Strange Times (Do Otakus Dream of Animated Sheep?)
by BENNETT WINTERS
When Nabokov said beauty plus pity, what did he mean? Was he simply noting that most great literature exhibits a depressive tilt on life—that happiness is never isolated in great art? For it is true and great artists generally accept that bright light shone on any subject must cast a long shadow. Of course, most of us already know that when considering the magnitude of raw emotions, the height of sadness felt is only proportional to the height of happiness taken away. When faced with the death of someone you know, the more happiness they gave you in life, the more sadness they will give you in death. In this sense, as well as many others, both sides are wrapped up in each other. But Nabokov is not describing a two-sided coin here. Nor even a two-essence dying-yang-like construct. No, beauty, if we can attempt to describe it, must envelop both truths, happiness and sadness. Emotions, experience, these are the raw units of beauty. They are transformed into art, Nabokov says, only through pity, through meta-cognition about these units of life that comes to the only possible conclusion: its inevitable loss. Death. This seems, at least to me, a somewhat redemptive view of the oldest human dread. Would each individual beauty be so valuable in the first place if it had no expiration? Even a novel with the most depraved outlook, or a life with the most constant suffering, can have aesthetic value, because it is true, and finite, and these things give it value in the eye of humanity’s collective consciousness.
The manner/matter business just means (in dated lit-speak) that without content there is no form, without subject, no style, without speaker, no expression, without individual, no world. Nabokov directly equates the human to the artist, and the world to the work of art. The world, or, beauty, dies because you die and it was only ever in your head in the first place. A subjective world, as ours is, is the most fragile world there can possibly be. Every time your consciousness merely evolves, it dies and is reborn.
But wisdom is lost in the crowded abyss of information that is the internet.
This fact creates an essential and devastating rift between people’s minds. If you doubt the real-world relevance of this theoretical rift, consider whether this description, from David Foster Wallace, resonates with you: "For it is true that the most vivid and enduring occurrences in our lives are often those that occur at the periphery of our awareness... In testing, many schoolchildren labeled as hyperactive or deficient in attention are observed to be not so much unable to pay attention as to have difficulty exercising control or choice over what it is they pay attention to. And yet much the same thing happens in adult life—as we age, many people notice a dramatic shift in the objects of their memories. We often can remember the details and subjective associations far more vividly than the event itself. This explains the frequent tip-of-the-tongue feeling when trying to convey what is important about some memory or occurrence. Similarly, it is often what makes it so difficult to communicate meaningfully with others in later life. Often, the most vividly felt and remembered elements will appear at best tangential to someone else..."
Even the happiest, most social, and least aesthetically-driven person is subject to the isolating forces above. We are eternally at the mercy of our “attention,” as Wallace describes it, which is so esoteric and complex that it evolves in vastly different ways for every person, thus shaping what is important to us, and us alone. Death is so scary precisely because we worship this fragile world so much, and it can have no preservation. Faulkner said, "Between grief and nothing I will take grief." Most of us, I think, will agree.
The existentialists, for example—a group of thinkers that largely defined thought in the 20th century—believed, in short, that life is fleeting and harsh, but unequivocally worth living because of experiences. Our world is surreal by nature, and civilization can be seen as a marvel through any one of our subjective lenses, they taught us. Their teachings, we hope, will never be in vain, and can guide us in these strange modern times. But wisdom is lost in the crowded abyss of information that is the internet. Human knowledge is cumulative, a heap of stones on the shoulders of giants like Kierkegaard, and so certain understandings will never be lost completely. But for the average man stranded in the mass of information, and trained to consume it by the minute, how can he tell one stone from another, or even know that he should try? The only requirement for information to be adopted into one’s subjective world is understanding. Truth is not relevant, unless we work to make it so. Alvin Toffler said, "Tomorrow's illiterate will not be the man who can't read; he will be the man who has not learned how to unlearn."
To make the giants visible again, one has to find a traceable path through the stones. In literature and film, pattern is often discernible through the generations, because each directly integrates the subjective experience of the last. The heir in literature and film to Nietzschean and existential philosophy was the noir aesthetic. Aside from the bleak landscape, in both an emotional and visual sense, the noir adopted the lone, existential protagonist, who shifted the common storytelling apparatus from “Man against World” to something like “Man against his own understanding of a world which is far too indifferent to be against him and yet occasionally musters an almost-conscious cruelty.” The point is, the world has turned at once inwards and outwards. The world is far too sprawling outside of man to be concerned with his moralistic affairs, and yet also sprawls infinitely inwards through the filter of his subjectivity. Simultaneous dualities are an inevitability in the subjective framework.
After noir, came cyberpunk, which hit its peak in the 80’s, but bleeds heavily into today’s popular science fiction. It is a term whose associations and subgenres are uncountable. But at its core, it kept everything listed in the paragraph above, and fused them with dystopic, sci-fi visions of near-future technologies and governments. If anywhere in your mind there exists an image of a lone man in a raincoat, wandering the misty streets of a labyrinthine city at night, while the neon beckonings of countless corporations loom above him, often in the indecipherable signs and symbols of an Asian language, then you have been touched by cyberpunk.
The world now changes in the span of a lifetime, and the tragedy that creates is being forced to live in a time that is nigh impossible to understand. There is no precedent for the children of today whose synaptic connections are birthed from and bound to a monitor screen. There can be no advice for the young adults of today whose entire experiential existence is already cemented online, and who atrophy for years as premature hermits, often against their will.
It was cyberpunk that shifted the standard vision of future technology from mechanical bulwarks of interplanetary travel and war to smaller, more personal technology, like the PC, and went so far as to predict the magnetic drift of commercial technology closer and closer to the human body, a prophecy that has been fulfilled by the advancing decades. In the cyberpunk vision, technology is no longer a hulking shadow on the horizon, but a shadow in, on and under our very skin, that moves when we move and waits when we wait, until, eventually, the causality reverses. Cyberpunk is also responsible for bringing the age-old questions of epistemology (what does it mean to know?) and ontology (what does it mean to be?) into modern age by examining our budding relationships with this technology. The “brain in a vat” (or the evil genius, solipsism, whatever you want to call it) is a long-standing philosophical framework for the theory of human subjectivity, but it wasn’t until the computer came along that we actually had a good analog for how such a phenomenon might arise in our brain, and it wasn’t until cyberpunk fiction like The Matrix put the philosophy into a digestible form that it truly invaded our collective cultural subconscious. The concepts of the android, artificial intelligence, and brain-as-computer are the largest breakthroughs in discussion of philosophy that we've had in a long, long time, and they leave us gaping and flailing at the flood of new questions raised. There has been no lack of literature on these questions in the relatively short time of their new relevance, but under such rapid pressure we have been unable to establish any kind of culturally important canon that we can hold up to shed light on these murky questions. That is, except for these eccentric writers of genre-fiction who forged their own tradition, and seemed confident in choosing its canon. One of the most important predecessors that the cyberpunk authors selected was Alvin Toffler, particularly his book-length study titled The Third Wave. Here are some basic visual summaries of his theory:
The Y-axis on the second graph above roughly corresponds to both “economic power” and "ecological load," meaning that we, as a civilization, are threatening to outgrow the means of "Spaceship Earth," as we bring on successive “waves” of technological advancement. This graph is, of course, oversimplified, especially in the linearity of this rapid change, as if it were easily traceable through any one variable. It also omits the fact that at the onset of each wave there is an unpredictable “period of dislocation,” which may still be in effect today. Either way, I would like to posit a more individualistic reading of the tension expressed in this graph than the one Toffler intended. Note the exponential nature of the curve. With rapid technological change comes rapid societal change, and change in the society is inextricably intertwined with change in the individual, whom simultaneously enacts and is acted upon by that society.
Often out of this self-awareness rises a particular brand of self-pity that involves a fetishization of sadness and a pervasive but often whimsical fixation on death.
The PC is again, the marquee example. It’s so new, but already so ingrained. It represents, both metaphorically and literally, the place of the modern individual within his society. Metaphorically in the sense of being at once individual and necessarily connected to the whole, and literally in the sense that the work of the human has become the work of the computer. And, as we know very well, it’s not just work anymore. How many tabs are open on your browser right now? The human brain is an amazing thing, but during its evolution there was no analog for the kind of multitasking which we routinely subject it to now, millennia later. It was built to adapt, certainly, but evolution never thought to account for change this rapid. The world now changes in the span of a lifetime, and the tragedy this creates is being forced to live in a time that is nigh impossible to understand. There is no precedent for the children of today whose synaptic connections are birthed from and bound to a monitor screen. There can be no advice for the young adults of today whose entire experiential existence is already cemented online, and who atrophy for years as premature hermits, often against their will. How can their elders understand, without anything close to a parallel experience? How can they themselves understand, with no tradition of wisdom with which to commiserate and learn? One of the greatest pillars of personal strength in a painful human world has traditionally been that "No man is an island," that whatever you think is your sole burden to bear has in fact been borne by thousands of others over the years. One could certainly argue that this hasn't changed in the slightest, but one must also be able to empathize with those that feel it has.
This generation did not grow up reading, writing or painting with the same consistency as its forbearers. They grew up clicking. They grew up watching cartoons and YouTube videos. Playing video games. Sharing social media posts. Photoshoping. And this, in turn, must be how they give back their understanding of the world, as generations of authors and painters did before them. This young community attempts to create its own meaning and commentary on itself where none exists, and in the only place they feel comfortable, the internet. The individual works and even genres of such work are too numerous and anonymous to even imagine, so I will focus on one “school” of internet aesthetics which I consider particularly representative, and its manifestations on websites like Facebook and Tumblr which aggregate alike works for us. I will refer to this aesthetic group henceforth as “Vaporwave,” in honor of the genre of music which its adherents hold dear, and although this is perhaps misleading terminology, it will do.
First, if you’re unfamiliar, it is likely easiest just to see for yourself:
Although, again, the internet creates such a tightly-woven web of exchange, influence and repetition that it is impossible to truly discern origin or influence, or even draw lines dividing aesthetics, I will try to characterize certain trends seen across the varied individual consciousnesses of the pages above and those like them.
The “Vaporwavers” are an intensely postmodern crowd. They were raised in an era of hyper-awareness of the self, and often find it, and the existential anxiety that comes with it, a kind of self-imposed but nevertheless unbreachable cage. Their Facebook posts as shown above are uniformly self-aware and ironic, often directly referencing the internet or those that use the internet, and otherwise indirectly maintaining this awareness. There are hardly any exceptions. Often out of this self-awareness arises a particular brand of self-pity that involves a fetishization of sadness and a pervasive but often whimsical fixation on death. For example, the cloud-rapper Yung Lean whose early-career aesthetics like in this video made the Vaporwavers ravenous, calls his cohort the “Sadboys,” and common reactions of approval to his music, or indeed, most Vaporwave posts, include sad faces in text or ironic declarations that “I’m crying.” An outsider would probably find Yung Lean far more funny than sad, and the Vaporwavers would agree with this, too. They don’t take anything seriously, so that their self-pity often morphs into something more like self-deprecating humor due to their constant making light of it.
The Vaporwavers never see an object as merely an object. A waterfall and temple nested in the mountains of Japan are not interesting to them from the standpoint of simple visual splendor. No, the Vaporwavers are only interested in the act of seeing this landscape, not the sight itself. The gap between the subject and object is where the pixels shimmer into form and where the magic happens, in their minds.
The origins of these impulses are of course natural in our world which has long since been overrun by postmodernism, but they should not be dismissed as tried and therefore useless. Just as postmodern literature is about literature and helps us understand literature—by extension helping us understand the human consciousness that has begotten literature—postmodern internet art must in the same way be about internet art and help us understand the internet as it exists in the shadow of the human mind. It is the evolution of the Vaporwaver’s postmodernism to fuse with sadness as an essential and exalted emotion that is particularly interesting, and is, I believe, a symptom of their acceptance of the subjectivity of life, which was brought on by their usage of the internet.
Let’s take a closer look at a group of similar items to see how they express the particular consciousness of the Vaporwaver. The GIFs that appear henceforth were all taken from Cyber Aesthetics and were posted in the span of one week:
The Vaporwavers love pixel-art and pixelated screenshots taken from old videogames. This is symptomatic of a few things. Perhaps most importantly, it directly demonstrates their immersion in the subjective mindset. The Vaporwavers never see an object as merely an object. A waterfall and temple nested in the mountains of Japan are not interesting to them from the standpoint of simple visual splendor. No, the Vaporwavers are only interested in the act of seeing this landscape, not the sight itself. The gap between the subject and object is where the pixels shimmer into form and where the magic happens, in their minds. Pixelated landscapes like the one above draw attention to the fact of their conscious creation, and the necessity of observation. The GIF above could never occur in a vacuum, without a mountain of human experience looming behind it. This makes it much more fragile, rare, and transient. For the Vaporwavers, it is much more beautiful than a journalistic high-resolution photograph of the same scene. Such a photograph would be meant to transport the viewer cleanly, with no vestige of the photographer. But beauty is, as they say, in the eye of the beholder, not only in a metaphorical sense, but in terms of its literal location. The experience of the object is the true beauty, not the object itself. And the Vaporwavers, having grown up playing video games, have strong emotional ties in the textural feel of pixels themselves, therefore preferring this as the mode of transformation between subject and object. The “pixels” in an abstract sense don’t necessarily have to be large and visible, either. Images like this one provide much the same effect as the previous:
From a sheer representative standpoint, this is not so far off from a simple, low-res photograph, but carries much more meaning for the Vaporwaver, who likely watched as many cartoons with animation like this as he played video games with animation like the landscape. All he needs is a trace of a creator to complete the arc of observation-experience-memory.
This brings us to their next major concern, nostalgia. Let us first note that by Nabokov’s definition of beauty-plus-pity, or experience-plus-expiration, nostalgia is sheer flowing art injected straight into your mind. Perhaps this is why the vaporwavers, champions of the subjective, will take up anything that has grounding in their collective childhood experience, largely made up of video games and anime, and hold it aloft as exalted. Surely, man was a slave to his memory long, long before the current generation, but it is worth noting that technology increases our capacity for nostalgia. Computers don’t forget. Photographs and videos never fade. We can revisit them as often as we choose, or, in the opposite view, as often as they pull us back in.
The first may be from an unidentified video game or may be a piece of art meant to mimic a game, it really doesn’t matter which. All that matters is the feeling of being transported back to that arcane world, where innocent blinking words and stars had no consequence at the time, a fact which gives them very much consequence upon distant reflection. There is an awareness of the cliché of such an obviously loaded question, consciously selected for screen-shooting by the young adult Vaporwaver, but also an awareness that cliché doesn’t matter for the child Vaporwaver immersed completely in this world. The second GIF is from the anime series Sailor Moon, and the third is from the anime movie Akira. The particular selection of the humanized cat among brilliant watercolors and the neon behemoth of a future Tokyo both appeal to the Vaporwaver because of their inextricability with the medium of animation. Animation will always have the advantage over live-action of allowing fantastical scenes that could never appear in a world without a filter, and because of this, paradoxically, it often ends up more faithful in its depiction of the rich subjective worlds of those who are particularly immersed in their own imaginations, as the Vaporwavers are.
It is also notable that both of these GIFs, and almost all animation shared by the Vaporwavers, comes from Japan. And it’s not just because Japan generally produces the most striking animations, though this is certainly a part of it. Their interest also manifests in posts that seem to put forth Japan for its own sake, like this simple animation of a Japanese street:
Many of the Facebook pages use kanji characters in their titles for simple flavor, as Yung Lean does in his videos. The Vaporwavers’ obsession with Japanese culture has partly to do with the generally muted wistfulness of the Japanese aesthetic lining up with their own. A defining principal of Japanese aesthetics is, for example, Mono No Aware, which holds that all things are transient, and that there is an inherent pathos in man’s empathy for this quality that he shares with everything around him—though of course, no short verbal translation is adequate. But one could also make an egg-before-the-chicken case, citing that many of the Vaporwavers were immersed in Japanese aesthetics in animation and video games long before their current obsession, causing them to adopt and take after it, obsessed as they are with memory and nostalgia. This is certainly true to a point, but it ignores the fact of the Vaporwaver’s self-perceived status as an outsider in a society which has yet to catch up with itself, as well as the fact that transience and subjectivity as aesthetic principles will always be particularly appealing to those with an outsider complex.
Animation will always have the advantage over live-action of allowing fantastical scenes that could never appear in an unadjusted world, and because of this, paradoxically, it is often more faithful in its depiction of the rich subjective worlds of those who are particularly immersed in their own imaginations, as the Vaporwavers are.
But even more than any of the above, the appeal of Japanese culture to the Vaporwaver is precisely its distance and inscrutability. The fact of a Westerner’s manic obsession with this Eastern culture, and despite this, the essential divide between him and its true, deep essence, is a fine, and drastically magnified, allegory for the divide between the subjective mind of the Western vaporwaver and every other he crosses paths with on a daily basis.
The Vaporwave aesthetic, unsurprisingly, also falls in line with the cyberpunk. Akira, mentioned above, is considered an important cyberpunk film. Tokyo, its setting, was pinpointed by William Gibson, the undisputed pioneer of the cyberpunk school, as the point in humanity farthest along in our irregular race towards the dystopian cyberpunk vision. Spanning both aesthetics is a fatalism that is pervasive down to the visual tropes of uncaring rain, empty, seductive neons, and marvelous technology that brings no marvel:
Finally, Vaporwavers are obsessed with ruination. They love graveyards, abandoned lots, and particularly old classical marble statues supplanted from their original context, or any similarly expired work of previous cultural import:
This fits with all the aesthetic themes we’ve discussed previously, but serves to highlight one in particular, which is the cultural displacement of the Vaporwaver. Having no “great” art of their own, they feel essentially distanced from but endlessly fascinated by the consensus contributions of the generations that preceded them. These, again, are manifestations of minds that the Vaporwaver feels must undoubtedly be somehow like him, but are yet essentially distanced from and inapplicable to him. The music genre of vaporwave itself is often constructed from distorted samples of older works, whether from a videogame or pop-song, so as to express the seductive sadness of fixation on these era-defining things from across a rift in time. The album cover of the song linked above even features a marble bust, jarringly inserted into a computer-rendered landscape. The Vaporwavers are not saying that they are the Renaissance sculptors of their new generation, but rather want to highlight the ridiculousness of such a thought, so as to demonstrate that there is no analog for such art in their world.
One must wonder how the towering dead that laid out our path of human thought and advancement would respond to such unabashed self-pity as the Vaporwavers express. Take the stoic, imperialist Englishman, one of the most important archetypal figures in Western civilization: "We have not journeyed across the centuries, across the oceans, across the mountains, across the prairies, because we are made of sugar candy," said Winston Churchill. There does seem to be something deep in the human race that is always looking upwards and outwards, never settling. Are those that do settle the ones to blame for their own defection from this tradition? Similarly by Churchill: "We are still the masters of our fate. We are still the captains of our souls." Is this still true, mere decades later? If we accept our subjective existence, then physical and economic oppression will never put this fact in danger. Only oppression of the mind can ever truly breach the important fabric of our world, or compromise our human nature to always strive for a better life.
Although the cyberpunk writers did not pioneer the thought of mind-control as the most terrifying form of oppression, they were the ones that saw its truest manifestations in the modern era. Orwell warned of oppression by towering, scheming authoritarian regimes, but in cyberpunk fiction, it was a much quieter, more gradual process, and all the scarier because of it. There are two escalating components to this oppression that are also, in a sense, one: technology, and capitalism.
The gist is that information technology essentially takes away the transaction cost in most exchanges of goods, which was what justified the monstrous corporations of the industrial revolution. Everything gravitates towards maximum efficiency when we are endlessly interconnected by computers, and monopolies are left in the dust.
As our society, at both macro and micro levels, becomes more and more dependent on and defined by information technology, i.e. the computer, and as we spend higher and higher percentages of our time melding minds with our own P.C., the expectations for these two separately functioning entities begin to blur, as do, in time, their very essences. This is scary because of the fact that, while freedom within one’s own mind has until now been perfectly insulated, a flanking route of potential siege has been newly introduced. Computers by their very definition are subordinate to the will of their creator, and control of the computer eventually becomes control of its owner. This gives those that craft what appears on our computer a growing and growing stake over what appears in our minds. Even if the digital landscape was untainted by greed, we would still be forced subordinate our own human skills to those of the machine as the latter continue to dictate what the economy needs.
Further into the process, we begin to substitute our very morals and values for those of the machine. Think about the values our modern civilization holds up, such as efficiency, compared to those of pre-industrial society, just a little over a century in the rear-view mirror. What causes the values of an entire culture to change so staggeringly? Does human nature change? Or do humans build further and further on the pile of collective knowledge and achievement, independent from their inner selves, so that every new generation is forced to adapt to wherever along the timeline they awake to find themselves? This framing does make it seem like technology, capitalism, and their natural marches forward, are in the driver’s seat, rather than humanity. On the micro-level, every baby born from this point forward will be coerced gradually and completely into a digital life and a corresponding mind—this much is clear. But how exactly has technology changed us on the macro-level? How does one characterize the Third Wave through observable traits?
Toffler told us, in 1980, that "The technical revolution reshaping our society is based not in hierarchy but in decentralization, not in rigidity but in fluidity.” And we are indeed seeing this take shape in America over the past few decades. For explanation, refer to Paul Graham’s outstanding essay, “The Refragmentation.”
The gist is that information technology nearly eliminates transaction cost in most exchanges of goods, which was what justified the monstrous corporations of the industrial revolution. But millions of competing entities with the equal access that easy information allows will always do this much faster and better than one artificially bloated chain of exchange. Everything gravitates towards maximum efficiency when we are endlessly interconnected by computers, and monopolies are left in the dust. This progression will lead to capitalism in its most advanced, most unbreakable, most inscrutable form. The cyberpunk writers predicted that this would lead to labyrinthine cities that sprawled out more like states, where every culture imaginable scatters across the narrow streets on a micro-level, but are rendered invisible by the efficiency of homogeneity on the macro-level. The most efficient way of selling anything is by conditioning your consumers to desire or require it, and the late-term market has found the most coldly efficient way to do everything. Cyberpunk worlds extend these structural depictions of a futuristic society all the way down to the structure of their philosophy and aesthetic, which, truly in the postmodern tradition, is all about breaking down barriers and letting everything flow into one—aesthetics, genres, cultures, mindscapes, none of these distinctions are safe from the multiform momentum of humanity. The cyberpunk protagonist, faced with this inscrutable, oppressive, beautiful world before him, widens his eyes in fear and in desire. The rainy neon cityscape fans out in an endless fractal rainbow, and as he stares it mounts, and it mutates, but whether the hallucination comes from behind or in front of his eyes, he doesn’t know. All he sees in its complexity is a vast uniform white blur.
Likely the most influential single cyberpunk work, after Gibson’s novel Neuromancer, is Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner. It is about androids, and their quest not for humanity, which seems to me inherent and whole in them, but for identity. In a postmodern world, where society has melted and expanded and given way to the lone individual, identity is a deep problem. Neither technology nor capitalism, the only unifiers of order left, can give us the sense of identity we desire, and only end up obscuring it. Artificial intelligence threatens us in our core, because all we have left to worship in modern times is the metaphysical essence of our subjective experiences, and we don’t want to give up the magic of their lowly origins. One of the most famous quotes in cinematic history, and for good reason, comes from the end of Blade Runner. Roy Batty, the android antagonist, settling down to die, recounts the most beautiful experiences of his life to the protagonist, who will live. "All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain,” he concludes. He’s had a short life (four years) and the beauties that it’s borne must die with him. Tears, those precious things, feel so momentous on our own cheek, and they are. But where did they come from? Where are they going?
Where is the line between me and my tears, and where is the line between tears and the rain? Where is the line between the heavy curses that consciousness has placed on our shoulders, and its miraculous gifts that raise us up?
The lone Vaporwaver spends a quiet Saturday, after a long week of work, in his bedroom. He watches old cartoons, makes GIFs from some of the stranger moments, and posts them on his Facebook page. He keeps watch on the other, similar Facebook pages for posts that strike him, and upon feeling that brief connection, links them to his own page for preservation. Often his real-life friends appear on his newsfeed. They must think I’m strange, he muses, as he watches them smiling in large groups, in sunlight. He thinks they’re strange, too. Around 2 AM, his page hits a milestone: 3,000 likes. He’s unsure if he feels satisfied or not. He goes to sleep. It’s been a strange day—at least by the standards of the Neanderthals. A strange day, too, by the standards of the Romans. And likely by the standards of his parents. Strange days turn into months, months turn into years, and years turn into a life. At once and throughout, everything is strange, and because of it, nothing is strange. Nothing is beautiful and everything is beautiful. Man will never be alone, for he only ever had himself in the first place.