The Soft Focus How data overload has led to the trading of one delusion (authenticity) for another (aesthetic cohesion)

When I was younger, I looked to music for difference. I walked the halls of my high school with either ubiquitous Apple earbuds in or bulky AKG closed-ear headphones clamped over my head, the springy, coiled cord wadded up and tucked into my back pocket, insulated by the poignant narrative of whatever song I was listening to.

My favorite artist to listen to at school was Elliott Smith, and at the time, this was a ritual that made me feel unique. Smith’s song structures were deceptive, not quite making sense the first time I heard them, then sounding like old friends once I became familiar with the shape of the chord progressions. It felt like a necessary deception, after which there came the reward of a truth — I believed there was some magic particle in the songs, perhaps facilitated by Smith’s exceptional level of “honesty” or “genuineness” that processed his words through the equation of the chords and melody, and thereby elevated them to the level of a universal, but somehow singular, truth.

In 2009, I graduated high school and left my extremely insular Midwestern city for a liberal arts college in St. Paul, Minnesota. The college was only 1.5 times bigger than my high school, but there was something eerie about the population there. Rather than being the lone “individual” walking around campus, exempt from the sheepish masses via the cathartic aura of Elliott Smith, I was surrounded by a sea of former hallway-gazers, all simultaneously witnessing the uncanny reproduction of their own “individuality” before their very eyes.

Being the types of kids who weren’t exactly quick to surrender the idea of individuality, though, most people adapted — some ran with the times, as former mid-aughts indie devotees became UK dubstep specialists, while some clung to their preferences even harder, making a case for the ongoing relevance of whatever they liked. While I was studying there, this sort of environmentally encouraged hipster escalation frustrated me and forced me into an identity crisis: I felt my options were either to play the game and begin to specialize in something uncharted, which felt disingenuous, or to concede my uniqueness and simply recede into the comfort of my old favorites, which felt like a personal failure.

Today, one liberal arts degree, several crash-courses in postmodernism, and three internet genres later, I know what happened at college at the start of freshman year — the race to uniqueness through the absorption and mastery of information — is not a phenomenon unique to the populations of liberal arts colleges, but part of a timeless and inevitable process that in some ways describes the general movement of culture itself: to create, arrange, and regulate the dispersal of information.

Hypersaturation: prosumption and gradual homogenization

In 2014, the continuum by which music is produced, shared, and appreciated has grown infinitely smooth due to the now-pervasive eminence of digital technologies for the production and consumption (or prosumption) of music. This causes aesthetic cycles to compress into such momentary units that the movement of trends appears to be less a series of disparate yet interconnected phenomena and more a single, contiguous thread, like a master computer hidden away in the fabric of the universe, absorbing every imaginable line of data into its perpetually sharpening algorithm and recalculating every instant the precise direction it is headed in.

Some talk about the massively traceable movement of aesthetics in our era as if it were a collapse of the boundary between underground and mainstream. For me, the glycerin smoothness of information in our era has a more revelatory function: that the dichotomies we have imposed on culture as part of a historicized art narrative have always been arbitrary and fallacious, that the development of aesthetic preferences and trends has been more or less out of our control from the very beginning.

Online platforms like SoundCloud allow for users to publish, consume, and endorse music in one continuous stream

It has been written about exhaustively how new digital technologies have lowered the barriers to entry in the prosumption of media, but the effects of this shift are just beginning to be explored. One of the impacts I’ve observed is how this oversaturation of content has exposed the basic impossibility of an aesthetic that is capable of truly “breaking” the status quo, for as soon as something is shared with the masses, it is effectively subsumed into the greater arc of aesthetics before anyone can entertain the notion of it somehow challenging the larger media narrative. Recent developments like the effective death of Net Neutrality just approved by the US Government and the collusion deal inked between broadband oligarch Comcast and media production/distribution giant Netflix paint a picture of a not-so-distant internet wherein users exist within a series of increasingly narrow yet infinitely easy-to-access channels. The potential for a legitimate “fringe” outlet to short-circuit the closed loop of online media channels is becoming increasingly nonexistent, and therefore so is the potential of a work of art to subvert the dominant narrative.

[Even] if we are just trading in one delusion for another — the myth of the songwriter’s narrative truth for the myth of aesthetic cohesion in mass culture — it’s a necessary lie that allows us to continue operating as if our conversation hasn’t devolved into unintelligible empty signifiers. Or, put more simply, to keep on living.

Even if global corporations didn’t exert this high level of control over the movement of shared information, the phenomenon described above would still occur: gradual homogenization is a salient tendency of diverse media exposed to one another in an equal environment. As in biological evolution, difference exists to strengthen the lasting power of the eventual dominant sameness. The same is true for the evolution of information: it doesn’t matter how intuitively an individual artist in our era understands the movement of trends; it is an environmental reality that no one these days is “ahead of the curve,” because the curve moves on a trajectory outside the thinking realm of any conscious individual. It moves through a network with billions of nodes, irrespective of the individual desires and motivations of those nodes.

Hyperassimilation: Normcore and the post-humanization of aesthetics

The surface ripples of this phenomenon have been bubbling up in a lot of different aesthetic realms, but none in a more timely way than the “Normcore” fashion trend, the subject of a much buzzed-about piece by Fiona Duncan recently published in New York Magazine. Advocates of the style of sport clothes Duncan describes as “ardently ordinary,” thereby “embracing sameness deliberately as a new way of being cool, rather than striving for ‘difference’ or ‘authenticity’.” Based on this description, it would seem Normcore is more a theory of media than a fashion trend, as its precise function is decidedly anti-trend, or at least accepting of the fact that trends are imminently ethereal.

Similar to the claims I raised about today’s hyperaccelerated state of music prosumption, the genesis of Normcore is rooted in the environmental situation of contemporary media. Quoting Natasha Bragg, Duncan’s essay observes: “‘Everyone is a researcher and a statistician now, knowing accidentally the popularity of every image they are presented with, and what gets its own life as a trend or meme.’” When we decide what music to listen to or what clothes to wear, we are influenced unconsciously by the “research” our minds are constantly conducting while we consume media.

Musician Dean Blunt sporting a cheeky Normcore lookMusician Dean Blunt sporting a cheeky Normcore look

This might seem like an obvious claim, but this sort of accidental yet automatic calculation on the part of the aesthetic prosumer is crucial to understanding the position of today’s music enthusiast. Through this lens, it is possible to conceive of Normcore as a response to information overload and the post-humanization of aesthetics (which we also can think of as the retroactive post-humanization of aesthetics throughout all of time, simply revealed to us by the transparently “virtual” nature of our current medium). Normcore’s concession of control over aesthetics is a gesture of hyperassimilation, or, the radical calibration of the self to a culture that is by its very nature impossible to fully embody at any given point in time. The only way to follow the culture is to resist its permeation, to disengage from its daily fluctuations in lieu of a more stable sense of self. This is one of the possible reactions to a hypersaturated economy of information, closer to the idea of conscientious objection than to “dropping out” of the trend economy altogether, because it allows for the subject to keep an eye on aesthetic developments without being forced into a perpetual crisis of identity.

Authenticity and the monetary exchange value of information

Hyperassimilation has emerged as a means of processing an overflow of sonic data, and the resultant aesthetic was just as controversial, if not more so, than the current buzz around Normcore. Remember vaporwave? Although I know some at TMT would like to forget it even happened, the way the deliberately “inauthentic” genre trolled our sense of critical integrity has changed the way we perceive new sounds, rendered us less immediately trusting of the idea of artistic intent.

Vaporwave started out like any internet genre, with enough artists doing the same thing until someone decided to call it something, but the genre’s rise to think-piece prominence was unprecedented for internet phenomena in that there was actually a method behind the music apart from “triangles, screwed trap beats, and witches” or “dolphins, club music, and virtual palm trees.” If it seems like I’m deriding witch house and seapunk, I’m not; I think it’s crucial to recognize that even though these genres had a virtual point of genesis, their methodologies were only hyperaccelerated, digitally-informed cousins of indie music — a heavily ironic, recklessly appropriating pastiche approach, still grasping for a kind of self-aware uniqueness even as it began to acknowledge the inevitability of influence.

Vaporous imagery
Vaporous imagery

Vaporwave took the internet genre’s small admission of homogeneity and sped it toward its logical conclusion: by sampling sounds that were overtly bland and homogenous — the kind of cheesy, MIDI-laden Muzak that exists to accompany corporate PowerPoint presentations and elevator rides, to generally lubricate the movement of capital through our global economy — vaporwave artists were able to toy with the concept of “enjoyment” and where it comes from. If deliberately bad, formulaic music can be teased to reveal a kind of humorous beauty, why should we assume that “authenticity” is a good starting point for good art?

In the soft-focus style of media consumption, one treats every piece of media as if it were merely a fraction of a larger dialogue, which it is your overall goal to comprehend. Every aesthetic gesture you notice can be thought of as engaged in play with the aesthetic gestures of all media surrounding it.

The ambivalence or otherwise complete absence of artistic authenticity in vaporwave was matched by the contextual markers that framed it for audiences — most of its “star” artists were anonymous, taking on post-human monikers that sounded like global corporations or computers, and in its most perfect form, it was the sound of total indistinctness, a homogenous, free-floating particle of “art”: vapor. Vaporwave flourishes in the tragedy of 21st-century capitalism: that every piece of information, whether conceived as “art” or “product,” can ultimately be reduced to a monetary exchange value. Everything is always already the same, regardless of what we wanted it to be.

In lots of ways, Normcore is the aesthetic realization of the vaporwave gesture on a fashion level. Rather than decrying corporately produced materials as somehow less authentic than artisanal ones, it recognizes every material good on earth is subject to the same global capitalist economy, and so no form is less authentic or inherently “unique” than another — we are all equal amounts the same.

Hyperspecialization: the extreme “cool”

Hyperassimilation is but one of the possible responses to an oversaturated information economy, however. Another possible (and rather common, from my observations) response is hyperspecialization, or, extreme self-identification with a set of particular generic tropes, focused on the continual, gradual development of tropes within a singular aesthetic. I myself have an experience with hyperspecialization, as in late 2012, I started a blog about the then-Chicago-centered phenomenon of footwork music. This was after DJ Rashad’s game-changing Teklife Vol. 1: Welcome To The Chi came out, but before all the widespread coverage of the genre in the UK press and elsewhere, before the genre began to gentrify with the gradual introduction of UK production values and the increasing globalization of its production-base. This was a fascinating phenomenon to observe and write about, and I don’t regret the time I spent with my ears locked into 160 bpm, but I also don’t deny that after several months of poring through SoundCloud, grasping for even minute signs of intra-genre progression, I began to get the feeling I was missing the forest for the trees.

The advent of this realization was maybe spurred on by my experience in promoting my writing through social media avenues like Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter: my audience expanded exponentially at first, but after awhile it hit a wall. I believe the sudden ceiling I hit was due in part to the specificity of what I chose to focus on: I was no longer listening to music for difference like I used to when I was a teenager. I was listening for sameness. I had so completely internalized the tropes of footwork music — the stuttering, polyrhythmic triplets; the coyly, gradually unfolding song structures; and the intensely anxious tone of the music — that my very definition of “music” had shrunken to sounds that included those tropes. I was coming dangerously close to becoming the kind of technocratic, close-minded nerd I’d learned to disregard and was losing my point of reference when I’d talk to friends about new music or emerging trends in art.

Footwork dancing at Chicago underground venue Battlegroundz

It’s easy to make these observations now because footwork music, though it remains sonically pervasive in a subtle way, has somewhat run its course in terms of development and potential to influence. Indeed, most of the tropes laid out above were set into place long before footwork “broke” to a larger, mostly virtual audience, back when it was an aggressively underground Chicago dance scene. At the time I began writing about it, however, footwork’s multi-limbed fury sounded positively futuristic when it was recreated over and over again, in a series of progressively universal, less “shocking” iterations, until it began to constitute the norm. Again, the post-human arc of aesthetics had successfully appropriated its fringe elements into the mainstream, and it did so without respect to my conviction that the genre was inherently more “avant-garde” than others.

The confusion of a diachronic uniqueness with a synchronic one is a fallacy motivating countless “progressive” movements in art, and perhaps it is a necessary one. Even the recent Normcore article, entirely aware of the fact that its methodology depends on the fundamentally cyclical nature of aesthetics, speaks of dressing in a deliberately bland manner as a somehow novel, unprecedented way of being cool — to which I might contest that, if this is true, my father has been at the forefront of aesthetic experimentation for decades without being given his due. Jokes aside, being cool by not being cool is not, in fact, a new idea. It’s a reactionary counter-gesture that has been reenacted time and time again throughout the development of style; the only thing that has changed is the specifics that define what is “cool” and what is “uncool” during a particular section of diachronic time.

The Soft Focus

In today’s hyperaccelerated, hypersaturated data climate, hyperassimilation has begun to emerge in a serious style of prosumption across all forms of media. If “hyperassimilation” sounds too much like a word that you might hear someone repeat over and over again to sound smart without knowing what it means, I also like to think of the paradigm as a soft focus directed toward media — think of the way you might click on a link to a Buzzfeed article after being hooked by the title and then scroll through the page noncommittally, scanning the text for information that jumps out as “relevant,” taking in the included GIFs or images instantaneously as you move past. You might listen to a track posted on SoundCloud in much the same way, keeping your ears open for sonic signifiers earmarked as “interesting,” engaging your unconscious with the sounds while keeping your conscious mind focused elsewhere. In the soft-focus style of media consumption, one treats every piece of media as if it were merely a fraction of a larger dialogue, which it is your overall goal to comprehend. Every aesthetic gesture you notice can be thought of as engaged in play with the aesthetic gestures of all media surrounding it.

Rather than decrying corporately produced materials as somehow less authentic than artisanal ones, it recognizes every material good on earth is subject to the same global capitalist economy, and so no form is less authentic or inherently “unique” than another — we are all equal amounts the same.

This is where things get weird. Is hyperassimilation an environmentally necessary adaptation to the seamless, perpetual shifting of information in our era, or is it just a case of referential mania? Observe the development of aesthetic trends too closely, and it may begin to feel like your mind is the conduit for some kind of message written in the trends, a God in the machine. Predicting the next lurch of the aesthetic contraption has become an increasingly real-time phenomenon, so much so it’s even been classified as a type of athletics by some of today’s media theorists. I’m sure there are some who would say that as we gravitate toward a more competitive relational aesthetics, we will be losing the deeply personal nature of art that drew so many to the Elliott Smiths and Bright Eyes’ before the shift to a seamless digital media continuum. For my part, I would argue even if we are just trading in one delusion for another — the myth of the songwriter’s narrative truth for the myth of aesthetic cohesion in mass culture — it’s a necessary lie that allows us to continue operating as if our conversation hasn’t devolved into unintelligible empty signifiers. Or, put more simply, to keep on living.

People around my age, too old to be digital natives and too young to be able to sustain a technological abstinence in today’s world, are burdened with the weight of memory — even as the networked mind appears brilliant and sleek to me, like a diamond, its gradual revelation gives way to an emptiness in the pit of my stomach. Because the shift to online life happened during the existence of my peers and I, the occurrence has become inseparably tied in our memories to the more universal happening of simply growing up. The nostalgic disconnect from early childhood so many through the ages have addressed has, for millennials, an eerily finite standard of measurement.

Whether or not the move to online existence inspires nostalgia, anxiety, or excitement, it’s happening and will continue to happen. As I see it, millennials are faced with a choice: we can refuse to participate and become gradually more alienated from the modern conception of what it means to live on Earth, or we can cut our losses and go along for the ride, keeping the illusion of individuality that we can still feel from our youth as a potent reminder of how a shift in technology can reshape the meaning of existence mid-existence — this happened to millennials in our early teen years, and our consciousness is still working overtime trying to catch up. With my own sanity in mind, I look to the future with a soft focus, the horizon mutable, like an eyelid that droops at the close of day, anticipating the gentle fallacy of its own gaze.

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