The human being is in thrownness. This means that the human being, as the ek-sisting counterthrow [Gegenwurf] of being, in more than the animal rationale precisely to the extent that he is less bound up with the human being conceived from subjectivity. The human being is not the lord of beings. The human being is the shepherd of being. Human beings lose nothing in this ‘less’; rather, they gain in that they attain the truth of being. They gain the essential poverty of the shepard, whose dignity consists in being called by being itself into the preservation of being’s truth” (260)
[republishing this here in light of some recent bullshit]
Ryder Ripps is an internet artist who I’ve been aware of, and interested in to varying degrees, for maybe four years. His work is consistently visually striking, and I generally appreciate his willingness to engage openly and seriously on things like “meme culture” and the changing nature of intellectual property. He’s overall a pretty interesting guy, seems to be my general impression. I wanted to kind of collect some thoughts I had about his work and his general online persona following a particularly jarring exchange he had on facebook with some journalist from the guardian, in relation to some ideas about performativity and why a lot of “performance art” is kind of boring now.
So, the prompt for this whole thing was a series of exchanges that Ripps had with this journalist from the Guardian, after Ripps attended some kind of young republican meet-up to watch the third U.S. presidential debate and was interviewed as if he were a Trump supporter. He offered some fairly unexciting quotes seemingly emulating the kind of rhetoric and concerns a certain portion of Trump supporters ostensibly tend to use.
Anyway, so the article gets published, Ripps finds it, screen-caps the relevant part and posts it to facebook, claiming to have “trolled” the reporter from the guardian. Its a kind of funny bit; Ripps has been an outspoken supporter of Bernie Sanders throughout the election cycle, and for people aware of him and his work, the quotes offered here are obviously disingenuous.
People really liked this joke:
Ripps himself tries to frame the whole gag as a kind of commentary on the ‘age of clickbait journalism’ , which, sure:
And so the journalist that initially wrote the piece responds, I think because Ripps calls him out on twitter, and Ripps’ quotes in the article get pulled, and they (eventually) amend a little ‘correction’ disclaimer at the bottom of the article, noting that one of the sources for the article ‘deceived’ their journalist.
Then the journalist himself posts on Facebook about this whole weird thing, basically saying he doesn’t get why this is ‘trolling’ or how Ripps has done anything to coherently criticize ‘the capitalist system’, and mostly just seems disinterested in (if somewhat bewildered by) the whole event.
So of course Ripps jumps on this thread and, in a series of increasingly infantile responses, just shits all over the journalist and the journalist’s friends. For those somewhat familiar with Ripps, this too feels kind of like a joke: he’s fucking with them, weakly name-calling, critiquing their ‘comebacks’ as dated and unoriginal. It’s pretty rough to look at, honestly, but it is definitely a kind of performance.
So the question, and the impulse behind the current writing, is who is he performing for? It’s obviously not for the journalist and his friends, who are not in on the ‘joke’. It also probably isn’t directly for his own Facebook audience, who seem to be mostly absent from the thread (most of Ripps’ comments remain ‘unliked’, except for a few of those weird passive aggressive ‘likes’ from whatever person he was attacking). What seems more likely, at least to me, based on my fairly limited knowledge of Ripps’ work, and the Internet artist community in general, is that Ripps is engaged in some kind of performance that is primarily for himself: he’s become so abstracted from his own online conduct that his online persona is some kind of long performative action, of which ‘he’ is the primary audience member and critic.
And this is the kind of weird rabbit hole of abstraction that I’d maybe like to write a little more about, both because it feels like a quintessentially modern kind of performance and because, wether or not Ripps is the best example of this kind of thing (at it really might be the case that he’s not), it’s I think a kind of widespread practice amongst people (and especially artists) whose work (and thus lives) are increasingly entangled with the internet.
Consider, for example, this Instagram-based performance piece called Excellences and Perfections, by Amalia Ulman. The Telegraph, which (in my view, egregiously) hailed this as “the first Instagram masterpiece”, summarizes the work like this:
The whole “performance” is cataloged on Ulman’s personal instagram account, such that her followers could watch this series unfold in real time. Again, the idea here is that the artist is self-consciously performing a role, rather than (unself-consciously) “living it”, and thus able to claim ownership over the resulting series of instagram posts as “an artwork”, rather than simply an account of what she was doing over the last few months. Here’s how Ulman explains “the joke”:
There’s obviously a lot going on here, but the thing I’m mostly interested in pointing out is that the only thing that makes this a piece of art, rather than just the lived experience of this woman, is that Ulman, the artist, declares herself to be distinct from Ulman, the fictionalized character of the performance: It’s not really Ulman but rather “her anti-heroine self” who is “performing” a series of stereotypical gender-specific lifestyles. What’s notable about this level of abstraction, wherein Ulman is one step removed from “her character’s” actions, is that it actually kind of weakens the impact of the statement she’s is attempting to make through the work: if “being a woman” is a performance, then wouldn’t it be more impactful to simply own these actions as her own? And perhaps more significantly, why would she choose to emulate, by way of a fictionalized “woman”, only the blandest and most well-worn stereotypes for young women? Isn’t that pretty low-hanging fruit, in terms of performativity?
I guess what I’m getting at is that performativity for its own sake is not only boring, but also unproductive. Both Ripps (as as the “dumb camo hat”-wearing Trump supporter, and later, online troll) and Ulman (as the “L.A. ‘It Girl’”), are self-consciously “performing” roles that are stereotypical (and thus easily recognizable as “performances”) only to step back and go, “look at me performing, everything is performing, isn’t that interesting”. The overall impact of this, rather than somehow presenting a “nuanced critique” of the dominant social structures that encourage this kind of normative performance (i.e., what Ripps refers to as “the capitalist system”), seems to simply reaffirm the hopelessness of these struggles, wherein the artist takes a position of comfortable detachment, and, rather than trying to consider alternatives to the stereotypical performative roles offered by our advanced capitalist social structures (i.e., what Rosi Braidotti calls “epistemological nomadism”), simply shrug at it: “we’re fucked, isn’t that funny?”
And this is maybe the root of the problem: Judith Butler published Gender Trouble over 25 years ago. We know that social roles (gendered, political, etc.) are performative. You’re not saying anything interesting by doing work that just highlights this performativity and essentially posits that because all of our conduct is performative and mediated by normative social structures, we might as well just “troll” others or otherwise exploit our awareness of this fact from a position of cool, detached nihilism. Its the artistic equivalent of this classic meme™:
It’s instructive to note that much of Butler’s recent work is focused on moving beyond normative performative roles into modes of being that are more responsive to the rest of the world. In Frames of War, Butler examines how the normative social structures of Western society mediate which bodies can be seen to matter: “These categories, conventions and norms that prepare or establish a subject for recognition, that induce a subject of this kind, precede and make possible the act of recognition itself…the point, however, will be to ask how such norms operate to produce certain subjects as ‘recognizable’ persons and to make others decidedly more difficult to recognize” (5–6). Rather than wallowing in the shallows of normative, culturally-mediated performativity, Butler goes on to advocate active responsiveness to the world, such that those who the dominant structures of power deem “unrecognizable” (or, what she’s previously termed “unmournable bodies”) can be fully recognized and engaged with.
And this is basically the point: living with a strong sense of performativity is important. it demonstrates an awareness to how our being is iteratively constructed in the world. What’s more important, though, is that that sense of being is tethered, at least peripherally, to the others with which you are entangled. To be a “troll”, to perform a disregard for others (i.e., others who are not the embodiment of ‘the capitalist system’ or whatever, but are just some people trying to to their damn jobs) is to foreclose on the kind of responsive engagement that an awareness to the performativity of being ought to catalyze. It’s not enough to recognize that everything (including your ‘self’) is a construct, the next step, if you want to see yourself as someone coherently criticizing “the capitalist system”, is to use that understanding to foster a more responsive sense of being, to become alongside the entangled others that “the capitalist system” encourages us to ignore.
(from a talk I did in I think 2015 on travel writing(?))
It’s a weirdly affecting experience to browse the Amazon reviews for Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love. For many people, this book has obviously been extremely meaningful: many reviewers refer to Gilbert as “Liz”, and expound the virtues of her extremely personal narrative, which, as one reviewer instructively suggests, leaves one feeling “inspired, entertained, and hopeful”. Indeed, this sense of unimpeded inspiration and hope seems to be one of the central appeals of the book, as another reviewer suggests that this memoir functions as proof that “one can live one’s life in an ever expanding circle of vitality and joy”. So, with that in mind, this morning I’d like to examine how Gilbert uses this sense of personal inspiration throughout Eat Pray Love to subtly endorse individualist consumerism as a vehicle for spiritual fulfilment.
From the outset of the narrative, it is clear that Gilbert’s primary objective is to establish a sense of trust and complicity between the narrator and her readers, such that when she introduces the reason for her unhappiness, readers are encouraged to consider her situation in relation to their own. Note, for example, the bland generalities she employs to describe her discontent at the opening of the narrative: “I was supposed to want to have a baby. My husband and I…had built our entire life around the common expectation that after the doddering old age of thirty…I would have grown weary of traveling and would be happy to live in a big, busy household full of children and homemade quilts, with a garden in the backyard and cozy stew bubbling on the stovetop” (10). In this way, Gilbert aims squarely at the hidden fears of other middle aged women who find themselves disinterested in the heteronormative American Dream, and invites them to reflect on exactly why the normative family unit is an unfulfilling imposition on their agency as individuals.
In this sense, Gilbert offers a valuable and easily-accessible first-hand account of what Lauren Berlant would call “cruel optimism”, or, the phenomenon in which “something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing” (1). For Berlant, Liz Gilbert’s anxiety would be understood as the disconcerting tension between her attachment to the pursuit of what she has been lead to believe is the “good life”, and her aversion to the normative domestic role of women within that life (i.e., rearing children, tending a garden, making stew). And this tension is really the crucial thing, as it activates Gilbert — and therefore, her trusting readers — to an awareness of the cruelty of their attachments. As Berlant goes on to argue, “if the cruelty of an attachment is experienced by someone…even in a subtle fashion, the fear is that the loss of the promising object/scene itself will defeat the capacity to have any hope about anything” (24). This is to say, the sudden revelation of the paradoxical cruelty of one’s attachments also reveals the precarity of one’s being-in-life, as the subject is forced to find new objects toward which she can orient herself, or else risks a complete loss of attachment to anything and becomes disillusioned with the world as a whole. Thus, an awareness of the cruelty of one’s attachments is both a risk and an opportunity, wherein one’s normative attachments are productively disturbed and the potential to locate new and more fulfilling attachments is activated.
But this is where Berlant and Gilbert’s projects diverge. Where Berlant explicitly lays out the roots of cruel optimism in the reductive logic of consumer capitalism and goes on pursue more productive modes of “being in life without wanting the world”, Gilbert subtly re-inscribes her briefly disillusioned reader back within the logic of consumer capitalism. For Gilbert, the language of female empowerment is employed only so far as to encourage her trusting reader that self-interested consumption is actually a viable method of rebelling against the oppressive norms of their patriarchal society. Thus, when Gilbert goes on to allow herself to “express little baby-step wants” (23), she’s simultaneously granting a kind of permission to her reader as well: her admissions that “I want to go to a Yoga Class”, or “I want to buy myself a new pencil box” (23) are rendered not as fairly straightforward impulses toward consumerism, but as very real personal victories against a society that demands female selflessness. When she first sees the photograph of David’s “spiritual teacher”, she writes, “My heart skipped a beat and then flat-out tripped over itself and fell on its face. Then my heart stood up, brushed itself off, took a deep breath and announced: ‘I want a spiritual teacher’ ” (25). While there is obviously nothing particularly radical about this statement, it’s framed to suggest a new “spiritually active” mode of being in the world. Gilbert’s “heart” heroically brushes itself off from the imposition of selflessness and demands a new set of “spiritual”, or self-interested consumer goods toward which she can orient herself. Thus, the entirety of the narrative that follows, despite what appear to be very real moments of “spirituality”, are always already couched within the logic of personal consumption. This new “spiritual” mode of being is predicated on a slight shift from the normative domestic consumerism that Gilbert defiantly eschews, into the superficially distinct mode of empowering self-interest.
Indeed, the whole text of Eat Pray Love is self-consciously presented as an artifact of consumerism, as the spiritual journey that Gilbert enjoys is entirely enabled by a $200,000 publisher’s advance. As Gilbert describes: “I can actually afford to do this because of a staggering personal miracle: in advance, my publisher has purchased the book I shall write about my travels” (35). Personal miracle or not, the advance reminds us that this text and the “spiritual content” it contains are already products that have been purchased, and will be sold. Thus, to buy into its message of self-empowering spirituality is to confirm the legitimacy of the mechanisms that enabled its production. Again, this does not undermine the very real spiritual experiences that Gilbert describes: spending one fifth of a million dollars and a year abroad to explicitly indulge in self-discovery would doubtlessly be a very transformative experience. But by explicitly embedding that experience within the logic of consumption, Gilbert is subtly reaffirming the ostensibly irrefutable centrality of consumerism as the mediator of human experience: Thus, her trusting reader, who deeply identifies with Liz Gilbert’s disillusionment in the cruelly optimistic “good life fantasy” of house, husband, children, and domestic duties, is seduced by an even greater consumer fantasy of spiritual fulfilment: as Ruth Williams succinctly describes, “the EPL brand purports to allow women to ‘buy’ a piece of Gilbert’s spiritual journey” (615), which, of course, presupposes that spiritual fulfilment is something that can be purchased at all.
Thus, unlike Berlant, who envisions a mode of being beyond “The Good Life fantasy” in which “one would achieve both mental health and a commitment to equality [by embracing] precarity as the condition of being and belonging” (194), Gilbert simply expands what “the good life fantasy” entails: she affirms the inherent value of the heteronormative relationship and its accompanying set of consumer goods, and then appends the additional fantasy of spiritual fulfilment through self-indulgent consumption, a fantasy which the marketplace is eager to accommodate.
I spent the afternoon yesterday reading through Grafton Tanner’s Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts. It’s a fun book! It’s some of the best writing I’ve seen on how the internet actually feels right now: disjointed, ephemeral, endlessly complex and yet somehow still fundamentally shallow.
One of the main arguements of the book, as I see it, is this idea that late capitalism has more or less forced the drive for innovation in art to atrophy, such that what we’re left with is a bunch of mass-produced consumer art that just mines the aesthetics of the past and sells them back to us (i.e., contemporary radio pop is mostly the same rehashed ideas over and over again, comicbook superheroes have re-emerged as an acceptable form of entertainment for adults, star wars is back, etc.). Thus, artistic innovation, marginal as it is, takes on a new form as well: it responds to late capitalism’s slick marauding of the past with some past-maurading of its own, but rather than turning old art into the polished new products, it seeks to transform earlier artifacts of consummerism into warped and uncanny versions of themselves.
The main example of this, for Tanner, is vaporwave, which, as he suggests, “take the fit, smiling, white-teethed mask off Muzak and replaces it with a more sinister face — the dead stare of unfettered capitalism” (41). For Tanner, vaporwave is the quintessential genre of late capitalism, as it employs capitalism’s own tricks and repurposes them for its own end (i.e., endless repetition, rehashed asthetics, shallow gestures toward broader concepts or themes). Tanner’s discussion of vaporwave’s relationship with consummerism is really illuminating and gave me a lot to think about.
What I wanted to draw attention to, though, is Tanner’s suggestion that Vaporwave actually manages to escape the endless cycle of production and consumption that characterizes late capitalism. He writes, “for the most part, there is a product we cannot consume in the virtual plaza, and that is vaporwave itself. Vaporwave is the sound of the virtual plaza reframed and thrown back at us in an attempt to reveal for us capital’s stronghold on our existence, but its method of production and distribution lies totally outside the financial transactions that occur in the plaza” (45). At first glance, this is a fair point: vaporwave is usually produced by individuals in their spare time, usually distributed for free on bandcamp or youtube.
But what’s worth considering, I think, is that what vaporwave is offering extends beyond the artifacts it produces. Vaporwave can also be understood as an aesthetic (or, “a e s t h e t i c 美的”, if you will), by virtue of which it is inherently available to be appropriated by the same late consummer capitalist culture that it is critiquing. In this sense, vaporwave producers are actually just performing the free creative labour in a process that is always already capitalism. While the novelty of the genre might feel subversive now, it‘s not particularly difficult to imagine a vaporwave soundalike scoring a make-up commercial or something (btw, has this already happened?). Consider how quickly vaporwave’s spiritual precursor chillwave transitioned from the Hot New Thing into a sort of punchline once some mainstream blogs got a hold of it (note as well that the longest lasting artifact of chillwave is probably Washed Out’s Gary Low-sampling “Feel It All Around”, which is now best known as the theme music for IFC’s Portlandia).
My point is basically this: while I agree with Tanner that vaporwave does serve as an interesting example of how art can continue to respond to the impositions of late capitalism in genuinely surprising ways, I remain sceptical as to wether it provides a model for actually transcending the late capitalist ethos in any sustainable way. The best we can hope for, maybe, is that, as late capitalism continues to mine our cultural past in an increasingly invasive and grotesque manner, art will responsively become weirder and more difficult to translate into a marketable product.
Btw, you can buy Babbling Corpse here at Zero Books.