Breathing in the Vapor
How vaporwave critiques more than just consumerism.
During my mid-teens (early 2010s) a new aesthetic/music genre gained a fair amount of traction, mostly online. While it is commonly viewed as a satirical bent on modern consumerism, I can’t help but notice vaporwave is in a way critical of more than just consumerism — vaporwave to me seems to reach far into the roots of our current blights, attacking technological progress and the very direction civilisation has taken us. It attacks the very essence of civilisation, as well as its end goal: total domination and subjugation of life.
Though the word vaporwave supposedly originates from “vaporware”, a term for a product (usually computer related) that is promised, but never actually developed nor cancelled, the root of the word has some other meanings. Vapour is among other things an outdated term for an acute feeling of faintness, nervousness or a state of depression — this fits perfectly with the genre’s atmosphere. Vapor as a verb can also mean boasting or speaking pompously, something humans love to do about our ‘achievements’, the very things this genre criticises.
As a music genre it conveys feelings of universal decay and hopelessness, you can feel your depersonalised body being dragged through cold hallways of a crowded mall; surrounded by hundreds you are alone, and so is every other automaton in that nightmarish place. George A. Romero’s 1977 film Dawn of the Dead comes to mind; in it zombies mindlessly wonder around in a shopping centre, much like the living do as we speak.
In a drunken, fatigued delirium you hear distorted commercial music and advertisements telling you to have fun, to be happy… but you are not, so they force you to smile, all while shoving carcinogenic junk food in your mouth and pouring diabetes inducing soda in all of your holes. There is no sleep, no rest, just slavery to an ever accelerating technological progress that we can never hope to keep up with.
When our tired, bloodshot eyes look around they can only see soulless sterility, everything in our surroundings is sanitised to the point where nothing can live there. All vaporwave imagery seems to be devoid of life with the exceptions being an occasional dolphin, lone human, palm tree or office plant. Something about this cleanliness is putrid — deep down we are aware that we too will meet our end at the hands of this demonic cleaner, as it will not stop until all but empty marble hallways and hotel pools remain of this now lifeless world — far too reminiscent of where the Anthropocene extinction is taking us. At some point the technological system might just not need us anymore, or it’ll fall with us, master slain with his slaves. Vaporwave warns of desertification, not just in a literal sense as a consequence of deforestation (caused by overconsumption of resources and agriculture), but as the vanquishment of life by growth of cities, our engineered concrete deserts.
Frequent ominous sunsets appear gloomy and depressing, as if the Sun will never rise again. Light shades of green, blue, pink and purple give vaporwave art a surrealist appearance, especially when coupled with its unnatural placement of objects (often of synthetic origin) — it all seems like a fever dream, until you realise it’s really just a hyperbole of the life we live.
In places like Tokyo and New York the incessant flashing of giant screens filled with commercials never tires, so none of their residents can ever step outside and see the beauty of midnight sky. I don’t want to even know what the future might look like if ‘people’ like Elon Musk start projecting advertisements onto the sky itself. Yes, this is currently in the works. Nothing seems to be safe from ghoulish technological monstrosities earning their handlers more money, so the system of said monstrosities gets step by step closer to completely dominating natural life.
The endless greed of capital might soon force their advert-plague into our dreams, sleep researchers warn. Of course all the insane inventions are never properly confronted, and all the weak critics of technology can do nothing but passively express concern. Any true critics of technological progress like John Zerzan or Ted Kaczynski are deemed insane, especially the latter.
If technology is allowed to continue uninterrupted, it will inevitably end up controlling and exploiting virtually every square inch of our world. Born from our sickly desire to substitute our perfectly functional body parts with tools for comfort’s sake, it’s a mindless force with a tendency to plunder nature, exterminate what doesn’t serve it, and enslave what can be made subservient. We religiously follow technology like a messianic force, hoping it will bring about an era of endless comfort, pleasure and happiness, even though it keeps proving to us again and again… and again, that that’s exactly what the techno-future will NOT be like. Vaporwave is aware of where we are drifting.
What I consider to be fascinating about art is that it can evoke feelings completely contrary to the words it speaks, much like a person, it can be sarcastic. Vaporwave is incredibly sarcastic. It sees the hollowness of our increasingly more alienated world that we sing praise to, despite seeing how it’s just getting worse, “this is what you want, huh?” it taunts us. All the things we consider beautiful or cool or useful (statues, computers, malls, hotels, pools) are mockingly painted in a completely different light, a light free of deception, so we can find what we truly feel about them deep inside.
Enjoy Yourself, a song by Saint Pepsi encourages the listener to enjoy themselves, to let the groove of music get to them, in an annoying repetitive manner that makes me think “who the hell are you to tell me this?”
The cover art for Floral Shoppe, an album by MACINTOSH PLUS features a bust of Helios, gazing towards the sky with an expression that can be described as emanating both ecstasy and despair; he turned his back to an image of a ghastly cityscape and Japanese computer graphics. Need I say more?
Nearly all songs by Whitewoods have a drunk tone to them, while their music videos show early computer graphics, fast food being made, commercials with false images of an ideal life, and upbeat cartoons or ancient video games. Combined they sound like someone who wishes to present as happy, but has lost all their energy to fake it. Pointing out how we suffer due to a social requirement/pressure to be happy and smile, all while facing grave disappointment and standardised melancholy is what vaporwave excels at. I will never forget how Walmart requires their employees to always smile at the customers; they scrapped this policy after opening stores in Germany, because customers were creeped out by being surrounded by fake grins; Americans seem to be fine with this though, a sign of a more alienated, apathetic society, used or at least indifferent to such perversions of everything that ought to be genuine. Even more severe feelings of dejection flood the brain, when one visits an American store where these phoney grins are full of decaying teeth, a consequence of both awful U.S. health insurances, and an even worse diet of cheap sugar-dense junk food — certainly those people aren’t thrilled with their job, but must pretend to be anyway.
This genre scuffs at all the empty promises that we keep on believing… or buying (no pun intended). It goes much further than just the contemporary crisis of consumerist fervour, as all the issues it points to have roots in times far before the later half of the previous (20th) century. Alienation and weakening of the face-to-face community has been growing ever since the dawn of civilisation, first as a consequence of complex society exceeding Dunbar’s number — a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain meaningful social relationships, which is agreed to be about one hundred and fifty; when your brain can not fully know all the people in its surroundings, you begin to feel disconnected from them, you are less likely to help them.
This process of societal atomisation is now approaching its final stage, a great example of this being the disintegration of the community; first the tribal community fell apart into individual extended families; afterwards the nuclear family made its debut with the rise of industrialism; now we are entering an era of isolated single parent families. Margaret Thatcher once claimed there was no such thing as society, only individual men, women and families, and in a sick and twisted sense the old wicked hag was right. According to Pew Research Center, nearly a quarter of United States children under the age of eighteen live with one parent and no other adults; it was concluded that “living in extended families is linked with lower levels of economic development.”
We have less friends than ever. Nearly half of the entire U.S. population has fewer than three close friends, nearly double increase since 1990; a shocking 12% of those interviewed claimed to have literally no friends, four times as many as thirty years ago. It is again interesting how the world’s leading superpower is experiencing the worst of these symptoms. But other economic powerhouses are far from alright. Japan has seen unimaginable rise in loneliness that seems like it will never stop, a fine example being the hikikomori phenomenon — a complete social withdrawal of some, who simply don’t leave their rooms and go to work or school for months or even years! The East-Asian high-tech consumerist society, which too many in the West admire is in reality nothing more than a soul-killing dystopia.
Deaths of despair, a term that places much needed weight on these events, are on the rise globally. United States, again, is experiencing historic rates of suicide and deaths from drug abuse. In certain places factories have to install protective nets on the sides of buildings, so the miserable sweatshop workers don’t take their lives by jumping off rooftops.
Socialists and the like will have you think that the correct answer is to make workers work a bit less, as if this amounts to any kind of liberation — if the universal effect of labour seems to be misery, why not abolish work altogether? “How are we gonna keep what we have then?” people often ask the work abolitionists. I see people who value commodity production over the well-being of individuals as possessing the same foul moral character that I ascribe to the defenders of slavery. Opting for a kinder form of slavery should never be taken as a good proposition by anyone who thinks of themselves as believing in freedom in virtually any sense. We see production as something essential to a decent living, but so did countless slavery apologists — weak-minded pathetic people who’s graves we proverbially piss on to this day.
These pro-work, pro-industry folks often being technophillic leftists, try to explain how automation and artificial intelligence will somehow do all of our work, solve all of our problems like a God. Things like self-driving cars have been in the works for a while and they still appear to be as dumb as ever, recently killing two people, this happening so easy because we are susceptible to automation bias, over-relying on automated aids and decision support systems. Headline after headline we see AI and automation fail from day to day, recalls and deadly accidents being the norm.
Yuval Noah Harari, a pop science author and professor, proclaimed that “Things are better than ever before.” Really? We went from living (for hundreds of thousands of years) in egalitarian, face-to-face society of intimacy, closeness and physical, as well as mental health, to a lonely, sad, oppressive mass society of alienation, loneliness, suicide and malady. Mr. Harari is either blissfully ignorant or a straight up monster; things are worse than at any point in history, something any anthropologist can attest to.
There was no good reason to start agriculture, civilisation, domestication — there is also no good reason for not abandoning it. Besides the extreme deskilling we as a species have gone through, and the resulting myth of humans weakness, there is a load of disinformation preventing a restless global revolt, the likes of which have never been seen, but could be seen if only the gravity of this situation was recognised by enough people.
Most people have three major misconceptions that turn them off from considering a return to the Stone Age-like conditions. They think that pre-civilisation life was that of famine, diseases, brutality, as Hobbes famously called it: “Nasty brutish and short.”
Hunter-gatherers or gatherer-hunters, as some prefer to call them, have significantly less famine than any other mode of subsistence. Overeating, consuming processed foods and leading a sedentary lifestyle (all staples of civilisation) are actually terrible for our health when contrasted with eating reasonable portions of healthy, wholesome foods and regular exercise (staples of hunter-gatherer life). Life expectancy was not as low as some think; calculations of it often made mistakes that consequentially gave the wrong impression; hunter gatherers could easily live up to 70 years of age. Needless to say, Hobbes’ imbecilic ideas about humans being antisocial solitary creatures prior to the advent of civilisation have been thoroughly debunked by nearly every field of social science, archeology, biology etc., as they were nothing but failed speculations.
We are at a point where we can either chose to make a primitive future (or future primitive, as Zerzan calls it) for ourselves, a future much like our distant past of equality, health and joy, or we continue to rot. Vaporwave warns us of what our future will be like if we continue down this path; it will be something awful, dystopian, deathly, devoid of meaning, empty, lonely, of pure agony masquerading as happiness and enjoyment. Ironically vaporwave aesthetics have been quickly co-opted by giant fashion brands and now adorn the shirts and accessories of the clueless consumer masses. A tale kind of reminiscent of the whole Che Guevara shirt thing.
I chose vaporwave as a subject of this piece not only because I used to be very enthusiastic about it years after its initial surge of popularity, but because it’s one of the countless examples of the collective/public consciousness seeing the symptoms of the giga-failure that is civilisation. This is something that happens extremely often, but very few people actually delve deep enough down the rabbit hole of symptoms to get to where the rabbit is hiding. Nearly everyone just sighs and mumbles to themselves something like “yeah, yeah, true, life sucks, this system sucks… anyway.” Critiques of our society often fall on infertile grounds, unable to further develop or blossom in the ethos of postmodernist indifference and nihilist apathy.
Humans evolved for millions of years to run free in the wild, to be free, and no matter what insanity the transhumanists and techno-apologists wish to impose on us, we should not let a dream of a good life, the kind we are made for, slip down the drain, no matter how hard or impossible reaching it may seem. Hopes and dreams are not enough for change, action is needed, but without hopes and dreams there can be no action. Don’t let your dreams die before you!
We are on a train headed towards the edge of a cliff, it’s time to pull the brakes.
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