The Philosophy of VaporWave
Vaporwave is in many ways a modern parallel to thought movements like the Enlightenment and the Renaissance.
I know where you think I’m going with this and I assure you I’m not being presumptuous or preppy and I’m certainly not seeking to glorify Vaporwave or put it on a moral and/or ethical pedestal. To many people, Vaporwave is simply dope electronic music that takes lounge, elevator and smooth jazz beats from the 1980s and warps their sound into a psychedelic, musical exploration of hyperreality that can sometimes be described as hypnagogic and funnily enough, sounds awesome.
There’s also the other end of Vaporwave: its deeply insightful focus on satire and anti-consumerism, general sarcasm and somewhat cynical view about the nature of mankind and society. A unique expression of social commentary through the use of the aforementioned sometimes “creepy” but often awesome resynthesized beats as a commentary on society and human nature.
As awesome as Vaporwave is starting to sound now, does any of this actual merit the comparison between Vaporwave and movements as grand as the enlightenment, which effectively served as a foundation of modern culture?
Let’s explore the question.
Hauntology: A Glimpse into the Deeper Aspects of Vaporwave
There is a growing school of thought, that our desire for nostalgia (a huge source of inspiration for Vaporwave culture) actually stems from a disillusion with the current unfolding of the future. During the mid and early 20th century, mankind as a whole had extremely optimistic expectations for the development of western civilization as time trudged endlessly onward.
Flying cars, Utopian cities, the end of global hunger, space travel and prosperity for all, were all at that point in time reasonable expectations as mankind’s ability to control the environment in which we lived, grew alongside the exponential explosion of technology.
As it turns out, despite the dramatic reduction of global hunger and the massive increase in global prosperity (thanks to growing interconnectivity between cultures), western civilization is still plagued by mankind’s ability to hinder its own efforts at growth via corruption, moral shallowness, and political game playing.
And well…no flying cars. *Fingers crossed Tesla fixes that*
As it stands, Western civilization is without a seeming path toward that once shiny utopia we envisioned in the early 20th century and instead appears to be on a path toward the ultimate disintegration of culture and possibly the end of humanity.
In effect, the future we once anticipated and longed for has been lost, which brings us to our first philosophical pit stop: an exploration of Lost Futures via Mark Fisher.
Mark Fisher, founder of the k-punk blog, was a writer from England who had a fascination with humanity’s growing inability to conceptualize a future that was “otherworldly”. Fisher found credible evidence for a growing despondency in modern society and an increasing, subconscious acceptance of the idea that there was no alternative to capitalism.
Effectively, Fisher’s writings battled with the seeming fact that our once fantastical views of the future, and in fact, our very ability to fantasize, were being consumed by the growth of late-stage capitalism and was contributing to our growing pursuit of nostalgia in pop culture and electronic music.
This pursuit of nostalgia was in effect, an attempt to return to a point in history that had a more optimistic view of the future. To Fisher, the rise of Nostalgia signaled a deep yearning for hope, that we could only satisfy by returning to a point in the past.
In his musings, Fisher made prolific use of the term ‘Hauntology’, a phrase originally coined by French Philosopher Jacques Derrida in his 1993 book, Specters of Marx.
The term Hauntology emerged as a fusion between the words ‘Haunting’ -as in the visit the present of a long dead specter- and ‘ontology’ the branch of philosophy that contemplates the nature of being.
Derrida coined the term in order to describe the way in which we interact with our realities temporally. In Derrida’s eyes, human beings were never truly present in a single moment. In order for us to function in our 3D realities, our perceptions must be colored by memories of the past and expectations of the future. Without this interaction, we lose our orientation and frame of reference.
I’ll attempt to break this down using an analogy to music.
If you were to listen to a simple song like “Mary had a little lamb”, at any moment you’re only listening to a single note. On its own, that single note has very little meaning to you and only gains meaning based on our comparison to the previous notes and anticipation of the future notes.
All of our experience is essentially like this, we can only perceive the present, based on the past and our assumptions of the future. As such, our conscious experience is perpetually “haunted” by a past that no longer exists and a future that is yet to exist.
Mark Fisher popularized the word Hauntology in a way that more specifically referred to our tendency to relive our anticipation of a bright future by revisiting our pasts. This tendency is becoming increasingly apparent with the re-emergence of things like pixel art in video games, grainy music videos designed to appear like they were shot on VHS and the revival of storylines, themes, and sometimes even stories that were once iconic.
Fuller House anyone? How about the revivals of all our favorite comic book characters who found their origins long before our current generation? Iron Man, The Hulk, Captain America, Black Panther. These heroes have all recently re-emerged in a dramatic way to become a commonly referenced part of our culture.
Despite many iconic roles, Robert Downey Jr. is effectively most well-known for his incredible portrayal of Iron Man, who can be argued to have emerged as part of a once hopeful vision of the possibilities of technology in the future.
So, What Does This Have To Do With VaporWave?
At this point, if you’re at least somewhat informed about Vaporwave culture, you can probably see where I’m going with this argument. If you aren’t familiar with Vaporwave, let’s hear a brief introduction to the now well-established subculture.
Vaporwave is essentially a movement that originated as a futuristic visitation of ‘80s elevator music. The original architects of the genre took ‘80s beats and slowed them down, warping them into distorted explorations of capitalist themes and commentaries on modern culture.
The genre didn’t simply stop with ‘80s elevator music, however.
Albums like Romantic Dream by artist 2814 seek to transport listeners on a sensual journey through the nightlife of Hong Kong, while others like Atmosphere 1, serve as a caricature of modern culture by emphasizing sounds found in a weather report.
In addition to its fascination with retro music, Vaporwave also explores a vast array of retro and psychedelic art styles. This exploration captures themes from Japanese culture and retro anime to Greek Busts and even artistic visits to advertisements that were once popular in the ’90s.
As you can already tell, Vaporwave is heavily drenched in the pursuit of nostalgia, which Mark Fisher would have considered direct evidence of that longing for a return to optimism that had been consumed by capitalism.
In many ways, the Vaporwave movement is a cultural embodiment of Hauntology. It explicitly holds a sarcastic and irreverent view of modern capitalism and much of its art goes out of its way to emphasize the problems created in society. It also draws massive inspiration from periods of time that still held optimistic views of a utopian future with prosperity and flying cars for all.
Maybe it’s a stretch to compare the Vaporwave movement to foundational periods like the Enlightenment or the Renaissance, especially since those periods were future thinking as opposed to primarily nostalgic, but they are similar in that, they are a reflection of the state of the mass consciousness.
Western Society is in many ways yearning for a hope that fails to arrive in the wake of capitalism, as it was once promised. Vaporwave can be viewed as the attempt of a small part of society to address that yearning through nostalgia and hyper-realistic music.
It’s an expression of something that exists at the core of the human experience and maybe sometime in the future, we’ll all look back and realize just how fundamental it was to the next stage of human psychological development.