Monthly Archives: July 2015

Ephemerality as genre

Music genres are suitably imprecise modes of documentation for the self and identity, crystallizing memories in a vague enough way as to not trigger an inner alienation, a sense that you were not as you remembered yourself, as you inevitably aren’t. They don’t have coherent ideologies, anymore than selves do —just a mix of shifting and often contradictory concerns as they try to balance novelty with tradition.  

This video for Knife Party’s “Internet Friends” (2011) made me wonder whether EDM acts will start trying to cash in on being the opposition to the Internet and social media as a surveilled and captured space — Facebook as the new “mainstream” that can be set up as a straw man to build your subculture against. The essence of the pitch would be that at the club, you are not tracked and monitored, you are freed to be yourself, freed into a collective anonymity, a merging with the crowd facilitated by the DJ — a rehash of the sort of utopian rave ideology of the 1990s that Sarah Thornton discusses in Club Cultures

Thornton, drawing on Simon Frith’s work, details the backlash that has attended every new media technology, which must first must be “enculturated” before it can yield its new forms of authenticity. In the meantime, new technologies are derided as inauthentic, as destroying the very possibility for authenticity. In that context, the Knife Party track (and the Chainsmokers’ “#Selfie” and so on) is part of a reactionary wave against a newly emerging form that has yet to disclose its forms of authenticity.

(That would potentially mark this moment as unusually open in terms of identity construction, free from any settled dogma about how to be “authentic” in online media. But it is only open insofar as the critiques of online media keep them unsettled enough to render any of their modes of identity suspect but not invalid.)

In this twist, techno music sets itself up as anti-technological, and music itself a kind of metonym for the ineffable presence that allegedly can’t be replicated online. That seems linkable to the old idea that electronic music would have no celebrities and the crowd would be the star, watching itself dance and so on: EDM was supposed to be pro-ephemeral all the way down, against the kind anyone’s gaining cultural capital at any level. (Thornton does a lot to deflate that idea.) The music’s sonic hallmarks constantly change and spawn myriad subgenres, but these matter less than the overriding commonality of constant change. Ephemerality is the only important characteristic of the genre; listeners have to know to enjoy the sounds now because they will sound stupid in a few months, and this makes the enjoyment keener. (Possibly true of “dated”-sounding pop in general.)

Such music is constructed deliberately to be recognizably trendy — the trendy component (features like autotune from a few years ago) is a marker that assures that it can be tracked on its passage through the hype cycle, on its journey from insiders to outsiders. So it makes “in the know” status something that needs to be constantly reaffirmed, and positions listeners along a status-inflected time continuum of who got there early and late.

But equally significant, perhaps, is how deliberate trendiness, a rejection of an effort to sound “timeless” in favor of music that has an obvious expiration date, allows consumers to  experience ephemerality in the moment, even before a thing has extinguished itself. The imminent disappearance of such music allows it to seem transcendent and nostalgic as it is happening. 

One can already imagine remembering in the future how of one’s present time one was by enjoying such stuff.

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huckster optimism

“Motivational research” guru Ernest Dichter’s, magnum opus, The Strategy of Desire (1960), is a compendium of vernacular American ideology. Its gospel celebrates the overcoming of Puritan inhibitions to enjoy and truly discover oneself in consumer choices. 

What makes it fascinating is how baldly it states its commitments to consumer capitalism, announcing straightforwardly its claims about how shopping makes you creative and free that today’s ideologues would tend to cloak in euphemisms, things like: “Every new acquisition represents an enrichment of our personality.” And: “The more intimate knowledge of as many different types of products a man has, the richer his life will be.” 

His denunciations of “rationality” are especially frank: “whenever we deal with human motivations, direct questions [of subjects about their feelings] are not only inadequate but unscientific and therefore are to be rejected.” In other words, people should not be trusted to explain what they want or feel; it is better to trust various psychological experts (including, of course, Dichter and his advertising comrades). “A rational explanation is always a more suspicious type of answer than one which goes back to a less pleasant but more realistic analysis of our attitudes.” For Dichter, all pretense to rationality is de facto a lie, and realism is a matter of the “unpleasant” truths about humanity, which are always, oddly enough, about them wanting more stuff. 

The problem with listening to people talk about about their feelings and acknowledging it as valid is that they are liable to rationally conclude that they are satisfied with what they have (and reveal themselves to be mere “beachcombers of life”), when the fate of the free world itself rests on their ability to want and buy and want more: 

The real defenders
 of a positive outlook on life, the real salesmen of prosperity, and therefore of democracy, are the individuals who defend the right to buy a new car, a new home, a new radio.

This while admitting that “our economy is one of psychological surplus, in both consumption and production.” The patriotic duty of all Americans, he suggests, citing an unnamed U.S. president (though it could be any of them) is to essentially experience psychological surplus as an emotional deficit, and to view unfulfilled consumer desire — Dichter calls it “constructive discontent” — not as a grievance but as a right. With this desire, people become “controllers” of their lives: They cease to be passive and practice self-management through purchasing decisions. Without it, they are apparently managed by their apathy.

Of course, this makes advertisers the guardians of the American spirit, those who can be relied upon to stoke consumer desire in the face of evil rationality and secure that essential positive outlook on the future. ”It is our job to make concrete recommendations which will assure the development of the positive attitude on which prosperity is based.” 

Dichter notes that “if, for example, I believe that the world is heading for collapse or that the nation is on the verge of a long, drawn-out depression, I will buy less or I will buy differently than if I have a more optimistic philosophy.” Then he reverses causality and reasons that an individual having an optimistic philosophy rooted in buying is sufficient to ward off economic depression. Hurray for animal spirits! 

For all its phony optimism, the governing insight of The Strategy of Desire is the depressing view that the surest touchstone of human behavior is individualistic selfishness. You can’t go wrong expecting other people to be greedy — this view of human behavior is what advertising generally sells, regardless of whatever specific product is being touted.   

Of course that is an easy attitude to take, much like optimism itself, which is typically predicated on the fantasy of being able to live in a world that other people figure into only at your convenience. Optimism is easy (albeit arid and unsustainable) when other people can be shuffled out of the picture, muted by the personal pleasures of property and things and technological contrivances that buffer individuals from one another. But actually dealing with other people is hard, requiring attention and inevitable compromise. But what the solipsistic optimist never experiences is the true joy, the miracle of interdependence that outlasts all disappointments. The optimist merely knows a series of disappointments and the revival of desire for more of them.

ephemerality vs. virality

Here are a few stray thoughts about ephemerality as a genre in and of itself. 

1. Ephemerality as a strategy for generating authenticity: The untenability of authenticity is plain, and becomes more apparent the more one is entrenched in mediated social networks, which foreground the contingency of identity and our other-directedness. Social media also shift the site of the “real” to the representation of experience, which undermines the idea that spontaneity secures authenticity. Also, the incremental building of identity as data makes identity seem less given and permanent and more of an ongoing construction site. Identity is understood less as a concrete thing and more as a process; typically this process is the neoliberal accumulation of human capital (drawing on how Wendy Brown defines neoliberalism here), turning every aspect of one’s life to some sort of account, making it marketable in some way (cf “sharing economy”).  

Ephemerality emerges as an alternative to neoliberal human capital building, to the construction of identity as something that is wholly marketized. But ephemerality, once assured by the technological limitations on recording and surveillance, now needs to signified, and the sign of ephemerality may be sufficient to trigger a feeling of authenticity, of being in the moment, etc. Making a move to associate oneself with ephemerality qua ephemerality may have nothing to do with actual ephemerality at all. If something about your self-representation in a situation conveys the sense of ephemerality — of obsolescence, of a future going-out-of-fashion, of disposability, of irreverence or unseriousness, etc. — it may evoke the same feelings of “being authentic” that have always been sparked by “disinterested” behavior. The sign of ephemerality permits the affect of “realness” — the feelings are admissible as genuine, not calculated or designed to manipulate.

2. Signs of ephemerality are repurposed indicators of phoniness. The markers of disposability are precisely those things that indicated something’s trendiness, its trying-too-hard-ness, its fashion-victimhood. They emboss a thing with a sell-by date. It’s the pattern on a piece of fast-fashion apparel that dooms it to imminent irrelevance. It’s the lyric “the best soy latte that you’ve ever had, and me” in that Train song, something that both catches your attention and makes you cringe. That lyric is awful and contrived in a way that makes it qualify, paradoxically enough, as sincerity. Or rather, “sincerity.” It’s mis-calculatedness is foregrounded, impossible to miss, and therefore it pushes aside the need to question its intent, or the integrity of it. You need no paranoid hermeneutic for Train.

That absence of paranoia is the affect of ephemerality. You don’t have to interpret anything; its meaning consists of its meaninglessness, its refusal to last, to monumentalize or memorialize. That feeling is secured by the phoniness identified and processed. This is the principle behind lots of advertisements that highlight their nature as ads, that ask to be distrusted. This lowers the viewers’ guard, while flattering their intelligence. (Self-debunking phoniness can put us at ease so that some deeper phoniness can skate by. It’s like getting yourself caught for some small infraction so that you can deflect suspicion about an even larger one.) This makes “ephemerality” potentially an effective medium for ideology, or for propaganda. Things marked as ephemeral insist on their harmlessness, which makes them deviously potent.  

3. Ephemerality is not virality. On the surface, the cycle of virality — a sudden flare of massive attention followed by a loss of interest — seems to mirror the fashion cycle, the hype cycle, the promise of eventual disappearnce, of assured ephemerality. But virality sometimes is a matter of oversaturation and overfamiliarity to the point the thing is not noticed anymore — it’s not ephemeral; it just becomes taken for granted. And the viral thing insists on the importance of its spread; it consists in infection by contact. Its affect is an itchiness to tell more people. Ephemerality signals something different; it doesn’t rely on circulation for its being. The viral and the ephemeral both are matters of form rather than specific content: the content of a viral video is always its virality rather than what it specifically depicts; the content of something ephemeral is first and foremost its immanent disappearance. But the ephemeral doesn’t depend on having its trace through time tracked and measured; it’s virality without metrics.

4. Paradoxical ephemerality. Once the ephemeral is a matter of signs, distinctive legible marks rather than actual decay or disappearance over an actual period of time, the notion of ephemerality becomes subject to an array of paradoxes.   

Ephemeral signs need to signify and negate their status as signs simultaneously; a sign of ephemerality has to itself be ephemeral to be credible, yet it must be durable enough to remain legible. Deploying ephemerality as a sign is a way of signaling a lack of investment in one’s signaling choices; it attempts to convey you’re more important than any such superficial indicators, that something essential but unsignified about the self is pointed to (or even defined) by the foregrounded ephemera. But the very use of signs of ephemerality suggests an investment in the procedures of signaling the self, even as the signal is “I’m not so deeply invested in what I am signaling right now.” 

When ephemerality becomes a proxy for authenticity, it also becomes reified and fakeable; it becomes something that people seek to signal without actually doing it. (This is the central paradox of self-conscious authenticity. Once authenticity becomes signifiable, it becomes inherently inauthentic, as long as authenticity is defined as something intrinsically bound up in the thing being deemed authentic.) 

We signal authenticity by signaling our disavowal of any attempts to signal it. Ephemerality as authenticity adds another degree of paradox to this; suggesting that our efforts to signal this nonsignaling will soon disappear — but that suggestion is only at the level of the sign, conveyed by a sign of ephemerality. Whether or not it ever disappears no longer matters, as long as the idea the sign of ephemerality is supposed to convey is conveyed. 

This interlocking set of contradictions leads to such possibilities as indulging in fashion in order to signal one’s indifference to it, or wearing obviously outdated or soon-to-be-unfashionable clothes to signify one’s own timelessness. Ephemerality then serves as way to signal that you are not really signaling anything. It is a reworking of the fantasy that you can “be in a band with no image” or “be normcore” or “be above trends” or “just be natural.” When I foregrounding the ephemerality of what I do, I am trying to convey the idea that my identity is sacrosanct, untouchable by what is ephemeral, i.e. everything. I am essence; existence is just ephemera.