The Shift to Vibes
The Birth of a Retarded Avant-Garde
Hussonnet was not amusing. By dint of writing every day on all sorts of subjects, reading many newspapers, listening to a great number of discussions, and uttering paradoxes for the purpose of dazzling people, he had in the end lost the exact idea of things, blinding himself with his own feeble fireworks. The embarrassments of a life which had formerly been frivolous, but which was now full of difficulty, kept him in a state of perpetual agitation; and his impotency, which he did not wish to avow, rendered him snappish and sarcastic…Hussonnet, an admirer of M. de Maistre, declared himself on the side of Authority and Spiritualism. Nevertheless, he had doubts about the most well-established facts, contradicted history, and disputed about things whose certainty could not be questioned; so that at mention of the word "geometry," he exclaimed: "What fudge this geometry is!" All this he intermingled with imitations of actors.—Gustave Flaubert, Sentimental Education
If you spend far too much time online, you may at this point have become aware of a tangle of related signifiers like “Vibe Shift,” “Dimes Square,” or even the “Hipster War.” If you are little more terminally aware you may have heard of “Remilia Collective,” “Miladys” “Wet Brain,” or “Angelicism.” Once again, after a long period of cultural stagnation, something is supposed to be happening downtown: a cultural shift, a new aesthetic orientation, a new avant-garde. This all is supposed to have a political dimension as well: this new artistic movement or scene is rumored to be reactionary, even crypto-fascist, or at the very least rejects the collection of moral stances that’s become labeled as “woke.” There are reports of sinister agents, like Peter Thiel and his little crony Curtis Yarvin, skulking around and attempting to invest early in the cultural capital of the scene in order to carry out their nefarious plans for the country. One article evens state the political fate of the nation will be determined by what shakes out in this tiny Bohemia along Canal St. Clearly, we are meant to think something intriguing is going on.
So what is it? What is going on down there? Is it anything at all? Magazine journalism relies heavily on the shifts in fashion, and journalists desperately want to capture the zeitgeist in a bottle. Sometimes that leads them to be a little credulous or to exaggerate the contours of trends for the sake of a clear story. Part of the story here as it’s portrayed out in the press, is a very familiar one: “the re-birth of irony.” In the New York magazine article that brought the term “vibe shift” to broader public consciousness, one of the predictions being made by trend forecaster Sean Monahan is “a return of irony.” Last year in June, I wrote a multi-part piece on how perennial this theme is: I found magazines repeatedly declaring the death and re-birth of irony; cultural critics praising its virtues or denouncing its vices. Irony has died and been reborn maybe half a dozen times since 1990. I have friends my age who long for the freedom of a golden “Age of Irony” that they think characterized the Bush years, but according to the magazines, irony died after 9/11. Monahan wrote in his Substack post on the vibe shift, “it’s clearly a return to scene culture, contains elements of Naughty Aughties nostalgia.”
Nostalgia is clearly a part of the aesthetics in question here, but the better word seems to me “regression.” At times, it all appears to be a cargo cult of the early 2000s, as if some alien culture thousands of years in the future had rediscovered artifacts to invest them with new significance. In fact, the entire cultural program, in so far as there is one, is deliberately what art critics used to call retardataire—backwards, out of date—as opposed to avant-garde. Many of the people involved in this scene like to use the word “retarded,” mostly because it’s now a bit taboo and itself backwards, a crude relic of another age when that slur was common on the schoolyard, making its employment itself another bit of nostalgia. But, if we can set aside its ableist and pejorative meaning and return to the original sense of “delayed in the course of development” and that’s not a bad characterization of the entire vibe in question here. There have certainly been reactionary avant-gardes before, and clearly this one has pretensions in that direction, but they seem to have created something genuinely new: a retarded avant-garde.
They pride themselves in being retrograde or blithely unaware along a number of axes, from declaring, as a last ditch Bohemian provocation, their fealty to conventional bourgeois values; their preoccupation with adolescence; appropriation of lower-brow or conservative religious themes; their affectation of not being the product of arts education but rather the native denizens of the dark underbelly of internet message boards; their deliberate cultivation of a sense of mental debility or confusion with results that less like Dadaist or Futurist experimentation and more just senseless chatter and maudlin ecstasy. From much of the tone and content, going as it does from dazed and out-of-it to intense and desiring, one sadly suspects that that scourge of all Bohemias, heroin, is doing its grim work. Then there’s the pro-anorexia stuff, itself a throwback to the MySpace and Livejournal-era, but now combining Simone Weil’s mystical asceticism with teenage neurosis. If it did not confer something sexy and dangerous, one might propose Freud’s death drive, a will to annihilation, is behind all this: the word “extinction” recurs frequently.
Are they being ironic? As always, yes and no, but if when are it seems partly a self-protective move: one can detect in the pseudo-intellectualism, esoterica, faux-mysticism, and general atmosphere of hocus-pocus a strong self-serious streak and a real egotistical lust for power and prominence.
The term “vibe shift,” which was apparently created by the members of the scene and sort of stolen by journalists and interpreters, is itself telling. It is really a shift not in but to vibes: to mood itself, that is to say, something felt but not fully articulated or articulable. As such, it’s not really counter-cultural at all as it is in keeping with the general tendency of the era that favors “vibe” and “mood” over anything conceptual. Raised from a lazy habit of speech to existential principle, it brings to mind Kierkegaard’s description of the life of the romantic ironist in his On the Concept of Irony:
But since there is no continuity in the ironist, the most contrasting moods succeed one another. At times he is a god, at times a grain of sand. His moods are just as occasional as the incarnations of Brahma. And the ironist, who considers himself free, thereby falls under the horrible law of world irony and drudges along in the most frightful slavery. But the ironist is a poet, and that is why, although he is sport for the whims of world irony, it does not always appear so. He poetizes everything, poetizes his moods, too. In order genuinely to be free, he must have control of his moods; therefore one mood must instantly be succeeded by another. If it so happens that his moods succeed one another so nonsensically that even he notices that things are not going quite right, he poetizes. He poetizes that it is he himself who evokes the mood; he poetizes until he becomes so intellectually paralyzed that he stops poetizing. He hides his sorrow in the superior incognito of jesting; his happiness is muffled up in bemoaning…At times he has a clear grasp of everything, at times he is seeking; at times he is a dogmatician, at times a doubter, at times Jacob Böhme, at times the Greeks, etc.—nothing but moods.
(It’s worth pointing out here that many members of the early romantic generation eventually took refuge in reactionary Catholicism when they grew exhausted with the cult of ego worship. )
The characteristic nature of romantic irony for Kierkegaard and Hegel, who called it a “celebrated hobgoblin with aristocratic pretensions,” was that it was “infinite absolute negativity;” that is to say, the stance of always negating and overcoming any possible positive identity: as supreme creative genius, the romantic ironist always must rise above, above the public, above their society, and even above their own creations and personalities. But while romantic irony once arrogantly and aggressively presumed the prerogatives of sublime genius, this self-protective form of irony just allows one to slink out the back door and slip the shackles of any critical approach, parodying anybody stupid enough to take its frivolous claims seriously in the first place. As Kierkegaard wrote of the characterless spirt of his age, “…[It] relates to events in equivocating cowardice and vacillation and reinterprets the same thing in all sorts of ways, wants it to be taken as a joke, and when that apparently miscarries, wants it to be taken as an insult, and if that miscarries, claims that nothing was meant at all, that it is supposed to be a witticism, and if that miscarries, explains that it was not meant to be that either, that it was ethical satire, which in fact ought to be of some concern to people, and if that miscarries, says that it is nothing anyone should pay any attention to.”
The aesthetic here is primarily also a stance of negation, but the negations involved seem to be much more limited; not infinite except maybe on the level of their pretensions. They are totally conditioned by the “exterior” cultural situation: it’s a series of simple oppositions to whatever the bien-pensant middle-class N.P.R. liberal consensus is taken to be.
Because it is against the aspiration to responsible and engaged citizenship, it is for hedonism, personal irresponsibility, and the cult of decadent aestheticism, but at the same time for the private, humble aspirations of family life as opposed the annoying rigors of the public and political arena, and for religion and mysticism as an escape from modernity. It is for the “infinite depths” of the labile ego and personality as opposed against to the fixed public identity as a label and political coordinate. There’s an aspiration to the condition of idiocy in the full, ancient Greek sense of the term, signifying a private individual who refuses to be involved in the political life of the city. Instead, they prefer the public disclosure of the essentially private: the tantalizing revelation of cliques, gossip, social climbing, inside jokes, sexual exhibitionism, down to the details of narcissistic self-absorptions and paranoid and violent fantasies. In short, it reflects the values of the middle-class in so far as it is bourgeois, measuring everything in terms of its own private interests, rather than the middle class appearing in its guise of citizen, focused on fostering the public good. In so far there is a type of political consciousness, it can only view the political world cynically as just a facade for private interests, hence its interest in conspiracy theory, or as yet another forum for histrionic, oppositional poses.
As Marx wrote of the Bohemian individualism of Max Stirner, “[They offer] us an additional proof of how the most trivial sentiments of the petty-bourgeois can borrow the wings of a high-flown ideology.” The conditions of cultural production in the era of social media have reduced artists and writers to the state of jealous and insecure shopkeepers or smallholders, always at risk of obscurity and “proletarianization” in the indifferent media wasteland, constantly insecure and desiring therefore to distinguish themselves and establish the unique and irreplaceable quality of their wares. For all their philippics against “neoliberalism,” which once again are mostly about mood rather than actual content, in practice all happily assent to the neoliberal imperative of reorganizing society on the model of tireless entrepreneurship. No wonder then this scene was viewed as fertile ground for the fledging marketing efforts of Urbit, Thiel and Yarvin’s quixotic effort to decentralize the internet and reconstitute it on the bases of “Lockean homesteads,” with the added megalomanic conceit that each owner who control their own planet. To quote Marx again, in their unabashed and bombastic egoism, these Bohemians end up “expressing the aspirations of the petty bourgeois of today whose aim it is to become bourgeois.”
(It’s worth recalling quickly here the career of Hussonnet, Fredric’s Bohemian friend in Flaubert’s Sentimental Education. All his theatrical and literary schemes come to nothing, until partly out of opportunism and partly out of the spirit of sheer contrarianism, he gravitates to the reaction, declares himself a follower of the reactionary philosopher Joseph de Maistre, and, after the failed revolution of 1848, puts himself in service of the Party of Order and is welcomed into bourgeois circles, writing pamphlets attacking the Left and flattering biographies of industrialists. After a lifetime of resentment, he ends up on top and uses his position to pour out anti-intellectual scorn.)
From within the Bohemia, there is a kind bitter mockery of journalists and those with more conventional literary or political aspirations as dowdy members of an older generation. “Sense-making” and explication in general is both threat and ally: on the one hand, there has to be an inside core that the general public can never “get” that has to be preserved at all costs, on the other the attention and focus of the media is both flattering and necessary to confer that something is going on at all. There is always a hardcore of an avant-garde that rejects public recognition and prefers to keep sacred the interior world of the Bohemia, but, for the most part, public display, recognition, and the possibility of career are ultimately the objects and so attention has to be carefully courted but also rejected and ridiculed at the proper moments.
Above all, an avant-garde needs to be marked by journalists as inaugurating a new epoch—initiating a “vibe shift” if you will—even if it is mostly an empty distinction. The scene then also inevitably attracts the dorks and posers as well as orbiting critics and commentators, who participate through rejection and are symbiotic or parasitic, because they cannot help advertising their proximity even as they criticize. Patrons from the upper regions of bourgeoisie appear to either just bask in the reflected rays of coolness or to put the group to work on some project of self-aggrandizement. It’s a bit like a Western boom town that suddenly appears out of a desert when a paltry amount of gold or oil is discovered nearby: virtually overnight a miniature economy and a whole cast of characters appears.
In large part, all these position-takings are not entirely conscious but instead reflective of the limited structural possibilities available in the cultural field and the general glut in the market of symbolic goods: there’s not much more one can do to really shock the bourgeoisie, all avant-garde stances have all been done to death, and so the only squares left on the board are religion, family, and tradition. The traditions of high culture are too dimly remembered or too worn out, so they must dumpster dive in the cultural detritus of the internet for “novel” material, finding in the enthusiasms of alienated online mobs something more authentic than what’s offered by the mainstream culture industry. To be frank, a lot of these borrowings feel stale already: the use of kitschy anime characters, and cheap, computer-generated figuration, a fascination with the identity-warping and dematerializing effects of online communities and the innovations of financial capital were already fodder for the art world a decade ago.
As for putting on the airs of religion and spirituality, this is probably both the saddest and desperate pose of all and one, if you are a believer, that perilously approaches blasphemy in its violation of the 3rd commandment: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”No wonder then that despite all the holy muttering there is no hint of the pathos and depth that can be conveyed by genuine religious art and sentiment even to sensitive non-believers. It is more spiritually sterile than the secular world it reviles.
So far I’ve skirted the question of politics, namely whether or not there is an incipient fascism here. The scene does in fact represent aa similar sort of petulant, nihilistic petty-bourgeois rebellion, the simultaneous adoption of the aesthetics of cutting-edge modernity and nostalgic yearning for a more wholesome pre-modern past, a fascination with cruelty, the mob, and extreme violence, and a general vulgar cult of doom and decadence that characterized fascist avant-gardes between the wars but I think it’s all too slight, lazy, parochial and self-centered to desire to plunge itself into an anonymous upsurge of a totalitarian movement’s mass energy. Occasional moods of self-destruction notwithstanding, these are not the cultural shock troops. In fact, to say they are fascist adds too much to their cachet, to all the hocus-pocus, working as a form of negative P.R. The myths surrounding fascism still suggests something dangerous and powerful in the public mind, rather than reflecting its historical reality: a stupid and pathetic hysterical outburst of the mediocre and banal.
It’s too early to say if any actually interesting art will issue from this milieu, or if it is a distinction without a real difference, just the pure product of the struggle for recognition as emerging artists seek to distinguish themselves, journalists hunt for new narratives, and critics look for labels and emblems. It doesn’t look promising so far: historic avant-gardes produced either major formal innovations or utopian visions and critiques of modern society; this one appears to have no grand ambitions in either regard, preferring to skate by on a series of affectations and poses. It can’t entirely be blamed for this as this just reflects the generally diminished possibilities of culture in the present era. But if you’re yearning for a revitalizing shock or even a return to lost traditions, this probably won’t deliver anything but narcotic vapors and pouty morbidity; just more bad vibes.