#100: New idea trending
Has thought itself become disposable?
Last week when I was reading an article, I wished it had gone in a slightly different direction, so I decided to just go there myself.
New idea trending
Last week, Vox’s Terry Nguyen declared the death of trends. Death, in this case, doesn’t represent an end—new trends obviously still occur, and at a disturbing rate—but a lack of depth and vitality. Lifelessness. “Anything that’s vaguely popular online must be defined or decoded and ultimately, reduced to a bundle of marketable vibes with a kitschy label,” Nguyen writes. It’s well-known by now that the proliferation of micro-trends leads to rampant consumerism and is bad for workers and the planet. Fashion futurist Geraldine Wharry dubbed this the “hyper cycle.” But Nguyen is examining a more abstract consequence of this rapid acceleration, which is that it saps trends of their subcultural context, reducing them to status symbols that represent status itself, like a trail of breadcrumbs leading to more breadcrumbs. Her piece is focused on fashion trends, or aesthetic trends (like “night luxe” or “coastal grandma”), but this notion of escalating disposability is relevant to almost every aspect of modern life. Increasingly, in my opinion, to thought itself.
This occurred to me when Nguyen referenced Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle: “Debord introduced the concept of recuperation: the process by which subcultural ideas and images become commodified and reincorporated into mainstream society,” she writes. In other words, ideas that subvert the establishment tend to get adapted by the establishment in their most docile forms, and are thus robbed of their original intent. For example, Pride sponsored by Target. Mass-produced “Nasty Woman” t-shirts sewn together by underpaid women. Denunciations of big tech posted on Instagram. This is how Debord’s spectacle works: “The digital embodiment of a certain aesthetic or attitude (i.e., ‘reactionary chic’) takes precedence over genuine political resistance.”
Most of what Nguyen critiques in regards to hollow aesthetic trends could also be applied to “the discourse.” Like clothes or memes or slang, we try ideas on for a while—put them in shareable graphics, temporarily link them in bio, express them via viral tweet or op-ed, maybe print them on a T-shirt—before putting them aside for something more relevant. Whether we’re debating Kim Kardashian’s dress, student debt, Johnny Depp versus Amber Heard, Ukraine, Israel, the slap, a lyric, men reading books, “women” as a category, cancel culture, capitalism, feminism, you get the distinct sense that most of it is leading us further into the content abyss, rather than towards clarity. The ideas as expressed seem urgent. We weigh in, hearts pounding. And then nothing really happens beyond the superficial or representative. We move on—not from resolution, but from fatigue.
There are five stages of a fashion trend. First there is introduction, then rise, then acceptance, then decline, then finally obsolescence. By the final stages a trend is “considered outdated and out-of-fashion by mainstream fashion wearers, who have moved on to newer trends in the introduction or increase stages.” Typically we don’t think of ideas in this same vein. We imagine them as cumulative or productive, as in the scientific process, versus cyclical and expendable. But imagine if someone published an op-ed tomorrow about an athlete’s right to not speak to the press. It would seem random and irrelevant, despite the fact that it was one of the hottest topics of debate last year following Simone Biles’s and Naomi Osaka’s withdrawals from competitions citing mental health struggles. What came of that, by the way?
Online discourse has an impressive ability to die on the vine, reaching its apex of visibility—and value—before it’s put to any discernible use. This might have something to do with the fact that, per Max Read, “The main purpose of social media is to call attention to yourself.” As he points out in this essay I still love, the fact that anyone can join social media and publish an opinion lends the industry a democratic air while it profits off of our every spare thought. We’re lulled into a stupor and call it participation. “Each new byte of information adds confusion and entropy, and takes us further away from meaning and consequence,” Read explains.
A new fashion trend sparks conversation, helps adherents and detractors distinguish themselves, and ultimately makes money for the corporations who fund it all. Those of us who participate in this dance understand it’s not necessarily building to anything. It’s odd to see movements like anti-capitalism and Catholicism treated with the same frivolity. They’re in, they’re out, you try them on like low-rise jeans. In the process, ideas get watered down. Consider the concept of “emotional labor.” As Eliza Gonzalez points out in this piece for The Drift, there’s something sinister about the evolution of its usage: “a phrase that designated a particular aspect of work (mostly low-income and often feminized) has shifted to describe the vague feelings of women, especially the wealthy and educated, and no longer has much to do with class or work or the particular burdens of anything except a generalized womanhood.” Today, emotional labor is more often a punchline than a call to action. Feminist talking points get passed around like a wet joint: beauty privilege and abortion rights and fatphobia, but also skincare and Botox and hot girl summer. As if these things have nothing to do with each other. Eventually the high wears off.
Obviously ideas have always gained and lost popularity throughout history. But I think it’s fair to say the conditions that disrupt the so-called arc of progress have intensified beyond comprehension. Mass media’s emphasis on images and appearances has shifted the political discourse to a facile imitation of its former self. Take a look at the work of 20th-century mass-media critics like Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman, Jean Baudrillard, and Guy Debord and you’ll find that almost nothing they critique doesn’t still apply today, only to an infinitely worse degree. Here are the first two sentences of Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle: “In post-industrial societies where mass production and media predominate, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly experienced has been replaced with its representation in the form of images.” He wrote that in 1967! Imagine what he’d say now.
When ideas trend, we get public figures who wield them like branding exercises. The point is association. What politicians promise in campaign speeches, for example, is laughably different from what they do when they’re elected into office, and that’s because political speeches are about signals. Like wearing a Nirvana t-shirt from Forever21, the signifier is more important than the object or act it signifies. For Biden, denouncing predatory student loans while campaigning is more important than canceling student debt when he actually has the power to do so. Later, when the idea no longer serves him (it costs him money, it costs him power), he simply swaps in something else. In politics, cosplaying as the type of person you’d like people to think you are is the same thing as being that type of person. Plenty of us critique that sort of thing—call it electability politics—but when we absorb and regurgitate orthodoxy because we want to belong, to be centered, to be seen as moral and good, we’re performing the same trick.
It’s impossible to separate this problem from the fact that so much public life happens online, where depth and nuance are traded in for speed and virality. “There is no place left where people can discuss the realities which concern them, because they can never lastingly free themselves from the crushing presence of media discourse and of the various forces organized to relay it,” Debord wrote. The context collapse precipitated by social media is designed to keep us docile. We fight and argue and opine and joke and retweet, and in the meantime, the people in power do whatever they want. And they’re getting richer and more powerful in the process.
Seeing as I learn from and contribute to it every week (I’m doing it now), I don’t think online discourse is useless. I can’t imagine my life without it. But whenever I wake up with that dark feeling—that I’m powerless, useless, that most of what anyone says online has no lasting or traceable effect—that’s probably because it’s a little bit true. Posting only goes so far. Endorsing or decrying something on the internet isn’t the same as supporting or protesting it in a less transient setting. It’s cold comfort, but when people’s tweets are driving you insane, it’s useful to remember that if everyone agreed about everything on Twitter, nothing would necessarily change. Social media was designed to sell ads and then evolved to do it better. Everything else it promises is functionally neutered in that process. The internet may be a good place to start a conversation, but it’s not built to finish one.
Happy Maybe Baby #100
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