On the vibe shift, pt 1: Worldbuilding

Chatting with a friend last week, I mentioned I was writing a party report on the Lisbon ETH conferences for Spike. She said she was surprised. That there was a narcissism to the genre she’d expect to turn me off.

A reasonable criticism—the format’s short history is ≈ synonymous with vanity, the it-girl who moonlights in pop-lit. The self-aware, guilty pleasures—reveling in surfaces, slumming in vice. Doing things you know to be shallow; doing things because they’re shallow. Not too different than: Ivy Leaguers hosting Bachelor parties, curating Tay-Tay playlists. Expressed via: fashion fascism, non-stop namedropping, flirty “as-if“ing—the Joan Didion mode where condescending-toward-world is played to flatter speaker. At its best, the mood is perfectly ambiguous: Love? Hate? Why make up your mind?

Not quite to see and to be seen, but to be seen as seeing. “I’m in with the in-crowd,” as Dobie Gray sings, but more complex and layered: in with, but also ambassador of—archivist, gossiper, public opiner. Then there’s the basic social transaction, which Stagg in Sleeveless puts crisply: The scam was that the parties were cooler because they were getting written up, while the writers were getting to go to the coolest parties because they had the power to make them so.[1]

Which is to say—party reports are an exercise in thingification. Upon publishing, upon being read, the event becomes real and the participants somebodies. That’s the psychology at least. You see it with photographers too. If a party’s thrown and no one documents it, did it really happen? Participants’ pre-eminence is nakedly evidenced in the asymmetric gaze of subject/bystander, product/consumer—the asymmetric gaze that literally defines popularity. (The state of getting more attention than you give out.) Opticratics. Status more a matter of practice than theory, behavior than belief.

The writer tends to run parasitic on the clout of those he writes about, associates. In writing about, he make them more famous. He inserts himself in the historical graph, logs himself in the citation network. He becomes a source for others’ fantasies. There’s a whole show about this, and it’s called Gossip Girl, which alleges the prototypal party reporter is named Dan Humphrey, a nerd from Brooklyn practicing literary crossdressing. Fair or unfair? You decide. I understood that the best thing to be in New York is watched and heard.[2]

2.

Now that I’ve said some critical things about party reports, I can some complimentary things about party reports. First is that I’m a believer in @turtlekiosk’s idea that there’s a Goldilocks zone to narcissism online—a little bit makes for interesting cultural production; to much, you’ll ruin the content, or make nothing that lasts. (It’s difficult to make great art that isn’t honest, and narcissism is, first and foremost, a systematic distortion of your view on world & self.)

Second, what I think party reports do well that few other genres manage is worldbuilding.

The most obvious way this is true is in its documentation of gossip and social power, ID’ing nodes in the network and how they connect. Popularity and unpopularity, what is in and out, high and low status—these fields of power are real, exert non-trivial effects on the people who live in them. Even as manners tend to censor their acknowledgment.

There’s outsized returns on effort to be had here, because the publication of this soft social information is historically underpriced. Bourdieu:

One of the major difficulties of the social history of philosophy, art or literature is that it has to reconstruct these spaces… It is difficult to conceive the vast amount of information which is linked to membership of a field and which all contemporaries immediately invest in their reading of works: information about institutions—e.g. academies, journals, magazines, galleries, publishers, etc—and about persons, their relationships, liaisons and quarrels, information about the ideas and problems which are ‘in the air’ and circulate orally in gossip and rumour.

The Field of Cultural Production

Which is the documentary function of the party report. One of the books I discovered last year was F. L. Allen’s Only Yesterday, a history of the 1920s written in the 20s, published in the 1931, that manages to gets specific on details—to bring things to life the way great fiction can—precisely because of its temporal proximity. He gets the clothes, the makeup, the cultural and sexual norms, can track the changing class attitudes to leisure, vacation, tobacco, and politics.

And in the Spike party report, I wanted to document the way German Idealism and New Age stuff are both in right now. (Altho—is New Age ever not in?) To capture the corporate slang people use; the way they roll spliffs. All the minutiae of social life, consumer life, cultural life flesh out the world-docu—but what carries it into proper worldbuilding—the construction of a world, and not merely its description—is that in curating a (sociologically meaningful) constellation of proper & improper nouns which are especially important or meaningful or salient to the party reporter, he creates a hyper-reality: a vision of a scene or community that’s more real than the scene itself. As vision is consumed, it shapes the culture in turn. Map bends back on the territory, altering it in turn (cybernetics). Thingification “shaping” our perception, actions, goals. Defining new implicit boundaries through the drawing of connections.

Geoff Mak’s “Edgelords” is party-reporting in the Gonzo journalism style—part Didion, part Phillips. Here he is on Art Basel, in “Edgelords”—that constellation of proper nouns which is densely hypertextual:

Upon entering the convention center, one encounters the so-called Circle of Power: Gagosian, Zwirner, Rosen, Hauser & Wirth, Cooper, et al… those who may or may not have flown in on delayed flights from New York shuttled back and forth between New York parties transplanted and reinvented in Miami: Horse Meat Disco, Topical Cream, Mixpack, Bunker, GHE20G0TH1K. Text messages were sent, asking if the nebulous there was better than the permanently uninteresting here. “I think we’re gonna go to NADAWAVE,” said one. “When does Objekt go on?” “Is Perez the same thing PAMM?”…Back on the dance floor, a friend said, “There’s Ryder Ripps behind me looking like a fuckboy.”

It’s a side priority, but some historian of the future would likely be able to trawl the extensive web archive for context on any one of these signifiers. But it’s their socio-cultural relationship—to a place, space, time, milieu—the pulling of signifiers together into a meaningful system—that would disappear if not preserved this way. Big Data may make yet another function of literature obsolete, but not today, and not tomorrow.

Another part of worldbuilding, of thingification: minting types of guy. Sex & The City—origin point for an entire dialect of social reporting—is famous for this. There’s the kind of guy who gets obsessed with Manhattan and never leaves—endless Saturdays at Angelica, Central Park for nature retreats. Part of the Cambridge Analytica scandal—whose fallout Mak chronicles in “Edgelords”—was its typification of social media users: the idea that there were meaningful patterns where “people who liked ‘I hate Israel’ on Facebook also tended to like Nike shoes and KitKats.” One thing I’ve noticed is that people get skittish around targeted ads even beyond concrete concerns. It’s something more affective—a certain eeriness, the feeling of being made small.

Insofar as these relationships between signifiers are “real”—predictively useful, roughly—they’re vibes in the Peli Grietzer sense—a set of perceptually salient signifiers which map a way of carving up the world, that is, a way of perceiving. A synesthesia, an affective kinship; an aesthetic, constructed out of inherent formal-material associations and sociological co-occurrence. A compression of the world according to a sensibility. Polanski on 1962’s Knife in the Water: “I was interested in creating a mood, an atmosphere, and after the film came out, a lot of critics found all sorts of symbols and hidden meanings in it.” But what’s elegant about vibe is that it bridges the romantic and the mathematical, the sensory and the semantic: the moods just do carry information through the graph of signifiers which underlies them. My friend Gabe Duquette says that artworks are constituted of maps—representational compressions of the world—and chords—harmonious formal elements. But a vibe is a chord which serves as map. In his Glass-Bead essay, Grietzer quotes Elif Batuman:

A “rain/grey/British vibe,” for example, incorporates the walk from a Barbour store (to look at wellington boots) to the Whitney Museum (to look at “some avant-garde shorts by Robert Beavers”), as well as the TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, the Scottish electronic duo Boards of Canada, “late 90s Radiohead/global anxiety/airports” and New Jersey. A “vibe” turns out to be something like “local colour,” with a historical dimension. What gives a vibe “authenticity” is its ability to evoke—using a small number of disparate elements—a certain time, place and milieu; a certain nexus of historic, geographic and cultural forces.

And as the saying goes, vibe attracts tribe. By the same token, meaning is processed vibe-first; mood subsumes content literal.

3.

What is the purpose of building a typology, or inventing new types? For one, as Alfred Schutz argues extensively in his theories of social phenomenology, we can only ever perceive the world through types; without categories, we are stuck in a Jamesian bloomin’, buzzin’ confusion. The types bring with them a script (an interaction protocol, a set of ritual procedures); if this, then that. If intent, then homicide; if homicide, then 20-to-life. There’s discretion, sure, but the classification schema defines the range of called-for (appropriate) behavior. A gallery girl’s visual classification scheme might be: If white-glove, then remove AirPods; otherwise, keep scrolling. (This is how ML works, roughly—which is where Peli’s mathematical formalization of “vibe” comes from. It all links up—worlds are a set of types; types are a set of protocols.) 

Everything was a reference, a sign. At the party, we were not so much socializing as we were performing types, which often confounded me. I was never sure which side of the counterculture I was expected to perform: art critic, ad man from New York, technogoth turning looks at the club, or a foot fetishist with a kink for golden showers. I just knew that once I located my role, my “character,” it was important to deviate as little as possible. 

Geoff Mak, “Edgelords”

Types—of guy, and in general—are defined by our goals. That’s an obstacle, this is opportunity. And the types give agents something to coordinate around, a fungible token to exchange. In Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest & Relaxation, the female protagonist ridicules boys “…reading Nietzsche in the subway, reading Proust, reading David Foster Wallace, jotting down… brilliant thoughts into a black Moleskine pocket notebook… The worst was that those guys tried to pass off their insecurity as ‘sensitivity,’ and it worked.” Once you can socially reference a class of object—define it by its salient features (starterpack), its constellation of signifiers—then you can swap experience, describe the world, swap advice (if this, then that).[3]

Language and culture together provide a landscape of reference points which allow coordination. If one were attempting to coordinate physical movement, among multiple parties, across a physical landscape, one would naturally end up relying upon the natural referential affordances of that landscape. Thus, one would meet at “the top of the mountain,” or at the top of a waterfall, or by the pond. One would warn another of a mud patch or obstructing bramble, of closed-off roads or private land; might instruct one to hang left at the first fork in the road, and hang right at the second, finally crossing over the pasture behind Bill’s old lot—you know Bill, lived on the outskirts in the 80s?

“Transfer Phenomena & Two-Person Languages”

We all know greaser, beatnik, hippie, rebel without a cause, Johnny Angel. Bad boy, nice guy, Madonna, whore. Uptown girl, backstreet boy, high-class toy. But when you get inside a subculture, shit gets specific fast. You could say there’s a tendency toward specialization—distinction, even.

Notice how the packs are both descriptive and normative, simultaneously.

4.

No wonder there’s a clamor for facelessness, for illegibility. To be made legible is to be vulnerable—this is well established in Schelling’s Strategy of Conflict! There’s a reason Trump’s wildcard persona was praised as geopolitical deterrent. You make yourself legible to allies, illegible to foes. And in a protean, half-competitive, half-cooperative society, everybody’s a mix of ally and foe, so:

Disclosure and surveillance, secrets and lies, are just two sides of the very radioactive relationship you have and must mediate between yourself and the world outside. If you’re not writing your story, somebody else is going to. And if you are the one writing it, guess what? Same result. 

You can’t make people care, you can’t ever say what they’re writing on the back of their eyes. You cannot get suckered into thinking full disclosure or full secrecy are either of them options; you cannot get suckered into being at peace

Jacob Clifton, Look How Good You Are: Recapping Gossip Girl S1

And these are the things Gen-Z writing seems about, so far. Worldbuilding—interpreting & manipulating signifier fields. And managing persona—balancing legibility, making the self strange, making the self other. Have you read Honor Levy’s “Pillow Angels”? It starts out naturalistic, you assume it’s more memoir, and then the high-schoolers-getting-breast-implants stuff comes, and it’s nauseating, so that when it finally swerves into full-bore magical realism, it’s a relief. Hyperbole-as-window-on-truth, sure, but consider the control. The way she eases into the hyperbole. And of course the entire piece is just a bricolage of signifiers, of proper nouns.

Izzy says she wants to take Greta Thunberg’s virginity. I tell her that one day I’m going to fuck Barron Trump. […] I am staring at the clumps of Nobu and Pink Berry swirling like dervishes in the toilet. We all want to be Dachau-liberation-day-skinny for spring break on Little Saint James. We need a vacation because LA is like Narnia now. Climate change is real.

This is how the Vibe Shift happened: Someone said, “And then there was light.” And then there was light. Speech; act. World built by naming of world.

Like Web3 culture, it’s built atop sockpuppeting, hype-laundering, and the production of copious amounts of self-reflexive fanfiction. It’s an expression of identity angst and narrative collapse. “A fiction made real, an egregore, a self-sovereign entity that lives through the imagination and belief of many.”[4]

One of the not-so-secret secrets of modernism was the way it borrowed wholesale from primitive and outsider art; the way its roots burrowed deep into tradition; the way its poets raided Greco-Roman myth for material. “Worldmaking as we know it always starts from worlds already on hand; the making is a remaking.”[5] I’m scavenging the fragments of collapsing worlds, I posted in an online forum, because I need the materials to build a new one.

Everyone knows about hyperstition (myth which makes itself real) and meme magic (memes which alter reality), but there are a few other effects we should know—in the Web3 space, in the world-making space. In the representation profession:

  1. The Tinkerbell effect: Some phenomena only exist because people believe in them.
  2. Keynesian Beauty Contest: Coined by John Maynard Keynes; a kind of beauty contest where judges pick winners based not on which contestants they find most attractive, but on which contestants they think the other judges pick. (In other words, the most popular contestants.) Pure extrinsic valuation and theory of mind work.
  3. The Matthew Effect, i.e. “the rich get richer.” Originally named for the effect in science grants, whereby previous grant winners were more likely to receive further grant awards. For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. How does it work? Well, we make decisions, as selectors in selection games—about who to give grant money, who to hire, who to date, based in large part on historical selection games—the grants our candidate has already been awarded, the titles and awards she’s won, the people she’s dated. The outcomes of historical selection games acts as a surrogate, a proxy that saves award committees the hassle of reading research.
  4. Greater fool theory: The value of an asset is whatever one can convince someone else to purchase it for—hence, finding a greater fool to pass the asset off to. Prone to causing bubbles and resultant crashes, with the greatest, final fool losing all her money.

Like Baudrillard’s simulacra, the original is beside-the-point: its reputation is everything.

You know the way military people talk about how anxiolytic the hierarchy is? Having explicit knowledge of how to interact with others, when to defer—”if stripes, then salute,” etc. I wonder if endlessly mapping signifiers is a way of dealing with ambiguous social structure, because 2020s coastal urbanism feels as directly opposite the military as culture gets. All the power is fluid and desire-based, rather than force-anchored. (This is what White Lotus was all about.) The power is hidden, implicit, feigns its disempowerment. This is the autist’s nightmare: the power’s just as real but it’s all implicit and unspoken. Mapping the signifiers is a way of orienting, a way of wrangling control. IYKYK. Next stop divination.

Footnotes

[1] Stagg, Sleeveless.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Recall that gossip is simultaneously (1) a critical network for passing and receiving social information, and also (2) a medium for reputational sabotage. This is neither paradoxical nor contradictory: it is precisely at them moment when a channel of information becomes reliable that it begins to be trusted, and precisely when a channel begins to be trusted by receivers that senders can exploit the trust with fake news. If no one believes you, Cassandra-style, there isn’t much advantage spouting strategic defamation—not much advantage to speaking at all. And no information channel will remain unexploited—there will always be bad actors who use the trust others invest in said channel to advance their own selfish ends. 

Like gossip, type-casting is both a way of communicating social information and also an invitation to gang up on people—to commit sabotage; to bond, ostensibly, over shared distaste (which is to say, shared values). Types are inevitably weaponized, and any of the expressive markers, which have come to be metonymically associated with the type as a whole, become costly to express in public.

[4] Other Internet, “Headless Brands

[5] Nelson Goodman

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