On the vibe shift pt 2: Nameless / Faceless

“The key contribution of angelicism01 is not artistic anonymity but artistic anonymity as a delivery system for extinction qua extinction into the cultural algorithm.” 

Angelicism01

The Prince cried out for joy: ‘Good friend, I’ll give
What you will ask: guide me to where I live.’
The man pulled back his hood: he had no face—
Where it should be there was an empty space.
Half dead with fear the Prince staggered away,
Rushed blindly through the wood till break of day;

Edward Lowbury, “Prince Kano”

We have a terror of facelessness. Courtney Barnett supplies the normie take on anon, which dates to the Clinton era but still gets airtime on boomer telly, MSNBC: 

Don’t you have anything better to do
I wish that someone could hug you
Must be lonely
Being angry
Feeling overlooked
You sit alone at home in the darkness
With all the pent-up rage that you harness

The only reason to stay nameless/faceless is to harass people online—brigading Reddit threads, rallying chan pranks. You only need privacy if you’re breaking the law. What, got something to hide? 

The competitor to this narrative of facelessness is the nerd take: On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog. Which is a joke that captures something very important. Internet communities with strong norms of pseudonyms, and non-face avatars are underratedly the most radical abolition of race, gender, age, and physical appearance we’ve got. IRC, Discord servers, forums are pools of pure, Cartesian essence—what idpol progressives think “should” count in our judgments and preferential treatment of others, aka “whatever’s in your brain.” Unfortunately, the progressive camp has preferred to focus mainly on the way anonymity lets men harass women online—showing its more fascist, police side as political mood: demanding that individuals register legal identities for each online handle; pressuring platforms to enlist real-name policies. It’s not that harrassment never happens. I just wanna sing the praises of facelessness here.

2.

Elsewhere in the group chat, I write: “My cultural forecast is that in 2022, femcels will start acquiring a heckuva lot more voice/power—maybe campaign against sexual capital & decadence. It’ll becomes part of the culture war, part of the coming trad/sex-negativity wave we’re always hearing about. Have you seen lolcow.farm? They’re clearly developing class consciousness.” 

I’m surprised at myself—I wouldn’t normally be tossing out K-Hole style trend forecasts, nor waxing earnest on the varieties of incel experience, but something about the social setting brings it out of me. A mask for every context. A cycle of selves

A user named FalseProphet gives me a party report on the “rising femcel phenomenon,” which he tentatively attributes to “internet-poisoning more generally.” This is what FalseProphet looks like:

“I was splitting an uber Friday night with two girls and a trad-catholic incel friend of mine who is completely incapable of keeping his mouth shut about anything. He’s having a relatively normal conversation with one of them about Kierkegaard and then mentions ‘the WQ’—the girl he’s talking to is somewhat dumbfounded and starts interrogating to figure out what it is; the girl in the back instantly recognizes it and then blurts it out and then the three of us make eye contact—more and more people these days…” I still don’t know what the WQ is. Maybe that’s for the best. If you know what the WQ is, FalseProphet says, you’re NGMI.

It’s hard to think of a healthier development than a coming femcel tide. Desire that breaks the reigning structural logic, the reigning political logic, the same way the trans movement disrupted a previous feminist orthodoxy. (About hormones, about desire, about the construction of sex.) Paglia writes that Euripides’ Bacchae is fundamentally a story about an alien whose otherness shatters the careful, Apollonian, symbolic architecture of Thebes. “Citizenship is denied to a sexually ambiguous, magic-working alien, who vengefully debases and liquidates society’s arrogant hierarchs.” The kind of guy who quotes “Sexual Personae.” See also: David Bowie. [5:10 PM] suspendedreason: This is what culture is IMO—aliens who don’t fit into the symbolic order, whose mere presence forces the order to re-arrange around them.

Someone in the server links a September article by Nona Willis Aronowitz, for Elle entitled “The Femcel Revolution.” Nona is Ellen Willis’s daughter, which—that’s a lot of pressure; I wonder how that name’s legacy affects her, the currency it gives her, but also the shadow. She’s an American Studies grad, like I was—a fake major, for the indecisive—and went to Wesleyan, which—we don’t need to say what Wesleyan is known for. This is what Aronowitz looks like:

I’m not trying to pile-on Nona. I’m just showing what a bio brings with it.

“The Femcel Revolution” mentions what’s become lore in incel studies—that the term “incel” was coined by a female-identifying woman in the late 1990s, going by the handle Alana. “Seeing young beautiful women still makes me want to die,” wrote one user called vcardthrow2 on a femcel site called ThePinkPill. It feels like “a rebuke from God of your own happiness, because you understand what’s possible, what sort of destiny he offers better people.”

How did the femcels gain class consciousness? The same way incels did—they found a space in which they could be anonymous, which is to say a space in which they didn’t have to perform identity. And then they were honest with one another, about their situations, and their longings, and their bitterness, and their desires. And from that, identity emerged.

3. 

Bodega Bay, “Our Brand Could Be Your Life”

Branding is very in right now. It has been for a while—Bodega Bay put out an album called Our Brand Could Be Your Life in 2015, when everything felt peak brand, but it was just the beginning. None of the women I went to high school with had become product sponsors yet, schilling yoga pants and bone-conducting headphones on Insta. Much has been written on the death of “selling out” as cultural value—well, I won’t rehash the details.

Kissick, “Downward Spiral pt. 1”:

Some dude brought a copy of Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (1990) to my gym and read it between sets. I went to a party in Midtown in summer thrown by the Ions, a pair of anonymous podcasters who wear masks and disguise their voices, and spoke to a young lady on the balcony who said she’d dropped out of art school to become a “persona.”

In the original Gossip Girl, the ambitious characters were obsessed with very specific aspirations: staying on top the social hierarchy, keeping a boy pinned down, getting into Yale. In the reboot, the ambition that drives Julien Calloway is more amorphous—clout, followers, influence, the construction of personality for the public. There’s a concept in machine learning called intrinsic empowerment. The idea is that, when you aren’t sure what you specifically want, goal-wise, your next best option is to be generally empowered, so when you do figure it out, you’ll be in position to get it. In ML, intrinsic empowerment looks like navigating a maze by calculating and maximizing for freedom of movement, e.g. avoiding dead-ends. “Highly empowered states (like near the middle of the map) correspond to states where many possibilities futures are open to the agent.” For young people coming up online, I can’t help but wonder if intrinsic empowerment looks a lot like building clout. Money is a tremendous form of liquid empowerment, but symbolic capital’s not bad either.

Becoming a brand means you focus enormous amounts of attention on what Erving Goffman called a front—the public face, the idealized performance, which we put on for other people. Because you are playing to win a game, a somewhat fixed-sum game of public attention, you must be strategic, and you must dedicate yourself. Which means that your entire life becomes the performance: if you aren’t giving your all, someone else is, and they’ll outcompete you. Front becomes self. The activities you choose, the way you spend your days, the way you look, even who you date becomes a move in a game for a public arena. Obviously, it’s easy to lose “yourself” in this process, and not in the transcendent “lose yourself” way. (No, that one’s usually the result of anonymity: part of a crowd, a swarm, a hivemind. There’s a reason Berghain bans cameras.) I think the idea of some authentic, private self, in contrast to the public mask-wearing, is a bit fetishized, elides the way we’re always changing and performing, seems to stipulate some timeless essence of “you.” But it does seem clear that, when you’re building a self that gets other people off, that self won’t be very good at getting you off. There are just… tradeoffs, which can’t be gotten around, and this is one of them.

4.

Having a name, having a face, means having a history.

Valentine’s “The Intelligent Social Web” is a very good analysis of how this works.

The web of social relationships we’re embedded in helps define our roles as it forms and includes us. And that same web, as the distributed “director” of the “scene”, guides us in what we do.

A lot of (but not all) people get a strong hit of this when they go back to visit their family. If you move away and then make new friends and sort of become a new person (!), you might at first think this is just who you are now. But then you visit your parents… and suddenly you feel and act a lot like you did before you moved away. You might even try to hold onto this “new you” with them… and they might respond to what they see as strange behavior by trying to nudge you into acting “normal”: ignoring surprising things you say, changing the topic to something familiar, starting an old fight, etc.

In most cases, I don’t think this is malice. It’s just that they need the scene to work. They don’t know how to interact with this “new you”, so they tug on their connection with you to pull you back into a role they recognize.

It’s more or less unpacking what we already know—that reputations become prisons. The prison is an aspect of social reality, in that it is constituted by others’ expectations of you. A mask for every context. A cycle of selves. What would it look like, if your present self had no debt to past selves? If it had no obligation of coherence? What if it could contradict itself at will? What if it could dissolve into the mass of a larger computational process, the human superorganism, what sometimes gets called “God.” 

(Once we have chosen a mask, we must maintain it. We cannot present ourselves in ways that contradict the definition advanced by the mask. Alternate displays feel “off-brand.” And in an algorithmic age, the penalization of off-brandedness plays out on its own accord. We accumulate followers and engagement under one banner, and when we publish something that is not of interest to these followers, something which hits a different sensibility, it not only “falls flat” but the low engagement causes the content to sink further into obscurity, off the timeline. It not merely “different content,” it is “bad content.”)

And as Ruby Justice Thelot notes, the celebrity exchange is one of privacy for notoriety; Kardashian’s rise via sex tape crystallizes this transaction, a transaction that lies at the heart of all social presence. To be safe from others’ opinion, or to be known, and known falsely, and be imprisoned by that false knowing. Especially because the public discourse around celebrities is never about the celebrity so much as it is about ourselves. Like art or television, it’s a way of sharing social information, talking indirectly around our values, communicating what we believe in. “Language and culture together provide a landscape of reference points which allow coordination.

The desire to be recognized within the social game as successful, able player; the desire to renounce the game itself in toto. The choice is simple: you choose distinction, or you choose liberty. If you’re gonna win the game, you must understand its logic and comply with an n+1. You must submit yourself to be ruled by the public, in order to rule them. Even those who win by “breaking” the game’s logic do so—at least with any regularity, batting better than chance—after first learning it:

Picasso's fascinating early works | Salon.com
Picasso, Study of a Torso 1895.

5. 

And now? Can we say our moment is peak brand? Maybe, insofar as facelessness is beginning to be popular. Or so Dean Kissick writes over at Spike Mag. Everyone’s renouncing their identities and reputations:

For many seasons, Balenciaga’s Instagram was a roll of photos solicited from alternative influencers, from pale, sickly artists and dour, misshapen scene kids, eager to make themselves into advertisements for around $500 a post; but on July 1st this year, the brand deleted everything, unmade itself, and turned to a blank page. By late July, Kanye West, under Gvasalia’s creative direction, was wandering the stands of Atlanta’s football stadium in a series of masks. And last month, September, Gvasalia accompanied the rapper’s estranged wife, Kim, to the Met Ball in matching all-black outfits and body stockings that obscured their faces completely. Demna and Kim, this century’s most influential and effective forces of branding and self-branding respectively, are now involved in the destruction of identity. Kim and Kanye are divorcing one another, but also themselves. And Demna’s black-hooded, faceless penitent getup from the masked ball also closed Balenciaga’s Spring ’22 show, and was the first picture posted on its wiped-clean Instagram.

“Downward Spiral: Persona, pt. 1”
Image Gnostic Samsara

I think we need to not do what Ruby Justice Thelot does, in response to these tactical moves, which is buy into the narrative of Kim, to get hagiographic, to see the Balenciaga dress as an act of “quintessential” freedom, an “overcoming,” a “form of resistance.” I don’t think the Kardashians are going rogue on us, abandoning the game of celebrity, reputation, and notoriety. What I see is another move in the game, which is clever insofar as it pretends to renounce the game, thereby announcing itself as more powerful than the game. I see someone whose entire power stems from the game, and whose entire powerlessness stems from the game, trying to signal that her power lies outside it. A symbol without substance. A gesture without action. A gesture which, in its futility and transparency, only reinforces the game’s claim to being all-encompassing—that there is nothing outside fashion. There is no renouncing the game; even nudity’s stuck in its paradigm. This is bleak stuff.

So that Kim and Kanye’s renunciations are just another sequence in an eternal game of moves and countermoves. A bit like Christianity as brand, Catholicism as brand. When what religion is really about is giving the self over to something larger. Humbling the self, loosening the grip of ego like a mushroom trip. 

Blair confessing to Priest Flashback to Limo Sex Gossip Girl 1x08 - YouTube
Blair like Dasha in confessional, GG S01E07.

The hyperbranded self was a move, so the next move is a “brandless” self. Anyway, Shia did it first. Less Sontagian “Aesthetics of Silence”—Duchamp quitting art to play chess; Wittgenstein’s silence—and more like normcore, a fashion statement insofar as it’s a move in a game, instead of a renunciation of the game.

A video circulates online, a man with glasses, face tight to the camera; superimposed text reads, “i cut away hair / i give up beauty / i throw away shampoo / i empty my cabinet / i delete photo / i forget my history / i care about myself / i life for the moment.” Notice the voice here. A lot of phones autocapitalize “I”—do you think he overrode that setting, to use this voice? Is mumblecore naturalistic, or just another style? Was “life for the moment” an honest mistake, or literary brilliance? Someone in replies objects “but ur on tik tok,” so Op shuts off comments. “What a guy” @aenzly comments on Twitter. Which is the paradox of facelessness, the paradox of “leave society,” the paradox of exit. If you’re still around to tell people, you haven’t really left. Dump a Macbook in a Manhattan trashcan as symbolic gesture, then recover it to Tweet about the exploit. Besides, why would you leave, when there’s so much symbolic capital—”clout” as the kids call it—on the table for taking?

6.

Bodega Bay, “Notoriety”

Bluechecks love faces and names. Get yourself a real-name handle, preferably with a middle initial or hyphenated surname, keep it unique. Makes it easier to search you—good SEO practices, very important. Get yourself a facepic as avi, so everyone can see your facial structure, the work that’s been done on your teeth.

This unique ID is now the site where symbolic and social capital accumulate. Fake the name, your real self can’t cash in. No one knows who David Jones is, because there was already a 60s songwriter named David Jones. Swap to “Bowie,” now there’s a niche to build out, a moniker like a keypair. Don’t want that hard-earned cash transferred to the wrong account. But try reach out to another celeb as Davy Jones? Well—that won’t get you very far. Might as well become your mask—Marilyn Monroe, Gigi Hadid, Miley Cyrus, Kit Harington, Lana Del Rey, Courtney Love, Erykah Badu. These weren’t real names, but they became real. What’s the chance the Angelicism01 moniker hardens? What’s the chance he “comes out” under government name? What’s the chance he starts anew, under fresh handles, leaving all he’s acquired behind?

So if you make yourself anonymous, or spread yourself thin between alts, you’re sabotaging your own capacity to accumulate capital. Which means reputational capital can’t be what drives you. It means something else lies behind the behavioral logic. Perhaps passing memes forward. Which sounds small and petty, except it’s sorta the most beautiful thing in the universe. Forget Percy Shelley statues, forget monuments in stone. “The very meaning of ‘survival’ becomes different when we stop talking about the survival of something bounded by the skin and start to think of the survival of the system of ideas in a circuit. The contents of the skin are randomized at death and the pathways within the skin are randomized. But the ideas, under further transformation, may go on out in the world in books or works of art.” (Gregory Bateson, Steps Toward an Ecology of Mind.)

People who studied comp lit in undergrad love talking about how capitalism defines modernity, how our values have been eaten out by money fetish. They love seeing the world of literature and art as pure pursuits outside the system—sure, there are rotten publishers, and corrupt record labels, but the artists are motivated in a quest for beauty, by their giving spirit. But Bourdieu’s writings make all too clear: you don’t escape capital flows just because you leave money behind. Art-making, on average—at least in public—is as egoic as it gets. Everyone wants to be part of history. Everyone wants to get into the best lit mags. Everyone wants the crowning Artforum review, the Whitney retrospective. We need to stop thinking about “capitalism” as something that has to do with money. If there’s anything that actually challenges the “logic of capitalism,” or whatever, it’s this ego-less contribution to the meme-stream.

7.

Nick Land pronounced the Internet the “golden age of masks”—the golden age of persona, the Latin word for “mask” which became the basis for the English “person.” Such as it is to say: the golden age of personhood and personality. “Everyone is playing a role / everyone trying each other on for a change / of scenery.” Because of course personhood and perception are carefully linked: your desires and goals transform a neutral environment into a set of obstacles and affordances, into bad and good, beautiful or repulsive.

Paglia: “Society is the place of masks, a ritual theater.” Drama, of course, requires interested individuals, the clashing of desires, the performance of roles, the maintenance of reputation. That’s what plays out. A giant, interpersonal puzzle and power-struggle. I want this, he wants not-that, now we fight about it. 

Thomas McEvilley on the 1984 Rubin primitivism show:

In their native contexts these objects [i.e. primitive masks] were invested with feelings of awe and dread, not of esthetic ennoblement. They were seen usually in motion, at night, in closed dark spaces, by flickering torchlight. Their viewers were under the influence of ritual, communal identification feelings, and often alcohol or drugs; above all, they were activated by the presence within or among the objects themselves of the shaman, acting out the usually terrifying power represented by the mask or icon. What was at stake for the viewer was not esthetic appreciation but loss of self in identification with and support of the shamanic performance.

And art, in my experience, is typically interesting because it either expands the space of possibles—suggests newness—or somehow challenges, subverts, interrogates the already existent. Alva Noe, writing in Strange Tools, advances such a view of art as “second-order activity.” Dancing isn’t art, but choreography, which creates novel ritual arrangements, is. Everyday speech isn’t art, but L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, which plays with and deconstructs and expands the range of everyday syntax, is. This is a very contemporary, avant-biased, avant-damaged conception of art—it’s a fundamentally modernist prejudice that art must “make it new” or “GTFO.” But for our purposes, this is only to the point: Angelicism01, -cellectuals accounts, & the vibe shift scene are fundamentally avant visual, writing, and personality practices.

(What is the artist? An alien who disrupts the structure of society with otherness. An irritant in the oyster’s hard shell, which makes a pearl.)

8. 

Bodega Bay, “Performance”

The other thing about mask-wearing is that it’s liberating for the wearer. Keith Johnstone, Impro:

Suppose an eight-year-old writes a story about being chased down a mouse-hole by a monstrous spider. It’ll be perceived as “childish” and no one will worry. If he writes the same story when he’s fourteen it may be taken as a sign of mental abnormality. Creating a story, or painting a picture, or making up a poem lay an adolescent wide open to criticism. He therefore has to fake everything so that he appears “sensitive” or “witty” or “tough” or “intelligent” according to the image he’s trying to establish in the eyes of other people. If he believed he was a transmitter, rather than a creator, then we’d be able to see what his talents really were.

We have an idea that art is self-expression—which historically is weird. An artist used to be seen as a medium through which something else operated. He was a servant of the God. Maybe a mask-maker would have fasted and prayed for a week before he had a vision of the Mask he was to carve, because no one wanted to see his Mask, they wanted to see the God’s. When Eskimos believed that each piece of bone only had one shape inside it, then the artist didn’t have to “think up” an idea. He had to wait until he knew what was in there—and this is crucial. When he’d finished carving his friends couldn’t say ‘I’m a bit worried about that Nanook at the third igloo’, but only, ‘He made a mess getting that out!’ or ‘There are some very odd bits of bone about these days.’ These days of course the Eskimos get booklets giving illustrations of what will sell, but before we infected them, they were in contact with a source of inspiration that we are not. It’s no wonder that our artists are aberrant characters. It’s not surprising that great African sculptors end up carving coffee tables, or that the talent of our children dies the moment we expect them to become adult. Once we believe that art is self-expression, then the individual can be criticised not only for his skill or lack of skill, but simply for being what he is.

Dean Kissick:

Life has become a performance, a rather banal and meaningless one. That may have been the case for centuries, but even more so now. The only thing we can make now is ourselves; day after day, again and again. To sculpt one’s own individuality has ballooned into an endless task. To post every day, to express yourself creatively, to have opinions on the churning discourse.

Not “may have been”—life was always a performance. That’s why the early Roman word for “mask” is the late Roman word for personhood. This isn’t a 21st century concept. It is the very definition of the social space: a space of performance, a network of drama. There would be no concept of inner self, no phenomenology of privacy, if it were not so. When you know you’re observed, your behavior changes: sometimes unconsciously, sometimes consciously, usually a bit of both. This is why we luxuriate in privacy; this is why privacy is important to protect; this is why the very sensation, the very belief that we are being surveilled can be damaging, separate from any fact of whether or not we are being surveilled.

Everything that is about other people, we call “extrinsic.” Everything that would still hold separate from others’ assessment and beliefs, we call “intrinsic.” Extrinsic value is how much you can sell an asset for. (Greater fool theory.) Extrinsic evaluation is opticratic: when a referee is judging whether a fencing sabre makes contact, then fencing moves which look like they make contact are as effective as those which actually do. Intrinsic value is how much an asset is valuable to you, non-fungibly. In a real duel, whether there is fog, whether there are onlookers, whether no one hears a tree in a forest—if the sword cuts your skin, the sword cuts your skin. If you are slain, you are slain. It’s when we enter the social that we transition from the intrinsic to the extrinsic—a transition which enriches and impoverishes us on separate axes, simultaneous.

(What is that leaping sensation, that zooming out from experience and into identity, appearance, reputation? From embodiment to self-consciousness. From the concrete to the conceptual. Simply, the switch from intrinsic to extrinsic.)

If we want to see true facelessness, and what that entails, we should look not to the Kardashians, or to Balenciaga, but to chan culture. For nearly two decades, anon individuals have put extraordinary amounts of work into creating cultural objects—textual, visual, and animated artworks—so powerful they changed the history of the Internet, and with it, the world. For a decade now, they have been known as the wellspring of meme culture, the Internet’s art form par excellence. For two decades now, they’ve actually held the role.

In the anonymity of chan culture, reputational capital, interpersonal charisma, sexual capital, wealth, and professional accreditation—all the usual surrogates and -isms which influence success and advancement in IRL cultural spheres—are out the window. Only cultural competence, in the sense of the ability to speak the local language, and thereby generate novel utterances which are interesting to other fluent speakers—is needed. (That is, the ability to understand and advance the cultural game’s state.) It is the art world’s wet dream, what it has long claimed to be but never lived up to.

The usual deal the artist makes is this: A cultural exchange system has been set up whereby the artist creates work that individuals (critics, investors, consumers) find interesting or valuable in light of their own agendas, priorities, desires, etc. In exchange for the artist’s contribution, he receives various forms of capital; perhaps chief among the motivating forms of capital, for the artist, is not money but prestige, critical recognition, and canonization in the historical lineage. 

Anonymity is so surprising because it upsets the Bourdieusean model of distinction-chasing. Your historical contributions do not bias the reception of your future contributions, i.e. there can be no Matthew Effect, no “rich getting richer” feedback loops except as mediated by extensive training on the local language or game mechanics.

[4:28 PM] suspended reason: The joke here is that everyone implicitly buys the Bourdieusean “cultural production is performed in exchange for the promise of capital, in its symbolic/prestige/reputational + financial forms” model

[4:28 PM] suspended reason: And so to encounter a person who isn’t engaging in this kind of dare I say capitalist exchange logic is mind-breaking and considered abnormal/pathological so they need to submit him for further study

[4:28 PM] suspended reason: The art & literary & culture world, like a “faceless” Ye (where his facelessness is just one more move in personal brand-building), pretends to subvert capitalist branding/exchange logic while actually epitomizing it

[4:29 PM] suspended reason: but 4chan tantalizes with the possibility of a genuinely faceless logic. That humans can and will participate under a different system of incentive

Ex Machina

He looked around for comfort, and his search
Led him inside a small, half-empty church
Where monks prayed. ‘Father,’ to one he said,
‘I’ve seen a dreadful thing; I am afraid.’
‘What did you see, my son?’ ‘I saw a man
Whose face was like….’ And, as the Prince began,
The monk drew back his hood and seemed to hiss
Pointing to where his face should be, ‘Like this?’

Edward Lowbury, “Prince Kano”

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