Some Thoughts on Grafton Tanner’s Babbling Corpse

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.