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.


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