FEEL THE VAPOR

If you’re not familiar with the musical genre Vaporwave, you probably don’t have anything to worry about. It’s not necessarily a “real thing.” This musical phenomenon brought on through the minds of mostly amateur producers on their various digital audio workstations has become sort of a meme on some parts of the internet. For a brief example, if you’d like one, I suggest that you watch/ listen to this:

This is probably the most popular (in a very subjective sense of the word) Vaporwave track around right now. But nobody would really be surprized if after experiencing the vapor you are still left wondering what exactly you just listened to or looked at. The heart of (and joke of) the whole genre is centered on “aesthetic,” often stylized A E S T H E T I C. Much of vaporwave is actually supposedly based on anti-consumerist ideals and uses imagery and soundbites from “easy listening” or muzak from the late 80s early 90s in a distorted fashion to expose its artificiality or lead listeners to think about things in a new light. The material that these artists edit and distort is often pulled from similar sources, notably roman sculpture, early digital art, advertisements and japanese characters. The latter two are interesting to examine. Colonialism, like consumerism, is one of the tennants adopted by many “imperialistic” nations, like the US, France, and UK, thus one begins to see connections to be found between these two things. Through colonialism and its derivative forms, we see the integration of the principles of the colonizing nation into the consciousness of the nation being colonized. Japan is certainly an example of the products of American colonialism. Both Japan and South Korea are the two east asian nations that the west sees as the most “civilized” i.e. western i.e. similar to “us,” and less like countries like China or North Korea (“them”). This is alrgely because of our military history with these two countries. Japan was invaded and partially destroyed during WWII, and occupation forces remained there for many years after as the US so graciously helped build the country in our image. South Korea was an area of interest to us once the threat of communism began to spread, and was our ally/ protectorate during the Korean War. We similarly have provided aid to them since to create a buffer with the hostile communist forces in the north. It is for this reason that these nations have developped to be more similar to the west; we have made them that way.

So back to the topic at hand: Vaporwave. Most of those producing this music are American, so their use of katakana is appropriation in its own right, but with a certain purpose in mind. As previously stated, this music was made as a sort of reaction to the hyper-consumerism that some see in the west today, so in order to point out the artificiality of all this, material from these countries that we have effectively colonized is used to show the extent to which this was taken. Especailly by showing footage of what previous decades were like, we as a modern audience are made even more aware of the surreal nature surrounding these advertisements. And while we are not necessarily in a position to judge, we get from this a sense of the artificiality: Is this “real” asian culture?

Another example here illustrates this point. SAINT PEPSI or as he is now know, Skylar Spence, has compiled snippets of japanese television ads in this music video (and yes, if anyone is aware of this, this is technically “Future Funk,” but is nonetheless a sort of subgenre of Vaporwave). Amid the majority of japanese faces, we also see many white ones. This really overtly shows the idealization of western culture. In thses advertisements, people are sold not only clothes, but a certain lifestyle: that of white westerners.

The semi-colonization of these nations is something that we generally take for granted, or perhaps fail to notice because of its convenience; because of the military origins of these pseudocolonies mean that we have two democratic allies halfway across the globe that are economically some of the most influential countries in the area, aside, or course, from China. And while these modern musical genres may not be taken seriously by many (myself included) it is certainly important to consider the significance of their message: while our life may be good, there are negative implications of producing so much that is in reality empty.

The University

College is a place for learning. It’s a place for learning about chemistry, economics, art history, etc., but most of all it’s about learning how to find yourself. Right? That’s why so many people refer to college as the best years of their lives. And why is this? Because they were out of their parents’ homes? Sure. Because they were constantly around their friends? Why not. But because they were free individuals? Not quite.

Vanderbilt University is no exception when it comes to the subtle integration of discipline into college life, and it is certainly not exempt from its status as an Ideological State Apparatus. The feeling of freedom exists certainly. But is it warranted? Let us think first of the purpose of Vanderbilt and other universities. They exist, in theory, to serve as education institutions that seek to facilitate and encourage the growth of the minds of their student bodies, while simultaneously preparing their attendants for life in the workforce with respect to whatever career they may eventually come to choose. Right here, even at a concept so basic, we see that the implications of such an institution existing point to some deeper forces at work. Not necessarily sinister forces, mind you, but forces that may not be initially apparent in the mission statement. Like any school or university, Vanderbilt is what Althusser would call an Ideological State Apparatus. Students are educated here not only in the academic disciplines, but also in the practices and protocols of the ideology of the state, i.e. the USA, a capitalist republic. Education is sought to an end: employment, which is essential for proper function within a capitalist society. Students are also expected to behave in a manner fitting to budding productive capitalists, and allowed to take majors that teach western economic theory and give lessons in history according to the side of democracy. Aside from all this, the culture of the university is overwhelmingly capitalist; the atmosphere found at Vanderbilt is no doubt different from that of Moscow State University before 1991, what with “Vandy’s” traditional upper-middle class attire and frequent partying. The Vanderbilt experience is certainly academic, but the display of culture, whether deliberately chosen by the powers that be or not, says a lot about the nature of the University as a capitalist institution.

Then we come to the subject of how the university is kept from disorder. Any community this large must have some guidelines and rules in place to keep it from falling to total chaos. There a few notable examples of this: the honor code, residential advisors, and, of course, VUPD. The honor code is a rather obvious example of the Panoptic systems described by Foucalt; power that is visible but unverifiable. Every student signs the honor code as a freshman. Subsequently, every student is made aware of the penalties put in place should this code be broken. The entire premise of the code is made apparent in the name: honor. A somewhat vague term nowadays, but nevertheless, provocative. Nobody wants to be called dishonorable, and more importantly, nobody wants to suffer the consequences associated with these dishonorable activities. Thus, while in most cases, violations of the honor code could usually pass by undiscovered, so many students adhere to it. The factor of risk is always present. Each student knows that there exists a possibility that a member of the faculty, or even according to the honor code itself, another student could at any point during their violation discover them and turn them in for punishment. One cannot guarantee this discovery in most rational cases, but the fear is still there. Of course, in addition to this fear of an imperceptible observer, students themselves are used by the system so that set observers are not even necessary: the student begins to observe himself. This is the concept of honor. The punishments dictated by professors and other faculty are supplemented by the punishment that the cheater gives himself (in at least some cases). I am referring, of course, to guilt. Now, there are more obvious structures in place as well, and I made reference to both the RA staff and VUPD earlier. These two are fairly similar. In line with the panoptic systems that Foucalt argues are the foundation for western society and the root of the west’s economic success, enforcement staff on Vanderbilt’s campus serve to similar ends. It is an accepted deduction that drunkeness and otherwise risky or dangerous activities decrease the productivity of students. Punishments for these situations are communicated to everyone. Students know that they are watched and accountable for their actions. Nobody knows when a party will be busted or when some “late-night nausea” can be reported by an RA. Now this system is not perfect, as many still go about as if they were invincible, but the concept remains the same.

Ultimately, once could see Vanderbilt as both an instrument to the larger American soceity, and a society in and of itself. It functions not only as an institution for training the capitalists of tomorrow, but also a disciplinary society in line with Foucalt’s explanations of panopticism and efficiency.

The Aura and the Apple

Apple is a company that displays rather blatantly everything Benjamin says about “art” and its practical usage in the modern age, while simultaneously having this usage slipping under the radar of most consumers. In his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Benjamin states that at this point in human history, with the advent of film and photography, all art is used for a political end which means it is essentailly ripped of its aura or pure artistic value. His arguments state that reproductability of these contemporary forms of art removes any authenticity that could be found in unique works, like the Venus de Milo, or ancient mosaics. It then follows, according to him, that this new sort of “art for the masses” will and is used for political ends, and he compares the two extreme ends of the political spectrum. Fascism seeks to use this “art” to give the masses some form of self-expression and artistic individuality without actually raising any of them to a higher level, while communism uses this art for propaganda and supposed informing of the proper ideology of the party and glorification of the worker.

Apple has become a very popular brand within the last few years. Look around and you’ll probably see at least one person with an iPhone in their hand or a MacBook in their lap. The designs are always sleek, shiny, and sexy. While others still choose to remain loyal to their other brands (behavior that is a whole other can of worms in its own right), it seems that the preferred product of a large demographic remains the same: people like Apple.

But why? If one examines the performance of these devices, they work no better than their PC or android counterparts. Sure the aesthetic is eye-catching, but does that really justify the huge price difference between devices? And while Apple certainly claims that each new update “changes everything” or is an absolute “technological innovation,” other than a few minor updates, a device that comes out a year prior to another is not at all noticeably inferior. Adding a letter to the name of something does not make its previous iteration irrelevant, for sure.

Yet we keep coming back to this brainchild of the late Steve Jobs. We throw our time and money to the smug employees of overcrowded Apple Stores (which to someone from about 30 years earlier is not at all what the name suggests). And for what?

The answer is fairly simple and two-pronged: 1) the company is exploiting the capitalist system and the ignorance of the masses (Marx would have a field day here) and 2) the aesthetic, artistic appeal or these products, largely used by people who consider themselves artists, or at least artistic, is used by not a government per se, but a corporation in order to further its agenda.

The first part of the answer to the Apple conundrum is straightforward and largely based in the principle of manufactured demand. Very briefly I will discuss my opinion on this company: I do not very much like Apple, but have immense respect for them as a company, the same way I do for Rockefeller, Carnegie, or anyone else who can successfully procure that much wealth for themselves through the capitalist system. While their goal is certainly not the most noble, their triumph in the execution of their plans is not an easy one. There is a market for a certain product i.e. Apple technology. The firm producing it uses advertising and misleading jargon in order to make the consumers think they need (demand) the product at a level higher than the real market equilibrium would suggest. This increase in demand, while artificial i.e. not based on actual preferences and the utility of the consuming agent, still has very real effects. Quantities consumed will rise, and so will prices. This explains why people seem to need every single new upgrade to their phones or laptops or tablets or giant robot pencils or what have you. But how is this demand manufactured? How is the system of true labor cost vis a vis Marx’s Capital exploited?

The answer to these questions lies in Benjamin’s work. Due to the lack of instantly recognizable fascist imagery, as well as Marx’s and Benjamin’s communist leanings, I chose to use to the hammer and sickle of the USSR in conjunction with the Apple logo, but let us be assured that for our purposes the company is very much fascist, according to Benjamin. Apple has a very large target audience: everyone. One could call this “everyone” the masses, or if Apple fell on the other side of the spectrum, the proletariat. What Apple markets most of its merchandise on is the creative potential that one can unlock through its devices. They are appealing to the mass’ sense of individuality and expression. But these devices are nothing special; they themsleves are no works of art that would inspire the wonder of other civilizations (other than through their technological merit). The scale on which they are produced is truly grand, and exploitation of labor aside, their widespread propagation, at least according to Benjamin, leaves these machines, however pretty to look at, devoid of any aura.We are then left with a political tool. Apple makes lots of cheap products, and sells them through deceptive marketing, displaying images of art and aestheticism, in order to make absurd levels of profit.

So while the services that Apple provides certainly serve a function (possibly another argument as to their lack of artistic merit), and do benefit some people, their value artistically as far as aura goes is negligible, and their usage of this quasi art is indicative of their fascist tendencies.

Twitter and Formalism

By Michael Chong

Twitter’s concept is really quite interesting. The idea of an entire network based on user posts that are extremely limited in size differs immensely from previous models like those of Facebook, or, increasingly less popularly, Myspace. When speech is given such constraints, the way tweets are composed is certainly very unique when compared to status updates on Facebook or even photo descriptions on Instagram. Applying formalism to criticize tweets as literature leads to a multitude of problems, but yields very interesting results that speak volumes about our society as a whole.

The social aspect of Twitter seems to inherently defy formalism, at least with respect to the separation of the work from its intended audience. Tweeting is a form of self expression for some, but a source of attention for others. One of the most popular and defining functions available to the Twitter userbase is the “retweet” feature, which, for those unfamiliar with Twitter’s user interface, allows any user to repost a Tweet they have come across in order to make it visible to their own network of followers. Retweeting is certainly about content, but it is also about recognition. The popularity and, sometimes, quality of a tweet can be empirically measured by the amount of retweets it has. Because of this system, users may often sacrifice their expressive integrity in favor of getting more retweets. Think a presidential candidate in the general election as opposed to that same candidate in the primaries.

Let us take, for example, this tweet, selected from a trending feed. This particular trend was titled #AwkwardMomentsIn5Words, which presumably contains sentences of five words composed so as to describe a situation that the poster deems “awkward.” The tweet reads as follows:

@metalhanded: #AwkwardMomentsIn5Words Gets number, pulls out flip phone.

Through a formalist lense, analyzing such a tweet is troublesome. The nature of twitter makes the context of a work nearly inseperable from the work itself, but assuming some basic knowledge of modern western culture is permissable. The plot of the tweet is simple enough. There are at least two people present in a presumably social situation. One individual has is in the process of recording the phone number of his or her new acquaintance into his or her phone. The awkwardness comes from the fact that said phone is by today’s standards very out of date.

The structure of the tweet greatly enhances the intended message about awkwardness. The use of a comma in between the two ideas present (i.e. the ‘set up’ and the ‘punch line’) is meant to increase the comedic effect of the tweet. Any humor present in the tweet, which is aimed at a very specific, although large, demographic, however, lies in the social norms of the day, all largely context-based. And appealing to this group of phone-owners in such a way is great for the retweet business.

The original intent the author may have had when starting to compose the tweet can very easily change if they decide to opt for popularity rather than sincerity. Twitter in this sense has a very real competitive element. Just as the influence of a tweet can be measured through retweets, so can the status of the tweeter be gauged by the amount of followers that they have. There are different circles of people to appeal to when considering this. Certain groups of people are more likely to follow eachother, especially if they are acquainted outside of twitter or if they share some demographic quality (e.g. race, socio-economic position, location, political affiliation). Catering to these different groups is a strategy that many use to garner more interenet poularity.

The thing about a system like this is that for the overwhelming majority of the tweeting population, user/author, tweet/text, and followers/audience are inexorably intertwined. The premise of follower circles centered on popularity and statistical superiority leads to large portions of the sites archives devoted to self-interested seeking of personal validation.

This is not to say that the website has no value, however. There are definitely people to be found who use Twitter more as a vehicle of expression and in some cases communication with others, albiet in a less efficient way than provided by other means, and are not necessarily just trying to accumulate more retweets or followers. Formalist criticism is more applicable in these cases. For example, here is a tweet from my own feed.

@juanforero_o: The kid in front of me is eating pizza with chopsticks.

Perhaps not the most eloquent work of prose to be found, but the point is made clearly. His use of the word “kid” is likely not literal, as most children do not posses the manual dexterity required to properly handle chopsticks. The casual use of the term probably denotes a young adult, but not necessarily one that @juanforero_o holds in high esteem or respects to a great degree. The situation is odd in two ways: pizza is generally eaten with the hands, and chopsticks are usually reserved for eating various east asian dishes. The cultural misappropriation of those utensils provide an interesting image of Asian tools with Italian cuisine gives us an image of ethnic confusion, or, perhaps the vision of what America stands for. The coming together of people of all sorts of different places for different purposes, united primarily by the vision they had for this nation.

Of course, one of the faults of Formalism is that in considering only the text, we may lose sight of whatever meaning the author had when he composed the piece. From a non-formalist viewpoint, it is entirely more likely that @juanforero_o simply wished to share with his friends and followers something that he thought was uncommon and interesting. This is again why even in the (relatively) more productive part of Twitter, it is still incredibly difficult and, some would venture to say, impractical.

To put it simply, using formalist techniques to analyze a tweet is a bit like using a magnifying glass to see a skyscraper. Whether the content be a playful observation, appreciation of a pop figure, or a grab for more popularity, the substance is evident right on the surface. 140 characters are not enough for the average tweeter to convey anything deeper than a subtle jab at someone. There is certainly a time to use the formalist school of thought, but Twitter is not generally appropriate for such activity. The meaning to be found is readily apparent, a product of a society that places so much value on having everything fast and simple. While it can be done, formalist criticism of tweets make a mountain out of what is usually not even a molehill. The idea behind Twitter seemed to be one of simplicity; people can say what they have to as long as they don’t bore us with too many details, and trying to read too deeply into something that a teenager punches out on his keyboard in ten seconds is not a practice that it would be wise to adopt.

Sources:

twitter.com/juanforero_o (user @juanforero_o)

twitter.com/metalhanded (user @metalhanded)