol my office complex for injustice and fructose.

    *most rebellious while participating, that is. A sort of "Kill the Deathstar from within" plan.

    1. I can imagine after a series of mergers, there will be weaponized Amazon delivery/surveillance drones with "Don't be evil" stamped on the side...

      Sorry, but I have to steal this.

    2. Do it! Maybe submit it here: